Fading Glories (Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, 2019)

Once_Upon_A_Time_In_Hollywood_PosterAnd so here we are at Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film (Apparently Death Proof does not count?).  A pretty loving homage to the Hollywood of the 60’s, Tarantino weaves a tale of fading actor Rick Dalton and his best friend Cliff Booth and their place in it all.  Cliff is less bothered, content to help out his friend and then spend the evening sitting in front the TV with his dog. But after a meeting with producer Marvin Schwarz, Rick is realizing he is becoming…well obsolete…and it scares him.

I suspect Dalton’s crisis is not uncommon in Hollywood…but does it make for a great story?

Yeah.  It turns out that here? It sure does.

Now, of course, this is in part, due to the performances of both DiCaprio and Pitt as Dalton and Booth respectively. DeCaprio’s portrayal is both hilarious and endearing. Pitt gives Booth a real sense of casual cool.

Once_Upon_A_Time_In_Hollywood_Alt_PosterThe writing is both the cleverness we expect from Tarantino matched with compelling characters (there is a bit of a question if Cliff is maybe a darker guy, but the film leaves the door open on just how dark). I would say the weakest link in the main characters is Robbie’s Sharon Tate. Not because Robbie is a bad actress. She is charming and kind as Tate.  There is a sequence where we see Robbie express insecurity turning to joy as she watches a movie she is in with an audience. Robbie sells this moment. But she feels so incidental to the story for much of the time.

The cast is just full of great talent… Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant and a pretty endless group bringing their A-game.

Visually, the film feels it is of another time, truly like a creature of the 60’s. And the soundtrack is darn near perfect.

My only real criticism is a somewhat lazy time jump that glosses over six months. But, admittedly, had they shown all of it, the film would be, like five hours long. And I do like listening to the Kurt Russell narration.

I found Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood great fun.  Bear in mind, this is a Tarantino film…if you hate his previous work, I don’t think this will change your mind. But fans will appreciate this one for sure.

Hunky Clause Is Coming to Town (The Christmas Chronicles, 2018)

Christmas_Chronicles_PosterTeddy and Kate grew up in a happy home with joyful parents and a truly festive father. Through a series of home videos we meet the family, first Doug and Claire, then Teddy and soon Kate. But by the time we reach the present, the happy family is in a different state…Claire is a nurse struggling to keep her fraying home life together at all. Doug is nowhere to be seen and the once tight-knit Teddy and Kate are in constant fights, in part because Teddy has become withdrawn and started to follow a path of crime.

When he is forced to babysit his sister on Christmas eve, Teddy gives into Kate begging him to watch an old Christmas video. Insisting she sees Santa slip into the picture, they set up to watch for Santa.  But rather than just get video proof, Kate slips into Santa’s slay. The two are soon revealed and after a crash landing find themselves having to help Santa successfully get his reindeer, hat and presents and everything delivered within a few hours or ruin Christmas.

It is a pretty simple story with common beats, kids who need to learn the truth about themselves and Christmas…redemption.

Does this mean it is bad or even just boring? Actually, no. The film actually is pretty entertaining. It is light and fun, but still can hit some emotional resonance.  The reveal of why their father is no longer there and how this drives Teddy.

Of course, the biggest help for the film is Kurt Russell as probably the toughest hunk of a Santa Ever. Russell plays the role with a nod to the notion that he is not really the most likely candidate for Santa…but he brings his own kindly tough guy charm to the film. This is a modern Santa, yet still a very magical one.

For me, this one mostly hits the right notes, enough to find it an entertaining holiday film.

Plus, while obviously animated, it was kind of nice that they did not just put a bunch of kids in pointy ears and call them elves.

Making Memories All Over Again (Overboard, 2018)

Overboard_2018_posterI suppose it was inevitable that somebody was going to go and remake Garry Marshall’s beloved Overboard. This time around, they try to counter the creepy factor by switching the roles.  Leonardo is a rich Spanish playboy who has never worked a day in his life. He has no respect for his employees, and when single mom and nursing student Kate arrives to clean the carpet of his yacht, things go south. Kate gets in a fight with Leonardo who then throws her (and her equipment) overboard.

One night, Leonardo falls overboard and gets amnesia. Kate decides she wants revenge and concocts a plan to convince Leonardo and the authorities that they are married.

She brings the confused Leonardo home and then uses him to take care of the house to allow her to focus on school. Her best friend’s husband gives him a construction job. What follows is nearly a point by point remake.

I found it harder to ignore the creepy factor, since Kate is bringing a strange man into his house with her three daughters.  Eugenio Derbeznever comes off as creepy with the daughters though. Instead, he does a pretty good job as Leo grows to care deeply for the girls. In fact, one scene that I thought worked far better in this film than the original is the moment he has regained his memory and is leaving the family. The three young girls chase after him, desperate for him to stay.  The youngest, who he taught to ride a bike races her bike as fast as she can screaming out for Leo as she falls farther and farther back from the limo.

Anna Faris is certainly funny and has a real sweetness (though she really is playing a character similar to her character Christie on the show Mom). Then there is Eva Longoria and Mel Rodriguez the husband and wife that are Kate’s moral support. They are an enjoyable couple.

This is not nearly as good as the original, but has a good cast that makes the film watchable.

Making Memories (Overboard, 1987)

Overboard_1987_PosterThe self absorbed and rich Joanna hires carpenter Dean Profitt. She is obnoxious and genuinely mean. But after an accident leaves her with amnesia, single parent Dean convinces her they are married and she is the mother to his four boys.

Wow. This sounds criminal and positively creepy. So why is Overboard remembered so fondly by people? Why is Dean a lovable scamp, rather than a disturbed monster for so many viewers? Weeeeeelll…

As one of those people who really does like this film, a whole lot of it is on the shoulders of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. They do the heavy lifting to make this palatable here. Joanna is purely unpleasant, but Hawn gives her a hint of humanity when, long after Proffitt has been left behind (without being paid for his work) she is bothered by his commentary on her life. Russell plays Dean as a guy who is clearly kind of lost and refuses to be a parent to his boys. He simply wants to be a pal.

The film acknowledges from the start that Dean’s deception is wrong.  And in the beginning? Russell puts a lot of charm into his being selfish. But as time progresses, Joanna starts to adjust to her life and her belief that this is her family.  She starts to stand up for the boys and push back.

The entire cast of the film is great, and there are some genuinely great moments between Hawn and Roddy McDowell who plays Joanna’s long suffering servant. Especially a scene where Joanna realizes how terrible she has treated him, and yet he has done nothing but work to meet her every need.  Hawn is very convincing in her change as Joanna realizes she no longer feels at home in her own world. Upon her apology, McDowell (who has a look of genuine compassion for her in that moment) gives advice noting that she has had a very rare privilege to see life from a perspective beyond the one she was born to.

It is the performances that elevate the film above a creepy plot device. And it really is enjoyable. Hawn and Russell have a solid onscreen chemistry (no doubt due to their offscreen relationship) and both have real comedic chops that keep you focused on the characters rather than the situation. So why does a creepy premise not tank the film? Honestly? Um…just because…?


In Their Prime (Tombstone, 1993)

Tombstone_Movie_PosterWyatt Earp arrives with his wife Mattie in the town of Tombstone during the silver boom.  He meets with his brothers Virgil and Morgan and their wives.  Shortly after taking over work in the local saloon running the poker table, his friend Doc Holliday shows up.

The town has an uneasy relationship with the gang known as the Cowboys.  Things escalate when Cowboy leader Curly Bill shoots the Sheriff Fred White.  As much as Wyatt pushes against going back into the law business, he gives in when Virgil and Morgan feel they just cannot turn their backs on the town.  In fact, Virgil feels that making money off a fearful and oppressed citizenry is pretty awful.

Things mount between the Earps and the Cowboys, culminating in a bloody ride.

Tombstone has a stellar cast.  I mean, if you tell me you have a movie with Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton, I am ready to hand you my money.  But this film has Val Kilmer, Powers Booth and Terry O’Quinn.  It features early performances from Billy Bob Thorton, Stephen Lang and Michael Rooker.

Although credited to George P. Cosmatos (Leviathan, Cobra) as director, the majority of the film was directed by Russell after writer and original director Kevin Jarre was fired. This is, of course, according to Russell. If this is the end result, one wonders why Russell has not tried his hand at directing since.

Now, Tombstone is not a historical document.  The film ignores Earp’s legal troubles, and glosses over the fact that his wife Josephine and he were not star crossed lovers (she having a gambling problem and he having affairs).  The film also ignore aspects of Mattie’s history, only noting that she eventually died of a drug overdose.

But Tombstone is, admittedly, much more a love letter to the traditional western than Unforgiven only a year before.  While violence begets violence here, it is made to feel far more justified.  In real life, Curly Bill was not merely freed on a technicality. He claimed it was accidental and Earp even testified to this. So, in the film, it seems to lean more towards flat out murder by Curly Bill. The good guys are good, through and through. The bad guys are largely unredeemable.  But if you are able to look past the loose play with history, Tombstone is full of rewards.

Speed Racers Pt 8 (The Fate of the Furious, 2017)

fast_and_furious_008_posterIf prizes were awarded for the most inconsistently named franchise?  Pretty sure this franchise would own that.  If George Lucas was involved, they would all get renamed something like Dom Toretto and the  Fast and The Furious (Who care if Vin is in every film or not).

By this time, our heroes have gone from criminals to underdogs to helping the authorities.  But after saving the world last time around, Dom has apparently switched sides and is helping Charlize Theron take on the world.  She is an evil hacker with big plans…and so Mr. Nobody calls in The Fast and Furious team and a surprise guest…the last film’s villain (Jason Statham).  Has Dom truly gone bad?  Is he really turning his back on his family?

This is the first film in the franchise not directed by Justin Lin, and it definitely loses some of that cohesiveness.  It feels less like a continuation and more like a flat out sequel from the…uh…sequel factory.  F. Gary Gray is a strong director and has some definite “action/Car movie” cred with the 2003 remake of the Italian Job.  But the story itself feels like it was conceived months after the last film was released and worked to fit their latest idea together.  The previous films felt more “organic” with Lin at the helm.

I cannot pinpoint exactly why this is, as the guy who wrote this film (Chris Morgan) wrote every film since Tokyo Drift.  Maybe Gray connects with the characters differently.  But one thing that stands out is that there is a big plot point that comes pretty much out of nowhere as Dom’s motivations.  There is no point in a prior film to see it coming. It feels purely invented for the film, like a last minute idea to solve a problem they were having.

Fate is certainly not lacking for action, though they may finally be hitting that point where it is hard to top the big set piece of the previous film.  The massive race across the ice and attempts to outrun a massive submarine feel more like they cobbled together ideas from the previous film, so instead of giving us an impressive and new sequence it highlights cooler moments of past films.

While Fate of the Furious is not terrible (and not by the standards of the franchise itself, it has its moments), it does feel like the franchise is finding it harder and harder to sustain itself.

Speed Racers Pt 7 (Furious 7, 2015)

fast_and_furious_007_PosterThe seventh film in the series that has not apparently run out of gas (and fifth film directed by Justin Lin) finds the team no longer on the run and being a family.  Dom and Letty are working on their relationship, as she has not regained her memory.  Brian and Mia are enjoying parenthood.  Everything is going smoothly…well, except the fact that somebody is trying to murder the crew…and not just the crew, but anyone connected with the take down of Shaw in the previous film.  Which means Hobbs needs to team up with the family once more.

The big threat here?  Shaw’s big brother… uh… Shaw.  Well, this brother gets a first name as well.  Overseeing our intrepid clan is Mr. Nobody…played by Kurt Russell.  Because if your films are full of familiar faces and names… you cannot go wrong adding Kurt Russell to the mix.

Seven ups the stunt ante again…”Gee, we had a tank last time?”  How about skydiving cars?  Cars driven from from skyscraper to skyscraper…via the top floors?  In this film, they crash cars and use pieces of the cars in hand to hand combat.  The Rock picks up a giant gun and starts to shoot down a helicopter.  And then?  It gets nuts.

Overall, it is a pretty solid effort, though false a bit short of the sixth entry.  Part of this is due to the film having been faced with an unexpected tragedy before they were done filming.  After leaving an awards ceremony Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner) and a friend were killed in a car wreck (the friend was driving).  It was very clear from the response of the cast and crew that they had all gotten very close, and were crushed by the loss of their friend.

But this forced some story alterations.  I doubt their plan was to send Brian out of the series.  But now they had to adjust the story to do that.  With help from Paul’s twin brother they filmed some final shots.  The final moments are full of heavy comments about not saying good-bye and how things are never going to be the same.  They are clearly paying their respects to Walker, which is both understandable and touching.  But it does make things a little awkward.

Paul Walker has passed away, but Brian and Mia are just done with adventuring and are going to raise their kids.  Yet, each character speaks as if they will never see Brian and Mia again.

Overall, while not quite as strong as Fast Five or Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7 is still a lot of fun…and it could have made a nice finale for the franchise.

Father-Son Bonding (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, 2017)

guardians_vol_2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy was a bit of a risk for Marvel Studios.  It was really their first film that had little name recognition.  It also was their first film not closely tied to the Avengers.  And yet, under the guidance of James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded with a healthy dose of humor and action.  Towards the end of the film, Yondu mentions knowing who Starlord’s father is.  In this sequel, we meet dear old dad.

While fighting an inter-dimensional beast, Rocket steals some batteries from the Sovereign.  This results in a chase through space that culminates in Starlord meeting his father Ego. Ego is a “living” planet.  He has a human avatar who sired Starlord.  In the meantime, they are being hunted by Yondu and the Ravagers to collect a bounty for the Guardian set by the Sovereign.

Volume 2 carries forward with the same tone and attitude of the first film, making it a lot of fun to watch.  The opening credits are a blast to watch.  Easily one of the best opening sequences for a comic book film.  The cast has really come together and it shows in their performances.

The new cast adds to the fun, with Kurt Russell being a high point for…well being Kurt Russell.  He is one of those actors you hire because you want a “type” that is specific to a particular actor.  Call it the Goldblum Effect if you will.  You hire Jeff Goldblum for a movie because you want a “Jeff Goldblum Type”.

In addition, Sylvester Stallone, Ving Rhames and Michelle Yoeh have small but pivotal roles (obviously setting up Volume 3).  The film is full of blink and you might miss it fan service, but with James Gunn, it is not distracting (for the most part) and for people unfamiliar with the comics will be unnoticed.

Of course, the soundtrack is integral to this film, each song clearly chosen carefully by Gunn.  Marvel was wise to stick with Gunn for the Guardians brand because he has a very specific vision that allows these films to stand out from the Marvel Pack.

A lot of the humor this time around is coming from Drax (Dave Bautista) and Baby Groot. Some of the more surprising emotion comes from Michael Rooker’s Yondu.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 can be pretty intense and it is not really for young kids.  But teens and adults alike will find a lot to enjoy here.  Personally, I found Volume 2 to be a very fun film-going experience and find myself anticipating the next outing.

Oh, and by the way…there are five mid to post credit scenes.  So do not get up and head for the door right away.

I Love L.A. (Escape From L.A., 1996)

Escape-From-LA-posterJohn Carpenter’s first sequel.  Escape From L.A. brings back Snake Plissken.  The setup here is that in the late 20th century, a Presidential predicts a major earthquake will hit California and Las Vegas because of their sinful ways.  Unlike Pat Robertson, his prediction comes true.  American makes the now island of Los Angeles a one way prison.  The president was elected to a lifetime appointment.  They instituted a theocracy.  If you were to sinful you were sent to L.A. (but you get the option to repent of your sin and be immediately electrocuted).

In the future of 2013, the President’s daughter (oddly named Utopia, because a hyper-religious parent would name their kid Utopia?  Or is the implication that he used to be a hippie?)  has stolen an important prototype and run off to L.A.  Like before, the government calls in Snake Plissken and forces hm to make a deal to go into L.A. and get the prototype back so a potential invasion of America can be averted.

Plissken runs into all sorts of Oddballs, such as evil plastic surgeons and a surfer gang.  He gets help from the morally ambiguous Map to the Stars Eddie and the sexy Taslima.  He takes on Cuervo Jones in an attempt to get the prototype.

Like most sequels, Escape From L.A. mimics Escape from New York a lot.  There is even a scene where he walks into a club and finds a dead Rescue Team member he was tracking.  On the other hand, the film really amps up the action.

The film has stuff that does not really make sense.  The Evangelical President outlawed eating of red meat?  I mean, it might make more sense if the laws were based in Old Testament.  The effects are not..well…effective.  Many scenes are clearly green screened.  The basketball sequence just does not compare to the gladiatorial combat of the first film.

This is not to say the film is terrible.  The cast, including Steve Buscemi, Valeria Golina, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach and Cliff Robertson are all good.  And Russell slips right back into the skin of Snake Plissken with ease.  One of the most entertaining moments is when Snake is captured by the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Played by Bruce Campbell).  He leads a group of surgically enhanced misfits…they need to keep replenishing their body parts and look like the surgical disasters of nightmare on E! Television.

Escape From L.A. is fun, but comes no where near the classic status of Escape from New York.



Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986)

big-trouble-in-little-china-posterThe fourth outing for Carpenter and Russell is an entertaining blending of genres.  Big Trouble In Little China is part action film, part Kung Fu, Part fantasy and all comedy.  Russel is the cocky but lovable Jack Burton.  Jack’s favorite person is himself and his mouth often seems to get himself in trouble.  And he has found it in spades when he visits a friend in China town.  His friend, Wang Chi, is raising money to bring his bride to be (Miao Yin)  to America.  But when she arrives, she is captured by the henchman of the mysterious crime lord David Lo Pan.  Lo Pan is seeking her because she has green eyes.  And a girl with green eyes are part of a curse.

Along with Wang, Jack is joined by intrepid reporter Gracie Law, her friend Margo, Eddie Lee and Egg Shen, a mystical old Asian man.  Jack is an interloper, but is drawn deep into a fight to save Miao from Lo Pan.  He has three warriors, each with an elemental super power.  While Jack fumbles his way through heroism, it leads to a great battle of both brawn and wits.

Big Trouble in Little China is a loving send-up of both American and Asian Martial Arts action films.  This means that…well, yeah…all the Asian Characters know martial arts.  But at the same time, the central characters are all individuals.  Lo Pan is probably the closest to a stereotype, with James Hong really laying on the accent.   Jack is not the last samurai, rather we start with him and stumble into the fight.  He is there for his friend.  Truth is, the movie makes it clear they do not need Burton, but he is brash and rushes headlong in with a friend.

The film is full of humor, even in action packed moments, it finds the time to give a wink to the viewer.  Jack often succeeds by failing in spectacularly amusing ways.  The cast is great, Dennis Dun plays Wang Chi as a sincere and heroic young man in love.  Kim Cattrall is charming and full of fire as Gracie Law.  Donald Li is great fun as friendly tough guy Eddie Lee.

Carpenter does not flex his “fun” muscle a lot.  I mean, he does not avoid humor, but this is a straight up action comedy, among other things, and Carpenter shows a real flair for it.  Big Trouble in Little China is definitely one of Carpenter’s funniest films and is best viewed with a group.

Oh yeah…and this film had more roles for Asian actors than the live action Ghost in the Shell.

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