Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino delivers one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long time with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Speaking of long times, the film runs 2:45 but is worth almost every minute of it.

SPOILER ALERT! There are NO SPOILERS in this review. But beware of social media content, word-of-mouth and even unscrupulous reviewers who might tell too much about this buzzworthy movie.

Los Angeles, 1969. Or, as iconic radio station 93/KHJ calls it, Boss Angeles. The city looks great as classic cars tuned to AM radios playing classic pop tunes drive down boulevards with theater marquees touting late-60s movies.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV/movie star whose career is at a turning point. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stuntman and buddy. Leo is terrific. Brad is also at his charming best. Both actors benefit from being gifted with great roles and story lines from QT.

Dalton has a gorgeous home in the hills above Benedict Canyon. Booth lives in a trailer in the valley. The home just above Dalton’s is rented by Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

In February 1969, Hollywood dealmaker Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) suggests to Dalton that he go to Italy and make movies there that could reignite his fading star. He does. The film then skips ahead to August 1969 when Dalton returns to LA for the film’s climax.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood contains scene after scene that bring true movie fan pleasure. Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Rick’s conversation with child actor Trudi (Julia Butters). Sharon’s watching herself on screen with a movie house audience. The clips from Rick’s TV show Bounty Law and his movies. A party at the Playboy Mansion where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) explains the relationship between Tate, Polanski and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

Other performances in the film that merit mention: Kurt Russell as stuntman Randy (he’s also the film’s narrator), Margaret Qualley as hippie chick and Manson family member Pussycat, Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker and Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme.

Gotta love the soundtrack! Treat Her Right by Roy Head, Good Thing by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show by Neil Diamond, Snoopy Versus The Red Baron by the Royal Guardsmen, Hush by Deep Purple, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man by Bob Seger, among many others.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an absolute treat that should not be missed. Thank you, QT. Thank you, Leo.

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The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is not a direct descendant of the Lethal Weapon movies but it might be a first cousin. And it’s a casual acquaintance of Boogie Nights.

Some of my favorite movies are L.A. detective stories, including a few bad ones. The Nice Guys is a good one. Set in 1977 with a cool 70’s soundtrack, the film features title characters who are not quite as hardened as most other L.A. movie detectives.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a bumbling, hard-drinking single father. His precocious and cute 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is the brains of the family (and the better driver).

Jackson Healy (a pudgier-than-usual Russell Crowe) is an enforcer who comes calling to damage Holland but goes on to partner with him as they work to solve a caper.

The film opens with a young boy checking out a babe named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) in a girlie mag when a car slams through his house. He sees the real life version of the foldout babe, tossed from the car and partially unclothed. She dies, setting the plot in motion.

Another babe, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) is trying to escape from a number of people who would silence her quest to end smog in L.A. One of those people is her mother Judith (Kim Basinger), a federal agent supposedly trying to bust the auto industry for violating EPA regs.

(The 62-year-old Basinger won an Oscar for her work with Crowe in another period piece film set in the same town, 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Her latest performance doesn’t make nearly as strong an impression.)

The Nice Guys’ plot is clever but the main reason to see the film is the newly-hatched partnership between Holland and Healy. There’s verbal and physical humor. My favorite bit involves Holland in a bathroom stall trying to manage his newspaper, his gun, his cigarette, the stall’s door and his pants at the same time. It’s a classic piece of business. A couple of the large scale tumbles Holland takes end with lucky landings.

Shane Black wrote and directed The Nice Guys. He wrote the first Lethal Weapon movie and is credited with creating those characters. He also wrote and directed Iron Man 3.

Gosling and Crowe are two of our most charismatic actors. Their onscreen chemistry is not quite a home run, but there’s enough going on here to suggest those two characters might be worth another go-around. It’s not a “must see” movie, but it’s a lot of fun! (With a healthy dose of violence, car crashes, explosions and all that other action film stuff.)

The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her

How many movies have given us artificial intelligence entities (computers, robots, machines) taking on human characteristics, including emotions? Way too many to mention.

Such a fantasy may have been fueled in the past couple of decades by voices that give GPS directions, function as Apple’s Siri and check us out at the grocer’s. (I prefer checking out in Spanish because el hombre sounds friendlier than the woman who guides us in English.)

In Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze, most famous for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, takes the fantasy even further. Set in the near future, hopeless romantic Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who is never seen in the movie). “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer,” he says.

Phoenix shows his acting range by following up his powerfully crazed performance in The Master by playing this nerdy writer of love letters. That’s his job: low-tech work in a high-tech world—he writes letters for people who have outsourced this personal task. (By the way, the URL of his fictional company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, appears to be non-functional in our real world if you want to claim it.)

Theodore is heartbroken when he meets (or installs) Samantha because he is in the midst of a divorce from childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He has a platonic female friend Amy (Amy Adams, looking pale, wearing minimal makeup) with whom he shares some of his woes.

His relationship with Samantha goes through many of the stages and episodes that real life relationships have: sharing of personal details, sex (virtual), the honeymoon period, trips to the beach, double dates, jealousy and disappointment.

Because several scenes in the film consist of conversations between Theodore and Samantha, the film is often visually tedious. On the other hand, the vision of Los Angeles created by Jonze is amazing to see: clean and modern with shiny high rise buildings and a dazzling public rail system that takes Theodore everywhere, even to the beach. (Some exterior scenes were shot in Shanghai.) Also, for some reason, the film’s costume designer has put all the men in pants with no belts.

Her is not for everyone. Its weirdness, coupled with its slow pace, may turn some moviegoers off. But adventurous movie lovers should give it a shot. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is worth seeing and Scarlet Johansson’s is worth hearing. You might like the cool soundtrack by Arcade Fire.

Her is clever and creative and will receive more nominations and awards. It is certainly not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy/drama.

Gangster Squad

With classic elements galore, Gangster Squad delivers the goods. Sean Penn turns in a killer performance as a boxer turned mob boss in mid-20th century Los Angeles. His character is almost cartoonish, like a Dick Tracy bad guy. Josh Brolin, as leader of the secret Squad, is not unlike Dick Tracy, with a Tess Trueheart type wife.

With a hint of the colors of retouched picture postcards and the requisite armada of late 40’s automobiles, Gangster Squad is drenched in nostalgia. The wardrobes (including men in hats), the red lipstick, the smoking, comments about WW II, the music all do a nice job of capturing the era. Josh Brolin’s opening and closing narrations echo another staple of this genre.

Penn’s character Mickey Cohen controls not only vice but also the majority of police and political leaders in metro LA. Nick Nolte, looking healthier than in his other recent roles, is the LAPD chief (not been bought off by Cohen) who anoints Brolin’s character John O’Mara as leader of a secret gangster squad.

O’Mara recruits a team of cops to shut down Cohen and his operations. Ryan Gosling is a cool LAPD detective named Jerry Wooters who successfully hits on Cohen’s babe, Grace Faraday, played by Emma Stone. He eases his way into the squad and becomes a vital team member.

The squad operates almost like the Mission Impossible teams of prior movies and TV shows. They even have a tech guy, played by the nerdy Giovanni Ribisi, who plants a microphone in Cohen’s digs and listens in from a remote shack.

The Gangster Squad and Cohen’s crooks trade punches throughout the film until the last round, when the knockout blow is finally delivered.

Gangster Squad is an entertainingly violent movie that’s not quite a classic, but has all the LA period piece cops and robbers stuff. One quibble is the casting of Emma Stone as the babe. A more mature, less innocent looking actress may have been more effective in the role.

Word is that the movie was originally slated for a September, 2012, release. But because of its violent content (and one particular sequence) was retooled and held back after the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Nonetheless, Gangster Squad is action-packed with great characters, a strong cast and a good story. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

Total Recall

Now THIS is an action movie!

“Total Recall” gets set and then goes. And once it launches, it maintains a breakneck pace with just a few interludes of calm.

Set a hundred or so years from now, “Total Recall,”  presents a world devastated by war. Human life exists only in the United Federation of Britain in Europe and The Colony (Australia).

Colin Farrell is a worker who commutes each day from The Colony to UFB via a speedy underground bullet train called The Fall. He works a dreary job making robot cops. On a night when he’s restless, he takes a walk on the wild side. He turns down a come-on from a hooker with three boobs—no, she really has three boobs—and goes to a business called Rekall to have new memories implanted. That’s when all hell breaks loose.

Farrell’s character is revealed to have had another identity and another life, which he doesn’t quite recall, even with prompts and holograms along the way. The film is essentially a long—but thrilling—chase sequence, leading up to an explosive climax.

Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel provide more punch than eye candy in this movie. Kate plays Farrell’s wife who turns against him and Biel is his new/old ally in his escape from/return to his past. You want a cat fight between the two? You got it. It’s a good one.

The hundred-years-from-now land (and water) scapes of the UFB and The Colony may be the best since “Bladerunner’s” vision of a future Los Angeles. The buildings, the infrastructures and the teeming masses of humans offer a compelling guess at a future (not unlike in “Bladerunner”) with a huge Asian influence.

“Total Recall” features another glimpse of what our future may hold: phones physically embedded in Farrell’s and Beckinsale’s hands.

If you’re wondering why the 1990 version needed a remake, go see this one and compare. Also consider that anyone born in 1990 turns 22 this year and is right there in the film’s target demo. Despite the new film’s violence (and the quick flash of the three boobs), the film is rated PG-13. (The 1990 version was rated “R,” by the way.)

If you enjoy a good futuristic action flick, add “Total Recall” to your “must-see” list.