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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Once Upon A Time

Leonardo di Caprio (right) plays a legendary movie star and Brad Pitt (left) plays his stunt-double best friend in the surprising Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Normally when one hears of another Quentin Tarantino film, some will look forward to it while others will think “Not more blood and guts!” Even when I heard Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about the Manson murders, I too was expecting that and killers with no mercy and no regrets. Instead I got more than I thought. And you will too.

It’s interesting that this is a fictional story of a friendship taking place around a real murder that happened. We have a movie star whose heyday seems to be fading just like Hollywood’s Golden Era. Rick Dalton was part of that Golden Era too. If there’s one person that doesn’t leave Rick, it’s his best friend Cliff. Even Cliff has trouble finding work because of what he’s rumored to have committed. Not to mention getting fired for having Bruce Lee injured in a sparring competition on set. Also this happens around the time of the Manson murders. Some could argue that Hollywood’s Golden Era ended with the Manson murders. Others like Tarantino could argue it ended before.

On the subject of the murders, the film does a good job in presenting the Manson family as people that were brainwashed into being evil. It does seem that Manson created a cult of followers to carry out his evil deeds and were every bit as blood-thirsty as him. One thing we should remember is that the murders took place at the former home of record producer Terry Melcher. Charles Manson first came to California with the dreams of becoming a musician. He was first approached by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson who introduced him to Melcher. Melcher was the producer who took one of Manson’s songs and rearranged it for the Beach Boys. No doubt Manson was furious and that’s why he wanted blood. I always wondered why did they kill anyone in Melcher’s house? Why didn’t they save their attack on Melcher and Melcher alone? I always wondered that. However that scene where the girl from the Manson family talks how she wants blood and doesn’t care answers that question for me. It’s obvious they were blood-thirsty and they didn’t care if Melcher was no longer there. As far as they were concerned, the five at the house were worthy of being killed just by being there.

One thing people frequently think of when they hear of a ‘Tarantino Movie’ is ‘blood and guts.’ Tarantino has developed a reputation for that, and for ruthless merciless villains with no regrets. There wasn’t as much of that here in the film, but there were a lot of scenes which would make one nervous. The biggest of which was when Cliff visits Spahn Ranch just to simply drop off a girl who goes by the name Pussycat. Also that scene when Booth walks into Spahn’s house. Those scenes will make anyone nervous, especially those that know the story behind the Manson murders.

What a lot of people overlook in a Tarantino film is that Tarantino has a love for film as a whole. Many of his latest works, if you look closer, have a style of cinema mixed into his story. The two Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown and the Deathproof part of Grindhouse show Tarantino paying tribute to cinema genres of decades past. The style can be a film noir style, or a cult move style from decades past or a spaghetti western style or even an Asian style. Just look closer. However he does his story, even his most brutal and bloodiest stories, with a style of film genre mixed in. Here, it’s obvious this film is about his passion for the old Hollywood: the Hollywood that was one glorious city. That was Hollywood before the Manson murders. However you can still see how Tarantino shows Hollywood in possibly the last of its golden age in this film. Tarantino himself talks about growing up as a child in Hollywood in the 60’s and being mesmerized by its charm. I think that’s what he’s trying to incorporate in this film.

I know I mentioned that Tarantino’s films are known for have ruthless, merciless villains and that you should not expect to see sentimentality in a Tarantino film. In fact I’ve sometimes joked that the ending of the Hateful Eight is the most sentimentality you’ll get out of a Tarantino film. Of course even in this film,  there will be some type of merciless bloodshed. We’re talking Quentin Tarantino! Despite the ending being as brutal as you’d expect of a Tarantino film,  there are some moments of feeling in the film. There’s that scene where Dalton is between shoots of Lancer and is sitting near his eight year-old co-star Trudi Fraser. He breaks down because he can’t remember his lines, but Trudi gives words of encouragement, which gives him the drive to deliver an excellent performance. I’ll admit I was not expecting that. Another thing I was not expecting in a Tarantino film was the depiction of Sharon Tate. There’s that scene where Sharon goes into the movie theatre to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, a screening which Booth is attending too. She’s thrilled to see her face on the screen. She’s also happy to see the audience loves how she’s making a klutz of herself on screen. That scene of an actress and her dreams. That shows another side of Tarantino few knew.

SPOILER ALERT: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Now there was a lot of concern about the making of the film. The Tate family was especially concerned about Sharon’s murder being exploited. One can understand. Her murder has already been exploited enough with people’s intrigue of the Manson murders. Instead the murder doesn’t happen at all. For those that didn’t notice, the film also leaves out the marital troubles of Sharon and Roman Polanski as well as the fact Sharon was pregnant at the time of her murder. This story is more about the friendship of a fading Hollywood legend and his stuntman double who stays with him through think and thin. It takes place during the time of the Manson murders, but there’s a twist of plot which both Cliff and Rick are involved. In short, we don’t get what really happened in the film. This is another case where Tarantino plays around with history just like he did with Inglourious Basterds and with Django Unchained. Instead he gives us the history that we want. And right at the end, we see Rick go to Sharon Tate’s party. Sharon and her friends are happy and safe from harm, and you leave the theatre satisfied knowing that’s how it should be.

Quentin Tarantino does it again. I have to say this is the least blood and guts I’ve seen in a Tarantino film. Mind you this is is less about blood and guts than it is about a unique transition in Hollywood. It’s Golden Days were fading and Hollywood was going in a new path. Many major movie stars saw television as a domain of wash-ups back then. However Tarantino reminds you of a charm of Hollywood that didn’t leave, but just changed for a new era. It’s not the same, but it’s a charm all its own. As I mentioned previously, we’ve seen Tarantino incorporate many different past style of films when he tells his stories. He doesn’t just simply tell a story, he adds an atmosphere and a feel to his films. We see it here again as we get various feelings through various scenes.

Top acting credits have to go to Brad Pitt. Funny how he’s nominated for the Supporting acting category for the Oscars while Leo is nominated in Lead. The film does belong to Cliff Booth as it is mostly his story. He’s the friend of Rick’s through thick and thin, he’s the stuntman who has trouble finding a job, but he’s the right person when trouble arises near his house and has what it takes to stop it. Brad does an excellent job of creating the character of Booth and owning the film. Leonardo di Caprio was also excellent as a fading movie star. The role of Rick Dalton reminds you that behind the glamor of movie stars, they still faced difficulties such as pushy producers, demanding directors and an industry that considers even the most legendary actors disposable. Yes, even back then, the powers that be in Hollywood still believed an actor was only as good as their last opening weekend. Leo was good at showing the insecurities of Rick, but ending on a positive uplifting note. Leo’s performance as Rick was just as arresting as Brad’s performance as Cliff and the chemistry between the two were excellent.

It wasn’t just Brad and Leo that made the film. There was Margot Robbie who gave a 3D performance as Sharon Tate. She did a great job of showing Sharon as a girl with big dreams and big hopes. There’s also Mike Moh’s performance as Bruce Lee. Note that the Lee family were angered how Bruce was made to look egotistical. However Quentin stands by his claims. There’s the performance of Julia Butters as Trudi Fraser. She’s in the film for one brief scene, but she steals it. The actors who portrayed members of the Manson family were also good as a team. The film also has a lot of great technical efforts like Robert Richardson in cinematography, Arianne Phillips in costume design, and the production design team in setting up the various sets. The film also shows another Tarantino film trademark: excellent music. The film had to have excellent songs from that era to fit the film. Tarantino delivers an excellent selection of songs from the late-1960’s that fit the movie perfectly.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is less about Tarantino’s blood lust than it is about his love for cinema and the days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It also ends unlike any Tarantino film before. Which is what makes this film so unique and worth seeing.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer with a drug-fueled lust for riches and a false sense of invincibility in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer with a drug-fueled lust for riches and a false sense of invincibility in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”

I was curious about Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was wondering if it was something Martin’s never done before or just simply a great movie to have out at the time.

The film is a semi-biographical picture of Jordan Belfort, Wall Street scammer extraordinaire. At the start of 1987, Jordan is just a rookie in the stock-broking business who manages to come through and successfully woo clients. He even wins the appeal of his boss who tells him during a dinner that a lifestyle of casual sex and cocaine will help him succeed. However Black Monday happens and the business collapses, leaving Belfort unemployed. While looking for work, his first wife Teresa recommends he work for a small boiler room office that invests in penny stock. He agrees and the rest…is infamy.

That penny stock job pays off for Belfort as his aggressive style of selling earns him top sales and a higher commission rate than at his former Wall Street job. That inspires him to start his own business. It’s starts rather humbly first with furniture salesman Donnie Azoff who lives in the same building as him, along with his accountant parents and several friends of his, three of which were experienced marijuana dealers. He forms Stratton Oakmont, a penny stock company with a professional-sounding name. The business however is fueled by ‘pump and dump’ scamming promoted by Belfort. The business is so successful, it lands Belfort in a Forbes magazine article of him titled ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ and soon attracts hundreds of financers who are ‘young, hungry and stupid.’

The business skyrockets and every successful salesperson benefits with bonuses and privileges. Belfort however benefits the most with big-time pay. With it however came the lavish lifestyle of parties, sex and drugs where Belfort frequents prostitutes and becomes addicted to cocaine and Quaaludes. His excess even leads to the end of his marriage with Teresa as she catches him having sex with Naomi LaPaglia, an attendee at one of his parties whom Belfort eventually marries after the divorce and gives birth to their daughter Skylar months later.

Meanwhile the FBI get suspicious and it prompts agent Patrick Denham to begin investigation of Stratton Oakmont and include the Securities and Exchange Commission in on it. While Belfort doesn’t know what the FBI is doing, he even opens a Swiss bank account to evade being taxed for the $22 million deal made with Steve Madden Ltd. and uses Naomi’s wealthy aunt’s name to disguise it. He even uses friends with European passports to smuggle in cash to the account. However there were some close calls to that scheme when the participation of Donnie and friend Brad would get into fights.

Belfort does sense the FBI is on his case, especially after Denham meets with him personally in his yacht. He hires his own private investigator Bo Dietl to stay one step ahead of the law. But there are soon giveaways, like the time Donnie made a phone call to the Swiss Bank associate from a wire Jordan knew was tapped. He tried to stop him but the seemingly-weak Quaaludes given by Donnie suddenly kick in. By the time he tries to stop Donnie, Donnie himself his high on the Quaaludes during the phone call and is choking on a ham sandwich. Fortunately through a sniff of cocaine, Jordan is able to save Donnie’s life. Nevertheless it doesn’t take away from the threat of legal enforcement. It gets to the point even Jordan’s father is pressuring him to step down. Jordan refuses and the whole office cheers on the rebellion from Belfort and Donnie to the FBI’s subpoenas.

It’s not long before Jordan gets signs that his luck is about to run out. The first big sign came on a yacht trip with Donnie and their wives in Italy. They’re given the news that Naomi’s wealthy aunt has died of a heart attack. Jordan decides to sail to Monaco to avoid capture along the way to Switzerland for the bank accounts but a violent storm sinks the ship. All survive but the rescue plane sent to take them to Geneva for the accounts explodes. This causes Jordan to decide break free from drugs.

Eventually the FBI do crack down on Jordan, while filming an infomercial. The Swiss banker, who was arrested in Florida over an unrelated charge, tells the FBI everything about Belfort. The evidence against Belfort is overwhelming but Belfort decides to cooperate by giving the FBI information about his colleagues in exchange for leniency. Jordan’s optimism over the possibility of leniency starts to run out as his wife decides to divorce him with full custody of their children. Jordan reacts angrily, even abusively, and attempts unsuccessfully to abscond with his daughter while high on cocaine behind the wheel. Any hope of leniency all ends when Jordan interrogates Donnie, warning him in a piece of paper about the wire. Agent Denham finds out about it and it’s the end for Jordan’s freedom and Stratton Oakmont. However after his three years in prison, Jordan has found a new life…hosting seminars on sales techniques.

Looking back, I don’t think Martin Scorsese was trying to reflect on too much of a current theme in his movie. I feel he was trying to tell the story of Jordan Belfort most of the time. Often it would come across as another example of the American Dream gone wrong or how it’s often mistaken as the quest to be the richest. Nevertheless the narration from Leonardo as Jordan does give a reflection of our business society. Many of the quotes Jordan and others say are reflections of the drive of the business world and sometimes a reflection of how many in the business world often are oblivious to the difference between their own greed and personal drive and ambition to be #1.

Another reflection Martin was probably trying to show was how being at the top of the game in the United States is like living in a jungle. The office of Stratton Oakmont did come across as a wild jungle in the corporate wilderness known as Wall Street. All the workers who wanted to excel came across as the vicious ferocious animals with a false sense of invincibility, especially Jordan. Sometimes you’re left thinking the business world is so vicious, one has to make a wild animal of themselves to excel. Is it worth it?

If there are any core themes of this movie, I believe it would have to be about lust and addiction. Right as a young investor when he gets the advice from his boss about a steady habit of sex and drugs, it already set the stage. Jordan became addicted to sex with his wives and other women. Jordan also made a steady habit of drugs to make him excel in the business world only to end up addicted to them. However it appears that the biggest drug in Jordan’s life had to be the money. Working in the stock market, Jordan gets the popular first-hand feel that ‘more is never enough.’ Money gave him that sense of power and invincibility one can get from a steroid. It also made him a slave to his habits and act out of control like any other addictive drug. “We were making more money than we knew what to do with it,” Jordan says. Eventually it would hurt him and everyone else around him in the end.

There was a lot of talk about all the elements Martin included in a film like this like over-the-top swearing, sex and drug use. Even with the violence being rather tame for a Scorsese film, there was question of that too. One thing I have to say is that my expectations in film have changed quite a bit since I was a Generation-Xer of the 90’s. I know I first talked about my Generation X attitude towards entertainment back then in my review of Django Unchained. Back then I had the common attitude that the arts should push envelopes and was convinces that the best artists or best works of arts challenged the status quo of their times. I’ve changed since then and even though I like envelope pushing, I don’t believe it should make compromise for entertainment value or showbiz expectations. Yeah, don’t let being an artist get in the way of doing your job in this biz.

Getting back to the content, I came to the movie with the full knowledge of the 500+ f-words and all kinds of raunch and obnoxiousness anticipated for it. So I went with the attitude: “If you’re going to have this many F-words and all sorts of over-the-top stuff, you better justify it.” I wouldn’t approve of censorship but I would question a lot of what happened in those offices. Was it really loaded with foul language and flipping the tweeter at everyone including the boss? Was there really sex on the workfloor? Or a monkey in the office? Or a marching band one day? Did Donnie really pee on his subpoena on his desk for all the office to see and cheer on? Did a female worker really volunteer to have her head shaved if the team hit a target? I find that hard to believe especially since my own workplace imposes professional behavior. However Jordan Belfort has maintained in many interviews it did happen. Scorsese refused to water things down and Leonardo agreed it shouldn’t have been. I myself wasn’t shocked or outraged by the content on screen. As mentioned earlier, I was more shocked at these things as chronological events. Nevertheless it does have me asking: “Blue Is The Warmest Color got an NC-17 rating but this is rated R?”

This was a very good biographical movie done by Martin Scorsese. It’s not done epic-style like The Aviator. Nevertheless it is central to its themes and depicts Jordan as anyone on Wall Street who’s determined to do what it takes to rise amongst the top. Martin and scriptwriter Terence Winter knew how to do a movie very thematic of that. The main glitches is that I feel three hours is too long for a story like this. I question the length of it and I also question certain scenes like the one of Jordan and Donnie having delayed highs from the dated Quaaludes. If there’s one thing I give it kudos for, it’s that human elements didn’t get lost in it. In fact one scene I liked was near the end when Jordan’s parents are in tears when they hear of his sentence. The parent/son part of the whole story was a good addition and it was most valuable in that end scene. For the record, this is not the first movie of Jordan Belfort’s exploits. The first was 2000’s Boiler Room where a rising star by the name of Vin Diesel played Belfort.

As for the acting, Leonardo was excellent as Jordan Belfort. I was first expecting Jordan to be like Gordon Gecko of Wall Street. However while Gordon was more of a control freak, Jordan was like a Trojan warrior on a mission to conquer. Leonardo did an excellent balance of doing a character who appeared invincible but was oblivious to how out of control he was and ignorant to the limits of his power. Name any movie character synonymous with power–Braveheart, King Kong, Maximus from Gladiator— you can see it in Leo’s depiction of Jordan. Jonah Hill also did an excellent job of character acting in his role of Donnie. I have to say Jonah has really grown with his acting abilities ever since I first saw him play his big doofus roles early in his career. His performance as Donnie is a sure sign of his maturity as an actor over the years.

Margot Robbie has the most underrated role in the movie as wife Naomi: possibly the one person that can bring Jordan back to Earth and remind him of the limits of his powers. Sometimes Naomi appears to be one of Jordan’s drugs and Margot did a great job. There were also good minor performances from Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler and Joanna Lumley but the best had to come from Rob Reiner. He was great as the father watching both nervously and heartbreakingly as it all comes crashing down. Actually the whole ensemble caught your attention from start to finish. Hardly ever a dull moment. And the mix of music from various decades also added to the energy rush of the movie.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street is an intriguing movie and will leave you shocked at the story being told. However it is not worth the three hours of running time given. Yes it does entertain and there’s rarely a dull moment but it makes you question whether all that time is worth it. Yes, it’s worth seeing but worth three hours of time?