Musings of the Dojo: Dora the Explorer Vs. Quentin Tarantino

*Welcome to Musings of the Dojo! Here, I plan to reflect on certain things I’ve recently talked about here at the Dojo. Perhaps this will become a recurring thing here on my site. Or maybe I’ll completely forget about it after this one time…*

 

 

For those following my site, you’ve probably noticed that among my recent movie reviews are Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer. In my reviews, I graded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a 5/10, but gave Dora a 7/10. Could this possibly imply that I actually thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than a Quentin Tarantino film?

I’m not implying anything, let me say it outright: I thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. And I don’t feel bad even in the slightest for saying that.

I don’t say this for the sake of contrarianism. Lord knows there are few things I distaste more than contrarians. And the world of independent internet critics has more than enough of those anyway (newsflash: conforming to non-conformity is still conformity). I say this as a Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t care for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s not a horrible movie (again, I rated it 5/10. For me, it’s when things get to 3/10 and lower when they’re in the “avoid at all costs” range), but it does feel like a product of complacency on Tarantino’s part.

Quentin Tarantino isn’t a stranger to rewriting history with his films, as he did just that ten years ago with Inglourious Basterds. So for Tarantino to make a movie in which the Manson murders are undone – and instead it’s the members of the Charles Manson cult who carried out the murder of Sharon Tate who instead end up dead by means of a stuntman, his dog, and a flamethrower – it just makes sense for the famed director. And the ending in which this rewriting of history takes place is the best part of the film. There’s something bizarrely wonderful about Tarantino using his trademark style and gratuitous violence to rectify a historical tragedy. The problem I have with Hollywood is that Tarantino seemed to have come up with a great ending, but couldn’t think of a path for the rest of the movie to take to justifiably earn that ending.

Tarantino spends too much of the film either indulging in some of his tropes (such as a disjointed narrative, with the stories of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters stories really having nothing to do with Sharon Tate), while staving off others (the director’s stylistic violence really only shows up at the end of the film). But the different storylines never mesh together in any seamless or meaningful way. Again, there’s something that feels complacent about it, like Tarantino was so confident in the ending and in his style that the actual story at hand, and how to tie everything together, were such afterthoughts that he forgot about them altogether.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m just ragging on Tarantino. Again, I’m a fan of his, I’d place him on my list of top 10 filmmakers. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a total bust. It has moments that showcase the director’s brilliance. But that’s just the thing, it’s only in moments of Hollywood that we get glimpses of what Tarantino is really capable of. As a whole, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just never comes together. It’s too fragmented – both in story and tone – for its own good.

Meanwhile, Dora and the Lost City of Gold – while perhaps not a great movie – was nonetheless better than it seemed to have any right to be. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, and a bit silly. But it was a well made silly kids’ movie. It was fun, funny, didn’t feel like it talked down to its young audience, nor was it ashamed of its source material. And I feel it had a nice message for kids about being comfortable with who you are, even if you may be on the socially awkward side.

Essentially, I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold did a better job at being a Dora the Explorer movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did at being a Tarantino film. Yes, I understand this is comparing apples to oranges, so why bother doing it?

Simple, because I think as far as professional film critics, and even most self-proclaimed cinephiles go, this very idea would be considered some kind of blasphemy. Critics and film buffs too often like to put themselves on a pedestal for their perceived superior intellect to the average moviegoer, and their supposed open-mindedness. But frankly, they could definitely benefit from branching out a bit. As much as they like to brag themselves up, critics and film buffs too often have a very narrow view of what constitutes a good movie, and have a very strict ruleset placed on themselves that makes their often arrogant attitudes that much more unfounded.

Basically, any such critic or cinephile would scoff or outright belittle my stance that I found a Dora the Explorer movie to have more merit than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, because that would go against their definition of what’s good, and would defy their rules. Thinking a Tarantino film failed to deliver while thinking a silly kids’ movie was effective would probably be enough for many critics – both professional and independent – to grab their torches and pitchforks and form a mob against me (or anyone who shares similar opinions).

Now, I certainly hope I don’t sound like I’m patting myself on the back. There are many instances where I agree with critics and film buffs (again, I usually think Tarantino is quite good). The last thing I want to do is put myself on a a pedestal similar to the people I’m commenting on. I’m merely trying to state that I think there’s a problem within the world of cinema that, like these critics and cinephiles, seems shackled to a very specific idea of how to appreciate movies. Just look at most critics’ lists of best films of any given year, and you’ll notice the same types of movies – usually those that pander directly to critics – dominate pretty much all of them. Sure, you might see a mainstream movie and an animated feature thrown in for the “audience cred” every so often, but such selections usually come across as mere tokens (especially seeing as so few critics would ever seem to consider placing such films on the upper half of their lists).

I really think this close-mindedness of “serious” film critics and fans has become a major problem. If you need some damning evidence, the Academy Awards nearly created a “Best Popular Film” category, as a means to throw a bone to the common moviegoer, only to retract the concept of the award soon thereafter, as it was basically an admittance to their insistence that only “their movies” are worthy of Best Picture.

The world of cinema would do itself a lot of good if those with voices in the medium would shed a good deal of their pretensions and lighten up a bit. Someone like me shouldn’t have to feel hesitant to state that they enjoyed a Dora the Explorer movie more than a Tarantino film. But that’s exactly the kind of atmosphere that critics and cinephiles have created around the movie world. You can’t be considered a serious lover of cinema unless you fall in line. And that’s a problem.

Okay, now I’m really getting sidetracked. I was initially just writing this as a means to express my preference to Dora and the Lost City of Gold over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I repeat that I was hesitant to do so, because of the stigma it might put on me, my site, and my overall views of movies by the aforementioned “serious” film buffs. Granted, I don’t exactly have a large following (to put it lightly), so it’s not as if I expected backlash per se. Just that it’s kind of sad that you could pretty much picture the exact reaction a more pretentious movie type would have should they read that someone actually thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold was a better movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Simply put, I think the movie world would benefit if, instead of adhering to a very, very specific idea of what constitutes good films, the more critical side of cinema followed the open-mindedness they like to preach, and judge films based on how successfully they accomplishes what they set out to do.

Of course we’re all going to have our preferences (and I am no exception), but critics and “serious” movie fans too often seem to surrender to some kind of hive mind with their preferences (“independent movie = automatically good.” “The more popular a movie, the dumber it must be.”). Again, we all have our preferences, but it’s important to bring individuality into critiquing. Movie buffs and critics frequently seem to lump things together with preconceived notions, instead of viewing a film for its individual merit.  And again, their preferences don’t even seem to be based on their own individuality, but a preconceived idea of what they’re supposed to like.

I again have to stretch that I am, in no way, shape or form, promoting contrarianism. Disliking things for the reasons that they are popular or acclaimed is every bit as toxic as critics’ “follow the leader” method I’m talking about. I stress that my point is critiquing any form of art should come from a place of individualism, both of one’s self and of the work you’re critiquing. You don’t want to cave into some preconceived hive mind, but you also have to be able to appreciate things even if they don’t fall squarely into your preferences. You, as an individual, should be critiquing things based on their merits as an individual work.

The cinephiles and critics expect Quentin Tarantino to make great movies, so surely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood must be a masterpiece. It was decided ahead of time. But a Dora the Explorer movie sounds like a stupid idea for the kiddies. Even though the latter did defy expectations and received a surprisingly warm reception, it of course is only allowed to go so far. And claiming it could possibly, under any circumstance, be better than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly going too far.

Well, as a Tarantino fan, I expected a good movie out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Instead I ended up bored and anxious with it, like Milhouse waiting for Itchy and Scratchy to get to the fireworks factory. Meanwhile, I didn’t’t have expectations for Dora, but I ended up having fun.

In short, I thought Dora the Explorer kicked Quentin Tarantino’s ass. And I don’t feel bad about it.

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review

*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I feel that the very nature of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and how its ending rewrites history, makes it an incredibly difficult film to discuss without talking about said ending. So again, big spoiler warning here!*

Quentin Tarantino has certainly earned his reputation as one of cinema’s premiere directors. His indelible vision is unique among his peers and contemporaries, with his excessive style feeling downright hyperactive when compared to pretty much anyone else in the industry. Tarantino is known for his unconventional narrative structures, over-the-top characters, and flamboyant aesthetics. But for all the wonder Tarantino’s style is capable of creating, it can also get the better of him at times. For every Tarantino film that is helped by his insistence on style, there’s one that’s hindered by it, with stories that feel disjointed as a consequence of putting said style over all else. Unfortunately, I believe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s newest feature, falls into the lesser half of the Tarantino echelon for these very reasons.

Ten years ago, Quentin Tarantino released Inglourious Basterds, a film which rewrote history by means of ending WWII quite differently than how things went down in real life. Basterds received widespread acclaim, with many hailing it as Tarantino’s best film that isn’t Pulp Fiction.

Alas, this is where I must confess an unpopular opinion: Inglourious Basterds may very well be my least favorite Tarantino film up to this point (sure, Death Proof is usually considered the director’s weakest effort, but at least that film was supposed to be a cheesy B-movie). Despite the originality Basterds brought to the table thanks to its narrative structure and the fact that it, y’know, rewrote the final days of World War II, the film ended up suffering just as much (if not more) from it.

In its insistence on turning WWII into, well, a Tarantino film (excessive, stylized violence, an irreverent, smartass-y attitude, etc.), Inglourious Basterds ultimately felt like two different movies crashed into each other, and desperately scrambled to put all the pieces together into a singular film. The end result was a film that featured many scenes and characters who  felt pointless to the overall narrative (remember how Michael Fassbender’s character was introduced in one scene, only to be killed off in the next?), and two overarching storylines that felt more conflicting towards one another than anything.

Why am I going on about my unpopular opinion of a decade-old Tarantino film? Because the very things that made Ingloruous Basterds feel so clunky come back in full force in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like Basterds before it, Hollywood rewrites real world history. And also like BasterdsHollywood seems to have a difficult time staying focused on a particular scenario, and features a number of scenes and characters that feel pointless to the overall narrative. And both films also have Brad Pitt in a prominent role.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, in many ways, the spiritual sequel to Inglourious Basterds. Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t feature the same Tarantino hallmarks of excessiveness in the same way Basterds did (this movie staves off the violence until the last few minutes of its nearly three hour runtime, though they’re also probably the most violent moments in any Tarantino flick). So even those who who loved Inglourious Basterds might get a wee bit antsy at times with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though personally, I might give Hollywood the slight edge over Basterds, for two simple reasons.

The first reason is that the main characters of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are much more interesting than those of Inglourious Basterds. Hollywood stars Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once-prolific television actor who, in 1969, is struggling with his career when he tried to make the leap to the big screen, which resulted in the cancellation of his show in the process. Dalton is often accompanied by his former stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who keeps Dalton’s behavior in check amidst the actor’s emotional struggles.

The other reason I would bump this film slightly ahead of Inglourious Basterds in the Tarantino canon is that, while Basterds’ rewriting of history was a fun twist, it did come off as more of a stunt. An extension of Tarantino’s overall lavish stylization, if you will. It was a means for Tarantino to metaphorically jump out and say “Surprise!” to the audience. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino rewrites history in a way that he takes a horrific, tragic event that it’s clear the director has strong feelings about, and gives it a happy ending instead. A kind of ideal fantasy version of history that only the arts could make possible.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tackles the tragic 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate (portrayed in Hollywood by Margot Robbie), her unborn child (Tate was eight and a half months pregnant at the time), and four other adult visitors in Tate’s rented home at the hands of the Manson “family” cult, specifically members Tex Watson (portrayed by Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Madisen Beaty).

Suffice to say, things play out a bit differently in Tarantino’s universe. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton happens to be Sharon Tate’s neighbor. Cliff Booth lives in a trailer with his pit bull, Brandy, but is just as often found hanging around at Dalton’s. In Tarantino’s universe, the Manson cult (fittingly portrayed as bumbling, incompetent dumbasses) run afoul of Dalton as they’re making their way to Tate’s house to commit the murders. The cult members are temporarily spooked off, until deciding to kill Dalton before moving on to Tate’s house. Once they break into Dalton’s place, however, the evil cult is greeted by Cliff and Brandy. Cliff is not only a stuntman (thus knowing how to take a hit), but also a war veteran, so he has  had more than a little combat experience. Though the Manson “family” members have murderous intent, they are ultimately a bunch of drugged-up cultists who probably wouldn’t stand a chance against a war veteran and his attack dog in a fight.

Spoiler alert: they don’t stand a chance.

Booth and Brandy violently kill Tex and Patricia with ease, while Susan Atkins (who, by accounts, is the one who personally took the life of Sharon Tate) is given a drawn-out, over-the-top death, with Dalton himself ultimately finishing her off with a flamethrower of all things. It’s a brutally violent sequence, but when you remember that the characters getting killed in the film are based on some of the evilest monsters in real history, it makes it a much easier pill to swallow.

Some critics have lambasted the final moments of the film for altering history with a “fairy tale ending” in which evil is vanquished and the innocent victims are allowed to live on and see a bright future. But the ending is possibly the film’s best aspect. It comes across as cathartic for Tarantino, to take a tragic event that affected an art form he’s loved his whole life, and to undo said tragedy entirely. The ending’s naysayers accuse it of being “wish-fulfillment,” but the way I see it, if it entails giving murder victims the chance to live full lives and for their murderers to get their comeuppance, that’s wish-fulfillment I can get behind.

More importantly, however, is that Sharon Tate’s surviving sister Debra – who for decades has been preventing Hollywood from exploiting her sister’s murder – approved the film, giving Tarantino her blessing upon reading the script. If someone so closely affected by such a tragedy can see the beauty in Tarantino’s “wish-fulfillment,” well I think that says it all.

I may be raving about the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – and while it’s great that the film goes out on a high note – I still ultimately feel that it fails to reach its full potential, because the road to get to that ending is so bumpy. It’s a great final act that seemingly comes out of nowhere, since so much of the film seems to forget what it’s all building up to (at its worst, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – arguably the best character of the film – is largely forgotten for long stretches of time).

“OUaTiH’s depiction of Bruce Lee had me wondering what Lee could have done to sour Tarantino on him so greatly. Even if that wasn’t the intent, Lee’s depiction in the film has understandably fallen under scrutiny.”

There’s so much about the film that comes across as filler. One scene involving Cliff Booth having a confrontation with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) seems to serve no purpose other than to establish Cliff as a capable fighter as he one-ups Bruce Lee (though the film establishes Cliff’s toughness in other ways, making the scene in question seem all the more superfluous). The scene is also questionable for its depiction of Bruce Lee, who comes across as an arrogant hack who can’t back up any of the things he brags about. It just seems like a pointless defamation of Bruce Lee on Tarantino’s part.

You could argue that the film is more of a character study of both Dalton and Booth than it is focused on its rewriting of history, but that in itself creates a similar problem to Basterds in that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is torn between two different stories it wants to tell, with neither narrative interacting in any meaningful way. Dalton and Booth are never seen doing so much as conversing with Sharon Tate until the last frame of the film, and even then, the conversation is inaudible to the audience.

When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is working as a character study, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, both Dalton and Booth can be interesting characters, and the relationship between the two is pretty unique. At first it seems that the film is going for the deadbeat friend angle, with Booth holding Dalton’s career back, due to the stigma against Booth (there’s rumor that Booth murdered his wife, a rumor that the film neither confirms nor denies). No one but Dalton will dare hire Booth, initially leading the audience to believe it’s his presence that’s getting in the way of Dalton’s once-promising acting career. But it doesn’t take long to see that without Booth, Dalton would be even more of a wreck, with Booth preventing Dalton’s demons from getting the better of him (well, any more than they do) through his level-headedness and friendship.

Both main characters have the potential to be some of Tarantino’s all-time greats, due to a few great character moments sprinkled throughout the film, their unique friendship, and the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have surprisingly good chemistry. Unfortunately, because Hollywood gets so sidetracked so often, they don’t quite reach their full potential.

One of Tarantino’s trademarks may be sharp dialogue that’s often removed from the plot. But here, if the characters spout any “removed from the plot” dialogue, it’s only because the plot is so loose and shaky to begin with, as opposed to giving us a deeper insight into the characters’ personalities, lives and interests. Dalton and Booth get a few good moments, but not enough to make the loose narratives feel like a justified excuse for the film to focus solely on their personalities.

“You gotta love how Tarantino and company made movie posters for fictional movies that exist within this movie.”

The film also deals with the emergence of the “New Hollywood” era. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood simultaneously seems to celebrate the New Hollywood era for the autersmanship that came with it, and lamenting some of Hollywood’s more simplistic tendencies that may have been lost in the transition (as reflected in Dalton’s struggling career, with Dalton becoming typecast as one-off villains in TV series, repeatedly falling to the up-and-coming actors who portray the heroes). It’s an interesting take on one of cinema’s biggest revolutions, and it’s obvious Tarantino has a lot of strong feelings about the era. So the film has a very personal retrospective feel to it in this regard.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly a unique film, even by Tarantino’s standards, considering it keeps most of the director’s tendencies at bay until its final moments. I figure some of Tarantino’s fans will absolutely love it, and others (such as myself)… not so much. I still think it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my mixed feelings towards it are reflected on a larger scale.

Suffice to say, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s better films, as it has too many concepts it wants to tackle without having the ability to dedicate enough depth to enough of those concepts, despite being three hours long. And unlike a few other Tarantino films with long running times, Once Upon a Time definitely feels long.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood definitely has its merits and its moments (with particular praise going once again to Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate). But for every moment of Tarantino brilliance found in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there are more than a few that will try the patience for even the great director’s more diehard fans.

 

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