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Movie industry provides backdrop for two films

By Leonard Heldreth
Our films this month include a film about Hollywood and a semi-autobiographical film about a great director.

ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is his most personal and most relaxed in a long time; it’s essentially a meandering look at a fading Hollywood on two days in February of 1969 and one in August. The narrative follows the activities of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick being the Western star whose career is on a downward slope and Cliff being his stuntman and good friend (“more than a brother and a little less than a wife”).
Rick is loosely based on Burt Reynolds and Cliff has some aspects of Hal Needham, who was originally Reynold’s stuntman and went on to become a director. The two time periods are separated by six months in which the two men go to Italy, on the advice of Rick’s agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), to make some “spaghetti” westerns for Sergio Corbucci (a well-known Italian director). The title of Tarantino’s film is homage to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (starring Henry Fonda) but the ellipses in the title indicates the break in a film that starts off as a fairy tale and concludes in a Hollywood in which the film industry and the social structure are changing rapidly. The film ends with the Manson family’s attack on Sharon Tate, but it’s not as simple as that, and the ending has generated a lot of debate.

Margot Robbie, Rebecca Rittenhouse, and Rachel Redleaf in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. (Sony Entertainment Pictures photo)

The first two hours of the film are like a leisurely stroll through Hollywood with an insider as a guide. Among the attractions is a scene on the set of the Green Hornet in which Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is defeated by Cliff while the stunt coordinator (Kurt Russell) watches and then fires Cliff. Another highlight is the shooting of a scene with Rick playing the villain in a new western called
Lance with actors playing other actors—Timothy Olyphant, Scoot McNairy and Luke Perry, in his final screen role–in an interesting mixture of real people and fictional ones. There’s also a party at the Playboy mansion with Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Mama Cass Eliot (Rachel Redleaf), and other stars; McQueen explains the background links between aspiring actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), famous hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), who is still in love with Sharon, and Sharon’s new husband, director Roman Polanski.
As the movie approaches its violent climax, the tension is screwed up by having Cliff visit the Spahn Movie Ranch, a movie ranch he knows from his days playing in Bounty Hunter. There he finds his old friend George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and has to contend with some of the Manson family who have taken over the place—Gypsy (Lena Dunham) and an openly hostile Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). The final scene, in which the Manson group invades the wrong house, is bloody but vengefully satisfying, and the final shot of Tate, Sebring, and Rick brings a kind of balance to Tarantino’s ending.
DiCaprio and Pitt, who have both worked with Tarantino before, are at the top of their game and were nominated for best actor and best supporting actor awards. (Pitt won.) Each has some outstanding individual scenes as well as ensemble work. Perhaps the most impressive sequence, however, involves Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate. Sometime in February 1969, Tate comes upon a theater, the Bruin, that’s showing her most recent film, The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin imitation of a Bond film. She talks the ticket seller into admitting her free because she’s in the film, and then she watches the audience’s reaction to her acting as she moves her hands through the fight sequences, obviously amused by it all.
We watch Robbie play Tate watching the real Tate play a character on the screen; it’s a littler hard to get your head around the situation. Much of the pleasure of the film is watching 1969 Hollywood roll by as Cliff drives a Cadillac around the city–the film-making, restaurants, nightspots, parties, and music recreate the movie industry of 50 years ago. It’s as if Tarantino decided to pay a tribute to the city as it was at this time in history.
Once Upon a Time … was also nominated for Oscars for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, production design (winner), and costume design.

Penélope Cruz, Asier Flores, and Raúl Arévalo in Pain and Glory. (Sony Pictures Classics photo)

PAIN AND GLORY

Most artists, as they age, start looking back over their lives, and some incorporate this past into their present work, while blurring the biographical similarities. The best example in film is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ in which Marcello Mastroianni plays a famous Italian director who even dresses like Fellini. In Pedro Almodovar’s 21st film, the camera pans past a wall with a huge poster for 8 ½, confirming that Pain and Glory is the great Spanish director’s variation of Fellini’s film, although he calls Pain and Glory the final installment in a triptych that includes Law of Desire and Bad Education. His long-time collaborator, actor Antonio Banderas, is the Mastroianni substitute (they’ve made eight films together in the last 40 years), and he plays the part of Salvador Mallo, wearing some of Almodovar’s clothes and living in Almodovar’s apartment. Like Fellini’s character, Mallo is burned out and suffering from a catalog of physical infirmities, as well as being unable to cope with the death of his mother four years before.
The film is episodic, opening with an idyllic scene from his childhood of women washing sheets on the beach in the poor Valencian village of Paterna, and singing flamenco songs. His mother Jacinta is played in this younger version by Penelope Cruz, and as an older woman by Julieta Serrano, both long-time Almodovar collaborators. Lured from his self-imposed retirement by a revival of Taste, a successful film he directed thirty years ago, he contacts Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the star of the earlier film, to whom he had not spoken since the film was made, and they meet, “chase the dragon” (smoke heroin), and unthaw their relationship.
Mallo agrees to let Crespo stage a play he has written about an affair that broke up over the boyfriend’s drug use, and, in one of a number of coincidences, Argentinian Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the man the play is based on, attends the performance of Addiction and renews his friendship with Mallo. Gradually, the director is being pulled back into contemporary life.
Another moving scene occurs when young Mallo (played as a youth by Asier Flores) teaches a local teenaged workman, Eduardo, how to write, and Eduardo draws a sketch of Mallo reading, a piece of art which shows up again at the end of the film. Eduardo is also important because when the pre-teen Mallo sees him bathing in the kitchen after work, he is so stunned by the youth’s naked beauty that he first realizes he is gay.
The end of the film returns to some emotional scenes of Mallo’s last days with his mother, as she tells him how disappointed she was with him, and he acknowledges that he has followed his own desires instead of what she wanted. Beyond a simple “I’m sorry,” however, he refuses to reject his life as it has occurred. When Mallo tells his doctor at the end, as they go through another battery of tests, that “I’m writing again,” the audience knows that Mallo has pulled the fragments of his life together, accepted them, and forged them into something to move him into the future, just as Fellini does at the end of 8 ½. Pain and Glory is an emotional examination of facing life, aging, and accepting the self in spite of others. For Almodovar fans, it’s required viewing.
(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.)

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