Tag Archives: Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

25 Jul

‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’: Stardom loses some luster in dusty, bloody wilds of L.A.

 

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Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” isn’t a rescripting of historical events the way “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) envisioned the Nazis toppled by a handful of hard-hitting Jews, but there are definitely some major ripples in time. No, “Hollywood” is more a tongue-in-check, kick-in-the-pants modern fairytale with a hefty side of cinematic homage; it rambles some, to be sure, but it’s more sincere and genuine in execution than the video store clerk-turned-auteur’s last outing, “The Hateful Eight” (2015). It may be Tarantino’s most personal and intimate film to date (tying with “Jackie Brown” on the latter) as the director talks about tapping out after 10 films – which this would be if “Four Rooms” counts, but I digress.

The setting is the late 1960s. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), something of a Clint Eastwood or Chuck Connors, came to fame in a fictional hit television western called “Bounty Law” a decade earlier and now finds it hard to get lead work – he plays mostly heavies on (real) shows such as “The F.B.I.” and “Lancer.” Front and center too is Dalton’s shadow and heyday stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a smooth, angular chap with an aw-shucks facade and a deeply dark side that gets leveraged to glorious and disturbing effect. Because the two are loyal bros, Dalton, during his downward fade, employs Booth as driver and gofer. Dalton also lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski – and, yes, on the eve of the Manson family murders – and in a separate silo we get Margot Robbie as an ebullient Ms. Tate looking grand and fabulous as she dances poolside at a Playboy mansion gig and taking in a screening of “The Wrecking Crew,” which she stars in with Dean Martin.(At the box office, she asks if she can get a free pass, because she’s in it.) Robbie may not say much, but she’s intoxicating in every scene she’s in. Doomed in real life as a Manson victim, Tate is held up by Tarantino as the essence of a sunsetting era.

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Glass

17 Jan

Glass’: In face-off two decades in the making, Shyamalan reveals he’s lost his powers again

 

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Back in 2008 I just about threw in the towel on M. Night Shyamalan after the pointless “The Happening” made its way to the big screen. Never before had something so deadly but mysterious (was it the trees?) seemed so silly and inane – “Bird Box,” similar in concept, is a massive step up by comparison. “Signs” (2002) and “The Village” (2004) were big finale-twist flicks that tried too hard to emulate the skillful sleight of hand that Shyamalan’s classic “The Sixth Sense” did in 1999, but the artifice was obvious too early. “The Visit” (2015) resurrected my faith. It was something different, a horror-in-the-woods psychological thriller B movie with “American Gothic” granddad and grandma as class A homicidal nuts with warm smiles on their faces and cups of cider in their hands. “Split” (2016) seemed another quirky turn for Shyamalan akin to “The Visit,” as it focused on a disturbed young man (James McAvoy) who takes young women hostages, horrifies and fascinates them with his 20 or so personalities and ultimately mutilates them with a superhuman persona known as The Beast (both a physiological and psychological transformation). It felt like an intriguing one-off driven by a fantastic performance by McAvoy, showing range and humor you suspected he had but had yet to see – but wait, what’s that at the end? A tie back to Shyamalan’s 2000 superhero-among-us flick, “Unbreakable.”

If you missed “Split” but are a fan of “Unbreakable” I can give you the green light to proceed here and see “Glass” without hesitation. Bruce Willis is back as David, Philly’s working-class man of steel who, as the lone survivor of a massive train wreck, is somehow able to fall from great heights without a scratch. He’s still lurking on the streets in his green rain poncho, doing minor bouts of vigilante good and pissing off the police. Samuel L. Jackson, as the evil mastermind who blew up the train in “Unbreakable,” reprises his title character, Mr. Glass. It’s a nice reunion, but what do these rivals have to do with McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb? Well, Glass has been incarcerated in an asylum and drugged up for 19 years, while David, investigating a slew of cheerleader massacres, susses out the Beast & Co., nabbing him on the cusp of his next slaughter; for the effort, he and The Beast end up with Glass in the ridiculously low-security asylum. Enter Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who for some reason has three days to convince the trio that their superhuman skills are delusions – and then, it’s implied, they all get to go free? Cockamamie convolution to be sure, but Glass, more obsessed with comic books and superhero history than Kevin Smith, believes his arch-villain magnum opus will be to break David and The Beast out and have them wage battle on the new Osaka skyscraper towering above the Philly skyline. (I kept thinking Nakatomi Plaza, more a lingering effect from my repeated Christmas viewings of “Die Hard” than Willis’ presence.)

There’s more to the too-long-to-get-to-the-point buildup than I care to explain, including the fact David has a son (Spencer Treat Clark) and that one of the survivors from “Split” (Anya Taylor-Joy) shows up; while they’re fine, they only add more stumbling blocks to an already clunky confluence. (I never got why Willis’ David always wore that vinyl rain poncho. To hide his identity? A thick vinyl rain jacked is a sauna, and too flimsy and vision-obstructing for real combat.) It’s not that “Glass” doesn’t entertain, but it does so mostly on the performance by McAvoy and, to a lesser extent, Jackson and Paulson, who’s not given much to work with. Willis strangely mumbles his through the film and never raises a brow above nonchalance, even when David first encounters The Beast. The most eye-catching of all is Shyamalan, who in a brief Hitchcock insertion makes Quentin Tarantino look like Peter Finch – “stilted” is the word. The film wraps with what’s supposed to be a cathartic coming together, but even that, orchestrated in a Philly train terminal with folks having a universal iPhone epiphany, makes about as much sense as the whispering trees in “The Happening.”

Bad Time at the El Royale

13 Oct

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’: You can check in, then suspect no one in this noir gets out alive

 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a knuckleball-noir, a den of thieves stuffed with double agendas. The star of the film, besides the ripped abs of Chris Hemsworth or sexy boot-wearing waif Cailee Spaeny, is the remote resort of the title, once a grand casino straddling California and Nevada (there’s a red line down the middle of the lobby, and you can drink only on the California side). It’s seen better days, but lost its gambling license. Needless to say, few people check in; by the time the movie is over, even fewer check out.

The time is the Nixon-tainted ’70s, so cellphones are not a thing, but wiretapping and one-way mirrors are. An amiable reverend (Jeff Bridges) and a backup soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in first. Then there’s Jon Hamm, right out of “Mad Men” as a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Dakota Johnson, who zips in Tarantino-hip in a mod model muscle car with a bound bundle in the trunk. Not everyone’s whom they pretend to be, and the skittish hotel manager (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill, excellent in a role that seems designed for the late Anton Yelchin) bears the weight of past horrors in the hotel and has demanding owners to answer to. The inn has a few secrets as well.

As the sands shift and the mother of all storms descends, the tension rises. What’s buried under the hotel? Who is the mysterious being fled by Johnson’s Emily Summerspring and her sister Ruth (Spaeny)? Plus there’s the gruesome murder of a couple nearby that we hear about over and over on TV, with the killer still on the loose. Deep Purple and some lesser-known Motown kick up the scene – something that’s needed, because at almost two and a half hours “El Royale” is nearly an hour too long (but stylish nonetheless). And though directed by Drew Goddard, whose debut, “Cabin in the Woods” (2012) was a breath of fresh air to the horror genre, the film overplays moments. The plot, which in premise bears much in common with James Mangold’s 2003 Nevada hotel thriller “Identity,” loses its enigmatic edge a little over halfway in, and many of the more likable souls perish far too soon. But fear not, everyone gets a flashback, and certain scenes get replayed from multiple POVs. They’re neat devices, but not every character comes out feeling fully sketched. 

Hemsworth, who played beautifully against his Thor persona in “Cabin in the Woods,” isn’t given much to do here as a Cali-sun god and cult leader – Jim Morrison infused with the cocky cold-bloodedness of Charles Manson. It’s a big, hammy bone, and it gets well gnawed. The camp mostly works, while Bridges and Johnson hold the fort, Spaeny and Pullman add flourishes of manic quirk and Erivo adds soul, social context and glorious chops. The Watergate fiasco and a MacGuffin that could be tied to JFK loom at the corners, but they’re mostly distractions; the film is best when characters sit and banter over whisky, even if their hands are tied and a gun is to their head.

Death Wish

7 Mar

 

I like Bruce Willis, I do. But, sorry Bruce, you’re no Charles Bronson, not even close, and even more to the point, Eli Roth is no Michael Winner.

Who might Micheal Winner be, you ask. He’s the guy who directed the original “Death Wish” back in the 1970s with Bronson as a New York City architect looking to avenge the death of his wife and rape of his daughter. Winner was also responsible for two of the series’ feeble follow-ups (“Death Wish II” and “Death Wish 3”) and “Won Ton Ton: the Dog who Saved Hollywood” (1976). Weak tea to be sure, but that said, that 1974 collaboration yielded a palpable revenge fantasy chock full of sharp, witty commentary and a Bronson brimming with nonchalant machismo. In the Roth/Willis updating, motive, cathartic process and emotion get tamped down in favor of staging and contrivance.

While much of the narrative bare bones based on Brian Garfield’s novel remains, much has changed as well. The setting has flipped from New York to Chicago, and the avenging Paul Kersey is no longer an architect but a surgeon who’s been witnessing the city’s 20 year high crime rate firsthand via his operating table – the opening scene of a cop rushed into the ER feels a bit heavy-handed and becomes an omen as to how Roth, the gore-meister behind “The Green Inferno” and the “Hostel” films, wants to go. There’s a wealth of technological advancements from the past 40-plus years (PCs, cellphones, social media, GPS and smart cars to name a few) that feed nicely into the plot. Willis’ Kersey too is not an urban dweller, but lives in the affluent ’burbs. The crew that take out his wife and daughter early on are less cruel than the Bronson versions (the incident is on his birthday, but there’s no rape that we see) but the violence that Kersey ultimately dishes out is far more decisive and sadistic. Continue reading

The Shape of Water

9 Dec

‘The Shape of Water’: Underwater love tale is a finely acted and truly immersive fantasy

 

Guillermo del Toro returns to fine form with this fairy tale-cum-horror story that effectively echoes the texture, mood and style of his 2006 gem, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Appetizing as that sounds, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t quite have the fullness or magical immersion of the Mexican auteur’s crowning achievement (to date) – but that’s a mighty yardstick for any film to be measured by.

Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, the narrative flows through the mundane life of a demure, mute cleaning woman named Elsa (Sally Hawkins, who lays it all on the line and should be recognized for such a fine effort), who we learn grew up an orphan and was abused as a child. Given all that, Elsa’s got pretty neat digs above a classic nickelodeon (and del Toro has fun with the marquee and features it plays) and works the nightshift at a secretive military installation where all kinds of strange experiments growl and bark from behind steel doors – often requiring a SWAT team of cleaners to mop up the bloody aftermath.

Locked behind one such portal is an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset,” something of a sleeker version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon if crossed with Abe Sapien from del Toro’s raucously fun “Hellboy” films. Chained and shackled in a pool, the creature is routinely beaten and electrocuted by a square-jawed operative named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who fished it out of the murky waters of South America. Strickland goes after his charge with all the oppressive superiority of a plantation owner, and Shannon’s natural southern drawl helps sell the notion. If there’s any question as to what del Toro is aiming for, there’s a scene at a diner where a black couple are not allowed to sit at the counter and Elsa’s next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), exists deep in the closet and is shunned regularly for his quirky “difference.” Then there’s Elsa’s understanding work partner, Zelda (the ever-affable Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman. In short, everyone around Elsa who gets her is disenfranchised or oppressed. They’re a merry band of outliers, a not so subtle sociopolitical subtext – that feels a bit too strapped on – and the most robust and likable of all that come across the screen.  Continue reading

The films of Jean-Pierre Melville

3 Dec

6 Films To Celebrate French Noir Master Jean-Pierre Melville’s Centennial At The MFA

Serge Reggiani in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Doulos," released in 1962. (Courtesy Rialto Pictures)closemore

If he were alive today, Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great faces of French cinema, would be 100 years old. (He was born in 1917 and died of a heart attack in 1973). To commemorate the filmmaker’s 100th birthday, the Museum of Fine Arts is running a retrospective of the auteur’s work.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name (and too many Americans are), Melville minted chic, noir-ish gangster flicks that have been widely cited for their influence and echoed in the hip, popular works of Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann and John Woo. Melville also was a contemporary of, and collaborator with, many of the iconic directors of the French New Wave in the ’50s and ’60s — namely Jean-Luc Godard — and employed many of the great French actors of the time, most notably Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.

Now revered for his unique style and approach (he made the fedora and the trench coat as synonymous with the French gangster genre as dusters and 10-gallon hats are to the American Western) Melville almost didn’t become a filmmaker. Born an Alsatian Jew by the surname Grumbach, he fled to England after the 1940 German invasion of France. Later, he returned as a member of the French Resistance. His nom de guerre was indeed copped from the “Moby Dick” author, who the young freedom fighter held in high regard. After the war, Melville applied to become an assistant director, but his license application was denied so he launched his own production company. The rest, so to say, is cinematic history. Melville produced a spartan 14 films — nearly all fine cut gems. Continue reading

Good Time

25 Aug

It’s “Rain Man” meets “Eddie Coyle” in this up-in-your-chest New York City heist flick. The film, by Boston University grads Benny and Josh Safdie, is imbued with the type of on-the-street grit that made Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” so indelible, and the riveting electric score by Daniel Lopatin notches up the emotional disarray in every frame. If there’s one thing “Good Time” is not, is short on mood. The setup bookends the central narrative with scenes of a baby-faced young man by the name of Nick (played convincingly by Benny Safdie, doing double duty) under duress while in therapy sessions with a wild-haired psychiatrist (Peter Verby, whose face is a cinematic wonder in its own right). In the opener, Nick’s asked to give free association responses to random terms. His answers to “scissors and a cooking pan” (“You can hurt yourself with both”) and “salt and water” (“The beach”) are telling – not in the actual response, but how he responds. He clearly has some form of developmental handicap.

The scene smolders in tight closeups, but before the grim gravity of Nick’s prospects can take root fully – or the psychiatrist can dig any deeper – Nick’s brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts through the door and extracts his sibling. Has Nick been saved? For the moment, yes, but not in the bigger scheme of things. The two are incredibly tight (the Safdies are clearly drawing on their own sibling bond) but pretty much have only each other to draw on and limited financial resources; to keep the pack together, Connie cooks up a plan to rob a bank in the middle of the day, the execution and choreography of which is so hauntingly reminiscent of “Dog Day Afternoon” you half expect Al Pacino to pop out with chants of “Attica.” The lads do make off with the cash, but matters with ride sharing, dye packs and Nick’s emotional instability provide steep obstacles. It’s a riveting game of cat and mouse as the brothers dash down littered alleyways and into a mall atrium with the police a hot breath away. Just as they look to be in the clear, Nick crashes through a glass pane and is taken into custody. Where the story goes next is as unpredictable as its protagonist. Continue reading