Thursday, July 25, 2019

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood creates a sense of time and place you are loathe to depart as the end credits roll. The film marks a departure for Tarantino whose recent films like Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight are arresting chamber pieces memorable for their descent into cartoon violence (we get some of that here, but dramatically dialed down). Like Jackie Brown, Once Upon A Time is leisurely paced - allowing the audience to soak in the sun drenched period ambiance. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt is his stunt man Cliff Booth. Dicaprio and Pitt each received top billing, a call back to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in the 1974 film The Towering Inferno

Rick starred in a popular TV Western in the early 1960s and attempted to make the leap to the big screen with mixed results. Now he's reduced to doing guest spots on episodic television as the heavy. He's conflicted about offers to make Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a genre he considers a further step down the career ladder.

Cliff is a reliable and loyal friend to Rick, but is haunted by a checkered past. He's confrontational and displays some violent tendencies that go on display during an encounter with Bruce Lee. Cliff lacks direction and gets himself into odd situations such as stumbling upon the Spahn Ranch outside of Los Angeles where he discovers a gathering place for strung out hippies. Pitt and Dicaprio have a great chemistry, channeling the Newman/Redford buddy comedy dynamic.

Margot Robbie portrays real life actress Sharon Tate. A rising star married to Polish director Roman Polanski, Tarantino's camera follows Sharon around as she goes about her daily life. She goes to the movies, Hollywood parties, listens to rock records, and gladly signs autographs for her fans. The "fly on the wall" approach does conjure a sense of dread, but also a moving portrait of a young women enjoying life in Hollywood.

Tarantino sets specific tones for each story line that nicely blend into each other. DiCaprio's sections are all about acting and aging, the pressures of nailing a scene. Robbie's scenes are reminiscent of a light hearted cinema verite film. Pitt's are more action driven and suspenseful, not unlike the classic TV shows referenced throughout the film like Mannix and The F.B.I. Without getting into spoilers - the story lines converge in the final act. 

In the midst of all this is the changing culture of 1969. Although Easy Rider is never referenced (not to my recollection anyway), the New Hollywood directors were on the cusp of bringing their visions to American cinema. Studios were desperately trying to connect with a youth audience. Cliff and Rick symbolize old Hollywood and worry the times are passing them by. They despise hippies, but also find aspects of the counterculture attractive. Their shared angst about the future plays well with overarching theme of the film: the combined sense of excitement and loss during a time of transformation.

Tarantino's most mature and self-assured film to date, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood reminds us movies can still be transportive, evocative, and exciting.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #6: The Stepford Wives (1975)

Men (some) have always attempted to silence women. When his wife wonders why all the women act so strange in the neighborhood he tells her it's all in her head. When women assert themselves as a group some men get really nervous and defensive. Terms like socialist or communist will be tossed around, or the old standby Un-American. The Stepford Wives explores the patriarchal forces in post-feminist America.

The premise of the story is well known: men at the Stepford suburb are building sexy female robots to replace their wives who are getting older and more outspoken. When the film's protagonist Joanna (Katherine Ross) confronts the builder of the robots he challenges her, arguing women would've replaced their husbands if they had figured out the technology first, suggesting the war of the sexes was no different than the Space Race. The simplification speaks to the corrosive motives of these men. 

William Goldman's script adds depth to the already well written novel by Ira Levin. The themes resemble Levin's Rosemary's Baby: gas lighting, paranoia, and reactionary America. Joann is more savvy and self-assured than Rosemary, she's a mother and pursues photography. Her husband Walter is at least 10 years older, a workaholic lawyer who immediately joins the Men's Association of Stepford. Everything's idyllic at first, but Joann begins to notice strange behavior among the women. 

Joann befriends Bobbie, another newcomer to Stepford, an iconoclast wonderfully played by Paula Prentiss. Bobbie supplies comic relief and has a great BS detector. Joann and Bobbie start to investigate when they notice the other wives only care about housework and looking good for their husbands. They wonder if there's something in the water. But the conspiracy goes much deeper.

The Stepford Wives also satirizes consumerism and white flight. Like many middle class white Americans in the 1970s Joann and Walter moved into the suburbs for the "good schools, low taxes, and clean air." It's revealed at one time the community hosted feminist icon Betty Friedan suggesting a social ferment was arising, but it was quashed by the Men's Association. Joann feels constrained by the suburban setting, longing for the energy of the city. The inherent conservatism of the suburb seems to act as a check against the progressive milieu of the city. 

The lush look of the film makes the community look like a Disneyland fantasy of a suburb. The use of the supermarket as the spiritual center of the town reinforces the theme.

The Stepford Wives holds up remarkably well. A direct influence on Jordan Peele's Get Out and the Netflix series Black Mirror, the film has taken a new relevance in the current social and political climate. 

**** (out of 4)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Yesterday (2019)

Movies inspired by The Beatles have an erratic track record. The infamous 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured the Bee Gees and purported to be inspired by the epochal album. Across the Universe from 2007 clumsily tried to redefine Beatles music set to fictional vignettes from the 1960s. A better attempt was I Wanna Hold Your Hand from 1978, Robert Zemeckis's debut film on the early days of Beatlemania. The best remains The Rutles from Monty Python, a madcap satire. Even better are films featuring the Fab Four themselves - no movie will ever have the explosive immediacy of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night.

Yesterday imagines a world without The Beatles. Himesh Patel stars as struggling musician Jack Malik. After a worldwide power outage he slips into a different timeline. Lily James co-stars as his manager Ellie, she's the only one who believes in his music. A key flaw in the film is that it never fully explores what the world would actually look like without John, Paul, George, and Ringo. In Yesterday, things look pretty much the same as our own. 

Jack starts performing Beatles songs and his videos go viral. Ed Sheeran takes notice of Jack's talent and gets him a record deal. Kate McKinnon enters the picture as a greedy recordcompanry executive who wants to make big money off of Jack's music. He's conflicted, but the temptation of fame and money are too much to resist. 

The central conceit of Yesterday is that The Beatles were simply about the music. But they were also cultural revolutionaries who arrived at specific time within a specific historical context. Music from any era is mostly forgotten by the next generation, or will get sucked of its subversive meaning by the culture industry (e.g. Nike using Lennon's "Revolution" to sell shoes). 

Yesterday gives us the non-threatening mop tops. The soundtrack sticks mostly to the top 20 songs everyone knows, performed as uninspired indie rock. That's the gloomy conclusion I take from the film, it's yet another pointless exercise in nostalgia way too common in pop culture these days. Yesterday's false optimism is a burdensome weight to carry. 

A baffling scene towards the end (an extremely awkward cameo) speaks to the hollow premise of Yesterday. As a romantic comedy, Jack and Ellie's ups and downs are conventional. Stay at home and dust off Abbey Road.

** out 4

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #5: Attack the Block (2011)

Attack the Block is one of the best genre films of the decade. Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the film's razor sharp social commentary make it an instant classic deserving of a larger audience. Like the best Spielberg films, Attack the Block uses setting and character development to full effect. At the same time it's suspenseful and scary. Predating Stranger Things by a few years, Cornish's fresh approach not only paid homage to Spielberg, but built upon all those films from the Eighties.

John Boyega (in a star making role) stars as Moses, the thoughtful leader of a gang in South London. On Guy Fawkes night Moses and his gang rob a young woman Samantha (Jodie Whitaker) to impress the local ganglord HI-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). Our first impression of these characters is a negative one that plays on stereotypes: the non-white gang harassing a helpless white woman. Then a feral creature crashes from the sky and the alien invasion begins.

We get to spend time with the gang, getting used to their dialect and sense of camaraderie. They live in a low income section of London and know most of society fears and looks down upon them. At one point Moses wonders if the aliens were sent by the government to kill black boys. Once they realize the creatures are dangerous the boys take it upon themselves to defend the block.

There's a kinetic quality to the action sequences. Set to a hip hop and reggae soundtrack, the film zooms along at a frenetic pace. The script is smart and funny. Thomas Townend's cinematography provides a sense of space and place as we move along with gang on their bicycles and motorbikes. The nighttime lighting also looks amazing. Each character is given a distinct look that adds to the story. Minor characters are given memorable moments.

None of the characters are cardboard cutouts, each is given a memorable moment. Samantha eventually ends up joining the boys in their battle with the the aliens, but she never lets them off the hook for robbing her earlier in the evening. Moses redeems himself through the course of the night, realizing he made a mistake and atones for it. At the same time the film allows the audience to realize the social forces that led to the mugging.

Attack the Block is subversive because it's about empathy, slicing through heavy handed media rhetoric on issues of race, crime, and poverty. A genre film told from the perspective of the underclass against a world that pre-judges them because of their accents and backgrounds. Like John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York groups of disparate characters must work together against a common foe. 

So if you've not seen Attack the Block it's well worth your time. At 88 minutes the film flies by.

**** out of 4

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #4: Dark City (1998)

Dark City was part of the late 90s wave of "What is reality?" themed films that included The Thirteenth Floor, Existenz, The Game, and The Matrix. Film critic Roger Ebert championed Dark City as a modern masterpiece and even recorded a commentary track for the DVD. I suspect Ebert's influence opened the film to a whole new audience in the days when a critic held such influence. A combination of film noir and science fiction, director Alex Proyas's intriguing premise of a movie remains a classic.

Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man living in a strange city resembling an Edward Hopper painting. Murdoch is at the center of a murder investigation. His wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) sings at a Casablanca type nightclub and Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is on the case. Kiefer Sutherland plays a mysterious doctor who appears to know more than he lets on about the secrets of the city. Meanwhile menacing figures in trench coats out of a German expressionist film are watching everybody.

Dark City reveals its secrets at a methodical pace. The place is dreamlike and instantly compelling. It's a movie to watch after 3am. A philosophical theory popularized by Bertrand Russell known as "Last Thursdayism" speculates that all we know of the world may be from recent memory, maybe we were born last Thursday with implanted memories. How would we know? Blade Runner also plays with the idea, but Dark City takes it further. The scenario is like a well planned science experiment with serious side effects. What begins as a murder mystery turns in a speculative fable on what it means to be human.

Alex Proyas took inspiration from all the giants of German Expressionism like Fritz Lange and F.W. Murnau, and also looked to Orson Welles. Ebert's commentary does a great job of pointing out all these influences. He also speculated on where Proyas might go as a director, comparing him to Stanley Kubrick because of their meticulous approach to making movies. 

His return to Sci-Fi with I Robot starring Will Smith was a misfire. I've not seen Garage Days or Knowing. Gods of Egypt from 2014 also flopped. For years Proyas was in pre-production on an epic adaptation of Paradise Lost that was to star Bradley Cooper as Lucifer and feature an amazing supporting cast. I remember looking forward to that one, but it fell through for financial reasons.  It's always frustrating to learn about these unrealized projects from directors with great potential. Nevertheless, Dark City is a must see, a stunning vision worth multiple viewings.

***1/2 out of 4

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #3: Contact (1997)

Contact brought some high minded science fiction to multiplexes back in 1997. Based on the Carl Sagan novel, the film had been in development for several years. Coming off the success of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis took on the project. In its 20 year life span Contact has gone in and out of fashion. For starters, it's an easy film to pick apart piece by piece. Not everything works, and at 150 minutes there's an excess of plot. Few Hollywood films will even touch the science vs religion debate and Contact managed to pull it off with some nuance. The pro-science tone of the film, in spirit of Sagan's famous adage, "extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence" stands in contrast to the anti-science sentiments in the political sphere these days.

Jodie Foster stars as Ellie Arroway, an astronomer dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. Young Jena Malone plays Ellie as a child when she found her passion for astronomy as an escape to deal with the loss of her parents. Matthew McConaughey co-stars as an idealistic Christian who befriends Ellie, but will betray her at a key moment. Although the romance between them never quite comes off, their differing world views provide some thematic tension. McConaughey is believable as the spiritual guru and brings some energy to his scenes.

The film begins with a memorable opening shot that pans across the universe set to a lively soundscape of iconic sound bytes, it was the shot that envisioned to open Jodorowsky's Dune. Zemeckis maintained the pace well enough, especially in the many scenes with people in a room talking. Multiple screens are employed, a technique used in many of his movies. The sequence when the scientists discover the alien signal is also well shot, an impressive feat since everyone is looking at screens and yelling. Inserting CGI clips of President Bill Clinton are distracting and only served to date the movie. I speculate the purpose was to add a layer of reality as many media figures of the era also appear such as Larry King and and other figures from 90's era CNN.

After Ellie's team discovers a signal from the star Vega schematics are discovered to build a spaceship. Much of the drama in the second act revolves around who will be selected to go. Tom Skerrit plays Ellie's former mentor (Drumlin) and eventual nemesis, a stock character wrong about everything. Even though Drumlin's disparaged her work throughout the film, he gets selected because he's a believer. The public wants no atheists in space. Government officials played by James Woods and Rob Lowe who deny Ellie at every opportunity are also cardboard caricatures. When the first attempt goes awry, a reclusive billionaire played by John Hurt has a second ship prepared for Ellie. Her cosmic voyage at the end to be effective and even brave in the way it plays out, yet left many nonplussed.

On the science vs religion question, Contact aspires to split the difference. Both religion and science believe in powerful forces. One is based on faith and the other on evidence. Ellie's experience changes her, opening her to possibilities, but I would not agree she's been "saved" and will join the flock. The film ends with Ellie encouraging a group of children, directly addressing a young girl and encouraging her to be skeptical and to seek out her own truth. Foster's performance carries the film, we sense her isolation in a world where just about every man tells her she is wrong.

Carl Sagan passed away during the production of Contact, but his signature is all over the film. Sagan had a mystical way about him, he respected human spirituality as a moving expression or vessel of understanding the universe. He decried the increase in ignorance and pseudoscience in his book The Demon Haunted Earth. An apostle for science the world dearly misses, Contact is a good starting point for anyone interested to discover Sagan.

***1/2 out of 4

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #2: V For Vendetta (2005)

The pop dystopia of V For Vendetta builds and builds until is exhausts itself into a hollow spectacle. Based on the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore that was written as a response to the reactionary Thatcher regime of the 1980s. The film version came out of the post-9/11 era and there are numerous references to the rhetoric of Cheney/Bush. Never boring and full of imaginative imagery, V For Vendetta feels like Orwell's greatest hits filmed as a big budget MTV video.

The influence of Orwell's 1984 almost overwhelms the source material in this adaptation of V For Vendetta. John Hurt, who starred in a previous film adaptation of 1984 as Winston Smith, plays a Big Brother type leader who rules futuristic England with an iron fist. We learn the world has fallen into chaos and Great Britain's been ravaged by plagues and political violence. The regime is extremely conservative and targets anyone who challenges traditional values. One of the strongest sequences follows a female couple who were forced into a concentration camp for being open with their sexuality. The film does deliver a potent depiction of what a modern Fascist state might look like.

The story begins with Evey (Natalie Portman) accosted by two members of the secret police until she is rescued by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving). V then proceeds to blare the "1812 overture" over loudspeakers and blows up the "Old Bailey" (criminal justice building) in London. He lives underground and listens to his jukebox and spends hours reading literature. Charismatic and gentlemanly, he forms a beauty and the beast type relationship with Evey. Portman and Weaving both deliver strong performances, especially Weaving who is masked for the entire film.

The film remains aloof to what exactly V wants to accomplish. Is he an anarchist? A prophet? An agent of Satan? An agent of God? V appears to see himself as a catalyst for liberation from tyranny. Questions of terrorism are raised. Does an evil and repressive ruling class deserve a violent overthrow? When does a system get so corroded to the point where a revolution is necessity? Now that we are closer to this scenario in 2019 as opposed to 2005 the film remains relevant and unsettling as reactionary forces are now having their way in the West. V For Vendetta never provides a satisfactory answer to these questions, but does ignite a cinematic scream into the abyss. 

*** out of 4

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #1: Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star may not be as well known as other science fiction films from the 1970s, at least not on the level of Star Wars or Alien, but its influence is everywhere. Filmed over the course of three years by USC students, it was the first feature film directed by John Carpenter. Dan O'Bannon co-wrote and acted in the film. Anyone who's seen Jodorowsky's Dune knows the film caught the eye of the Chilean filmmaker who was developing the ill fated adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune. Dark Star also sends up Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and other heroic visions of space travel like Star Trek.

The film begins with a four man crew in a claustrophobic ship. Their mission is to blow up unstable planets to clear the way for colonization. In their endless free time they bicker with each other and have the same conversations over and over. Crew member Boiler spends all his time on the observation deck watching the stars float by. Doolittle dreams about surfing.  Talby is about to lose his mind, while Pinback (O"Bannon) is an annoying know it all. The ship's leader Commander Powell was killed in an accident, but remains alive in cryogenic sleep. Meals are eaten out of liquid tubes. Space travel here is a never ending wave of monotony, an empty existence with no purpose.

In an extended sequence of physical comedy Pinback tries to capture the ship's pet alien that's literally a beach ball (a scene that would be recycled in Alien). Later a malfunction prevents a nuclear bomb from dropping and creates an existential crisis. Doolittle engages in a philosophical discussion with the bomb that recalls HAL from 2001, a simple dialogue evoking Cartesian doubt and Plato's allegory of the cave. A poignant ending ensues as the crew members meet their fate.

Dark Star provides irreverent humor of many varieties. Boredom can be funny, especially ennui in the workplace in films like Clerks and Office Space. Pinback keeps a video diary where he talks trash about the crew and admits to impersonating an officer plays like a precursor to youtube videos. When they revive Commander Powell he asks, "How did the Dodgers do?" The look of the spaceship is grungy and things break down constantly. Everything from The Simpsons to Spaceballs owes something to Dark Star. The sound design is also inventive, clearly influenced by George Lucas's THX-1138.

A true collaboration between O'Bannon and Carpenter, both had long careers in Hollywood. Alien has an almost identical plot reconfigured as a horror film with a bigger budget. Carpenter would have a remarkable run of films including Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing. O"Bannon would play a major role in 80s Sci-Fi movies in writing and special effects. He also directed the 1985 cult classic Return of the Living Dead

***1/2 out of 4