ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD: 4 ½ STARS
I went to see "Pulp Fiction" on its October 1994 opening weekend at a 2:30 pm screening. I arrived at 2:15 p.m., stood in line and waited. And waited. The shows were delayed because audiences weren't leaving after the credits. They were sitting in their seats talking about what they had just seen. Months of hype in the newspapers and on shows like "Entertainment Tonight" ignited curiosity and the movie delivered, using a broken timeline, ultra-violence and witty dialogue to bend the idea of what a movie could be. Just after 3 p.m. the movie finally started. Later, mind blown, I didn't stick around the theatre to discuss the movie with anyone. I ran to the box office, bought a ticket for the next screening and got back in line.
Quentin Tarantino's new film, "Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood," doesn't have quite the same impact as "Pulp Fiction," but it digs deeper, expanding on themes the director has spent a career exploring. "Pulp Fiction" was a seismic shift, a movie that changed the face of 1990s cinema, while "Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood" is an allegory for changing times.
As the title would suggest "Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood" has dark fairy tale elements. Set in sun dappled 1969 Los Angeles, it focusses on two almost down-and-outers, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a former series star now reduced to doing episodic television — "It's official old buddy. I'm a has-been." — and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a self-described "old cowboy." Both are on a race to the bottom in an industry they don't understand anymore.
Next to Dalton's luxury Cielo Drive home is a mansion owned by starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), party place to L.A. luminaries like heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). As Dalton and Booth's Hollywood era comes to a close, another is blossoming next door and further on down the road at Manson Family HQ and former western movie set Spahn Ranch.
There will be no spoilers here. I can say the various narrative shards dovetail together in a frenzy of grindhouse violence near the end, but "OUAT… IH" isn't story driven as much as it is a detailed portrait of a time and place, the moment when the sea change was coming. Piece by piece, Tarantino weaves together a nostalgic pastiche of B-movie tropes and expertly rendered sights and sounds to create a vivid portrait of a time and place. With the setting established, he plays mix and match, blending fact and fiction, creating his own history that feels like a carefully detailed memory play.
Pitt screaming down Hollywood Boulevard in a powder blue sports car is the essence of what the movie is about. The propulsive energy of Hollywood, dangerous, glamorous with the promise of ending up who knows where. The characters may all be headed for uncertain futures but an air of optimism hangs over the story. Dalton is down on his luck but when he realizes his neighbour is a world-famous director he says, "I could be one pool party away from starring in the next Polanski movie." He's a man out of time but still feels there might be a place for him in that world and that is the lifeblood of Hollywood, the city built on dreams.
One such dreamer is Tate. Robbie has a lovely scene as the actress enjoying her own movie in a darkened theatre. It does away with the stylized dialogue Tarantino is known for and instead focusses on the pure joy the character feels at watching her dreams come true on the big screen. It's a lovely scene that speaks to the excitement of the first blush of success, untouched by cynicism in an increasingly cynical world.
"Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood" is unique in its feel. Tarantino has always been singular in his filmmaking but this one feels different. It's clearly rooted in the B-movies that inspire his vision but here he is contemplative, allowing his leads — DiCaprio and Pitt in full-on charismatic mode — to channel and portray the insecurities that accompany uncertainty. The film is specific in it's setting but universal in portrayal of how people react to the shifting sands of time. Funny, sad and occasionally outrageous, it's just like real life as filtered through a camera lens.
ASTRONAUT: 2 ½ STARS
Despite the name "Astronaut," a new film starring Richard Dreyfuss, is a decidedly Earth-bound drama.
Dreyfuss plays Angus, an elderly, retired civil engineer grieving the loss of his late wife. As he prepares to sell the home they shared he stays with daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent) and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) before taking the next step of moving into a retirement home. In frail health, he senses the end is near but is given a boost when he gets the chance to fulfill a childhood dream courtesy of a contest from billionaire Marcus Brown's (Colm Feore) Ventura Space Program's private shuttle launch. It's a "lottery for someone who thinks big" that will send twelve lucky people into orbit. Angus is too old and too sick, but he has always dreamed of going to space. "People have been looking up at the stars forever," he says, "and I think it's always for the same reason. To see where we belong."
"Astronaut" never quite gets airborne but has its charms courtesy of the straightforward storytelling and nice performances. It's lovely to see Dreyfuss in a film that allows him to show the character's humanity while still looking at the stars. It also stirs up nostalgic feelings, like a lo-fi revisit of his character from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He anchors the film, whether he is interacting with his grandson or relating to Len (Graham Greene), a non-verbal resident in the nursing home, in a performance infused with the gravitas of an older person trying to assert his worth.
"Astronaut" makes some obvious choices that prevent it from fully taking flight — a dance sequence at the nursing home is particularly awful — but has enough to say about aging and following your dreams to earn it a look for family audiences.
BETHANY HAMILTON: UNSTOPPABLE: 3 STARS
"Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable" begins sixteen years after the event that shaped the young surfer's life. This story of determination, grit and hangin' ten comes with a splash of irony as the woman whose arm was bitten off by a shark prepares to conquer a nasty stretch of big wave surfing breaks off the coast of Maui nicknamed "Jaws."
The Aaron Lieber directed doc begins in current day as Hamilton's team prepares for the biggest surf of her career before flashing back to detail her newsworthy career. A surf prodigy, she began competitive boarding at age eight and, as part of the Hanalei Surf Co. team, the youngster far outpaced more experienced surfers. It looked like everything was going to be snatched away, however, in 2003 when she was the victim of a shark attack surf at Tunnels Beach in Ha'ena with her best friend Alana Blanchard (who appears in the film). Her arm, severed from the shoulder, was lost and with it, it seemed, so was her budding career. But, just four weeks later, she was back on a board, competing professionally and winning the Best Comeback Athlete ESPY Award.
It's forceful stuff, nicely told with the use of home movies and new interviews, but it's similar territory to anyone who saw the 2011 biopic based on her bestselling book "Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board."
More compelling is the depiction of her life post-accident as she fights to maintain her place in the surfing world while balancing marriage and motherhood.
"Unstoppable," shot over the course of four years, eventually leads back to the sea and the big waves that have entranced Hamilton since her youth. Lieber, a specialist in surf cinematography, provides spectacular footage of Hamilton atop a board, lending the film, which relies on camcorder footage in its early moments, some much needed visual flair.
At the core of "Unstoppable" is Hamilton, a driven multi-tasker who at twenty-six-years-of-age has beaten all odds to pursue her dream. "I think of all the struggles and pains I faced and have gone through," she says, "and really it is God that got me through that. At the same time God gave me this passion to surf and it wasn't like the passion had been taken too."
More inspiring than enlightening, the doc never gets into deep waters. Like the surfers who skim the surface, searching for a big moment as they float on the water, "Unstoppable" is content to glide along. She is presented as an inspiration, the kind of person about whom people say, "Bethany reminding people of what she is capable of is sending people a message whether she wins or not." It isn't particularly insightful but it is inspiring in a pop psychology kind of way, painting a portrait of a person who scrawls the "Always Hope" in cement at a walk of fame presentation.