ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – DEAD RINGER FOR THE REAL THING

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

A classically Tarentino revisionist history of a terrible event during the 1960’s seen through the prism of a fading TV star and his stunt double in an intricately detailed and brain shockingly familiar re-creation of the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ADULTS! ONLY ADULTS! And only adults who have fairly strong constitutions. While there really are no sex scenes, the language is frequently raw and occasionally vulgar topics are discussed in crude ways, but there are a few fight scenes and one long scene of extremely gory and prolonged violence.

LONG TAKE:

Allow me to begin this review by quoting GK Chesterton:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Reviewing this movie puts me in an awkward position for a number of reasons. For one, it is a typically Tarentino violent and sexually charged film but one I thought extremely well done and worth viewing. For another I don’t want to unduly spoil anything in the movie but need to set the stage for one of the most vile moments in American history without either scaring off prospective appropriate film goers or giving away too much.

So keeping all this in mind:

SPOILERS FOR OUATIH AS WELL AS IRON MAN, WONDER WOMAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, AND X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

There’s a YouTube show called How it Should Have Ended, a PG if not G-rated comedy, which points out inconsistencies, crosses universe franchise storylines, and evaluates any plot flaws in movies which rely on nonsensical stupidity to set up the premise or move the story along. They animate scenes and do very credible voice impersonations showing, for better or worse, what is likely to have really happened had common sense prevailed in a given situation.

For examples, they: point out how a man as smart as Doctor Strange would not have texted on a winding road, going super fast, in the dark, but would have hung up the phone and planned to call later; demonstrate how Iron Man’s quicker, lighter and faster suit, along with his flying experience would have easily defeated Obadiah Stane at the end of Iron Man; introduced Wolverine to assist  Wonder Woman; clearly showed in a spoof of the theme song from Beauty and the Beast that Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome; and exhibit how Mr. Incredible probably would have loved Syndrome’s childhood inventions instead of shunning him with far more positive results.

Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is aptly named, for it is a fairy tale, if you consider, as Joe Harper did in Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale that “most fairy tales turn out to be nightmares”, which explores the alternate possibilities in life.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the fictitious fading star Rick Dalton, a composite of every little known ’60’s TV show one trick pony and Brad Pitt is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (based loosely on Burt Reynold’s stunt double Hal Needham). Where Rick is a fragile bag of regrets and insecurities off camera, Rick exudes a tough cowboy presence 24/7.

Likely the best acting job of either DiCaprio or Pitt, and almost the only two people who do not play historically documentable figures, they avoid what easily could have been caricatures to create two very different but vulnerable men who are survivors at their core. Despite the background story, their downwardly spiraling respective careers and the omnipresent spectre of the looming profoundly malevolent event on the horizon, dreadful to anticipate for anyone familiar with this year, these two archetype examples of crank-’em-out TV show stars from the ’60’s manage to be likeable, interesting, relatable, appealing and, like yeast in a barrel of flour, lighten the mood of every scene they are in.

This is a very “META” concept outing – with actors portraying real people who portrayed characters in movies and TV shows similar to the ones being filmed withIN the confines of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Whew.

The acting of the supporting cast, most of whom do play real people, is terrific. Among a large cast: Margot Robbie is the sweet and gentle but vacuous Sharon Tate. Dakota Fanning does a gut clenching quietly evil rendition of Manson follower Squeaky Fromme. And Mike Moh has all the mannerisms down for what can only be described as a Bruce Lee caricature (for which his surviving daughter, Shannon Lee, has taken exception). But one of the most impressive was Damien Lewis’ Steve MacQueen (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair). With just his voice and gestures he brings this cinema icon back to life for just a few wonderful movie moments.

In addition, there are some wonderful cameos from Al Pacino (1972’s The Godfather), Kurt Russell (from Disney’s 1969’s Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to Snake Plissken in Escape From New York) who has a small part as stunt coordinator Randy and provides some V.O. narration, and Bruce Dern (1972’s eco-warning sci fi Silent Running), actors whose careers were pretty much “born” during this period of time.

And then there are little Easter Eggs that you might miss unless you look closely, like Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas who greets Tate at the Playboy Mansion, and someone who can only be Twiggy talking to Steve MacQueen. NOT to mention the resurrection of the old TV show Lancer, including Wayne Maunder (portrayed by Luke Perry) and cigarette commercials which are startlingly accurate dopplegangers to the ones we watched on TV as kids.

The songs are beautifully handpicked for the right moments like bouquets placed around a professionally decorated room featuring the likes of: “Good Thing” from Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and “California Dreamin'” by Jose Feliciano.

And the sets, pacing of interviews, acting styles of the actors as they performed the shows within the movie, costumes, blunt and awkward dialogue all open a portal into a world I have not experienced in more than half a century. It was jarringly realistic. Tarantino even cleverly placed throughout the movie the awkward and jerky edits often experienced in watching a show from my youth, as the more humble equipment just did not produce the smoother transitions we all demand today, subtly evoking that era, as well as reminding us this is all just a fantasy, a wishful thinking creation of a cinematic mind.

If he has done nothing else, Tarantino has done a stunning job of disabusing me of any temptations to nostalgia for the era in his pinpoint accurate recreation of the world in which I grew up – the ’60’s with its emphasis on: the constant generation of cigarette smoke, plastic furniture, ridiculously high miniskirts, obnoxious self-aggrandizing hippies, sparse air conditioning, unchallenged snake oil salesmen, terrible TV shows, black and white monitors with Vietnam in the background, and condescending talking heads masquerading as newscasters (OK we still have those).

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it while I was living it but in the stark light of a Tarantino day – let’s just say that walks down Memory Lane should be taken sparingly.

And then there is the specific history of that particular “moment” in time.

In order to appreciate the pervasive sense of suspense and anxiety that hangs over the entire movie, you have to understand the backdrop in which the story plays out. The movie takes place during the year preceding the slaughter of Sharon Tate, her baby and guests on the night of August 9th 1969. On that terrible night, a cult leader name Charles Manson sent his followers out to kill everyone in the house on Cielo Drive. The people there were not just murdered they were savaged. A pregnant Sharon Tate, two weeks from delivery, was hung up and butchered like cattle. The rest were bludgeoned, shot, and stabbed dozens of times. Anyone old enough or well read enough to be familiar with this event knows it is coming — and protagonist Rick lives next door.

The next day, before their capture, Manson and his hippies did the same to a couple named LaBianca. It is hard to appreciate how this atmosphere of evil informed those days unless you lived through it…or watched this movie.

It was largely thought that the 1960’s “died” that day, (ignoring the fact that, well yes, 4-1/2months later it would be 19–SEVENTY, but I get the drift), replacing the open door “love is in the air” perception of the flower child with the reality that these people engaged in highly dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, who were predominantly a danger to themselves and those around them.

In OUATIH we get the true face of the hippie, free-love, Flower Power movement:  promiscuous, selfish, manipulative, filthy, violent, arrogant, condescending, narcissistic, slothful, parasitic, hypocritical, self-adoring, drug addicted anarchists with a sense of entitlement to other people’s property. The greatest horror to those who stylistically aligned themselves with these pet anti-establishment philosophies (while living otherwise) was that the Manson cult demonstrated to the world merely the logical extrapolation of the hippie mantras which included calling police names and advocating their destruction, extreme hostility to capitalism while living off the work of others,  and engagement in sexual debauchery without accepting consequences.

The aftermath of Woodstock alone demonstrates it takes a lot of someone else’s effort and money for one to appear to be living a life of freedom and independence from the drudgery of actually having to work for a living. (Of course, unfortunately, that is now the Democrat National Party goal – to be living off the hard work of other people, responsibility free – not surprising since many in their leadership fermented out of that intellectual cesspool —— but that’s a post for another day.)

Without any real job they lived, if you can call it that, on the largesse of family,  friends and community, that is when they weren’t begging, prostituting themselves or outright stealing.

As this is a Tarantino film one expects an extreme amount of violence and gore and OUATIH is no exception…..but not the way you might expect, or cringe fearfully. I am delighted to say that, through the magic of Tarantino pixie dust, I was inspired to clap and cheer during the last scenes.

Tarantino likes to play with “What if’s”. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained being his most telling examples. I had actually never seen an entire Tarantino movie before but only clips from the likes of Kill Bill, Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction. Sudden and ferocious bloodshed tend to jump out like ghouls from a haunted house, but OUAPIH is quite gentle for most of the movie in comparison, as the director manifests more suspense and extreme apprehension than actual violence…until the end.

Also stick around for a funny ending credits scene with a brilliantly on point faux cigarette commercial.

So if you want a head first dive into the deep end of nostalgia, and if you have the stomach for it, this is Tarantino at his best, if for no other reason than his masterful re-invention of a time gone by and for the cathartic satisfaction of seeing justice served in a Tarantino-flavored version of How it Should Have Ended.

God bless and R.I.P. Sharon Tate, baby Paul Polanski,  Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, and Rosemary LaBianca.

 

BRANAGH’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – The Perfect Movie

I have seen a lot of filmed murder mysteries from drama to slapstick: Thin Man series, China Town, Minority Report, The Usual Suspects, The Maltese Falcon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Clue, Rear Window, Scoop, Murder by Death, even the occasional Dr Who and the TV shows Columbo, Grimm and Perry Mason. There’s something truly satisfying about solving a puzzle with the end result the protecting of the innocent and the meting out of justice. But my favorite has always been Murder on the Orient Express. A group of strangers stuck on a snow bound train with a murdered man and a famous detective and one of them a murderer. A bit like Christie's Ten Little Indians but, to me, Orient Express has more pinache.

I’ve seen the 1974 version many times. Knowing the ending does nothing to undermine the enjoyment of watching the mystery unfold like a beautifully formed rose bud – all the parts slowly falling into place. Who wouldn’t like it?! With the star studded cast including the likes of     Albert (Bourne franchise) Finney, Sean (James Bond) Connery, Lauren (Humphrey Bogart’s wife) Bacall, Ingrid (Casablanca) Bergman, SIR John Gielgud, Anthony (Psycho) Perkins. The list goes on – it is a BIG cast.

But as good as the 1974 version was, it is only the amusing movie hors d’oeuvre to the cinematic banquet that is Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Not only is this the best rendition of a murder mystery I have ever seen, it is one of those rarest of birds – a perfect movie. Branagh brings brilliance to anything he undertakes – from Thor to Cinderella to    Hamlet* (ALL of which he directed). He is one of those auteurs, like Orson Welles and Woody Allen who can both star and direct in the same movie and create masterpieces.

Prudence, by defintiion, is the virtue of knowing the right thing to do at any given time. When you are someone who sees the subtle imperfections of the world this virtue becomes an obsession. In a detective this can be a superpower…and a curse. Such is the struggle of Branagh's Hercule Poirot. This kind of complex personality overlay onto an already brilliant screenplay is an example of what makes Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express special. It could have been refilmed as another lovely remake with modern celebrities. The last theatrical version was in 1974, as I have said, so it is due for a remake. But true to his genius and his respect for his audience, Branagh is not content with merely revamping an already rich treasure of a story but like Gershwin's ability to create a timeless song from a simple catchy line of music, Branagh takes a classically fun tale and reworks it into a presentation worthy of a Shakespearean telling.

As in the original, the premise is that a murder takes place on a train, which locomotive is almost immediately and Providentially caught in an avalanche of snow. The manager of the train, a good friend of Poirot's, implores Poirot to solve the mystery for him before the train is freed and the killer has an opportunity to escape. As well as catching a killer, he also (by the way) wishes to avoid the shame of scandal to the Orient Express from an unresolved atrocity committed aboard this regal moving institution.

Of all the movies I have ever reviewed this is the one about which I would be most loathe to commit a spoiler ……. so will not.

But I will say there are a few minor tweaks to the story, re-imagined by Michael Green from, obviously, the Agatha Chtistie novel of the same name. These changes work well, and add depth of character and intrigue to even Christie's fascinating creation. One such contribution is Branagh's Poirot which, while I will not go into detail, is a brilliantly satisfying choice which makes the usually taciturn and ascerbic character more approachable and likeable, aware of his own shortcomings and has a character arc which dovetails beautifully with the theme and complexities of the story.

If you have not read the book or seen the 1974 movie, which  by the way is very good, and are then fortunate enough to be able to see this 2017 version with virgin eyes, do NOT watch any trailers, see any interviews, read any opinions but go straight to the movie with childlike delight. If you ARE familiar with the story then go to revel in the brilliant directing. Branagh stages the film like a fairy tale with all the exotic detail that was Stamboul (Old Istanbul) in 1934 and the extreme elegance of the Orient Express which in its day was host to Princesses and Counts. The colors are bright, the costumes splendid reflections of the complex suspects. And enjoy the sheer artistry of Branagh direction as he shoots with elegance equal to the time and place. He uses mirrors, windows and framing to fracture images hinting at characterizations; overhead shots to both reveal and hide clues at the same time. Dramatic events are bold and large as life; intimate scenes feel almost intrusive into private tensions and personal conflicts.   At turns I laughed out loud and was brought to tears.

And Branagh knows how to work an ensemble cast. From the musical rendition of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost to the light comedy A Midwinter's Tale to Hamlet with its massive star studded cast, he knows when to shine and when to hold back and always gives every member of his cast ample opportunity to be memorably in the forefront.

Every one of the actors does a superlative job. Not suprising as any director who could inspire a good Shakesepearean performance out of Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing could get a good perfromance out of even a dust mop. But most of these guys do not need such inspiration as they are already accomplished actors.

It is my honor and delight to mention each of the main performers:

Kenneth Branagh, director and lead, plays Poirot himself. I have seen enough Branagh to know that if he thought someone else could have done a better job he would have hired him. I'll tell you this is the best Poirot or classic detective of this genre I have seen anywhere.

Johnny (Jack Sparrow) Depp plays Edward Ratchett, American gangster and suspicious ne'er-do-well who brings a frightening intensity to what otherwise could have been a cookie cutter stereotype.

Sir Derek Jacobi – friend and collaborator of Branagh in a number of previous outings from the aforementioned Hamlet to Henry V to Cinderella, plays Edward Henry Masterman, British manservant to Ratchett. Jacobi is a knighted Shakespearean thespian who lends a graceful sympathy to Masterman.

Josh (Beauty and the Beast) Gad plays Hector MacQueen, Ratchett's assistant, lends a surprisingly effective though odd combination of Bogart and Peter Lorre from Casablanca into this character of questionable motives.

Daisy (Rey from Star Wars) Ridley plays Mary Debenham, stepping away from her interstellar Jedi to bring a singular classy elegance to her role as governess.

Leslie Odom portrays Dr. Arbuthnot, a man of many surprsing talents with skill and credibility.

 Dame Judy Densch – M, Shakespearean actress of tremendous dignity and comportment – continues to demonstrate her command of her art in even one of the smaller roles as the elderly Princess Dragomiroff.

Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin from Spiderman, Platoon, Odd Thomas, voice of Gill in Finding Nemo) equally at home in comedy or drama, as villain or hero, brings his many talents to bare for  the German professor Gerhard Hardman.

 Olivia Coleman is solid as Princess  Dragomiroff's personal maid.

Manuel Garcia (Magnificent 7) Rulfo is charming as Biniamino Marquez the Italian born newly Americanized citizen car salesman.

Marwan Kenzari is Pierre Michel, the ubiquitous conductor.

Michele Pfeiffer redeems herself from her awful participation in the terrible Mother! as the wealthy manhunting widow, commanding and entertaining in every scene she's in.

Luc Boynton portrays the fragile ephermeal Countess.

Sergei Polunin is almost comic relief in his intensity as the tightly wound Count, protective and attentive husband of the Countess.

Tom Bateman plays Bouc, playboy, friend of Poirot and ultimately responsible representative of the owners of the Express with style and contagious enthusiasm.

Penelope (Pirates of the Caribbean, Nine) Cruz, in a surprising turn plays Pilar Estravados, the intense missionary with an unexpected tough streak.

So go see this masterpiece of film making. Whether you have never heard of Agatha Christie before or if you've got the story memorized from a previously favorite version, you will more than be rewarded for your time in viewing this crown jewel retelling of the ultimate murder mystery.

* Branagh's Hamlet is the most spectacularly filmed Hamlet ever to grace the screen and the ONLY filmed theatrical unabridged Hamlet so far in existence.