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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**

MIDSOMMAR
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

Categories
Movies Takes

Only Within the Illusive Dreamwork of Neoliberalism Could ‘Booksmart’ Get Away With Its Blatant Gratification of a Problematic Hegemony


Perhaps the most loudly praised film of 2019 thus far is Olivia Wilde’s critically acclaimed Booksmart, a raunchy high school comedy starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as two over-achieving, model students on the cusp of graduation and college onward. However while their futures are bright, there’s one thing holding them up: the fact that they’ve admittedly forfeited the indulgences of the high school experience (i.e. partying, hooking up, drinking) for the hegemonic title of “smart” student. Not so bad a premise on the surface, but when we look at what exactly spurns this brutal realization, alarm bells begin to ring, bells that keep ringing up to the film’s expectedly derivative ending.

Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) spend the beginning of the film basking in their veiled air of superiority over their less-disciplined peers; while they clearly lack social finesse, they ultimately find security in their academic prowess, evidenced by their acceptance in to Ivy League universities Yale and Columbia, respectively. As long as they’re attending exclusive colleges that their peers can’t, it doesn’t matter how ill-liked they are. In an early scene in the school bathroom, Molly eavesdrops on a group of antagonistic seniors trash talking her. Visibly offended, she confronts the clique with the retort that because she’s the disciplined valedictorian she is, who hasn’t spent the last four years screwing around like they did, because she got into Yale and they didn’t, she wins. One of the mean seniors mocks Molly, asserting she’ll be seeing her at Yale later in the fall since she too got into the esteemed university. Taken aback, the next senior in the troupe admits he has a scholarship to play soccer at Stanford and the third guy says he’s going to work for Google as a software engineer straight out of high school. Panicked, Molly rushes out into the hallway to find out where every one else is going. They all respond with the stereotypical highbrow colleges (Harvard, Berkeley, etc.), to the point it’s clear that pretty much everyone in the graduating class have achieved the same feats as our accomplished heroes, with a fraction of the social concessions.

booksmart

As director, Olivia Wilde does a fine job with Booksmart. The film is thoroughly funny as all comedies should be, and the performances are all around as naturalistic and measured as they are entertaining. There a few bits here and there that begin to grate, but Wilde otherwise succeeds at actualizing the Superbad-esque high school party/coming-of-age movie from a seldom depicted female/LGBTQ+ character perspective. That said, I can’t help but cringe at the inciting realization that drives the plot of the film: the realization that hierarchical gratification is only justified as long as you are higher up in said social ranking. It’s only when Molly learns that she doesn’t have the leg up on her classmates she thought she did that she begins to question her lived perception, which leads them to embark on the night of debauchery that showcases the film’s comedy. By the narrative’s resolution, Molly and Amy haven’t really learned anything as to the intrinsic errors of their held beliefs, as much as they learn to not to be so selfishly beholden to one’s ego and appreciate friends and acquaintances for the truth of who they are. But would Molly and Amy have gone through such a personal journey had their fellow peers not gotten in to the colleges they did? I don’t think they would have.

Film critic A.O. Scott of The NYTimes gushes “[in] Booksmart, Olivia Wilde and the screenwriters don’t so much reinvent the formula as refresh it, infusing some familiar situations with an exuberant, generous, matter-of-factly feminist sensibility.” What’s  universally being recognized as the film’s greatest success is really its deepest failing. This “feminist” distinction attributed to Wilde’s film is in direct contradiction with the thesis of its content. The film’s incredulous assertion that everyone at this high school has gotten in to some canonically respected university necessarily posits the notion that signs of hegemonic merit (e.g. admittance to Yale, recruitment by Google with no college degree) are prerequisites for respect. I highly doubt that if the majority of Molly and Amy’s peers were more realistically attending community college or some other middling four year university, our protagonists would have been compelled to make the decisions they do. The politics of Booksmart are well within the rationality of neoliberalism; namely that only those who have met the arbitrary, meritocratic criteria in question are deserving of respect and anyone who hasn’t should be dismissed as the lesser being they are. It doesn’t matter that the participants are female or LGBTQ+ if they can’t identify the problematic logic of their own motives – even worse if the film they’re in can’t either.

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Movies Takes

‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ and Prideful Anti-Intellectualism in Fandom

Gigantic monsters show up and destroy things. That’s all I need to know. I am all in for the spectacle. Don’t need plot or character development. 

– disgruntled Godzilla internet fan


Peruse the comments of any YouTube review or critical Tweet of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and you’ll find the same sentiment parroted by countless dismissive internet people: “I want giant monster fights, not character development.” What is to be achieved from such antagonism towards a very much valid critique of a work that you haven’t had a chance to consider for yourself? Why the strong pathological defensiveness in response to someone’s negative experience with a film?

There’s been a troubling trend in pop culture discourse (e.g. among fandoms and between fandoms and critic bodies); the increasingly tribalistic attitude among fans of specific IP, film studios, and filmmakers has made for an intimately hostile online environment for official film critics, with many fans even vilifying critics as if they were waging some kind of dialectic war. It’s not surprising that with the effective dreamwork of Capitalist realism, livable reality has been reduced down to the products (e.g. films) we “choose” to spend our money on. Tentpole blockbusters are extravagantly marketed to us as the answer to our existential woes, at least until we notice the next Spider-Man remake coming down the pike. Deprived of virtually all meaningful agency (the cost of living in Capitalism), we’re left with commodities that stand to define us.

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Having seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I have to admit critics aren’t wrong or baseless in their assessments of the hotly anticipated sequel. The theatricality and gravitas of the 2014 Gareth Edwards Godzilla is sadly missing from new director Michael Dougherty’s take, so much so that the uptick in monster mayhem doesn’t even come close to compensating for the frivolity plaguing the latest end product. There’s no issue with moviegoers enjoying Kings of the Monsters despite its flaws, but vocal “fans” are doing more than just enjoying a film critics have panned; they’re taking pride in their lack of intellectual expectation. We’ve reached a point where film fans do not intuitively engage a film on its terms, but instead insist the film engage with them on their terms. And anyone who dares challenge those terms better watch out, no matter how rational the words; the lines have been drawn long before anyone has even had a chance to see the damn thing.

As insignificant as all this may seem, the anti-intellectual sentiment (as well as nostalgia fetishism) festering in fandom today is indicative of a much more catastrophic happening: an international culture stemmed in disdain for intellectual enrichment in favor of individual indulgence. With the guarantee of global climate collapse if the perpetual inaction of neoliberalism isn’t thwarted in twelve years time hectically knocking on humanity’s door, we should be deathly concerned of our propensity to dismiss critical thought under Capitalism.

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Movies Reviews

‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ is of Service to Thriving Action Saga Rooted in a Mutated Capitalism

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes
Director: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, and Mark Dacascos


In the John Wick-iverse, the primary object of commerce is not cash, but servitude. The gold coins that the participants of the sprawling assassin underworld network exchange for access to the endless catalog of “services” embedded in the fabric of default society posits a hyper-transactional sub-culture buttressed by a presupposed authority, “The High Table.” Bureaucratic squabble is systemically recognized as a measure of civility in a world defined by bullets and blood; the coveted Marker, a blood oath between any two individuals made at the giver’s discretion, being the only thing regarded above the deadly strict Social Contract that binds everyone. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum poses the titular hero against the bureaucratic mandate of The High Table, where he must rely on his interpersonal relationships, cultivated over the implied years, to survive.

Keanu Reeves reprises his role as John Wick, the Baba Yaga (The Boogeyman), this time on the run as he seeks refuge before being officially designated “Excommunicado” as a consequence for killing the villain of Chapter 2 on Continental Hotel grounds, where all “official business” is strictly prohibited. Watching John on his toes trying to get from safe point to safe point while an infinite pool of adversaries challenge his tenacity, I found the thematic through-line of personal consequence within an impersonal system the most fascinating among the brilliantly choreographed mayhem. Asia Kate Dillon (Orange is the New BlackBillions) plays “The Adjudicator,” an official representative of The High Table, the bureaucrat whose words are to be taken as that of the institution itself, but she isn’t. Asia performs the official role with a stark pomposity that mimics the intended perception of the operating ideology. By the film’s end, all the double-crosses and twists settled, the privileged air of her title dissipates as the realization of the situation becomes well, real.

The Capitalism in the John Wick world is much more direct in its minutiae than the one we’re accustomed to, but the end affect is all the same. Over the runtime, John brushes arms with a vivid ensemble of new characters, the most high-profile of which being Sofia (Halle Berry). With each character there is an underlying respect for John that ultimately drives them to aid instead of hinder our protagonist, even if it’s in their best interest to throw him to the wolves. It’s impressive that the franchise’s third film is able to deliver more consistent and compelling action and expand upon it’s intriguing lore while also stoking an admirable political thesis; so much so that you can guiltlessly cheer on the ultra-violence on display.

With so many of the living action franchises like Mission Impossible and 007, and even the superhero films from Marvel and DC, whose respective narratives always operate under such moral contradiction, without as much as a mention of systemic failure as the cause of conflict or a desire to rectify it, John Wick: Chapter 3 gets extra kudos for making that failed logic of Capitalism its basis of conflict, with legitimate stakes. Here’s to hoping Chapter 4 stays true.

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9.1/10