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The ninth movie from Quentin Tarantino is a dreamy doozy—his most unapologetically Tarantinian film yet. History and conventionality be damned: QT is behind the camera, and he favors mayhem and artistic license over conventionality and facts.

Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood captures the 1960s film scene and culture as it is dying—and dying hard. Through the Tarantino storytelling lens, they die in mysterious and hallucinogenic ways.

We get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as insecure, has-been actor Rick Dalton, and his trusty stuntman, Cliff Booth. Dalton’s career has devolved into playing bad guys on weekly installments of TV’s F.B.I.—past his prime and blackballed. Booth is delegated to driving him around and being his confidante.

The setup allows Tarantino to go hog wild with ’60s visuals and songs. Hollywood is a monumental achievement on art- and sound-direction fronts. Some of Tarantino’s soon-to-be most-famous shots are in this movie, including a crane shot over a drive-in screen that dropped my jaw. The soundtrack pops with the likes of Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Jose Feliciano, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The looks and sounds are so authentic that you might find yourself wondering if Dalton and Booth were real people. They were not, but they are based on folks like Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and Hal Needham.

The most notable real-person character would be Manson family murder victim Sharon Tate, played beautifully by Margot Robbie. She’s the luminous center of the movie, with Tarantino and Robbie taking the opportunity to show Tate as the beautiful, promising person and star Tate was rather than the footnote she’s become in the annals of Charles Manson’s bloody history. This is the first movie since her death that honestly pays homage to her rather than simply making her part of the Manson family rampage.

The Manson family plays a big part in Tarantino’s twisted fairy tale. The fictional Dalton happens to live next to Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, while Booth pays a visit to the Spahn Ranch. The Spahn Ranch is where the Manson family squatted, and Booth has a sit-down with Spahn himself (played by super-craggy Bruce Dern). Unlike recent movies that depict the Manson family as having some strange level of grace (Charlie Says), Tarantino shows them as bumbling, idiotic and pathetic. It’s a solid choice.

DiCaprio, in his first role since taking home his much-deserved Oscar for The Revenant (and his second role with Tarantino after Django Unchained), will probably find himself in the running for an Oscar again. He’s a nervous, hilarious mess as Dalton, a man prone to crying in public over his career, yet still capable of blowing up a TV set with tremendous acting fireworks. He has a trailer rant and a hostage-taking-bad-guy speech that now stand as two of his finest acting moments.

In what is also his second teaming with Tarantino (after Inglourious Basterds), Pitt is fantastically funny as a man coasting through life with little care in the world. He’ll face off with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a set he’s working just to shush his big mouth, or he’ll buy an acid-dipped cigarette for kicks. And when he smokes that cigarette, very strange things happen, and the wonderful Pitt laugh is put to its best use since he played Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

The end of the 1960s was bona fide nutty, and this is a nutty movie. It’s also quite heartfelt and moving.

Tarantino says he might only have one more movie in him after this one. I’m curious to see if he can top himself one more time, or if he just does that rumored Star Trek movie. Either way, Tarantino has left a distinctive mark on American cinema, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood adds to his perfect track record: He’s made nine movies, and all of them are at least good. This one is one of his best.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Revenant didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar, but it damn well should have.

Leonardo DiCaprio won a much-deserved Oscar for playing the legendary Hugh Glass, a real man who actually survived a bear attack and sought revenge from the men who left him to die.

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu (winner of the Best Director Oscar two years in a row) made a film that doesn’t stick to Glass’s actual storyline all that much. (The real life guy was actually too tired to do anything to the guys when he eventually found them.) His script works in a Native American son (Forrest Goodluck) and a deranged trapper (Tom Hardy, also nominated) along with Glass’ insatiable revenge lust. DiCaprio doesn’t say much with his mouth in the movie, but he says an awful lot with those eyes. His performance is a masterwork.

Equally good is Hardy, who portrays John Fitzgerald as a man operating under what turns out to be a rather naïve sense of justice. It’s his best work to date. Other supporting performances worth noting are Domhnall Gleeson as the leader of Glass’ expedition, and Will Poulter as a fellow trapper with a good heart who winds up getting into a lot of trouble.

It’ll be interesting to see what DiCaprio does next. This is a hard act to follow.

Special Features: The Blu-ray includes a near 45-minute documentary containing behind-the-scenes footage and great interviews with DiCaprio, Inarritu and others.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

For the second year in a row, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has delivered the year’s best film.

Inarritu was responsible for last year’s Birdman, and the best movie of 2015 is The Revenant, an eye-popping Western thriller that gives Leonardo DiCaprio the role that should finally score him his first Oscar.

DiCaprio gives it everything he’s got as Hugh Glass, a scout working with fur traders on the American frontier in the early 19th century. Glass, while doing his job, gets a little too close to a couple of bear cubs—and mama grizzly is not happy about such an occurrence.

What follows is a lengthy and vicious bear attack during which Glass tangles with the nasty mother not once, but twice. Inarritu, DiCaprio and some amazing visual technicians put you right in the middle of that bear attack—minus the searing pain of actually having a bear’s claws and teeth rip through your flesh. It’s an unforgettably visceral moment when that bear steps on Glass’ head.

With Glass seemingly at death’s door, the remaining party—including a conniving, paranoid trapper named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)—is left to decide what to do with him. Fitzgerald wants to put him out of his misery, much to the chagrin of Glass’ Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the expedition’s leader, Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).

Henry decides to soldier on without Glass, leaving him behind to die with Fitzgerald, Hawk and young Bridger (an excellent Will Poulter). Fitzgerald takes matters into his own hands, with Glass eventually buried alive and left for dead. This doesn’t set well with Glass, who slowly recovers from his wounds and sets out to exact revenge.

Yes, this is a revenge tale—and a rather simple one at that. Those looking for a spiritual and psychological examination of revenge containing long monologues need not see this. The Revenant is about the forces of nature, stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, trying to take down one man as he sets out on a killing mission. An uncaring wilderness throws everything it can at Glass to stop him in his tracks.

Some of what Inarritu does in the film’s few quieter, more-meditative moments reminds of the work of Terrence Malick, and that’s a good thing. For the most part, the movie is less about beautiful running rivers and more about surviving neck wounds while fending off attacking Native Americans and antsy fur trappers. What Inarritu and company achieve during these attack sequences is monumental: No movie has ever looked or felt like this. Throw in that bear attack, and you have a movie that will forever dent your skull.

DiCaprio doesn’t have much spoken dialogue. The majority of his performance consists of grunting, contorting his face and crawling on the ground (something he did memorably in The Wolf of Wall Street). His character has very few moments to smile, but when he does, it’s like having a warm blanket and hot cocoa after a week in sub-zero temperatures: It’s a major relief from the torment. 

Hardy and Gleeson, two of the hardest-working men in Hollywood right now, are magnificent in the film. Given the notoriously long and nasty shooting schedule they had to endure for The Revenant, I have no idea how they managed to appear in those other films. (They both appeared in four major 2015 movies.) They have truly mastered the art of scheduling events and tasks on their iPhones.

The Revenant is a masterpiece, and I suspect DiCaprio will finally get his Oscar. I also suspect camping numbers will take a plummet in the next year, while bear-repellent sales spike.

The Revenant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

This was my pick for the best picture of 2013, and Leonardo DiCaprio should’ve won an Oscar for playing likable scumbag Jordan Belfort. In fact, DiCaprio should have at least three Oscars on his mantle by now, but, alas, he has none.

Martin Scorsese’s latest explodes like a mortar full of deranged bliss. DiCaprio plays slimeball stockbroker and convicted felon Belfort, a real-life jackass who made millions selling penny stocks at a Long Island, N.Y., brokerage.

The movie, based on Belfort’s own autobiography, takes people doing bad, bad things to such an extreme level that the film doesn’t just stand as one of the best of 2013; it’s one of the best and most deranged comedies ever.

As Ray Liotta did in Goodfellas, DiCaprio talks to the camera on occasion, often during highly elaborate tracking shots that have become a Scorsese mainstay. It’s in these moments, and during Belfort’s drug fueled “Rouse the Troops” fire-breathing speeches, where DiCaprio does his most exhilarating acting to date.

Jonah Hill, in an Oscar-nominated role, knocks it out of the park as Belfort’s partner in crime. When the two ingest an abundance of Quaaludes, the sequence that follows stands as one of the best Scorsese has ever put to film. That’s saying a lot.

The best film of 2013 scored no Oscars, but it did net DiCaprio a Golden Globe for Best Performance in a Comedy. Yeah, the Golden Globes are totally strange when it comes to how they categorize things.

Special Features: The only supplement is a weak behind-the-scenes featurette. No Scorsese commentary. No deleted scenes. Boo!

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an explosive film—like a mortar full of deranged bliss.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2013’s best performance, plays slimeball stockbroker and convicted felon Jordan Belfort, a real-life scumbag who made millions selling penny stocks at a Long Island, New York, brokerage. The movie, based on Belfort’s autobiography, takes people doing bad, bad things to an unparalleled extreme.

The film begins with a rosy-cheeked Belfort starting work at a big Manhattan brokerage firm, where a brash, cocaine-addicted broker (played by Matthew McConaughey, capping off an incredible year) is his mentor. Belfort is ready to take the world by storm in the late ’80s, but 1987’s Black Monday strikes, destroying his new employer and putting him out of work.

He winds up in a Long Island boiler room schilling penny stocks for 50 percent commission. No problem: The boy can sell, and people are writing checks.

Belfort, with the assistance of new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, bedazzled with impossibly white caps on his teeth), opens a shiny new brokerage that has a first-class appearance—even though he’s still just slinging penny stocks. This time, he’s slinging them at people with big money, under the guise that the stocks are going to explode into major-market players. They probably won’t—but rich people like and trust Belfort, so they throw money at him.

Where there’s money, there are decadent shenanigans—and this is where Scorsese takes the movie to crazed extremes. Midget-tossing, hookers, half-naked marching bands and goldfish-eating are the orders of the day—with all of these activities enhanced by massive drug and alcohol consumption.

As Ray Liotta did in Goodfellas, DiCaprio talks to the camera on occasion, often during highly elaborate tracking shots (which have become a Scorsese mainstay). It’s in these moments, and during Belfort’s drug-fueled speeches to his crew, when DiCaprio does his most-exhilarating acting to date. He is a formidable competitor for a Best Actor Oscar. He’s certainly my pick.

It’s not just DiCaprio’s verbal pyrotechnics that amaze; in this film, he proves he’s a physical actor with phenomenal talent. In a scene in which Belfort and Azoff consume 15-year-old Quaaludes with a delayed trigger, DiCaprio rivals the likes of Steve Martin and Charlie Chaplin in his physical comedy. What he does with a Ferrari door and his leg must be seen to be believed. I couldn’t believe it was DiCaprio, and figured they must have put his face on a stunt man’s body via CGI. Nope, it’s him.

Hill continues to prove that he has good dramatic chops, and Kyle Chandler provides the films moral core (if it actually has one) as an FBI agent looking to take Belfort down. Margot Robbie is especially impressive as Belfort’s alternately commanding and befuddled wife.

Does The Wolf of Wall Street lack emotional warmth? Yes—and that’s precisely the point of this movie. Scorsese and DiCaprio are showing us the travesties of an emotionally void, tragically selfish group of people living life through a chemically enhanced haze. These people are terrible—comically terrible—and Scorsese holds nothing back in portraying them as such.

The Wolf of Wall Street shows Scorsese is in no way ready to slow down just yet. It’s not only good … it’s Goodfellas good.

The Wolf of Wall Street is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

It was a little worrisome when Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel had its release postponed last year. As it turns out, turning the film into a summer blockbuster rather than an awards-season contender was a great move, because this one felt right at home during the summer movie season.

Shot in glorious 3-D, this is a rollicking Roaring ’20s movie that shouldn’t be missed. Leonardo DiCaprio is a marvel in the title role, giving us a vulnerable and sometimes slightly crazy Gatsby who relentlessly pursues his love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). His visual intro in this film is one for the ages.

Tobey Maguire is excellent as narrator and Gatsby admirer Nick Carraway, while Joel Edgerton steals scenes as Tom Buchanan. Those who like Luhrmann’s opulent, sometimes-frantic style will find plenty to like. He also manages to effectively use music by Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey—in a movie set nearly a century ago.

Despite the big, headline-grabbing production delay, the film wound up being one of the summer’s better offerings, and it’s a sure contender for technical Oscars. (DiCaprio is solid enough for a nom here as well … but we’ll see.) Visually, this is one of the film year’s greater achievements. Dramatically, the stars give it substance beyond the style.

Special Features: A boatload of behind-the-scenes looks and some deleted scenes, including an alternate ending. This is being released today, Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The moment when we first see Leonardo DiCaprio’s face as the title character in Baz Luhrmann’s lavish adaptation of The Great Gatsby is perhaps the biggest “movie star” moment of DiCaprio’s career to date. As fireworks pop off in the night sky behind him, he turns and raises his glass to the camera in a way that exudes high-octane star charisma.

If you are a Luhrmann fan, and you appreciated his over-stylized vision in works like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (Let’s just forget Australia ever happened, shall we?), you are bound to find much to like in his Gatsby. It’s full of eye-popping visuals, lush costumes and terrific soundtrack stunts. (I loved hearing Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey while watching a picture set in the roaring ’20s.)

More important than any of the visual and audio treats is the fact that DiCaprio gives us cinema’s first “great” Gatsby. (Robert Redford played Gatsby once, and I am falling asleep just thinking about it.) Luhrmann slows the pace and lowers the volume for dramatic moments, and DiCaprio seizes these moments with substantial authority.

His Gatsby is an obsessed heartbreaker, relentlessly pursuing the love of the married Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a woman he met five years previous before going off to war. A lesser actor could make Gatsby come off as a true nutball/psycho, but DiCaprio gives us somebody who garners sympathy and makes complete sense in his own deranged, sad way. His Gatsby is the sweetest stalker you will see onscreen this year.

It’s great to see DiCaprio sharing the screen with longtime friend Tobey Maguire; he is equally good as Nick Carraway, who narrates the film as he writes a novel within the confines of a sanitarium. Their camaraderie feels quite natural.

Maguire commands the most screen time in the movie, and that’s a good thing. Before he became Spider-Man, he was one of Hollywood’s more-reliable dramatic actors in films like The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys. He’s the perfect choice for Carraway, a man who is at once intelligent, artistic and socially naïve. Maguire always does a fine job when required to look cute and confused.

One of the film’s greatest surprises is the amount of depth Joel Edgerton brings to the role of Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s lug of a husband. Edgerton commands one of the film’s greatest scenes: a confrontation with Gatsby regarding Daisy in a New York City hotel, over a block of ice and some whiskey. Edgerton makes this more than just a standard showdown between two men over a woman: He turns it into a bona fide romantic apocalypse.

As the object of multiple affections, Daisy, as played by Mulligan, offers bountiful charms to go with fatal vacuous tendencies. There are times when Gatsby’s pursuit is quite understandable based on how luminescent Mulligan looks in the role. Yet Mulligan, an actress of considerable talent, gives Daisy something far more complex below the surface. As anybody who has read the novel knows, Daisy is doomed to a dim emotional life, yet Mulligan has you always rooting for her to wise up.

Luhrmann made the daring choice to shoot the movie in 3-D, and this stands as one of the best usages of the medium. I wouldn’t think that a film simply set in 1920s New York would benefit from 3-D, but Luhrmann proves me wrong. Indeed, streaming confetti, orchids, popping champagne and DiCaprio’s face all get wonderful enhancement in 3-D. It adds a major element of fun to the film.

Some might decry Luhrmann’s crazy music choices, as he mixes modern music with old Cole Porter standards, yet he does it well. When Lana Del Rey’s voice comes up over a moving romantic moment, it doesn’t feel like a stunt. (I kind of hate her music, but it works really well in the film.) Music is indeed timeless when it comes to Luhrmann movies.

The film was delayed from December of last year (aka awards season). I thought it was strange to put an adaptation of a literary classic in the middle of summer-movie season, but after seeing it, the move makes perfect sense. It’s a heady movie, but it’s also the sort of feast for the eyes we want to see this time of year. And let’s face it: If the movie is good, and it has DiCaprio in it, that usually means big box office.

I imagine this will be another great DiCaprio performance that won’t get noticed come Oscar time. How this guy doesn’t have an Oscar yet is beyond me. He does have Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street coming later this year, so maybe that will put him in awards play.

As for that green dock light that Gatsby gazes upon through the night fog—where Daisy lives, across the lake—it’s a haunting image that will stick with you. Green traffic lights were making me weepy as I drove home after The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Django Unchained, out today (Tuesday, April 16) on Blu-Ray, is still my least-favorite Tarantino movie—but it’s growing on me. I liked it the first time I saw it, but I wanted to love it. When watching it on Blu-ray, I was more relaxed, and it went up a notch in my book.

This is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the great Sally Menke, who recently passed away. The first time I watched it, I really felt her absence in the beat of the film. However, on the second go-round, I allowed myself to take in the movie on its own terms. It’s a little clunky in spots, and a little long, but with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson propelling the story, some lags are forgivable.

Waltz got an Oscar for his portrayal of the bounty hunter with a heart of gold. His performance was great work, but if anybody in this movie deserved an Oscar, it was DiCaprio, as he went well beyond his safety zone, playing one of last year’s greatest scumbags. Tarantino got a screenplay Oscar; he won the same award for Pulp Fiction.

The plot involving a revisionist history/fantasy of pre-Civil War America has a similar vibe to the revisionist history of Inglourious Basterds. It feels a little bit like Tarantino is repeating himself. But Tarantino makes good movies, repeating himself or not. Still, I’m hoping his next film is a change of pace like Kill Bill was.

Tarantino has never made a movie I haven’t liked; he’s a master. Django is his weakest, but it’s still good.

I would love it if somebody gave him a superhero franchise. He would do some amazing things with something like the Fantastic Four.

Special Features: A few short behind-the-scenes docs. Tarantino doesn’t do commentaries (although I do remember that he did one for From Dusk Till Dawn with Robert Rodriguez). The supplements are underwhelming. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Quentin Tarantino is repeating himself a bit when it comes to his latest, Django Unchained.

Tarantino got off on revisionist history with Inglourious Basterds, changing the events of World War II for entertainment’s sake. He got away with it, because the movie was stylistically awesome, and Eli Roth wowed with his baseball bat.

This time, Tarantino has taken his crazy pen to the subject of slavery, and the result is an uncomfortable yet somewhat entertaining mixed bag.

The movie has all of the Tarantino-isms (super violence, awesome music choices, cutesy monologues), but it gave me that “been there, done that” feeling. For the first time ever during a Tarantino movie, I found myself a little bored at times.

Christoph Waltz, who played the evil Jew-hunter Nazi in Basterds, returns to Tarantino Land as Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter wandering around the South two years before the Civil War. He has the same ingenuity and flare for words that the Jew-hunter had, but he’s a much nicer human being. That is, unless you are one of his targets—then he will shoot you down like a dog in a spray of brains and intestine.

His character despises slavery, but purchases a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), because he heard Django has seen some men he needs to shoot. As it turns out, Django is a crack shot; the two become partners; and lots of evil crackers are going to die violent deaths.

Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), has been sold to an evil slave owner named Calvin Candie (a slithery Leonardo DiCaprio), and Schultz agrees to accompany Django on a mission to rescue her.

When DiCaprio enters the fray, the movie hits its highest heights. Tarantino allows the usually virtuous actor a chance to be truly disgusting, and DiCaprio jumps at the opportunity.

The movie is long (two hours and 45 minutes), as are some other Tarantino films. However, this is the first Tarantino film that felt long. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that this is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the late Sally Menke. Menke was a big part of the Tarantino universe, and her cuts were magical. Perhaps Menke would’ve made this gun-and-pony show fly by effortlessly, as she did with all of her other Tarantino projects.

Django Unchained is a sporadically entertaining film that feels a little off. It is also Tarantino’s most-sadistic film to date, and I say this while remembering the “Bring out the gimp!” scene from Pulp Fiction. Again, maybe Menke had a way of presenting Tarantino’s crazed visions that his current editor can’t summon up. The sort of stuff that is just plain nauseating here was actually kind of funny in past Tarantino efforts.

Waltz is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see him playing a crazy guy with a big heart. He’s usually such a prick in his movies, so it’s nice to see him in a heroic role. DiCaprio gives his part of the film a funny and sinister edge, although his monologue about the inner workings of a slave’s skull is a bit much. Foxx makes for a decent-enough hero.

Django Unchained is mediocre Tarantino at best, and I can only give the slightest of recommendations. See it for Waltz and DiCaprio.

I’m hoping this signifies the end of Tarantino’s revisionist-history and exploitation/grindhouse phase. Unfortunately, I just read a story where he teased an idea for a sequel to Basterds—so new and innovative ideas from Tarantino might be far away.

Django Unchained is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews