Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Everyone knows that on the night of Aug. 8, 1969, three brainwashed hippies broke into the house of director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, massacred five people, and in the process drove one final knife through the heart of the Sixties and the utopian idealism it promised but never delivered. What Quentin Tarantino's new movie presupposes is: What if something different happened? Apologies if that constitutes a spoiler, but c'mon now. If you thought Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was going to stick to the facts of the most famous mass murder of the 20th century, then you must've missed the fairy-tale allusions of the title—not to mention the past decade of the dude's career. The story on the surface is about a pair of show-biz veterans trying to navigate a changing industry that is rendering them "slightly more useless each day," as Leonardo DiCaprio puts it, playing a nearly washed-up TV cowboy named Rick Dalton. His longtime stuntman, handyman and designated driver, Cliff, is also watching the world gradually turn away from him, but he's mostly cool with it. Played with rugged insouciance by Brad Pitt, he's the perpetually unbothered yin to DiCaprio's stammering, sobbing yang, and their interplay results in career-highlight performances. But this is not their movie, really. More than anything else he's done, this is a film that exists to indulge Tarantino's deepest aesthetic obsessions. It works, mostly, to a degree many of his recent efforts haven't. Tarantino has a reputation as a man of many intense passions, but this is the stuff he really cares about—the L.A. of his childhood and the gritty glamour of Old Hollywood—and it inspires some of his most quietly effective filmmaking. Well, quiet for him, anyway. It's enough of a departure that when the blood really starts to splatter, in a screaming climax that both subverts expectations while simultaneously caving to them, it registers as a disappointment. For a director whose imagination—and ego, frankly—cannot be contained even by the bounds of history, it's a wonder he can't dream a bit bigger. R. MATTHEW SINGER. Dine-In Progress Ridge 13, Mill Plain 8, Vancouver Mall 23, Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, Cinemagic, Clackamas, Cornelius, Eastport, Hollywood, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Cascade, Cinema 99, City Center, Division, Evergreen, Fox Tower, Lloyd, Sherwood, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza, Scappoose, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Studio One.
The Farewell is a subtle masterpiece about family and friendship, love and loss. Director Lulu Wang has also created something more moving than just about anything I've seen so far this year. The time is the present day, the place is China, and the hero, a sassy 20-something named Billi (Awkwafina, coming off Crazy Rich Asians), decides to leave Brooklyn and return to her hometown to care for her dying grandmother. The catch is that no one's going to tell Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) about her terminal condition. We are informed this is normal in China—along with fake weddings, fake funerals and fake yoga. But there's nothing fake about this movie. Based on Wang's own experience, this is a profoundly honest and improbably lovable meditation on family obligation, as well as the differences between Eastern and Western thinking. Billi wants to tell Nai Nai about her condition; the rest of the family doesn't. What Wang does best is make this foreign problem relatable. Thanks to an observant camera and well-drawn characters, it isn't hard to see your own family members in place of those in The Farewell. Nor is it hard to admire the gentle, Yasujiro Ozu-like pacing. Everything seems to happen in real time. In one touching scene, we see Nai Nai and Billi bonding, karate chopping their way through the streets to "intake oxygen." Little do they know their budding friendship is a breath of fresh air for all of us. R. ASHER LUBERTO. Cedar Hills, Cinema 21.
The Art of Self-Defense
No Retreat, No Surrender by way of The Lobster, The Art of Self-Defense and its lightly dystopic dojo might be the year's strangest genre mashup. Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, a slight, awkward young man who's even slighter and more awkward than the standard Eisenberg protagonist. Recuperating from a violent mugging, Casey adopts an all-consuming passion for karate classes in the film's oddly vacant universe (no specific place or year, though all the technology appears to be from 1989). As Casey's sensei (Alessandro Nivola) begins challenging his students to wilder feats of violence, a Fight Club parallel arises. But instead of purging all the machismo toxins with a satirical squeeze, writer-director Riley Stearns imprints them with absurd directness onto Casey's blank canvas. The result is laudable for its creativity but tonally and thematically confusing. Characters simply read the film's subtext out loud with mixed comedic results. One particular teacher's pet joke rises above everything else in the film, but less effective versions include Sensei advising Casey in an unshakable monotone to listen to metal music because it's "the most masculine." The Art of Self-Defense ultimately becomes a low-octane indie version of the '80s martial arts thriller that it's half-skewering but is saddled with too much rigid self-awareness and script baggage to fight freely. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Dine-In Progress Ridge 13, Vancouver Mall 23, Clackamas, Bridgeport, Fox Tower.
Sword of Trust
The upswing of Seattle native and indie auteur Lynn Shelton's new film is her observant, ambitious storytelling at its best. Sword of Trust successfully conceals a ludicrous comedic premise inside the dusty drudgery of a Birmingham, Ala., pawn shop and an unremarkable house left behind by a dead grandfather. But in that house lies a Union Army sword left to the proprietor's granddaughter (Jillian Bell), and in that sword lies the opportunity to make a buck off pawnshop keeper Mel (Marc Maron)—that is, if he'll pony up for the cutlass given its bizarre backstory, which suggests the South actually won the Civil War. It's a wild comedic idea given dimensionality by the quality of actors facing off with Maron's rankled skepticism, namely Michaela Watkins, and, in the film's best scene, Shelton herself. Unfortunately, Sword of Trust's back half is dissonant slapstick by comparison, as though Shelton can't help but upshift into the sitcom space in which she's worked so prolifically of late. A hare-brained Confederate farce besieges Maron and company that doesn't stem from the deeper character writing of which Shelton is certainly capable. Though never unpleasant—after all, it's Maron reunited with some of his best podcast interviewees—Sword of Trust ends up feeling more like a recessed charade than the measured adventure it promises. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Living Room.