“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!

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“I, Tonya” film review

Of skates and class. Margot Robbie stars as the first US woman to successfully land a triple axel…also the most infamous woman in the history of US Figure Skating in what is likely one of the most difficult and controversial biographical films ever produced. Tonya Harding is back in the headlines and on TV, and even on the ice if you caught last night’s 2-hour Truth and Lies special on ABC. While most Olympiad names are forgotten within a short amount of time, Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s names will always have notoriety through the years. Nearly 25 years later, we find ourselves still talking about Tonya Harding. The biopic I, Tonya directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers provides audiences with an unapologetic glimpse into Harding’s early life through “the incident.” It is unlike any biographical film that I have ever seen before. Most often, biopics slant toward making the central character more likable than perhaps they were in real life. This film approaches Harding from the perspective of not shying away from her foul-mouthed, inability to take responsibility, violent temper; instead, showing us an authentic Harding who struggled through life to break the chains of classless poverty and emerge onto the scene as a professional figure skating record-setting champion. While this movie does not set out to prove what really happened, it does show what is likely to have happened. Although “the incident” is what everyone remembers, this movie shows a struggling young person attempting to change but thwarted at every angle by hearing that she cannot because she isn’t what America is looking for and has no class. But why couldn’t it have been just about the skating???

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) took to ice like a fish takes to water. She was an ice skating prodigy from the soft age of four when she took her first lesson from coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Growing up poor, she faced obstacle at every triple toe loop. From mental and physical abuse to sexual abuse, she weathered it all. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) was a monster of a woman who pushed and pushed in order to toughen “soft” Tonya. Even hot-tempered Tonya found love–albeit brief–with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The mental and physical abuse continued and only worsened after she set the world record for being the first US woman to successfully land a triple axel in 1991. But she would come in fourth in the 1992 Olympics. She fell into despair after that crushing defeat. When the US Figure Skating association gives Harding a second chance at the 1994 Winter Olympics, all seems like it is finally going her way, and she would finally experience the success she dreamt of her entire life, until “the incident.” Of course, as we all know, she went on to become a national punchline, material for comedians and sitcoms, and the most well-known name in the US after Bill Clinton.

Even though crime and ice skating are central elements in this film, it is truly a commentary on class and abuse. From the moment the movie opens with Harding and her mother smoking a cigarette at the ice rink in Harding’s hometown of Portland juxtaposing them against the pretty and proper coach with her students, we know that we are about to watch a story of class warfare. All Harding wanted was to excel at the sport she was naturally gifted at. Only one small problem: society and the figure skating association made it incredibly difficult–if not nearly impossible–for Tonya Harding to break free of her roots in classless poverty. But don’t allow the beginning of the film fool you into thinking she Harding is a kind soul who finds herself the underdog, she has a volatile temper and foul mouth that constantly gets her into trouble during practice and in competition. This film is an underdog story, but quite the unconventional one. Because we already know going in that she went from the first woman to land a triple axel, national champion to disgraced skater and unsuccessful boxer. For all its various plot points, the common theme throughout the movie is whether or not to allow your financial station in life to determine your behavior on and off the ice. Class has little to do with money, but rather, is a state of mind and demeanor. Perhaps we have a better idea of why Tonya behaved the way she did. The film never excuses her behavior or indirect knowledge (after the fact) of what her husband mastermind, but peels back the 24-hr 1990s news coverage in order to empathize and understand what made Tonya tick.

Is it possible for a square peg to fit into a round hole? Certainly, the life of a figure skater, especially one who represents the US on the global stage, is incredibly structured, polished, and constructed in such a way that the skater always looks his or her best to the public–a facade if you will. But, the once bright career of Harding serves as evidence that if you don’t come from the right family, have the right costume (or clothes), or speak eloquently, then the arena has no place for you. Perhaps that is why Harding still has fans despite her infamy. Although according to the film, she could have spoken up a lot sooner to help the investigation along instead of being fully consumed by having to make the 1994 Olympic team and indirectly covering for her ex-husband, she was dealt a dirty hand by judges and rivals who felt she just didn’t belong with them; and America generally liked an underdog. Unfortunately, this underdog got caught up in a scandal the followed a long history of irreverent behavior. The media coverage certainly did not help Harding’s case any. With the availability of CNN’s 24-hour news coverage, birthed out of the Gulf War now able to capture everything in order to have stories constantly grabbing audience attention, the film paints a picture that the media treated her unfairly and convicted her before the court’s decision to prohibit her from ever competing or coaching again, and the subsequent stripping of titles. Just some food for thought.

The topic of abuse is not shied away from in this film. We witness Tonya suffering from the brutal tongue of her mother, as well as constant physical abuse. Because there lacked the number of social programs for the protection of children and teenagers we have today, and schools were not as in tuned to abuse at home, she had little choice but to deal. Eventually, she would succumb to lashing out in similar ways to what which she experienced every day growing up in that house–house, not home. Her mother attempts to rationalize and excise her behavior because she tells Tonya that fear and anger will drive her to be a champion, but that doesn’t change the lasting affect the lifelong abuse had upon Tonya. It’s entirely possible that Tonya sought out Jeff because she was used ot abuse and felt that she needed it. Talk about warped.

The quality of this biopic is incredible! I absolutely loved the “interview” footage in the 4:3  format whereas the main narrative was in 16:9. Felt like we were watching actual news coverage in 1998. At first, I thought we were, but then I recognized Margot Robbie behind the exquisite makeup and costuming job. It has such an organic–no pretense–feel to the film. Robbie and her costars had me fully convinced that they were their respective characters. All around, the commitment to character was outstanding. Robbie commented in an interview that she studied footage of Harding for over a year, and it shows brilliantly! When the actual footage rolls at the end of the film, it is incredibly difficult to tell the real Tonya from her screen counterpart. Robbie’s monologue in front of the mirror is certainly one for the record books because of just how authentic and powerful it is. The production design and cinematography create a time machine; you will feel as though you have been whisked back 20-30 years throughout the film. Authenticity in spades. Director Craig Gillespie should be immensely proud of the film he crafted! Excellent writing, acting, technical elements. This biographic motion picture has it all. And will certainly get you to once again talk about Tonya Harding.

Highly recommend for those who enjoy controversial biographical films. The high profile critics are not exaggerating when referring to it as one of, if not the, best film of the year. There is so much to like, and for some, hate about this film. Whether you believe her to be criminal or not, there is no doubt that you will be blown away by the quality of this motion picture.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (or WTF)” movie review

WTFQuite the unexpected surprise from comedienne Tina Fey! Paramount Pictures’ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is one part self-reflexive film on television news production and one part self-discovery. Unlike the feel of the previews, WTF is not really a comedy–not in the traditional sense anyway. There certainly are moments throughout the film that are funny and will cause you to chuckle, but it is definitely more of a drama. The brilliance of Fey’s acting in this movie is truly showcased by her ability to display that she can do serious just as well as funny. Most of the funny parts are given away in the previews, so don’t think you’re going to get more laughs during the movie. Based on actual events, WTF takes you behind the camera and behind enemy lines to depict what it is like for television news foreign correspondents in a war zone. Although the movie was not what I expected at all, I am very pleased with the story, all be it, slow burning. Beyond the self-reflexive subplot in the movie is the foreground story of self-discovery. Fey represents so many of us who just feel like we are spinning our wheels, treading water,  or even moving backwards. The inspirational elements of the movie come from her willingness to take chances, make mistakes, and get dirty (as the Magic School Bus‘s Miss Frizzle would say).

What would you do? You’re dissatisfied with your job as a television news writer/producer, have a mildly depressive boyfriend, small apartment, and just need to get away. If you’re Kim Barker (Tina Fey), then you head off to Kabul, Afghanistan to become a foreign correspondent during the early days of the War on Terror. After an expedited visa and passport, Barker embarks on her journey as a representative of the U.S. press in one of the most dangerous places on earth. Armed with her laptop, camera, notepad, and two staff members, she sets out to discover the real stories in Kabul and the surrounding areas. Thinking that she is the only girl in a military barracks, Barker is relieved to meet Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who takes Barker under her wings to show her the ropes of reporting the news amidst a war and hundreds of “thirsty” journalists and military personnel. While covering the stories of the war, Barker concurrently takes a journey of self-discovery that is filled with mountains and valleys.

Let’s be real here. Even if you analyze movies on a regular basis like me, you too were probably thinking that this would be a dramedy (drama/comedy). And yes, comedy is really drama in disguise; but I digress. The previews are certainly cut together in such a way that it looks like a very Fey-esque wartime comedy. I am not going so far as to saying that Paramount pulled a bait ‘n switch–because the movie is of a good quality and enjoyable–but the is no doubt that I went in expecting classic Fey and was presented with her more serious side. Still, through her witty quips and non-verbal dialog, she infuses conventional comedy and self-deprecating humor throughout the narrative. Like many dialog-driven dramas, even ones during a war, this movie has a very slow pace especially in the first act. Some additional comedy probably would have helped in the beginning to hook the audience. Speaking of the hook, that is probably what’s missing from the first few minutes of the movie. I think the studio sacrificed a traditional hook because the hook was Tina Fey herself. Fortunately, the film wastes no times in getting Kim Barker to Afghanistan, and that is definitely a good move. Although we are introduced to several chief characters in the movie, the focus is definitely on the character development of Barker with some minor development and introspect on the other principle players.

There are really two stories here: the foreground story of self-discovery and the background self-reflexive plot. Both are seamlessly married together in order to accurately tell both without sacrificing the other. Although we all know that there are foreign correspondents in war zones, we don’t always get to see what it’s really like to uncover stories, pitch to executives back in the states, and maintain sanity and safety; but through this film, we witness just how hard it really is to be a foreign television news correspondent. From networking, to interviewing, to shooting B-roll and stand-ups, Barker takes us on the journey from concept to delivery of producing news int he middle of a battle zone. Beyond the battle field, Barker is coping with her own personal and professional battles. If it isn’t the cheating boyfriend, it is the network who put her on the hourly plan and gives her no screen time. But, through it all, Barker never gives up and refuses to sit idly by and allow herself to be walked over. Fortunately, Barker does get her big break during the climax of the movie, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see what that is.

If you plan to see just one movie this weekend, I definitely encourage you to see this one. It’s gritty, funny, and inspirational. This is also a great opportunity to watch Fey in a more serious role and decide for yourself if she convinces you that she can play serious just as well as the comedy we all know and love her for. You may have seen other wartime movie, but this one plays out differently in that the focus is truly on the character development of the protagonist with the war merely being the backdrop and conduit through which we see her story of summits and pitfalls.