PARASITE (2019) – Gripping Tale of Haves and Have-Nots Comedic One Moment, Horrific The Next

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So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi in PARASITE (2019).

Usually when a movie can’t be pigeonholed into one genre, the common refrain is that it can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be.

Not so with PARASITE (2019), a drama that hails from South Korea that is frequently comedic even as it flirts with undertones of a harsh reality, before it explodes into a full-blown horrific nightmare.

PARASITE has been quietly gaining momentum as a dark horse Best Picture contender, and while I certainly really liked this one, I’m not sure it would have made it into my Top Ten list for Best Movies of 2019.

That being said, I still really liked it.

PARASITE is the story of a destitute family, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), their 20-something daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi). They are all unemployed and live in a decrepit basement dwelling.

But when Ki-woo’s college friend recommends him to take over his private tutoring position while he studies abroad, Ki-woo suddenly finds himself hired to tutor the high school daughter of a very wealthy family and as a result he’s handsomely paid. He then comes up with a scheme to have his sister impersonate an art therapy tutor to help the family’s youngest son, and once she’s hired, now there are two members of Ki-woo’s family working and getting paid amazingly well.

So, why stop there? The comedic plot thickens as the family schemes to get Ki-taek and Chung-sook hired there as well, and so they all find themselves pretending to be people they are not working for the family led by Dong-ik Park (Sun-kyun Lee) and his wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). And while life is good for a while, as the two families interact, it becomes increasingly clear how much of a divide exists between the likes of Ki-taek’s family and Dong-ik’s, who hold the poor in contempt. And so there is this undercurrent of a painful divide which is there and seemingly on the verge of exploding yet never does.

Until something completely unexpected happens which turns everything that has occurred thus far on its head.

THE PARASITE is a gripping, captivating story that is as entertaining as it is disturbing. You’ll find yourself smiling and laughing along for one moment and then grimacing in horror the next. And the best part is these seemingly opposite emotions really work here, and they work because they are both based on truth. The truth of the matter is in the here and now, we are seeing a greater and greater divide between the haves and the have-nots, and while here the antics of the have-nots to make do can be light and humorous, when push comes to shove, and the realization hits that the have-nots are never going to be the haves, the pleasant comedic balance ends. Things get dark real fast.

THE PARASITE was written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, who has made a couple of other highly regarded movies, films like SNOWPIERCER (2013) and THE HOST (2006). The script captures the class differences perfectly, as does the camera, as we see entirely different worlds, the elegant and opulent home of Dong-ik and the shanty poverty-stricken dwelling of Ki-taek, which when there is a flood, not only has to contend with the flood waters, but all the back-up sewage water which erupts through their plumbing.

The cast is excellent, especially Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park as the four members of the Kim family.

The best part of THE PARASITE is that it mixes its emotions perfectly, and while at times it can be jarring to go from light laughter to brutal horror, in terms of the story it’s telling, it makes perfect sense and it works.

Sadly, the divisions between classes continues to grow. The rich seem to grow richer while the poor grow poorer.

The emotions in THE PARASITE capture and reflect this sad reality. In short, in these present conditions, you can only laugh for so long. Eventually you’ll be crying.

—-END—

 

Horror Movies 2019

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MIDSOMMAR (2019), the most disturbing horror movie from 2019.

I saw 21 horror movies at the theater this year.

For folks who say they don’t make good horror movies any more, that simply isn’t true. The last decade was a good one for horror movies, and 2019 was no exception. Of the 21 horror flicks I saw on the big screen last year, I would only categorize three of them as being really bad. The rest run from halfway decent to very, very good.

Here they are, ranked from worst to first:

 

21. THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA – My pick for the worst horror movie of 2019, yet another weak entry in THE CONJURING universe, this one about a demon that preys on children.

20. ANNABELLE COMES HOME – My pick for the second worst horror film of 2019 also hails from THE CONJURING universe, which should tell you something about this “universe.” While the Annabelle doll is frightening to behold, filmmakers continue to struggle to write good stories in which to place it in. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson appear only at the beginning and end of this dud.

19. IT CHAPTER TWO – Overlong at 2 hours and 49 minutes, this version of Stephen King’s novel fails to make Pennywise scary, and that’s saying something. The main characters are much more interesting as children, which is a major reason why I enjoyed Part One of this tale more.

18. THE PRODIGY – another variation of the “evil child” storyline. Nothing we haven’t seen before.

17. THE DEAD DON’T DIE- In spite of a strong cast which features Bill Murray and Adam Driver, this zombie comedy simply didn’t work for me. Fans of writer/director Jim Jarmusch swear by it, but I found his slow-as-molasses style monotonous and his breaking-the-fourth-wall comedy obvious. Also fails to respect the genre. Worth a look because some of the comedy is diverting. Reminded me of Bob Newhart on an off-day.

16. PET SEMATARY – Inferior remake of the 1989 movie. Fails to take advantage of the changes it made to Stephen King’s novel. I definitely missed Fred Gwynne from the 1989 version.

15. COUNTDOWN- Gimmicky horror movie about a murderous app was better than expected, although it’s still not very good. Start off bad, gets better for a time, but doesn’t really end strong. I did enjoy Elizabeth Lail in the lead role.

14. BRIGHTBURN – Ah, the story of Superman told as if it were a horror movie. Not really, but the similarities are definitely there. Farm couple discover an alien child from outer space with superpowers, but rather than turn into a superhero, he becomes a murderous killer. Elizabeth Banks plays the mother who just won’t accept the fact that her son is not going to grow up and write for a Metropolitan newspaper! I liked the idea behind this movie, but ultimately it just wasn’t all that scary.

13. US- Certainly the most over-hyped horror movie of the year. After his horror movie triumph GET OUT (2017), writer/director Jordan Peele gives us, US, a horror film that starts out strong but then completely unravels. Once it starts to explain just what exactly is going on, it loses all credibility.

12. CAPTIVE STATE – Science fiction horror movie chronicling what happens after the human race has been enslaved by a hostile alien race which has taken over the planet stars John Goodman and is pretty good for the most part, although it has one twist too many and runs out of gas before it finally reaches its conclusion.

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The King of the Monsters is in a slump thesee days.

11.GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS- Godzilla sure has been in a slump lately. This follow-up to the sub par 2014 GODZILLA isn’t any better and wastes stars Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown. For some reason filmmakers of late just don’t seem to want to make a movie that’s really about Godzilla. Instead, we’re stuck with ludicrous overbearing plots that distract and take away from what a Godzilla movie really should be: a fun giant monster movie, or a flat-out frightening giant monster movie. I’d take either one over the pretentious storytelling featured here.

10. 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED- shark sequel about divers fending off hungry sharks in some very dark underwater cavers has its moments. Slightly more enjoyable than its predecessor.

9. MIDSOMMAR – With MIDSOMMER, we reach the first of the very good horror movies of the year. This slow burn horror movie by writer/director Ari Aster is by far the most disturbing horror movie of the year. Not for the faint of heart, this film will literally churn your stomach and will take its sweet time doing it, as it runs for nearly two and a half hours, but it tells a tale which is as compelling as it is long. Features Florence Pugh, one of my favorite actresses working today.

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Imogen Poots in BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019).

8. BLACK CHRISTMAS – Some folks really hated this remake by writer/director Sophia Takai because of its heavy-handed MeToo Movement storyline, which features male villains and female heroines, but I liked this one just fine, mostly because the lines it draws are largely based on truth. Imogen Poots delivers a knock-out performance.

7. ESCAPE ROOM- This horror thriller about a group of people fighting for their lives in an escape room which plays for keeps, in that if you lose, you die, was a lot of fun and was one of the more enjoyable thrill rides of the year.

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6. CRAWL- I really liked this exciting tale of a daughter and father trapped in the flooded basement of their Florida home with some very hungry alligators during a massive hurricane. High concept thriller doesn’t disappoint. Thrills from start to finish. A perfect summer time popcorn movie.

5. CHILD’S PLAY – Mark Hamill voices Chucky and steals the show in this effective remake of the 1988 classic. I enjoyed the updated take on having Chucky come to “life” due to technology rather than a supernatural curse.

4. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP – Surprisingly enjoyable sequel features a very funny script by Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick which although it retains the same comedic elements from the first movie tells a completely new story. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin all return to reprise their roles, ten years after making the original.

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DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

3. DOCTOR SLEEP – I loved this movie, which is the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel this year. The film succeeds in capturing the essence of King’s novel, as well as being a sequel to both King’s novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s film THE SHINING (1989). Ewan McGregor is perfect in the lead role of the grown-up Dan Torrance.

2. READY OR NOT – This thriller about a bride who marries into an eccentric family and learns that on her wedding night she is about to be murdered in a deadly game of hide and seek works because its dark humor is so sharp. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud at things you know you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving (THE BABYSITTER)  is excellent in the lead role as the bride who decides to fight back, and then some!

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Beware the scarecrow! SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019)

1. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK –  My pick for the Best Horror Movie of 2019 is SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. Based on the book series by Alvin Schwartz, this one tells multiple stories which are connected by a convincing wraparound story. It continually gets better as it goes along, and really knows how to build suspense. It also serves as proof that a PG-13 horror movie can be both scary and effective. For atmosphere, writing, directing, and acting, you can’t get much better than this. From beginning to end, everything about this one is taken seriously, and the result is the best horror movie of 2019.

There you have it, the 21 horror movies I saw in 2019, ranked from worst to first.

There were a lot of good horror flicks this year, and I’m looking forward to what filmmakers have in store for us in 2020.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JO JO RABBIT (2019) – Unlikely Comedy of Boy Who Idolized Hitler One of Year’s Best

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If I were to tell you that one of the best comedies of the year would feature Adolf Hitler as a main character, you probably wouldn’t believe me.

But believe! Because not only is JO JO RABBIT (2019) one of the best comedies of the year, it’s also one of my favorite movies of the year.

JO JO RABBIT is the story of a young boy named Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) who during the waning days of World War II not only wants to be in Hitler’s army but also idolizes the Nazi leader, so much so that his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself. He gets the nickname Jo Jo Rabbit when during his youth soldier training he refuses to kill a rabbit, and the officers make fun of him, calling him first a coward and then “Jo Jo Rabbit.”

When Jo Jo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, he is at first outraged, but then as he gets to know her through their subsequent conversations, his feelings change, so much so that he finds himself questioning the Nazi doctrine.

JO JO RABBIT is an unusual movie. It’s also a terrifically fun and comedic one. The scenes between Jo Jo and his imaginary Adolf are flat-out hilarious. Writer/director Taika Waititi has a field day with the role, making this one of the most unlikely characterizations of Hitler on-screen ever. Waititi channels equal parts Mike Myers and Michael Palin, and even some Tom Hanks in his completely inane and hysterical take on the character. When asked why he would ever consider playing Hitler, Waititi, who is Jewish, answered, “What better way to say f*ck you to the guy?” And he’s right.

Young Roman Griffin Davis is astounding as Jo Jo. He pretty much carries this movie, and that’s saying a lot for a film that features a strong veteran cast.

Equally as good as Davis is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the young Jewish girl hiding inside Jo Jo’s home. She is responsible for teaching Jo Jo some truths about life, including that he’s just a kid and not a Nazi. McKenzie stood out in last year’s LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) in which she co-starred with Ben Foster. I may have enjoyed her more here in JO JO RABBIT.

Scarlett Johansson delivers a spirited performance as Jo Jo’s mother Rosie. The two share some of the movie’s best scenes, certainly its most poignant ones, as the film speaks on what it’s like to be a single parent, but don’t expect strife and pain. Johansson’s Rosie is a strong character who is more than up to the task of raising her son on her own, even as she secretly works to take on the Nazis.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell— as he always is— is excellent as quirky Nazi officer Captain Klenzendorf who at times seems as if he walked off the set of the old HOGAN’S HEROES TV show. But there’s also a sincerity to Klenzendorf in his relationship with young Jo Jo that transcends comedic caricature.

And if Klenzendorf hearkens from HOGANS HEROES, Rebel Wilson’s Nazi Fraulein Rahm could easily have walked off the set of a Mel Brooks movie.

And young Archie Yates is exceptional as Yorki, Jo Jo’s second best friend— after Adolf. Yates and Davis share some tender scenes and some hilarious ones.

The screenplay by Taika Waititi, based on a novel by Christine Leunens, is nonstop hilarious. The film works not only as an energetic comedy and satire, but also as a moving drama that looks at the human condition and explores the relationship between Jo Jo and his mother, and more importantly, between Jo Jo and Elsa.

Some may argue that a movie like this may promote pro-Nazi views, and that some folks may not get the joke that these people are being made fun of, but the film combats that notion on two fronts. One, the Nazis here are portrayed as over-the-top buffoons, and two, the love of the Nazis is seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy, who with the experience of getting to know a young Jewish girl realizes how backwards and false those views are. In essence, as the story goes along, Jo Jo falls out of love with Adolf and in love with Elsa.

The film is clear in its repudiation of the Nazi agenda, as not only is Elsa a voice against Nazism, but so is Jo Jo’s mother Rosie, and to a lesser extent Captain Klenzendorf.

Taika Waititi, who also directed THOR: RAGNORAK (2017), and is known more for films like BOY (2010) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014) has hit a home run here with JO JO RABBIT. Everything about this one works, from its sharp satire, to its frequent laugh out loud moments, to its touching message on the human condition, which is simply put, that love conquers all, and that we are here to love each other, not kill each other.

The film is also shot in bright vibrant colors, giving Nazi Germany a celebratory feel, which goes against the many gray newsreels from history, the point being that ordinary German citizens thought everything was going great. They believed they were living the dream, while others who secretly fought back, realized their government was misguided and working against human rights and decency. So Nazi Germany in JO JO RABBIT is shown as a happy place, where the Nazi agenda operated in the shadows.

It’s not every day that you come across a comedy that satirizes Nazism successfully, but JO JO RABBIT makes it look easy.

As such, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

—END—

 

HUSTLERS (2019) – Strippers Turned Thieves Makes for Compelling Storytelling

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Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in HUSTLERS (2019).

HUSTLERS (2019) tells a story that’s difficult to dislike: a group of former strippers band together to steal back from the Wall Street types who benefitted from the stock market crash of 2008. And better yet, it’s based on a true story.

Combined with lively performances from its main players, and a script that’s insightful as well as comical, and you’ve got a winner of a movie in HUSTLERS.

HUSTLERS follows the story of Destiny (Constance Wu) who dances at a strip club, struggling to support herself and her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho). Things are tough, until she meets fellow dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who takes her under her wing and teaches her how to become a better dancer along with the ins and outs of the business.

Suddenly, life is good, and Destiny is making more money than she ever had before, until September 2008 when the stock market crashed and Wall Street clients simply weren’t dishing out free-flowing cash any longer. Eventually, Ramona hatches a plot with Destiny and two other fellow dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to scam their clients. As Ramona explains, it’s what these men did to everyone else, and so when they steal from these men, they’re just getting the money back from them.  So, they set up a scam where they drug their clients to the point where they don’t realize that the women are stealing from their credit cards.

There’s a lot to like about HUSTLERS. The cast, for starters, is on top of their game. I really enjoyed Constance Wu in the lead role as Destiny. Combined with the sharp writing from screenwriter and director Lorene Scafaria, Wu creates a three-dimensional character with Destiny. We see firsthand the frustrations in her life, from being unable to land even a retail job because of a lack of experience, to her desire to do well for grandmother, who raised her after her own mother abandoned her. Wu also was enjoyable in the lead role in last year’s romantic comedy CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) but I liked her even more here.

Jennifer Lopez is equally as good as Ramona. Hers is the strongest personality of the group, driven by the need to care for those around her, even as she fails to see just how risky their racket is becoming. Lopez delivers the most energetic performance in the film.

And both Keke Palmer as Mercedes and Lili Reinhart as Annabelle are also excellent. I especially enjoyed Reinhart. She displayed a presence on screen that attracted attention even when sharing scenes with Lopez and Wu. Her running gag—literally— of throwing-up whenever she got nervous was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Reinhart plays Betty Cooper on the TV series RIVERDALE (2017-2019).

I also really enjoyed the script by director Lorene Scafaria, based on the magazine article by Jessica Pressler. The writing is perceptive and playful, and some of the situations are laugh out loud funny, although never ridiculous or silly. For instance, the sequence where they have to transport their naked unconscious client to the hospital is a keeper.

It also does a nice job with the drama, taking the time to really tell the stories of its two main characters, Destiny and Ramona. You understand where both these women are coming from, and you feel comfortable looking the other way when they swindle their clients.

The pacing is good, and the dancing scenes both frisky and eye-popping. Scafaria does as masterful a job behind the camera as she did writing the script.

The film also enjoys a lively music score.

In my neck of the woods, HUSTLERS didn’t really receive much fanfare or promotion. It just kind snuck into theaters. You might want to catch this one before it sneaks out.

—END—

 

 

 

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) – Story of Down Syndrome Youth One of Year’s Best

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Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) is certainly a feel-good movie.

It tells a winning story, and with its talented, experienced cast, it delivers the goods.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is the story of a young man with Down syndrome named Zak (Zack Gottsagen, making his film debut). His family abandoned him, and so he is living in a retirement home. Even though he receives attentive care from his case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak is unhappy.

He continually watches a video featuring pro-wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) which advertises the wrestler’s pro-wrestling school in North Carolina. Zak wants to travel to that school, meet his idol, and become a wrestler. With the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes.

On the run, Zak crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a drifter who’s on the run himself, fleeing from some undesirables who are out for revenge after Tyler purposely damaged some of their property. Tyler is an unhappy man who’s trying to exorcise some personal demons, most involving the death of his older brother. Tyler initially wants no part of Zak, but after saving Zak from a bully, he changes his tune and listens to Zak’s story of wanting to meet The Salt Water Redneck.

Tyler promises to get Zak to North Carolina, and the two embark on a journey to fulfill Zak’s dreams, while being pursued by the men who are after Tyler.

Meanwhile, Eleanor learns that the retirement home is not going to report Zak’s disappearance to the state, and they task her with finding him herself. Furthermore, the home intends to transfer him to a facility which houses some rather dangerous occupants. When she finally catches up with Zak and Tyler and sees the bond which Zak has formed with the drifter, she’s not in any hurry to bring Zak back to an uncertain future with the state, and so she joins the two on their quest to make Zak’s dream become a reality.

It may sound sappy, but it’s not. Far from it, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a heartwarming film that has a lot to say about relationships and how to treat people with disabilities.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Eleanor first catches up with Zak and Tyler and instantly becomes very protective and parental with Zak, and Tyler tells her to stop acting that way, that Zak is more than capable of taking care of himself. In fact, Tyler teaches Zak how to swim, how to shoot a gun, and most importantly, how to believe in himself.

I really liked the way Zak was depicted in this movie, and I thought the portrayal of a man with Down syndrome here was extremely accurate.

The film does such a powerful job with its story elements, that the film’s climax, which involves Zak’s finally getting his chance inside a wrestling ring, at the same time that the men chasing Tyler close in for the kill, actually produced audible gasps from the audience. It’s been a while since I experienced that in a theater. [Okay, it hasn’t been that long, as there were plenty of gasps at the end of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), but before that, it had been a while!]

The cast here is awesome.

Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, makes his film debut here and is flawless in the role of Zak. He obviously nails the authenticity of the role, but more than that, he possesses a screen presence and timing that someone who does not have acting talent would not have been able to do. When Tyler asks him to repeat Rule #1 to him, and Zak says “Party!” not only is it a fresh moment in the movie, but it was also ad-libbed by Gottsagen.

I’ve never been a big fan of Shia LeBeouf, but he knocks it out of the park here, in a role that was originally intended for Ben Foster. It just might be the best screen performance I’ve seen LeBeouf give. He makes Tyler real, gritty, and earthy, and he makes him just as authentic a character as Gottsagen makes Zak.

Dakota Johnson is also perfect as Eleanor. I’ve enjoyed her in other movies, films like BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) and NEED FOR SPEED (2014), and I’m so glad she’s moved on from the awful FIFTY SHADES OF GREY movies. She’s a talented actor, and I can’t wait to see what she will do next. Here, in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, she creates in Eleanor a character who’s sincere, well-meaning, and also cognizant that the state isn’t really the best provider for a person with Zak’s needs.

Thomas Haden Church also does a fine job during the film’s climax as Zak’s wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck. And any time you can have Bruce Dern in a movie’s cast, even in a small supporting role, it’s a major plus. He only has a couple of minutes of screen time, but he makes the most of it, similar to what he did earlier this year in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and they do a phenomenal job. The characters are all sharply written, no clichés here, and the story moves along at a solid pace that keeps the audience riveted to the story throughout. It’s also beautifully photographed, in the southern waters of Georgia and North Carolina.

The Peanut Butter Falcon refers to the name Zak chooses to be his wrestling alter ego when he’s in the ring.

I really enjoyed THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON.

It’s one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

 

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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BOOKSMART (2019) – Raunchy Teen Comedy Has Its Moments

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booksmart

BOOKSMART (2019), the new R-rated teen comedy by first-time director Olivia Wilde, has a lot of things going for it: a fun premise, sharp comedic and oftentimes poignant writing, a talented cast, and energetic direction.

But what it doesn’t have is a strong sense of realism. While I enjoyed most of BOOKSMART, I can’t say that I believed in much of it, which is too bad because parts of this movie have a lot to say.

With BOOKSMART, director Olivia Wilde takes the coming of age stories found in films like EIGHTH GRADE (2018) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and turns them into a raunchy R-rated comedy. The good news is the film never deteriorates into mindless vulgarity, but the bad news is it never reaches the level of truth and sensitivity found in the aforementioned movies either.

In BOOKSMART, high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of graduation realize that their classmates who goofed around through high school still got into the colleges of their choice, and so they decide if their classmates can do both, that is party and still get into top colleges, then they can as well, and so they decide to party hearty for one big night just to say they did before they graduated high school.

The film follows their attempts to find the huge class party (since they weren’t invited) which leads to one mishap after another since they’re not very good at this sort of thing, but they’re determined, and do eventually make it to the party to end all parties where they hope to finally engage in the relationships they only thought about during their four years of high school.

BOOKSMART is lively and energetic from start to finish. At times, the girls’ mishaps on their quest to find the elusive party reminded me of the situations in the HANGOVER movies, although nothing here reaches the level of insane comedy found in that series, although this film certainly tries. Director Olivia Wilde lets everything fly, even including a hilarious scene featuring Amy and Molly as animated figures.

The screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman is very funny. The best part about the humor is it takes the usual drug and sex jokes and keeps them honest and prevents them from being cliché. Indeed, the humor works best when the situations are honest. For example, one of the funniest sequences involves Amy’s long-awaited and first sexual encounter with another girl.

The party scenes are also a cut above the usual mindless shenanigans of drunk teens. But not all the humor works, as some of the situations like when the girls try to hijack a pizza delivery driver to get the address of the party, simply aren’t taken far enough to be truly funny. Still, there are a decent number of laugh out loud moments.

BOOKSMART is a female driven movie to be sure, with its woman director, four women screenwriters, and predominantly female cast. As such, this film has a lot to say about young women and their relationships. Probably the deepest part of the story is Amy’s dealings with her sexuality. The discussions regarding gender and sexual preferences are spot on. The problem is the film doesn’t go there enough. These topics take a back seat to the raunchy comedic parts of the story.

The bigger culprit though is the believability factor. The bottom line here is most of the students in this film simply didn’t seem all that real to me. Sure, the story takes place in California, and the characters here are all from an affluent west coast neighborhood, but they certainly didn’t seem like they were living in the real world. And at the end of the day, this lack of realism works against the movie and what it’s trying to say about the life of high school students, especially female high school students, in 2019.

The cast was excellent. Both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein stand out in the lead roles as Amy and Molly. These two did seem like real people, and I enjoyed watching this story about the two of them and their lifelong friendship. Dever has already had some notable roles in films like DETROIT (2017), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), and BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018). Her role here only adds to her impressive resume.

Beanie Feldstein impressed in LADY BIRD (2017), playing lead character Lady Bird’s best friend Julie.

Other notable performances in the young cast include Victoria Ruesga as Ryan, Mason Gooding as Nick, Skyler Gisondo as Jared, Diana Silvers as Hope, Molly Gordon as Triple A, Eduardo Franco as Theo, Austin Crute as Alan, and Noah Galvin as George. All these actors have key moments in the movie, and they’re all very good.

The cast also includes veteran actors Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, as well as Jason Sudeikis as the school principal.

While BOOKSMART is certainly funny, it never reaches the level of all-out hilarity it needed to be really memorable. Likewise, while its script and story do possess moments of sensitivity and insight into the teenage condition in 2019, these moments are sporadic at best. And while the dialogue is realistic and raw, unfiltered to a fault, the situations the two leads find themselves in are more often ludicrous than real. As such, while I had fun with BOOKSMART, I can’t say I believed most of it, which works against the stronger thematic elements of this comedy.

I liked BOOKSMART, but had it been a tad smarter, I would have loved it.

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