“Someone left the cake out in the rain.” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Every day in America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh, no
MacArthur Park” (Jimmy Webb)

We live in uneasy times. I am beginning to suspect we always have. Maybe it comes with getting older, or maybe it’s the all-consuming nature of modern media, but I now question the golden hue surrounding historical violence for noble causes which we all once read about in our history classes. I fear waking up every morning for what the headlines may bring with my breakfast cereal.

Friday night, my parents and I saw Quentin Tarantino‘s latest auteur epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Saturday, we woke up to news that another in an apparently endless series of twenty-something, white male gunmen had taken it upon himself to drive from Dallas to El Paso to enact a hate-filled, murderous killing spree. Sunday, we woke up to news that a seemingly similar individual decided to do the same thing in Dayton, Ohio. Both men arguably were informed by a steady diet of anger and violence, entitlement and disenfranchisement: all-reaching toxic masculinity. Now, we find ourselves in another mind-numbing news cycle of finger-pointing and empty talking points, American flag lapel pins and “thoughts and prayers,” which will all be quickly forgotten days from now when a royal family member has a baby or a sitting president stirs his simmering pot of Twitter-fied bile.

The sobering theme throughout is that all those deserving blame abdicate any and all responsibility. Hollywood and video game makers say art doesn’t influence people, but merely reflects our present reality. Gun manufacturers say guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Politicians say it is a “complicated” issue and they are looking into it, often blaming a nonexistent mental health safety net they effectively dismantled years ago (through de-funding) and turning a blind eye to the campaign donations they’ve greedily accepted from pro-gun lobbyists and voters. Motivating it all? Myopic self-preservation and a willful desire to keep the gravy train of capitalism rolling along.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In essence, it is this blood-sticky mess that Tarantino seems to be directly addressing with his film. Tarantino’s own relationship with cinematic violence has seemingly transitioned from sophomoric glee about how low he could go to a genuine conflict over entertainment’s role in fueling our revenge fantasy culture.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an elegiac picaresque tale of a California that may only exist in the mind’s eye: 1969, when Hollywood, and by extension America, was at odds with itself, some of us still clinging to the antiseptic safety of Eisenhower dreams against a countervailing influence of angry young people dissatisfied with a military/industrial complex that generates nothing but hardware and heartache.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A wonderfully world-weary Leonardo DiCaprio as failing TV Western star Rick Dalton finds himself increasingly marginalized, relegated to guest star villainous turns on turgid nightly dramas. The active rejection of the Western as metaphor for American moxie was ramping up, replaced by crime dramas and superhero shows, equally as violent and just as superficial.

At Rick’s side is his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, oh-so-charming and oh-so-casually malevolent – a beach bum Marlboro man with a secret history of true-life violence ever percolating under his gleaming exterior as he saunters through the chintzy, cardboard back lots of Tinseltown.  “More than a brother, just short of a wife,” Kurt Russell’s omniscient narrator observes about the duo, characters based in part on the legendary real-life bromance of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.

The pair move together in tandem in uncertain waters, a couple of aging sharks whose hollow, posturing machismo is perhaps going out of fashion. The film industry is beginning to embrace a new kind of shallow, in fact: talking a good game about “method acting,” as represented in a crucial scene between DiCaprio and a wise-beyond-her years eight-year-old female actor (“NOT actress … that is a ridiculous term,” she observes) – a scene-stealing performance by Julia Butters. Next door to Rick’s groovy Hollywood Hills home resides a couple symbolic with this sea change, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the latter played with angelic puckishness by Margot Robbie. (I admit Quentin’s filmic attitude toward women remains a bit of a problematic cipher for me, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, for now, in great part due to Kill Bill.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Anyone who hid a copy of Helter Skelter behind their eighth grade history textbooks to avoid lectures about the great violence that begat this country, only to marinate in the prurient details of the Manson Family, may guess what happens next. The La Cielo Drive home and Sharon Tate herself are synonymous with the sickening nexus of celebrity and serial murder, Hollywood and true crime. Tate is remembered not for her film work, but the gruesome way her life met its untimely end. Well, you may think you know what is going to happen, but Tarantino, in his inimitable fashion as filmdom’s resident juvenile delinquent, is going to toy with your expectations, all the while commenting mercilessly, if somehow also affectionately, on the utter superficiality of men playing cowboy in the backyard.

As always, Tarantino’s cinematography and overall framing is perfection, the movie a loving homage to buddy comedies of the late 60s and 70s, yet with a very dark undercurrent. No detail is left unturned, and it is the kind of movie which film geeks could watch forty times and still miss layers of winking commentary buried in a radio ad or billboard or prop in the background. This may be the director’s most carefully curated film ever. I particularly took note of how the soundtrack is peppered with popular ditties of the era but covered by out-of-fashion pop performers trying to stay relevant in a hippie dippy age (e.g. Robert Goulet doing his best Richard Harris on “MacArthur Park”).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even in casting, Tarantino is commenting on the ephemeral nature of the entertainment enterprise (beautiful Brad Pitt as reasonably attractive Leonardo DiCaprio‘s stunt double?!) as well as the ever elusive desire by performers to leave a legacy.  Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley plays a free-spirited ragdoll of a Manson family member. Bruce Dern, a counterculture figure in and of himself, pops up in a pivotal scene as the notorious Spahn Movie Ranch’s decrepit owner, unknowingly housing an army of leering Manson acolytes whose sole desire is to take down the very establishment once central to the ranch’s Western film output. Al Pacino, another actor associated with the dramatic transformation in cinema in the 1970s, plays a maneuvering and cynical agent who lays bare the ugly truths of commerce driving the money-mad, fame-seeking inhumanity in Hollywood. Everyone is pretty damn terrific, and whether they are in on the joke or not is uncertain.

As self-serious as my analysis appears to be, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. It is meandering, episodic, sometimes maddening to follow, Tarantino continuing to tell stories as a nesting series of parentheticals. It is both nostalgic and critical, transporting you to another era, well aware of the insidious influence that that time continues to have on us all. Tarantino’s Hollywood is populated with lost souls – TV actors on the decline, movie stars on the ascent, and serial killers on the prowl – for whom celebrity-seeking and name-making is job one, regardless what that task does to themselves, their souls, or anyone surrounding them.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I can’t reveal a thing about the ending, without spoiling a twist that is both telegraphed and unexpected. Let me say that the fairy tale allusion in the title as well as its direct reference to Sergio Leone’s blood-soaked epic Once Upon a Time in America are intentional. The film offers us a happy ending of sorts, while graphically depicting the reality of the cartoon violence Rick Dalton and his contemporaries once promulgated via black-and-white television sets. This film is both Tarantino‘s least violent film and his most. The film’s ambling pace lulls the audience into complacency, so the carnage when it comes – fast, furious, and brutal – is that much more disarming.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at once a love letter to another time and a cautionary tale, with a chillingly implied postscript that history does indeed repeat itself. And that all of us are too vain to ever really do anything to stop it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Everybody knows the damn truth
Our nation lied, we lost respect
When we wake up, what can we do?
Get the kids ready, take them to school
Everybody knows they don’t have a chance
To get a decent job, to have a normal life
When they talk reforms, it makes me laugh
They pretend to help, it makes me laugh
I think I understand why people get a gun
I think I understand why we all give up
Every day they have a kind of victory
Blood of innocence, spread everywhere
They say that we need love
But we need more than this
– “God Control” (Madonna)

___________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Easter weekend of lost souls: Hitchcock, Phil Spector, and The Girl

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[Image Source: blog.zap2it.com]

As I have noted previously, holidays with my parents tend to be spent in a darkened movie theatre between marathon rounds of canasta, computer maintenance, and the finest dining small-town Indiana can muster.

This weekend was no exception…well, sort of an exception. The movies were present, but in a darkened living room, after an emergency late night trip to the local Wal-Mart to replace a malfunctioning VCR/DVD combo player. (And a futile argument with the salesman as to whether or not I needed something called an RF tuner. He said no. I said yes. Two subsequent trips later, I was right.)

So how did we spend this unusual holiday when Easter/Passover/April Fool’s converged (not to mention my dad’s birthday)? How else but with three films about two haunted auteurs and the women who loved/loathed/enabled them.

The usually redoubtable HBO Films stumbles a bit with their take on Phil Spector and his infamous murder trial. That is not to say that stars Al Pacino in the title role and Helen Mirren as his legal counsel  are bad. In fact, both, saddled as they are in the movie with a rather unfortunate series of wigs, are excellent.

The TV biopic is at its strongest, in fact, when just the two leads are onscreen with the looney tunes Spector/Pacino winning over Mirren’s character with his charming misunderstood/misanthropic pop artist routines. Both actors exude warmth, with Mirren offering a flinty empathy illuminating nicely the genius of the David Mamet-penned monologues Pacino brilliantly delivers.

What’s wrong with the movie? A script that stretches about 35 minutes of sparkling dialogue/interplay between the two stars into about 90 minutes of procedural dullness. However, Mirren and Pacino both make this one worth watching, shining sympathetic light into the dark mind of a man whose musical genius emanated from the very outsider-stance that finished him off.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of intellectual misfits, our Friday-night double feature concluded with one of two 2012 cinematic takes on the life of Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren (again) as his wife Alma Reville. Again, this is not a great film but does benefit from a couple of remarkable performances by two accomplished thespians.

Hopkins should have abandoned the poor make-up job that makes him look more like Danny DeVito’s “Penguin” from Batman Returns than the Master of Suspense as, otherwise, his performance is exceptional with voice, walk, and spirit all spot-on.

But this is Mirren’s show as the long-suffering but equally talented wife, without whom Hitchcock’s many masterpieces might have been half-baked pot boilers and cheap thrillers. Alma endures countless indignities as Hitch obsesses over his famed adaptation of Psycho and fawns over and/or tortures his young starlets. The starlets in question are thinly-written takes on Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, performed adequately by Scarlett Johansson and Jessical Biel, respectively … who don’t look a darn thing like Leigh or Miles, respectfully.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday night, we completed our run through the lives of tortured artists with another HBO film The Girl, also about Hitchcock and his creepy preoccupation with icy blonde actresses. This movie was the best of the lot.

Toby Jones, who also found himself a few years back at the short end (no pun intended) of two competing biopics (Truman Capote), is incredible as Hitchcock. His Hitch is deeply haunted by a point of view and a physical appearance that puts him at odds perpetually with Hollywood glamor. And Sienna Miller achieves the impossible by making actress Tippi Hedren … well … interesting.

The Girl paints a compelling portrait of a man – Hitchcock – who attempts to make sense of his aversion to humanity and his self-loathing by playing puppet master over the beautiful people surrounding him. Also, this one does the best job of depicting the technical and artistic challenges of the creative process, offering great behind-the-scenes info on the making of both The Birds and Marnie.

All three films – Phil Spector, Hitchcock, and The Girl taken collectively – leave the viewer with revulsion for yet admiration of the creative genius. These men are “outsiders-forever-looking-in” whose contempt for humanity’s follies and foibles provide them immense gifts to enrich the lives and culture of that self-same humanity, yet leaving the artists themselves forever unfulfilled and broken.