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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: Tarantino’s Ironic Nostalgic Twist

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quintin Tarantino’s latest offering…

once upon a time in Hollywood: Opinion

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering. It is a slant on a nostalgic tinseltown that no longer exists, if it ever really did in the way that Tarantino depicts it, and the film’s ironic ending leaves one wondering just what his motives truly were.  Critics have complained that the movie spends too little time on the Manson family and its tragic victims but this is the purpose of the entire film, to give a “Hollywood finish” to reality.

The film, starring Tarantino semi-regulars Leonardo DiCaprio (Django, and Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds) Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight, Death Proof) and Bruce Dern (in a blink and you will miss him cameo as a last minute replacement for the late Burt Reynolds) is a long, somewhat meandering affair. **It should be pointed out that along with Russell, Dern has the most credits listed under Tarantino.**

Margot Robbie is the tragic Sharon Tate and there are a number of familiar faces, some more special that others, who fill out the cast list of this odd offering. Please do not misunderstand, this is a visual treat for the viewer, it offers much in terms of interest and threatens to become a brilliant character study. Although it never really delivers in term of character but it teases in other ways and provides a few laughs along then way.

I was 11 years old when the 1960’s ended, along with the lives of Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood brought the sixties screaming back into glorious discordant life. The sounds of the radio advertisements, the television clips, the colours, the clothes and the cars all threw me right back into a pre-pubescent memory lane. This was both enthralling and somewhat, rather oddly, disturbing.

Tarantino gives us his version of ’60’s Hollywood. He also, by design, gives us the “Hollywood” ending to the entire “Helter Skelter” true story that the film is based around. (Not upon, as his tale is, to paraphrase a line from 1969’s The Wild Bunch of the event, not from it. In other words, it is the frame he hangs his work on.)

Once Upon a Time… focuses on Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth. Tate is in the periphery as a reminder of the impending tragedy. She flashes on the screen in small glimpses that are designed to show her as a sympathetic character, all the more to make the ending hit that little bit harder. This is, however, a ruse. A MacGuffin if you will. A tactic that sets us up instead for the “Hollywood ending.”

Tarantino lets fantasy intrude at the tail end of the movie and here the discussion will stop in order to keep spoilers from appearing in this review. In many ways, the ending is a disappointment until one realizes that the fantasy is what Hollywood studios would have ordered were the real life murders a movie.

Hollywood has long had a fixation with endings that allow the hero to ride off into the sunset with the girl on one arm and a fistful of money clenched in his fist. The bad guy gets his just reward, a bullet or a grave, or both, and everyone lives happily ever after.

There are enough nods are “real” Hollywood to allow this to work. Booth’s besting of Bruce Lee on the backlot is based around Lee’s time on The Green Hornet. He was also training many celebs and newcomers on martial arts for both onscreen and off. Lee trained Tate for her role in the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” movie The Wrecking Crew. (Coincidentally, this was the last Matt Helm picture made, despite another being touted at the end credits.)

Dalton’s foray into Spaghetti Western territory mirrors, to an extent, Clint Eastwood’s own journey into the Leonesque world of Western Opera. While the connection is tenuous as best, unlike the Bruce Lee vignette, it is there for the film fan to notice and appreciate.

Once Upon a Time looks luscious and real, except for the odd continuity issue, as the hippies all have filthy feet, legs and hair. Dakota Fanning plays stunningly against type as the “momma bear” Squeaky Fromme and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is all scabby legs, black feet and sexual promiscuity wrapped in a teen drugged up dream. Qualley does such a convincing job as a Manson minion that one can almost smell the scent of eu de rubbish skip that must permeate her entire essence.

The violence in the film is convincing yet, strangely, funny in the way it is presented. All except the scene at the Spahn Ranch, the blood looked as real as the Korean cinema’s blood work, which is head and shoulders above the rest of the industry.

DiCaprio’s performance as Dalton is convincing and his suffering artist makes us feel for him. I will admit to being moved to tears when the child actor – Trudi (played exquisitely by Julia Butters ) leans over and tells a teary eyed Dalton that this is “the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Truth be told, Butters comes damn close to stealing the film from the entire cast. This is one young lady to keep an eye on.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is one to watch. Perhaps not at the cinema, streaming or DVD may just suffice as despite looking brilliant and providing a magnificent nostalgic treat, it left me, at the end of the film, feeling a tad disappointed.  However, it is an excellent example of Tarantino’s skill at hiding a genius move in plain sight. Like Inglourious Basterds he gives us a fictional version of an awful reality, one that equals, to a degree, a happy Hollywood ending. This then, is the ironic twist to Tarantino’s nostalgic Hollywood tale…

The Decent (2005): Still a Tight Fit

The Descent (2005): Still a Tight Fit

The Descent, written and directed by the brilliant Neil Marshall, was a revelation in 2005. It is begins with a shock to the system, or two, and rapidly turns into an exercise in claustrophobia. Watching it again tonight on DVD, I found it to still be a tight fit. One that manages to leave me feeling a tad panicky and breathless, despite having watched it numerous times over the years.

My daughter and I watched it initially and both of us were blown away by the mood and the many changes that Marshall manages to manufacture in the film. In terms of unique and “outside the box” horror, this talented maestro knocks it out of the metaphorical park. (The original viewing of this horror film was back in approximately 2007.)

(I will admit to being an unabashed fanboy of Marshall. This is, after all, the same man who brought us the wonderfully weird and and delightful Dog Soldiers, as well as my “go-to” sci-fi/thriller fix, Doomsday.)

Back to The Descent:  The ladies are an interesting bunch with Juno; (Natalie Mendoza) the one who seems to be guaranteed to be the “final girl,” Sarah; (Shauna Macdonald) whose mind is a myriad of mixed emotions and Beth; (Alex Reid) the observer who sets a certain chain of events in motion, heading up this ensemble effort. The dynamic between these three and its messy interlude, runs alongside the main plot, after it makes its appearance, and shows the true depth of this movie’s story.

Marshall allows us an “out,” if you will, early on in the film. The MyAnna Buring character talks of the dangers of Spelunking.  She mentions hallucinations, dehydration, and disorientation as just a few of the long list of problems that exploring deep under the earth can cause.  By the film’s end, it is all too easy to contemplate a scenario where Sarah has dreamed the whole thing up.

Juno’s affair with Sarah’s late husband, the blind and cannibalistic cave creatures, and the end battle between Juno and Sarah could all be a construct of a woman who still needs medication after the horrific death of her husband and child. Medication that she forgets to bring into the cave with her. Sarah does, after all, get stuck in that narrow and somewhat heart stopping passage between caves. Is it such a stretch to imagine that the poor woman remained trapped there and had an intense Bardo moment?

It is interesting to note that the entire film leaves one with a tight feeling in the chest, a certain breathlessness and a slight sense of panic. After that first “jump scare” (I still cannot follow a vehicle with a load of copper, or any type of, pipes in the back without an uneasy feeling that borders on paranoia.) to the final shot of Sarah’s apparent demise, the ride is incredibly tortuous and stressful. I am not, as a rule, claustrophobic. But Marshall’s offering, from start to finish, certainly puts me in that place.

Despite being over 15 years old, The Descent still manages to entertain and put the audience in a very uncomfortable place. It is available to watch, for free, on IMDB TV. If you have not had the opportunity to watch this, or for that matter, the other aforementioned Marshall films, I would highly recommend checking it/them out.

Fantasy Island: (2020) Why All the Hostility Bro? (Review)

Fantasy Island: (2020) Why All the Hostility Bro? - Review

Blumhouse’s offering in 2020 is the “remake” (re-imagining) of the ’70’s long running hit “Fantasy Island.” While I agree that Michael Peña is no suitable replacement for Ricardo Montalban (and before we go any further, I will confess to being a mad fan of both the former and the latter actors) I don’t get all the hate for this film, as the Stephen Bishop character says in the film The Rundown, “Why all the hostility bro?”

Directed by Jeff Wadlow and written by Jillian JacobsChristopher Roach and the director, “Fantasy Island” has a  motif of horror. To be fair, in watching old reruns of the old show, there were a fair few of those “fantasies” that were a bit close to the bone. And…some were downright scary. Just getting that out of the way.

Starring the brilliant Maggie Q, capable but spot on Lucy Hale, cold but creative Portia Doubleday, and the stunning Parisa Fitz-Henley, as well as two brilliant cameos by the versatile Michael Rooker and fiendish Kim Coates (Along with a bevy of other actors this reviewer has never heard of.) the film works well. It has the look and ambiance of the original television show while lacking the eternal elegance of Montalban’s take on Roarke.

Fantasy Island: (2020) Why All the Hostility Bro? (Review)
Welcome to Fantasy Island!

Another significant change is the house. (I’ve seen the original one from the series. It is located in the Los Angeles Arboretum and looks exactly like it did in the television show. At least it did in 1977.) The new one is, apparently, mostly CG and consists of one “real” floor. While it is something to see, it lacks the style of the original, located in Arcadia, California.

Fantasy Island: (2020) Why All the Hostility Bro? (Review)

The film starts with a blonde (Doubleday, best known for Mr Robot.) being stalked by a group of masked men.  We then meet the guests, all five of them; although two are sharing the same fantasy. The film also trots out Roarke’s “assistant” and we move into the long disjointed segue into the multiple storyline.

Modern touches such as  the addition of mobile phones and the internet, do not detract as much as the lack of elegance from this new imagining of Roarke. To be fair, there could not have been many actors who were capable of filling Montalban’s shoes. (An actor who could not only be so otherworldly, kindly and sophisticated as Roarke but could also chew up scenery like no one else as Khan in Star Trek’s Wrath of Khan.)

Fantasy Island: (2020) Why All the Hostility Bro? (Review)

There are things that work. For example, using stars of television in the main parts, Hale; Pretty Little Liars, Doubleday: Mr Robot, Rooker, The Waking Dead, for example. It adds to the feeling that this could, in an alternative universe be part of the original show. Even the main plot, for all its holes, is simplistic enough to feel like a first cousin to the long running series.

To be fair, the worst thing about the entire movie is its similarity, in terms of underlying plot, to the animated feature Fantastic Island. For those who have never seen Daffy Duck’s film, the power of the island is all down to a wishing well. Not too far from the power of the Blumhouse feature and its island.

We are missing Tattoo, and his tiny cry of “Boss! The Plane! The Plane!” But for all the above complaints, there is a satisfying twist and each “fantasy” ends in a Gene Levitt fashion.Not too complicated but a tad darker than the television show.

This is not deep nor overly impressive. It is, however, an entertaining way to spend an hour and forty minutes. I would give this a 3.5 stars out of 5, if only because the choice of Peña was such a poor one. He is a very talented actor, but he is not Mr. Roarke.

Fantasy Island: (2020) Why All the Hostility Bro? (Review)Well worth the rental price of six bucks and the price of a microwave popcorn and coke.

Covid Movie News: Would You Like to Make That Mask a Large?

Covid Movie News: Would You Like to Make that Mask a Large?

 

The Corona Virus has changed the face of the world as we know it. The virus has put a mask on it. AMC with its latest press release has stated that now its patrons must wear a mask. In light of the recent Covid case increase with lockdown being relaxed, it makes sense. They have even stated that masks will be provided. One can assume that we will given one at the concession stand, if the ticket booth misses the opportunity. Will we then be asked if we would like to make it a large one for a small fee?

The introduction of this latest in Covid fashion will, undoubtedly, change our viewing habits as well. What with social distancing being a factor and the vast majority of the world on quarantine for over two months,  the average film goer may have problems enjoying the “new” movie experience.  How on earth will we shovel greasy covered popcorn or jalapeño infused nachos into our hungry mouths?

These oxygen deprivation devices will also, presumably, change how audiences react to the films as well. Granted, these “chokers” will only be on for the duration of the movie theatre experience, but, as anyone who has worn these torture contraptions knows, breathing is an issue. Not to mention, laughing, talking and seeing (as in misty glasses) all these things are impaired considerably.

On the up side, the annoying habit of other cinema patrons talking non-stop throughout the feature will be cut down. Or… It will be considerably louder with the added attraction of being indiscernible mumbling that will infuriate the unwilling listener just as much.

Kudos to AMC for trying to ride the fence and not getting impaled with splinters after their initial “We don’t want to annoy anyone” statement of “Masks will not be required.” The public outcry, which is amazing since at least half the populace are refusing to wear the annoying  things,  against the chains’ mediocre stance caused AMC to hastily jump off said fence tout suite.

Another thing to consider here is the future of film. Not just Hollywood but my beloved Indies as well, are also going to change. Mayhap, this will be short term, something that we can show our grandkids and say, “See in the early 2020’s we all wore masks.” But for all productions being filmed this year, masks will have to be on for all “present day” features.

*Also televison: So when “The Rookie” (ABC cop-show with Nathan Fillion) returns after it’s mid-season/Corona Virus  break, will the entire cast wear masks? With half their faces being hidden from view will we be treated to “acting with eyes?” Norma Desmond would have had a heart attack. “We had faces then!” We won’t even go into video games and the ominous feels this will evoke, “The Last of Us” anyone?*

Covid Movie News: Would Like to Make That Mask a Large?

2020 has been a sea of change, most of it not good at all, and parts of it have been downright terrifying:  Corona Virus, world-wide race demonstrations, hate for the Blue Line regardless of facts, a president who appears to be falling to pieces and a government tearing itself apart. All these elements combined with the Holy Catholic Church, for a time, cancelling public Mass for the first time ever in history have set most folks on the road to fear and unease.

In a world full of “fake news” and misinformation, 2020 feels like a badly written science fiction piece about global control and fear mongering. The Corona Virus, also known as “the Rona,” may yet turn out to be a proverbial mountain made out of a molehill. Until that time, it will be “masks on” and full steam ahead as the world struggles through this change in our times.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this writer will continue to place his faith in Our Lord and Redeemer and attend Mass either publicly or virtually. Movies, either streamed or publicly aired, will also be watched and enjoyed, with or without mask. Hats off to AMC for actually opening up their dream houses and trying to entertain the consumer again. Only history will tell if this was a good idea or not and we may not be around to find out. Be safe and remember to love your neighbour.

Oh and I’ll keep a regular mask please, the large would be too much.

Michael Knox Smith

19 June 2020

 

 

Meet the Author: Steve Blackwood Nails It

Meet the Author: Steve Blackwood Nails It

Written, directed by and starring Steve Blackwood (Days of Our Lives, Beyond the Mask) Meet the Author is a laugh out loud funny multi-layered offering based on a stage play by David Susman. Blackwood  is Marvin, a writer whose first book reached dizzying heights of popularity. Personal tragedy interceded to force an extended hiatus and he is now trying to break back into the best seller charts with his second effort.

Marty Smith is Jennifer, the fan who nails the returning author and she brings as much to the table as Blackwood. These two bounce well off one another and their interaction paces well with the opening scene of the short film. In what feels like a sly poke at the Mel Gibson vehicle “What Women Want” Marvin is met by a group of adoring female fans at his book signing.

With one telling Marvin to  “call me” and others declaring their utter devotion, the writer becomes increasingly uncomfortable with all this attention. Meet The Author then shifts gears and loses nothing in the transition. Blackwood has, in his second effort as writer/director, knocked this one out of the park.

(It is interesting to note that his first film I Feel also featured Marty Smith.) The cinematography, by Evan Schneider, is spot on. Crisp and on point in terms of contrast and lighting, it really sets the scenes for the buildup of both the comedy and eventual revelation.

The film is funny, no doubt about that, but it also reveals a underlying theme. At one point Marvin states that he is a writer. It is, he says, the only thing he knows how to do. Interestingly, the long time between his breakout book and the sequel, proves that regardless of his “inactivity” his creative bent is still there.

There are a number of underlying points made in this film.  While the comedy works brilliantly, the repartee between Jennifer and Marvin is witty, clever and, amazingly enough, natural, the real magic in Meet the Author lies in its hidden introspection.

This award winning film (winning Best Narrative Short at the Ri Sene Film Festival and getting special recognition at The London Short Comedy Festival as well as The Boston International Film Festival) proves that Independent Short Film is a genre that can entertain and make the viewer think.

Blackwood may be well known for his long stint on Days of Our Lives but he has shown a flair for writing and directing that matches his skill at comedy. Kudos also go to Smith for her portrayal of a fan with a difference and to Pamela Jayne Morgan as Marnie; the Public Relations gal with a fixation on Momma from Gypsy.

In fact, the entire cast, especially the adoring females at the start of the film, all go above and beyond the call. Everything about Meet the Author works, from start to finish.  This is a full 5 star effort that makes the viewer laugh out loud repeatedly while simultaneously enjoying the deeper meaning behind the comedy.

Watch this one as Blackwood really nails it across the board (Pun intended.)

Meet the Author: Steve Blackwood Nails It
Steve Blackwood as Marvin

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Old Fashioned Tales That Satisfy – Review

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the books of the same name, is the latest offering to come from Guillermo del Toro. He shares credits of both producing and co-writing the screenplay and the story is as old fashioned as it is satisfying. It is, in short, a visual treat.

Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) the film looks brilliant. If one is of a certain age, the tones, hues, and overall colour of the film looks like all those old photographs from childhood. Every frame reeks of nostalgic melancholy that feels at home with bell bottom jeans and cars that all came from Detroit.

The film offers nothing new. It does, however, take one right back to their childhood. Tales told breathlessly around campfires or, in some instances, around Ouija boards, that invoked disbelief, at first, and then, at last, a sense of dread and acceptance. It is not the tales themselves that impress so much as they way that they are presented.

Each vignette offers a sort of variation on original tales that have been updated or altered to fit this particular theme. Not having read the books, which is now on my list of things that must be done, it is not clear how well the filmmakers managed to capture the spirit of the source material.

Regardless of whether the film manages to capture the intent of author Alvin Schwartz or not is not up for discussion. It should be noted that the first iteration of these books caused an outcry amongst concerned parents. (Apparently the illustrations of Stephen Grimmell were considered quite unsuitable for the targeted age group.)

Gore factor aside, which the film manages to control rather admirably, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark entertains without offending anyone. Deftly mixing urban myths with some original myth making, the movie does produce a few jump scares. Sadly, most of the “scares” rely on the rather tired device of cranking up the sound to Boeing 767 level, but some do work without the volumetric control used too often.

There are some nice touches for the horror fan. One of the male characters (Auggie, played admirably by Gabriel Rush) sports a Halloween costume that could be right from the frames of the 1978 film Halloween. The “clown” outfit; “It’s a Pierrot,” argues Auggie repeatedly, feels like a deliberate homage to Michael Myers’ outfit in the original horror film. (While the two outfits are nothing alike, there is an odd resemblance. Enough of one, at least to this viewer, that it seemed glaringly obvious.) It should be said that there are other nods and winks to classic horror stories throughout.

The cast of the film; Rush along with Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn,  give it their all. Each convinces admirably and at no time does one ever doubt their character’s veracity. (Colletti will obviously go far in her chosen profession. She knocked it out of the park easily.) It was lovely to see firm favorite Dean Norris as the father. More of Norris would not have gone amiss but one obviously has to draw the line somewhere in terms of running time.

The cinematography is brilliant and the use of hues and tonal shifts in terms of colour works wonderfully to establish mood and direction. While it would have been interesting to see a much darker version of this movie, in other words if del Toro had directed the feature, Øvredal does an excellent job.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not, overall, frightening. It delivers a great storyline reminiscent of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or Asylum and does so with a certain juvenile panache. This is a kid’s film, after all, but it entertains very well. It earns a full 4 out of 5 stars for delivery and one should see it in the cinema.