Monthly Archives: July 2019

Hollywood Nights

Worlds Collide in Quentin Tarantino’s Wild Ride Thru the Summer of ’69

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
R

An aging movie actor and his faithful stuntman find themselves on a collision course with fate in Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling, deliciously detailed ode to Hollywood’s faded glories.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director’s 10th film, is set in the sweltering summer of 1969—a major moment in time in which the world was churning and turning, if not burning, in several ways. The Beatles were breaking up in England, men were walking on the moon, the war in Vietnam was raging, Woodstock was grooving in upstate New York.

In Hollywood, there’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose box-office star once shone bright in action-packed movies, and as the lead of his own Western TV series. But now Rick is relegated to guest roles, often as a villain, on other people’s prime-time hits—like The F.B.I, Mannix and The Green Hornet—and he soaks his faltering acting career in booze.

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton guest-stars as a “heavy” on the 1960s hit TV show “The F.B.I.”

Since Rick lost his license to the bottle, he’s driven around by his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Cliff lives in a dingy trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In, with his rust-colored pit bull, Brandy. On Rick’s cul-de-sac at the end of Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, just north of Beverly Hills, he’s jazzed to discover that his new next-door neighbors are Polish director Roman Polanski and his wife, aspiring actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

On one of their jaunts around town, Rick and Cliff see a bunch of young hippie chicks, dumpster diving in shorty-short cut-off jeans and halter tops. Rick is disgusted, but Cliff is intrigued. Later, he’ll give one of them a ride. Turns out she lives in a commune with a guy named Charlie—as in Charlie Manson.

You probably already know, or can guess, where all this is headed—to a fateful intersection with the horrific events of Aug. 8, 1969, when Manson’s followers went on a killing spree and slaughtered Sharon Tate and four others in her home. But Tarantino’s never felt strictly beholden to facts. Remember, this is the director who blew up Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Don’t hold him to historical record.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a title that begins like a fairy tale, a fable or a children’s bedtime story, is an ode to a golden, gilded age of Hollywood that Tarantino clearly cherishes—a time and a place that shaped his sensibilities as a filmmaker and a savant of pop culture. Meticulously crafted, masterfully curated and obsessively detailed, it’s like a cinematic sandbox of Tarantino touchstones. Hamlet coexists on the same pop-cultural plane with I Love Lucy, and the soundtrack blares tunes from Deep Purple, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, cheesy commercials and snippets of the era’s movie tunes. There are Nazis, cowboys, jocks, jive talk, G.I.s, and a bloody reckoning.

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Margo Robbie

And what a cast. DiCaprio—making his first film in four years, since The Revenant—and Pitt are both Tarantino veterans. They’re both great here once again, leathery leading men who have no trouble at all hitting a confident stride through the movie’s inventive interplay of reality, fiction, fantasy, revisionist history and buddy comedy. Al Pacino plays a Hollywood producer who tries to convince Rick that his future lies in making spaghetti Westerns in Italy. There’s Damian Lewis as actor Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion; Bruce Dern appears in a scene as George Spahn, the elderly man who allowed Manson and his followers to use his ranch.

Watch closely and you’ll also see Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Clifton Collins Jr., Scoot McNairy, Lena Dunham and Rumer Willis.

But the centerpiece, and the heart, of the whole thing is Robbie, the Australian actress who previously appeared with DiCaprio The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). As Sharon Tate, she has barely a dozen lines in the whole film, but she’s one of the first characters to appear, she’s threaded into it throughout, and she’s vitally important to its overall theme. She floats and glides, all sunshine and smiles, the embodiment of the innocence and beauty and paradise “lost” as the peace and love of the 1960s busted up and came crashing down in a tumultuous end.

Not all stories that begin “Once upon a time…” end happily after ever, as we know. Sometimes they end…well, like Quentin Tarantino wishes they had, especially when he’s in charge of the storytelling.

In theaters July 26, 2019

Advertisements

Bad Trip

Florence Pugh Takes a Nightmare Trek to a Freak-Out Swedish Festival

DSCF8772.RAF

Midsommar
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor & Will Poulter
Directed by Ari Aster
R

What a trip. And I mean that in more ways than one.

When a group of young Americans trek to Sweden to attend a midsummer folk festival at an isolated commune, they find a colorful pageant of quirks and oddities.

In the pastoral village of Hårga, miles and miles from any city, everybody’s smiling, dressed in white, dancing and prancing. The solar light shines 24/7; it’s never dark beneath Sweden’s “midnight sun.” There are hallucinogenic ‘shrooms and drinks to share. People are tooting on flutes, strumming on strings, drumming on drums. It’s hippy-dippy, like a Nordic Bonnaroo.

Skol!

But this is a film by director Ari Aster, who last year gave us the supremely unsettling Hereditary, the hellzapoppin’ horror flick about a family that discovers something terrible and toxic just beneath the surface of its gene pool. There’s something terrible and toxic going on underneath the pastoral surface in Midsommar, too, and it doesn’t take long before it starts to show.

Like Hereditary, this movie is a slow-burning trip into the swirling vortex of a living nightmare, with characters who gradually discover the hallucinatory horrors that have unhinged, and overtaken, their normal world.

MIDSOMMAR

Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor (right)

British actress Florence Pugh anchors the story as Dani, who accompanies her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on the trip, along with his bros, horndog Mark (Will Poulter) and cultural anthropologist Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’ve been invited by their Swedish university friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up as an orphan in the commune and considers it his family. “It’s lots of dressing up,” he says. “Like theater.”

Dani is recovering from an almost unfathomable family tragedy, and her four-year relationship with Christian is showing some troubling signs of wear and tear. In Hårga, Christian forgets her birthday, and he begins flirting with one of the young “locals.”

So guess where all Dani’s grief, loss, anxiety, dread, worry, resentment and anger break loose and come pouring out, in a terrifying torrent of outrage, empowerment and awakening?

On one level, Midsommar is about a couple going through a really bumpy spell—a really bumpy spell, surrounded by eerily eccentric people dressed in white smocks, in the middle of nowhere, where things get creepier, and creepier still, and then really creepier, with every passing minute.

Director Aster masterfully cranks up the tension and the dread with every scene, taking his sweet, suspenseful time. This is horror as high art; there aren’t monsters that jump out of the shadows—for one thing, with no nighttime, there aren’t any shadows. It’s an elegant, deeply unnerving disturbia that scorches dark recesses of the imagination with savage, searing grotesqueries that will linger long after the credits roll (to the tune of the 1960s hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”).

MidSomIMDB_5 (72)

Will Poulter

What are those oversize mallets for? You’ll find out. What’s the deal with that big brown bear in the cage? You’ll find out about that, too. Why can’t anyone go into the triangular-shaped building at the end of the field? The weird drawings, glyphs and pictographs—on the walls, on the ceilings, everywhere? They all tell a tale, one that will play out for our characters, eventually. And that thing sticking up in the garden…is that a—

At the festival, visitors quickly learn a few basics—or at least they should: Don’t pee on the sacred tree. Stay out of the henhouse. No pix of the holy book! Beware the love runes. And go easy on the strained tea, the meat pies and the mushrooms. These villagers have some pretty strict rules, they take their traditions seriously and they believe in a rather rigorous, unforgiving system of punishment.

Who becomes the festival’s new May Queen, after a grueling maypole dance competition? I’ll give you one guess. What happens when old-timers age out of the “circle of life”? Apparently, Hårga doesn’t have retirement communities. And when girls are old enough to have sex, it’s a real community affair—making for one of the most queasy, bizarre, unerotic sex scenes of any film in a long time.

Pugh is on a roll playing strong women. Having previously rocked Lady Macbeth (2016) and Fighting With My Family (2019), in December she’ll star as “little sister” Amy March in Little Women, alongside Meryl Streep, Emma Watson and Laura Dern. Here, as Dani, she transforms tragedy and hurt into something fierce, ferocious and twistedly triumphant.

MIDSOMMAR

Midsommar shows you sights you never thought you might see. It’s a demon’s view of an outer circle of hell, a perverse celebration of darkness in full daylight, and a wickedly warped travelogue that makes good ol’ home sweet home look sweeter than ever.

What a trip, indeed. At a time when people are worried about going to the Dominican Republic, travel agents should be steering people away from places like Hårga. Midsommar takes you on a crazy, what-did-I-just-watch journey into a finely calibrated, macabre mind-scrambler of movie madness. You’ll be thankful you’re only visiting a fictional festival in a fictional place, in a film. But believe me, it will almost certainly revisit you—when the sun finally goes down, in your deepest, darkest nightmares.

In theaters July 3, 2019

Worldwide Web

Spidey finds action, adventure & romance—and learns superheroes don’t take summers off

Zendaya (Finalized)

Zendaya gets a lift from her friendly neighborhood Spider-Man

Spider-Man: Far From Home
Starring Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jon Favreau & Samuel L. Jackson
PG-13

The combative, catastrophic events of Avengers: Endgame, earlier this year, were hard on superheroes. The Marvel casualty count was high, most notably Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Everybody needed a break after that cosmic battle royale, which marked the official finale of the Avengers franchise.

So you can’t blame anyone involved for wanting to chill out. Like Peter Parker (Tom Holland), the teenager who moonlights as Spider-Man, who’s really looking forward to his senior summer trip to Europe. A trek Over There is going to be a nice getaway with his friends, a chance to leave behind his super-suit—and his superhero responsibilities—and hopefully an opportunity, finally, to make a play on his crush, his oddball classmate MJ (Zendaya).

But not so fast. Trouble follows Peter to Vienna, where a massive, roaring water monster rises up out of the canals to wreak havoc—and a strange new character swoops in to defend the ancient city. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the eye patch-wearing former director of the superhero agency S.H.I.E.L.D, gives Peter the lowdown: That flying, fishbowl-helmet-wearing, caped Mysterio is an ally from another dimension who’s arrived to fight the Elementals, cosmic monsters who’ve arrived on our planet to take their powers from air, water, fire and earth.

And since Peter’s already in Europe, and none of the other Avengers are available, Fury recruits Spider-Man for Mysterio’s cause.

Tom Holland (Finalized);Jake Gyllenhaal (Finalized)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Mysterio

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, in his first comic-book-movie role, and you can add this to his long list of “interesting” characters—the gay cowboy of Brokeback Mountain (for which he was Oscar-nominated), the creepy news photographer in Nightcrawler, the obsessive, driven detective of Prisoners, the deeply disturbed novelist in Nocturnal Animals. He brings something special, compelling and sometimes unnerving to every movie in which he appears, and you can rest assured that his Mysterio—a shady character who’s been in the rogue’s gallery of Spider-Man comics for ages—lives up to his name.

As things move across Europe, from Venice to Prague and finally to London, the story builds on two parallel tracks—Spider-Man, Mysterio and the Elementals, and how all that complicates Peter’s plans to hook up with MJ, especially without revealing to her, or anyone else, his secret identity.

Samuel L Jackson (Finalized);Jon Favreau (Finalized)

Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau

Fury has a new suit (all-black) made to help Peter do his Euro web-slinging without anyone knowing he’s really America’s Spider-Man (the locals start calling him the Night Monkey). Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with Stark Industries strongly implies to Peter that the late Tony Stark/Iron Man had high hopes for the young man—and his potential not only as an Avenger, but as a leader. He gives Parker a set of high-tech, multi-billion-dollar “smart” eyeglasses, called EDITH (you’ll laugh when hear what the letters stand for), that make Alexa look like a Tinkertoy.

Marisa Tomei returns as Peter’s Aunt May, with a new romantic interest of her own. J.B. Smoove and Silicon’s Valley’s Martin Starr get chuckles as hapless class chaperons. Ned (Jacob Batalon), Betty (Angourie Rice) and Flash (Tony Revolori) reappear as Peter’s classmates and also help keep the humorous high-school vibe flowing.

There’s action and laughs, danger and derring-do, comedy and close calls—and surprises and shockers and one real golly-whopper of a game-changer, and if I say much more about the movie, readers will hate me.

It may not be quite as polished and punchy and near-perfect as director Jon Watts’ first Spider-Man outing with Holland, Homecoming (2017). But it’s still a fine entry in the post-Avengers MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) franchise, which now looks to other superheroes to carry the torch—and drive the formidable box office. Even though he’s now 23, Holland still manages to convey the youthful angst of one of Marvel’s most popular characters as he grows into the responsibilities that go with his sticky superpowers.

“I didn’t think I was gonna have to save the world this summer,” Peter laments.

Superheroes, Spider-Man learns, don’t get summers off—even when they’re Far From Home.

In theaters July 2, 2019

 

Get Back

Lily James & Himesh Patel Imagine There’s No Beatles

Film Title:  YesterdayYesterday
Starring Himesh Patel & Lily James
Directed by Danny Boyle
PG-13

A struggling musician gets his big break when a freak accident bestows him with a cache of musical gold in this magical mystery tour from the director of Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and 127 Hours.

In Yesterday, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a young Indian-British singer-songwriter who’s been slogging it out for years, singing his tunes on street corners, in coffeehouses and hotel bars. With his dreams of success quietly fading away, he finally tells his faithful manager, Ellie (Lily James), his schoolmate chum who’s now a schoolteacher, that he’s had enough.

Film Title:  Yesterday

Himesh Patel with Lily James

“It’ll take a miracle” to make his career happen now, Jack says. “We’re at the end of our long and winding road.”

That very night, Jack gets his miracle. He collides with a bus while riding his bicycle home—at the very moment of a mysterious, 12-second worldwide blackout, a glitch in the global power grid. When he wakes up in the hospital, he’s mostly OK, but the world is a bit askew: Nobody except him remembers a group called the Beatles, or any of their songs.

Can you imagine? A world that never knew “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? That never swooned to “Something”? Or grooved to “I Saw Her Standing There”?

The blackout has somehow given the entire planet a very specific, very weird musical amnesia—and Jack apparently dodged the Beatles bullet because he was conked out by the collision. It’s as if all those songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo never existed. (There are a few other quirks, too, which Jack will eventually discover, involving a certain globally popular soft drink, the tobacco industry and at least one character in one blockbuster book-to-movie franchise.)

Jack realizes the Fab Four’s vast catalog of already-hits could be a surefire way to reignite his sputtering career. So he starts performing Beatles’ tunes, passing them off as his own, and becomes a megastar.

And no one’s the wiser…at least for a while.

British director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Directing) in 2009, was about another young man—from the slums of Mumbai, India—with an improbable, life-changing, rags-to-riches story. In Yesterday, Boyle sets up a fanciful, almost fairytale-like scenario, inventively digs into one of richest musical treasure troves of all time, and shapes it around a crowd-pleasing story fashioned by screenwriter Richard Curtis, the maestro of British rom-coms (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, About Time).

Film Title:  Yesterday

Ed Sheeran plays himself.

As Jack’s fame increases to mind-boggling proportions, performing Beatles songs like “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need is Love” and passing them off as his own, so does his guilt as a fraud and an imposter. He gets a major-label recording deal, relocates from Liverpool to L.A., tours with Ed Sheeran (who plays himself) and gets a steely manager (Kate McKinnon) who promises him the “great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame.”

Will Jack come clean about the songs that have made him a superstar? Will he change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” at Ed Sheeran’s suggestion? Will he finally realize that there’s someone back in England who’s loved him all these years—and that he’s loved her, too?

The “rom” in this rom-com is in good hands with Patel (a former star of the long-running BBC soap EastEnders, here making his movie debut) and James, whose numerous credits include TV’s Downton Abbey and the movies Cinderella, Baby Driver and Mama Mia! Here We Go Again. They make a great, believable couple, and you yearn for the “long and winding road” to lead their characters into a happy intersection.

The “com” is in ample supply as well. Joel Fry provides a lot of chuckles as Rocky, Jack’s unkempt but enthusiastic roadie. McKinnon brings her precision, chameleon-like Saturday Night Live satirical chops to her role as an icily efficient music-biz insider whose words both soothe and slice. A mega-marketing meeting finds Jack’s ideas for album titles and designs, based on actual Beatles releases, somewhat lacking—the “White Album” has “diversity issues,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is “a lot of words” and Abbey Road is “just a road.”

Film Title:  Yesterday

But Himesh can really sing, putting his capable voice to some 15 Beatles classics, and the movie versions of these familiar tunes—and the way the film shows modern-day audiences going gaga over them—are testaments to the timelessness of the iconic music. The words of “In My Life,” from 1965, reach deep into Ellie’s heart, no matter that they’re more than half a century old. Kids in Russia rock out to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” like it was written just for them. When Jack belts out a punk-rock version of “Help!” from a rooftop stage, the pulsating audience below doesn’t know he’s miserable and singing it as a plea for help—just like John Lennon was when he wrote it.

It’s hard to imagine a world that didn’t grow up with the Beatles, but Yesterday lovingly, respectfully resets the stage of pop culture and does just that, giving us something sweet and charming and fun in exchange—this adorable Brit-centric romantic fantasy romp set in a rock ’n’ roll alt-reality where their music lives anew, life goes on—ob-la-di, ob-la-da—and maybe all you need is love, after all.

In theaters June 28, 2019