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.

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Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.

The Revenant

The Revenant probably isn’t the best date night movie out there, but it is a movie that you have to see in a theatre if you are going to see it at all.  This is one film that is designed for a big screen and a high-end sound system.  I can’t imagine that watching it on a TV screen, even the largest at-home unit, would provide anything even remotely close to the power of the movie in a theatre.

And make no mistake about it:  The Revenant is an extremely powerful sensory experience.  It tells a story of a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, in the wilderness in the 1820s.  The wilderness itself is a key, Jekyll-and Hyde character in the film.  You are entranced by its beauty — the towering trees, the magnificent snow-covered landscapes, the rocky mountainous crags, and the rushing, foaming rapids, all of which are beautifully framed and photographed — and suddenly the snowy white wilderness becomes a rumbling, snarling, blood-spattered horror show of bear maulings and Native American attacks and desperate attempts to survive at all costs.

revenant-snow-xlargeWe learn from flashbacks that Glass married a Native American, had a son, and then saw his wife killed in an attack on their village.  After a trapping party for which he serves as guide is decimated by a Native American attack, Glass and his son and the remainder of the trappers escape.  As they make their way back to their fort, Glass is badly mauled by a bear and desperately injured.  The main party moves on, but Glass’ son Hawk and two other trappers remain behind with him.  One trapper, Fitzgerald, decides that staying with Glass is simply too dangerous and that Glass will die, anyway, so he kills Hawk as the other trapper is away, while Glass is too injured to do anything about it, and then convinces the other trapper to leave Glass behind.  The rest of the movie is about Glass’ relentless effort to overcome his devastating injuries and countless obstacles, find food, and survive to find Fitzgerald and avenge his son.

Leonardo diCaprio is wholly convincing as Glass.   He attacks, with gusto, a role in which he is clawed and bitten by a bear, gratefully eats raw fish and raw liver for sustenance, sleeps naked in the hollowed out carcass of a horse to survive a blizzard, and receives countless injuries.  It’s as good a piece of physical acting as you’re going to see, and diCaprio deserves his Oscar nomination.  Tom Hardy is also exceptional as John Fitzgerald, the trapper frontiersman who just wants to get paid and go to a place like Texas that isn’t an ice-cold death trap.  Both Glass and Fitzgerald are subject to their own survival instincts, which inevitably make them adversaries who must fight to the death.   Their story is told against the backdrop of a larger tragic drama in which rapacious white men are moving into the lands of the indigenous peoples, and the performances of the many Native Americans in the film also are compelling.

One final point — the movie is a triumph of cinematography.  From its extreme close-ups even during violent, knife-wielding fight scenes, to the brilliantly staged and brutally realistic bear attack, to the jaw-dropping scene where the camera follows Glass and his horse as they plunge over a cliff onto the top of a huge evergreen tree below, The Revenant will make you think long and hard about the wonders of cinematography and the art of filmmaking.  I don’t know enough about how duties are apportioned on a moviemaking crew to properly give credit to the right people, but whoever brought the many mind-boggling scenes to the big screen — from director Alejandro Inarritu to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to the producers, camera crew, and key grips — deserves a lifetime achievement award.

 

Django Unchained

When you go to a Quentin Tarantino film, you don’t expect historical accuracy, or even plausibility.  Instead, you expect a glimpse of Tarantino’s dark, twisted soul.  You expect to see hyperviolence.  You expect a few scenes of torture.  You expect kitschy credits and ’60s vintage music.  You expect uncomfortable, non-politically correct things to happen.  But you also expect crackling dialogue, and unexpected humor found in oddball situations, and a few stunning set pieces that simmer with high-wire tension that builds and builds and builds until you almost can’t breathe.

I thought Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds were terrific movies.  They showed what Tarantino can bring to the big screen.  I was more than willing to take the occasional over-the-top Hitler death scene along with all the really good moviemaking.

Django Unchained isn’t terrific, however.  In fact, I’d say it sucks.  I wouldn’t watch it again, and I wish I had the 2 hours and 40 minutes I spent in the theater squirming at my latest exposure to Quentin Tarantino’s weirdness.  It’s overlong and apparently unedited and, even worse, it’s really kind of boring after you become desensitized to all the blood and guts.  Only one scene, where members of an early version of the KKK debate the quality of the hoods they’ve been provided, has the kind of witty, hilarious dialogue that made Tarantino famous.  But as for the Tarantino hyperviolence — well, prepare to be drenched in it, and in the sickest forms imaginable.  You’ll see great geysering gouts of blood by the gallon.  You’ll see dozens of people blasted to oblivion and screaming in agony.  You’ll see a captured slave torn apart by dogs, slaves whipped and branded, slaves tortured and beaten to death with a hammer.  And you’ll hear the “n” word, time and time and time again.  I kept thinking to myself:  “What’s the point of all of this?”  And I concluded that there was no point, really.

This movie has quite a cast — Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, among many others — and they turn in good performances, I suppose . . . but it’s hard for me to get past all the violence and the feeling that the movie really somehow cheapens and exploits the entire appalling history of slavery in America.  When I left the theater, I felt like I needed to take a shower.  I also found myself wondering if the fountain of Tarantino’s creativity has run dry, and his only response is to just try to shock.

With the number of recent, real-life hyperviolence incidents we’ve experienced in this country, I also find myself wondering about Hollywood.  Do we really need to make so many movies where corpses could be stacked like cordwood, and the message is that one man with a gun can kill all of his enemies and right all the wrongs by blowing his enemies to Kingdom Come?

Insidious Inception

At Richard’s urging, we went to see Inception on Sunday.  Whew!  What a terrific movie!  It insidiously works its way into your consciousness, and during idle moments you find yourself thinking about certain scenes or basic questions raised by the serpentine plot.

The movie is just about perfect summer movie fare because it has something to appeal to just about everyone.  Those who like human drama will be hooked by the emotional backstory of Cobb, the anguished central character played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Those who like devious plotting will appreciate the multiple layers and numerous twists and turns of the story line.  Sci-fi freaks will enjoy the concept of people invading the dreams of others to extract information — or possibly implant it.  Action movie fans will revel in the shooting, kung fu, hallway fu, and snow fu scenes.   Special effects geeks will like the crumbling cities of the mind, the fighting in a tumbling hallway, and the patient, weightless collection of sleepers, among many other visually stunning scenes.

Leonardo DiCaprio was great — is there any actor in Hollywood right now who plays deeply troubled characters better than DiCaprio? — but the performance that was a real revelation to me was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, DiCaprio’s key partner in dream invasion.  At once sharp, imperturbable, humorous, reliable, wise, and a total action stud, Arthur was a tougher character to play than Cobb, and Gordon-Levitt pulled it off beautifully.  He was totally believable as a sharp-dressing intellectual who could devise complicated yet successful extraction schemes and then more than hold his own against subconscious manifestations in battles to the death in zero gravity.

I totally agree with Richard’s take that Inception is a must-see-on-the-big-screen movie.

Shutter Island

Kish, Russell, and I went to see Shutter Island last night.  The theater was packed, and the audience reaction was mixed.  The three of us liked it, but I overheard the teenage girl sitting next to me tell her friends:  “Well, that is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

Richard’s review does a good job of describing the movie’s plot and setting.  I thought the Martin Scorcese’s direction not only paid homage to Hitchcock, but also to movies like The Shining and The Sixth Sense and even The Usual Suspects.  It was much move overtly violent than typical Hitchcock fare, but it had a great sense of overall creepiness that goes well with the Hitchcock ouevre.  At the end of the movie I found myself wondering which of the scenes were real and which were not.  The reveal at the end of the movie made me want to go back and review the first part of the movie to see whether, like The Sixth Sense, the reveal was perfectly consistent with the characters’ actions and dialogue.  My suspicion is that it is. It helps to explain, for example, why the heavily armed guards greeted the characters of Leonardo diCaprio and his new partner when they arrived at the island by ferry.

After leaving the theater, Kish, Russell, and I went to Five Guys for burgers and talked a lot about the movie.  Not many modern movies can spur so much conversation.  Any movie that can do so is worth seeing.

Review: Shutter Island

I read that Martin Scorsese forced the cast of “Shutter Island” to watch “Vertigo” before shooting began, because he wanted to recreate the mood of Hitchcock’s classic film. I’d say he did that successfully – like “Vertigo”, “Shutter Island” gives off strong paranoid vibes.

The films have more in common than their mood, in fact. Both are about a cop trying to make sense of the mess of deceptions he’s been dropped in the middle of. The protagonists of both films are haunted by traumatic memories and become fixated on their mental image of a certain woman. Both are set in the 1950s. “Shutter Island” even has a few vertigo-inducing scenes of its own.

Shutter Island’s traumatized cop, Eddie Daniels, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio with a permanent worried frown. Daniels is tormented by the death of wife in a fire set by an arsonist a few years ago, as well as by what he saw when he participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in World War II. He’s sent to a craggy island near Boston to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at the maximum-security mental hospital there. Joining him is his loyal partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, who has aged enough in the five years since he played a twenty-something hipster in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that he can now play a forty-something detective.

The island provides a striking setting. Its shores, buffeted by monsoon waves, consist of cliffs that look like they belong in the Pacific Northwest (do these even exist in Massachusetts?). The not-quite-so-maximum-security part of the mental institution looks like an Ivy League campus, but looming in the background is a damp Civil War-era fortress where the most dangerous inmates reside. For most of Daniels’ stay, the island is in the midst of a storm so powerful it topples down trees that almost kill him and his partner.

This creepy setting provides some suspenseful moments, such as the scene when Daniels roams the dark hallways of the Civil War fortress in search of his wife’s killer, whom he discovers may be a patient there.

The depressing, perilous atmosphere also compliments the film’s portrayal of the barbaric state of psychiatry of the 1950s, when lobotomies were still performed. Ben Kingsley, playing the hospital administrator, lectures Daniels on the two competing modes of thought in the psychiatry of their times: the old school, which uses treatments like lobotomies eagerly, and the new school, which believes such treatments should only be used as a last resort after counseling has failed.

Kingsley’s character claims to be of the new school, but Daniels begins to suspect that the hospital is performing sinister experiments on the island and that the missing patient investigation is a sham meant to bring him there for other reasons. He and his partner spend a few days sneaking around the hospital and its surroundings in an effort to figure things out. Like James Stewart’s character in “Vertigo”, Daniels comes to doubt even his own perception of events.

I found myself deeply involved in Daniels’ search for the truth of the island. Like Daniels, I accepted things as they appeared at first – a cop is sent to an island to look for a missing inmate – and I shared his surprise when he discovers there’s more going on. I felt the same fascination with the plot as when I watched “Fight Club” and, yes, “Vertigo”, two other movies that lead you to question the sanity of their characters.

The film must be faulted for finally revealing the truth in one of those long monologues delivered by the orchestrator of things. It would be better if the lead discovered the reality on his own, like James Stewart did in “Vertigo” (which shall be mentioned no more in this post).

Overall, however, “Shutter Island” is a clever, entertaining, sometimes frightening film. I’m glad that Scorsese is still capable of making such good films at age 67 – almost ten years older than Alfred Hitchcock was in 1958 when he made a certain psychological thriller starring James Stewart as a troubled cop.