“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” (2019) Review

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” (2019) Review

When I had first learned that producer-director Quentin Tarantino had plans to make a movie about “Old Hollywood”, I assumed that it would be set during the early 20th century – at least sometime between the 1920s and the 1940s. I had no idea that the movie would be set near the end of the 1960s.

The reason behind my initial assumption was that I have never considered the 1960s decade to be a part of . . . “Old Hollywood”. For me, that era in film history had ended by the late 1950s. I eventually learned that a good number of movie stars – Rock Hudson being one of them – had retained contracts with the industries movie studios even during the Sixties. Even those who had transferred from movie to television productions. Then . . . I heard that the movie would be about the LaBianca-Tate Murders from August 1969. Familiar with the level of violence featured in past Tarantino movies, I was pretty determined to avoid this movie. I am used to the violence featured in the director’s past movies. But I really could not see myself sitting in a movie theater and watching a re-creation of the murder of actress Sharon Tate, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring and a few other friends at the hands of Charles Manson’s Family. I had seen the 1976 movie, “HELTER SKELTER” when I was a kid. Once was enough and that was only a two-part television movie. But when I had eventually learned that “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” was a revisionist movie like his 2009 film, “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, I decided to give it a chance.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” covered a six month period near the end of the 1960s – from February to August 1969. To be honest, the movie is divided into two time periods. Two-thirds of the movie is set during a 36-hour period in early Februrary 1969. The last third of the film is set during the afternoon and evening hours of August 8-9, 1969. The movie is about the experiences of two men – Hollywood television actor Rick Dalton and his friend/stunt man/chauffeur Cliff Booth. Following the cancellation of his television series, “Bounty Law”, Rick had been making guest appearances in various television shows as villains. Casting agent Marvin Schwarz warns Rick that the longer he continues appearing in television episodes as the villain, his career will eventually die and no one will remember him from “Bounty Law”. The agent suggests that Rick consider going to Europe to star in an Italian western or two. And Cliff find his career as a Hollywood stuntman over due to rumors that he may have killed his wife and an altercation with Bruce Lee on the set of “THE GREEN HORNET”. Only his job as Rick’s chauffeur/handyman has allowed Cliff to earn any cash, thanks to the actor’s alcoholism and collection of DUIs that led to the removal his driver’s license.

Rick has also acquired new neighbors – Polish-born director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate – both with Hollywood careers that seemed to be on the upswing. The couple had just began leasing the home of music producer Terry Melcher. Rick has dreams of befriending them as a means to revive his career. Meanwhile, he contemplates accepting Marvin’s suggestion, while he begins work on his current job – a guest appearance as another villain in the pilot episode of the TV western called “LANCER”. As for Cliff, he becomes acquainted with a beautiful hitchhiker named Pussycat. She turns out to be a member of the Manson Family, who are staying at Spahn Ranch, where he and Rick used to film “Bounty Law”. Cliff’s encounter with the ranch’s owner, the blind and aging George Spahn and members of the Manson Family foreshadows a later encounter on that infamous night, six months later.

While contemplating his career, I noticed all of the four movies made by Quentin Tarantino in the past ten years were period pieces. All of them . . . from “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” to this current film, “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”. I would never consider the other three films as nostalgic, but a part of me cannot help but wonder if I could say the same about this latest one. The pacing for “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” struck me as a lot more detailed, relaxed and reflective than any of his previous movies. It almost seemed as if Tarantino was paying some kind of loving tribute to the end of the old Hollywood studio system. For me, this seemed like both a good thing and a bad one.

Tarantino always had a reputation for scenes that featured long stretches of dialogue or detailed action sequences. And yes, the pacing in his films – with the exception of scenes featuring action or revelations of previous mysteries – can be a tad slow upon first viewing. But “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” marked the first time I can recall such a small amount of violence or action. Tarantino seemed more evoking a sense of the past than in any other of his period films. For “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”, it was a good thing for the film managed to permeate the end of the 1960s in Los Angeles and the Hollywood Studio system thanks to Tarantino’s direction, Barbara Ling’s superb production designs, Arianne Phillips’ costume designs and the art direction led by Richard L. Johnson.

On the other hand, Tarantino’s in-depth peek into Los Angeles 1969 also had a negative impact . . . a minor one, if I must be honest. This slow exploration also included a look into actress Sharon Tate’s life . . . at least in the first two-thirds of the film. Basically, the movie reflected a peek into the daily life of the actress – attending a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, visiting a bookstore in the Westwood Village, and watching her latest film (“THE WRECKING CREW”) at the theater. I realize that Tarantino was trying to pay some kind of homage to Tate, but I found this . . . homage rather dragged the film’s pacing.

There were two other aspects of “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” that I found troubling. One brief scene early in the film featured an appearance by Charles Manson at the Polanski-Tate home, searching for music producer Terry Melcher, who owned it. In real life, Manson had visited the house on several occasions, searching for the music producer. These visits had led to the Tate-LaBianca murders. But the movie only featured one visit by Manson and it happened early in the film . . . six months before the night of August 8-9. I believe this is where Tarantino’s narrative structure for the film had failed. I belief the film’s second act, which is set during that very night, should have began at least a few days or a week or two earlier, allowing one or two more visits by Manson to 10050 Cielo Drive and setting up his plan to send some of his followers to kill its inhabitants.

And there was Cliff’s infamous fight with Bruce Lee that outraged a good number of critics and moviegoers and led them to accuse Tarantino of disrespct toward the actor/martial artist and racism. Many took umbrage at Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee as a braggadocio who needed to be taken down by a white man in a fight – namely Cliff. If I must honest, I felt the same. I still do . . . somewhat. I recently discovered that one of the production companies backing the film is Bona Film Group, a Chinese organization controlled by Yu Dong and Jeffrey Chan. As producers and co-financiers of the film, why did Bona Film Group fail to protest against the Booth-Lee encounter? Did the company’s executives have a personal grudge against the late martial artist? Was this lack of protest due to some unpopularity of Lee in mainland China? Or did the production company simply not cared? One minor nitpick . . . actor Mike Moh’s hairstyle for Lee was a bit too long for that 1966 or 1967 flashback. Personally, I think Tarantino should have never added that scene in the first place. It was not that relevant to the film’s overall narrative. Or he could have easily allowed Cliff to have a fight with a fictional character, instead of Lee . . . anything to avoid the unnecessary controversy that followed.

Despite these flaws, I really enjoyed “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”. As I had stated earlier, I really enjoyed the film’s atmospheric setting of the Hollywood community at the end of the 1960s. The movie also did an excellent job in conveying Tarantino’s talent for creating a narrative structure for his films. The director allowed moviegoers a peak into a Hollywood industry that was in the process of change from the old studio system to the industry’s American New Wave era between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. This transistion was conveyed in the film not only marked by Rick Dalton’s anxiety over his foundering career, but also capped by the Manson Family’s attack upon Cielo Drive. However, Rick was not the only one anxious about his future. Cliff Booth faced professional oblivion following Rick’s marriage to an Italian actress in the film’s second half. Despite their close relationship, Rick made it obvious that he could not afford to keep Cliff in his employ. The night of August 8-9 was supposed to be his last night in Rick’s employ. What is also interesting about this film is that like “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”, it ended on an ambiguous note. Was Rick’s career ever salvaged? Also, many have forgotten that on the following evening, Charles Manson himself led a second attack upon Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood. Did the revisionist ending of “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” prevent these murders? I wonder.

The movie also featured many sequences that I found very enjoyable to watch. They also help set up and maintain the film’s narrative. These scenes included Marvin Schwarz’s frank assessment of Rick’s career, Polanski and Tate’s appearance at a Playboy Mansion party, Rick’s delightful interactions with an eight year-old actress named Trudi Fraser on the “LANCER” set that helped him turn in a memorable performance, Rick’s breakdown in a trailer after flubbing his lines, and Cliff’s meeting with Pussycat. But there were two scenes that really stood out for me. One of those scenes were Cliff’s encounter with the Manson family at Spahn’s Ranch seemed like Tarantino’s take on what happened between “the family” and a stuntman named Donald Shea in late August 1969. I thought Tarantino did a superb job with this scene. It was well-paced, filled with a great deal of tension.

I can say the same about the movie’s last sequence that featured the Manson Family’s attack upon Cielo Drive during the night of August 8-9. This is where Tarantino’ use of historical revision came into play. The director-writer used Rick’s constant complaints about “hippies”, his celebrity as a former television star and Cliff’s previous encounter with the Manson Family to re-direct the latter’s attack from the Polanski-Tate household to the Dalton household. And what unfolded was chaotic, occasionally funny and yes, very scary. It truly was a well shot and well-acted sequence.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” featured a good deal of cameos – probably a lot more than any previous Tarantino film (I could be wrong, since I have not seen all of his films). Making solid cameos were Damian Lewis, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant (as actor James Stacy), Luke Perry (as actor Wayne Maunder), Damon Herriman (as Charles Manson), Ramón Franco, Lena Durnham, Rumer Willis, Martin Kove, Clu Galagher, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins, Jr., James Remar, and Toni Basil. The movie also featured some very memorable supporting performances – especially from the likes of Al Pacino, who delightfully portrayed casting agent Marvin Schwarz; an entertaining Kurt Russell who not only portrayed stunt gaffer Randy Miller, but also served as the film’s narrator; Zoë Bell, who was equally entertaining as Randy’s stunt gaffer wife Janet; Mike Moh, who gave a colorful performance as Bruce Lee; Lorenza Izzo, as Rick’s wife Francesca Capucci; a rather frightening Dakota Fanning as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Manson family member; Austin Butler as the very intimidating Manson family member “Tex”, Maya Hawke as “Flower Child”; Nicholas Hammond as actor-director Sam Wanamaker; Rafał Zawierucha as Roman Polanski; Julia Butters as the delightful child actor Trudi Fraser; a very charming Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring; the always entertaining Bruce Dern as George Spahn; Damian Lewis, who was surprisingly effective as a witty Steve McQueen; and Margaret Qualley, who was very memorable as Manson Family member “Pussycat”.

I will be the first admit that Tarantino made little use of Sharon Tate in this film. It was quite clear that her presence really served as a catalyst for Tarantino’s story and possibly a muse. But I cannot deny that Margot Robbie gave a very charming and ellubient performance as the late actress. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, gave a very subtle yet memorable performance as former stuntman Cliff Booth, whose career had seen better days. This was due to the mysterious circumstances behind the death of Cliff’s wife. Many believe he may have killed her and got away with the crime. And Pitt managed to reflect this ambiguity in his performance and in his eyes. There were times when it seemed there was a bit of a “cool superhero” element in the character that at times, made it a bit difficult for me to relate to him. But thanks to Pitt’s natural screen persona and a very subtle performance, I was able to do so in the end.

If I had to choose the most complex character in the entire movie, it would have to be former television star Rick Dalton. And I cannot deny that Leonardo DiCaprio did an exceptional job of conveying this character to the movie screen. Thanks to DiCaprio’s performance and Tarantino, Rick is such a conumdrum. One could label him as one of those actors from the late 1950s and early 1960s, who became television stars and later tried to make the transition to film. I have read many comments that Rick has a conservative outlook on his tastes and acting skills that will forever limit him from becoming a star in Hollywood’s New Age in films. This is very apparent in Rick’s pompadour hairstyle in the film’s first half, his occasional rants against hippies and his reluctant to adapt to the new Hollywood. And yet . . . Rick eventually concedes to Schwarz’s suggestion that he try Italian westerns, he changes his hairstyle and wardrobe to reflect the fashions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he seeks to make social connections with Polanski and Tate to further his career. Rick is also an alcoholic and might be bipolar. DiCaprio did an excellent job in conveying Rick’s emotional state that reflect these traits.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” is not my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, it has became my favorite film of 2019. I do not think it has a chance of winning any of the big prizes during the awards season of 2019-2020. I have a deep suspicion that the media and the Hollywood community is not as enamoured of it as I am. Which is okay . . . to each his or her own. But damn it, the movie was superb. I have heard rumors that Tarantino plans to retire from filmmaking. Personally, I think this is a mistake on his part. Perhaps he wants to end his career on a high note. And “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” is certainly a reflection of it, thanks to Tarantino’s direction, his screenplay, the movie’s production values and especially the cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. But I hope that Tarantino continues to make movies.

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

Least Favorite Movie Period Dramas

Below is a list of ten of my least favorite movie period dramas:

 

LEAST FAVORITE MOVIE PERIOD DRAMAS

1. “Legends of the Fall” (1992) – Edward Zwick directed this dull and overrated adaptaion of Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella about the lives of a Montana ranching family during the early 20th century. Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins starred.

2. “Barbary Coast” (1935) – Howard Hawks directed this turgid tale about an Eastern woman who arrives in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and comes between a corrupt gambler/saloon keeper and a miner. Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea starred.

3. “Mayerling” (1968) – Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in this lavish, yet dull account of the tragic romance between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera. Terence Young directed.

4. “Idlewild” (2006) – André 3000 and Big Boi starred in this confusing and badly written musical set during Depression Era Georgia. Bryan Barber directed.

5. “Becky Sharp” (1935) – Miriam Hopkins earned a surprising Best Actress nomination (surprising to me) in this unsatisfying adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1847-48 novel, “Vanity Fair”. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie is known as being the first full-length production in Technicolor.

6. “Gods and Generals” (2003) – Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall starred in this adaptation of Jeff Shaara’s 1996 Civil War novel and prequel to the much superior 1993 movie, “Gettysburg”. Ronald Maxwell directed.

7. “The Hindenburg” (1975) – Robert Wise directed this rather dull account of the Hindenburg air disaster. The movie starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.

8. “Anna Karenna” (2012) – Joe Wright directed this stagey adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel. Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson starred.

9. “Glorious 39” (2009) – Stephen Poliakoff directed this slow and pretentious thriller about a young woman who discovers that her family are pro-appreasers who wish for Britain to seek peace with Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Romola Garai starred.

10. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) – Tim Burton directed this dull and overrated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”. Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp starred.

Favorite Films Set in the 1940s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1940s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1940s

1-Inglourious Basterds-a

1. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this Oscar nominated alternate history tale about two simultaneous plots to assassinate the Nazi High Command at a film premiere in German-occupied Paris. The movie starred Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz.

 

2-Captain America the First Avenger

2. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – Chris Evans made his first appearance in this exciting Marvel Cinematic Universe installment as the World War II comic book hero, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, who battles the Nazi-origin terrorist organization, HYDRA. Joe Johnston directed.

 

3-Bedknobs and Broomsticks

3. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) – Angela Landsbury and David Tomilinson starred in this excellent Disney adaptation of Mary Norton’s series of children’s stories about three English children, evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, who are taken in by a woman studying to become a witch in order to help the Allies fight the Nazis. Robert Stevenson directed.

 

4-The Public Eye

4. “The Public Eye” (1992) – Joe Pesci starred in this interesting neo-noir tale about a New York City photojournalist (shuttlebug) who stumbles across an illegal gas rationing scandal involving the mob, a Federal government official during the early years of World War II. Barbara Hershey and Stanley Tucci co-starred.

 

5-A Murder Is Announced

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1985) – Joan Hickson starred in this 1985 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1950 novel about Miss Jane Marple’s investigation of a series of murders in an English village that began with a newspaper notice advertising a “murder party”. Directed by David Giles, the movie co-starred John Castle.

 

6-Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote and directed this fictionalized account of his childhood during the early years of World War II in England. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

 

7-The Godfather

7. “The Godfather” (1972) – Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote and directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel about the fictional leaders of a crime family in post-World War II New York City. Oscar winner Marlon Brando and Oscar nominee Al Pacino starred.

 

8-Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this acclaimed account of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson starred.

 

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9. “Pearl Harbor” (2001) – Michael Bay directed this historical opus about the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack upon the lives of three people. Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Harnett and Cuba Gooding Jr. starred.

 

10-Stalag 17

10. “Stalag 17” (1953) – Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote this well done adaptation of the 1951 Broadway play about a group of U.S. airmen in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, who begin to suspect that one of them might be an informant for the Nazis. Oscar winner William Holden starred.

 

9-The Black Dahlia

Honorable Mentioned – “The Black Dahlia” (2006) – Brian DePalma directed this entertaining adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 novel about the investigation of the infamous Black Dahlia case in 1947 Los Angeles. Josh Harnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank starred.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

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September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

Favorite Movies and Television Set During the EARLY AMERICA Period

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions set during the Early America Period (1783-1828):

 

FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE EARLY AMERICA PERIOD

1

“John Adams” (2008) – Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney deservedly won both Emmys and Golden Globes for their excellent portrayals of John and Abagail Adams in this excellent seven-part miniseries about the 2nd U.S. president.

2

“The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer on his way home from market, who helps a runaway slave evade her master.

3

“Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This adventure conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York starred.

4

“Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne DeCarlo starred in this entertaining costume romp about a Boston-born entertainer who falls for a pirate with a secret identity as a respectable New Orleans aristocrat. Directed by Fredrick De Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend, Robert Douglas, Andrea King and Elsa Lancaster.

5

“Interview With a Vampire” (1994) – Neil Jordan directed this fascinating adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel about a pair of vampires during a period of 200 years. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater co-starred.

6

“Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in the PBS movie about a Detroit teen who is transported back in time to 1822 South Carolina, where he finds himself about to participate in a slave revolt instigated by one Denmark Vessey.

7

“Sleepy Hollow” (1999) – Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in this adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

8

“The Seekers” (1979) – This adaptation of John Jakes’ 1975 novel about the Kent family’s experiences from 1794 to 1814. Randolph Mantooth, Timothy Patrick Murphy and George Hamilton starred.

9

“Many Rivers to Cross” (1955) – Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker starred in this western-comedy about a footloose frontiersman in early Kentucky, who is targeted by a spirited spinster for marriage. Directed by Roy Rowland.