California Dreamin’

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Happy QT Day, everyone — that rare and special holiday where moviegoers love a movie made by an unabashed lover of movies. And this time, he’s made a movie about loving the movies.

It’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s clearest love letter to cinema both great and trashy. Spilling with nostalgia and packing more sentiment than his previous 8 films combined, Hollywood is the auteur’s most heartfelt film.

Not that it isn’t bloody. Once it hits its stride the film packs Reservoir Dogs-level brutality into a climax that’s as nervy as anything Tarantino’s ever filmed. But leading up to that, as the filmmaker asks us to look with a mixture of fondness and sadness at two lives twisting toward the inevitable, he’s actually almost sweet.

One of those lives belongs to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a one-time TV Western leading man who’s made a couple of poor career choices and seems to be facing obsolescence. This would mean, domino-style, the obsolescence of his best friend and stunt double with a sketchy past, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

But that’s not the second story, which instead belongs to the real life tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Set in the LA of 1969, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood uses the Manson family crimes (marking its 50th anniversary this August) as the thematic underpinning, a violent metaphor for the end of two eras.

Tarantino being Tarantino, though, he’ll use the movies to make everything better.

From the foot fetish (more proudly on display than ever) to the familiar faces (even one who made the cutting room floor and the credits), the hiply retro soundtrack to the inky black humor, Hollywood hides no Tarantinoism. But the film establishes a timestamp more precisely than any of his other works. And on the whole, he shows unpredicted restraint.

The film moseys through the first two acts, with long, deliberate takes full enough of pop culture as to completely immerse you in time and place. Tarantino again frames sequences with alternating levels of homage, but dials back the dialogue from his usual quick-hitting crispness to measured ruminations often thick with intention.

In strokes stylish and self-indulgent, Tarantino is bidding adieu to halcyon days of both flower power innocence and the Hollywood studio machine. Here, he’s looking back on the Manson murders as a dividing line, and again wondering what might have been.

For us QT aficionados, Hollywood may feel at first like an odd, overlong duck, but its wandering nature gives you ample time to adjust. The cast shines from top to bottom, propelling an entertaining vision of humor and blood and irony and bittersweet nostalgia.

Settle in, trust the driver and enjoy the ride.

Fright Club: Oscar Nominee Skeletons in the Closet

The Oscar nominations are out, and – as is the case every year – the nominees with horror movie skeletons in their closets are fully accounted for. We’ve discussed the great Mark Ruffalo’s not-so-great The Dentist in previous podcasts, so we’ll leave that one in the closet this week. Rooney Mara just missed the cut, as well, with only a cameo in her sister Kate’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. The only problem with Tom Hardy was basically determining which bad horror movie to choose (which basically means Tom Hardy is filling in for George “Oh So Many” Clooney this year.)

Who made the grade? Who might take home an Oscar regardless of this horrific offense in their background? Provocative!

Listen to the whole podcast HERE.

5. House at the End of the Street (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence starred in three films released in 2012 – The Hunger Games (maybe you’ve heard of it?), Silver Linings Playbook (winning her first Oscar), and House at the End of the Street. One of these is not like the others.

Lawrence plays Elissa, high school badass who moves into a secluded new house with her single, doctor mother (Elisabeth Shue). Legend has it, out in the woods behind the house roams the crazy-ass, murdering sister of the cute if damaged neighbor boy, Ryan (Max Thieriot).

House at the End of the Street is a smorgasbord of ideas stolen from better films and filmmakers, although it is not a god-awful mess. Whatever success it has is thanks to Lawrence, whose talent knows no bad screenplay, no clichéd character, and cannot be overshadowed by a tight, white tank top.

4. Blood Creek (2009)

What would be more compelling viewing than Superman Meets Batman? Henry Cavill’s run-in with a Nazi zombie played by Michael Fassbender. Clearly.

A Nazi scientist finds a Viking runestone on a West Virginia farm, where blood sacrifice turns him into an ageless monster, and a weird, runestoney ritual keeps him bound in the farmer’s basement. That guy – that Nazi zombie – is played by Michael Fassbender. Whose mind is blown?

Cavill comes into the picture when his character Evan reunites with long lost and presumed dead brother Victor (Dominic Purcell). Some crazy farmers have had him locked up all this time, taking his blood for god knows what purpose.

Truth be told, Cavill offers a fine turn full of longing and regret, and Fassbender is mesmerizing. The guy cannot turn in a bad performance. He’s completely feral, totally unhinged. It’s like he has no idea that the movie he’s in is so, so, so very bad.

The effects are terrible, the medieval Viking hocus pocus is beyond ludicrous, Purcell cannot act, and the script’s lack of logic actually makes you long for director Joel Schumacher’s better efforts, like Batman and Robin or 8MM.

Seriously, that’s how bad this is.

3. Critters 3 (1991)

Long before Django Unchained, Titanic, or even What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a barely pubescent Leo DiCaprio donned a day-glow t-shirt and a pre-teen scowl to battle Gremlin rip-offs in Critters 3.

They are furry, toothy, ravenous beasts from outer space and, until episode 3, they were content to terrify rural folk. But now they’re in the big city, and (in a clear rip off of the not-quite-as-terrible film Troll), they are pillaging a single apartment building and terrifying all those trapped inside. It’s a comedy, really, the kind with farting furballs and dunderheaded people. Which is to say, one that’s not particularly funny.

Serving up the same derivative comedy/horror pap you can find in one out of every three films made that decade, Critters 3 has a lot of hair in scrunchies, oversized blouses belted over colorful leggings, stereotypes, and actors on their careers’ last legs. And Leonardo DiCaprio, which will forever be the only reason this movie was released to DVD.

2. Minotaur (2006)

Oscar nominee Tom Hardy is truly one of the most talented actors working today, and I’m sure he’s proud of all his films. Except maybe this one.

The film plays like Jabba the Hutt’s palace set in Middle Earth, except in place of Jabba we have Candyman (Tony Todd, whose actual character name is Deucalion, but he’ll always be Candyman to us). Todd is king of the realm, and beneath his castle lives a Minotaur who requires a blood sacrifice. Periodically he rounds up youngsters from Theo’s (Hardy) village and drops them down below.

Hey – just like the Rancor!

Theo secretly takes the place of one of the sacrificial lambs and hits the underground to slay the Minotaur and reclaim his (probably long dead) love. Hallucinations, danger, and stilted medieval dialog await below the castle, while up above, Deucalion wants to get it on with his sister, who wants to get it on with Theo.

The sets are pretty terrible, as are the accents, props, costumes. Oh, and the Minotaur! He’s like an angry Muppet. But Hardy acquits himself reasonably then quickly goes on to better things.

You will, too, but why not indulge?

1. Dead Space (1991)

A distress signal from a research lab on the planet Fabon draws in maverick space cowboy Steve Krieger (Marc Singer, from such superior films as Beastmaster 3) and his cyborg shipmate Tinpan. Oscar nominee and billion-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston plays an infected scientist more sympathetic to the creature he’s created than to the crew this merciless muppet feeds upon.

Jesus God this movie is bad.

The story is utterly nonsensical. No, not that scientists removed from earth have unwittingly created a monster. But why do they feel obligated to share all their secrets with some rando space ranger, why does he take charge of the vessel, why does everyone wear blue unitards underneath their lab coats, who on earth thought Laura Mae Tate could act – well the unanswerable conundrums are legion.

But Cranston tries. He tries to create a character, tries to generate chemistry with other actors, tries to be both villain and victim, tries not to look like a mannequin when the giant mutant tears his head clean off. He totally fails, don’t get us wrong, but damnit, he tries.





BiggerLouderFasterMore

 

by George Wolf

So, how rich do you want to be?

In the opening minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street, 26 year old Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells us making 49 million dollars in a year only pissed him off, because he really had his heart set on a million a week.

How did he ever pay the phone bill?

Belfort, the real life stock market wizard who hit it big in the 1990s and wrote the memoir the film is based on, was more concerned with paying for drugs, hookers, yachts and lavish parties, as well as staying one step ahead of the Feds who were looking to bring him down.

No doubt, the man has an incredible story to tell, and director Martin Scorsese tells it perfectly, uncorking a terrifically frenzied, wickedly funny three hour showcase of unchecked hedonism.

This is no hand-wringing reflection on the wages of sin, just a swaggering, appropriately superficial and completely entertaining lesson in the American dream.

DiCaprio is nothing short of electric, giving perhaps the most can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performance of his career. He takes Belfort from a wide-eyed Wall Street rookie (under the unhinged tutelage of Matthew McConaughey in a priceless cameo) to a drug-addled zillionaire with the perfect blend of vanity and paranoia, always leaving you anxious for his next move.

As Belfort’s partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill again delivers a terrific supporting turn, and one particular scene with he and DiCaprio wrestling over a telephone, both characters locked in a quaalude stupor, is alone worth the price of admission.

Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter strike just the right tone with the story of Belfort’s rise and fall. They invite comparisons to both Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech and Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, then remind you this is another era entirely as DiCaprio breaks the fourth wall, speaking asides directly to the audience as if we were accomplices. Which, of course, we are.

The ridiculous degree to which America worships the uber-rich deserves the riotous, foot on the gas, keep up or get out approach Scorsese employs.  Belfort and his ilk knew only one credo:  bigger, louder, faster, more. That’s exactly what TWOWS delivers.

Sit down, shut up, and get ready for a helluva ride.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 





Gatsby? What Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby

By Hope Madden

A Moulin Rouge spin on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of decadence, longing, and the brutal carelessness of the wealthy could have been awesome. Isn’t that what we kind of expected when Rouge helmsman Baz Luhrmann signed on to direct The Great Gatsby, especially when he unveiled his hip hop and jazz soundtrack? What better way to bridge the gap between eras, to help today’s audience fathom the indulgent lifestyle of the filthy rich in the roaring Twenties?

Somehow, though, Luhrmann can’t quite pull it off.

It isn’t his cast. A more perfect actor-to-character match is hard to imagine. Though some may miss Robert Redford’s stiff, humorless Gatsby, Leo DiCaprio fills the screen with the vulnerability, flash and charm that made the character leap off Fitzgerald’s page. Likewise, the ever wide-eyed Tobey Maguire wanders amiably through Gatsby’s world as though he was born into Nick Carraway’s life.

Not surprisingly, it’s the great Carey Mulligan who almost effortlessly steals the film. Her voice full of money, her languid flirtations both lovely and sad, Mulligan’s marvelous Daisy Buchanan becomes so human, she’s probably more sympathetic than the character deserves to be.

Even with a strong concept, brilliant source material and a perfect cast, Luhrmann stumbles. He just tries too hard. One of the most efficiently written, perfectly crafted novels ever penned, clocking in at barely 300 pages, morphs in to a 143 minute film? Why? Needless complications.

For instance, co-writing the adaptation with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), Lurhmann opens the film on a depressed, alcoholic, insomniac Nick Carraway telling the sad tale of his neighbor Jay Gatsby to his shrink at the sanitarium.

What?

Lame.

But the film’s greatest misstep is probably the overwrought, surprisingly lifeless style. Luhrmann aims to mirror the gaudy, hopelessly shallow glamour of the era. He succeeds in spurts, but his approach is so heavy handed it overwhelms the film. Gimmicky and uninspired, the directorial vision serves mostly to draw your attention away from all that’s right about his picture.

It doesn’t kill the effort so much as undermine it. Luhrmann had something really remarkable to start with. He just needed to be a little more trusting of his cast and source material and a little less self-indulgent.

So, The Great Gatsby remains a lesson in the evils of self indulgence. Too bad, because it could have been a good movie instead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuQhprtLJ3k

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 





For Your Queue: Who’s the smoothest, baddest mutha to ever hit the big screen?

Django Unchained releases this week. Woo hoo! Quentin Tarantino’s first Oscar winning screenplay since Pulp Fiction unleashes a giddy bloodbath that’s one part blaxploitation, two parts spaghetti Western, and all parts awesome. Astonishing performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz might keep you from noticing the excellent turns from Sam Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. That’s why you’ll need to see it again. Lucky for you it’s available on DVD today!

For an homage with a more comical edge, we recommend 2009’s Black Dynamite, a hilarious send-up of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Co-writer Michael Jai White is perfect as the titular hero who is out to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of..who else?…The Man. With character names such as Tasty Freeze and Cream Corn, and B.D. seducing the ladies with “you can hit the sheets or you can hit the streets, ” you can bet you’re last money this flick is superbad, honey.