Movie Reviews Archives for 2019-07

Movie Review Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarentino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece of mood, tone and directorial command. The film is at once a classically Quentin Tarentino style fetish film, a film that explores and lives within the things that Tarentino has long shown an obsession for and a much looser, more relaxed movie than what Tarentino has made before. Yes, the characters are still whip smart and the dialogue comes in bursts of wordy pop aphorisms, but the mood is much more subdued than we are used to with QT and it works really well for this story. 


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton. Rick is a former television star, the star of the NBC series “Bounty Law” on which he played famed bounty hunter Jake Cahill. However, since the series went off the air several years before the story we are being told here, Rick has struggled to get parts, settling most often to play bad guys to a new generation of Jake Cahill’s eager to get a shine off of punching Jake Cahill in the face. 


This new reality for Rick is brought home in a conversation with an agent played by Al Pacino who does not mince words. The agent is trying to seduce Rick into using what is left of his star power to make several Italian spaghetti westerns, a move that would force Rick to move to Rome for six months. Rick doesn’t like the Italian westerns, he feels they are beneath him. The offer is an indication to Rick that his career has truly hit the skids. 


Keeping Rick from a full on meltdown is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a pragmatist who points out that spending six months in Rome making westerns is better than sitting at home doing nothing, something that he’s been forced to do more often of late since his stunt career hit the skids. There is a rumor about Cliff that has made the rounds in Hollywood and his work as Rick’s stunt double has come to halt. 


Now, Cliff works as Rick’s driver and Man Friday, someone who handles tasks that Rick has no time for. Being that Cliff doesn’t have much to do, and because he genuinely does like Rick, Cliff actually appears content to live on this way, running errands for his friend, driving him around and generally just hanging out at his modest trailer with his dog, drinking beer and watching Mannix. It’s not much of a life but it is Cliff’s life. 


Running parallel to the stories of Rick and Cliff is the story of Sharon Tate. History tells the tragic tale that Sharon Tate, the bright, young rising starlet, married to the hottest director on the planet, Roman Polanski, is best remembered for having been murdered. Sharon was one of the victims of The Manson Family, another thread moving through the background of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Margot Robbe plays Tate at her most breathtaking and youthful. Her beauty and effervescence underlines the tragedy of what is to come. 


The Manson Family provide one of the most unique and fascinating sequences of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a brief mini-movie within the movie. Cliff becomes enamored of a young Hollywood hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). After offering Pussycat a ride, Cliff finds himself at Spahn Ranch where he and Rick had filmed many episodes of Bounty Law some 8 years earlier. 

Arriving at the ranch, Cliff is surprised to see the former film lot is now the home of a large group of hippies. The place is a full on commune but with a palpable sense of cultishness. Cliff was once familiar with the much older owner of Spahn Ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and is curious to find out if the old man has truly allowed this mob of young people to live on his ranch. You will need to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to see how this plays out but the tension and the tight, well held mood of this sequence is riveting. Brad Pitt’s movie star charisma carries the scene and I could not take my eyes off of him. 


The Spahn Ranch sequence is part of the remarkable second act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which separates our three leads into their own mini-stories. For Sharon Tate, she is in downtown Hollywood and decides to go see herself on the big screen in her first major role, opposite Dean Martin in one of his Matt Helm adventures. Here Tarentino crafts a breathtaking sequence where his Sharon Tate is watching the real Sharon Tate on the big screen and it is magical. There is something so innocent and beautiful in the way Robbe’s Sharon delights in the antics and acting of the real life Sharon. 


As for DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, he’s on the set of yet another younger star’s television series. Timothy Olyphant plays James Stacy, a long time fan of Bounty Law who is excited for the chance to best Jake Cahill on his show, Lancer. Rick is anxious and struggling with deep angst about his place in Hollywood when he encounters Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8 year old who practices in Method Acting, insisting on being called by her character’s name, Marjabelle. 


Through his emotional encounter with Trudi, Rick will have a breakdown and breakthrough moment that is an absolute must see. DiCaprio is incredible in this sequence in ways that must be seen to be believed. DiCaprio has always been a terrific actor and movie star but here, in this series of scenes, we are watching some of the best work of DiCaprio’s career. DiCaprio has presented Rick as a star beset by anxiety and vainly concerned about his star status and DiCaprio makes him vulnerable and even likable in these moments even as he is also an arrogant, self-obsessed, over-privileged actor. 


I won’t talk about anything regarding the third act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood other than to say it left me floored. It’s Tarentino in all the best ways and you need to see it for yourself. Mind you, it’s not for the squeamish, but it is incredible in the most unexpected and exciting ways. It must be experienced to be believed. The last act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings the fairy tale of 60’s Hollywood to a close in remarkable fashion. 


I completely adore Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is deeply compelling, remarkably cool and filled to the brim with those classically Tarentino moments. If you have loved Tarentino’s previous films, as I have, you are going to adore this one just as much. It’s a success of brilliant pace and unusual moments of ingenuity. The mini-story structure is perfection, each little story within the larger, overarching story works brilliantly into a whole movie that could not be more compelling or entertaining. 


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the best movies of 2019. 


Movie Review The Lion King

The Lion King 2019 is an incredibly emotional and moving film. Putting aside the comparisons to the original, this version of the story is exceptionally well told. Director Jon Favreau has brilliantly captured this Shakespearean tale for the whole family with epic music and resonant themes and given it a modern flavor via a remarkable voice cast who elevate the material with their inventive riffing and gorgeous singing. 


You likely already know this story, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the King of The Pridelands. He and his beloved Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have just had a son who will one day himself become the King. Simba, voiced as a cub by J.D McCrary, is a curious young lion who easily finds trouble but with the wisdom of his father, he will one day make a fine King. Unfortunately, Simba’s uncle,  Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans. 


Scar seeks the throne and will use any nefarious means necessary to get there. Scar’s first attempt to get rid of young Simba sends the young lion and his friend, Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), into an elephant graveyard where hyenas reign. Simba and Nala are rescued by Mufasa but Scar seizes the opportunity to convince the hyenas to become his very own army. It will be the hyenas who lead to the death of Mufasa while he tries to protect Simba. 


Mufasa dies and Scar runs off Simba by accusing him of causing his father’s death. Scar also sends hyenas to kill Simba but the young lion manages to escape into the desert. Here, Simba begins a new life. With the help of Timon (Billy Eicher) and Pumba (Seth Rogen), Simba is able to leave his grief and shame behind and grow into mature lion without the strictures of royalty and duty while nursing the scars of his past. 


Nala voiced by Beyonce as a mature lioness, eventually finds Simba is still alive and you know where the story is headed from there. The key to this telling of the story of The Lion King is how we get to the ending and in getting there we have a remarkably rich and fulfilling journey. The story of The Lion King 2019 is told with music and the music of this version of The Lion King is superb. I won’t be hyperbolic and declare the music here is superior to the original, I will only say that I preferred the ways in which Hans Zimmer and Beyonce, among others, have updated this score and the original songs. 


The changes are seemingly minimal but they make a huge difference in how you accept The Lion King 2019. For instance, the Can You Feel the Love Tonight segment. In the 1994 version of The Lion King the scene is suitably romantic and filled with heartfelt emotion though it is slightly shorter than the new version. The slightly longer version here takes full advantage of this new style of The Lion King with Caleb Deschanel's rich and glorious cinematography underlining the romance and deepening the impact of the moment. 


It also helps to have Beyonce and Donald Glover not just as the singing voices of Nala and Simba, but their speaking voices as well. The jarring shift from one vocal style to the other isn’t damning in the original, just notable. Here however, the seamless shift singing to speaking adds a little more verisimilitude. That and, of course, we are talking about Beyonce whose voice is transcendent. That’s not a dig at Sally Dworsky who is a Broadway veteran of immense talent, it’s merely that Beyonce is a global superstar whose voice connects to audiences in an epic fashion that fits the grandiosity of this CGI approximation of live action. 


Donald Glover is also incredible but in a unique and different way. Glover’s voice acting in the song is superior to the original because he is singing in character and accounting for the fear and angst of Simba in a way that perhaps Joseph Williams cannot because the character is not fully his. He’s more focused on singing the song,Glover is singing the character and I found the difference to be notable. 


Another notable improvement for me over the original was the performance of Hakuna Matata which benefits from the unique and recognizable voices and personas of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Neither is well known for their singing but the way they perform this song feels as fresh and even more alive than the original. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella but they are notably stagebound in their energy, limited by the animation style. 


Eichner and Rogen meanwhile had the advantage of working in the CG realm and director Jon Favreau’s ability to allow them to explore a little and riff within the music. Eichner and Rogen have talked in interviews about how they were allowed to improvise their dialogue and even improvise in their songs and that playfulness is part of what makes this take on The Lion King so lively as opposed to the original. 


The best change however, from the original movie is the song Be Prepared. Performed here by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the song is transformed from a pop ditty talk sung through a thick English accent by Jeremy Irons, to an operatic dirge that is shortened to more specifically state Scar’s nefariousness. Where the original overstayed its welcome and tried to fit the pop nature of the rest of the soundtrack, this version of Be Prepared better serves the character of Scar while also cutting to the chase on Scar’s story. 


Is there a calculated cynicism driving Disney to remake their animated catalog? Yes, it's unquestionably a mercenary effort. That said, the artists who have contributed to this version of The Lion King have transcended how The Lion King 2019 came to exist by delivering a resonant and lovely take on this grand material. They have brought the music into a modern context and stayed true to the remarkable themes of the original story and delivered a compelling, humorous romantic and touching film. 


Movie Review Stuber

Sometimes the appeal of a movie has nothing to do with what the movie is about but how the movie is about its subject. Stuber is a good example of this phenomenon. Judging Stuber by its cover the first thing you notice is a terrible title, a pun on the main character’s name and his part time profession as an Uber driver, and a rather generic, mismatched buddy comedy with fish out of water characters. 


That judgemental, surface perception of Stuber is pretty on the nose about what the movie is but thankfully, in execution, there is something slightly more to Stuber. In executing the same old cliches of the past, Stuber director Michael Dowse has upcycled those cliches via his two terrific stars. Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista may be enacting the familiar tropes of mismatched buddies past but they are having so much fun doing it that they make those tropes feel fresh again. 


Stuber stars Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, a part time sporting goods store employee who moonlights as an Uber driver. Stu’s routine, mundane life is about to be upended by his latest ride share customer, Vic (Dave Bautista). Vic is a police detective on the trail of the drug dealer who murdered his partner. On this particular day, Vic gets a tip from an informant that may lead to the killer but unfortunately, Vic has just gotten lasik surgery and cannot see to drive. 


Vic’s daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales) happens to have just hooked her dad up with the Uber app, mostly so that she won’t have to haul him anywhere herself. Thus how Vic meets Stu and eventually takes him hostage and makes him his unlikely partner in a night filled with mayhem including gun fights, car chases and near death experiences. Along the way, naturally, Stu and Vic will become friends and that is the true heart of Stuber. 


The first act of Stuber plays on the cliches of the masculine, man’s man Vic and the consummate metrosexual millennial Stu, butting heads over their view of what makes a man a man. For Vic, manhood is having been left in a forest overnight by his father as a pre-teen child with only a pen knife to get him through the night. Stu clocks that story as a form of abuse while rejecting the notion that manhood has anything to do with physical trials. 


So yeah, the story of Stuber isn’t particularly special. Thankfully, Kumail Nanjiani is special as his dynamic with the burly and brusque Bautista. These two are clearly having a great deal of fun butting heads with each other and riffing great jokes off of what are otherwise well worn cliches of the action comedy genre. I could sit here for a while and describe the plot failings of Stuber but I was too busy laughing to catalogue the film’s issues. 


The jokes come fast and furious in Stuber with Nanjiani throwing everything at the wall and director Michael Dowse keeping up a breakneck comic pace that covers for the few jokes that don’t land. The jokes aren’t memorable or brilliant, more often I found myself laughing despite myself. The speed and timing of Stuber matter as much or more than the actual content of the joke. Kumail Nanjiani is one of the funniest people on the planet right now and Stuber takes full advantage of his remarkable talent, 

Stuber isn’t going to win any awards or be remembered long after it is in theaters but while you are there, it’s pretty entertaining. The makers of Stuber don’t try too hard to make the film memorable, they just want to make you laugh and for the most part, they succeed. Stuber is really funny even as the plot is so predictable that you could set your watch by the cliches on hand. Kumail Nanjiani is perhaps my favorite comic presence in movies today. Even his Men in Black International alien was entertaining and that movie was a steaming pile. 


I do hope that Kumail dedicates himself to better material in the future but for now, I am glad to see him having fun in a big, silly, action movie. Not every movie has to be a transcendent work of humanity, humor and art like Kumail’s The Big Sick. Sometimes, a movie is just a big piece of cake, a rich, not so good for you, sugary mess that tastes delicious, even as it isn’t exactly good for your. Stuber is a piece of cake.


Movie Review Spider-Man Far from Home

Spider-Man Far From home is a delight. This is just the kind of palette cleansing crowd-pleaser that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in the aftermath of Avengers Endgame. Far From Home is filled with fun and excitement and a renewed sense of wonder in a world jaded by so many superhero adventures. As much as I appreciate the weightiness of Endgame, it’s just nice to relax into a superhero movie without the oppressive number of heroes and world saving excesses. 


Spider-Man Far from Home picks up the story of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the wake of the The Snap and the miraculous return of those who had been snapped out of existence. Peter is back in school but 5 years have passed for him and most of his classmates as well who also suffered The Snap. No rest for the weary however as the school is sending Peter and his class to Europe to study for the summer. 


In a step toward renewed normalcy, Peter is back to pining for MJ (Zendaya) and he hopes that the trip to Europe will provide him the chance to tell her how he feels. Peter has an elaborate romantic plan in mind involving a gift he obtains for MJ in Italy that he plans on giving to her in Paris when the class visits the Eiffel Tower. Naturally, it won’t be that easy. Peter first has to overcome his own remarkable awkwardness around MJ. And, Peter has a new challenge from a fellow student who was one of the few not snapped out of existence. Brad (Remy Hii) was a five years younger afterthought before The Snap, and now Brad is a buff, handsome rival for MJ’s affections. 


Oh, and there is one more obstacle in Peter’s way. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) has been trying to get in touch with Peter since before he left for Europe and he’s not a man who copes well with being ghosted. Fury is crashing Peter’s vacation from Spider-Man because he is tracking a global threat. Monsters called the Elementals are coming to Earth from some other dimension and with the Avengers in tatters, Fury needs Spider-Man to step up. 


There is one other hero on hand however and fans are calling him Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Mysterio’s real name is Quentin Beck and according to him, he comes from an alternate Earth where the Elementals rose up and destroyed the entire planet, including Beck’s wife. Beck narrowly escaped and now seeks revenge and hopes to keep the Elementals from destroying yet another multidimensional Earth. 


That Quentin Beck has ulterior motives is perhaps the worst kept secret in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether you are a comic book fan who knows where the character of Mysterio is headed or you are just someone with a keen eye for Roger Ebert’s theory of the Economy of Characters, it’s inevitable that we will arrive at a point where Mysterio and Spider-Man will be at odds. The key then becomes, how does the movie get there. 


If you were to pull threads on the plot of Spider-Man Far from Home you might unravel this premise in a less than satisfying fashion. I won’t go into spoilers but I will warn you against asking yourself why character A is performing action B when he knows that the outcome is C. The plot mechanics here are faulty at best and lazy at worst. And that is coming from someone who is writing a positive review of Spider-Man Far from Home. 


So, why do I recommend a movie that even I must admit is deeply flawed? First and foremost, I am a Spider-Man fan. Spider-Man is perhaps my favorite superhero dating back to the mindblowing, Spiderman 2 with Tobey Maguire, a movie I feel is a legit masterwork of the superhero genre. I am also becoming a huge fan of Tom Holland who has a winning charisma and awkward charm that I find incredibly entertaining. Holland appears to have been born to play Spider-Man. 


I adore this cast and their wonderful comic chemistry. The teenagers in Far from Home are a super fun group with Zendaya bringing wit to MJ that has lacked in previous versions of this character and Jacob Batalon as Ned doing terrific work as Spider-Man’s wacky sidekick. Further down the cast list are the inspired duo of Martin Starr and J.B Smoove who play the teacher chaperones on the school trip. Too much of these characters would be irksome but director Jon Watts deploys them just enough in Far From Home. 


The action and effects of Spider-Man Far from Home are spectacular. The big action scenes have a scope and scale to them that splits the difference perfectly from the oppressive armageddon of Endgame and the lightness and adventure that made Tom Holland’s first turn as Spider-Man so much fun. Director Jon Watts pulled off a pretty great trick in closing out the first phase of Marvel movies with something fun that also has some weight to it to kick into the next phase. 


That weight comes from the stakes raised in the mid-credits scene of Far From Home. No spoilers but there is a big cameo here and he has some Earth shaking news for Peter Parker that throws his MCU arc for a loop. It’s an exceptionally smart choice for a cameo and a really effective set up for the next adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As many problems as I have with the narrative clumsiness of Far From Home, they absolutely nailed this mid-credit moment. 


Spider-Man Far From Home overcomes some serious plot issues by being so much fun that I did not care about the problems. Jake Gyllenhaal chewing the scenery as Quentin Beck is Gyllenhaal at his most lively and exciting. His character is weird and offbeat but it works for Spider-Man. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland is really enjoyable, they have a natural rapport that makes the issues of the movie so much less important. 


Don’t think too much about it and you will find Spider-Man Far from Home as entertaining as I did.