Sunday, August 18, 2019

She's Not There: WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about a genius architect. She (Cate Blanchett, in another of her textured, tightly-wound, woman-on-the-verge performances) is nearly a recluse and hasn’t worked in two decades. She’s in the middle of restoring a crumbling former girls’ reform school in Seattle where she lives with her high-level Microsoft project manager husband (Billy Crudup) and their adorable Antarctica-loving eighth-grader daughter (Emma Nelson). Bernadette is also nearing or at her wit’s end, with crippling social anxiety, barely able to force herself out of the house for fear of all the irritants in the world — namely, other people, especially the busybody school moms and neighborhood fussbudgets (most notably Kristen Wiig) whose relentless striving and nitpicking are understandably annoying. Bernadette raises annoyance to an art form, her sublimated or dormant creative energies healthily channeled into a close relationship with her daughter, and unhealthy antagonism with everyone and everything else. This is a set of very specific character choices, a collection of traits and circumstances that are singular, and therefore typical of a Richard Linklater project, a filmmaker who, above all else, makes vivid and textured film of specificity in their characters. Whether he’s looking at a college baseball team in the 1980s, or a flirtatious couple of strangers (or long-lost loves, or a married couple) wandering Europe, or a high school in the 70s, or a boy growing through the early-2000s, or a charming oaf scamming a school or covering up a murder, a Linklater film is one of observation and love. His are inquisitive and sensitive films that sketch in the characters’ hopes and dreams, behaviors and philosophies, ticks and eccentricities, into singular windows into particular people. Here, Blanchett’s Bernadette is given the space to unravel and maybe, just maybe, find her way. She rarely sleeps, she over-medicates, she has tense interactions with most everyone but her loving daughter (a tender relationship well-defined). It’s clear she can’t improve these conditions because she’s accepted this as her lot in life. She has the capacity to change for the better, but, like so many of us, she can’t find the first step on that journey.

There’s more to the standoffish Bernadette (and Bernadette, with its comfortable soft lighting and comfortable staging) than meets the eye. She’s surrounded by people who at first look like shallow types in a social satire — a comedy of manners in the overlap between an overpaid tech world and an upper-class private school enclave, the way Bernadette herself seems to see it some of the time — but Linklater and his co-writers, working from the novel by Maria Semple, strengthen and deepen every character with a inner life that glows through, even in unexpected ways. The story feints in a few directions every so often — clashes with the neighborhood, a therapist on call, a looming vacation, past disappointments and rash contemporaneous decisions. It lightly develops each scenario’s possibilities while drifting towards another, resisting outright farce or melodrama in favor of something more comfortably, naturally heightened, before finally resolving in unexpectedly simple and moving moods of potential for reconciliation of these disparate conflicts. It’s engaging and moving precisely because it’s so unhurried and genuine, gently funny and compassionately wrought, in tune with its main character’s mental energies and trends. The movie is as sharp and unpredictable on the surface, and yet as warm and clear underneath, as Bernadette herself. It’s a loving, but critical movie, one that adores its character’s potential without ignoring or valorizing her flaws. She is both wholly herself — a unique individual — and symptomatic of so many who slip away without ever leaving, resisting human connection and retreating into convenient shadings or outright fictions that allow resentments to fester and self-righteousness to inflate. Linklater’s soft, textured, clear-eyed humanism allows her this mistake without denying her — or anyone’s — humanity. She has a void so many feel, and tries to cover it up with excuses, or screens, or empty busyness. The movie, calmly, patiently observed, watches as those who love her try to help her until she can help herself. This quiet optimism guides the project to a gentle, loving moment of clarity, and a reaffirmation of what makes a life well-lived. A movie this compassionate and kindhearted doesn’t come along every day.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Call of the Child: DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

There has been no 2019 summer blockbuster more satisfying that Dora and the Lost City of Gold. A live-action remake of the nearly twenty-year-old Nickelodeon show aimed at toddlers who followed Dora as she explored the rainforest with a monkey, a backpack, and a map, the movie is a bright, sweet, funny adventure romp pitched squarely at the 8- to 10-year-old crowd and those who can access their memories of what it meant to enjoy a movie like this then. Like with his great Muppet movies, director James Bobin approaches the film at the exact right level of heartfelt excitement, giddy about making a movie of such gleaming all-ages enthusiasms. It starts with Dora as a precocious six-year-old tromping through her wild yard while her archeologist parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) are hard at work looking for a mythical long-lost Incan city of gold. The movie starts on such a likable note, the camera swooping toward their lakeside home in the middle of the rainforest, the instantly recognizable girl — a big grin, a tidy mop of bangs, a pink t-shirt, and orange shorts — waving and smiling as the camera approaches. “C’mon!” she shouts as she dashes off with giddy enthusiasm, her imagination-filled playtime roughly equivalent to the original show’s childlike whimsy. We skip ahead ten years and Dora (now Isabela Moner, who, on the strength of this and her megawatt charm in Instant Family and Transformers 5, should be a huge star) is sent to California to live with her teen cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his family in order to learn how to be around kids her own age in a city far from the wilderness. Her parents mean well. Although Dora is self-sufficient, boundlessly energetic, and hugely knowledgeable about the natural world, they don’t want to raise her to be comfortable only with a solitary jungle life. Besides, they’re finally off to the city of gold and don’t need her following along on this dangerous quest. The movie becomes a sunny fish-out-of-water comedy for a while as Dora’s plucky enthusiasm clashes with the surly teens in California High. (Moner is as good at this role as Amy Adams was in Enchanted.) They are instantly suspicious of someone so earnestly kind, obviously passionate, and genuinely guileless.

The kid-sized Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones plot kicks off when a treasure hunter (Temuera Morrison) kidnaps Dora, Diego, and a couple classmates from a school trip. They end up in the middle of the jungle, rescued by a bumbling archeologist (Eugenio Derbez) who says Dora’s parents are in trouble. So it’s a race to the city of gold through ancient ruins, quicksand, angry tribal archers, deadly animals, dangerous plants, and all the expected obstacles of such a story. Along the way, Dora is able to use her wits and her relentless positivity to help get her family and frenemies out of these jams. It has all the appeal of a bouncy adventure movie, and a core safe kindness that makes it totally kid-friendly. Best of all, it never takes Dora’s child’s-eye excitement as a joke. Though it contrasts her with the moody teens, and she’s at first a source of embarrassment for her city cousin, she’s not unaware of these differences. They laugh at you, Diego tells her. “I know. I’m not stupid,” she says, going on to insist that she simply has to be herself, the kind of girl who’d go to the school dance asked to “dress as your favorite star” and come encased in a giant cloth sun, and who’d grin and wave and say “we did it” to her classmates at the end of the school day. That this plays as generosity, a soft character moment in the middle of a jaunty adventure rather than didactic sloganeering, is all for the better. There’s a warm affection for her energy, and for the original show. Somehow it even manages to include a dash of fantasy, as one of the villain’s henchmen is a sparingly deployed masked talking fox named Swiper (Benicio del Toro) who steps straight out of the cartoon with only a bit of bristling fur realism to sell the silliness in this heightened version of our world. The whole production is animated by a love for its cute character and her world, cheerfully taking her cues to enjoy its every moment with a verve and a warmly funny spirit. After a long, dismal summer of failed big budget spectacles (and even the rare good ones, like John Wick 3 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were on the grim side), it’s nice to be reminded that a movie like this can make you grin from ear to ear for 100 minutes straight, and leave you walking out happier than when you walked in. It’s a true delight.

Dog Days: THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Third time was the charm for 2019 to give us a passable based-on-a-book, narrated-by-a-dog drama. We simply had to go from bad to worse first. For those prone to lap up these stories of human dramas told from the perspective and through the words of twinkly wisdom spoken from the mind of a furry innocent, this has truly been a boomlet of cinematic pandering. However, even for those of us who don’t mind a little manipulation at the movies now and again, it’s been a bit of an endurance test to reap meager rewards. Still, now that we’ve finally trial-and-error-ed our way to a decent version of the concept, I’m more than ready to let it go.

First, January gave us A Dog’s Way Home, in which an adorable pup gets lost and homeward bounds back. Along the way, she (telling the tale in voice over from Bryce Dallas Howard doing what sounds like a Ginnifer Goodwin impersonation) meets a bunch of people in vignettes alternately heart-tugging and gently (ostensibly) comedic. She also, in the worst decision of the movie, becomes friends with a CG mountain lion. This passage is particularly bad, not merely for the obvious effect breaking the movie’s soft, boring realism, but for thinking its animated animal could stand up to scrutiny in a movie with a real dog dominating most scenes. Some of the scenes work well — I was particularly moved by Edward James Olmos as a man experiencing homelessness— but most slide by in a bland sludge.

Next, and worse, May’s entry in the mini-subgenre was A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, which started the whole trend with a puppy whose thoughts slobber out in the voice of Josh Gad. The hook of these films is a proposition that dogs remember their past lives as they reincarnate. Therefore, this pupper latches onto a formative owner — a cute boy who’ll grow up to be KJ Apa, then Dennis Quaid — and keeps looking for him even after waking up a new pup at the end of each lifetime. The initial movie worked its concept pretty well, but this follow-up is a sloppy flop —a procession of scenes so overwhelmingly sentimental and unrelentingly melodramatic that it gives both potentially reasonable qualities a bad name. It’s a cavalcade of yanking reaction shots and sudden tragic revelations that’d almost make The Room’s breast cancer news look natural. Once again a dog runs through a variety of owners, each with a button-pushing emotional arc that is overtly calibrated to make you cry when you’re not laughing at Gad’s badly scripted gags. It’s a painfully syrupy drama shot and staged like a sitcom. If it works for you, I’m glad for you, because it’ll spare you the exasperation I felt from the beginning to an end so loopy I had a hyperventilating giggling fit trying to explain it to someone after the fact.

So it doesn’t take much for The Art of Racing in the Rain to top those. It works where they fail because the story it tells is a simple, affecting family drama that doesn’t need to be gilded with CG sidekicks or clumsy falsehood conflict. In fact, it’s the only movie of the three that would work just as well without the dog at all. It even allows some of its most poignant scenes to play out without the canine chorus entirely, trusting in the heavy-lifting its cast can do. It’s the story of a would-be race car driver (Milo Ventimiglia) who falls in love with a beautiful English teacher (Amanda Seyfried) whose wealthy parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) don’t approve of him. Hardly groundbreaking narrative material, but the cliches pile up in satisfying combinations, and the complications of the couple’s life together feel drawn from a gentle spark of truth. It cycles through birth and death, illness and recovery, legal troubles and financial struggles, all cannily high-pressure emotional situations bound to hit close to home at some point and wring the tears. There’s nothing here that’s implausible, except, of course, for the constant commentary from his dog. Enzo’s the name, and he sagely intones with the growling gravitas of Kevin Costner’s voice. (His line readings are so deep and gravely here, I found myself occasionally wondering if he hurt his throat getting that grit in his vocal cords.) He begins the film near death, and then talks us through the narrative in a feature-length flashback, explaining why the thoughts of a bouncy puppy come to us with the molasses grandfatherly rumble of a wise old man. He’s far more thoughtful a dog than the others in films of this kind. He’s keenly aware of his limitations and is prone to comment on Mongolian philosophy and automobile techniques, and express a bittersweet sadness that he cannot share words with his human family to explain how much he cares for them. What an odd perspective, but an undeniably effective one, though it just as often underlines emotional subtext in scenes already so tenderly acted that it’s like a movie reading out its own CliffNotes over its action. Nevertheless, it’s all in what you compare it to, and here director Simon Curtis invests in the reality of his humans so fully that its winks of canine fantasy rarely get in the way if you give yourself over to it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Lost Cause: THE DEAD DON'T DIE and SWORD OF TRUST

This summer gave us two small, mattter-of-fact, hard-edged comedies from veteran indie auteurs that reflect the dark currents of our contemporary national moment. First was Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. It’s the deadest of deadpan comedies, an affectionate zombie movie riffing on classically Romero metaphors of consumerism and cultural fatalism with an affect so flat that the stock genre characters are practically sleepwalking, even admitting to one another by the end that, hey, at least one of them comes by his hopelessness honestly. He read the script. (Jarmusch takes clear delight in slyly puncturing the fourth wall, like casually name dropping himself, slyly making a character a fan of the franchise that actor currently stars in, and having the Sturgill Simpson theme song under the opening credits become diagetic music a character will call “the theme song.”) He’s assembled an all-star cast to stand in simply posed scenes to react to the end of the world, as polar fracking causes the earth to knock off its axis, the days to last well into the night, and the dead to rise from their graves craving coffee and smart phones. These zombies bleed dust, like the life-force has already faded away. A small town’s cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny) basically give up before they even start, occasionally exiting their roundabouts and roundelays of dialogue and action to muster up a defense. But they, and everyone they meet in this Centerville, are practically flattened out by the inevitable despair — “this won’t end well,” Driver murmurs in his recurring line — and by the sense that they’re doomed to play out the end of the world to the bitter end. There’s nothing they can do to change what’s coming. The townspeople (Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits) make some efforts to protect themselves. Only some pretty city kids (a sunny Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat) bring some light into this town — so of course they’re among the first to get targeted by the deathless flesh-eaters. Unlike his first pivot to monster movies, the pale, cool, Detroit vampires movie Only Lovers Left Alive, which grooved on an aesthetic interest and emotional investment in the artful boredom of its characters cursed immortality, here Jarmusch barely can bring himself to take the zombies seriously. It’s a means to an end, a way to riff and rumble, to enjoy the trappings and tropes and star personas evoked with characters who see everything crumble around them, who see no way out. He takes the doom seriously. It feels familiar, a fun house mirror to our current state of affairs, where most realize something very wrong is happening and yet all appear powerless to stop it. Even so, even in their state of near paralysis at the state of everything — with every loopy plot development that derails what you’d expect — they manage to muster the small courage to fight back. If this is the end, at least we can go down swinging.

Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust is a reaction to the current climate told in a more realistic mode: an intimate character drama told in the loose, improvisatory comedy style that is her hallmark. The mumblecore alum — who has since helmed some of the best episodes of Mad Men, Glow, and other prestige TV series, as well as some underrated low-budget movie star character comedies like the charming Keira Knightley/Chloe Grace Moretz film Laggies —here stages a suitably loony excursion into the world of conspiracy theories and alternative facts. It has a gooier sentimental streak, and a bright sitcom visual style, but, more often than not, has a sharp point. It finds a pawn shop proprietor (Marc Maron) attempting to find a buyer for a Civil War-era sword a couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) would like to sell him. His younger employee (Jon Bass) discovers a YouTube page of Confederacy truthers who claim the Deep State has buried the real facts that would prove the Union army surrendered and actually lost the war lo those many years ago. Although neither the sword’s owners nor the shop’s staff actually believe this hogwash, they hope that the shady racists will believe the antique is all the proof they need — and will pay a five digit figure for it. Through circular conversations and alternately cynical and earnest connections, this unlikely group will stumble into this dark underbelly, encountering some shady characters (the funniest has to be a self-serious man who insists his name is “Hog Jaws”) and oddball motivations as the plot slowly stumbles to its kooky conclusion. It’s attuned to the financial strain of its characters, and compassionate for their relationship struggles and easy eccentricities. The performers are universally strong, working well together in fleshing out scenes with laugh-out-loud asides and sympathetic backstories. And the film will then spare no mercy in mocking the warped ignorance of those who cling to conspiratorial thinking, getting broader and sillier. (There’s even a fine, funny late turn of the knife where one main character proudly declaims that, although of course it’s ridiculous to assert that the Confederacy secretly won the Civil War, the flat-earthers are on to something.) Here’s a movie about the slippage of truth, couched in the humble terms of a struggling group of characters losing themselves in the pursuit of more stable ground. When we give up a little of ourselves to pernicious nonsense, it makes it harder to understand what’s really going on.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Waking Life: LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (no relation to Eugene O’Neill’s play, as reportedly its Mandarin title more closely translates to “Last Evenings on Earth”) is as dazzling as it is baffling. It is interior to the point of near abstraction in its opening hour, a jumble of exposition and unintuitive narrative connections as scenes abruptly cut and collide. I found myself using its long silences to not simply groove on the imagery and absorbing sound design, but to try to retell the story to myself and check my understanding. It’s non-chronological in a way that frequently, resolutely refuses to help its audience put the pieces together. A man (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown because his father died. It makes him think of a friend who died many years ago. He meets a beautiful mystery woman in a green dress (Tang Wei, probably best known in the States for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). She is the mistress of the man who killed his friend. This is many years ago. They have an affair. Now it’s years later. There are other women: a sister, a lover, a mother, a fraudster, a singer. Gan gives us flashes of dialogue, circular scenes shot through with pauses and swooning camera moves that steadily paint in poetic filigree: rain down a windshield, curls of smoke from a dangling cigarette, a fruit reflected in a rippling pond. Gan, a talented 30-year-old director, in only his second feature, following his debut Kaili Blues, is startlingly assured as he once again presents us with his inspirations worn obviously on his sleeve in an overt, cool cinephile style — not exactly a bingo card reference spotter, but a fine synthesis of good art house taste. One can catch strands of David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the loose surrealism and straight-faced reworking of genre tropes in enigmatic ways. Here a standard noir setup is scattered and fragmented, the better to feel like a broken man rattling through painful snatches of memory. One can also spy, in its elegiac languors, a touch of Tsai Ming-liang, especially Goodbye, Dragon Inn, as it similarly wanders, circling locations from different angles, and finding inspiration in the movies, making a theater a central location. In murmuring voice over, our lead tells us movies are better than memory, because movies are always lies, while memory is the one playing tricks on us.

How wonderful, then, that Gan takes a leap out of this fragmented noir and into cinema in a cinema. Our lead falls asleep in a rundown theater while wearing 3D glasses and we enter his dream. It’s also in 3D, which Gan uses to orient us in a procession of spaces: a cave, a pool hall, a village square, a gate — varied depths and frames extended in ways only the extra dimension can. It is enveloping in ways that reminded me why we were all so taken with this new 3D a decade ago. What’s beguiling about this dream — filmed in a single unbroken take that lasts an eye-boggling hour to end the film — is how it takes the abstraction of its opening expository half and recontexualizes these inscrutable scenes and oft incomplete dialogues into sleepwalking symbolism. Stray comments, revelations, and conversations open up new emotional and visual possibilities —torches, ping pong, fruit, karaoke machines, a gun, a folk tale, a firework — as they circle back around very much like the brain reworks a day’s or a life’s stresses into dream logic. Suddenly, what felt simultaneously thin and obscurant — if undeniably beautifully photographed and inhabited, especially mesmerizing in scenes like the one in which a quietly weeping man in uninterrupted close-up eats an entire apple in real time — uncovers layers of meaning and portent as the film nods off into a lyrical and contained dream-space, tracing the surrealist architecture of its setting intuitively in flowing ways where the “real life” story resists interpretation and chronology. By the end there’s a sense of an experience that’s uniquely cinematic, and theatrically cinematic, for that matter. I doubt it would play as well if you stream it in 2D in the comfort of your own home. It’s a film that works best if you’re trapped with it and within it, enduring it, puzzling over it, resisting it, even, until it quite literally opens up news depths as its hypnotic final hour-long shot flies by as quickly as its opening 80 minutes are slow.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Cars Too: FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW

That Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is occasionally good enough as a passably preposterous summer blockbuster is a fluke of timing. Firstly, it’s arriving near the tail end of one of the more dispiriting summers for such franchise fare in recent memory. Secondly, and more importantly, it's on the bleeding edge of ridiculous in a franchise that has been trending ever further in that direction, arriving as the ninth in the Fast & Furious series. Who’d have thought that what started as a enjoyable, small-scale, heists-and-drag-racing action film would now, nearly twenty years later, be a full-scale comic-booky superspy blowout? This is also a spin-off feature starring two side characters who weren’t even introduced until the fifth and sixth entry, respectively, and both times as a Big Name antagonist to the main crew. Here bulky Hobbs (The Rock) and suave Shaw (Jason Statham) are conscripted as unlikely heroes in a race to save the world—although this time they’re not tied to the vehicular skill-set of Vin Diesel and company. Even though those movies eventually launched so far over the top they became about jumping a sports car between skyscrapers or outrunning a nuclear submarine by driving an SUV across a frozen lake, this one has a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier (Idris Elba) taking orders from a mysterious electronic voice (the better to cast a Big Name for the sequel without figuring it out now) commanding him procure a genetically modified virus that’ll wipe out most of the population. (“Genocide schmenocide,” sneers the villain who identifies himself as “the Bad Guy” in his first line.) They’ll need the help of Shaw’s sister (Vanessa Kirby) who’s an MI-6 agent framed for stealing the virus. The stage is set for a movie that's often going exactly where you'd guess.

The central characters make a fun trio — all bravado and colliding charismatic star personas bouncing off crass sorta punchlines and muscling through action — as the long-time series scripter Chris Morgan concocts a string of set-pieces exploding with cartoony verve between lukewarm comedy and cornball sentiment. It has cars flipping through CG explosions, a self-driving motorcycle catching up to its owner, an ATV smashing blindly and safely through glass warehouse walls, rounds of shoot-‘em-up cacophony, bruising hand-to-hand combat, and elaborate man-versus-machine fights. The action is mostly framed well by the director, John Wick and Atomic Blonde alum David Leitch, who nonetheless lets the size of the chaos get away from him. Not a bit of it has an ounce of weight. The stunts don’t merely strain credulity, they never have it in the first place. The threats never seem real, and the violence is all carefully bloodless and without a drop of suspense. The sunny sets, smirking tone, and sleek computerized varnish play the whole adventure off as a lark, tossing off torture and calamity as just another jocular turn of the screws, and the fate of the world as just an excuse to reunite estranged family members. That’s nice, I suppose, so far as it goes. The movie is a bouncy, high-speed frivolity, with booming sound design, a smoothly hectic pace, a couple fun cameos, and an undemanding passive entertainment value. It’s fine when it’s stupidly preposterous, but less so when it’s also preposterously stupid. The whole endeavor is sporadically entertaining, but more often flimsy and silly — even in comparison to the worst excesses of its franchise inspiration. At least it hits its stock marks and rote routes more often than not. Maybe next time they’ll be as inspired by the best of the predecessors instead. Bring on 2 Hobbs 2 Shaw.

Friday, July 26, 2019

What Has Been: ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is a conjoined pair of rambling character sketches with a layer of true crime dread for a counterpoint, then oodles of his relaxed nostalgia and affectionate irony slathered on top. No one can construct a scene like him, overflowing with crackling dialogue and with every personality instantly memorable. Then there’s the cinephile, nearly scopophilic, pleasure of the way his films look and feel, with the camera’s long smooth moves on cranes and tracks, always in the right place, and the crisp, smooth flavor of the edits at unexpectedly apropos times. This one unfolds and unfolds and unfolds, incident following incident and who really knows where this interesting thing’s going. Only the true life historical references hint at a likely gruesome end. It’s 1969 in Los Angeles. We follow a melancholic, alcoholic has-been actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a TV cowboy lead who could’ve been a movie star, but has ended up in the last dregs of a dying studio system going paycheck to paycheck as a villain-of-the-week on any show that’ll have him. Between jobs he drinks with his old buddy and stunt double (Brad Pitt), who’s also his driver, handyman, and sometimes roommate. Next door is a new neighbor, and a reminder that showbiz stardom is always pulling in and elevating someone younger while pushing aside old news stars who can’t make it. She’s new It Girl Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), flush with new success. The name Tate will make anyone familiar with her eventual murder know this loose construction of scenes set in the twilight of a rapidly curdling Sixties is on its way to a dead end. Knowing, too, that Tarantino is known for staging spectacular suspense and violence, and has a penchant for going the extra ahistorical mile — like blowing off Hitler’s head in Inglorious Basterds or staging a one-man slave rebellion in Django Unchained — there’s an added suspense in wondering how far he’ll take his depiction.

It’s the dead end he’s contemplating here, simultaneously eulogizing and criticizing ways of life that were rapidly aging, and luxuriating in reviving the period detail his crew carefully recreates. The two men at the center are often pathetic figures of curdled cool — flubbing lines or ruining opportunities on set, wallowing in self-pity, shrugging off bad behavior — with flashes of their potential charms, never more than when behind the wheel of a roaring cool car zipping down the streets of Hollywood. They cycle through bemused or prickly encounters with a large, memorable ensemble of one- or two-scene wonders (Al Pacino! Kurt Russell! Dakota Fanning! Timothy Olyphant! Many more!) as one or the other hangs around a Western set full of cast and crew or an old Movie Ranch full of cultists. It's by turns silly, sad, and somewhere between. This movie carries itself with a relaxed confidence, most beguilingly wearing its heaviness lightly and its lightness heavily. Meanwhile Tate floats through her brief sequences interspersed as a bittersweet specter of a possible future, glowing happily, gazing at herself on the movie screen with delight and, later, cradling her pregnant belly. The movie — overall low-key amused, drunk on movie lore love, and loaded with scratchy needle drops, booming car radios, the soft hum of tube TVs, and the click-clatter of a projector whirring to life — carries with it this ambiguous sadness. No matter the outcome, this whole way of showbiz is on the way out, a freewheeling turbulent decade dying and, so, too, eventually, the analogue pleasures will grow fleeting and fade. Fittingly, it’s a movie of big small pleasures, fleeting, fading.