8.05.2019

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Adolf Hitler, a plantation owner, and now Charles Manson. As if Quentin Tarantino's aims with his latest piece of historical fiction weren't precisely clear from the base premise, the building blocks for the inevitable climax are put unsubtly in play in short order. While we wait for the beat-for-beat payoff we have predicted to be en route, Tarantino does what has been his habit for a decade now - linger on forced references to media he loves, as well as Kevin Smith-esque references to his own prior output.

As Tarantino has refined his camera to be more comparable to such contemporaries as Spike Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson than it was in these filmmakers' more comparison-rife 1990s heyday (which is not to say that heyday does not have its time-tested triumphs such as the entirety of the Uma Thurman sequence in "Pulp Fiction"), his subject matters have offset the balance by growing increasingly self-serving. One cannot argue with the fundamental fantasies of a Jewish man shooting Hitler, a black man taking down a plantation, and now an emblem of the Hollywood era Tarantino most reveres preventing the Tate Murders and their subsequent shockwaves, though as the years push on their presentations feel more and more like Quentin playing with extremely expensive action figures in reaction criticisms he resents. Utilizing this story to overtly defend the gratuitous film violence Tarantino is often raked over is a troubling quest, particularly when this film's celebration of violence is deliberately gratuitous as opposed to that of, say, "Kill Bill", where the stylizations bear greater purpose on top of that narrative's deeper emotional core. The catharsis of Hitler's face exploding apart under Eli Roth's rain of bullets is not quite matched in this film by what winds up feeling like Tarantino's attempt at Judd Apatow-influenced physical comedy - something that didn't even work for the great Martin Scorsese in the last film Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie co-starred in (ed.: the last film I actually reviewed in full instead of in blurb form... yikes).

At least here, unlike with "Django Unchained" and "The Hateful Eight", the proceedings are mostly enjoyable at face value, thanks in large part to Brad Pitt being Brad Pitt as well as the infectious, interconnecting 1969 soundtrack. And - not to miss the forest for its trees - at least this Manson is indeed portrayed as a clear villain as his aforementioned predecessors were in what has become of the Tarantino canon. Charlie's spectre looms over the piece in an effectively tense as opposed to exploitative or even sympathetic manner, contrasting many other tellings of the events he incited. This character is not even given any significant screen time through which he could wind up exalted on wall posters and fan tattoos like so many other movie antagonists. Finally, at least, and maybe most importantly, Michael Madsen is still the reigning master of the dramatic pause.

5.10.2019

4 Reasons to be Optimistic about WWE's Firefly Funhouse

After a lengthy layaway, WWE's Bray Wyatt is back on weekly programming in pre-taped and post-produced segments that, on the surface, purport a drastic shift away from the swampy cult leader of Wyatt's recent past. There is plenty yet to be seen from the Pee-wee Herman inspired repackaging, and fans and analysts are split. Here are four reasons why we can be optimistic in the face of WWE's track record. I might have come up with a more traditional number by dwelling on other, smaller reasons I thought up along the way, but I didn't want to fource it (yowie-wowie, that was awful).

Update, 5/13: The fifth reason is that Tom freaking Savini's team designed the mask Wyatt revealed in the Funhouse's fourth outing (arguably an early reveal for such an intriguingly layered concept, but anything but reason to jump ship).

He’s still the same character
One of two fatal flaws in Wyatt’s prior incarnation was that it was steeped in mysterious layers, but maddeningly no single layer ever wound up getting peeled back so to tell its potentially compelling tale. Now with fresh layers we have a new chance to make good on such a rich concept. When the Funhouse debuted an initial point of concern was that Wyatt's name has remained (admittedly a more difficult amendment on the scale of the main roster now that it's not, you know, the 1980s anymore), and furthermore that his former likeness even showed up in cardboard form for ceremonial dismissal, but this new Wyatt in fact being the same person who has gone through a change may in fact be the most compelling aspect of the new framing. The Funhouse's merry children's show stylings seem to represent Wyatt trying to escape the one thing he can’t - himself. Implied is the idea that this new persona was the character's own chosen method for leaving his old ways behind, and from the beginning each segment thus far has centered around those old ways finding ways to surface and subvert Wyatt's apparent intentions.

It can absolutely translate to the ring
The other fatal flaw in Wyatt's prior incarnation was that his storylines rarely made sense being settled by a pinfall in a wrestling ring, and at first glance one indeed wonders if the new Wyatt faces that same issue. The Funhouse is Wyatt's safe space, even if the parts of his consciousness represented by the puppets are disturbed enough to still be hostile within that space. Say another wrestler is invited on the show the way someone like Jack Black shows up on "Yo Gabba Gabba!" and simply by being themselves their behavior disrupts that space. They don’t do things just the way Bray has cultivated for himself so not to get triggered. Funhouse or no, Wyatt and his contemporaries are still wrestlers, and it would make sense for Bray to take issue with those who pop his bubble and want to regain his peace by defeating through his trained methods. In a particularly in-depth feud, imagine he gets darker and darker over the course of the story. The theme song can become distorted. The bright set can have dark filters cast over it. Then once it’s over, Wyatt can bounce back playing in the Funhouse as he likes even though cracks in his masquerade have been revealed. If he loses the feud, perhaps new cracks form. We’ve seen just how well Wyatt flips from fun to creepy, and back again, and this dynamic could thrive in its new setting. What's more, one can imagine any number of signature pre-taped matches that could arise, a la the "Deletions" of Broken Matt Hardy. Perhaps as more segments are filmed, the Funhouse expands beyond the living room we've seen so far. These expansions could be bright and cheery, or dark and eerie, maybe depending on when they are introduced in a given angle.

The Funhouse could be a backstage interview setting
Like Beefcake's Barbershop or Piper’s Pit, Wyatt's set could be a place for its host to mediate promo segments between other wrestlers. Just imagine the looks on guests’ faces as they react to the scenery, Bray’s demeanor, the puppets, and how Bray might try to smooth over a feud perhaps similarly to Gollum talking to his own reflection. Granted this could be more of a fallback option depending on how well the new characterization gels going forward, but it puts out there how the Funhouse could be used even if its original intent reaches rocky shores.

Potential for a faction
Over time, once the new Wyatt has established every currently planned aspect of his refreshed character (which feels as though it has been permitted some creative autonomy with a whole lot of thought behind it, with speculation reasonably placing Matt Hardy and Bruce Prichard as influencers), new members of the Funhouse can be added. A Mr. McFeely-esque mail carrier, for example, who brings messages pertaining to angles or even championships. The incongruously grizzled Eric Young? Wyatt's goofier real life brother Bo Dallas, who excelled in his role as a motivational speaker who didn't practice what he preached? Alicia Fox, whose particular brand of kooky could be a perfect fit? Perhaps this mail carrier could interfere in matches on Wyatt's behalf, or even appear in various places to deliver messages (of written and physically violent kinds) from Wyatt to other wrestlers. Over more time, maybe even a regular co-host who Bray has taken in, or at least accepted into his bubble. The Baby Bop to Bray’s Barney the Dinosaur. The extremely talented yet bafflingly wayward Nikki Cross? The eternally bubbly Jessie Elaban? Or Lacey Lane, whose look could evoke Wyatt's past (not to mention his matching dyed dreads)? This sidekick could be a regular competitor in the women’s division, and introduce a whole new set of wrinkles to the Funhouse.

Though they have had monumental creative successes such as the Mega Powers' explosion and, on the NXT front, the Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa saga, WWE's history with complex storytelling is somewhere between not great and abysmal. As was the case with the old Bray Wyatt, maybe the new one is merely a merch-selling framework that will never lead anywhere substantial apart from $24.99 Mercy the Buzzard replicas. Maybe it's all a ploy awaiting expeditious reveal and Wyatt will be back to cryptic soothsaying in a lamplit butcher's apron before long. But maybe, just maybe, some of this extremely promising concept will pay off. In its earliest phases it already seems to have the makings of something different that could be remembered for years to come.