“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – The Accusations, Criticisms, and Controversies

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SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” be warned.

Quentin Tarantino movies are no strangers to controversy and you could say the notorious filmmaker has courted that kind of attention throughout his career. Sometimes his provocations are potent and edgy. Other times they are rooted in ridiculous amounts of excess and overindulgence. So the fact that people are talking about his new film is no surprise.

What does surprise me is the sheer volume of outrage sparked by “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, a movie I stand by as Tarantino’s tamest, most mature, and (shockingly) most compassionate film to date. Yet the accusations are serious, troublesome, and (if true) cause for serious concern. Some have branded the film racist, misogynistic, even deeply conservative (gasp). Others have went as far as to say it condones/defends violence against women while pointing fingers at the ‘whiteness’ and ‘maleness’ not only the lead characters but also of those who defend the film (my wife loved it too, so there’s that).

These accusations are weighty enough to warrant respectful consideration especially considering Tarantino’s not-so-spotless track record. So I’m not into berating different opinions or other readings of his latest movie. But I do profoundly disagree with the majority of these particular criticisms, not because I’m a white male whose thought process is defined and controlled by those characteristics. But because I believe the movie itself offers some significantly different readings of its ‘controversies’. Here are some of them…

FINAL SPOILER WARNING: Plot details ahead……

Sharon Tate: Complaints about Sharon Tate’s inclusion in the film were almost immediate. Many felt it was insensitive but over time the issues have evolved. Now most of the criticism is in how little dialogue Margot Robbie is given and how “pointless” Tate is to the story, both things rooted in Tarantino’s chauvinism. Actually Tate’s role is far from pointless and her sparse dialogue makes sense considering (1) This isn’t a movie about Sharon Tate and (2) Her character has a very unique (and I would argue beguiling) role to play in the film.

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Not to rehash my review, but Sharon Tate is as much of a symbol as a character. In the film Tate represents innocence, goodness, and compassion. She is a constant ray of light and Tarantino shoots her with an ever-present glow. I found Robbie to be very effective in conveying these ideas. Interestingly, her vitality and optimism stands in sharp contrast to the darkening societal backdrop. And there is a looming sense of dread as history tells us where her story is heading. And about that…

The Ending: There are so many elements to Tarantino’s ending that I love. First, it’s essential to know that so many of his movies take place in alternate realities. These worlds he creates look like ours and often function like ours, but they are hardly beholden to our rules. And Tarantino has shown an affection for taking dark points in history and turning the tables. In “Django Unchained” the slave bests the slave owners. In “Inglourious Basterds” the Jewish-American militia bests Hitler and his generals.

He employs the same idea in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. In this world the Manson family members (one male, two females) are brutally beaten and burned before ever reaching a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends. It’s an intensely graphic sequence with a dash of absurdist comedy tossed in. Yes, it was at the hands of two men, but for me this wasn’t Tarantino flipping his nose at violence towards women. It’s an alternate take on what was in reality the savage and unrepentant slaughter of five innocent people. It’s the Tarantino twist of really bad people getting their comeuppance.

One of the sweetest things about this ending is how it attempts to distance Sharon Tate from what culture always associates her with – victimhood. In Tarantino’s timeline Tate isn’t forever connected with the Manson family. She still has a future, a career, a baby to give birth to and raise. Again, she is a symbol of hope and this film hope doesn’t die on the Manson family’s blade. And that final crane shot showing Sharon and her friends coming out to meet Rick really drives this home.

Cliff Booth: For me, Brad Pitt absolutely steals the show and I found his Cliff Booth character to be the most intriguing of all. But some see him as yet another example of  the film’s misogyny. Much of that comes from a single question the movie doesn’t clearly answers – did Cliff kill his wife?

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Tarantino sets his audience up to draw their own conclusions. If you buy that Cliff is a cold-blooded killer then naturally the character and how he is depicted will be problematic. But the movie doesn’t offer definitive proof. In fact, I would say it offers more reasons to believe that things aren’t so black-and-white. Does the movie exonerate him? No it doesn’t. But it doesn’t convict him either. His angle could just as easily be about Hollywood gossip, blacklisting, etc.

And think of his other actions throughout the film that would seem to clash with those of a cold, calloused murderer. He’s friendly, laid-back, and easy-going. He’s loyal to his friend, ever content, and a constant encourager. He turns down the sexual advances of an attractive minor. He cares enough to check on an elderly friend who may be in trouble at Spahn Movie Ranch. Once again, you could view it all through a misogynistic lens, but for me it’s tough to reconcile that reading with the character we get on screen.

Bruce Lee: I have to admit this one surprised me a bit. The movie has been called insensitive, disrespectful, and in some cases racist for a particularly funny scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee (remarkably played by Mike Moh). In the sequence we see a cocky Lee holding court on a studio backlot. Cliff calls him out and the two engage in a silly hand-to-hand challenge. It ends in a draw and the whole thing plays out as a big gag. But some have taken Lee’s depiction in the film seriously. Respectfully this includes his daughter Sharon.

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First, it’s key to recognize that the entire scene is framed as a recollection. Sure, it’s meant to show that Cliff could hold his own with one of the greatest, but it’s still his recollection of the encounter from his point of view. Second, this isn’t the only time we see Bruce Lee in the film. There is a brief but tender moment between him and Sharon Tate that shows a side of the martial arts star dramatically different from what we see in Cliff’s memory. So it makes sense that one scene is a guy’s silly memory to the time he duked it out with Bruce Lee while the other shows a truer and more compassionate representation of who he really was.

Once again Tarantino is a filmmaker who too often provokes these types of conversations. It’s a shame because I do believe “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a truly great film. And I’m no Tarantino apologist (as followers of this site certainly know). But his latest movie has stoked a fascinating array of interpretations. For what they’re worth, these are mine. Nothing more, nothing less. So, what say you?

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First Glance: “The Irishman”

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It goes without saying that a new Martin Scorsese movie that brings together Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel is destined to grab attention. It certainly grabbed mine when it was first announced months ago. The film is considered a passion project for Scorsese and currently sits as the most expensive movie the acclaimed filmmaker has ever made.

The first trailer has landed ahead of the film’s upcoming debut at the New York Film Festival. First impressions – it looks very much like a classic Scorsese picture and it looks like the $200 million budget went to good use. Intriguing period recreation and a stellar cast back in their comfort zones is more than enough to get me onboard.

“The Irishman” is set for a theater release but the size has yet to be clarified. Netflix owns the rights so it should be available to stream later this year. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

First Glance: “The Lighthouse”

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Robert Eggers blew me away with his 2015 debut feature “The Witch”. It was a period horror picture that showed the filmmaker’s incredible knack for tone management and methodical tension-building. His latest film looks to be offering a different twist on the horror genre but with the same visual ambitions and gripping atmosphere. I can’t wait.

“The Lighthouse” debuted at Cannes to strong reviews and A24 has just released an exciting new trailer. In it we see Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers on a remote island who appear to be slowly descending into a haze of madness. It looks to be a performance-heavy movie with a striking monochrome palette full of deep shadows and moody detail.

“The Lighthouse” hits theaters October 18th and hopefully its release won’t be too limited. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

First Glance: “Light of My Life”

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I’m a sucker for movies that focus on the relationship between a father and his child. These films speak to me for fairly obvious reasons and I’m always moved by that dynamic when a film captures it really well. That’s the main reason I’m really excited for “Light of My Life”.

Casey Affleck writes and directs himself and relative newcomer Anna Pniowsky in this gritty, post-apocalyptic drama. The film’s father/daughter pair lives in a world where a plague was wiped out the entire female population save one little girl (and I bet you can guess who). To protect his daughter, the dad disguises her as a boy and attempts to navigate her through the ugliness of the new world.

“Light of My Life” has me really excited. It releases August 9th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

 

 

First Glance: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

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Last year gave us the fantastic documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It was a warm and beautiful examination of Fred Rogers (who many of us affectionately know as Mr. Rogers). The film was criminally overlooked at the Academy Awards yet for many its message was needed and timely.

This year brings the much-anticipated biopic of this beloved figure who is forever etched in so many childhood memories. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” stars the one person who could pull off playing the titular main character – Tom Hanks. It looks to be told from the perspective of a cynical reporter who is reluctantly assigned to write on Rogers for Esquire magazine. The first trailer dropped today and it looks fabulous.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” hits theaters in the heart of awards season, November 22nd. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

Marvel Announces Phase 4 of the MCU

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Perhaps the most anticipated batch of announcements from the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con came out of Hall H. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige laid out the blueprint and timeline for Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As you can expect, it left us with plenty of things to talk about.

First some general thoughts. It shows how confident they must be to lay out very specific plans so far in advance. They’ve done it before but never quite to this degree. But money speaks volumes and the MCU movies have made a ton of cash. So it makes sense that they would be full steam ahead.

It also shows just how much of the box office landscape Disney will own in the coming future. I’m not an alarmist but think about how many moviegoer dollars will be going into their pockets via the MCU, Star Wars, Pixar, Avatar, live-action remakes, etc. It will be interesting to see how and if this effects the earnings and number of screens available for other films outside of the Disney umbrella.

But back to the MCU, Feige had some major announcements, many of which were for the big screen but just as many for Disney’s upcoming streaming service due to launch on November 12th. It sounds like the movies and the numerous streaming series will all play key roles in the MCU giving us even more content to consume. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

Now onto what they actually announced:

  • On the movie front “Black Widow” was finally confirmed after tons of rumors. It’s set to release on May 1, 2020 and takes place between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Infinity War”. A truly stellar cast was introduced. In addition to Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour, Florence Pugh, and Rachel Weisz are onboard. It’s a great kickoff to Phase 4.
  • Next up is a more iffy choice. “Eternals” hits theaters November 6, 2020 and follows these lesser known band of super-powered protectors. How far they will stick with Jack Kirby’s original and relatively obscure creation remains to be seen. Could be good or it could be Marvel finally betting too high on itself.
  • First up on their streaming platform will be “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. I’m really excited for this one. As a huge Captain America fan obviously I have an affection for his two best friends. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are back and Daniel Brühl will be reprising his role as Baron Zemo. Sold!
  • 2021 will be a busy year for the MCU starting February 12th with the big screen release of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. Talk about an announcement out of left field. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the Master of Kung-Fu. But this certainly seems like an out-of-blue choice. Still I’m intrigued especially when it was revealed that the Mandarin would be the villain. Maybe the MCU will get him right this time.
  • WandaVision hits Disney+ next and it sounds really interesting. Feige kept saying it would be “weird” which I’m guessing was intentional. We also learned that Paul Bettany reprises his role as Vision and the series takes place after “Endgame”. So Vision lives? Oh, and the series will directly connect to their next announcement.
  • In theaters May 7th, 2021 is “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”. The title alone lets you know that this thing could be pretty gonzo. What was most interesting was hearing director Scott Derrickson call it “the first scary MCU movie”. We also learned that Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch will have a big part. I think it will also open the door for another announcement we will get to in a moment.
  • Three Disney+ series will drop in Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2021. Tom Hiddleston is back as the glorious god of mischief in the simply-titled “Loki”. “What If…?” will be an animated series with a massively impressive voice cast. And “Hawkeye” sees Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) shepherding his successor. Hmmm.
  • November 5, 2021 brings the biggest question mark yet. “Thor: Love and Thunder” brings back writer-director Taika Waititi who apparently plans on covering a ton of new ground, none of which especially sells me on his movie. Chris Hemsworth is so good as Thor and seeing him leave that role behind is a bummer. Tessa Thompson has yet to show the charisma to make her version of Valkyrie remotely interesting. And Natalie Portman as the new Thor? I’m sorry, but while Portman has grown into a good actress, seeing her as The Goddess of Thunder feels like a huge stretch. This could be a mess.
  • And then two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali walked out. His new character doesn’t appear on the Phase 4 timeline but he’s certainly on the way. Marvel is bringing Blade into the MCU and I can’t think of a better actor to play him. And with Doctor Strange’s movie delving into horror, that opens the door for Blade’s special brand of justice.

Perhaps most exciting is what they tossed out at the end but didn’t show. “Black Panther 2”, “Guardians of the Galaxy 3”, and “Captain Marvel 2” were safe bets but good to have confirmed. The biggest confirmation came when Feige playfully mentioned the Fantastic Four and “mutants” (aka X-Men).

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I don’t know about you, but after seeing the Phase 4 lineup I think the MCU needs the X-Men and Fantastic Four sooner rather than later. Yes, these announced movies will still make money and yes, they will still set social media ablaze. But for many of us it’s hard to see any of these newcomers filling the shoes of such iconic superhero characters like Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Steve Rogers’ Captain America, or Bruce Banner’s Hulk. And it’s especially hard to find the same excitement we felt building up to the Avengers.

The MCU will need to lean heavy on Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and the Guardians until the new heavy hitters get on their feet. And what about the villains? We know of a couple but creating compelling antagonists have proven to be tough. This just adds more questions to a growing list.

In a nutshell, Marvel has some work to do.