Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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If Tim Burton was on a studio leash with 1989's Batman, he's been completely unchained for this one. The entire film drips with the director's influence, from the eerie set decorations (characteristic black and white stripes abound) and twisted fairy tale atmosphere to the oddball cameos (dig Pee-Wee Herman and his Big Adventure co-star Simone as the Penguin's parents) and hypnotic Danny Elfman score. Throw in a heavily-costumed Danny DeVito, overacting his heart out as a creepy, deformed, sewer-dwelling foil and Christopher Walken, doing his most wild-eyed, exaggerated Christopher Walken impression, and you've got... a mystifying ensemble, to say the least. Elsewhere, Michelle Pfeiffer turns in the film's most memorable performance as an unhinged secretary-turned-feline and leading man Michael Keaton once again plays a supporting role in his own movie, greatly troubled by all the unbridled insanity unfolding around him.
In many ways, Batman Returns goes out of its way to distance itself from its predecessor, while still trying to ape the bleak atmosphere and sheer quotability of the original. Those tricks don't work half as well this time, feeling more like a forced obligation than a natural eccentricity. Maybe the writing team lost its spark, or maybe DeVito, Pfeiffer and Keaton can't put as much sheen on a silly line as Jack Nicholson could. Whatever the cause, this one underperforms. Mesmerizing for all the weirdness, amusing for its litany of quirks, but a little too out-there and nonsensical for its own good.
After a dozen years of sabbatical, Sean Connery slips into an old tuxedo, wraps his fist around a cold martini and reclaims the role of James Bond for one last lap around the racetrack. Connery looks rather gray for the part, but neither he nor the filmmakers shy away from that. Rather, he's portrayed as an old spy come out of retirement, with a renewed reliance on gadgets and sneaky tricks in lieu of dust-ups or more physical slices of action. That's admirably honest, particularly in contrast to Eon's stubborn insistence that fifty-six year old Roger Moore was not an older man at all, and it might've paid off, had the ensuing film shown any sense of style or panache.
Instead, Never Say Never Again is thoroughly safe, flat and workmanlike, as though it were already looking forward to cashing checks for the sequel. There's no fire to the plot, no energy to the performances. Sir Sean seems perfectly content to let his mere presence do all the work, showing no sign of the magnetic, charismatic personality that once made him so irresistible. Much of the film's structure feels silly and out-of-date, too, perhaps reaching for familiar material to put the aging superstar at ease. Even the big set pieces land with a thud. How is it possible for a jetpack chase to feel so boring?
Grinding through the last hour is a terrible chore, drug out and underwhelming as it is. By that point, it's already obvious that not even James Bond can pull out of this tailspin.
A riveting courtroom drama from early-career Aaron Sorkin, one that's absolutely stuffed with taut suspense, gripping dialog and A-list actors delivering lifetime performances. Not bad for a first-time screenwriter. It's an intelligent film that smoothly toes the line between spelling things out and relying on legalese to skim the details. The audience gets a thorough understanding of the issue, the limits of the law and the goal of both teams, but that information is slowly rationed and rarely over-explained.
We see vivid flaws in our heroes and earnest values in our villains. Each important player gets their chance to shine, and boy, do they all smack the ball out of the park. None moreso than Jack Nicholson, whose "You can't handle the truth" outburst has become synonymous with the picture. That speech still holds incredible power today, not just for the substance of the words (which remain pertinent, nearly thirty years later) but for the raw, unguarded emotion of Nicholson's delivery. It's easy to overlook the fact that he's scarcely on-screen for fifteen minutes, that climactic delivery resonates for so long. Tom Cruise and Demi Moore also bring their very best - I don't think Jack's moment burns quite so bright without Cruise there to egg him on - and a whole mess of supporting players are equally motivated, but that's just water under the bridge. It's all about getting to that speech, about earning that speech, and then basking in the afterglow of what it meant.
Daring, unflinching, passionate moviemaking that keeps us guessing to the very last breath. It's still every bit as good as I remembered.
Quentin Tarantino's back, with a grand posse of his favorite actors, to tackle the faded sheen and troubled dreams of celebrity life in Hollywood during the late '60s. Although their subjects are quite different, this film's structure is very similar to the preceding Hateful Eight, in that it takes forever to get where it's going and tends to linger on short, irrelevant asides that add to the tapestry but don't have much influence on the greater plot. It's loaded with flavor, lovely little touches that bring a very specific slice of life back into the present, but after a while it begins to feel over-indulgent. As if the director just wanted an excuse to recreate a beloved time and place, then take a stroll, breathe the air and look around.
Once Upon a Time is peppered with entertaining performances and amusing cameos, with particularly impressive work from Margot Robbie as the sweet, sunshiny Sharon Tate and Brad Pitt as a guarded, past-his-prime bachelor in the John Wayne mold. The city and studio lots all look great, bustling and alive, with various characters' paths crossing in a string of complex, delightful coincidences. And the last scene, loosely (er, very loosely) depicting the Manson family's violent siege on the Hollywood Hills, is pure Tarantino. Chaotic, gratuitous violence, rampant unpredictability, explosive payoffs... crookedly wonderful in the most wicked of ways. I don't want to spoil anything, because the surprise is part of the fun, but at that moment it changes gears from Hateful Eight to Inglourious Basterds. You'll know what I mean if you see it.
I didn't dislike this, but I didn't love it. It certainly would've benefitted from some selective editing and smoother pacing. I think the importance of Sally Menke, Tarantino's longtime partner and behind-the-scenes collaborator, who died in 2010, has been evident in the director's recent output.
A classic, scathing lampoon of every successful rock band that's ever been guilty of taking themselves too seriously. Rob Reiner directs (and plays an important supporting role) but it seems like all he really needed to do was point a camera in the right direction, then edit several hours' worth of golden improvisational delight into a concise, intelligible ninety-minute package. It's a roaring parade of nonstop laughs, some blunt and easy, others sharp and witty. Famous bits like Christopher Guest's "this one goes to eleven" have been played to death but still elicit smiles, while deeper cuts, such as the band's reaction to contemporary critics or their infamous Stonehenge performance, land as if they were brand new. And the music is great, too, not just as a cutting satire, but as a convincing love letter to the days when power rock was all the rage and flocks of buzzed, well-feathered teens would still pack a stadium to hear the loudest noise on the planet. An enduring masterpiece.