“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” Film Review

“The Hollywood that never was, and always will be” in this QT film that subverts expectations and delivers in spades. The ninth film from writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant historical fiction inspired by real events and people in film/television and Hollywood history. If you’ve been to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you’ll recognize the opening quote. For the cinephile or film/TV/Hollywood history geek, this film will sweep you up in the story and setting; however, general audiences may find it difficult to connect to the otherwise fantastic story. Thankfully, the performances from the three leads DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie and strong supporting cast will keep you entertained for the rather lengthy runtime regardless if historic Hollywood is of interest to you or not. The characters also add a high degree of relatability, which may come of a surprise to audiences. While the film kept me engaged the entire time, I can see where more casual movie fans–even fans of QT–may find the first act sluggish. While the first two third of the film may not seem like a traditional QT film, the third act (specifically the showdown) goes full on Tarantino! If you pay particularly close attention to the view outside of the windshield of Dalton’s car, you may even notice the Alto Nido apartment building, that Joe Gillis lived in, in Sunset Boulevard. Suffice it to say, if you are up on your Hollywood history, you will find lots of Easter Eggs and references to film and television of that post studio system era. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood represents a brilliantly entertaining homage to what is largely considered the end of the Golden Age in Hollywood.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood visits 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, as TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore. Concurrent to their struggle to find their place in a Hollywood that is changing so rapidly, the film also follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski as the fateful night of August 8, 1969 approaches. The ninth film from the writer-director features a large ensemble cast and multiple storylines in a tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s golden age.

I went into this film with moderately high expectations, which can be dangerous, but the film met and surpassed any preconceived notions that I had. Despite the more than 2.5hr run time, I could have easily watched it for another half hour. Compared to his other eight films, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is, what I would consider, to be the most accessible of his films; however, some of the magic of the film will be lost on those whom are not film/TV and Hollywood history geeks. And it’s as if QT knew this, so he wrote two incredibly entertaining fictional characters (Dalton and Booth) in this mostly historically accurate setting. Our third lead is based on the real person Sharon Tate married to then respected director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). The three lead performances captivate the audience and keep you along for the ride as the tension increases as we approach August 8, 1969 (the night the Manson cult murdered a pregnant Tate along with four of her friends) on the quit street Cielo Drive.

For the first 2/3 of the film, you may be wondering if it’s even a QT film. And that’s because he subverts his usual approach to plot and character development, gritty violence, and non-linear storytelling is largely absent in the film. Students of QT’s work (even if you aren’t a huge fan despite respecting his cinematic work like myself) will pick up on the QT tropes and moments, but they will likely go missed by general audiences. Interestingly, everything that QT loves about old Hollywood is in this film, but never becomes the focus. Rather the setting, characters, and plot devices work to provide context, effective development of character and plot, and immersing the audience in the changing world that was Hollywood 1969. The historic events of August 8, 1969 (and other times, dates, movies referenced in the film) are an important element in the film to ground this fictional story in history; but it’s the fictional foreground of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth that is the A-Story that moves the action plot along. Although the film does contain the character of the now infamous Roman Polanski, the focus remains on his wife, the late Sharon Tate; however, QT does an excellent job of separating the man from the art, and the pre-pedo versus post-pedo. Essentially, he is a means to an end. Horror fans will love hearing Rosemary’s Baby referenced and movie musical fans may notice the giant movie poster ad for Funny Girl outside of Columbia Pictures

What makes the characters of Dalton and Booth relatable to audiences is conflict, both internal and external, faced by these two men whom are aging out of and find their career tool bags are increasingly not compatible with the changing landscape of Hollywood at the time. The foreground takes us back to when the American Western genre of Film and TV was on its way out, which leaves Dalton and Booth an icon of the past. Come to think of it, they are experiencing a small degree of what Norma Desmond experienced in Sunset Boulevard. The struggle to find one’s place in the world, when the very foundation upon which you built your life and career is cracking and breaking a part, is something with which we can all identify. You can apply this to career or even romantic relationships (if you’re still single like me), you feel that no matter how hard you try or what you do to change that you cannot realize what you desire. There is a real pain that exists when looking upon a world that doesn’t want what you have to offer anymore, and you can only hang your laurels on the past for so long before it becomes a hindrance to living in the now. Booth represents a person whom experiences prejudice based upon past incidents, and hindered from being able to learn from the past and grow as a person. Both characters use alcohol as a coping mechanism, but we learn that dulling your senses to the past does not allow you to address it, learn from it, and develop a plan of action moving forward. Adapt or get left behind. Both Leo and Brad deliver outstanding performances that should catch the attention of The Academy when it comes time to nominate. There exists two layers to the performances because they are actors playing actors playing characters. Using the American Western as the conduit through which to explore a disappearing past was an excellent choice that also allowed for QT to work with a favorite genre of his. For a retrospective on the Western, check out Classic Movie Musts.

While QT has received negative criticism for his (what some have considered) underuse of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, I don’t find that to be the case. Her character may not have been given a significant amount to do in the film, but she is not the central character, despite being an important part of the overall story. She portrays a real life actress and soon-to-be new mother who’s promising career was cut short by the Manson cult. When she is on screen, she truly lights it up with an infectious energy and delivers an excellent performance/portrayal in those moments. Whereas she may not have been the central character, in the scenes that we do see her, she is given important direction and reminds us that Sharon Tate was more than the late wife of Polanski or a murder victim, but was a person with dreams, friends, and a life outside of her career. For fans of Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers, you’ll recognize that it’s the movie that is referenced when we are given the story of how Tate came to leave Jay Sebring to become engaged to Polanski during the filming of that movie in the UK. Her story is the historical background upon which the fictional foreground of Dalton and Booth was built. Furthermore, she represents the optimistic innocence that once was before being cruelly ended. Playing around with the ideas of innocence and corruption is a running secondary theme to the primary one of the past versus present.

If you go into this movie with the expectation that it will be a quintessential QT film from start to finish, then you may be disappointed until the third act. He subverts our expectations by approaching this film in a more “Golden Era” of Hollywood way. He takes the best moves out of his playbook and integrates them into the story. Think of it as a kaleidoscope of the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and QT’s best hits. While the film does have a slow burn through much of it (no mistaking it, it worked for me), the third act is gripping, suspenseful, and truly pays off the tension that was slowly wound through Acts I and II. Of all his films, this is probably my favorite one for fun factor and nostalgia. It doesn’t ground it self in nostalgia, but it’s a great accessory to the story. Film/TV and Hollywood history geeks will likely love this film while more casual movie fans will enjoy it well enough. It’s a film for film fans, and that’s perfectly fine!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“Allied” movie review

alliedQuite the duplicitous plot! Robert Zemeckis’ Allied released by Paramount Pictures is a thrilling tale of espionage and love. We have certainly seen a few different “spy” movies over the last couple of years; some more about espionage and others more about the drama that ensues afterwards. Fortunately, Allied feels like a genuine spy movie that actually contains espionage. The production design and costumes are a beautiful throwback to the fabulous 40s. You’ll find yourself reaching for a glass of champagne and swing dancing to Benny Goodman’s timeless big band jazz hit Sing, Sing, Sing. There is one city synonymous with WWII, espionage, and romance and you will appropriately return to that iconic city of Casablanca in Allied. This is definitely not a reimagined Casablanca but there are indirect references to that movie sprinkled throughout this new story. Films like this one require top notch talent, and both Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard deliver outstanding performances to accompany this staple in film genres. Not limited to the love story between Pitt’s and Cotillard’s respective characters, the movie also includes some deadly shootout scenes and dangerously close encounters with the Nazis behind enemy lines.

Commander and intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) is stationed in the famous city of Casablanca in French Morocco where he teams up with French resistance movement leader Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). Impressed by her ability to so effectively blend in and create her authentic cover, Vatan soon finds himself falling in love with his partner. Following the assassination of a Nazi ambassador, Beausejour and Vatan flee to London to start their life together. Everything is going beautifully for the happy couple in their second year of marriage with a child when Vatan’s superiors confront him with the suspicion that Marianne is in fact a Nazi spy. Refusing to believe it to be true, Max must now conduct his own investigation into his wife’s history to protect the ones he loves so dearly.

I absolutely adored the look and feel of the film as it echoes the era of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although this movie plays off a tad listless as a result of failing to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience, it is not without it outstanding elements. It benefits from solid acting and beautiful cinematography as well as some fantastic symbolism. Robert Zemeckis’ talent for visual storytelling is clearly visible in this period film. The weakness in the ability to successfully leave a lasting emotional impact on the audience is in the writing and executive producership of Steven Knight (Eastern Promises). For films that are not as much about the spectacle as they are the drama between characters and the challenges faced therein, it is vitally important that the personal/interpersonal relationships transcend the screen and directly impact the audience. All the makings were there for a deeply moving cinematic story, but it just doesn’t quite make that transition from the mostly superficial and distant.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…(interesting fun fact: this misquoted line from Snow White is actually “magic mirror on the wall”). But, I digress. The strategic use of mirrors is an  incredible use of visual storytelling and symbolism. For those who have studied film or literary rhetoric, the mirror is a classic means of conveying duplicity (two sides, faces, etc of a character). Even without knowing that this was a spy movie, I would have been able to infer that from how the mirrors are shot and placed within the composition of the 24 frames a second. When using powerful symbolism as part of the visual story, it conveys so much more meaning in a scene than words could actually describe. Mirrors have long sense been a powerful metaphor even before moving pictures. But motion pictures allow for a greater use of the importance it plays in a cinematic story. Not limited to duplicity, mirrors can also be used as a metaphor for self-reflection. Whether talking duplicity or reflection, the mirror aids in conveying so much to the audience in this movie.

Ordinarily, I am not a fan of classic films getting remakes; however, there are always exceptions when the core or essence of the film is held in tact but the production design, direction, and cinematography are brought up to speed with contemporary cinema. If you’re a fan of WWII era films or the timelsss spy movie, then you will definitely enjoy Allied. After witnessing the significance of Casablanca in this movie, I am actually looking forward to a remake if there ever is one. Provided. That the overall look and feel of the movie is in line with classical motion picture storytelling. I could definitely see Robert Zemeckis directing a remake of Casablanca. Occasionally there are directors who can strike the balance between a classic tale told through contemporary technology, and Zemeckis definitely struck that balance in Allied.

Don’t allow the weak writing to dissuade you from watching it; there is actually a lot to enjoy in this film. After the slow burn during the first act, acts II and III are full of intrigue and suspense.

“The Big Short” movie review

BigShortThe scariest non-horror movie ever! Paramount Pictures’ The Big Short, based on the best selling novel by Michael Lewis, is the star-studded film that meticulously recreates the course of events that led to the worst financial crisis to hit the United States, and by extension the world, since the Great Depression. It isn’t often that when I leave a movie that I instantly feel like I need to watch it again, but this is definitely one of them! Furthermore, this is a fantastic film to show any business or financial class on the graduate level. Brilliantly casted and directed, this film will have your utmost attention the entire time. In fact, when it’s over, you will most likely want it to go on. Screenwriters Adam McKay (also the director) and Charles Randolph create a movie with such realism and candor that you will be able to truly understand the foundational problems that aided in creating the mortgage-backed security crisis which led to the housing meltdown and the loss of millions of jobs. The scariest part is, at the end of the movie, you will read that starting in 2015 that big banks are once again engaging in similar behaviors under a new name. The utter greed, absurdity, and naivety on display in this movie will leave you astounded.

The Bg Short is a biographical documentary-like drama that goes behind the headlines and years before the height of the financial crisis (now referred to as the Great Recession) and reveals the actions of big banks and front-line mortgage officers alike that contributed and eventually causes the housing meltdown. After one major hedge fund investor discovers that the big banks are buying up and selling bad mortgages, he takes actions that create a ripple effect amongst a small group of hedge fund financial investors that begin to sound the alarm that big banks refused to listen and believe. Against the odds, this small group of investors attempt to warn the big banks that the US financial system, and by extension the world, is in grave danger. This film follows several key players in this movement and sheds light on what was really happening behind closed doors.

If you want to gain a better understanding of what caused the housing meltdown and financial crisis, then plan to see this movie. Or, if you are just looking for a fantastic movie with suspense, mystery, and action, then plant see this movie. It is of no surprise as to how this movie has received Oscar nominations. The phenomenal cast brought these recent historical figures to life in only a way that a cinematic story can do. Full of intellectual action, this movie successfully delivers a powerful message with a brilliant story. Many times, the best stories are true ones, and it doesn’t really get any truer or more visceral than this one. Not often can a movie capture a historic series of events with such accuracy whilst delivering a cinematic experience. More than a documentary, this film possesses a brilliant approach to the visual storytelling of a real modern-day crisis that isn’t that far removed from today.

The combination of mostly an objective perspective with a healthy helping of subjective points-of-view makes this a unique experience. Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but imagine that t almost plays out as something fabricated, made up for a gripping and dynamic plot; but the fact of the matter is that this really happened. Moreover, if the big banks continue in their ways and not learn from their mistakes, it could happen again. Although this is definitely a visually driven story, there are times that there is commentary or further information in the form of text or actors breaking the fourth wall. Ordinarily, I don’t typically like moves where the characters speak directly to the camera or audience, but the manner run which the asides were written into this movie worked extremely well.

I will keep this review short because I definitely want to encourage people who want to gain a better understanding of the financial crisis to see this movie and experience it for themselves. You will definitely not be disappointed.