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Movies Reviews

Quentin Tarantino’s Peculiar Reputation Proceeds Him in Latest Revisionist Ode, in All the Best and Worst Waysides

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 41 minutes
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, and Emile Hirsh


Like the many legion of Tarantino-Stans dispersed across the filmscape, I’m typically predisposed to adore anything the guy touches. I can’t name any of his eight prior films that I would deem anything less than masterworks in their respective goals (yes, even Death Proof and The Hateful Eight). However, while I have a soft-spot for all things Tarantino, I can’t deny the auteur’s problematic indulgences both in front of and behind the camera, even if I don’t personally hold every vice against him. From his liberal use of the “n-word” to his sometimes-questionable direction of female stars – Uma Thurman’s car accident on the set of Kill Bill and Diane Kruger’s unsimulated strangulation by Tarantino’s own hands in Inglourious Basterds – the optics of his directorial flavor understandingly leave a bad taste in his critics’ mouths. Then there’s his trademark stylistic elongation and contentual borrowing from past cinema presented as novelty that, while very entertaining and itself used as thematic context, can easily fall into the realm of gimmickry, despite how good his films are. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, OUATIH for short, is at once some of the director’s finest work to date and also the first time I’ve doubted his dramatic crux.

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Leonardo DiCaprio (left) and Brad Pitt (right) are worth the price of admission alone, both putting in perhaps the best performances of their careers.

OUATIH treks the struggles of aging actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his trusty stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) as Dalton begins to come to the harsh terms of his fading stardom, highlighted all the more by his new next door neighbor, rising actress Sharon Tate (Robbie). Meanwhile, the Manson family has made their way to the city of angels, whose real-life tragedy surrounding Tate casts a foreboding shadow over much of the film’s near three hour runtime. But we should know better from Tarantino than to expect a one-to-one retelling of historical fact in the quasi-period pieces he’s been putting out. Both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained famously leverage a brutal epoch to revolutionary ends, providing a kind of gratification that manages to resist an underpinning exploitation. The same is mostly true with OUATIH.

On one hand, the film elegantly plays as hauntology of a cultural promise broken in real-time and restored in the revisionist climax that **spoilers ahead** pits the Manson family against Rick and Cliff rather than Tate and company on that fateful August night. In classic Tarantino fashion, this is the point in the otherwise blood-tame film that descends into extreme violence enacted against the Manson cult members (2 of the 3 assailants being female). Now, I’m not in the camp to sympathize with villains who in real-life successfully committed their heinous crime, but I will admit to be taken aback by Cliff and Ricks harsh dispatchment of the home invaders. **spoilers end** The gesture implied by the film’s credits is legitimately endearing, but how Tarantino gets there in the climax, while very much in his wheelhouse, feels sadly misguided, or knocked off balance, for the sake of an indulgence that effectively detracts from the narrative’s final proposition. But honestly, OUATIH is so good that I can’t help but dig the retrograde love-letter to a more optimistic future.

Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Sharon Tate.

7.5/10

Categories
Horror Movies Reviews

‘Midsommar’ is a Dazzling Aesthetic Exercise in Modernity Horror

Midsommar
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter


In the Swedish commune that is the predominate setting of Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow-up, the community elders, at the ripe age of 72, willingly give their lives to the nature divine; in their archaic life economy, the pain and suffering of old age is circumvented through the ritual act of suicide, so as to not taint or corrupt the soul with needless torment. To the typical subject of modern society, which tends to value life only as far as its potential to produce material goods, such a macabre cultural mode is surely to inspire terror rather than celebration – exactly what happens when Dani and company witness the graphic practice in the film. But is the ancestral symbolization of suicide really that taboo held up to the mainstream attitude towards the subject? Midsommar is in major ways a spiritual sequel to Hereditary in its visceral dive into the psychological terror that comes with the existential challenge of living under the oppression of modernity’s uniquely alienating effects. **mild spoilers ahead**

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William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Florence Pugh, and Jack Reynor (left to right) round out the group of American tourists invited to partake in the traditional Swedish midsommar celebration with the Hårga commune.

Dani, our main protagonist and a magnificent, authentic performance from Florence Pugh, is the prime subject of the film, around whom the effects of social reality has rendered a guilt and anxiety-ridden mess. We meet Dani whilst leaving a nervous voicemail to her parents on the account of a trouble message she received from her mentally ill sister. It’s clear Dani has some issues of her own – she’s admittedly leaned on her emotionally inept boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) far more than she’d like as she confides to another friend in another early phone call. Dani’s lurking fears comes to pass with the news that her mom, dad, and sister have all been killed in an apparent murder-suicide, of her sister’s doing. Dani needs Christian more than ever, but he’s not equipped to give what she needs from him. And why would he? He came up in the same twisted framework she did. He’s pressured by friends (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) to break-up with her, but when the news comes and along with it Dani’s grief-stricken comatose, he can’t help but be there for her, even if he doesn’t know how. Dani and Christian’s relationship, fueled by a mutual desperation for connection and stability, is surely to resonate at least partially to any modern romance, and is requisite to the visceral horror at the film’s center. Codependency is a perfectly organic development under the psychosocial ineptitude of neoliberal modernity, incubating a permanent-lasting, dull drain on lived, irreversible time. When that codependent insecurity is touched by the collective tabooism of the Hårga Swedish commune, the subsequent culture clash yields horrifying conclusions.

Dani, Christian and company spend some time with the Swedish natives for sometime before any cause for concern arises; specifically the grotesque ritual suicide midway in. The film makes a point to contextualize the disturbing display of violence within the Hårga tradition, which doesn’t view the act of suicide/euthanasia in the derogatory light the neoliberal dreamwork does. In fact, the Hårga community isn’t even really an oppressive hierarchy at all from the perspective of its active members. I mean sure, they casually indulge in ultra-violence against the unlucky sacrifice victim, but everyone in the commune share a spiritually fulfilling livelihood where their material needs are sustainably met: food, shelter, emotional support, and a tangible, egalitarian purpose that gives a respectable meaning to everyone’s life. Who is the modern subject to judge them when our dominate social mode is infinitely pervasive, relentless in its ends, no matter the psychological cost to its people? The theme of suicide weighs heavy on the film, especially considering the explicitly graphic nature of its depiction in the film’s more harrowing sequences. The difference between the suicide at the beginning of the film at the one in the middle is clear in spiritual intent, but what’s mutually true of the respective acts is salvation from future misery understood to be ultimately unnecessary. Death is a cruel mercy from the harsh existential truth of suffering, but we don’t really have just cause to judge either.

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Midsommar is shockingly gory for a mainstream horror movie. Just a heads up.

Midsommar succeeds as dramatic commentary as well as compelling aesthetic exercise. It’s unconventional use of brightness, white, and daylight is almost disorienting, sneaking up on you like Dani and her group’s inability to differentiate the days apart in the region’s extended daylight hours. It’s very cool how the scenes in America are shrouded in darkness and shadows, which we tend to strictly associate with the vulnerability at the core of fear, juxtapose with the festive, flowery whiteness, perpetual illumination, like the communal openness, where that vulnerability is inverted in a scary way; where that fear comes not from being unable to see, but from being too seen, because where you come from, letting people see how you feel in its full extent is dangerous and you’ll be punished for it. 

Like with Hereditary, Ari Aster once again uproots a horror inherent to our way of life in the 21st century: the unsustainable psychological deficiency of our system of relationships. Modernity has fundamentally done away with public accessibility to the mental facilities necessary to enjoy the life you have, with the irreversible time you are forced to forfeit. Some cope by finding meaning in their work, like their pHd thesis, or they play it safe through life, never committing to themselves in a state of permanent anxiety. Others cope by taking their own lives, and while not ideal by any means, the very logic of modern culture does not cultivate such sufficient valuation of lived time. The Hårga traditions are nowhere near as depraved as the ones Dani, her boyfriend, and us the audience, have been forced to live in. That’s scary.

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9.7/10
Horror Scale: 8.2/10