If I told you that Quentin Tarantino, the master of dialogue, on-screen violence and epic cinematic twists had made a movie that celebrates life over death, would you believe me? After all, death has always been Tarantino’s omnipresent fixation. Death, be it in the form of revenge (Kill Bill, Django Unchained) or a mere accident, product of unfortunate circumstances (Pulp Fiction’s ”I shot Marvin in the face!”, Inglourious Basterds’ bar scene) has always played a prominent role in Tarantino’s filmography. His stories usually begin and end in death. A vicious cycle that has bugged me as a viewer numerous times as I always wished that he’d eventually choose a different path.
Tarantino, despite loving his characters and treating them like his own children, has been known for being ruthless to them. It’s why we watch his movies. Because we love that thrill of uncertainty of who’s up next on the chopping block.
And that’s why his latest film was a pleasant and much needed departure from that particular element of Quentin’s vision. And perhaps that is also why Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is arguably Tarantino’s best film in years. For the first time we see the provocative writer-director steer clear of most of the tropes seen in his latter films and go into fairly unfamiliar territory. What follows is a very poetic depiction of a time and place that most of us had forgot all about, or better yet, had never entered before.
Critics have labelled Once Upon a Time as ”Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood” which is undoubtedly a right conclusion, but as I came home from the movie I found myself thinking more and more about what the main subject matter of the movie really is. In order to find the answer I was looking for I thought about the key to any Tarantino film: the characters that inhabit the world.
The first thing that popped into my head was the sequence where Sharon Tate (played by an excellent Margot Robbie), the symbol of a new wave in Hollywood of youth, controversies and thought-provoking attitude in the face of different current affairs including the Vietnam War, America’s grueling fight against Communism and the hippie revolution, sneaks into a theater to watch her own performance in The Wrecking Crew (1969). The young starlet sits in the front row overwhelmed by the sight of her own face up on the big screen, smiling at the sound of the audience’s reactions. It is in that sequence that Tarantino serves us the film’s theme on a silver platter: life. Here is Sharon Tate, actress, activist, model and wife to Roman Polanski, whose name has become synonymous with the Charles Manson murders. Most of us know the name due to the tragic circumstances of her premature death at the hands of a group of fanatics, sensationalized in countless documentaries and reports over the years, subject to speculations and needless conspiracy theories. Sharon Tate is synonymous with death then, in its cruelest, senseless and most terrifying form. Yet we see her live and breathe. We see her sit in a theater and giggle like a little school girl at the sound of the audience’s clapping. We see Tate herself behave like a regular audience member, laughing at her own character’s shenanigans and clapping in excitement as the screening comes to an end.
Because as much as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is about the dynamic duo of DiCaprio and Pitt; DiCaprio’s struggling actor named Rick Dalton desperately trying to maintain his career afloat and his stuntman (Pitt) carelessly roaming the streets of LA in search of new work opportunities; the film is just as much about paying tribute to the life of a woman whose legacy is centered around her death and the rather despicable coverage of it in the media spanning half a century.
Tarantino is thus setting the record straight, reminding us that despite life being potentially more difficult than death, what we do in life and how we live it should echo above the way we leave this world. There was more to Sharon Tate than just her gruesome murder: she was soulful, she had dreams like anyone of us, she had loves and like us, she made mistakes and lived with them. Charles Bukowski once wrote, ”You can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life,” and that is the case for Sharon’s portrayal in Tarantino’s latest.
Going into more detail would spoil the fun of the movie and would certainly go against everything that Tarantino has preached over the years. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be seen just to remind ourselves how beautiful life can be and how sometimes blissful it is to not know what is waiting around the corner.
As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.
First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.
Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.
Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.
James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.
Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.
Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.
To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.
Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The Happening, After Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.
Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…
All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.
Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.
Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.
Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.
So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.