Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino drifted south [u]

First a note on the film’s title.  Wikipedia incorrectly lists it without the ellipsis, the marketing materials have the ellipsis after the “in” and the film itself displays the title as I have above — ultimately, the correct version. I think. The New York Times briefly addressed this issue, but one thing not mentioned is the space before the ellipsis, a grammatical error. But the space and the placement as I’ve shown seems to be the consensus.

That title is not shown until the end of the movie, though the rest of the standard intro titles are included in the correct location. Followers of my blog know that omitting for no good reason a film’s intro titles annoys the heck out of me — so a partial titles MIA annoyance here. Especially given how much Tarantino loves titles.

All these title issues serve as a signpost which hearkens the weakest Tarantino feature since Reservoir Dogs.  It is quite clear that Tarantino had a clear vision in mind for this film, and executed that vision. The problem is it’s not a very good vision. An elongated story about an aging actor looking at the demise of his career is not exactly groundbreaking, especially not the way it’s portrayed here. The whole ode-to-Hollywood component, ever-present in Time … in, only half-works. And then there’s the Manson story.

Tarantino proved himself an absolute master with fictionalized history in the brilliant Inglourious Basterds; Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight showed he knows how to optimize a period setting. Others have written more about this (e.g. this other Times article), so I’ll just agree that it only half-works here. The grand vision that Tarantino had feels a lot smaller on screen. And, as with Lincoln, there’s an opportunity that was missed. Tarantino didn’t want to make a movie about the Manson murders, but rather a semi washed-up actor and the Hollywood scene of 1969. That’s fine, but a missed opportunity and something very diminutive, even petty compared to the scale I was expecting.

And … the Manson murders still have not had their proper due on film.

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I’ve always said that I welcome filmmakers to take their own, original directions. But this wasn’t that original, or particularly great. There are parts of it that are borderline cheeseville. The scene where he’s kicking himself for missing a line is real amateur-hour, even as the whole acting sequence that precedes it flows with art. On the other-other hand, the movie-within-a-movie has no connection to anything else. So not exactly Hamlet, despite the references to it.

There’s enough genuinely entertaining parts of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, including the mild arc of story presented, that I still offer a recommendation full of the normal caveats.  A missed opportunity, yes.  But there’s fun to be had — probably all Tarantino is going for, and it didn’t drag too much even with the nearly 3-hour running time.  Unlike Lincoln, Good Times in Hollywood earns a pass.  I just hope this doesn’t mark the beginning of a latter Oliver Stone era in which Tarantino can no longer figure out how to make good movies.

6/10

Comparison Notes: Hail, Caesar! (a much better take on Hollywood’s past, and a vastly more entertaining film), Lincoln, Café Society

UPDATE: It took one more night’s sleep to crank it up a notch; now 7/10.

== TRAILER: PRIOR POST ==

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Tumble off with Stan & Ollie [u]

First, a paean to Laurel & Hardy as the shining binary star of early Hollywood.  I have fond memories going back to childhood of their short films, though they were much harder to come by on broadcast television than the ubiquitous Stooges.  Laurel & Hardy were utter genius, and every time I think of them it still makes me smile.

*  *  *

For Stan & Ollie to work, Coogan and Reilly had to nail Oliver Hardy & Stan Laurel.  And — to the extent that it is knowable without consulting a scholar — they did.  No easy task.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch Stan & Ollie, but I revisited the trailer and sensed that as well as providing insight into the legendary duo, the film would be touching — and it was, especially in the finish, which raised the film from a mostly-7 to 8/10.  And I am happy to do so.  I’m glad I went to the movies.  It’s nice to watch a movie that makes you think and makes you feel.  2019 has set off on the right left foot.  8/10

UPDATE: Scratch that about 2019 setting off on the right left foot.  Apparently Stan & Ollie is a 2018 film, which puts it in 5th place, behind Upgrade on the 2018 List.  Never mind where and when it might have been released (see 2016 End Note).

Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

la-la-land-poster

I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

 * * *

Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

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la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

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UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon

Maybe think of The Neon Demon as a models’ Black Swan crossed with Maps to the Stars.  Or not.  The Times called it “ridiculous and puerile.”  The only thing ridiculous there is calling it “puerile” — clearly, The Neon Demon went over that reviewer’s head.  One who probably didn’t think The Shallows was ridiculous.

The Neon Demon - text blockScott Tobias of NPR, on the other hand, understands what the director of Drive was doing.  His review, titled “Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’ Paints Hollywood In Garish, Gorgeous, Gory Colors”:

In the shimmering Tinseltown gothic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, beauty is a commodity both precious and volatile, subject to runway trends and the ravages of age, with just a blemish, a wrinkle, or a sliver of fat separating today’s “It Girl” from tomorrow’s bus back to Indiana.

…the mesmeric pull of The Neon Demon cannot be denied. It lures you in for the kill.

There were a couple big plot problems I had with this movie, which is too bad.  Luckily they happen, unusually enough for plot problems, in the first half of the film.  They’re a little frustrating because they could be easily re-written to lift The Neon Demon to one of the best of the year.  But the visual pull of this film is undeniable.  7/10

Comparison Notes (each recommended and better): Sleeping Beauty, Electrick Children, Mulholland Drive

Note: Though the Times slammed The Neon Demon as “puerile,” they contradicted themselves by featuring an “Anatomy of a Scene,” which I include below along with the trailer.

The Neon Demon - Anatomy of a Scene

ALL HAIL, CAESAR!

Hail, Caesar! - poster alt

Not to sound lame-brained, but Hail, Caesar! is the most literal example of a FEEL GOOD MOVIE in recent memory.  I was loathe to go see it, based on the ads & trailers.  I made avoiding it something of a quest, Coens be damned!  Plus I had this running theory of Clooney + Coens = STAY AWAY!  But it seemed to have legs.  After a month or so something snapped; I broke down and headed with great gusto to the cinema.

Hail, Caesar! - text blockAnd wow do the Coens know how to put together a movie.  Hail, Caesar! is a thoroughly entertaining, sumptuously gorgeous picture made by absolutely consummate filmmakers at the top of their game.  My only fault was a lack of any real dramatic peril: this is not Fargo or No Country for Old Men.  Otherwise we’d be talking 9-territory; as it is, on the high end of 8/10.

Sit close to the big screen for this one — it’s a visual treat, I found much more so than even The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Comparison Notes: Recommended: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Chinatown, Mulholland Dr.; Not recommended: Inherent Vice, L.A. Confidential

Film Brief: Maps to the Stars [updated]

Maps to the Stars - poster

Sometimes when watching a movie, I get the feeling that I am seeing a series of scenes strung together with little or no cohesion binding them together.  I’ll often throw out the word “disjointed” to describe such a film.  It’s another Maps to the Stars - text blockway of saying the film lacks a strong narrative thrust; the first two-thirds or so of Maps to the Stars suffered in this way.

It’s a sort of heartless, anti-Grand Canyon, or perhaps a weak cross of The UninvitedMulholland Dr. and The Player.  Inherent Vice kept running through my mind as well.  I found Maps to the Stars driving me, but ultimately it’s a broken picture that can’t put a spark to the kindling it has assembled.  Very much on the fence with this one, because there was a lot I did like.  A marginal thumbs-down; 5/10.

Note: I saw this film in-theater, but it is also available via VOD.

Updated 3/9/15: upgraded to 6/10