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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

If you are an adult with a brain and you’re fed up with all the youth-oriented fluff at the multiplex this summer, you might want to see director Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a time in Hollywood. It’s not comic book superheroes, cute talking animals, a sequel to a previous movie, or a female-oriented melodrama. It’s a completely fictional story, set in Hollywood in 1969, although some of the characters are (or were) real people, principally Sharon Tate. And, no, the story is not a bloody recreation of her murder exactly fifty years ago and the murder of five other people (including Sharon’s unborn baby) at the hands of a group of Charles Manson-inspired hippies. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino presents an “alternative history” version of the crime in which the only people who die are the ones who deserve it. If you saw his movie Inglourious Basterds (misspelling intentional), you know this is not the first time he has fabricated an alternate ending, for the very simple reason, I suppose, that he’s in charge and he’s making a lot of stuff up because that’s what an “artist” does. It’s called “poetic license.”

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a TV cowboy star, with a successful series called Bounty Law. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick Dalton’s stunt man, friend and factotum. They are likeable fellows, trying to navigate the nearly unnavigable waters of 1969 Hollywood. (Cliff isn’t popular among movie people because he has, presumably, killed his wife and gotten away with it.) Rick rents a house in the Hollywood Hills next door to budding actress Sharon Tate and her movie director husband Roman Polanski. She has been in a few movies by this time in 1969, including Valley of the Dolls. Roman Polanski is very “hot” in 1969 because he directed the hit movie Rosemary’s Baby the previous year.

There’s not a lot of story in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Cliff Booth commiserates with his pal Rick Dalton and rides around Hollywood a lot in Rick’s yellow Cadillac. He meets and is obviously (inexplicably) attracted to an underage female hippie named Pussy. When he gives her a ride back to her hippie commune (or whatever it’s called), he has a tense encounter with a band of repellent hippies, who, we find out later (or maybe we just deduce it) are in the thrall of creepy Charles Manson. I think this is the best sequence in the entire movie.

Rick Dalton, in the meantime, drinks a lot and stands by helplessly while his acting career fizzles out. He gives up his successful TV series in pursuit of a movie career, which never really takes off the way he wishes it would. He ends up going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns.” When he returns to Hollywood, he has more money than he had before and an Italian wife who doesn’t speak English, but his career is still in the doldrums and will probably never get any better.

In the absence of good summer movies, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is worth seeing and will probably be a big hit with its “star power” and its “name” director. It’s colorful and nostalgic, if you happen to feel nostalgic for 1969 miniskirts, blasting period music, powerful cars, hippies, 75-cent movies, smoking anywhere, no Internet, no cell phones, and no political correctness. The ending is violent, with a special kind of bizarre, grotesque violence that is the trademark of any Quentin Tarantino movie. The punishment that Cliff Booth metes out to the invading hippies is gratifying and almost worth the price of admission alone. Will somebody please shut her up?

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp


Tolkien ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Tolkien ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Thirty-year-old, blue-eyed actor Nicholas Hoult plays English fantasy writer John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien in the film biography of Tolkien’s life, called, appropriately, Tolkien. J. R. R. Tolkien’s work is probably more popular now than it was during his lifetime due, in large part, to the two popular film trilogies (six movies in all), based on his works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

J. R. R. Tolkien lived from 1892 to 1973. Both of his parents check out early, so he and his younger brother are left under the guardianship of a priest. He attends a traditional boys’ boarding school, where he, as usually the case with creative people, occupies his own world, in this case the world consisting of sketching fantastic creatures, creating his own language, and dreaming of a fantasy world of his own making. (His early preoccupation with fantasy is fueled mostly by his soon-to-be-dead mother.) While still in school, he develops an infatuation for a young girl named Edith, who is the “paid companion” of a wealthy woman named Mrs. Faulkner. His love affair with Edith doesn’t work out right away and she announces she’s marrying somebody else, but eventually they end up together and marry.

While still at school, Tolkien develops a close relationship with several other boys, who are all unique in their own way. This friendship is very intense and lasts presumably for a lifetime or until death. The theme of friendship (“fellowship”) becomes an important theme in Tolkien’s yet-to-be written fantasy works. Other important themes would be questing for something that is lost and the titanic, never-ending battle between good and evil.

Tolkien experiences The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) firsthand, on the front line of battle. He survives the war, while so many others do not, marries, has four children, and goes on to become a college professor and a prolific writer. We have to presume he would be surprised by the continuing fascination with his life and work 46 years after his death.

Tolkien covers roughly the first half of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life. The movie ends before he came to write the books that would make him famous. It’s a fairly standard movie biography, well-made, but not as compelling as films based on the lives of other famous Britishers, Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything.) The British accents in Tolkien are sometimes difficult to comprehend, but that’s usually the case with British movies (some English subtitles for American audiences might not be amiss).

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Vice ~ Capsule Movie Review

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Vice ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

He’s laconic, soft-spoken (“beware the quiet man…”), smart, cautious, chooses his words carefully, and is as reckless, ruthless and unapologetic as he needs to be in performing what he perceives as his duty to his country. He’s not the traditional politician with the 1000-megawatt smile and the standard line of bullcrap. (“If you want it, we’ll be sure and get it for you.”) He’s overweight, has a serious heart condition, is uncharismatic, unexciting, faithful to his wife and family, with no hint of scandal attached to his name (except for a lesbian daughter, which doesn’t seem to bother him in in the least). He’s Dick Cheney, Vice-President for eight years under President George W. Bush, probably the most powerful and consequential vice-president in U.S. history.

According to the new movie about Dick Cheney’s life, Vice, Dick Cheney was unambitious and unmotivated as a young man. He drank to excess and worked as a telephone lineman in his home state of Wyoming. His girlfriend (and soon to be wife), Lynne, forced him to snap-to and, as the saying goes, “make something of himself.” She was the motivating force in his life and was responsible for his being a “something” rather than a “nothing.” If it hadn’t been for Lynne, none of us would have ever heard of Dick Cheney.

Soon Mr. Cheney found himself in Washington as a young congressional intern. He “caught on” in Washington and found himself taking to Republican politics. He ran for Congress from his home state of Wyoming, won, and later served in a number of high-level government positions, spurred on, as always, by his wife, Lynne Cheney. He was just about finished with politics, was raking in the dough as CEO of Haliburton, when he was tapped to be George W. Bush’s unlikely presidential running mate in 2000. “I think we can make this work,” he says to GWB over fried chicken in the back yard.

Regardless of your political affiliation, Vice is an entertaining, wry, ironic behind-the-scenes political story and a panorama of recent American history. It’s the story of a man without political connections or family connections who came from nowhere and became the ultimate Washington insider and power player. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are sensational as Dick Cheney and his wife. Sam Rockwell, who won an Oscar last year as the amazingly dumb small-town deputy in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, plays the swaggering George W. Bush, “black sheep” of the Bush family,  governor of the state of Texas and two-term Republican president.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Favourite ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Favourite ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

It’s the early 1700s. Queen Anne sits on the throne of England. She has had seventeen children, all of whom died. (“Some were born in blood, some never breathed, and others were with me only for a short time.”) She has seventeen rabbits that she keeps in the royal bedchamber which serve as surrogate children. (“They are my babies.”) She is child-like, petty, temperamental, mentally unstable, sick, gout-ridden, obese, and in every way unfit to run affairs of state. England is, of course, engaged in endless, expensive warfare with France. (God help England!)

Queen Anne (played by an actress named Olivia Colman) has a “favourite,” a woman who goes by the name of Sarah (the ever-frightening Rachel Weisz). Sarah is what is known as a forceful woman. She has Queen Anne firmly in hand. She treats her at times like a child and she will slap her in the face if she feels like it (when they are alone, of course). Sarah tells the queen what to say, what to do, how to dress, and in general manages her life behind closed doors. She is the power behind the throne. And, oh, yes, they are lesbian lovers. We can’t leave that out.

There’s a new bitch in town, though. Her name is Abigail (Emma Stone). She is a wily manipulator. She has recently lost her “status” in life (her father lost her in a card game), and she longs to be a “lady” again. When she comes into the household as a lowly maid, she sizes up the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah and decides that the situation is rife with possibilities for her. She eventually discovers the sexual nature of the association between Queen Anne and Sarah and learns the way to the queen’s heart.

I didn’t care which of the two dragons (Abigail or Sarah) prevails with the queen. They are equally unlikeable. When they resort to poisoning, I don’t really care which one gets up off the floor. Queen Anne is the most interesting and compelling character, the one character with whom our sympathies lie. We pity her and also find her repulsive.  The often-tragic, often-ugly lives of English kings and queens make for fascinating viewing.

The real fun of The Favourite is the way it looks and sounds. It is a wig movie of the highest order and we don’t get many of those. (The voluminous curly wigs are worn by the men; in the battle of the hair, the women recede into the background.) The early eighteenth century sets look absolutely authentic and believable. The music of the period (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi) is loud and there’s lots of it. There’s plenty here to like, especially if you are a fan of historical costume drama and don’t really care for most of the youth-oriented crap at the multiplex.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

First Man ~ A Capsule Movie Review

First Man ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

It’s hard to believe it’s been forty-nine years since the first manned space flight to the moon. In July 1969, America bested the Soviet Union in the space race by overcoming the immense dangers and technological challenges of putting a living, breathing human man on the face of the moon and safely returning him to earth. It was the culmination of all the manned space flights of the sixties. The moon was always the ultimate goal. As John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “We do it not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.”

First Man is about the first manned space flight to the moon but, more than that, it’s a personal story about the man, Neil Armstrong, who first stepped out of the “lunar module” onto the surface of the moon—the first-ever human being from earth to set foot on another world outside his own. First Man chronicles the difficulties involved in getting a man on the moon and the personal toll to those involved.

Neil Armstrong was a regular-guy family man. He was quiet, modest, self-effacing and not given to displays of ego or emotion, even with his family. When his small daughter, Karen, dies of cancer, he carries his grief alone. He works in one of the most dangerous professions known to man, but he never shows his fear or lets it get the best of him, even when some of his colleagues die in horrific “accidents.” And when he becomes, for a time, the most famous man on earth for being the first man on the moon, he doesn’t care about adoration or fame. During a press conference when a reporter asks him how he felt when he was chosen to be the head of the first manned mission to the moon, he says, “I was pleased.” When called upon to expound upon these feelings, he says, “I was pleased.” This simple phrase encapsulates his demeanor perfectly.

Current movie star Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Blade Runner 2049) plays Neil Armstrong with humility and sincerity. We never feel like we’re watching a movie star justifying his twelve-million dollar paycheck so he can line up his next twelve-million-dollar project. An actress named Claire Foy, whom I had never seen before, is impressive as Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet. She also seems simple and sincere. We see what she’s going through, knowing that her husband might never come home again from his latest mission. She has to corral the kids and deal with obstreperous reporters on her front lawn. At one point she stands up to the fellows at NASA when they try to assure her that everything is all right and she tells them they’re like a bunch of little boys playing with balsawood airplanes and they don’t know what they’re doing.

First Man is an impressive October movie (with a knock-out music score and special effects) that might disappear without being seen amid all the youth-oriented fluff and crap that floods multiplex movie screens. It’s a serious movie for the serious moviegoer. There are no women in lingerie, no risqué jokes, no bad language (one use of the “F” word that I noticed), no car chases, no explosions, no boudoir scenes, and no reason not to see it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp


The Nun ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Nun ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

The Nun is set in 1952 in a spooky castle/convent in a remote part of Romania. The castle has a history of its own; it was built in the Middle Ages by a duke who was a practitioner of black magic and who wrote books on demonology and witchcraft. After the castle became a nunnery, the nuns engaged in perpetual prayer (adoration) to keep the evil spirits away. (Why didn’t they just leave?)

A young nun has apparently committed suicide in a disturbing manner at the Romanian convent. The Vatican has sent a middle-aged priest, Father Burke (Demian Bichir) to investigate. Father Burke has a history of dealing with cases that involve or seem to involve demonic possession. With him is a young novitiate (a nun who hasn’t taken her final vows) named Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga).  Sister Irene has a history of “visions,” so that apparently is what qualifies her to help with the investigation of the nun’s suicide. Father Burke and Sister Irene are guided by a young man who calls himself Frenchie, a French-Canadian living near the convent; he’s the one who found the body of the nun who apparently committed suicide. He has put the body in the ice house to help preserve it, but when he takes Father Burke and Sister Irene to see it, it (the dead body) has moved from a lying to a sitting position.

Well, as might be expected, an evil spirit, a demon, is at work in the convent. This spirit takes the form of a grotesque nun named Valak, whom we saw briefly in the earlier movie The Conjuring 2. Valak doesn’t take kindly to people from the church trying to exorcise her. She will fight back with everything she has. Will she prevail over Father Burke and Sister Irene? I wouldn’t count on it, since they have the force of “good” on their side. They also have an ancient holy relic containing the blood of Christ. Now, that I would like to see!

If you’ve seen The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and enjoy horror movies of this kind, you will probably find The Nun worth your time, even though there isn’t much new here that we haven’t already seen in other movies. Ever since movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, hellish demons are a staple of American movies. They’re going to be around for a long time until people stop paying money to see them. Isn’t it better to see demonic possession on the movie screen than to experience it yourself? From what I’ve heard, I think it’s an experience that none of us want to know firsthand.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

White Boy Rick ~ A Capsule Movie Review

White Boy Rick ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

White Boy Rick is set in dismal Detroit, where it seems always to be winter, in the 1980s. Middle-aged dad Rick Wershe senior (Matthew McConaughey) is, by all accounts, a “lowlife” and a “loser” (his wife ran off and left him). He seems, however, to be well-intentioned when it comes to his two kids, Rick junior and Dawn, but they are also lowlifes and losers. Dawn has a haunted, vacant look because she is a drug addict. Scruffy-looking Rick junior at age fifteen is interested in firearms (he stopped going to school) while Rick senior has a workshop in the basement where he modifies guns to make them more deadly. Rick junior takes up with a gang of black hoodlums—he even adopts their patterns of speech—and becomes a gun dealer.

After Rick junior is shot in the abdomen and almost dies because his associates think he knows too much, the police begin using him as an informant. To expand his repertoire, the police encourage him to sell drugs, telling him he can keep any money he makes. (Soon he has a boxful of cash under his bed containing almost a million dollars.) What they fail to emphasize is that he can go to jail for life for dealing drugs. They half-heartedly promise to protect him if he should happen to get caught, but they refuse to put it in writing so we know they don’t really mean it. In the meantime, Rick junior impregnates a black girl (he’s still only sixteen) and doesn’t know about the baby until after it’s born. Rick senior and Rick junior rescue Dawn from a drug house and take her home and lock her up to help her get over her terrible addiction.

White Boy Rick is based, we are told, on a true story. It’s a portrait of a family and is a story of wasted, hopeless lives. It’s bleak from start to finish with nothing pretty about it; there’s no redemption and no Hollywood ending. To top it off, most of the accents are almost incomprehensible; I rarely understood an entire sentence that was spoken. If nothing else, it’s a movie that makes you thankful if your life has some kind of order and morality to it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp