Once Upon a Time in…Tarantino-land

Quentin Tarantino has a recognizable filmmaking style. A Tarantino film is sure to feature certain actors that he works with regularly like Kirk Douglas or Michael Madsen, quirky conversations in cars, a cool retro setting and violence…lots of graphic violence. Once Upon A Time in…Hollywood has all of that and a talented cast. The story centers around a well-known television actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s career in Westerns is coming to an end and his sidekick and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The setting is 1969 Hollywood in the months leading up to the Manson Family Murders and the scenario is the interactions the two have with each other and with the people they come in contact with — day-to-day life for a television actor and his aide-de-camp.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have a wonderful chemistry. Watching DiCaprio struggling to give an honest performance that impresses his young co-star walks the line between exaggerated and comical to genuinely moving. Brad Pitt is the straight man to DiCaprio’s emotional artist. This is the first film that I’ve seen that lets the actor look his age with close-ups of the lines on his face. He still looks fantastic with his shirt off and Pitt exudes an easy charm and warmth that’s sexy.

In his ninth film, Tarantino has finally let his foot fetish out to dance. Each character is introduced through their footwear. Rick Dalton confident in cowboy boots, Cliff Booth in moccasins, our young starlet Sharon Tate skips into the scene in white gogo boots and there are lots of bare feet for our hippy girls. It’s a quick way to establish the characters. Of course the actress would wear fashionable footwear and Pitt’s stunt double, who’s so chill and secure in his masculinity, can rock moccasins…but it seems out of character for Margot Robbie’s character to take off her boots and have bare feet in a movie theater. And maybe the young hippy chick, played by the luminous Margaret Qualley, would remove her sandals and prop her feet up on the dashboard of the car but it looks awkward and lasts too long in the shot.

There is a tension to the story as the characters go about their lives when the audience anticipates the horrific murders that will shatter their world. Tarantino plays with this tension having Kirk Douglas narrate the timeline on the night of the killings. But first there’s a lots of conversations and driving in cars and a trip to Italy and a new wife…some of it interesting, much of it feels like an excuse for Tarantino to get to create fake movie posters. Having established Sharon Tate as this lovely young woman, now pregnant, and her hip friends hanging out at their home, the tragedy of lost lives will be even greater. Tarantino plays with expectations and then delivers on the graphic violence he’s known for.

You can almost feel Tarantino’s glee at shooting an extended scene of young people being killed in such gruesome manner: close-ups of a dog crunching down on an arm, the dog dragging a body across the floor, a young woman getting her face smashed repeatedly into multiple surfaces and the grand finale of the flame thrower used to torch a still twitching murderous woman. For Tarantino fans, I think the violence is so over-the-top and gratuitous that it becomes comical. As someone who finds violence, especially against women and children, very upsetting — this was torture for me to watch.

If you’re a Tarantino fan, the two-hour running time will be just perfect. You can enjoy his imaginative camera moves and recreation of that time period with cameos by some talented actors. There are brilliant bits of dialogue and lots of cool cars to enjoy. If you’re squeamish over the violence, may I suggest you leave in the long set-up for the killers to make it up the driveway? You’ll have plenty of time to wander the lobby and return for a brief touching moment between Pitt and DiCaprio…and you won’t have to endure the brain scar from the violence.

Drinks with Films Rating: 2 blended margaritas served in retro margarita glasses (out of 5)

Five Big Summer Blockbusters — Part One

Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer movie season of big blockbuster hits featuring super-size budgets, big name actors and huge spectacles.  This summer audiences can look forward to super heroes, sequels in 3D, and thundering soundtracks.  Geared toward the younger audience, many of whom are just getting out of school for the summer, this year, the “tent pole” films started almost a month before Memorial Day with “Oblivion” (April 18) and “Iron Man 3” (May 1), to take advantage of those anticipated summer dollars.

Sadly, “Oblivion” had little chance to garner an audience before “Iron Man 3” dominated the screens (a full 10 screens in San Francisco on it’s opening weekend!) and then each weekend featured another huge opening: whiz, bang, dazzle, here’s “The Great Gatsby”, zoom, careen, crash, here’s “Star Trek: Into the Darkness” and if you’re in one of the 75 cities chosen, there’s the 50th Anniversary of  “Cleopatra”, restored and released to the trumpets of triumph after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2013.

3D, or not to 3D; that is the question…  And the answer is as personal as the film you choose to see.  Do you enjoy roller-coaster rides, play video games or crave a more immersive film experience?  Then 3D is a good choice.  With the advances in 3D glasses (and IMAX as well), there is a wonderful experience to be had if the film was crafted with the purpose of screening in 3D.  Do you get headaches easily, seasickness keeps you off small boats and you like your films uncluttered by the bells and whistles that can distract from the story?  Well then…stay away from 3D!   iI you find it’s the only available option, sit in the far back center where you’ll be less distracted by the 3D-effects.

Here’s my experience of two of the summer kick-off films; “Cleopatra” and “The Great Gatsby”.  Part Two will discuss the science fiction/fantasy films; “Star Trek”, “Iron Man” and “Oblivion”.

bilde“Cleopatra” — 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Yes, even “Cleopatra” can be considered a summer blockbuster!  Not only does it feature an astronomical budget of $44 million (equivalent to $330 million by today’s standards), there’s the big stars and of course, the studio was desperate for the audiences to be enthralled with the spectacle in hopes of recouping their losses.


There were at least 20 people at the matinee screening I attended, mainly older couples with a few young gay couples and a smattering of single men and women.  Once the lights dimmed and the music began, there was an uncomfortable wait;  there was no picture screening–just the soundtrack!  But no one left their seats and the film finally began.  Given that it’s a four-hour extravaganza, it’s good that there was a fifteen minute intermission!  Still, many people came and went throughout the screening.   I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the audience returned after the intermission.

The costumes and sets are amazing and the set pieces: war ships in the harbor and Cleopatra’s grand entrance to Rome, are astounding!  Particularly when you know they aren’t “CGI” but were filmed with thousands of extras, all in costume.  There is one amusing gaff:  in an opening scene of Richard Burton surveying the battlefield, one of the “dead” soldiers looks away from the camera and many of the “fallen” are clearly clutching the spears they’ve been “stabbed with” — between their arms and their sides!

Even now, 50 years later, Elizabeth Taylor’s star power can be felt eminating from the screen.  Her costumes are intricate layers of fabric and jewels with headpieces and sashes that look cumbersome and heavy yet she moves with grace.   Even rolling from a rug on her backside, she rises like a queen.  If the battle scenes and political power mongering grow tedious, there is always another grand scene to fascinate.  Roddy McDowell is a delight in his role as simpering, power-mad Octavian and it’s amazing to think of his 50+ years in Hollywood.   Would “Cleopatra” fascinate the youth of today?  I think not.  It’s too long and the acting and fake scenery are dated — but it is nice to have a film with a strong female leader!  Cleopatra may die in the end, but she does so at her own hand  — and with the grace and regal authority she deserves.

Rating: 1 glasse of Greek wine

“The Great Gatsby” — Director: Baz Luhrmann Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton

In a summer of sequels (this is the Summer of “3” : Hangover 3, Iron Man 3, even “Before Midnight” is the third in a series!), comic book movies, and science fiction and fantasy, Baz Luhrmann gifts us with this glittery Art Deco jewel of “The Great Gatsby”.  Here is an opulent tale of obsessive love, outlandish parties and the young man who fascinated them all.  The film opens as the  camera drifts across the water through the falling snow into a room.  It’s a sanitarium where the soul-sick alcoholic, Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, sits looking ragged and distraught.  This is a departure from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel but having Nick narrate the story makes sense —  he’s the one  writing the book about Jay Gatsby.  Starting slowly with this interview scene gives us a chance to get to know Nick.  Tobey Maguire has sad expressive eyes, but he’s not believable as the brilliant young man who falls sway to the money speculation of New York in the 1920’s.  He seems like an outsider which fits the role but brilliant enough to teach himself the stock market?  Boyish, yes, but brilliant?  It’s too much of a stretch.

Another misstep in this otherwise charming retelling of Gatsby’s story, is the introduction of our star, the dewy, delightful Daisy.  Baz Luhrmann has the camera follow Nick through the Buchanan mansion and it’s as if he’s joined a choreographed dance: butlers whisk open doors, waiters march through with gleaming trays, Tom (Joel Edgerton) hurls a football — and then himself — at Nick.  As the doors crash open, long drapes envelope Nick in a sea of white.  The curtains billow in and out, revealing an arm languidly raised and Daisy (Carey Mullligan) dreamily looks coquettishly over the couch.  Nick, drowned out by the soundtrack and obscured by the drapes, describes how everyone in town is pining for her company.   Another figure rises sharply from the couch, briskly straightening her clothes.  In what feels like an erotic glance toward Daisy, Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) lights her cigarette.  Her character is clearly coded as lesbian with her interest in sports, masculine-cut attire and short hair and Nick claims to be afraid of her.  Then the room is once again enveloped in billowing curtains.  Like many scenes in the film, it’s lovely to look at but distances the audience from the characters–in this case, literally.  It’s distracting and feels like a lead-up to a song and dance number that never materializes.  We haven’t met Gatsby yet, and already we’re both distracted and distanced.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a wonderful Gatsby.  The Golden Boy who throws the lavish parties hoping to entice his love to his home, Leonardo DiCaprio plays him with equal parts swagger, charm and boyish neediness.  One moment his relationship with Nick is one of boasting as he dazzles him with his deceit.  In the next moment, he’s sitting like a schoolboy fretting over his hair in Nick’s tiny living room, grief-stricken that Daisy will never come to tea.  Isla Fisher is also a stand-out in her role as Tom Buchanan’s lover.  Her brazen performance is bawdy.  She’s brassy and bossy, but with an underlying desperation.   She looks out the window in despair as Tom drives off;  abandoning her to her illness and her mad husband.  Isla Fischer’s performance gives the tragedy of the story’s ending a deeper resonance.

Much has been made of Baz Luhrmann choice of modern music over some of the scenes, and certainly, the soundtrack is a major part of the film.  “The Great Gatsby” is almost a musical; there are multiple scenes of performers singing and dancing, our leads dance together, and when Gatsby drives his long yellow car, it seems choreographed to the music.   More distracting than the type of music used however, is the volume of the soundtrack in the scenes.  From music drowning out the dialogue, to a party that seems to have had it’s party music on mute, the sound mixing is all over the place.  The costumes are amazing, the sets glamorous and though Tobey Maguire seems an odd choice for Nick, the rest of the acting is top-notch.  “The Great Gatsby” is not only great fun; it also captures that wistful feeling from the book; a bittersweet nostalgia for a another time and another world.

Rating: 3 glasses of champagne