Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A Lackluster Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to movie buffs.  And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood continues to feature the themes Tarantino cherishes.  With a fully-loaded cast of A-list actors, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio,  what we witness is more a “buddy film” than the advertised “tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. But for the audience who does not know the story of Charles Manson and his grasp on the American collective psyche,  the film needs more backstory to fill in plot holes. On the plus side, Tarantino loves cinematic history and Once Upon a Time’s references to the landscape and artifacts of 1969 Hollywood are thoughtfully and minutely reconstructed.

The world around the aging Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio), along with his loyal body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is both fictional and not. Both are co-dependent and struggling with declining careers.  The first moon landing a mere three weeks before the Beverly Hills massacre of five people, including the nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife to Roman Polanski, a top movie director of the time, August 1969 was a time of both horror and jubilation.

The viewer who knows about Charles Manson and his notorious bloodbath prepares for the pending violence Tarantino is often criticized for:  gratuitous depictions of violence against women. But no one escapes. Without giving too much away, Once Upon a Time builds upon a  “what if” narrative.  But for viewers who are not  familiar with the Charles Manson saga, there is no “what if,” just a senseless action thriller without the irony and fictionalization of history. 

And, to add to Once Upon a Time‘s reliance on shock value and stomach-churning bloodletting, especially of one woman’s skull, the only depictions of  the two women who have any roles more than a few lines–Sharon Tate (a waste of talented Margot Robbie) and Squeaky, one of Manson’s cult followers (played by the always reliable Dakota Fanning)– are cardboard cutouts in the Tarantino style, posturing with long-legged shots that focus more on their extremities than on what they are saying.    

I am not a fan of most of the films produced by Quentin Tarrantino, but  there is still something to admire about the attention to detail in reconstructing the time and place, and in the chemistry between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  And this is  a generous reading of what to like about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Note:  At almost three hours in length, the “saggy middle” of this movie could have been eliminated with less footage of driving, walking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the pointless Bruce Lee scene.

“The Great Gatsby”–Revisiting an American Classic

Gatsby jacket

The new version of the F. Scott Fitgerald’s celebrated classic (1925) by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge fame) has divided critics. Half of professional movie critics praised the movie, the other half panned it.

Gatsby 2There will be endless reinterpretations of a novel that has become burdened as a literary icon, the Great American Classic. Mr. Luhrmann’s reverence for the source material is evident. Occasionally he quotes dialogue directly. But he has also made the narrative his own: a wayward, lavish theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Gatsby embodied.  For that reason alone, this film should be celebrated for its eager, calculating mix of refinement and vulgarity, trust and betrayal, freedom and entrapment.  Filmmaker Lurhmann has bravely ventured in with costumes and landscape not entirely authentic for the period, rap music by Jay-Z , with little jazz featured, and the story is of an American Dream and class system some viewers will take issue with, and circus-like showmanship, sometimes excessive. But after all, Gatsby was nothing if not gaudy and glitzy.

Fitzgerald’s novel is not easy to film.   For most young viewers the Gilded Age, Roaring ’20s, and Jazz Age feel about as distant to them as Shakespeare.  Labeled an American classic, a cautionary tale about the decline of American moral values, Fitzgerald’s novel eviscerates the American Dream as the dream for happiness through material wealth.

And this year’s “Great Gatsby” never loses sight of that central message. But Luhrmann also wants to start over in revealing a new Gatsby.  The filmmaker’s astute reinterpretation captures not only the emotional core of the narrative but also its primary intellectual themes. There is a much better rendering of the novel’s symbolism, of loss that cannot be regained:  lost love, self-respect, values–even though the American Dream (myth) is you can start over. This is exactly how Fitzgerald intended Gatsby to be: a man of inconsolable desperation, dreaming an impossible dream.

Great Gatsby 3Leonardo DiCaprio breathes new life into Gatsby’s character and personality.   Unlike Robert Redford’s Gatsby in the 1974 movie version, DiCaprio convincingly plays a stupendously rich entrepreneur with a secret past, too poor to be accepted by upper-class society. Redford was too pretty a patrician face to be believable as a driven businessman who clawed his way to great wealth. In sharp contrast, DiCaprio’s Gatsby subtly evokes sympathy–he has been fooled by the society he wishes so much to enter.  Even his beloved Daisy (well played by Carey Mulligan), is incapable of leaving her social standing to be with him.

The entire movie has been well-cast.  Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan loves and yet endures not being loved at the same time.  Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the friend and narrator, has undoubtedly the most challenging role and succeeds as the observer who does not know who is authentic, who is the liar and who is the truth-teller.

Fitzgerald’s prose is stunning and Luhrmann conveys some of the literary quality with floating letters and various fonts superimposed on screen.  Elements of irony and tragedy, observed through the narrator’s voice, require such visual cues. And, some of the screen shots are masterpieces of art.  For those of you who remember your term papers on this book, the green light (a symbol for Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy) is carefully placed without being overdone.  The same can be said of the faded billboard of Dr. Eckleburg’s spectacles, — a puzzling metaphor Fitzgerald uses–that rarely appeared in the 1974 version.  It is adroitly presented here as a visual punch for the growing commercialism in America.


“J. Edgar”—Investigating the Investigator


Based upon a script by “Milk” screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” is a biopic of the controversial FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. In this spellbinding movie, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hoover, ages five decades, as he grows from an ambitious young law enforcer to the most powerful, controversial,  and intimidating FBI director the US has ever known.  Even presidents feared him.

“J. Edgar” depicts Hoover’s early career (the 1930’s), including raids on Communist “radicals” and organized crime, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and his most brazen surveillance for the purpose of destroying the presidency of John Kennedy, the career of Robert Kennedy, as well as that of Martin Luther King.  However, it is the secret life of Hoover that is the most compelling and successful part of the narrative, because the film tries to humanize him.  For a man whose life was devoted to extracting and exploiting the secrets of other powerful men and women, Hoover’s own secret life as a closeted homosexual takes central stage as the biography moves between his lifelong relationship with his protégé, Clyde Tolson (superbly played by Armie Hammer) and his domineering, demented mother (the always exceptional Judi Dench).


Hoover’s own obsessive-compulsive tendencies–his hidden psychic wounds– drive his relentless concern with his image and the image of the FBI.  Ironically, the primal image of the name “J. Edgar Hoover” today denotes government investigation gone rogue.


The structure of the movie and its cinematography, however, are the weakest elements of “J. Edgar”. The overdone flashbacks disconnect important events by decades–moving from the Lindbergh kidnapping to long scenes of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and then back to the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial. Eastwood shoots this story in a washed-out sepia color palette for most of the scenes from the 1930’s through early 50’s with more color added as the dramatic 1960’s emerge in the story. But these visual cues are not enough to maintain a seamless continuity of events. This is the best movie Eastwood has directed of the last four (the other three being “Changeling”, “Invictus”, and “Hereafter”) but not among the best he has done (“Letters to Iwo Jima”, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”). Nonetheless, I highly recommend this movie for the actors’ bravura performances–especially DiCaprio’s, which defines his career to date.

***Possible spoiler alert!***The scene where DiCaprio dresses in his deceased mother’s clothes triggers a similar scene from “Psycho” and is well worth an Academy nomination in itself for DiCaprio’s chilling, wordless performance!