Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

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From left, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie attend the photo call for 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on Thursday, July 11, 2019.

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Quentin Tarantino is our most seductive filmmaker. His ability to frame and execute a scene with a crisp sense of vitality, his sharp-edged writing and the way in which he elicits primal performances from his cast have all become hallmarks of his work, elements that appeal to the many fans who are devotees to the Cult of Quentin.

Unfortunately, he also has a penchant for gratuitous violence and wish-fulfillment narratives that are adolescent in nature and beneath his talent. Try as he might, Tarantino just can’t seem to escape his teenage years where his world view is concerned. I submit “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” as evidence.

Fool that I am, I thought I was sitting through Tarantino’s masterpiece while watching “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” a visually sumptuous piece of time travel cinema that transports the viewer to Tinsel Town of 50 years ago, a company town, much like society, in the throes of transition, uncertain of where it’s headed but doing so with a sense of inescapable energy. Few films are able to envelope the viewer with its tone and mood as this does, so I’m using that as my excuse for being blindsided by a profoundly disappointing third act that I should have seen coming.

Before the screening, all critics were asked not to reveal any of the movie’s surprises so that audience members could discover them on their own. While I am tempted to help you dear reader from wasting $10 on the film, I will honor this request. Yet, if you know how Tarantino works regarding how he crafts his stories and the clue provided in the fairy tale title, you’ll see what’s coming and avoid engaging in foolish conjecture as I did.

To summarize the plot in the broadest strokes possible, the story focuses on floundering actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best buddy and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The former is in a panic regarding his career as he’s been reduced to doing guest shots on various TV shows after his own series was canceled two years prior. The later doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, as he takes care of Dalton, making sure he gets to the set on time, learns his lines and even does handy work around his friend’s house. Though they don’t notice for a while, it comes to their attention that they have new neighbors — director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

I’ll say little more about the plot, other than to mention that Dalton gets a legitimate shot at a comeback, Booth routinely encounters a group of young hippies while cruising the streets of Hollywood, which results in a trip to the infamous Spahn Ranch, and actor Damien Lewis is given the opportunity to do the best Steve McQueen impersonation I’ve ever seen.

Viewers of a certain age will be beside themselves over Tarantino’s recreations of ’69 Hollywood as well as the television shows that populated the airwaves and the movies of the era. They are meticulous in look and feel and go a long way toward sucking the viewer in, as do the performances of the two leads. DiCaprio and Pitt have never been better than they are here, each at ease and fully committed to their roles, playing off each other to generate a camaraderie and chemistry that benefits the film. This is no competition but rather two actors feeding off the other to marvelous effect. Robbie is good as well — too bad her role is underwritten and her screen time limited.

To be sure, Tarantino fans will go over the film with a fine-toothed comb, unpacking its many Easter Eggs and falling over themselves praising his camera movements, use of long takes and inventive framing. All this praise is deserved, yet the faulty ending cannot be swept under the rug. What occurs during the last 20 minutes of “Hollywood” may satisfy some revisionist need in the filmmaker, but in the end his approach is dishonest and insulting to the viewer and those representations of real-life period he recklessly uses in his personal fever dream.

Also new in theaters

Timely 'Self-Defense' a dark comic delight (★★★ 1/2 out of four). Casey Davies is a loner. Not by choice, mind you.

The young man is socially awkward and has an unpopular job at the firm he works at — as the company’s accountant, he audits his co-workers’ expense reports. He lives in a small apartment with his dachshund and seems if not happy, secure in the life he’s living ... that is until he’s attacked by a gang of thieves on motorcycles who beat him mercilessly, leaving him broken and bleeding in the street.

The offspring of David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Riley Stearns’ “The Art of Self-Defense” puts toxic masculinity under the microscope and examines its corrosive nature as well as those susceptible to its influence. While it tends to follow many of the same narrative beats of its 1999 predecessor, its third act is wholly unique and surprising, while Jesse Eisenberg as Casey delivers an engaging and sympathetic turn that proves consistently surprising.

Consulting a men’s magazine for guidance, Casey’s first response to his attack is to arm himself, so he visits a gun shop to purchase a pistol, something that initially gives him a sense of power. However, when he stumbles upon a storefront dojo, he’s immediately sucked in by the notion of taking matters into his own hands. This is subtly but powerfully encouraged by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), the owner of the school who sincerely bolsters Casey’s confidence whenever he can, fostering a sense of loyalty in the young man that ultimately proves confining.

The owner of the gun shop’s matter-of-fact dispensing of statistics that encourage gun use is indicative of the dark humor Stearns effectively wields throughout, as he brilliantly underscores the ridiculous nature of overt methods of self-defense and effectively shows their ineffectiveness throughout. This is a genuinely funny movie in the way it skewers the artifice of machismo, as Casey is encouraged to learn German instead of French, listen to metal music and ignore his weak dog, replacing him with a more manly breed.

From the safety of your seat in the theater, this humor plays well. However, Stearns’ intent is to show how dangerous this line of thinking is regarding men — and even women — who are vulnerable to it. Each of Sensei’s students has suffered some sort of trauma that’s left them questioning their purpose in life. Obviously, this is not uncommon and leads to the sort of hate groups and defensive, insular thinking that’s become much too prevalent in today’s society.

The timely nature of the film, as well as the inventive third act that pulls out one surprise after another, makes “The Art of Self-Defense” well worth seeking out and discussing. That it may not find the audience it deserves will not surprise me in the least.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at@gmail.com.