The Melancholy of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Mild spoilers for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

 

My first Tarantino film was 2012’s Django Unchained. It was my cinematic Big Bang, where I realized that movies were a collaborative experience in the vein of help achieving one’s imaginative vision. It helped me realize that film was an art form to express one’s self through comedy, violence or tragedy. It blew me away, more so than any other film I’d seen up to that point. Fast forward to today and I can confidently say that Tarantino is my favorite filmmaker, mainly in part to how he’s become the artistic definition of the word “director”. There are very few, count-on-one-hand filmmakers that can attract an entire audience solely by being involved, and I see him as the marquee name to that distinction.

It’s been interesting following his career. Starting as the new kid, the hot shot with Reservoir Dogs, then turning the cinematic medium upside down with Pulp Fiction, a film whose popularity and cultural influence could have easily typecasted Tarantino into making films like it. We now know that one of his greatest directorial strengths is adding variety to his work. In the quarter century since Pulp Fiction came out, we’ve seen Tarantino go into the blaxpoitation, martial arts, samurai, war, western and who dunnit genres, all with outstanding results. His love of cinema permeates each and every time he puts a film out, which makes Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood so special.

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With a filmography as dense with cinematic allusions and tributes as his, it’s surreal to watch a Tarantino film that takes place in the city, the industry that he unabashedly loves; it’s like Michael Bay directing a fireworks shop owner, or JJ Abrams making a Thomas Edison biopic.

Tarantino’s latest is predictably a love letter, a beautiful reminiscence of a time before. Rick Dalton, once the talk of the town, sees the parade pass him by, not as the main attraction, but a lowly bystander. He is desperate search for the next big job, slowly coming to the conclusion that there may never be a “next job”, not like before. Leonardo DiCaprio is cast as said movie star, with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth as his right hand (stunt)man.

What makes OUATIH unique from the rest of the director’s films is context, both narratively and within Tarantino’s career. He’s famously said that he’ll stop directing after his tenth picture, expressing his worry that going further may ruin the prestige of his work. If that’s to be believed, and we hold him to his work, we’re entering the theatre witnessing the true twilight of his career. No longer is he the hotshot who reignited John Travolta’s and Pam Grier’s career, or the center of the movie violence argument. In a time of sequels, reboots and remakes, the idea of the movie star or original IP is slowly becoming quieted out in favor of surer, easier investments. A new wave of cinema is starting to set in, and Tarantino knows this. He’s always been a champion of film, and rightly views it as an art, an event where one should prepare themselves to go to. He still shoots on film, hates the mere thought of CGI, and wouldn’t dare be a director for hire. He knows he’s old fashioned, and his latest film is a meditation on that feeling, even becoming a little insecure about it. The two main characters spend the vast majority of the picture looking back at the good ol’ days or try their best to replicate that success. It’s all done with sincerity and authenticity, as if Tarantino is writing Rick Dalton through his own eyes. Rick hates hippies, and maintains a well-mannered, clean shaven demeanor, even if he stands out from the rest of the city. He doesn’t follow the current trends because he knows no other way than what he knows. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and it’s used to infectious and tragic effect.

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Sharon Tate is prevalent to the story, being a beacon of light and optimism that the new wave of cinema would bring in the oncoming decade. Her place in the story has become the central place of criticism for the film, ranging from the apparent lack of any meaningful screen time or how inconsequential she is in relation to the Manson family subplot. The critique of ample screen time is understandable sure, but the intent with Tate’s character isn’t just “Tarantinoing” her up, but instead act as the New Wave ready to take over Hollywood. Her optimism, kindness, cheerfulness is a direct contrast to not only the central protagonists, but how many view her legacy. Tarantino doesn’t dwell on the violent reality that Sharon meets, an event that will forever change how we look at her career and body of work. Here she’s portrayed as a star on the rise, one who lives in the moment dreaming of a fruitful career. She’s essentially the least flawed character Tarantino has ever penned, a brilliant juxtaposition to a violently tragic reality.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s Roma. This has all the trappings of a film made by him, but has moments that are so drawn out and specific, that we’re able to see the director’s gleeful affinity for cinema but also be wrapped up in its melancholy. It’s an examination of one’s own body of work and questions its own relevance going forward. This isn’t an old man shouting to the sky in rejection of the future, but rather a bittersweet tribute to a time that was pure and innocent, a fairytale of what was and what should’ve been.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: A Review

God, there’s too many colons.

When it was announced that Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars, with the intention of making new films for a new generation, I reveled in the endless possibilities as to the stories that can be told. What happened after Return of the Jedi? What was Obi-Wan doing for all that time in Tattoine? What new characters are we going to meet? On top of that, I dreamed over the idea that new filmmakers were able to put their spin on a franchise of this magnitude. Names like Joss Whedon, Brad Bird, JJ Abrams, even David Fincher were at one point linked with a new Star Wars film. I never loved the idea of a Han Solo film, but to have Phil Lord and Christopher Lord (21 and 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) at the helm? Count me in.

Alas, amidst production drama, Lord and Miller got the boot and were replaced with the always reliable Ron Howard, and here we are. Solo: A Star Wars Story is out, and the final product is an adequate, if uninteresting film. I say adequate, because on a technical level, the film is perfectly fine. The special effects are stellar, as expected. The action scenes are very fun, and Howard does his absolute damnedest to prevent this from being a complete disaster. Not to mention, I am very relieved to say that the performances are good. Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson do what they can with the material given, turning stale characterizations into, at the very least, entertaining Star Wars characters. Childish Gambino himself, Donald Glover is effortlessly charming and joyous to watch as Lando Calrissian, perfectly complimenting the role Billy Dee Williams made iconic nearly four decades ago. He’s breezy, cool and relaxed as Lando. However, even if this film serviced Oscar winning performances, the failure of the title character would be the failure of the film entire. With the being said, Alden Ehrenreich is perfectly serviceable as the famed scruffy looking nerf herder. Ehrenreich doesn’t try a Harrison Ford impression, almost as if he played the part as if there was no precedence before, which is great. The worst thing that he could have done is change the register of his voice, or smirk at the end of every sentence like many impressionists do. In that respect, Ehrenreich gets the job done.

The predominant issue of this film, however, is its very existence. Han Solo is one of the most beloved and celebrated characters in cinema history, but mostly as a side character. To put him front and center should take heavy consideration and thought, since you’re running the risk of having too much of a good thing. Solo does not suffer from this, but it hardly does anything new, fresh or inventive with the title character. Han Solo is being Han Solo, which is better than bastardizing the character, but the film comes off as uneventful and at times, boring.

We will never see Lord and Miller’s intended vision for this film, but knowing their high energy, spontaneous and unpredictable tones that their films adopt, a Han Solo film would have benefited exponentially from their technique. Their films are chaotic, fast paced, and heartfelt: traits that encapsulate the character of Han Solo. I have favored the Disney Star Wars experiment thus far. Yes I liked The Last Jedi. Say what you will about TLJ, and there is a lot, but at it least it took chances with Star Wars lore and felt like an original piece of work, compared to the nostalgic pandering that the other films are, in some way, guilty of. If Lucasfilm wants their films to succeed, they must be comfortable with taking risks. Lord and Miller could have been that risk that paid off, but that discussion will always conclude within the realm of the hypothetical. There are young, hungry filmmakers that have the potential to make the next great Star Wars movie. The MCU have had a wealth of success because they instill trust within their filmmakers, like Joss Whedon, Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and James Gunn (Edgar Wright notwithstanding). Those films are changing the state of blockbuster cinema, and though Ron Howard does a perfectly adequate job at the helm, knowing that Solo could have been different, and potentially better film is a hard pill to swallow. There’s a line in the film, “Stick to the plan, and do NOT improvise”, which perfectly encapsulates this film, as it’s a standard, inconsequential affair that frights at the idea of becoming something better.

 

Grade: C+