“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.

“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.

Fun.

I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.

__________________

img_3692-1Reel 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.

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

How I spent my Christmas vacation…Les Miz, Django, and Babs

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

One of the things I look forward to most every holiday season is the movie marathon I share with my parents. Hollywood back-loads all their great Oscar bait films from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and every year my parents and I try to cram in as many as we can in a three-to-four day period. Invariably, we have a number of disappointments along the way.

Let me be clear, sometimes we do all of this in a single day. I think our record may be four movies in one twenty-four hour period…but that was also a day where we got so intoxicated by movie magic and stale popcorn that we saw anything with the right start time that allowed us to go from one movie right into the next (tickets purchased for all, of course). I believe on that auspicious occasion, in our weakness, we saw The Golden Compass…I think we were the only three people in America who ever saw The Golden Compass. It was pretty turgid.

So what cinematic treasures did Santa leave in our collective stocking this year? Three super-hyped, market-saturating, blockbuster-hopefuls: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and The Guilt Trip. You know what? All three were perfection – that has never happened in the brief history of the Sexton Family’s Hide-from-the-Bothersome-Relatives-Holiday-Film-Fest.

Les Miserables ran the risk of not meeting the breathless anticipation whipped up through its ubiquitous and compelling advertising campaign. Happily, it far exceeded our expectations in every way. Much has been written about Tom Hooper’s decision to have his actors act and sing the challenging music live, as opposed to recording in a studio weeks before filming, only to lip sync before the cameras. It works and works well.

We listened to the soundtrack album the night before seeing the movie, and I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad idea. The CD is not exactly fun listening. Yet, it did prepare us for the vocal stylings of the key performers, and, as viewers, we were perhaps better equipped to appreciate the film as narrative. My mom said it best, “It’s like watching a film with sub-titles…you just get used to the singing and after a point forget you are even watching a musical…in a good way.”

I enjoyed every performer in the film, and any flaws, in my estimation, are inherent in the source material. For instance, I don’t much care for the young lovers storyline, and the nefarious Dickensian innkeepers even less so. Regardless, everyone in the ensemble – notably Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne – executes their piece in Victor Hugo’s ever-unfolding diorama of some French Revolution (I’m still not sure which one) breathtakingly. I cried countless times. Darn, this movie is cathartic.

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]

I don’t much want to get into a debate about the merits of Russell Crowe’s performance as Inspector Javert. People are hung up on his singing style – which I for one thought was just fine, though we did have our doubts when listening to the CD before seeing the film. What I ask is that you view his performance as that of a consummate actor in service to story in a cinematic way. He could play the role as Snidely Whiplash. He doesn’t. He underplays to great effect, against the overall hammy-ness of the show’s origins, offering a stolid, pedantic take on his character’s rigid moral code. I liked him a lot. ‘Nuff said.

Django Unchained is pure Tarantino in form and style and exceptionally crafted in every way. Strangely, both Django and Les Miz (I sort of hate that nickname by the way), released together on Christmas Dayexplore themes of persecution, faith, oppression, and the redeeming hope of friendship and love. Who’d-a-thunk?

In Django’s case, a lot of ink has been spilled already about the violence, gunplay, and prodigious use of the “N-word” (another diminutive that always bugs me). Do I admit to feeling a bit squeamish at times during the film for these reasons? You betcha. Was I more bothered that some thuggish teenagers in the Midwestern audience with me were laughing un-ironically at these elements? God, yes. Is that Tarantino’s fault? Emphatically, no.

What Tarantino has been doing to great effect through his last several films – the Kill Bill two-parter, Inglourious Basterds, and now Django – is put our societal propensity for violence, pettiness, ugliness under a tight microscope. He directs particular ire at our American condition to view the different with derision and hate and anger. With Django, he may as well throw battery acid on the Southland, exposing the inherent hypocrisy of good Christians whose economic standing was achieved on the bloody backs of far too many African-Americans.

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]

If nothing else, go see this one for Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura turn as the well-heeled owner of a plantation cheekily named Candyland. He is a whirlwind of oily smiles, fey mannerisms, and unbridled bile. I adored watching him in the film. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx more than hold their own, but the film springs fully to life when DiCaprio joins the proceedings. Pay close attention when he brings his doctor’s bag into the dining room – that scene alone is Oscar-worthy. Not the time you want to take a potty break.

Finally, The Guilt Trip … if one of these things is not like the others, I suppose it is this film, but it is no less perfection in my eyes. I am astounded at the negative reviews I have read on this one. I suspect the film is a victim of its holiday timing and its star power (Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen). If it had been quietly released in March or some other time, perhaps viewers would give it a fair chance…or maybe not.

Regardless, this is a gem of a little film. As actors, both Streisand and Rogen can be undermined by their own excesses (see Prince of Tides and The Green Hornet respectively). Yet, in this film, they are authentic, subtle (or at least what passes for subtlety for either), and thoroughly charming as a mother and son trapped in one tiny car together on a cross-country road trip.

The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spiderweb of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.

That’s it folks…and if you see three people next Christmas Day schlepping a monster-size bucket of popcorn from one Fort Wayne, Indiana-theatre to the next, give us a wave…and discourage us from seeing another Golden Compass.