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.

Tropic Thunder (2008) Review

Director: Ben Stiller

Genre(s): Action, Comedy

Runtime: 107 minutes (standard cut), 121 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Tropic Thunder surely must be one of the most raucous, daring, boundary-pushing, and hilarious comedies of its time period. Method acting, Hollywood egotism, and Vietnam War movies are all skillfully skewered by its sharp satire. The plot concerns a group of prima donna actors – washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), blackface-clad method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and straight man Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) – who find themselves trapped in the jungles of Southeast Asia while filming a Vietnam War motion picture.

Bound to offend, Tropic Thunder‘s foul-mouthed screenplay deals with the issues of race and ability in ways that some viewers may be uncomfortable with or even outraged by. Still, there can be little doubt that this is a laugh-out-loud funny comedy. Moments of suspense are handled with surprising skill and the explosive action beats are up to par. The soundtrack also has some well-selected musical tracks, including “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After and “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf.

The entire star-studded cast gives committed performances that only make the humor more uproarious. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as a White actor trying to disappear into his role as an African-American soldier with surgically-applied blackface is so outrageous that it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight [2008]). Tom Cruise has never been scarier as tyrannical film producer Les Grossman.

Tropic Thunder is a maniacal, disrespectful, raunchy party of a movie. Despite all of the ableism and blackface, this appears to be a carefully constructed work designed for maximum impact. Ben Stiller starred in, directed, and co-wrote this flick, and he knocked it out of the park. I could go on and on about how hysterical this picture is, but it would probably be best if you just watched it for yourself. Well, maybe you can skip it if you think the film’s edgier content could be too offensive or enraging.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970) Review

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, War

Runtime: 144 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1970 World War II comedy Kelly’s Heroes could easily be thought of as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World Goes to War. During the Second World War, clever American soldier Kelly (Clint Eastwood) convinces a U.S. platoon to go on an unauthorized raid behind Nazi lines in France to rob a bank holding a fortune in gold bars. Despite its rampant silliness, this is probably one of the better war films out there.

Yeah, Kelly’s Heroes is a comedy, but it was armed with a massive budget that makes it feel like a true war epic. It seems like no expense was spared. It should be noted that this is a highly cynical movie, with Allied troops having to do some serious looting during World War II to get anything out of that conflict. Maybe they’ll even cut the vicious Nazis in on the deal? Its unglamorous look at the 1939-to-1945 war is tempered by its upbeat nature. An upbeat anti-war flick? Yes, it exists, and its name is “Kelly’s Heroes.”

The combat sequences here are excellent, like everything else about this picture. Despite being a comedy, the action scenes are mostly played straight (although the tank assault on the trainyard has plenty of dark humor), giving the production a tough edge. Lalo Schifrin’s musical score is fantastic as well, and the film greatly benefits from the inclusion of the not-so-1940s song “Burning Bridges,” performed by the Mike Curb Congregation. The all-star cast is top-drawer, featuring the aforementioned Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas (as Big Joe), Don Rickles (playing Crapgame), Donald Sutherland (bringing Oddball to life), Carroll O’Connor (he’s General Colt), Gavin MacLeod (in the role of Moriarty), Perry Lopez (as Petuko), Harry Dean Stanton (portraying Willard), and Karl-Otto Alberty (playing a Nazi tank commander).

Kelly’s Heroes is a rootin’, tootin’, lootin’, shootin’ good time. Packed with familiar faces, intense battles, and big laughs, this movie just about has it all. It’s not meant to be a literal recreation of World War II, even though the inclusion of a 1960s-style hippie tank commander, Oddball (Donald Sutherland), has thrown many viewers for a loop. Please don’t take this one too seriously. Go with the flow, and you’ll be rewarded with one Hell of a war picture.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

A Night at the Opera (1935) Review

Directors: Sam Wood and Edmund Goulding

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers film released after they found themselves under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (previously, they made movies for Paramount Pictures). This is also the first flick starring the brothers to not feature Zeppo Marx, who quit the acting business after Duck Soup (1933). The story’s about Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), Fiorello (Chico Marx), and Tomasso (Harpo Marx) trying to set up two star-crossed opera singer lovers, Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) and Riccardo Barone (Allan Jones), for success.

Much has been made of the Marxes move over to MGM. This transition, along with Hollywood Production Code starting to be enforced, is often said to have had a negative impact on the group’s comedy. The flick is a bit slower and more sentimental than previous outings from the brothers, but this is still a solid movie. While many of the Marx Brothers’ post-Paramount works are criticized, A Night at the Opera is generally singled out as the best of the Marx features from this time period.

While the musical numbers do greatly reduce the speed of the pacing, the humor here is still laugh-worthy. The movie really comes alive during the opera sequence in the third act when things really start to get out-of-hand. One aspect of A Night at the Opera that I found interesting was the long segment on the ocean-liner crossing the Atlantic. The Marx Brothers already did a film almost entirely set aboard one of these ships (Monkey Business [1931]), so I found it odd that they would revisit this setting so quickly.

If you think that you’re going to miss Zeppo, don’t worry too much. Allan Jones plays the ultimate Zeppo-wannabe here. Anyway, the jokes here may not be quite as – er – anarchic (a word you’re required to use by federal law when describing the Marxes’ sense of humor) as they were in previous movies starring the brothers, but they still hold up well, especially the contract scenes. It’s no Duck Soup, but A Night at the Opera is still a must-see for Marx Brothers fans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tootsie (1982) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

A down-on-his-luck actor named Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) decides to dress up as a woman to get a role on a television soap opera. This may be a silly cross-dressing comedy, but it has attracted a lot of attention from critics over the years. Not only was it nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, the American Film Institute named it the sixty-ninth greatest American-made movie of all time in 2007 as part of their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition retrospective.

Tootsie has proven immensely popular with actors over the years. In fact, the website TimeOut reported that this was actors’ favorite flick ever as part of a top one hundred countdown they did, where performers choose their most beloved motion pictures. It’s not hard at all to see why actors have latched onto this rom-com. It delves into the world of struggling stage and screen performers and sympathizes with their day-to-day “battles” to get roles. Dustin Hoffman also delivers an incredible performance here, completely disappearing into both Michael Dorsey and his female alter-ego Dorothy Michaels.

This is actually a very funny movie, as it tries to wring out every possible humorous situation a cross-dresser could find themselves in. It does feel a little long, in terms of runtime, for a comedy, though. Other very minor drawbacks include some stuck-in-the -1980s aesthetics (which really aren’t much of a big deal at all) and an ending that I wasn’t the biggest fan of.

Tootsie is an odd, yet important, lesson in empathy that feels just as relevant as ever. Okay, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as the critical establishment does, but it still makes me laugh frequently. Is this the definitive gender-bender comedy? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but this work is clearly in the running for such a title. Bill Murray (as Jeff) does show up in this flick, but he wanted his name omitted from the opening credits to prevent the audience from thinking that this would be a Caddyshack (1980)-style movie.

My rating is 7 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.

Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The “screwball comedy” subgenre, rather than referring to just any comedy about silly characters, is actually something a bit more specific. It was actually a popular style of romantic comedy in the 1930s and 1940s that focused on mismatched partners who engage in a battle of the sexes. One of the most famous examples of this subgenre is, of course, Bringing Up Baby, about stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures with ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

For a movie released all the way back in 1938, this is a generally fast-paced work. The way that the two main characters find themselves in a constantly escalating parade of comic mishaps feels somewhat modern. This zippy and zany rom-com will make you laugh. It’s no surprise that this is usually considered one of the best screwball comedies of all time. However, the true scene-stealer of the flick is Baby – Katharine Hepburn’s character’s pet leopard.

Bringing Up Baby is, indeed, a winner, but it is not without a few faults. Hepburn’s woefully incompetent character is a bit grating at first, which briefly made me worry about the picture I was about to watch. One character goes through a change-of-heart at the end that wasn’t completely convincing. While the feature handles the compounding troubles that the characters face admirably, it does feel like a tad much after a while, especially during the jail sequence.

Directed by the versatile Howard Hawks (yes, the man who did Scarface [1932] helmed this project), this is a remarkably lighthearted and entertaining movie. It could be considered one of the building blocks of the modern rom-com, although it still holds up on its own. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fans need to view it, but the real reason to watch it might be for the animals.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.