The Hot Blog Archive for July, 2019

Review: Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (spoilers)

I’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s 9th Film, Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood three times so far. I usually watch his films twice before writing, checking my most intense reactions against a second view. This time, I must admit that I have been trying to connect to a clearer reaction and I still am.

The easy stuff seems easy. DiCaprio and Pitt are both skilled actors and iconic movie stars and this is on display in all kinds of ways. Pitt, in some ways, recreates the spirit what is perhaps his most beloved character, Floyd of the Tarantino-written True Romance, about a decade older and living 25 years earlier in American history. He’s still a natural couch surfer and stoner. He is still indestructible through the power of his personality. But he also has been weaponized by a war and a miserable marriage. Unlike Rick, Cliff doesn’t seem to actually be a bigot. But he is wary. He embodies many of the ideals of white male strength with which a child of World War II would have been raised, the prime exception being success.

Rick is a mirror reflection of Cliff, as their roles as actor and stunt double would suggest. He has not been weaponized. He is soft. And he has magic… but he works incredibly hard to prove it, somehow so ashamed by the ease of it that he can’t relax into its pleasures. What Cliff can do with his bare hands and his well-trained dog, Rick needs a flame thrower to not quite match. He is the successful but aggrieved by the coming future that he has no control over.

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Speaking of The Dog… this too is a doppelgänger match between dog and master. Cliff has been tamed, to a degree. But like his dog, Brandy, he is able to deliver lethal, perfect violence on demand in an instant.

And this is why Once Upon A Time … is hard to dismiss as an empty vessel for Quentin’s kitsch obsessions. Just setting up the foundations of the two leads and the dog requires three full paragraphs.

The third major character in this film is Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie’s performance of pure, seemingly unconsidered sunlight is the best of the film. Yes, it is nearly a silent role. But it is critically so. Lovingly so. She isn’t playing dumb. But she isn’t showing herself to be particularly smart. She just is. There isn’t a moment without a light coming from her eyes and literally a rhythmic bounce in her step, whether music is playing or not.

The fourth major character is The Manson Family. All of it. But mostly, the women/girls. Charles is barely a part of the movie, except as a threatening idea. And with the women/girls of Manson comes the question of whether they are meant to be a flip side to the Sharon Tate character, as Rick is to Cliff. They share her youth and some of her exuberance. When we meet them, they are singing a camp song in unison. But while Tate is wanted and desired endlessly, these young women have had to find a place to feel at peace with themselves.

The great question around the film is how this all fits together.

The real-life murder of Tate and the rest (barely footnotes in the film) symbolize an end of the hope and love of the 60s era to many people. In the fictionalized narrative of this film, the focus of this element seems to be on the women, not the men. The young and aggrieved women are on their way to kill the hope and love that they were not so lucky to obtain as a matter of fate.

There really is no explanation in the film why the group, led by a weak, fearful boy in Fictionalized Tex Watson, veers off to Rick’s house instead of the house they were sent to by Manson. It could just be a mistake. He could be wanting revenge for the humiliation of being sent away by “Jake Cahill.” The plan could be to kill Cahill and then head up the hill to kill the residents of the Tate/Polanski residence. There is no yellow Cadillac to suggest that Tex or the women/girls recognize that Cliff, who “escaped” Tex’s threat of gun violence at The Spawn Ranch might be there. The audience just isn’t told why.

(I am writing off the illogic that Cliff somehow returns to the house without seeing the car full of Mansonians or the trio walking up the hill to Rick’s house. But I would not be shocked to find out that this and the lack of an explanation of the diversion by the Manson Trio were lost in an edit, things that could have slowed the pace and/or been too clear for QT’s tastes at that point.)

But there is no question that the violent, male machismo of the late Greatest Generation, stops the incursion of the grievance part of hippiedom on the hope and love part of hippiedom. And for no other reason but its own survival.

But what does that mean? Is it meaningful or is it just Tarantino fantasizing and amusing himself (and audiences)?

Of course, Rick gets to be the hero of the erasure of the Manson threat, just moments after Cliff is carted off in the ambulance, having basically taken on all three of the attackers. Rick thinks of himself as a key participant, as he fried a young lady who may well have already been mortally wounded by Cliff and Brandy.

There are dozens of other doppelganger moments in the film. There is the repetition of “I never had a chance,” which is spoken by Steve McQueen about having a relationship with Sharon Tate and by Rick about almost maybe getting the role in The Great Escape that transformed McQueen a couple years after Wanted: Dead or Alive, which seems to be the reference for Rick’s TV series in the film, Bounty Law, that Rick leaves for a failed film career.

We open with a look at Bounty Law, but the actual start of the movie is after the show is gone and Rick’s movie career has stalled out. So is Rick a winner or a loser? Are we meant to think that the offer by Pacino’s Marvin Schwarzs is a good sign or a bad sign, given that we in the audience know that the spaghetti westerns propelled Clint Eastwood to his run with Don Siegal that made him a full-on movie star? Even at the end of the movie, Rick has made 4 films in 6 months in Italy, but sees it as the end of his road.

Rick tells the young actress, Trudi, the story of his western novel, which is pretty precisely the story of Cliff, though he thinks it is his own story. This is made more evident late in the movie when Cliff takes a knife to the hip, which will surely not kill him, but will likely slow him down from the physical skills he shows (especially getting to the roof of Rick’s house).

Pitt is a too-good-looking-to-be-a-stuntman stuntman while Kurt Russell is too… but Kurt’s character still has the wife who keeps his manhood in a sack hanging from her belt.

Jay Underwood and Roman Polanski are Sharon Tate’s doppelganger short, handsome waif men.

James Stacy, who is a real actor (played here by Timothy Olyphant), whose real series, Lancer, was piloted around the time of the movie’s timeline and actually directed by Sam Wanamaker aspires to what Rick has achieved. And in historic fact, Lancer ran 51 episodes before Stacy became a perennial bit TV player. So he got what Rick had then unlike Rick, never took a next step of significance.

We don’t know at the end of Once Upon A Time …  whether Rick will find his Don Siegel or even if Roman Polanski will end up being that to him or if he will still end up selling his house, buying a condo, losing the Italian starlet, and disappearing into obscurity.

We can also wonder whether Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel would have had the successes they had together (Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry) had it not been for the Manson family sending the flower power era into a more conservative direction (as has been suggested by Joan Didion and others, leaving your sense of hyperbole to decide).

Like I wrote before… there is plenty of kitsch – and I have barely scratched that surface – but there is other stuff bubbling beneath it which isn’t clear, but is interesting.

And there is the very real possibility that Quentin is just doing what Quentin does… reconsider genres, whether one at a time or a few at a time. Go down the list… the heist movie, the Blaxploitation romance, the chop socky, the grindhouse, the Nazi war movie, the action slave movie, and the Agatha Christie. Of course, they are all twisted up with other genre conceits. The two that are the hardest to categorize (and are not in that list) are Pulp Fiction and Once Upon A Time …, which are both closer to being anthology movies. For me, when I think of directors that are emulated in OUATIH, I think Altman first. QT has none of the specific Altman quirks. But there is a rambling quality and an emphasis on performance that reminds me of Altman.

I haven’t addressed the physical abuse of women in this film and throughout his history. I can’t make an argument against the anger of some about this. Men take a lot of abuse in this film and all the others as well. But Tarantino was created by the heat of an era when women were objectified in much of film by an endless parade of white male directors. I don’t find it misogynistic. Zoe Bell is right. Sharon Tate is a goddess here. One could say that Squeaky Fromme comes off as strong and clear and smart and in control, however ugly her circumstances. So I am not outraged.

I haven’t spoken to the relative silence of the Sharon Tate character because I think the silence performance is brilliant and speaks quite directly to what he was trying to achieve, which was to deify her. She is the only pure thing in the film.

I haven’t mentioned one of the best sequences in the film, which is Rick’s day on Lancer, from his arrival to his encounter with Trudi (amazing child actor turn) to his self-abuse to a true movie star performance in a shitty little western TV show that rises beyond the way it does sometimes and you know a guest star on Law & Order is going to be a star for real. From that section, the audience knows what Rick really is and what he isn’t, no matter how he feels about himself.

And of course, that sequenced is intercut with Cliff at the Spawn Ranch, also showing us everything about who he is.

But discussing how much I like any sequence doesn’t seem to be the point here.

So how do I feel about the movie?

I don’t really have an answer. Still. It sure felt to me like I was building to a statement of believe in writing this piece. But no.

I don’t think it is a masterpiece.

I do think Quentin is a mad cinematic genius.

I don’t seek easy answers from movies, but I am also not expecting chaos from masterpieces unless that is clearly the means to an end.

I do think this is the most complex cinematic experience of the year-to-date from a major studio.

I will see it again. Maybe more than once (making 4).

I could write a whole 1500-word piece about all the things that push me out of the movie. But that doesn‘t seem helpful. Still, they exist.

This is a movie that people who love movies have to see. It will evolve in time. For a lot of people. For me. Maybe for you.

There is so much to chew on and so many blind alleys and misdirections. Perhaps that is just the nature of the beast.

Acid-dipped cigarette, anyone?

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BYOQT9 [Big Spoilers Available Now]

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Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD,

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State of The Industry: Feb 2019

(NOTE: I wrote this back in February and didn’t publish it. Some of it has shown itself to be true already. Some still coming. Some has already become iffy. But here it is…)

The media and Wall Street obsession with “Netflix vs X” is a fallacy.

Netflix is the clear leader in the new paradigm of streaming. However, as more major players enter the streaming space with deep libraries, they will barely be in competition with Netflix, so much as the existing cable and television structure, as that is where the big money is.

In fact, the competitive situation for Netflix will only change significantly when they are dragged into the gravitational force of the new variation of the streaming paradigm that they created.

Netflix landed in the middle of the film and television industry, the industry did not land on Netflix.

Netflix did change the game. But it does not control the game because it just isn’t big enough to do so. And it likely never will be.

Given the most extreme predictions for the happy future of Netflix, the company, as currently designed, maxes out at about $16 billion in annual domestic revenue and about $25 billion overseas with 300 million worldwide subscribers. $41 billion in worldwide revenues is tremendous.

However, Disney has $24 billion annually in a mostly domestic television business today. And even if it can’t make a go of more than one stream channel for the international audience, it can surely match Netflix internationally with a massive advantage in its established brand.

And then, Disney has its film side, which has a symbiotic relationship with the TV and future streaming businesses. And its parks. And a huge merchandising business that can only be enhanced by being in the streaming business in the many nations where the dominant use of the Disney brand consists is illegal knockoffs.

Netflix is already, smartly, angling for differentiation by investing in local production in many languages in many countries, not just relying on American content dubbed or subtitled for other nations. But the details of the battle for The World between all of the streamers is a discussion better held for another article.

My point is, Disney can’t afford to just compete with Netflix. Their ambitions and their current business are significantly bigger than that.

Likewise, AT&T and Comcast, which have even more complicated issues than Disney. They both have existing content delivery businesses that generation roughly $25 billion a year for each corporation. So, as they create streaming platforms that give more reason for consumers to cut the cord, they are cannibalizing their own businesses.

But like Disney, the draw of international – again, trailblazed by Netflix – is so great, they are willing to walk this tightrope for the next decade or so… and to bleed the red ink that will inevitably come with it for a time.

Domestically, the easier play would be to fight exclusively for the territory they already occupy. This is one major reason why these legacy companies have dragged their feet for at least 5 years of the Netflix streaming success, allowing Netflix to establish itself while clearing the path others will now walk. The companies with major studios could just shut Netflix out on the content front, refocus on improving cable and satellite with some streaming access, and not take a dangerous chance.

But the international opportunity gives these legacy companies a chance to double or triple their overall home content operations.

The playing field here is, currently, about $150 billion annually. This is just on content and delivery into homes, not including internet access. Netflix owns about $17 billion of that.

Neither Comcast nor AT&T are anxious to release their $50 billion of that $150 billion. Nor are the smaller cable/satellite MVPDs that total up to a nearly equal amount of the overall revenue. But the industry is now past the point of return. And adjustments for the new paradigm will have to be made.

My personal prediction is that by the end of 2020, AT&T’s DirecTV and Comcast cable and every other MVPD in short order, will offer packages with a cost between $40 and $70 a month via their non-internet infrastructures, seeking to keep their customer bases intact and ready to spend $40 – $70 a month on unique streaming channels (like Netflix, Hulu, Comcast-to-be-named, WarnerMedia streaming, Disney+. etc.)

That $40 – $70 a month is where the OTT battle will rage. And I have every expectation that Netflix will continue to thrive in that environment. But I don’t see them having a lot of room to raise their monthly rates once heavy competition moves (which is likely why they moved to raise prices recently, before the wave).

Disney seems to be angling for a $20+ monthly spend for their 3 streaming networks or at least $15 for any 2. Comcast and WarnerMedia each adds another $11 a month to the bill. So those 4 must-have streamers (inc Netflix) represent $40 – $45 a month. Add another $60 a month or so for a “broadcast” package, either streaming or via MVPD. About $100 a month. Where America lives , on average, with the home entertainment today.

Obviously, the details will vary, as they do now. But consumers want new content, including live programming, as well as the deep wells of the content libraries. There has to be a way to accommodate this. Any expectation that the average family in America will raise their home entertainment spend by 50% or more in the face of new options is foolhardy, at best.

Apple and Amazon probably should be mentioned at this point.

I don’t believe that either company will ever be a major content player. Why? Because it’s not a great business. It’s not their business. And the extended streaming universe will not turn it into a great business.

There are 4 major English-language libraries left to buy. Sony, Paramount/CBS, Lionsgate, and MGM, which is suddenly resurrecting itself yet again. Any one of them or all of them could be purchased by Amazon or Apple as the foundation of a streaming service. Netflix could also be a buyer, giving them a stronger foundation when they start to slow the pace of original production. Or someone with a lot of cash could bring them all together as the 5th major streaming player.

We all could exhaust ourselves speculating about the future of these companies. But it seems futile. They could be 10% of this discussion or as much as 25%. But they are not going to drive the forward motion.

(I believe, strongly, that theatrical revenues will not only continue, but thrive moving forward. The theatrical experience is already the best opportunity to sell individual access at the highest price per person in this industry, aside from the niche of cash-loose disc collectors. In the streaming subscription era, this will be even more pronounced. But this is best left for another article.)

My belief is that Amazon and Apple will both try to be the bundlers of the streaming paradigm. In other words, the creators of the products that make this massive wave of content that is thousands of times too big for anyone to consume but that we will all have access to for a reasonable price, manageable. Or, if you like, the companies that will keep you from having to ask, “Where the hell is Show X streaming, damn it!?”

Amazon and Apple will try out using original content as bait. But I don’t believe their hearts are really into making programming. If they control the new pipe, they can sell you all kinds of stuff within reason.

Meanwhile, the legacy companies heading into the streaming space have very complicated choices to make.

One example, broadly. The NFL. About $6 billion a year in TV revenues. Split between CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC, DirecTV, and the Thursday Night franchise that includes the NFL Network and Amazon.

DirecTV is the single biggest annual spender, coughing up $1.5 billion for the right to exclusively distribute the CBS/Fox Sunday games out of market. They lose money on this, but it has been considered worth the losses as bait to bring in new customers and keep their legacy customers.

Paying the least per game are Fox and CBS, which serve as the backbone for the league, producing 10-13 games a week, every week. (about $2.1b combined)

ESPN pays almost $2 billion a year for Monday Night Football and NBC gets Sunday Night Football for just under $1 billion a season.

The idea of changing these arrangements is catnip for the whimsical. And the players will move around the board in any contract year. But in a discussion of the streaming future, this one piece of turf involves every player but Netflix & Apple. This is how the NFL likes it. And this works, mostly, for the corporations. Every company is competing aggressively with the others… and every company has its role to play.

That is where we are headed. Not kill the man with the ball. Not Netflix vs The World. There has been a lot of change in the process of consolidation, even before the new massive streamers launch. And everyone is still competing for their wins. But we are seeing the dawn of a new eco-system, not a bunch of punks fighting for a loose dollar that fell out of someone’s pant pocket on the playground. No one company defines it now. No one company will define it in the (near) future.

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Trailering CATS (2019) (Tugger warning)

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BYO YO-YO, YO

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Florence Pugh; Jack Reynor DSCF9328.RAF

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The Hot Blog

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“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima