What I am Watching: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Lion King (2019), and John Wick … finally

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) (NO SPOILERS!!)

Quentin Tarantino’s new movie shows a maturity in character development and style that I hadn’t seen since his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Jackie Brown. Here he manages to do it without help and creates characters that are driven by their dreams and hopes and not by a plot device hanging like a carrot in front of them.

Don’t get me wrong, Tarantino is probably the best at creating a premise and allowing his characters to flow in it with their dialogue and quirks. But I am rarely moved at the end of Tarantino movie, as I see many of his heroes and heroins as simply set pieces in a the elaborate mind of the writer/director. This film was starkly different.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio play best friends, Leo is an aging television actor, Rick Dalton, trying to take the next step into the movies before his star fades and Brad is his long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth, who tags along to pretty much just see what comes next. There is no McGuffin, no final battle, no revenge, nothing to stash, simply two men who are trying to figure out where they fit in life in their respective stages of their careers. Their bond is not based on snappy dialogue and funny one-liners, but rather, real curiosity, doubt, and fear for their usefulness and future.

Intermixed with this story is Margo Robbie, who plays Sharon Tate, discovering her new found fame. She lives next door to Dalton in the house where the infamous Tate-murders took place. Margo, who wowed me in last year’s Tonya, continues to be an impressive screen actor. She has a light air about her that is contagious – no wonder she was also the saving grace of the mess which was Suicide Squad.

One particular scene, where she goes into a movie theatre to watch herself on the big screen for the first time, is a delight. Her glee when she hears the audience laugh at her on screen antics while she sits quietly in the dark with her bare feet up on the seats in front of her (Tarantino does not disappoint on the foot fetish tip) was impressive in that it gave us a window into her humanity and joy without one word being spoken by her. The king of gab proved that he can give us depth of character without ten pages of scripted lines.

Where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood truly excels are in these moments like the one in the theatre. Tarantino ripped away the sheen of Hollywood but not to show us the usual fare about how many of these people are psychotic assholes behind the scenes. This movie decides that it wants to show these celebrities as real people with anxieties, moments of elation, and constant worry.

There are a few hiccups along the way as far as scenes I felt went on for too long. The Bruce Lee bit in particular gave us some important background and character information on Cliff but didn’t really sell it for me. There is also a very long sequence where we tag along as Dalton is filming some scenes for a western called Lancer. It’s set up to explore his failings, but the pacing is laborious.

I also didn’t think Tarantino’s camera style was appropriate for trying to show us what a filming from the sixties would look like. At first I thought I was supposed to be seeing Tarantino filming the Lancer set. However, when Dalton flubs a line,  someone asks for the camera to go back to one and we are whipped back around to the first position of the shot. I realized then that this scene was was supposed to be a representation of Lancer’s own director, Sam Wanamaker, filming a scene. It’s all very meta and blurred between when it’s Tarantino and when it’s Wanamaker. But, alas, perhaps that is exactly what Tarantino was going for, which takes us to the end.

I will not spoil the end, because I believe it will definitely take away from the pleasure of watching the movie. But, I will say this – the movie definitely has a hard cut in style in its last 25 minutes or so. There is a six month time jump and a voice-over narrator appears from nowhere as the film takes on a much more procedural documentary style leading up to the night of the Tate-murders. All of a sudden, it starts feeling like a Tarantino film – and no, it’s not a spoiler to say it gets quite bloody.

This shift didn’t sit to well with me. The nearly two-hours of intricate character development and tension (we do meet some of the Manson family in the film in one of the best elongated suspense sequences Tarantino has ever put on screen – think an even longer-burn version of the opening of Inglorious Basterds) felt like it had been thrown out for a quick and bloody resolution. Although, I did like what Tarantino did in the end as far as the message he was sending by mixing fact with fiction (think Inglorious Basterds again), I felt it cheapened all the players. These character’s arcs seemed to have found resolutions before the six-month jump and the last bits felt shoe-horned in only to bridge Dalton and Cliff’s stories-As with Tate’s story-B.

Still, I give high marks for what this movie did accomplish for most of its running time, proving that Tarantino can still be great without trying to work a gimmick. The Hateful Eight seemed like an attempt at this by having everyone just sitting in a room and building a story off of that, but those were all types who we, as an audience, knew would eventually blow their tops.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actually delivers when it comes to following people around for two hours that I truly cared about and wanted to spend that time with regardless of who might be lurking right around the corner.  Too bad Tarantino decided to go all Tarantino at the very end.

The Lion King (2019)

Shoot me now – I saw the original Lion King in the theatres and hated it. Saw it on VHS later and still hated it. It’s objectively not a bad movie, but something about it just never gelled with me. So, believe me, the problem is with me and not the finished product. I will admit that the music and score are lovely and Timon and Pumbaa are pretty funny, though.

Since Disney’s last couple of reboots have been damn good, I wanted to see what they had done with the movie. Maybe I would finally fall in love with it.

My first take away of this  version of the movie is that it’s very emotionally dark. I did my best not to try to compare it to the original, but it was nearly impossible. Like I said, I am not a fan but respect the merits of that movie – one of these being how The Lion King – 1994 manages to remain vibrant and hopeful even while including a pretty intense death scene. This new version felt like it was going to go into the dark corners of Simba’s mind after Mufasa’s death like Disney meets Scorsese.

The main reason for this dark feel, I believe, is the photo-realism technology that they used. The main characters in this story are mostly dangerous carnivores, and there is no way to make them not look like dangerous carnivores throughout – their eyes are small and expressionless and their claws and teeth sharp.

A cartoon can still give these creatures a cuddly feel – but this style of animation simply does not. Add to that, the fact that this film follows the trend of most modern film in that it’s a shower of dull colors and natural light. The lushness of the original film’s color palette is one of the factors that still make it pop off of ours screens more than two decades later.

But here I am again, doing what I shouldn’t be doing – comparing the two versions. It is hard given these new movies are supposed to be a call back to our youth as almost scene for scene recaptures of the Disney animated classics. So, erasing any memory of a movie I saw when I was about 13 and judging it on its own merits, I give The Lion King – 2019 a strong B.

I think that the darkness did appeal to the adult in me a bit more. I wouldn’t take a little kid to see this movie as there was a real sense of dread throughout. Again, not sure that is what the Lion King is supposed make someone feel, but that is what I felt.

The music helped build on this feeling. It was a lot more toned down than the original, which worked, but didn’t inspire any happy-Disney feelings. Hakunna Matada is still the best song of the bunch, Can You Feel the Beyoncé Tonight was horrid, but Scar’s song was magnificently malignant even if it sounded like it could have been a Nick Cave B-side.

In short, this was a downer of a movie: the dad dies for real and hyenas chase two lion cubs like orcs through underground tunnels!!!

If Disney made this movie with a post-911 audience in mind, which expects and wants more realism, that thinks Bambi’s death is a footnote in history, and that have the word terrorist as part of their childhood vernacular, then it is great. It works on that adult level, and kept me tuned in until the final battle. I could barely distinguish one lion from the other with the bad lighting and photo-realism, but it was reminiscent of the final fight in the Revenge of the Sith, which works for me.

The Lion King is not a bad movie, at all, but it may just give you some nightmares afterwards. The circle of cash flow will be strong with this one, regardless of the critics. So, watch it and make up your mind.

John Wick (2014) (this will contain spoilers)

I fell asleep the first time I tried to watch John Wick. I think I made it to the part where the dog dies. Didn’t quite get it. A year has passed and just this past week I tried again and this time I pushed through to after the pup gets offed, and I must say it was an enjoyable, yet absolutely ludicrous little action film.

Keanu Reeves has got to be the most unlikely action hero ever. With the exception of his very frenetic style in Speed, he always looks like he is on a constant high. It works for Bill and Ted (you bet I am excited for the new one) and even The Matrix (where he is in sort of an alternative techno-trip) but is pretty laughable otherwise. I know he is a darling among movie fans for being such a great guy off-screen, but I never quite got how it is that he manages to trudge his way through these movies – yet, he does. John Wick is no exception, he looks like he is half asleep sleep-fighting throughout this movie, with few exceptions.

Speaking of sleep … there is a lot of death in John Wick, that is a plus. But he manages to kill off bad guys so easily that I did end up dozing off again about mid-way through the movie. There is not much suspense involved when this one guy can cut through ten guys in one minute. I woke up and rewound (ooops, what do you call it these days when you push the movie back???) about 20 minutes only to find out all I had missed was another ten guys that he killed.

By the time Wick is explaining his reasoning for his actions, based on the love he had for his dog, I began to wonder if this movie was done as a spoof and just happened to get bigger than they could have ever imagined. Then I thought about my dog, and said, “You know what? I’d kill about ten people in one minute if they killed him too.” Good for Wick.

I’ll probably watch part two and three just to say I did. The movie is not bad, in the end. One must simply turn off all intelligence centers and hold on tightly as the movie veers onto so bad its bad territory while still having one foot firmly planted in the so bad its good arena.

But, for those who follow me and couldn’t believe I fell asleep on this one, there, I watched it!!!

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1 Response to What I am Watching: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Lion King (2019), and John Wick … finally

  1. Pingback: Ten Reasons to Love São Paulo – plus one | Brazusa's Blog

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