Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood

After Kish and I went to The Hateful Eight, I swore off ever going to another Quentin Tarantino film.  I meant it, too.  I’d just had enough of seemingly pointless, ultraviolent bloodbaths.

But three years of lots of superhero movies and remakes and uninteresting, formulaic movie fare have a way of undermining your resolve and making you hunger for something different.  Whatever else they may be, Quentin Tarantino films are definitely different than your normal Hollywood fare.  When the hype started building for his new movie Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, I thought it looked sufficiently different — and decidedly less bloody — to be worth a screening, so Kish and I went to see it yesterday.

once_upon_a_time_still.0The movie acquaints us with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the black-and-white, ’50s TV show Bounty Law who is now relegated to making guest villain appearances on other TV shows and starring in spaghetti westerns, and his stunt double, chauffeur, gofer, and pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they make their way through the Hollywood movie and TV scene of 1969.  Along the way, we see members of the Manson Family, Bruce Lee, some of the singers in the Mamas and the Papas, a party at the Playboy Mansion, and other mainstays of the swinging late ’60s Hollywood scene.

DiCaprio and Pitt are the human stars of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, but the real stars are Hollywood itself, and the ’60s.  The movie is a full-on immersion in that time and place, from the cars the characters drive to the clothes they wear to the old-time Hollywood landmarks where the characters meet to the music playing on the car radio to TV shows playing in the background to the huge movie posters for long-forgotten films that you see as the cars with the characters roll by.  It’s almost as if the movie’s plot is an excuse to visit places from days gone by and get a few shots of a well-known restaurant or theater.  And there’s no doubt — the feeling that what you are seeing must be what it was actually like to be a fading star knocking around Hollywood in 1969 is pretty much total.

The setting was thoroughly convincing, but most people don’t go to films just to revel in the setting.  We’d like a little plot with the fantasy world, and that’s where Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood falls short.  The movie is less bloody than other Tarantino efforts, for sure.  It wouldn’t be a Tarantino product without some gore, but at least the violence is pretty much limited to the end of the film.  And the film is well-acted by both DiCaprio and Pitt, and you definitely come to like the ever-emotional Dalton and the tough, common-sense Booth and appreciate their unique friendship.

But there are a lot of diversions along the way, like scenes of the Sharon Tate character watching herself in a movie theater or flashbacks that happen when Booth is repairing a TV antenna, that don’t really seem to advance the story and make the movie overlong.  As is always the case with a Tarantino movie, there are some great scenes sprinkled in — I particularly liked some taut scenes about Dalton acting as the guest-villain in a TV western, and a tense encounter between Booth and the full, creepy Manson clan at a ramshackle movie ranch — but there’s also a lot of fluff in the package.  And ultimately the final, bloody encounter between Dalton, Booth, a well-trained hound, and the Mansonites seems like little more than a convenient way to bring the movie to a close.

Quentin Tarantino obviously has a huge amount of talent, and few directors can pull you to the edge of your seat like he can.  But boy . . . he sure could use an editor.  You wonder what kind of quality he could produce if he worked with a more focused script and a producer who is willing to leave some of the film on the cutting room floor.

Watching One Of Dad’s Favorites

Dad’s favorite actor was Humphrey Bogart.  I don’t think anyone else was even a close second.  And his two favorite movies — both of which featured Bogie, of course — were Casablanca and The African Queen.  So when Kish and I went with friends to see Casablanca to kick off the Ohio Theater Summer Movie Series last night, at the bargain ticket price of only 50 cents a person, of course I thought about Dad.

It turns out Dad had pretty good taste in movies.  Casablanca is generally considered one of the very best movies ever made, and if you get a chance to see it on the big screen, you shouldn’t pass it up.  The tale of star-crossed lovers set in exotic, desperate Casablanca, with the grim early days of World War II as its backdrop, is a terrific, timeless classic that is filled with memorable lines and characters, from Dooley Wilson’s warm and decent Sam to Sidney Greenstreet’s fly-swatting Ferrari to Paul Henreid’s impossibly noble Victor Laszlo.  The chemistry between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s Isla Lund crackles and almost jumps off the screen, and stands in sharp comparison to many of the modern romance movies where the “chemistry” is either forced or totally lacking.  And Bogart’s depiction of Rick — the tough, fearless, gravel-voiced American who will stick his neck out for nobody, but turns out to have a conscience and a heart of gold — has become so iconic we tend to take for granted what a fantastic acting performance it was.  Watching the scenes where the anguished Rick is drinking to try to forget the painful wound that Ilsa has reopened should be required study for anybody who wants to become an actor.

One other thing about Casablanca that you notice in comparison to today’s Hollywood fare:  it somehow manages to combine a compelling personal narrative that grabs you by the collar, and real potential peril from believable villains, with great humor.  Claude Rains as Louis, the jocular Prefect of Police, gets most of the laugh lines, but Bogart has some and other characters do, too.  How many modern films can you think of that successfully feature drama and humor side by side — or even try to do so?  It’s one big reason why Casablanca typically ranks right up there on the GOAT lists.

Living In A Van (But Not Down By The River)

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting story about people living in vans in the Los Angeles area.  Unlike Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character, they aren’t motivational speakers — they’re just everyday entertainment workers who happen to live in their cars.

thr_mobile_la_thr_joe_4547_hirez_splashAccording to the article, the number of Angelenos who live in their vehicles has spiked.  In 2017, 600 vehicles were being used as homes; now the number is up to 9,117.  There’s even an organization called Safe Parking L.A. that operates secret, guarded lots where people living in cars can sleep with some security.

Why do so many people in southern California live in their vehicles?  The high cost of housing factors into the decision-making of virtually everyone interviewed in the article.  Some people simply can’t pay the exorbitant rents; others could afford the cost but object to doing so and live in their cars because it allows them to move more quickly toward their financial goals.  But living in your car obviously comes at a cost, too.  You have to strip down your possessions to a minimum and configure your vehicle to allow it, you need to develop a strategy for taking care of basic bodily functions, you’ve got to figure out where to park your car at night, and there are obvious, ongoing security concerns — which is why an organization like Safe Parking L.A. exists.

And there are other issues that people who don’t make their vehicle their home would never consider — like the need to drive very carefully through those crowded southern California highways and byways, because if you get into an accident and your car goes into the shop, you’ve just lost your housing until the repairs are completed.

Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and you have to admire the grit of people who have figured out how to live in vans.  But I also wonder:  is living in L.A. and being part of the entertainment industry really worth it if it means living in a van?

Burt’s Best

I was sorry to read of Burt Reynolds’ passing today.  He was a huge Hollywood star in his heyday, but he never seemed to take himself, or his acting ability, too seriously — which is an all-too-rare quality in the film and television industry these days.

longest-yeard-470x350Reynolds’ death has caused some people to debate what was his best movie.  I think Deliverance is great — and Dueling Banjos clearly was the single best song — but for my money the original version of The Longest Yard can’t be beat.  It came out when I was in high school, and it combined everything that would appeal to an adolescent boy — sophomoric humor and pranks, football and football players, a ridiculously implausible plot, crotch hits to bad guys, and the use of Burt Reynolds’ overwhelming sex appeal to convince the warden’s pasty-faced, beehived secretary (played wonderfully by Bernadette Peters in one of her first big roles) to part with some much-needed game film.  In fact, you can argue that no single movie is more calculated to appeal to teenage males.  And watching it, even now, remains a guilty pleasure.

RIP, Burt Reynolds, aka Paul Crewe.  Adolescent boys of the ’70s salute you.

A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.

Cecil’s Lost City

I saw a report on a sphinx head being uncovered in the California desert and wondered for a moment whether there had been some tremendous discovery of a previously unknown ancient civilization.  Not quite!  It turns out that it was a lost city — but one dating from 1923, not the time of the pharaohs.

pay-sphinx-uncovered-from-under-californian-sand-dunesThe lost city was constructed for the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie The Ten Commandments.  DeMille, who was legendary for filming extravagant, big-budget epics with colossal sets and enormous casts of extras, had plaster sphinxes and other Egyptian artifacts constructed for use in the film, at huge expense, to make the film look more realistic.  Then, when the filming was over, and it was too expensive to relocate the set, DeMille decreed that rather than risk it being used by rival filmmakers, it all should be buried under the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, where the sphinxes and other materials have remained for nearly a century.  The Ten Commandments then went on to receive critical acclaim for its sweeping and realistic scenes.

DeMille’s decision to entombed the set beneath the desert sands became the stuff of Hollywood legend, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that people began talking about actually trying to find the buried set pieces.  Recently, archaeologists have begun to unearth the pieces and some of the other debris cast off by the film crew.  One of the uncovered items is a perfectly preserved sphinx head.

These days, it’s hard to imagine the ludicrous extravagance that routinely occurred during the early days of Hollywood — but what better evidence of that extravagance than dazzling set pieces, carefully constructed by craftsman at significant expense, simply being buried in desert sands and then abandoned?  And it’s even harder to imagine that modern environmental authorities would allow entire sets and film crew trash to simply be buried beneath natural sand dunes.

The world was a different place 100 years ago.

Seagull Over Stonington

Kish and I took a brisk morning walk today. It is a fine, glorious day, with a bright blue sky and seagulls wheeling overhead.

Being a Midwestern landlubber, seagulls still intrigue me, with their downy white feathers and aerial acrobatics, but the locals pretty much loathe them. They tolerate seagulls because the tourists expect to see them — what’s a port town without seagulls? — but they know seagulls are trash-eaters that like nothing better than picking at a dumpster for spoiled food and then coating your lobster boat with rank seagull poop. The outward appearance of seagulls is a lot more attractive than the actual reality.

Seagulls are kind of like Hollywood that way.