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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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 The Matrix

I thought The Matrix was a terrific movie.  I like the sequel, too.  (The last film in the trilogy, eh, not so much.)

But I had no idea that reputable scientists were seriously considering the central premise of The Matrix — that what we think of as the real world is in fact a huge computer simulation run by machines and designed and policed to enslave humanity.  In fact, a scientist named Rizwan Virk has written a book, entitled The Simulation Hypothesis, about that possibility.

matrix_inThe Matrix concept is gaining traction for several reasons.  One is that computer technology, and games-playing technology, apparently is developing to the point where sophisticated multi-player, on-line games are routine and it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish reality from simulation.  (I say “apparently” because I’m not a gamer — that is, unless I’m really trapped in a computer simulation and playing, unwittingly, just by living my life.)  If our technology is developing in that direction, the argument goes, isn’t it possible that we are living in a more advanced simulation created by more advanced computer system developed by a more advanced civilization?

And there’s also a weird statistical argument for the simulation hypothesis that goes like this:  once a civilization creates computers that are powerful enough to create plausible simulations for millions or billions of players, it’s comparatively easy to create entirely new, realistic settings for entirely new simulated players that are all artificial intelligence.  Crossing that technological-capability threshold means that trillions of AI creations could be living in games — making it statistically likely that you’re an AI creation rather than a flesh-and-blood being.

And here’s an even weirder concept:  if we’re all players in a video game, maybe our scores are being kept somewhere for some purpose that we don’t quite know yet, and won’t know until our own experience in the simulation ends.  It would help to know the rules of the game, wouldn’t it?

Are we living in a simulation?  I don’t see how you can prove or disprove that, from our perspective as potential players in an ultra-advanced game created by an ancient alien civilization.  But I do know this:  if that is our reality, I’m glad the programmers have finally allowed the weather to warm up a bit.

They Shall Not Grow Old

World War I ended just over 100 years ago.  There are some people who were living during the years of the Great War who remain alive today.  Somehow, though, World War I seems to belong to a much more distant past.  A war in which the primary modes of transportation were horses and steam engines, between countries governed by kings, kaisers, czars, and sultans, seems to belong in the 19th century, not the 20th.  The existence of only scratched, herky-jerky footage of men marching in strange uniforms doesn’t help to give the war any more modern immediacy, either.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLDThey Shall Not Grow Old takes dead aim at the last point.  It brings the men who fought in the Great War for Great Britain into closer focus — and puts them in a light that the people of the 21st century can understand.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson was given access to more than 100 hours of film shot by the British that has been gathering dust in the British War Museum and, as he explains in his introduction to the film, was told that his assignment was to do something different with it.  He looked at hours of scratched, often overexposed or underexposed film, shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras, and initially was at a loss about how to approach the assignment.  But he decided to apply modern technology, computer imaging, and careful colorizing techniques, and the results are jaw-dropping.  Forget the scratchy, blurred, quick-stepping soldiers you remember, and be prepared for a movie that brings those soldiers to life.  (If you go to see the film this weekend, you’ll also have a chance to watch a very interesting 30-minute film after the credits have run, in which Jackson explains how the refurbishing of the film was done and also shows that he has an amazing collection of World War I uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia.)

The technology employed isn’t the only thing that distinguishes They Shall Not Grow Old from other documentaries.  If you’re expecting any kind of narrative arc that explains the causes of World War I, the alliances, the kings and czars and assassinated archdukes that triggered a senseless global conflict — or, for that matter, attempts to establish any kind of broader historical context — you’ll be disappointed.  The film’s focus is on the soldiers, period, and is narrated using clips of BBC interviews of Great War veterans that were conducted decades ago.  We see, and hear, why they enlisted, how they were trained, what they ate, how they performed other bodily functions, and what it was like when they went home — but mostly, about life in the front lines in one of the most brutal, deadly wars ever fought.  Be prepared to learn about the horrors of rats, and lice, and trench foot, and frostbite, and mustard gas, and brace yourself for footage of insects crawling on the bodies of dead humans and horses alike.  (And Americans should also get ready for some close-up exposure to human teeth the likes of which you’ve never seen before.)

Not surprisingly, many of the images are immensely powerful.  I won’t soon forget the hopelessly terrified, blank face face of one young soldier, eyes bulging with intense fear, moments before a big battle that he knew he wasn’t likely to survive, or a soldier in the aftermath of a battle clutching a small dog to his chest and possessively stroking its fur, or a battle-scarred veteran walking away from the front lines, right hand shaking uncontrollably.  And the footage of soldiers passing the time, and mugging for cameras that were a novelty in those days — such as the soldiers who gave the impromptu concert pictured above, in which one of them strummed a beer bottle — will change your view of these young men, so that you never again think of them as ancient, herky-jerky marchers from a forgotten earlier day.

The title of the film comes from a line in the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which was written in 1914 in the early days of the war.  The particular verse reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They Shall Not Grow Old helps to bring that sentiment to reality.  It’s well worth the price of a movie ticket.

Get Back

Yesterday, filmmaker Peter Jackson — the guy who made those lavish, but incredibly long, Lord of the Rings movies — announced his next project, and it’s pretty intriguing.  Jackson has been given access to more than 50 hours of never before seen footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg during the Beatles’ recording sessions that ultimately were used to produce the album Let It Be.  Jackson will be using the footage to produce what is, in effect, a remake of the documentary that was released in 1970.

maxresdefaultBeatles fans know the prevailing story:  the band went into the studio to record a new album that was originally going to be called Get Back, because the idea was for the band to get back to its rock ‘n roll roots, with Billy Preston playing along on keyboards.  After some initial highlights — including an impromptu concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps that happened 50 years ago yesterday, and was the last time the Beatles performed live in public — the album effort supposedly ground down in a maze of acrimony and dissension that presaged a group on the edge of a final break-up.  The effort was shelved, and months Phil Spector was enlisted to produce something out of the recordings.  Let It Be then emerged in 1970 — a combination of some great, quasi-live recordings, classics like the song Let It Be, and awful, overproduced Spector versions of songs like The Long and Winding Road.  Let It Be would be the last original Beatles’ album to be released (with Abbey Road being the last album the Beatles recorded);

That’s the story we’ve heard, and it was largely framed by the 1970 film that emphasized the tension and dissension, but Jackson suggests that it’s not the true story.  He’s watched the unseen footage, and listened to more than a hundred hours of the audio tapes from the recording sessions, and he says:   “It’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching these four friends make great music together.”  He added:  “Sure, there are moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating – it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.”

It’s hard to imagine that there is much new to be learned about the Beatles — they are clearly among the most loved, photographed, analyzed, and psychoanalyzed musical and cultural figures in history — but this unreleased footage may help to alter the storyline.  I’ll be heading to the theater to watch the result.  These days, how often do you have the opportunity to watch musical legends at work, in their prime?

Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Yesterday Kish and I went to screen Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.  Biopics about rock stars have become something of a genre unto themselves these days — according to the previews yesterday, there’s another one coming out soon about Elton John, by the way — and Bohemian Rhapsody is a worthy addition to the playlist.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYThe film begins as Mercury and Queen prepare to perform at the Live Aid concert, then takes us back to the group’s earliest roots.  We meet Farrokh Bulsara, a buck-toothed baggage handler at a British airport who dreams of doing something bigger.  He finds a struggling band called Smile playing in pubs, and when the group loses its lead singer, Queen’s journey begins and Farrokh becomes Freddie Mercury.  The film traces the artistic arc of the group, which became one of the most inventive, boundary-breaking bands of the ’70s — as the song that gives the film its name attests — and the band steadily moves from playing small towns to filling some of the largest stadiums in the world, with the flamboyant Mercury leading the way.

As the band’s story is told we get glimpses into Freddie Mercury’s personal life, from his frosty relationship with his Indian parents and their Zoroastrian faith, to his long-term bond with a woman he called the love of his life, to his embrace of his gay lifestyle and ultimately to his discovery that he had AIDS at a time when that diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence.  And, as always seems to be the case with rock star biopics, enormous success and fame have their price, and we see Mercury dealing with drugs and alcohol, leaving the band that was like a family to him, and supporting the creeps and hangers-on who always seem to find a way to latch on to the successful creative minds and sap them of their unique energy.  But Mercury breaks the downward spiral, sheds the leeches, and reunites with the group just in time for a triumphant performance at the Live Aid concert.

Bohemian Rhapsody has been criticized for glossing over some aspects of Mercury’s life, especially his sexuality, but the film is telling a wide-ranging story that simply doesn’t allow it to delve deeply into every relationship — whether it be Mercury’s relationships with fellow bandmates or his relationships with his lovers.  The result is a film that increased my appreciation of Queen and the dazzling personality who was one of its principal creative forces.  And Rami Malek is himself brilliant as the brilliant Freddie Mercury.

Why are there so many rock star biopics?  I think it’s because the music world is home to a lot of very interesting stories that are well worth telling.  The story of Freddie Mercury and Queen is one of those stories, and Bohemian Rhapsody tells it well.