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Terrible Reviews: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


I love Tarantino movies.

Which is why what I’m about to say is gonna hurt.

I saw Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs within about a week of each other when I was in high school, under the assurances of my actor friend that the movies were “brilliant” and “hilarious” and all the good things, and like a good friend desperate to fit in I dutifully loved these movies in all their fast-talking, self-aggrandizing, slow-mo-walking, perversity-loving and gratuitous-gore-worshiping glory.

I say that with cynicism but I really did love the movies, and for better or worse, they taught me a lot about movies, and especially about writing; I think there’s more than a little bit of a Tarantino echo in my back-and-forth often-anticipating-what-the-other-guy-is-thinking kind of dialogue. (Or maybe I’m just being kind to myself; always an option.)

Anyway, I loved Tarantino in high school but pretty much left it at that until Kill Bill came out, and while I don’t think that one (well, two) reaches the pinnacle of Pulp Fiction for sheer filmmaking swagger, it’s a heck of a good time and hey SAMURAI SWORDS EVERYWHERE and that’s kind of awesome. Not for nothing, too, it sort of establishes a trope in his movies of the “avenging angel” style of heroine, which is a nice flourish, so I went ahead and loved those too.

Then it was Inglorious Basterds and it felt like we were back to master-class form again, with the masterful opening scene and the bloody inspired performance of Christoph Waltz and the avenging angel in full fiery glory.

Some years further on, then, there was Django Unchained, and while I only saw it once (and consequently don’t remember it as well), it felt very much like a natural addition to his catalog: There’s Waltz again killing it, and oh man here comes Leonardo diCaprio killing it, to say nothing of Jamie Foxx killing it (and everybody on screen), and there’s blood and gore and uncomfortable topics right in your face and COWBOYS YEEHAW.

And it’s like, you know, this Tarantino guy, he seems to know what he’s doing.

And then we get Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Here is where the minor spoilers kick in, so, y’know, heads up and whatever.)

And, look, I’m as skeptical as the next guy. All kinds of things can affect your reading of a book or your viewing of a film: the particular circumstance of your life at the time of the reading, who you’re with when you see it, heck, the leftover pizza you had for dinner before you turned it on. Anything can throw the experience off, can make things strike you in a different way, if not entirely wrong.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here.

My wife and I were super bored by the movie for the entire first half. I’ve never felt bored by Tarantino before, and here, I felt bored. We’ve got Rick, the washed-up movie star, and Cliff, his stunt double, trying to figure out their way in a Hollywood that’s leaving them behind, and … well, that’s about it. Rick bumbles around and Cliff is a badass but there’s no particular sense of where they’re going, no particular sense that they’re actively adapting to this new world, just that they’re scraping by within it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Not every movie has to have blood and guts and a streak of searing-hot vengeance through its core to hold my interest, but over two decades, I’ve developed a series of expectations for a Tarantino movie, and it ain’t this. It was well done, mind you, and had all the clever dialogue and stuff you want from a Tarantino movie. In fact, taken out of context, each scene could probably be considered masterful, but as a whole, the first half is a snore.

And then we have the second half, which just feels like we were cruising along having a good old time (albeit a boring one) on a peaceful country highway, then suddenly detoured onto a bumpy side road leading up to a satanic church in the woods. The second half feels entirely disconnected from the first in every way except the presence of the main characters; it’s almost as if the second half of the movie is telling its own story independent from the first half.

And that’s … just … not great. As an audience member, I felt like my time had been wasted. And as somebody who thinks a lot about entertainment (specifically, about how an audience feels about their entertainment), wasting your audience’s time feels like the closest thing to an unforgivable sin.

The climax of the film is as unconnected to the rest of the film as the second half is to the first, and it’s nothing to do with either of the two protagonists’ struggles. nor does it test them in any way that challenges who they are or what the rest of the story has taught them. It’s almost as if Tarantino had almost finished the film, then remembered, “oh crap, I’m Tarantino, I’ve got to have some ultraviolence in here somewhere” and that was it.

Seriously. Brad Pitt and his trusty dog go insane on a band of would-be murderers while Leo is zoning out in his pool out back. There’s a flamethrower involved. It’s awesome. But it’s almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. I mean, in Pulp Fiction, you get Jules and Vincent shooting people up left and right, you get Bruce Willis slicing up a serial rapist, but it’s all in service to the narrative. In Kill Bill 1 (the better one), yeah, you get a twenty-minute long orgy of blood and blades as Beatrix slices her way through an entire gang of Japanese mobsters, but the whole movie has been building up to that moment. Ditto when Shoshanna locks a gaggle of Nazis in a theater to burn them alive, ditto when Django shoots up a plantation.

In Hollywood, the antagonists stumble into Leo’s home on a whim.

It’s just so slapdash and haphazard. DiCaprio is crushing his performance, but to what end? Rick doesn’t really go anywhere, emotionally. Pitt’s performance is in the same vein. He trounces Bruce Lee in a sparring match early in the film, so when he curb stomps the killers at the end, we’re just like … duh. Of course he did. Margot Robbie is here, too, and her purpose in the film is … what, exactly?

Contrast that to Pulp Fiction, where you have these two hitmen at a crossroads. They go on a routine hit and it goes sideways; a goon with a gun gets the drop on them and unloads. Shoulda killed ’em. Doesn’t. Samuel L. Jackson takes this as a sign from God and decides to reform his life. John Travolta reads absolutely nothing into it and keeps on mobstering. Later in the film, the two have diverged. Both characters come to meet with other obstacles — dangerous people at the end of their rope — and their actions earlier in the film have consequences. Jackson, with all his serene understanding that he’s on a new path, uses his calm to save not only his own life but the lives of his partner and several others in a restaurant holdup. Travolta goes on from there to get killed by a washed-up boxer because he’s still just blundering around with his guard down. There’s a setup and a payoff. And there is *nothing* like this in Hollywood.

This film is just lost as a story, and it’s frustrating, because as I said some 1200 words ago, I love Tarantino. I love his movies and his characters and the clever way he puts things together and the way little things in the plot pay off. And ALL OF THAT is missing, here.

The film is pretty, the dialogue is sharp, and the individual performances are good, bordering on great. But as a whole, the thing falls on its face like a decapitated Japanese mobster.

Final Verdict: Two out of Five butcher knives shoved into Brad Pitt’s hip.


Terrible Reviews: Spoiler-Free Thoughts on “Solo”


Solo!

Here’s a few non-spoilerific thoughts on the new movie. Not that you need them.

I mean, you could basically write your own review of the thing without even seeing it at this point, right? You look at reviews for The Last Jedi and it becomes pretty clear to you that people decided to hate it or love it often for reasons entirely outside of what happens on film, and I’d wager the same could be said for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Something-something jaded review here.

Blah-blah-blah overdone tropes here.

Yadda-yadda cashing in on nostalgia here.

You can say all of those cynical things, and you’d probably be right. The onslaught of Star Wars since the new saga was announced several years ago has gone from a refreshing shower to an outright deluge and now, maybe, probably, to a stagnating pool of scummy water that the waterlogged soil can’t drain away anymore. They’re putting out a new film a year, and the new films are formulaic, even if they’re sometimes clever (or maybe TOO clever) about how they thwart those formulas. (I’ll circle back to that.)

I mean, you could say the same for Marvel’s offerings, too, only more so — they’re dropping more than a movie a year, after all.

It’s true, though. The tropes are overdone. Young Han is cocky and brash, the cyborg partner is plucky and sassy and slightly malfunctional, the mentor is grizzled and grumpy and disapproving … on and on down the list. And the franchise is no doubt cashing in on nostalgia, more so I think with Solo than with Rogue One. Han Solo, after all, is basically the most universally liked character from the original trilogy, and his untimely (or all too timely, depending on your point of view ) sendoff in The Force Awakens left some fans wanting more. Everybody loves Han, so let’s give them more Han. More is better, right? Right???

Put aside all that. The problem with the recent slew of movies and people’s reactions to them is a failure to meet the movies on their own terms. Star Wars Owes You Nothing, after all. And loading down a film with expectations — be they positive or negative! — is a good way to short-circuit an objective viewing of a film. (“xxx will never measure up to the original” is a common refrain, here.) You saddle that donkey with all your personal hopes and dreams and “I woulda done”s, and it’s no wonder the thing drowns before it gets halfway across the river.

Meet the movie on its own terms, though, and it’s fine. No, not awesome. No, not terrible. It’s fine. Han is, appropriately, cocky and brash, as we expect. His mentor, as we expect, is grizzled and grumpy. And his assorted cohorts are equal parts swindlery, wise-cracky, and heart-of-goldy. It’s all fine.

But what it ain’t is a necessary addition to the series. There’s nothing, in other words, in this two-and-a-half hour adventure that you can’t live without — no revealed knowledge, no breathtaking secret that changes everything we thought we knew about the galaxy’s favorite scamp. You end the movie in the same place as you started it — knowing that Han is a swaggering, boastful nerf-herder headed to Tattoine for a rendezvous with destiny.

Which is sort of the curse of the prequel, really. You already know how the story ends, the adventure is in getting there — and for me, the problem is that there’s nothing really shocking along the way. Han starts the movie as a thief, and, well … he ends it as a slightly more jaded thief.

Problem is, there’s nowhere to be surprised in there, not really, except for a couple of (actually rather lovely) reversals that are really only delays on the payoffs you know are coming. Han tells us in the original series how he won the Falcon — how much do we gain by watching it happen? The argument can be made that we’re better off when we get to fill in the details ourselves rather than being led around by the nose, the way this film seems to do. “Look here at this thing you already suspected, isn’t it nifty?” “And this, you knew there would be something like this in the story; well, here it is.” “Yep, the Falcon has always broken down at inopportune times but it always comes through in the end; why wouldn’t it do the same when it’s new?”

In that way, then, Solo is less about telling you a new story and more about affirming things you already know.

Here’s the thing, though: affirming your suspicions is a thing this movie does really well. The performers are all excellent in their roles (Daniel Glover’s portrayal of Lando, in particular, is bloody inspired), the story clips right along at that breakneck pace Disney has decided Star Wars should run at (seriously, I watched A New Hope after TFA came out and it’s basically comparing a teenager on a Saturday morning to a spooked cheetah), and the visuals and the action sequences are just beautiful.

Is Solo a life-altering piece of cinema? Hell no. But it ain’t a bad way to spend a few hours and a few bucks.

 


Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)


There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

Related image

Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.


Terrible Reviews: Black Panther


black_panther_head

Black Panther is probably the smartest movie Marvel has made yet.

We saw it the other night. I’m writing this knowing that my review is going to be terrible, because I loved the movie so much. It’s too much fun, it’s too well done, it’s too socially savvy, for me to give it a thrashing. I spent most of the movie grinning like a maniac. So rather than “The Good, The Bad, The WTF,” I’ll just focus on a few points that the movie executes like an olympic figure skater on uppers, hopefully without spoiling too much.

So here’s what’s awesome about it.

black panther GIF by Marvel Studios

The Characters

The film is beautifully cast with characters to love, and to love to hate, all around. Sterling K. Brown turns everything he touches to gold. We didn’t even know he was in the movie when we bought our tickets — and he’s just a minor part. Here you’ve got the likes of juggernauts like Forrest Whitaker, playing a damaged prime minister type; Angela Bassett, the widowed queen and mother to the new king — and these, again, are only the supporting cast.

If you don’t leave the theater loving Shuri (Letitia Wright) and quoting her (“What are THOOOOOOOSSSSEEEEE??”), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t leave the theater conflicted as hell over the fate and the idealism of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (horrible name but fantastic villain), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t pump your fist and grit your teeth every time Danai Gurira’s Okoye puts the smack down on some hapless dude, there may be something wrong with you.

Of course, the titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is dashing and conflicted and awesome. He’s believable and sympathetic, and he anchors the picture admirably. But the standout really is the supporting cast; especially:

The Women

Okay, so Black Panther is the figurehead, but the movie is less about the single superhero and more about the network propping him up. Of course, they can’t call the movie Black Panther’s Support Group, but trust me when I say that the real heroes of this movie are the women. Shuri is the Q to the Panther’s James Bond: her inventions have BP on the cutting edge of keeping bad guys down. His first lieutenant, Okoye, doles out enough beatdowns on her own to deserve her very own film. And his mother, the former queen, is the glue holding her family — and the country — together in the face of a series of national crises.

They don’t just support the hero, they do virtually all of the heavy lifting. If not for the women, the Panther would be beaten, killed or captured in the first twenty minutes, movie over.

black panther trailer GIF

But what’s refreshing about the way this movie treats its women is that there’s not a single moment of condescension or disbelief that the world of Black Panther works in this way. Of course Shuri is the head of technology in Wakanda; why shouldn’t she be? Of course Okoye is the first lieutenant — just look at her fight. (There’s a fantastic moment where one of the male warriors realizes he’s about to have to fight with Okoye, and he is visibly shook.) There’s not a whisper of any futzing about with the “but she’s a girl!” nonsense — from the people in the immediate circle, anyway — they just are what they are.

The Villain

So it’s sort of an understood rule in storytelling that a good villain can’t be a mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world evil bastard in black. The villain has to be sympathetic, their drives must make sense, there must be an element of there but for the grace of God go I. Every character, and every villain, is the hero of their own story, after all.

But unlike most movies, this villain is particularly problematic. Because if you flip the script around, and imagine that the story we follow is not the story of T’Challa, but is instead the story of Killmonger (god, what a stupid name), the story works just as well — just with a different ending. Killmonger’s goals are entirely sympathetic, and are particularly troublesome for T’Challa: so much so that the king actually has to change the way he thinks about the world.

Killmonger fights for what he knows to be right. He’s a villain only because of the forced perspective the film gives us. That’s good storytelling. And Michael B. Jordan’s performance is really something to behold.

The Social Side

It’s hard to read about the movie without hearing about the social commentary, but what I really love about Black Panther — why I think it’s Marvel’s smartest movie yet — is that the commentary is less sledgehammer, more dagger in your ribs. It’s so easy for movies “with a message” to come at you, guns blazing, with everything but a flashing neon THIS IS IMPORTANT marquee over the screen. Black Panther doesn’t do that. In fact, if you prefer your superhero movies divorced from social commentary, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Black Panther just as much. The meta level is just another layer in a billionty-layer cake of goodness: ruminate on it if you like, ignore it if you don’t. The movie will be just as sweet either way.

But assuming you’re like me and you don’t mind — you actually prefer — to think about what a story is trying to tell you, here’s a taste: Wakanda isn’t a backwater country in deepest Africa. It’s America. Technologically advanced beyond every other nation, yet mired (and maybe even hamstrung) by archaic traditions and religions. Turns a blind eye to the suffering of untold millions across the world in the name of self-preservation. Righteously nationalistic.

Then: the nation finds itself in turmoil when an outsider unseats the king and threatens to blow up the status quo. The second half of the movie is about the power struggle and the existential question of whether the country and its people must adhere to tradition and law or whether they must do what they believe is right.

So … yeah. Let me not spoil things any further.

The Verdict

Look, I love a good superhero movie. I even enjoy a bad superhero movie (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman, which I did not hate). But even a guy like me, who theoretically cannot get enough superhero movies, is sort of suffering from superhero movie fatigue these days. Pretty soon we’ll be on our 5th Spider-Man reboot and Netflix will be launching its original series about Wolverine’s cousin’s daughter’s step-sister. It’s hard to ignore that Marvel is milking the current cash cow for all it’s worth.

But this is a movie worth getting milked over. It’s not just a good superhero movie, it’s a great superhero movie — and a darn good movie, whether it’s about a superhero or not.

black panther marvel GIF

Do yourself a favor and see it.

Final verdict: Five out of five cooler-than-you salutes.

All images are obviously the property of Marvel.


Terrible Reviews: LaLa Land


When was the last time you saw a film that rearranged your view of reality?

My wife and I saw LaLa Land last night, and as the kids say these days, I am shook. SHOOK.

I can’t do my typical review on this film: the good, the bad, the wtf. I’m reeling from it, like I stepped into the ring with Ali for kicks. I’m seeing stars, occasionally blacking out, chasing the dancing elephants into every corner where they evaporate in ice-cream flavored puffs of smoke.

I loved it. Absolutely loved it. To put it in perspective — this coming from a guy who hates everything — not only am I satisfied in having paid extra to see it in the theater, but I immediately rushed home to buy the soundtrack. Granted, the soundtrack is currently on sale at Google Play for only $8, but still — I gave them my money twice in one day. TWICE.

Okay. Let me focus and try to tell you why you need to pony up and see this movie.

The visuals.

From the striking primary colors of the protagonist and her cohorts at the beginning of the movie to a stunning Fred-Astaire-esque soft-shoe against the backdrop of the cosmos, this is a movie working on your subconscious wonder center with every shot. Not since Jet Li’s Hero have I been so struck by the use of color and composition in a film. It’s stunning. Absolutely stunning.

The music.

It’s usually the job of the music in a movie to vanish into the background, to hover in that liminal space where you don’t really notice it but it still works on your subconscious. To surreptitiously set the mood while fading featurelessly into the background. But you can’t do that with a musical; the music has to be front-and-center, the dancing elephant in the three-ring circus.

And here, the music has to pull double — or maybe even triple — duty. One of the two protagonists, as a jazz pianist, lives and breathes and dies with the music. So it’s not only the lifeblood of the form of the film, it’s an integral part of the plot as well. Luckily, the musical score delivers like Domino’s. The leitmotif is in full force and the melodies are magical. It’s catchy and touching and powerful and it makes you want to listen to it again, which leads me inexorably to …

The feels.

I have a dirty secret to confess. I’m a theatre teacher, and I don’t get particularly sussed over musicals.

I know, I know. I can’t stand Grease, I would be fine without Les Miserables, and I barely bat an eye over Phantom of the Opera. I’m just not moved by the genre.

But this movie moved me. And, as has been well-documented here at this blarg, I hate everything. Yet, somehow, I found myself watching this movie, rapt, oftentimes with tears threatening to fall, as the two protagonists swirled around each other like binary stars in orbit.
I’ll concede here that I’ve been known to bust a tear at kids’ movies. Something about having kids myself makes me susceptible to leaking from my eyeholes when the emotional stuff starts. Mufasa falls into the ravine and Simba nuzzles at his lifeless corpse? Grab the tissues. Bing-Bong leaps from the wagon so that Joy can escape the ravine of oblivion? Definitely something in my eye.
But despite the decidedly lower stakes in La La Land — no dead parents, no shattered innocence, no longing for the simpler days of childhood — I found myself looking skyward and thinking of kittens, lest my wife glance over and catch me wiping at my face. The film is touching and heartfelt and, despite its whimsy, genuine.
The Verdict.
I could go on about how awesome the movie is. The freaking adorable tap dance number. The shameless homage to 80’s new wave music (complete with keytar). The (yes, I’ll mention it again) suspended-in-air dance among the stars as the couple falls head-over-heels in love with each other, and I fell right along with them.
All of that is secondary, really. What shocked me about the movie was this: I can’t recall the last time a movie jolted me so hard, so completely out of reality, as this movie did. For all of its two hours, I was literally transported. Pulled forcibly from the humdrum of the world I know and flung into the whimsical rollick that is La La Land. It’s just what the doctor ordered for a country desperately in need of a distraction; no surprise it’s up for so many awards.
This movie cracked through my carbon-reinforced, unemotional shell and inspired me. And if you can get past the super-campy opening number, it’ll inspire you, too.
Rating:
Four out of four lovingly polished Miles Davis EPs.
(If you’ve seen it, by all means, let me know what you thought. I’m still trying to rearrange my worldview around this movie.)

 


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