film review

"Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood" Is Tarantino at His Most Personal, Compelling, and Poignant by Keith LaFountaine

The phrase "a love-letter to Hollywood" is perhaps one of the most overused. I'm guilty of using it, and many reviewers I respect have used it as well. Yet, the phrase seems to remark upon a specific type of nostalgia -- one steeped in cigarette smoke, old-school rock n' roll, and vibrant colors, all of which recall the Hollywood of yesteryear.

I suppose some folks may call Once Upon a Time In... Hollywood a love-letter to an era of cinema that is no longer: one that was littered with stars, which was vibrant and exciting, yet which was also changing drastically. As the Rick Dalton's of Los Angeles find themselves washed up, playing the antagonist opposite a newer, fresher face, Sharon Tate is looking up at the silver screen with wide-eyed, youthful excitement. She's breathless when she mentions that she's the star of a film, while Dalton is almost resigned to rattling off his resumé like he's a waiter listing the available specials.

In this way, I think Once Upon a Time In... Hollywood is the most personal film we've ever seen from Tarantino. While he's always been one to reference the films he loves, and while he's never been shy about acknowledging that his films often "borrow" from other films he's fond of, this is perhaps the only film in his canon that is truly personal and intimate. The sets are constructed with such lavish precision, it seems as though the theater screen works as a time machine to 1969. These characters are also treated with a certain level of respect, to a degree that many of his other characters are not. While Rick Dalton can be buffoonish and over the top, we do sympathize with his emotional situation. While Cliff Booth's past is defined by a single, despicable action (one that Tarantino never really returns to after introducing it), his interactions with Rick and his dog help humanize him. Sharon Tate doesn't get many lines in the film, but every scene she is in is colored by a youthful optimism and starry-eyed exuberance that helps make her character stand out. In essence, Sharon Tate is the soul of this film, just as Rick Dalton is the harbinger of the fading past.

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This dichotomy is the central conflict of the film. While Sharon Tate exists on the perimeter of the film, weaving in and out of the narrative (as does Manson and his "family"), her looming tragedy is not what defines the story. Far from it, in fact.

Tarantino's indulgence in this film, and its personal connection to him, is further noticeable by its considerable length. He clearly loves these characters, and he enjoys sitting his viewer down with a couple of characters and allowing the ensuing conversation to follow a natural cadence. The runtime and pacing of this film are certainly what many people will have an issue with. Yet, Tarantino describes Hollywood as a "hangout movie" and I can see why -- he's not really concerned with cohesive plotting. It does exist, and I'm sure another viewing would lend itself to pointing out the specific roadmap Tarantino was following, but his concern is more with these characters. Therefore, he's not really worried about pacing, nor is he worried about plotting. That's almost admirable in a way, but it's something that audiences will certainly love or hate. For me, I will never mind just watching Tarantino's characters interact. While praise for his dialogue is almost a cliché to include in a review, it's true that he understands film dialogue in a way many other writers do not.

I know that many will feel underwhelmed by Hollywood, mainly because this is not the typical Tarantino affair. It feels almost lackadaisical and meandering when compared to the likes of Kill Bill and Django Unchained. Yet, I think this is also the most mature we've ever seen Tarantino. While he indulges in some grotesque imagery (because, of course, he's still Tarantino at the end of the day), the story he is telling feels more multifaceted than ever before. That's part of what helps cement it as a masterpiece for me.

Yet, the ironic silver lining to this entire film -- and one that is supremely dark -- is its title: Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood. At the end of the day, I think Tarantino is hinting that much of the story of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth is a fantasy. It is fabricated by the same machine that the film is looking back on so fondly. And yet, in that fantasy, there are still nuggets of truth, neighbors to be met, and pasts to be reconciled with.

Such is the nature of Hollywood.


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“ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” ★★★★★

written and directed by QUENTIN TARANTINO

Rated R || 161 MIN || Released on 26 JULY 2019

"Midsommar" Is An Impressive, Challenging Sophomore Effort from Ari Aster by Keith LaFountaine

The most difficult thing about any sophomore effort -- especially one that is following a critically and commercially successful debut like Hereditary -- is that it often cements what your entire career looks like. We've seen this a thousand times over, perhaps best exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan (who is now relegated to sticking twists at the end of every film because of the commercial success that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable garnered). As such, the opening moments of Midsommar had me on the edge of my seat.

The set up is rather simple: our protagonist Dani has received a horrifying message from her sister, who is bi-polar. She tries to call her parents to tell them about it, but they don't pick up. She then calls her boyfriend Christian, asking him to come over and hang out as she struggles with the fear that something horrible has happened to her sister. This entire sequence is filmed in a long close-up, one Aster used with great efficacy in Hereditary, and the entire time I was expecting the camera to cut away to a wide shot where he would reveal something terrifying lingering in the corner of the frame. He's not the kind of director who would resort to a jump-scare, but he enjoys toying with expectations, littering the frame with horror imagery without revealing his hand until the last second.

Yet, to my surprise, this scene was just a phone call: a tense one, that manages to deliver a ton of character depth and pathos thanks to Florence Pugh's nuanced performance. This change signals the tonal differences between these films: while Hereditary was always a family drama at its core, it wore its horror on its sleeve and never tried to hide that there was something supernatural going on in the house. I would argue that Midsommar is less of a horror film than Hereditary, or at least the former film is a different kind of horror -- one that is more influenced by The Wicker Man and Black Narcisssus.

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In many ways, Midsommar is extremely ambitious. It asks a lot of its audience, and its horror elements never overwhelm the film, even toward the final act. Rather, Aster allows the horror to flow through the main characters, through Dani and Christian's embattled relationship, through the tensions that come with displacement, confusion, and genuinely terrifying circumstances. In essence, this is a film that is exploring not folk horror, but also regret and sorrow, anger and frustration.

There is a key moment in Midsommar (minor spoilers ahead) where Dani has drank some tea infused with shrooms. Her trip is going just fine, that is until she overhears the word "family" spoken by one of Christian's friends. That one word is enough to turn her trip into something horrifying and disorienting, where everyone is laughing at her. She hides in an outhouse, and for a brief moment we see the horrifying image of her sister, a hose duct taped to her mouth. It's a genuinely eerie image (one that a lesser horror film would have introduced with an ear-splitting jump scare, and maybe even a jump-cut close-up of her face), but its presence is not just to scare the viewer -- it informs Dani's character. It gives us a lens into her grief. It confirms that this is not just a horror movie, but also an exploration of grief.

Don't get me wrong, there are some genuinely terrifying moments in the film, including some liberal usages of blood and gore. Yet the final moments of the film brings everything full circle in a haunting twist that will certainly divide audiences (if my theater was anything to go off).

Perhaps the best way to describe Midsommar is "risky". It's not a typical sophomore film. While we can always feel Aster's creative touch on the screen, whether through the deliberate editing, the haunting soundscape, or the jarring visuals, but he also experimented a lot with this film. Some of that experimentation yields great and impactful results, while others lend to the films bloated runtime (one of the main issues the film has). Still, it takes bravery to put your career on the line with a film as ambitious, expansive, and challenging as this one.

Not everyone will love Midsommar. As I was leaving the theater, I heard a few people contend "that wasn't a horror film." In some ways, they are right. This is not a jump-scare filled, overbearing horror effort. Some may call this elevated horror (a misused term that has risen with the advent of films like Hereditary and The Witch), but I think the need to label this as a specific genre is missing the point. Aster enjoys using horror as a lens through which to view humans, to see what we do when presented with specific things like grief and the paranormal. In this way, he is using horror as a tool, not necessarily wrapping himself in the blanket of genre filmmaking. Midsommar is a horror film insofar as it is a film that uses horror to tell its story. The story, and the character of Dani, are truly what is front and center though. It's her story, and viewers should be wary not to lose sight of that.


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“MIDSOMMAR” ★★★★

written and directed by ARI ASTER

Rated R || 147 MIN ||Released on 3 July 2019

"Booksmart" Is A Hilarious, Poignant Exploration of Friendship & Perception by Keith LaFountaine

If there's one thing you've heard about Booksmart, it's probably some comparison to Superbad. I can't count how many people have called this film Superbad for women, which does a disservice to Wilde's film and to the four women who wrote it.

That is not to say that Superbad is a horrible film. I actually quite like it, and for a long time I have considered it my favorite of the "teen party comedies" that have been released in the past few decades. In the most basic ways, Booksmart treads a similar path, exploring a close friendship over the course of a single night as they prepare to go off to college. However, that is where the films diverge from each other.

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Booksmart, among many other things, is a film concerned with perception. More specifically, how people are judged basic on what they do or what they look like. While we're used to this with main characters in these films, especially if the protagonist is a nerd and his romantic interest is extremely popular and attractive. Booksmart offers this perspective, but it also flips it on its head. It's not just our leading women who are being judged, but it's also them who do the judging.

It's this turn on a tired formula that helps make Booksmart feel fresh and personal, in a way that many teen party comedies aren't. Not only do these characters feel like real people (not always a given in this genre), but they also have real flaws. While our sympathy is often immediately aligned with our main characters, Booksmart throws off our equilibrium by bucking expectations. Amy and Molly are studious to a fault, and the people who they believe aren't working hard actually are. This realization is the catalyst that kickstarts the rest of the film, and thus the characters' understanding of themselves.

It's through this lens through which the most important and unique element of the film shines: its humanity. As much as the film is funny, and as much as it explores and bends teen party tropes we've become accustomed with, it also has genuine heart. We come to care for Amy and Molly, and their friendship is delicately constructed so that the final few moments of the film feel earned.

It's this distinction that cements Booksmart as a masterpiece for me. All too often, the people and the friendships in these films feel forced, either due to bad chemistry, bad writing, bad acting, or a combination of all three. Not only does this writing feel genuine, but it also offers a unique perspective on how we interact with people. We're all guilty of assuming intentions or characteristics based on preconceived notions - notions which often aren't based in truth. When you push past the modern humor, the great writing, and the hilarious performances, that is the factor that makes this even better than Superbad. In fact, I would hazard a guess that Booksmart will become an important film for a lot of young people.


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“BOOKSMART” ★★★★★

written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman || directed by Olivia Wilde

Rated R || 102 MIN || Released on 24 May 2019