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By Vernor Rodgers
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"ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD"

Quentin Tarantino's movies often are polarizing -- some find his work to be genius, others contend he is overrated, and there are those turned off by the explosive and brutal violence. Love his movies or hate them, they sometimes do result in actors -- Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Christophe Waltz, Jennifer Jason Leigh to name a few -- delivering critically acclaimed performances.

Tarantino's latest, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," is a much anticipated release following its premier at the Cannes Film Festival where it got a standing ovation. In what Tarantino has been quoted as saying is his most personal movie, "Hollywood" hits theaters on the 50th anniversary of the year in which it takes place -- 1969.

This is another typical Tarantino movie in that it bounces around in its story line, also using flashbacks, focusing on characters who eventually will be tied together somehow.

Mainly, "Hollywood" centers around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, who was in Tarantino's "Django Unchained"), an aging actor whose career is on the wane. Once the star of a popular Western TV series titled "Bounty Law," Rick now has a few violent low-grade movies in his filmology and is hanging on by guest starring, usually as a villain, in various TV shows.

By his side is his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, who had a starring role in Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds"), who now has been reduced to serving as Dalton's chauffeur -- Dalton has had problems with DUIs -- and handyman. Cliff himself is something of an outcast in the movie business and Dalton no longer has the clout to get work for Cliff.

Meanwhile, "Hollywood" also visits Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who has recently moved in next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Her presence in the movie adds a bit of foreboding given Tate's gruesome murder at the hands of followers of Charlie Manson. Speaking of which, the Manson family is on the periphery throughout the movie.

Dalton, who is weighing the urging of an agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), to go to Italy where he might give his career a boost by starring in spaghetti Westerns -- after all, what's good for Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach might work for Dalton -- is currently working in a guest-starring role as yet another bad guy for a Western titled "Lancer" and featuring James Stacey (Timothy Olyphant), who plays protagonist Johnny Madrid. Also in the cast is the late Luke Perry, who plays the title role of Lancer.

Like his other films, Tarantino makes long movies, this one lasting two hours and 45 minutes, and like his movies, some scenes may have the viewer yawning -- the scenes that will be fast-forwarded or skipped when seen on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Pitt actually is the highlight of the movie. His Cliff is a man who is quite comfortable with his life presently, living in much less elegance than Dalton, content to come home to his well-disciplined pit bull Brandy. During the day, while Dalton is working, Cliff cruises around, and chance meetings with one of the Manson girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, daughter of Andie McDowell), leads Cliff to visit the Manson clan at Spahn Ranch. There, despite resistance, especially from Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Cliff goes in to see George Spahn (Bruce Dern, who took the role in place of Burt Reynolds upon Reynold's passing).

In an amusing flashback, Cliff recalls a time when Dalton managed to get him work when he talks stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell, who got his comeuppance when he tangled with three tough women in Tarantino's "Death Proof") into hiring him. But he blows it by getting into a fight with Bruce Lee as Cato (Mark Moh), damaging the car of Randy's wife Janet (Zoe Bell, who interestingly was one of the women who did in Russell's evil Stuntman Mike in "Death Proof") and getting canned.

Robbie's Sharon Tate is a sweet lady still in awe of where her life is going. One evening she and Roman go to a party at the Playboy mansion, and there is a gem of a scene is which Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis), watching Sharon at the party with her friend and former lover Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) how Sharon is using Polanski to make Jay jealous, and this prompts Connie to say she thinks that Sharon is drawn to a certain type of man -- short ones who "look like 12-year-old boys".

For those of us who lived around Los Angeles in the 1960s, this is a great nostalgic trip. Many theaters in Hollywood are seen with their marquees informing people what is currently playing. The radio station KHJ is frequently heard, and Tarantino has inserted scenes of movies like "Great Escape" and the Dean Marino as Matt Helm action-comedy "The Wrecking Crew," in which Sharon Tate actually had a part. Also included are scenes from television shows like "The FBI" and "Mannix."

And there are tons of cameos.

The film does lead up to that horrific night of Aug. 8, 1969, when Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski and Abigail Folger were murdered by Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins and Linda Kasabian. But the playing out of this brutality per Tarantino takes a bizarre twist. That's all that can be said here.

The overall package of "Hollywood" is a mixed bag. There are scenes that, like many others in Tarantino movies, may end up as classics, while others will fade into memory. But it is a compelling look at a time now long gone, and an opportunity to see pros like DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie, Russell, Pacino and others get a chance to shine.

"Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" Official Trailer: https://youtu.be/ELeMaP8EPAA

 

"YESTERDAY"

Based on an interesting premise conceived by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis, with the screenplay by Curtis, and directed by "Slumdog Millionaire's" Danny Boyle, "Yesterday" is an infectious little film that explores what happens when a person achieves a dream life but one with asterisks involved.

The story is about Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a resident of Lowestoft in the United Kingdom. He is a frustrated singer-songwriter, who despite the unflinching support of his friend and manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James) is on the verge of giving up music. Then a freak thing happens. The world is hit with a brief total blackout and Jack is subsequently hit by a bus.

Upon recuperating he soon discovers to his disbelief -- and it takes him time to accept this -- that this post-blackout world has never heard of The Beatles. As he performs the group's songs, praise is heaped upon him by those who insist he now is writing some terrific  music. He is boosted by Ed Sheeran, who plays himself in the movie, and soon Jack becomes a worldwide sensation.

Nagging Jack is that he knows he is a fraud -- he also learns that there are other things in this new non-Beatles world that also longer exist; what they are will not be revealed here. Not only does he realize it is not HIS dream life he living, but that of The Beatles, he also is regretting that his renown is distancing himself from his friends at home, especially Ellie, who has conceded she no longer can manage his skyrocketing career.

Patel does his own singing in "Yesterday" and presents a sweet, if baffled young man who soon finds that this wave of good fortune does not necessarily lead to contentment. When he meets a sage but reclusive man, who may or may not be who Jack thinks he is, the young man gains a perspective that leads him back to a life he now can appreciate more.

James is sweet and adorable as Ellie, a young woman who has total faith in Jack and pines for his love. You are almost compelled to shout at Jack: Wake up! She is all you need for a wonderful life.

"Yesterday" is a nice feel-good movie, touching and enlivened by gentle humor and an opportunity to enjoy The Beatles'  music once again, leading to a trip down memory lane.

"YESTERDAY" Official Trailer: https://youtu.be/IGgxBU96hz8

 

"STUBER"

Here we have a cop-buddy movie in the vein of "48Hrs" in which a police officer teams up with a civilian in what seems to be a mismatch as they go after the bad guys.

Pro wrestler and actor Dave Bautista (Drax from "Guardians of the Galaxy"), who recently made a return to World Wrestling Entertainment to feud with his former Evolution colleague Triple H, plays Los Angeles Police Det. Vic Manning, who really needs an uneventful day as he gets Lasik eye surgery and later plans to attend an opening night of his daughter Nicole's (Natalie Morales) art exhibit. It is Natalie who downloads the Uber app in Vic's mobile device so he can get a ride to the event.

But things do not go smoothly, as Vic hears from an informant that the notorious drug lord Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais) is orchestrating a heroin drop that night. Vic has been obsessing over capturing Teijo for months after an earlier attempt to take him down ended up tragically for Vic and his partner Sara (Karen Gillan), even though Vic is being told to lay off, as the case has been kicked up to the federal jurisdiction.

Following a disastrous go at trying to drive his car while being almost blind as his eyes recover, Vic decides to summon an Uber driver.

We already have met the Uber driver, Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), who also works at a sporting goods store where he is ridiculed by his boss, who calls him Stuber. When he arrives to pick up Vic, the stage is set for a classic alliance of an Alpha male versus a Beta male.

Stu is about to be catapulted way out of his comfort zone, which in and of itself has him stumbling along. He needs top customer survey ratings to keep his Uber job. Also, he has invested in a spin gym class with college friend Becca (Betty Gilpin). Except for a one-night fling, Stu and Becca are in a platonic relationship while she dates a pro basketball star and Stu suffers in the silence and pain of unrequited love.

Just as Stu starts carting Vic all over the L.A. area while the detective conducts his investigation, the driver gets a call from Becca, now drunk and wallowing in self-pity when she finds out her basketball star boyfriend is a jerk. Stu is eager to go over and comfort Becca and maybe score some points in escalating his relationship with her. But Vic is not willing to cut him loose, as he needs Stu's eyes as well as his car.

Per usual in these buddy movies, things are not cordial between the cop and the driver. Vic calls out Stu for being a wimp -- especially when he learns Stu is afraid to be upfront with Becca and tell her he is in love with her. Stu, meanwhile, dismisses Vic as a macho boob, all flex with muscle but no compassion. He soon enough has ammunition enough to call out Vic for being less than a stellar father to Nicole.

Vic really is compassionate but clumsy at expressing it, except when it comes to rescuing a dog being abused by drug dealers. He charges ahead with bluster, exasperated at Stu's inability to muster the same gung-ho energy.

For all this to work, there has to be chemistry between the actors, and Bautista and Nanjiani do work well off of each other. As in many of these action-comedies, there is an underlying gentle tone as the two men get to know each other better. What makes "Stuber" nice is that Vic and Stu are now tied together but never really will be capable of dismissing the other fellow's flaws.

"STUBER" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/i5l6a5RiR1E

 

"CRAWL"

Alligator-themed horror movies have to be a tough sell ever since the campy guilty pleasure of "Alligator" hit theaters in 1980. Then there was the "Lake Placid" series of four films put out from 1999 to 2012, all delightfully goofy. But a script by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen titled "Crawl" got greenlighted and with director Alexandre Aja ("Piranha 3D" and the 2006 remake of "The Hills Have Eyes") offering his vision of menace, the movie has a shot at surpassing these old 'gator gobbler films.

"Crawl" takes itself seriously and does not waste much time building character. It's basically a two-person cast with a couple of ravenous beasts thrown in. As proven with "The Shallows," a taut horror-thriller can be a complete adrenalin rush without a high body count.

In "Crawl," the lead character is Haley (Kaya Scodelario, Theresa from the "Maze Runner" movies), a young Florida woman having doubts about her future as a competitive swimmer after coming second in a race. But soon she has to set aside those worries as a Category 5 hurricaneis about to hit landfall. She gets a call from her married sister who is concerned because she has been unable to reach their father Dave (Barry Pepper, the sharp-shooter in "Saving Private Ryan") to see if he has evacuated the area where the nasty weather is about to hit.

Haley drives to the condo where Dave lives, but there only is the dog, Sugar, in residence. Haley assumes Dave has gone to the house where she and her sister grew up before divorce and siblings leaving home broke up the household. Haley defies the roadblocks and goes to the deserted town and sure enough, Dave's pickup truck is in the driveway of their old home.

She soon finds Dave injured and unconscious in the basement. He manages to come to and reports what Haley already has terrifyingly learned -- that two alligators, enjoying newfound mobility thanks to the pouring rain, have staked a claim in the basement. The only thing separating the gators from the people is a network of plumbing pipes that in effect becomes an anti-gator cage for Dave and Haley.

With Haley bringing to dog along to the house, the animal compassion sentiment kicks in. Those gators can chew up as many people as their voracious appetites desire, but they better not chomp up the dog.

There are the usual quiet moments as Haley and Dave hash out their deteriorating father-daughter relationship that at one time had flourished as they together sought swimming excellence for the girl. But this interlude of confessions/honesty cannot last too long. The basement is hardly water-tight and is filling up. The two trapped people have to find a way to elude the gators and move to upper floors before they drown.

So there are moments of tension as well as the false hopes of rescue that are literally torn up before their eyes. It is effective in some parts, although the injuries these two sustain become ridiculously ravaging and they most assuredly in reality would be in shock or bleeding out.

But go with the flow, as it were, what with the flow of water powerful enough to dash people to bits. "Crawl" moves along at a brisk pace and keeps the challenges and peril coming with little relief.

"CRAWL" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/H6MLJG0RdDE

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