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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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

What The F is this movie supposed to be? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a little bit of everything: action, comedy, romance and political intrigue. It is the story of a woman’s three-year adventure as a TV reporter based in Kabul, Afghanistan from ’03 to ’06.

Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is not unlike 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon. She’s a 40-something network employee whose professional and personal lives are not quite satisfying. Lemon was a show producer; Baker is a lowly news writer. When the opportunity to cover the allied peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan—with a chance to do on-camera reports—is offered, she jumps.

One of the first members of the media she encounters in Kabul is competing TV reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who introduces herself by asking, “Can I [have sex with] your bodyguard?” Vanderpoel explains (and a Marine general played by Billy Bob Thornton later reiterates) that Baker may be a “6” or a “7” back home, but is a “10” to men in this foreign land. Baker replies to Vanderpoel, “What are you then, like a ‘15?’”

Despite the creature discomforts, Baker comes to enjoy the rush of being in a hot spot. She skypes with boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) back home until she sees another woman in his bedroom. She hooks up with Scottish journalist Iain (Martin Freeman). She looks to get information from an Afghanistan cabinet member (Alfred Molina) who hits on her every time she calls on him.

A handful of chuckles and a few solid laughs make WTF a bit of a comedy. It’s also a bit of a buddy movie as Baker and Vanderpoel become chums. It’s a war movie, though the peril level varies throughout the film. The romance between Baker and Iain forms the crux of the third act. WTF covers a lot of category bases.

Co-directors are Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who scored big a few years ago with Crazy, Stupid Love. Robert Carlock who wrote and produced for 30 Rock wrote WTF. On the heavy to light spectrum, the script is on the light side, but not by much.

Last fall, another movie set in Afghanistan, Rock The Casbah starring Bill Murray, bombed badly. Can Tina Fey and Margot Robbie pull people into the theater to see a movie that sells itself as a comedy, but isn’t exactly a comedy? I think yes.

Most importantly (not really): Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has caused me to forgive Tina Fey for last year’s misfire, Sisters. You’re back in my good graces, TF!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Focus

 

Focus is like meatloaf and mashed potatoes—solid, satisfying and filling but no “wow” factor. Sure, Will Smith is a box office giant who we all love. And Margot Robbie is unbelievably gorgeous (and talented). The trailers for Focus hinted at something special. But, alas, that is not the result.

This story of con men and women is told in three acts: Nicky (Smith) meets Jess (Robbie) in a hotel restaurant in NYC. He shares tips on picking pockets, advising her to shift a mark’s focus somewhere other than where the watch, ring, wallet, purse, etc. is being lifted.

Act two takes them to New Orleans for the “big game” in the Superdome. (The film takes special care not to mention the NFL, its teams or trademarks. The game, by the way, features the Miami Sharks versus the Chicago Threshers.) Jess joins the team of crooks who reap a major haul. Meanwhile, the duo’s relationship heats up.

Nicky and Jess attend the game in the luxury suite of a wealthy Chinese businessman (B.D. Wong) who they engage in a series of risky bets. Nicky keeps losing and the businessman keeps raising the stakes. The scheme concocted to dictate the outcome of the final bet is ludicrous, as is carrying over a million in cash to a football game in a satchel.

Act three happens three years later in Buenos Aires where Nicky is involved in a scam to steal software from one auto racing team and sell it to each of the other teams. At a reception Nicky acts surprised to see Jess hanging out with race car driver Garraga (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro) whose software is about to be compromised. Likable TV mainstay Gerald McRaney has a significant role in this third act.

In your better confidence scheme movies, the reveals tend to elicit a “Whoa!” from the viewer. In Focus, the reveals made me say (to myself), “Hmmm. How about that?”

It’s certainly great to see Will Smith redeem himself following his After Earth vanity project. And Margot Robbie keeps the momentum she created in Wolf of Wall Street going. Focus is a decent movie, though not a mind-blower. Set your bar at mid-level and your expectations will be met.