Vix Flix Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Prior to seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I braced myself for a Quentin Tarantino bloodbath on the order of Pulp FictionReservoir DogsKill Bill or Django Unchained. Instead, what I initially experienced was a fun romp through a 1960s Hollywood period piece, a buddy movie complete with tons of great original TV clips and music. I wondered if Tarantino was trying something new. And then, following a trail of bloody breadcrumbs, it took a dark turn down a dead end street called Cielo Drive and straight into the horrific Charles Manson murders of August 8, 1969. Oh yeah, spoiler alert, but knowing this won’t ruin the movie. 
Actually, knowing what I just told you, especially if you’re not a Baby Boomer, will help you research and prepare to understand what’s going on while Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio struggle with their diminishing roles in the movie business of the late ‘60s. Leo plays Rick Dalton, a fading TV tough guy trying to transition into movies, alongside his faithful stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s hard to identify the star of this film since the two actors trade the lead role throughout the film and perform with equal humor and intensity.
Tarantino is clearly drawn to the most notorious human monsters in history, but it wasn’t entirely clear where this film was headed for the first hour or so. Tarantino teased out some hints of the story’s through-line early on, but eventually it is revealed that Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring live next door to Dalton. An exclusive area of Benedict Canyon, north of Beverly Hills, this is a very bad neighborhood to live in during August of 1969.
It seems that while everyone else was focusing on the 50thanniversary of the Apollo Moon landing in July, Tarantino was preparing for the release of this 50thanniversary alternate reality comedy/drama. Yes, dark comedy of the absurd brand that Tarantino can muster under the most grotesque of situations. Think about Andy Kaufman’s twisted humor. Tarantino likes to psychologically mess with his audience while delivering his own fantasy of how he’d prefer things to turn out – much like Nazis getting their come-uppance in Inglourious Basterds. And here again, that fantasy includes the most menacing of weapons – the flamethrower.
Born in 1963, little Quentin Tarantino either spent every moment of his first ten years in front of a TV and has encyclopedic recall, or he thoroughly researched the era and managed to dig up media assets that tug at the heartstrings of people about ten years older. I enjoyed scenes from MannixThe Green HornetThe FBI, and music very specific to the year 1969 and before, including Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Vanilla Fudge, Neil Diamond and others. 
A segment at the Playboy Mansion has Cass Elliot partying with Michelle Phillips and there’s talk of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who lived in the Polanski house and briefly partied with Manson. Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), as cool as ever, reminisces about Sharon Tate’s attraction to short men. “I never stood a chance,” he laments.
The portrayal of this frenetic time effectively captures a generation coming of age, embroiled in Vietnam and two years beyond the “Summer of Love.” Hippies are falling out of favor, but remnants are under the spell of “Charlie” at the Spahn Ranch. Tucked away in a back room on the property is George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the 80 year old sex slave/owner. Of course, weaving fictional characters into notorious historic events is a Forrest Gump sort of fun. Time travel with a twist and lots of liberties.
This is a movie within a movie. We get to watch DiCaprio film a series of retakes in a stereotypical western barroom, then go back to his trailer and combust over his inept and embarrassing performance. Meanwhile, Pitt is on Dalton’s roof fixing a TV antenna and hoping for a part onscreen with Bruce Lee, whom he mockingly calls Kato. The resulting “knock down” fight exposes Lee as a fraud of sorts, a human hyperbole and Karate sound effects master whose “registered weapon-hands” prevent him from engaging in any actual fighting. And the exchange loses Booth his recently acquired job. Lee’s daughter has objected to this portrayal.
A number of scenes in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are filmed using shallow focus, which, being a Tarantino film, leaves the viewer feeling as if something strange or shocking is about to arrive from off screen or deep within the field of vision. And that’s where this film leaves you sitting on the edge of your seat – for a long time. Those abrupt intrusions simply aren’t delivered.
Al Pacino makes an appearance as Producer Marvin Schwarzs, counseling Dalton on how to remedy his declining star power. He comments on his love for “All the shooting. I love that stuff, you know, the killing.” It’s a nod to his Scarface machine gun “little friend” that in 1969 is still 14 years in the future. This scene takes place at the legendary Musso & Frank Grill, a restaurant frequented by celebrities and the location of one of the best meals of my life. Angela Lansbury was at the next table while my family dined. It was the Summer of Love. I was 12 and had no knowledge of that event or who she was, but my mother was quite excited. It was like driving past Woodstock and wondering where the music was coming from.
Sharon Tate might have been better played by a young Bo Derek, but Margot Robbie nicely captured the essence of the 1960s actress whose tragically shortened career credits ranged from The Beverly Hillbillies to Valley of the Dolls. Actual scenes with Dean Martin from 1968’s The Wrecking Crew are shown as Tate sits in a Westwood theater watching her own performance and enjoying the audience reaction a mere six months before her death.
The film ends after the closing credits with a faux commercial for Red Apple cigarettes, with Rick Dalton praising the merits of the choice smoke that made its debut in Pulp Fiction. There’s lots of smoking throughout the movie.
We talked about this movie for a while the following day and agreed we might like to see it again after some research. Looking for threads that were woven early in the fabric of the seemingly chaotic script would be a fun challenge.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) runs 2 hours 41 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?

Vic’s Flix Movie Review: Crawl

“Aaaah.”
“Nuhhh.”
“Gguh.”
“Ernnn.”
If you can hear above the sound of your own groans, these are among the distracting litany of sounds the star of Crawl can be heard making repeatedly throughout the endless alligator attacks in this fairly short, action-packed movie.
I credit the Director, Alexandre Aja (Pirahna 3DThe Hills Have Eyes), with some jump-out-of-your-seat scares along the way, much like the scene in which the shark in Jaws prompts Roy Scheider to utter the famous line, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
Heading into this film, I thought it was about one crazy alligator. But no, it’s about an entire swarm of them! They’re all huge and intent on killing humans trapped in a decrepit house somewhere along the Southwest Gulf Coast of Florida, in a fictional town where a hurricane is about to burst a levee. There’s one problem. I’m only aware of one levee in the entirety of this region. All the rest are on the east coast or elsewhere. Minor detail.
Early in the film, a billboard along a highway packed with evacuees advertises “Alligator Farm.” Perhaps this is where the gators lived prior to escape. They seem pissed, and before long they’ve eaten two police officers and three locals trying to loot a store. There’s a lot of red water in each case.
So, a category 5 hurricane is bearing down on our heroine Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her dad (Barry Pepper), who is familiar mostly from parts in Saving Private Ryan and Flags of our Fathers. He’s trying to save his daughter and not doing a very good job of it. In a mere ninety minutes he manages to have his arm bitten off, drown (Haley saves her dad with mouth-to-mouth and a couple of hard chest blows) and he is probably the source of the movie’s name, since a hideous compound fractured leg causes him to crawl at all times. Here we have a case study in the number of tourniquets that one person can self-administer and still survive.

            “Named him after a man of the cloth…called him Amos Moses. Left arm gone clean up to the elbow…”I apologize, but Jerry Reed’s concept song from 1970 got stuck in my head about half way through the movie.
Kaya Scodelario got her acting start in three seasons of the reality TV series Skins, a show that hired teens with no acting experience. She later landed a part in Moon with Sam Rockwell, and has been building her resume with a trilogy of Maze films that sound suspiciously like Hunger Games in a variant of that post-apocalyptic genre. (Author’s note: I’ve never seen any of them.) In Crawl, she spends most of the movie wet and swimming through disgusting water. She is chomped on several times, once on the leg, once on the arm, and a third time in a death roll alligators are so notoriously fond of. Each instance would finish off a normal mortal. But Haley is a competitive swimmer with a relentlessly pushy father/coach who motivates her by suggesting she’s an alpha predator. A couple of corny exchanges ensue between father and daughter as they make amends while nicely animated alligators (actual alpha predators) are resting for their next scene.
In fairness, I must mention that I live along the Southwest Gulf Coast of Florida. It was kind of fun when US 75 was mentioned, since we take that highway most places. And having been through Hurricane Irma in 2017, I can say that the portrayal of hurricane conditions is pretty realistic, right down to the tree branch that comes crashing through a kitchen window. It doesn’t matter that I’m telling you this. It’ll still make you jump. And our stars being trapped in a basement full of other yucky stuff adds a creep factor in itself. One other point – houses in Florida generally don’t have basements.
We are also quite well acquainted with alligators down here. They frequent the canal behind our house, and during mating season they get a little weird, wandering down the middle of a street where I ride my bicycle. You get used to them.
But the reality is that gators are essentially afraid of humans. They are terrible chewers, preferring to attack small, bite-sized prey. So the scaly crew in this film is seriously demented. And that’s what makes this movie scary. They are survivors from a prehistoric age populated with monsters that eat living creatures. So our species has a genetic memory of these things always having been present. Good casting!
In summary, Crawl is scary, gory and pretty effective overall. But it is also a ludicrous survival story, periodically corny and loaded with distractingly dramatic music and less than stellar acting. Trust me, you won’t want to go swimming in Florida after you see this film, but I’d be more concerned about the shark problem in New Smyrna Beach.

Crawl (2019) runs one hour 27 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?  

Vic’s Flix Movie Review: Stuber

I’m going to say that this is the funniest movie I’ve seen since 2018’s unexpectedly hilarious Game Night, and then I’ll think about that some more and circle back. 
Perhaps the woman in front of us at the ticket counter set the mood before the show even began. She simply said, “Two for Stubber please.” Revealing her complete ignorance of the concept and the associated pun was good for a laugh when we got far enough away to avoid being heard.
Previews for Stuber got our attention recently, and we chose to go see it despite mediocre early reviews from Rotten Tomatoes. Ok, so this is not an art film, but I suspect ratings will improve as more people see it. Fearful that all of the funniest scenes had been thrown at the trailer, expectations were not high, and the movie is short at just over an hour and a half. In a clever move, several very funny trailer sequences landed on the cutting room floor. They were no longer a factor. Could they fill the other eighty-five minutes with equally good bits?
Well, they did, and I believe we’re going to be seeing lots more from both Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani. It’s not like they both haven’t been extremely busy with lengthy portfolios of TV and film work. But they have now costarred in a cop/buddy comedy with tons of antagonistic chemistry similar to DeNiro and Stiller in Meet The Parents,only ramped way up to another level (or maybe down.) 
For those who haven’t been paying attention, Bautista is one of those insanely muscled professional wrestling stars like The Rock and other brethren in the current generation of Schwarzenegger-type heroes that seem to relish comic roles when not dominating the action/adventure genre. Bautista was barely recognizable as Drax in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films. As that shirtless and heavily tattooed alien he also managed to very competently deliver some extremely funny lines, all the while being much too intimidating a presence to be informed that the jokes were on him.
In Stuber, Bautista is once again the hero and the joke. But in this outing, he is relentlessly and boldly made aware of his failings by Stu, the meek and soft-spoken Uber driver played by Kumail Nanjiani. whose recent voiceover of “Pawny” in Men In Black International pretty much stole the show. And here we have him in human form wanting nothing more than to receive a 5-star rating while playing mellow 70s songs like “I’m not in Love” by 10CC on his vintage iPod. It’s going to be a challenge with his latest Uber passenger, Vic Manning, an aggressive cop partially blinded by recent Lasik surgery.
The plot, villains and outcome don’t really matter in hindsight. It’s the journey, the Uber ride and the outrageous bantering that carry the film. There are a couple of tangents to the Uber through-line involving Stu’s love interest and Vic’s daughter that provide the potential for redemptive sub-plots, but the evolution of Stu from hapless hostage to willing hero is the real five star ride here. There are lessons for Vic as well, but I won’t give those away.
Karen Gillan (Dr. WhoJumanji) makes a brief appearance in Stuber. She has now worked alongside Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista. Is a pattern emerging?
Electric cars take a not so subtle hit when, (predictably) at the moment they most need it to perform, the battery quits and demands recharging. This is a primary fear of potential EV buyers, a sign of our times, and an effective plot device that we will hopefully someday look back upon, laugh and say, “remember that?”
And in a nicely handled race commentary, Stu candidly comments that being taken captive by Vic wouldn’t look great, “A white cop holding a brown guy against his will.”
Vic responds, “I’m not white.”
Stu begins to guess, “Black? Mexican? Jamaican, Columbian, Chinese, no not Chinese.”
We never find out what racial mix produced Vic Manning, but in Stu’s angry estimation, “It was all the ugliest people from all the races that got together and made you.” Only he says it more crudely.
So, getting back to the funniest recent films, I looked them up. There were some cute and funny movies in the past year, but Stuber has better comic writing, superbly delivered, especially by Kamail Nanjiani. And it was a pretty good action movie too.
There is lots of graphic violence, profanity and brief graphic nudity. Not for the kiddies.

Stuber (2019) runs one hour, 33 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie? 

Vic’s Flix Movie Review: Midsommar

I’m going to keep this review short. I feel that the two and a half hours I spent watching the movie shouldn’t lead to more time wasted. And I plan to spoil the entire movie here, so if you think you may want to waste YOUR time, stop reading.
Full disclosure: I am part Swedish. I even said Skol (skål) at the conclusion of the father-of-the-bride’s toast for my daughter’s wedding. So I was a bit excited to see a movie set in Sweden. About what, I wasn’t sure, but I love surprises.
Surprise! This movie sucks. And that was after a fairly promising start. The opening scene presents us with the view of a serene forest in winter overlaid with the sound of Kulning, or melodic Swedish yodeling. Cut to a telephone ringing, and the rest gets really weird.
The main characters, Dani and her boyfriend of four years, Christian are on the verge of breaking up, only she doesn’t realize it. Still, she confides to a friend that she’s afraid she may be driving him away with her neediness and anxiety. Shortly after Christian is counseled by his friends to end the relationship, Dani’s bipolar sister kills herself and her parents with an elaborate auto exhaust pipeline from the family’s garage to their upstairs bedrooms. Christian is now powerless to leave the devastated Dani. So instead, he takes her on a trip to Sweden with his buddies to visit his friend’s communal “family” during a nine-day summer festival. It turns out to be the first major festival in ninety years. Uh oh.
Their arrival in Sweden got me thinking of the 1973 movie The Wicker Man, also filled with pagan ritual sacrifice in a foreign locale. We immediately realize that this is not “family” – it’s a commune, a cult, and they have some bizarre ideas about the cycle of life (after four eighteen year cycles, you jump off a cliff) that include kidnapping strangers to maintain the diversity of their DNA. Of course, they periodically engage in deliberate incest to produce special “open” beings to generate books of cryptic symbols interpreted by the elders for posterity.
Drugs play an important role in the ongoing shenanigans. And the lack of cell phone service prevents any of the visitors from calling for help. So, one by one, the guests begin to disappear while Dani gets recruited for a dance contest around a Maypole of sorts. She is crowned May Queen, drugged and forced to select the ninth in a group of human sacrifices from either a randomly selected member of the commune or her own boyfriend. Well, she just witnessed a drugged Christian impregnating an eager young maiden in a barn, surrounded by a variety of naked, chanting townswomen. So, bye bye, Christian. But seriously, being burned alive inside a gutted bear seems a bit harsh.
There is no happy ending, no rescue, escape or even redemption here. The final image is of Dani, in a full body flower costume, grinning vacantly, having either become transformed into a willing cult member or perhaps having lost her mind. Who cares at this point? Groans were audible from the audience as we all crawled out of the theater during the closing credits.
Ari Aster directed Midsommar. His only other feature film credit is 2018’s Hereditary, another recent movie I warned friends not to see. I generally like films that have newcomers and unknowns. There were lots of very authentic sounding Swedish names in the cast list for this movie. The only recognizable face was that of William Jackson Harper, who we know as “Chidi” in the TV series The Good Place. The cinematography was lovely and the actors all did fine jobs, but the story was pointless and grotesque. As a thriller, it generated some ongoing suspense, but not to the level of horror. The graphic violence was all so matter-of-fact as to be a perverse medical documentary.
Sadly, human beings have engaged in some horrific rituals and practices through the ages, but I really don’t care to witness them. Knowing they exist is bad enough.

Midsommar (2019) runs 2 hours, 27 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?  

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...