Tag: leonardo dicaprio

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood


Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)

Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.

Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.

The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.

The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Young and ambitious Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who studied in Yale University with hopes of becoming a writer, moves to New York in the 1922 and snags a job in Wall Street selling bonds. He lives in West Egg, right next to a mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), known for throwing a lavish party every weekend—one that is open to the public, attended by who’s who of the city. And yet although people clamor to the estate by the end of the week, no one really knows Gatsby: his background, how he really looks like, why he hosts a party every weekend, not even where his money comes from.

“The Great Gatsby,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is easy on the eyes and it offers real emotions on screen. Despite this, however, the movie is not a compelling watch, only superficially entertaining because there is always something to look at and the performers are good in their roles. One cannot help but feel like there is a disconnect between the source material and the way it is being translated on screen.

Others might find the anachronistic music to be quite off-putting. I liked it. The contrast between the Roaring Twenties and modern hip-hop and R&B creates a sentiment that while the parties are grand and everybody appears to be having a wonderful time, the charade remains temporary and superficial. The images and music function as a mask just like how Gatsby feels that he must put on a front in order to be equal to what he thinks a respectable man is like.

I found the romantic angle to be forced and, for the most part, tedious and unconvincing. While the screenwriters, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, can only divert so much from the novel, I felt as though the conflict involving married people having or thinking about having affairs is not modern enough to be intriguing. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan play Tom and Daisy Buchanan, respectively, the latter being Gatsby’s former lover, and both deliver what is necessary for the role, but there is no spice or much flavor in the twists and turns in their romantic entanglements.

Things get back on track, however, when the picture turns its attention somewhat on Nick and Gatsby’s friendship. It is interesting because when I read Fitzgerald’s novel in high school, I was convinced that Nick was a closet homosexual. (But it is not really the kind of thing one brings up in class… at least at the time.) The little nuggets are found in the way he describes Gatsby, almost glorifying him at times, versus the manner in which he is almost apathetic toward women. Elements of one-sided admiration, possibly romantic in nature, are present but neither prolific nor defined enough to establish a theme.

The film might have been more intriguing if it had embraced extremes. The middle portion is a slog at times and the latter section quite dull despite the supposed dramatic events that transpire. In the end, I found myself detached from the emotions and circumstances that the characters are going through.

I think people who are likely to enjoy “The Great Gatsby” most are those who have an eye for exquisite clothing. Certainly I noticed how the characters’ attires are inspired by the 1920s but there is almost always a modern to twist to them, whether it be certain patterns on a man’s tie or the sorts of accessories a woman wears to a party. It is predominantly a visual film. It is not for those who hope to be moved emotionally or be inspired to think critically.

The Revenant


The Revenant (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Revenant,” directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is so headstrong in maintaining its high level of realism that at times it feels like we are watching a most captivating nature documentary about a man attempting to survive in the harshest wilderness. In many ways, it is a brave picture, too, because it is unrelenting when it comes to taking its time to follow a character getting from one point to another, how he relates to his environment, and how the thirst for revenge keeps him alive. And yet while the plot is driven by one man’s vengeance, it is not what the movie is about.

Following a most gruesome bear attack, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a trapper, is unable to move, bloodied, verging on death. Although his team tries to take him home, carrying him creates limitations that prevent the group from moving forward. Convinced that there is no other option, the captain of their party (Domhnall Gleeson) asks three to volunteer and stay behind until Glass is dead. In addition, Glass must receive a proper burial. Two boys—Jim (Will Poulter) and Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the latter Glass’ half-Native American son—and a man named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agree to take on the responsibility. However, a misunderstanding occurs which leads to Hawk’s murder and Glass being left for dead.

A scene that will be seared in my brain for a while is the aforementioned bear attack. Already impressive is it appears as though the scene is shot in one smooth take. On top of it is the actual bear used in the scene. Through the way it moves from the back of the frame to the front, we get a real impression of its size. The sound effects of distinct thuds give us an idea of its weight relative to its prey. I watched in complete horror as the protagonist is mauled, thrown around, and bit. The screams of the man, the deep angry growls of the animal, and the silence that settles in between the savage attacks create an unforgettable experience.

DiCaprio offers a strong performance. Because he does not have very many lines, most of the time he is required to communicate using only his body, face, and eyes. Even more impressive are moments when his entire body is covered and what can be seen is only his face. His character does not undergo an expected arc—and in a film of such high caliber as this, such a predictability is a hindrance.

I argue that more important is the fact that the performer almost takes on the spirit of the animal that tried to kill Glass. Notice the way he moves following the attack. He crawls, limps, grunts, and is consistently covered in grime. Look at his item of clothing, the way he eats raw fish, and the manner in which he is hunted by the Indians. DiCaprio captures the barbaric animalism that is required of his character to survive in the deep forest.

Based in part on Michael Punke’s novel and screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant,” dreary and devoid of humor but not little ironies, may not appeal to the general public because it leans toward creating a realistic experience rather than easily digestible entertainment, but it is a piece of work that packs undeniable beauty and power. It is, however, for audiences who like to be challenged and to see the medium expand into a territory outside the traditional.

The Wolf of Wall Street


The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Black Monday sends Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spinning back to square one. Having been hired in a Wall Street firm, he thought he had it made. And just like that—it appears as though his dream of making it rich has been squashed. But Jordan does not give up easily. He accepts a job working with penny stocks and it ends up being a success. Though his occupation involves taking money away of the investors, mostly people who do not have a lot of experience when it comes to stocks, an addiction needs to be fed and money is a great motivator. Soon, Jordan has his own company and he earns more than enough money than he knows what to do with.

Confession: I know next to nothing about stocks, investments, and Wall Street. Going into the film, I was not even aware that Jordan Belfort was a real person. Based on the subject’s memoir and adapted to the screen by Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an entertaining dark comedy that benefits most from high energy direction by Martin Scorsese and a powerhouse performance by DiCaprio. Still, it is about an hour too long.

The picture is at its strongest when it traces Belfort’s humble beginnings. Seeing him without the drugs, the mansion, the yacht, and the prostitutes reminds us that although he will turn into a most unprincipled scam artist eventually, there is a recognizable person there. Here is a young man who is tired of being poor and who has dared to dream big. He is only an arm’s length away from what he has always wanted and nothing—not even the basic idea of right and wrong—can stop him.

The FBI subplot, the investigation led by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), takes too long to get into full gear. About an hour in, we see a glimpse of the FBI agent and then he is never seen again for what it feels like another hour. As a result, suspense does not build. In the meantime, repetitive images of excess parade the screen. While I admired the nice watches and jewelry, beautiful interiors of the house, the Ferrari, and the like, I began to wonder when the film was finally going to move forward. This is a strange Scorsese picture in that it is highly energetic but it is not efficient. There is a difference between providing specifics and being mired in them.

I found the supporting performances to be quite bland. With the exception of Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand man and McConaughey as Belfort’s short-lived boss, everyone else either relies on a quirk to stand out or does not bother to be memorable at all. The members of the latter group appear, say some lines and are forgotten until they are once again required to speak. Is a statement being made? Are the exciting characters exciting only because they are up to their eyeballs on drugs? Or is it that the performances are not carefully modulated?

There are certainly some elements to be enjoyed in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—mainly a few scenes depicting excess and debauchery, seeing DiCaprio having a ball with his character—but the film lacks dramatic depth. It feels too much like a music video at times. With a running time of three hours, rising just a bit above mediocrity is inexcusable.

Marvin’s Room


Marvin’s Room (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

Bessie (Diane Keaton) and Lee (Meryl Streep) are sisters who have not seen each other in twenty years. Lee lives in Ohio with her two sons, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino), and about to get her Cosmetology degree. Hank recently burned the house down and is commanded by the state to seek help in a mental institution. Meanwhile, Bessie lives in Florida with Marvin (Hume Cronyn), her bedridden father, and Ruth (Gwen Verdon), her aunt who is obsessed with a soap opera.

The estranged sisters are going to meet for the first time in two decades because Bessie is informed by her doctor (Robert De Niro) that she has leukemia. She needs one of her close relatives as a possible donor for bone marrow transplant. Bessie might be a candidate.

Directed by Jerry Zacks, “Marvin’s Room” is a melodrama that does not shy away from realities of being with family–the good, the bad, and the not-so-pretty. While the cancer is a scary, sad, and grim diagnosis, the screenplay ensures that the material is first and foremost about the people who must deal with the cards they have been handed. The choices they will have to make is not always going to be easy or clean.

I admired the mother-son dynamic because it does not let anybody off the hook. Lee is not exactly a mother who likes to cuddle with her kids and throw compliments for big or small accomplishments so maybe Hank has reasons to be defiant as a way to get any kind of attention. On the other hand, it is unfair of Hank, despite being only seventeen, to assume that his mother is able read his mind. He wants to know more about his biological father but he has too much pride to bother when to ask the right questions. Over time, we are made to see that the mother and son clash because they are so alike.

The relationships are dealt with proper dosages of honesty and awkwardness, resentment and pain. When the sisters lay eyes on each other for the first time in years, they seem happy, energetic, and even excited. While there is a semblance of truth in their initial reactions, we suspect they will not last. There is a reason, or reasons, they stayed away from each other for so long. It is only a matter of time until they are reminded of it.

At times, however, the picture, based on the play and screenplay by Scott McPherson, comes off a bit overwritten. Symbolisms on top of big revelations are a bit much. For instance, when Lee feels she has no choice but to tell her son the truth about his father, the confrontation happens in a Disney store in Disney World. Hank has constructed a fantasy of his father. His strong feelings for the man is similar to how most of us feel might feel about Disney and our childhood.

In general, tearjerkers have a negative reputation. Too many are not above resulting to manipulation in order to get a point across. But when done right, as the case here, the human element precedes the machinations of the plot. We are reminded of comparable situations that happened in our lives and how we treated those closest to us.

Django Unchained


Django Unchained (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist, approaches a group of slave traders and expresses his intention of possibly purchasing one of the chained men in line. Since he is greeted with animosity, what could have been a peaceful transaction turns deadly. But Dr. Schultz, a man of his word, does not neglect to pay the seller, on the ground and under excruciating pain for being shot in the leg, for the black man he just bought. Later, he tells Django (Jamie Foxx) that he is a bounty hunter. They make a deal: if Django helps Dr. Schultz track down three men, believed to be hiding in one of the plantations in the south, and help to kill them, Dr. Schultz will not only give Django his freedom, he will also earn twenty-five dollars for each corpse.

Perhaps the most notable quality of “Django Unchained,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is its generosity when it comes to weaving subplots into its bones. This creates a narrative that inspires us to wonder how they will unspool and reconnect.

There are many elements in the screenplay that may be worth a second look in order to further appreciate its craft, like hybridizing the western and blaxploitation genres to create a farce out of the racism in mid-nineteenth century America, but what I am sure about is that the film would have been better if it had been shorter. This is because not all of the subplots unwind in consistently interesting or surprising ways. Most start off exciting but almost all eventually lose vigor. For instance, the scenes that comprise about half the picture often have one premise: the stupidity of a white person who ardently supports slavery. The scene with the Klu Klux Klan quickly comes to mind. Although the humor underneath the punches, some blood-soaked in irony, is present, I could not help but wonder when or if the material would change gears. I grew increasingly tired of the setup and as the film went on, some of the jokes that have been used are recycled.

I enjoyed that the dialogue is not as ostentatious as one would come to expect from Tarantino. Instead of the sentences demanding us to pay attention to a carefully chosen word and how it is used as, say, a double entendre, the actors’ performances outshine the script. If this had not been the case, the exchanges between Dr. Schultz and Django might not have communicated a friendship that we could believe and invest in despite the most unlikely circumstances that surround them. Times when the two main characters–a white man and a black man–are quiet or making a real connection by telling each other more about themselves are, surprisingly, the most memorable moments because the material taps into the simmering sadness and outrage of the scar that continues to define America.

The hyper-stylized violence also works but maybe not in a way one would come to expect. Sadly, a lot of people have the tendency to relate to violence on screen more than scenes of two people connecting to one another through simple conversations. The gun battles are dispersed and I think the writer-director is very smart to have employed such a technique to get people to care more deeply about what is happening. While I would have preferred that the violence be saved at end of the picture to serve as a catharsis, it is understandable why the bloodshed may feel to occur very randomly at times.

I did not find “Django Unchained” especially entertaining but I appreciated its visual artistry and carefully measured yet outwardly wild performances. Although it can be interpreted as a straight arrow revenge story, we can look at it another way and think about issues it wishes to address underneath the amalgamation of anachronisms.

J. Edgar


J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.