Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): A Great Exploration of Insecurity

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      “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a great film. This is a film that stays on the theme of exploring insecurity, while giving us a glimpse into the lives in Hollywood right before the 70’s hit. You can clearly see how passionate Tarantino is about his work and the performances and cinematography are amazing. For my non-spoiler thoughts, I think if you are a Tarantino fan you will probably enjoy this film but there are some areas that I wish had been explored further, which was why this film didn’t make my Top 5 this year.

The film was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

The story follows Rich Dalton (Leanardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) as Rich’s career is coming to an end and he struggles with what to make of his life. The story follows the rising star of Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) and the actions of the Mansons in the surrounding area.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – Tarantino has such a good eye for scenes and this film is a great example of this. Robert Richardson the cinematographer does a beautiful job capturing this as Hollywood feels alive, grimy and fully realized in an era of time.

The World – The world of late 60’s going into the 70’s Hollywood is fascinating. You have the Manson cult running around, you’ve got spaghetti westerns in their hayday and the rise of Italian Cinema and of course the mixture of poverty and excess. Tarantino is clearly passionate about this time period and you can see it in the set designs and characters as well as the catchy soundtrack. This film made me want to check out some more of the films from this era to see more of what Tarantino pulled inspiration from.

The Characters – The characters in this world are complicated and it makes them compelling. Rich is a falling star making sense of himself in a world that doesn’t need him anymore, Cliff is trying to survive in a world where he blacklisted (there is a belief he killed his wife in the film from the Hollywood community), and Sharon Tate is making sense of her own rising star and the world of Hollywood. Robbie, DiCaprio and Pitt are all fantastic in their roles and I’d watch a show of this film to see more of these characters.

The Action and Alternate History – This is one of Tarantino’s alternate history takes as in this the Manson followers who killed Sharon Tate instead go to Rich and Cliff’s house and end up getting killed in the process. The action is brutal in true Tarantino action and getting revenge against terrible people is a Tarantino trope I enjoy. This alternate history leads to Rich possibly getting a second boost in his career too as at the end he gets to meet Sharon Tate and with it becomes part of the new Hollywood that she is a part of.

An Exploration of Insecurity – The common theme of the film is that of insecurity. You see it in Rich’s monologues and breakdowns, in Cliff’s interactions with others where he always has to win, in Bruce Lee starting a fight with Cliff, Sharon Tate in her self-discovery as an upcoming star and in Hollywood itself, always chasing the next big dream. Tarantino explores this through all these characters. Character actions are driven by how people view them and by their own doubts about themselves. It is wrestling with this that characters find balance and some semblance of peace by the end.

The Cons:

Motivation of the Murders – We don’t get to see how the Manson girls got brainwashed and how he kept control and that was something that would have added another layer to the film. The Mansons were cult and we only really get glimpses of how that cult worked. Exploring this further would have strengthened the film and could have been worked into the theme of insecurity as well.

One of the rightful issues with the film was the treatment of Bruce Lee. I can appreciate that perspective but in this case I disagree as it fit the theme of the story. Lee like every person in the story is dealing with insecurity and it is that theme that keeps the story so strong. He isn’t in any lesser light than the other characters who aren’t evil like the Mansons. This film was a joy to watch and I can’t wait to see what Tarantino does next. This was a great film and a huge improvement over Tarantino’s last film “The Hateful Eight.” Seriously, if you are a Tarantino fan, this film is well worth your time.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Jojo Rabbit (2019): A Masterpiece of Satire and Heart

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     Taika Waititi is brilliant. “Jojo Rabbit” is one of the best satires I have ever seen as it mixes the feel of a Wes Anderson film with the biting edge of a Mel Brooks comedy. This film has so much heart and the powerful message alone are reason enough to see it. This might be my favorite film from Taika and will most likely make my Top 5 Films at the end of the year.

The film was directed and written by Taika Waititi and based off the story Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.

The story follows “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a German child at the end of World War 2. He’s fully bought into the Nazi propaganda and has an imaginary friend Hitler (Taika Waititi). His world is soon changed when he finds his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is sheltering a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Characters and Performances – The main characters are wonderful. You have the naive Jojo who grows out of the fascist propaganda over the course of the film. You have his mother Rosie who is fighting against the Nazis trying to spread the word of resistance through Berlin, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson do. Elsa is the heart of the film as the Jewish refugee who forms a friendship with Jojo over the course of the film.

The Satire – The satire is brilliant. Like Mel Brooks mocked Hitler in “The Producers,” Taika does this hear with a cartoonish Hitler who acts like a child that is eventually seen by Jojo to be the insane man he is. It is gradual but we see how it is from made up mythological stories that Hitler built his brand on in the lies told about what it means to be German and the lies about anyone considered an enemy of Germany. Be they Jewish, Romani, Russian, etc. Over the film you see this revealed in the people fed up with the lie or those embracing it even as it ruins their lives and those of the people around them.

Dangers of Fascism – One of the strongest themes of the film is the danger of fascism. In it you see how the populace suffers and only a very small group of the delusional are those who profit from the status quo they create. A women’s role becomes to bear children for the Empire, minorities are killed off and anyone who is injured or damaged is cast aside and forgotten about. Any difference from the ideal has no place and it is this ideal that is used to blind enough people to fulfill the will of those in power. This film illustrates all this beautifully and it is part of what gives the film so much power.

The Emotional Core – The emotional core of the film is in witnessing everything Nazism has destroyed and our heroes finding life at the end. Elsa lost her betrothed and family to the Nazis. Jojo goes from “Othering” Elsa to becoming her friend and it is powerful seeing him go through deprogramming himself from all the fascist propaganda. Jojo’s mother is hung for fighting against the Nazis and in the end one of the Nazi soldiers who protects Elsa risks his life to save Jojo. These moments lend the film so much power. It is this heart that makes it more than simply a brilliant dark satire.

The Cons:

Ending Length – This was a film that could have gotten to the final scene faster. The last third of the film drags at times, which does a good job of putting you into Jojo’s mindset but also hurts the narrative flow, since before this I never noticed pacing at all. This is the only con I could find though, which says a lot for how great this film is.

This is a powerful film that is well worth your time. The message of fascism’s danger and the evil in “Othering” people is relevant as ever now. I hope more people see this film and that the message is taken to heart. This film is a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see what other films Taika Waititi makes in the future.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 Near perfect.

 

The Lighthouse (2019): The Haunting Light

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     “The Lighthouse” is worth the hype. This is a film that feels that taps into the human psyche and the terror of both isolation and the monsters people are capable of being. It does all this while still having nuance within the script and giving us complicated characters. It helps that it is beautifully filmed. I really hope we see more films like this. It certainly feels like a film that Hitchcock would make or any of his contemporaries. From the almost stage nature and the symbolism and depth that carries the film, beyond the amazing performances by Pattinson and Dafoe. Before I get into spoilers, I highly recommend this film.

The film was directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, with Max Eggers being the other writer.

The story follows Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is contracted out to be wickie for 4 weeks on an Island of the coast of New England. He meets impatient man in charge Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), and begins to experience strange visions after finding a statue of a mermaid buried within his bed.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – This film is beautiful. The use light in black and white is used to create a haunting and isolating environment. Jarin Blaschke truly did a beautiful job.

The Writing – The script feels like a stage play at times while still being natural. Characters will give monologues and the two of them read from a book, and that book becomes part of the theme and narrative. Myths and legends are weaved into the lives and lies of our characters. This is all used in the theme of the dreams tied to what the characters preach about. There is a sense of the supernatural through the entire narrative.

The Characters – Dafoe and Pattinson fully inhabit their characters. You have the superstitious Wake whose story about his bad leg is all lie but clearly is connected and worthy of the light from the Lighthouse. Both of them are so incredibly flawed and seeing them build trust with one another that falls apart is tragic and powerful. Each of them carries lies from their past and origins and over the course of the story those truths are revealed and come at costs to the different characters. Each of them are people who wouldn’t have a relationship as colleagues unless they had to. Wake likes his solitude and has committed crimes to keep it and has regret from it just as Winslow regrets what has driven him here. He clearly doesn’t want to be a drifter but feels as if he has no choice and because of it he can’t trust. Neither of them are good people but them being complicated makes their going mad all the more fantastic to witness.

Isolation, Loneliness and Lies and delusions – Some of the major themes of the story involve the isolation of our characters, the lies they tell one another and the loneliness they each face. The characters are consumed by visions and delusions. Winslow dreams of a mermaid and killing or having sex with it and sees visions of tentacles rising from Wake and him looking like a sea deity. The only time the characters aren’t alone is over meal time or when Winslow finally drinks with Wake. It is here we see the connection they come to share that is destroyed by the truth of their actions and past and the all consuming madness of the light.

The Consuming Truth – What ends up being a major theme of the story is consuming truth. As the characters go mad they learn more about one another see in the end the revelation of the lies and truth destroys their sanity and lives. It is powerful as both characters are murders and in turn meet their ends as they attack one another and give mortal injuries that signal that there is no escape for either from the truth.

The Haunting Light – The light from the Lighthouse is used hauntingly throughout the film. Winslow goes from not caring about it it becoming his obsession. He kills to see the light and in turn it leads to his eyes burning and him being punished by the gulls. The light is never peaceful and even when there is ecstasy it always has a dark implication. Wake masturbates to it and it is when Winslow watches him do it he sees tentacles above for the first time, an early sign of his madness. It is unknown if the light brings about the madness or simply reveals it but it is center to the story and I loved it.

I loved this movie. It is truly worth the hype. I really want to see Pattinson’s Batman now and this easily one of the best performances Willem Dafoe has done. If you like movies full of rich themes, psychological horror and are beautifully filmed, this is the film for you. This film doesn’t feel long at all. This might be my favorite film of the year and I can’t wait to see what Robert Eggers creates next.

10 / 10 The film is perfect and well worth your time.

Brightburn (2019): An Enjoyable Horror Take on “Superman”

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    “Brightburn” was a film I enjoyed. It is good but it could have been great if it had been willing to explore the deconstruction of Superman and Smallville further. This is clearly what it takes inspiration from and gives us a horror alien invasion story in the process.

The film was directed by David Yarovesky and written by Brian and Mark Gunn.

The story follows the Breyer family after a mysterious ship crashes near their farm carrying a mysterious child they name Brandon. This dream soon finds itself becoming a nightmare as Brandon begins to discover he has powers.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Family – The family is the best exploration within this premise. We see a mother who hasn’t been able to have kids now having a son she loves and a dad who wants to be a father too. Elizabeth Banks is great as Tori Breyer and David Denham (Pam’s former fiance from “The Office”) does the distrusting anything new as a threat really well. There isn’t a happy ending for either of htem but the fact that this is a horror movie, I’m not going to spoil it. Watch their relationship with Brandon, which is the best part of the film.

The Horror of Power – We see Brandon go from someone who hurts people for revenge and to cover up things, to killing the ones he loves. This arc for his character made sense given the alien technology telling him to take over. It isn’t good in regards to “Superman” mythos, but I can see where they were taking that mythos when they were making this horror film. I might look more fondly on this film I enjoyed, depending on where they take a potential sequel.

Okay:

The “Kryptonite” – The one thing that is implied to be able to hurt Brandon Breyer is metal from the ship he came on. We never fully see this though and the reason why this is, isn’t explored. This was a major loss. This was originally going to be a con, but there are enough implications that the parents know it hurts him in how they act around him in relationship to the ship. This isn’t great but it isn’t a total loss of developing Brandon’s “kryptonite.”

The Corruption of Brandon Breyer / Brightburn – Brandon Beyer’s corruption is shown in two ways. The first is when he realizes he can’t get hurt after putting his hand in the blade of the lawnmower after throwing it, and the second are the visions of an alien voice telling him to “Take control.” The idea of him becoming a bully because of his power is far more developed than the alien side of his story. It is in the way he uses his ability to not get hurt to hurt and kill others once he realizes he can. The alien side needed to be developed more. It is clearly something driving him but we never get the purpose behind it. The alien side calling him to take control simply exists, which is why I only rate his corruption as okay.

The Cons:

Developing the World – The small town and characters overall feel underdeveloped. They experience events but we never get their deeper thoughts on things. In this way like “Us” this works almost better as an episode in a show. This is what makes it a con. I had no favorite character in this film but I did find the idea of the film appealing. There is potential in this world but beyond Michael Rooker appearing as a paranoid tv announcer talking about other superhumans who are causing problems elsewhere. I loved that bit of world building, but Brightburn needed to feel more lived in, and it didn’t. Same with the alien species that Brandon Breyer came from. We know nothing about them beyond Brandon’s desire to take control. This was an easy chance at world building that should have been explored more.

This is a film worth checking out, if you were a fan of super hero films or horror films. The film isn’t great but it is enjoyable. Even with the story needing to be longer and more developed it still kept me drawn to the screen through the run. If they make sequels I would most likely see if they keep this quality, though I hope they can be better. This is a premise that deserves to be more and if has sequels, there is the chance to do so. As someone who only got into horror films in the last few years, I saw this as promising.

Final Score: 7.8 / 10