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Schultz reviews: ”The Art of Self-Defense" and "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood"

Schultz reviews: ”The Art of Self-Defense" and "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood"

Carl Schultz

“The Art of Self-Defense” Distributed by Bleecker Street Films, 104 Minutes, Rated R, Released July 12:

Viewers who share an especially mordant or caustic sense of humor might enjoy “The Art of Self-Defense” more than others.

As humorless as a funeral and as unsmiling as an episode of television’s “Dragnet,” the new picture at first glance appears to be a moderately violent revenge thriller, not much different from “Death Wish” or any of its imitators. But as the narrative develops, it becomes increasingly apparent that the movie is actually a jet-black comedy, a satire on the American ideal of aggressive masculinity. It’s a rarefied form of comedy at work here, though, in which the humor is drawn from the actors, and the director, playing it absolutely straight.

In “The Art of Self-Defense,” a nervous and socially awkward accountant for a corporate business is viciously mugged one night by a motorcycle gang while on his way to a supermarket. Feeling a need for self-protection, the accountant while recovering first considers the purchase of a firearm. But discouraged by the customary waiting period, the man instead decides to take advantage of an offer for a free lesson in karate.

Initially finding the martial art to his liking, as the accountant becomes more immersed in the culture he finds his naturally-passive personality changing. And eventually he begins to question whether the class, and its despotic and controlling “sensei,” might actually be more dangerous than the criminals who originally overpowered him.

“The Art of Self-Defense” benefits from a persuasive, and vividly unsympathetic, performance by actor Jesse Eisenberg as the jittery accountant. It’s a role which might’ve been played by comedian Woody Allen during his early film career in the late 1960s. But the narrative unfortunately omits the laughs of rueful appreciation Allen’s pictures customarily elicited from audiences, provoking instead only occasional guffaws of bitterness and smirks of acerbic mockery and derision.

It’s an exceedingly fine line that the picture, and its director, attempts to tread. But with its characters spouting pop aphorisms such as “I want to be what intimidates me” and “her being a woman will prevent her from ever being a man,” all delivered in a clipped, emotionless monotone reminiscent of a poorly-dubbed Bruce Lee martial arts picture from the 1970s, the director is only marginally successful. “The Art of Self-Defense” is an intelligent-enough picture, just not a very likable one.

Written and directed by rookie filmmaker Riley Stearns, “The Art of Self-Defense” wickedly lampoons a society which places a higher value on self-sufficiency and isolation than on society itself. Veering self-consciously back and forth between seriousness and satire, the picture wrings its arid humor from intimidation, and a sort of fright: It’s funny that the characters are taking these toxic notions to such absurd extremes, but it’s tragic that we’ve delivered ourselves into a contemporary society in which such archetypes are so recognizable ... and so believable.

Also starring Imogen Poots as the solitary female member of the martial arts class and Alessandro Nivola as a smarmy sensei who makes the psychotic Martin Kove character in “The Karate Kid” seem as cuddly as a pussycat, “The Art of Self-Defense” is earning respectable reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 84% from Rotten Tomatoes and 67% from Metacritic.

Currently playing in limited release in some 550 theaters across the United States and Canada, “The Art of Self-Defense” is rated R for violence, sexual content, language, and brief graphic nudity.

“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing and Columbia Pictures, 161 Minutes, Rated R, Released July 26:

Quentin Tarantino is back.

The writer-director-auteur’s ninth motion picture — his tenth, if you count 2003’s “Kill Bill, Volume 1” and 2004’s “Kill Bill, Volume 2” as two pictures, which practically nobody does — ”Once Upon a Time..in Hollywood” is also Tarantino’s most subdued and introspective, his most focused and centered, and his least outrageous. And even with a running time of 161 minutes, it’s his most consistently entertaining picture since ... well, since ever.

Long noted for a bombastic, audacious, and almost hysterical style of filmmaking which simultaneously employs elements from multiple film genres and often climaxes with an explosive bloodbath, Tarantino in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” takes a tragic real-life event — the Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1968 — and uses the incident to craft a rumination of popular culture during the end of an era. The film is still unquestionably the work of Quentin Tarantino ... but it’s an older, wiser, and more mature Tarantino at work here.

In 1969 Los Angeles, aging TV star Rick Dalton finds his career faltering. Toiling mostly as a guest villain in an array of episodic weekly television series, the actor is tempted by an ambitious producer to leave Hollywood behind and attempt a sort of career rejuvenation by appearing in a series of action pictures to be produced on a limited budget in Italy. It’s a career maneuver the actor considers professional suicide.

Dalton’s stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth — also his chauffeur, confidante, handyman, fixer, drinking buddy, companion, and sounding-board — finds his life tied to Dalton’s. If the actor’s career fades, so does Booth’s: He’s virtually unemployable on his own, a result of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the tragic death of his wife ... and also his reputation for being foolhardy and dangerously irresponsible on film sets.

Dalton’s fading career is contrasted with the rising fortunes of his next-door neighbor on Beverly Hills’ Cielo Drive: The sweetly vulnerable starlet Sharon Tate is on the cusp of a career breakthrough as an actress, a rarefied and elite status augmented by her recent marriage to the hottest young director in Hollywood, the Paris-born Polish emigre Roman Polanski. The lives and careers of the three — Dalton, Booth, and Tate — eventually intersect in a way none could’ve imagined.

Featuring an ensemble cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio in an uncharacteristically florid performance as Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt, customarily loose and limber as Cliff Booth, “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” also contains a showcase role for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. All three actors share an extremely rare career trait: Their status as Hollywood superstars occasionally obscures their talents as remarkably gifted and versatile character performers. And they each contribute some of their best work in this picture.

“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” is also notable for its supporting performances by a number of talented actors in brief appearances as a sort of who’s who of 1960s pop culture: Nicholas Hammond is enthusiastic and flamboyant as director Sam Wanamaker, whose fascinating and eclectic life deserves a Tarantino movie of its own. Damien Lewis is a bit shaggy in his appearance as iconic actor Steve McQueen. And that’s an almost unrecognizable Dakota Fanning as Manson disciple and future would-be presidential assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.

Luke Perry in his final film role plays television actor Wayne Maunder, familiar to American TV viewers of a certain age for starring in no less than three different high-profile but unsuccessful television series between 1967 and 1974. Veteran actor Bruce Dern appears as the elderly and ailing owner of the ranch where Charles Manson and his “family” have settled. And film icon Al Pacino is on hand for a brief and flamboyant appearance as the Hollywood agent who offers career redemption to DiCaprio’s Dalton.

Alert viewers will also note that while Robbie’s Sharon Tate is in the Hollywood theater watching her performance in 1968’s “The Wrecking Crew,” the picture onscreen is not tricked-up to insert Robbie into Tate’s scenes: The scene depicts the actual Tate onscreen — it’s the resemblance, and Robbie’s performance, that are uncanny.

“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” is attracting a certain amount of criticism for significantly altering the outcome of the story, and therefore modifying history. It’s a charge which has been leveled before at a Tarantino picture, especially with 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds.” But in changing the course of history in the picture, the director is enhancing the ultimate power of motion pictures, and reminding us that while life itself might be troubling and often uncertain, happy endings are still possible on the silver screen. It’s the same lesson Preston Sturges tried to teach us in “Sullivan’s Travels,” and maybe we need an occasional reminder.

The picture’s best scene occurs when Pitt as stuntman Booth is lured by a comely hitchhiker to the Spahn Ranch, the filming location for countless movie westerns ... and the temporary home of the psychotic Manson Family, who live as squatters on the property. Framed like a horror picture, the scene is fraught with dread, virtually dripping with undiluted menace.

During this one unusually-effective segment of an unusually-effective picture, Brad Pitt for a moment leaves the lurid tabloid headlines behind him and reaffirms for audiences his credentials as a movie hero and a matinee idol. It’s a very “Hollywood” moment, not quite as effective as John Wayne’s rifle-twirling shot in John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” but close.

But “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” really has only one star — Quentin Tarantino. It’s the filmmaker’s show all the way. Tarantino has always been his own biggest fan--and, as a result, his own worst publicist--but he’s been mostly been resisting the publicity circus surrounding this picture. Instead, for once, the director is allowing his work speak for itself. And that’s a sound strategy: Quentin Tarantino’s work in “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” stands on its own. It’s the director’s melancholy masterwork, a love letter to the art of film ... and to Hollywood, in all its cheap, gaudy, tinsel-plated glory.

Tarantino’s always been quick to point out that alone among his generation he’s never attended film school — he’s attended movies. In this picture, it shows. “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” is the work of the instinctive master filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has always claimed to be.

Tarantino’s picture is earning terrific reviews, including an approval rating of 85% from both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” an average grade of B. Rotten Tomatoes refers to the picture as “thrillingly restrained but solidly crafted,” and notes that the work “tempers Tarantino’s provocative impulses with the clarity of a mature filmmaker’s vision.”

Opening in 3,659 theaters across the United States and Canada--the largest opening to date for a Tarantino-directed picture — ”Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” was projected by distributor Sony Pictures Releasing to earn up to $30 million during its opening weekend. In the end, the picture exceeded expectations, bringing in some $40.3 million and scoring a second-place finish in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind Disney’s juggernaut remake of “The Lion King.”

“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” is rated R for language concerns, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.

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