Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019) Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 161 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This love letter to 1960s pop culture was directed by Quentin Tarantino, so you know what you’re going to get right away. We’re talking pop culture references out the ass, a relatively long runtime, lots of talking, a meta, ironic storytelling style, “cool” characters, and some ultra-violence at the end. I should rephrase the opening sentence. It’s a love letter to the ’60s as well as one Tarantino wrote to himself. Anyway, the story he works with here, set in 1969, is about fading Hollywood action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to prove that he’s still got it, while his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), runs afoul of the Manson cult.

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have much to prove at this point in his career, so this movie largely consists of people driving around in hip cars listening to badass music. There are a few stylized looks behind the scenes at 1960s moviemaking, but don’t expect any great revelations. There is some carnage in the last few minutes, but it’s pretty typical Tarantino. It’s not particularly cathartic, it’s just shoehorned in there so Tarantino can talk about how violent the film is.

The depiction of martial artist Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh here) generated some controversy, as he’s portrayed as an up-his-own-ass narcissist. Actor Steve McQueen (played by Damian Lewis) doesn’t fare much better, as this laconic, real-life tough guy becomes just another post-modern meat-puppet made to recite Tarantino’s elaborate, knowing dialogue. Overall, this flick isn’t quite as dialogue-driven as some of Quentin’s other works, but a stronger story would’ve been nice.

‘Member this 1960s movie? ‘Member this 1960s celebrity? ‘Member this 1960s song? ‘Member when everybody used to smoke like a chimney in the 1960s? Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood doesn’t get significantly deeper than that. This is a nostalgic, senseless exercise in style that looks to the past, rather than to the future. This dramedy proves that Tarantino needs to rein in his impulses and just make a succinct, efficient, plot-driven, earnest movie instead of more wacky pastiches.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Where East Is East (1929) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Where East Is East is the last of the ten films that Lon Chaney starred in that were directed by Tod Browning. It is also Lon Chaney’s second-to-last silent movie (the final one being the now-mostly-lost Thunder [1929]). Set in Southeast Asia, Where East Is East is about animal trapper Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney) reluctantly giving away the hand of his daughter – Toyo (Lupe Velez) – for marriage, but finding out that her fiancé – Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes) – may not be as faithful as he appears to be.

A silent melodrama through and through, I don’t think that this film does enough to separate itself from the rest of the bizarre lost triangle flicks Chaney did during his career. Sure, it has an exotic setting, but it doesn’t really have too many memorable set-pieces. Chaney does use a chair to handle a loose tiger in one scene, which is pretty cool, but, other than that, don’t go into this one expecting much action.

Chaney’s character’s relationship with his daughter is sort of creepy, perhaps intentionally so. They’re always hugging and kissing each other. I kind of doubt that people in the 1920s were constantly doing that, so it may have been a touch added by director Tod Browning to add some perversity to the mix. Also of note is an ape played by Charles Gemora. I mean, just look at this man’s filmography on IMDb! He must’ve been Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing gorillas on the Silver Screen. The dude even showed up in Island of Lost Souls (1932) as “Gorilla on Pier.”

Overall, this is an aggressively average outing for Lon Chaney. There are a few good moments (like the hunt in the opening scene), but it pales in comparison to the likes of The Penalty (1920) and West of Zanzibar (1928). It doesn’t have much to say (other than “don’t mess with Lon Chaney”…but you already knew that, right?), so I can’t really recommend it. There are worse movies out there, but a Chaney flick where he plays a vengeful animal trapper in Southeast Asia should’ve been so much better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Wild at Heart (1990) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wild at Heart is a crime-thriller from director David Lynch about two lovers – “Sailor” Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) – who find themselves on a road trip to Hell while trying to escape the latter’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd). This is David Lynch we’re talking about here, so this is a deliberately weird work that won’t appeal to viewers looking for something – well – coherent. However, I love surrealism, so will Wild at Heart do the trick for me?

First of all, those expecting this to be Eraserhead: Road Trip! will be sorely disappointed. Yes, there are scenes in this flick with an oneiric feel to them, but I don’t think that the movie went far enough off the deep-end to be truly memorable. There’s this strange sense of unease throughout many sequences, but there isn’t a whole lot of dream logic. Some may be thrown off by the film’s odd sentimental streak and dark humor.

With allusions to everything from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Elvis Presley, this picture’s approach can feel scattershot. Try something surreal, and, if that doesn’t work, try another surreal trick. Nicolas Cage’s hammy performance is amusing at first, but it’s not enough to sustain the two-hour runtime. Willem Dafoe (as killer Bobby Peru) is a highlight. Just look at that bastard’s moldy-mouthed grin beneath the bank-robbing stocking he’s wearing over his face! Terrifying, isn’t it?

There were times where I think I understood what David Lynch was going for here, but I just didn’t care enough to appreciate it. I totally dig movies that make you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s dream, but I couldn’t get on the same wavelength as this one. It’s a little repetitive and not quite surreal enough. Some plot threads don’t really go anywhere. I like the idea of this movie more than its actual execution.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The McConnell Story (1955) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being released only two years after the end of the Korean War, The McConnell Story lacks the immediacy that it should have. The based-on-a-true-story plot is about American airman Joseph C. McConnell (Alan Ladd), who, after serving in World War II, becomes a jet fighter ace in the Korean War. It’s a promising idea for a movie, but it simply doesn’t live up to its potential.

This film has the squeaky-clean, white-bread aesthetics of your stereotypical 1950s Hollywood production. I wish I was joking about how the picture spends more time on the various abodes that McConnell and his wife, Pearl “Butch” Brown McConnell (June Allyson), venture through than on aerial warfare, but I’m not. Speaking of June Allyson, the already-married Alan Ladd reportedly fell in love with her during the filming of this work.

I would not recommend this flick if you’re just in it for the action. The World War II scene is reliant on stock footage, although the dogfights in the skies above Korea fare better. They’re extremely limited in number, but they don’t appear to use much, if any, pre-existing footage. A glance at Wikipedia reveals that actual aircraft were used for these sequences, which helps with the authenticity.

The McConnell Story isn’t bad when it’s airborne, but it spends so much time grounded that I can’t say “watch it.” It turns out to be just another one of those generic ’50s war films that do little to stand out from the crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, this one will become melded with The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) in my memory.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

His Girl Friday (1940) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to win back his reporter ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), by having them cover a murder case together. When one thinks of screwball comedies with lots of rapid-fire, fast-paced dialogue, His Girl Friday is what they think of. According to the Trivia section for this movie on IMDb, the rate of dialogue for a normal film is about 90 words per minute, while this picture attacks you with about 240 words per minutes. Yowza!

Unfortunately, this rom-com isn’t as funny as the earlier collaboration between director Howard Hawks and actor Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938). I suppose that if you think fast-talking 1940s wordplay is inherently funny, you’ll have a field day, but I was less amused. The best joke is probably the one where Grant describes how boring the character of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is by name-dropping a certain actor, which was supposedly an ad-lib by Grant (it almost made me do a double-take at the television set).

I did not find His Girl Friday to be a compellingly put-together film. It sometimes comes across as repetitive, and occasionally it feels like the two major plot threads – that of Cary Grant trying to win back Rosalind Russell and the murder case coverage – don’t come together seamlessly. Some sequences heavily focus on the Grant-Russell relationship, while others heavily deal with the attempt to stop an execution from taking place. The pace just isn’t as fast as the dialogue.

Overall, I was just left with a “meh” feeling after watching this classic. Perhaps I just should’ve watched Bringing Up Baby again. Anyway, it feels longer than its runtime would indicate and it’s rather talky (although that’s expected). I’d be dishonest if I said that it was bad, but I was largely indifferent to the somewhat forgettable flick being reviewed here. You could do worse, but you could also do better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Producers (1967) Review

Director: Mel Brooks

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1967 version of The Producers was the directorial debut of popular comedy director Mel Brooks. It’s received a ton of praise over the years, which isn’t bad for his first film, but I’m less ecstatic about it. The plot is about Broadway musical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) attempting to put on the world’s worst, most offensive play as part of a money-making scam.

The ideas in this movie are hilarious on paper. The script that the main characters settle on for their intentionally horrible production is insane, and should’ve resulted in more laughs. Instead of laser-focused satire, the flick resorts to ultra-broad humor, typically oriented around people falling down, making silly faces at the camera, or screaming their dialogue. I adore senseless comedies like Airplane! (1980) and the The Naked Gun trilogy, but the high-jinks found in The Producers were frequently too easy and obvious, even for my preferences.

There are some decent jabs at the dark side of the American Dream here, but it’s not enough. The subject matter of the picture was once considered audacious, but, after decades of increasingly edgy and groundbreaking satire, it doesn’t quite have the same power that it did back in 1967. Some of the aghast faces of the audience members during the play’s first performance are still pretty funny, though.

This work only runs eighty-eight minutes, and it still feels too long. If you and I sat down and you explained this film’s premise to me, I’d probably think that it would be an out-of-the-parker for me. However, the execution just isn’t there. I’ll give The Producers some figurative points for its bizarre ideas, but it just can’t overcome the fact that too many of its sequences are about as funny as a funeral.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Americano (1955) Review

Director: William Castle

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Americano is a thoroughly mediocre western movie only notable for its setting. American rancher Sam Dent (Glenn Ford) travels to Brazil to deliver some cattle, but finds himself embroiled in a range war. Apparently this adventure picture was actually partially filmed in Brazil, which is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not enough to redeem the work.

One of the very first things I think of when I try to remember The Americano (Heaven forbid) is the animal footage. Being shot in South America, there’s plenty of exotic wildlife on display here (probably mostly photographed by the second unit), with these creatures often stealing the spotlight from the humans. Glenn Ford is his usual tough guy here, and Cesar Romero (who would later play the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series) gives an Anthony Quinn-esque performance as bandit Manuel Silvera.

The biggest flaw with this picture is the severe lack of action. A shoot-’em-up this ain’t, although we do get a sweet pitchfork fight towards the end. A western doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall action to be good, but it certainly helps elevate generic material…and generic this is. The film is almost more concerned with a quasi-musical number than the rough-and-tumble stuff. I guess the filmmakers wanted some dancing to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

Yes, it’s set in Brazil, but take that away, and it’d be even more forgettable than it already is. The Americano isn’t really a bad feature, but it could’ve been so much more. I wouldn’t describe it as “offensive,” even if the the Goofs section of its IMDb profile reports that, despite being set in the Portuguese-speaking part of South America, most of the Brazilians either speak Spanish or “a terrible mix of the two.” Nice.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Espionage Agent (1939) Review

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Espionage Agent was among the first American movies to warn the U.S. populace of the dangers posed by the Nazi regime in Germany. In fact, it was released in September 1939, the same month that World War II broke out. The plot’s about an American diplomat in Morocco – Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea) – who falls in love with a Nazi spy – Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) – in the days leading up to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, this film doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement. The most engaging part of the feature is the presumably somewhat fictionalized opening montage of foreign sabotage in the United States prior to that nation’s entry into World War I (the 1916 Black Tom explosion is mentioned). Yup, the best sequence is the one at the beginning of the flick. After that, we get a car wreck and a pistol-whipping, but the action is severely lacking.

Espionage Agent was made to brace the United States against the wave of infiltration of the country by agents of totalitarian governments (like the Nazi and Soviet ones) that was going to take place. It’s an intriguingly political movie, even if it avoids pointing fingers too blatantly (the swastikas on the Nazi troops’ armbands are covered up). Its warnings seem to come from a place of encouraging isolationism, rather than international cooperation, though.

Sometimes this picture feels like a recruitment ad for the U.S. State Department, but that’s okay. The real problems here are its anticlimactic ending and leisurely pacing. It means well, but the budget just isn’t there. It would be interesting to see a remake related to the information war being waged on free nations by the dictatorships of the world currently being waged.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Mr. Wu (1927) Review

Director: William Nigh

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” being famous for the remarkably different-looking characters he played over the course of his career. One of his more notable visual transformations took place in the 1927 silent melodrama Mr. Wu, where he plays not one, but two, Chinese characters (the titular figure and that person’s aging grandfather). The story of the film is concerned with authoritarian Chinese parent Wu (Lon Chaney) who discovers that his only child, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée), is secretly dating a White man, Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes).

Part of Mr. Wu deals with the culture clash between the collectivistic East and the individualistic West. Being an American movie from the 1920s, the West, which prides itself on its lack of arranged marriages, comes across looking more sympathetic. The picture also involves Lon Chaney playing two roles in what is now referred to as “yellowface,” which is certainly not “politically correct” by today’s standards.

Even if one can get past the flick’s racial insensitivities, they’ll find a pretty slow-moving film. Yes, there are some nice sets, but the first two acts here can be relatively difficult to get through. There may have been some content that deserved to remain on the cutting room floor. Mercifully, things speed up for the final third, which can actually be a bit suspenseful for reasons that I won’t spoil here.

It’s cool to see a feature where Chaney plays a double role, but, unfortunately, the one of Wu’s grandfather is pretty superfluous. Mr. Wu is mostly your typical tale of lovers from two separate cultures, with the occasional act of violence thrown into the mix to keep the audience’s attention. There are certainly better Lon Chaney movies out there to spend some time with.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Monster (1925) Review

Director: Roland West

Genre(s): Comedy, Horror

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite getting top billing, Lon Chaney doesn’t appear in The Monster until about half-of-an-hour into the runtime. The plot here is about mad scientist Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney) luring victims into a remote sanitarium, until one night where three guests – amateur detective Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), town dandy Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley), and damsel-in-distress Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead) – threaten his party. This silent movie proves that they were making horror-comedies all the way back in the 1920s.

The Monster has some interesting ideas (it was possibly the first mad scientist film to depict the doctor having various deranged henchmen, for example), but it’s just too slowly paced for its own good. Some early scenes, showing small-town life, seem to move at a lethargic speed, but the sequences in the haunted asylum don’t fare any better. It may be a very early “dark, old house” flick, but the pacing here is slow by the standards of any cinematic time period.

Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about this feature is that the horror and comedy elements don’t overshadow each other. While there are some cheap “scares” (an unexplained skeleton in a closet?) and cheap “laughs” (a teetotaler getting drunk off his ass?), this picture knows to not let the scary and humorous stuff negate one another. The finale is at least sort of chilling, with Lon Chaney’s character threatening to conduct a bizarre experiment.

One of the first words that springs to mind to describe The Monster is “slow.” Ouch. The characters aren’t too memorable and Chaney should’ve been in it more. It does hold a somewhat interesting place in the history of horror movies, but is that enough to recommend it? I’m going to say “no,” but you certainly could do a lot worse.

My rating is 5 outta 10.