downton abbey

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by/quentin norris
Focus Features/122 mins

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Television and cinema have always shared a tenuous relationship. For a long time, the preeminent form of visual storytelling was the movies, which had overshadowed the theatre before that. Then the looming threat of television came along, and for a bit, many thought it would signal the death of cinema. But the movies persevered and both cinema and television learned to get along together. But there has always been a line drawn firmly in the dirt between movies and television. If a television show has ever wanted to cross that line before, it had to declare itself the “movie” version of the show. X-Files: The Movie, The Brady Bunch: The Movie, et cetera. Then television started to evolve. The line has blurred and most television shows hardly see the need in showing up on the silver screen if they want to make a big event episode that’s too hot for prime time.

But thanks to creator Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey hasn’t gotten that message and defiantly is keeping things old school for a throwback Downton Abbey: The Movie. Most film versions of television shows are due to ambitious storyline set-ups between seasons, prematurely canceled show runs or a nostalgic sense of ending a story by going out with a bang. For Downton Abbey, the nostalgic return to old friends is there, but Fellowes and Friends hardly want to shake things up or end with any real shocking cliffhangers.

Which is perfectly fine in a year where most big movies feel like the ending of television seasons than they do the endings of real movies. In an ironic turn of events, the movie based on a television franchise is the one that has the most conclusive ending. Not only that but the stakes of the movie are almost dangerously low, at least to those who are uninitiated. To fans of the series, what may be more surprising is the charmingly cinematic opening credits sequence that takes its time to show the lifespan of an letter sent from Buckingham Palace all the way across the countryside, by train, car, bike, and butler, to the front doors of Downton Abbey, where the Crawley family discover that their estate will house the King and Queen of England in three days time.

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And that’s about the extent of the plot for the Downton Abbey film, which flies by at a brisk two-hour pace that never overstays its welcome, the majority of the story dealing with the upstairs and downstairs cast dealing with the Royal visit and the obstacles that come with it, including a delightfully fun caper involving the staff of the house reclaiming their work from the Royal servants, and a few darker B-Storylines involving Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) political convictions and Thomas Barrow’s (Robert James-Collier) repressed sexuality, both carried over from the television show.

Each storyline of the film has their moments of cinematic flair, a fancy fluid master shot of the house here, a clever shot looking out through a keyhole there, but none of them really add anything to the visual storytelling of the film, because perhaps Downton Abbey’s biggest flaw is that even as a film, it adheres to the law of television, specifically British television, in which the director is nothing more than a hired hand, and the writer is king.

And in the end, this hardly matters, because as long as the true mastermind behind Downton Abbey is at the helm, all is well, and fans can rest assured knowing that Julian Fellowes still has a strong grasp on the characters he’s created, and a loving hand in which he cradles them through their various trials and tribulations, however quaint or serious they may be. And the cast of characters themselves need no real direction. Each and every member of the cast is a veteran in their own way, and knows their characters inside and out. Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, and the rest of the talented cast could play their characters in their sleep, without the need of any aid or vision from an outside director.

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Both the cast and Fellowes’ knack for interweaving melodrama provide plenty of entertainment, not only for die-hard fans of the show, but also for those who are uninitiated, although it may be helpful for those who are not completely up to date on the show to go through a crash course of all the storylines throughout the six-season run, as the film does not have time to hold hands with those who aren’t fully aware of everyone’s specific character arc. Even without that knowledge, the basic story of the film itself is entertaining for anyone who wanders in. Each storyline provides the entertaining highs and lows that one has come to expect from the beloved show, and Fellowes finds a way to make every loose end that began at the start of the film tie up nicely, so that each character gets a satisfying end that everyone can walk away from with a smile on their face. Downton Abbey is dramatic, even melancholic at times, but it is never a tragedy.

All of this finds a way to be compressed into two hours of pleasant filmgoing without feeling crammed or forced at all, and its hard to imagine that anyone would walk away from Downton Abbey feeling as though they have wasted time. If anything, Fellowes’ farewell to his beloved characters feels like a pleasant holiday away, and in the end, who wouldn’t want an enjoyable stay inside Downton?

the nightingale

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by/quentin norris
IFC Films/137 mins

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“Ba…ba…dook dook dook…”

With one, haunting, croaking phrase, Jennifer Kent conjured up one of the most iconic creatures in genre cinema, the Babadook.  Kent’s 2014 film of the same name has firmly established itself as a pillar in genre cinema of the last ten years.  When one thinks of important horror films of the last decade, it would not be surprising if The Babadook was one of the first examples that came to mind.  Jennifer Kent is at the top of any list of influential women filmmakers, and yet, it’s taken five years for her sophomore feature to reach audiences outside the festival circuit.  Its release has been quiet so far, without much fanfare or marketing.  Although disappointing, there are probably a few reasons for this.  Although dark and disturbing, it is not a horror film.  On its face, there’s nothing about The Nightingale that could be compared to The Babadook.  It is long and ponderous for extended sequences, elements of cinema that have always been tough to market.  But the biggest reason is probably that it is one of the most viscerally disturbing films I’ve seen to date, and the film does not shy away from its subject matter in any way whatsoever.  Of all these reasons why The Nightingale may quietly come and go from American theaters, it is not because Kent has stumbled into a sophomore slump.  Kent has created a film that is angry, blunt, humanist, and meditative all at once.  It is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young convict woman trying to make the best of her life in Tasmania where she and her husband (Michael Sheasby) live under the tyrannical will of Lieutenant Hawkins, who dangles the possibility of freedom over Clare’s head daily.  After her husband finally confronts Hawkins about Clare’s freedom, an emasculated Hawkins gathers a small group of his men and enacts violent revenge on Clare and her family, leaving her severely beaten, and her husband and child dead.  From there, she enlists the expertise of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, to help guide her through the wilds of Tasmania, to track down Hawkins and enact her revenge.

It’s a story that is ripe for genre storytelling, filled with violence, vengeance, fury, and blood.  But as easy as it would be to make The Nightingale a Western, horror, or action film, Kent has resisted all temptation to make this tale go down easier.  The Nightingale has been stripped of any cinematic genre frills, to ensure that there is no pleasure taken in the violence depicted on screen.  Kent’s vision is sparse and minimalist, cutting away all the fat to tell a tale of epic proportions at the most human level.  The Nightingale finds a pattern of everyday life in the hell that Clare and Billy find themselves on a day to day basis.  Without realizing it, we fall under Kent’s spell and become fully submerged in the world of her dark fable.  Halfway through the film, I became aware of the fact that I had fully left the safety of the real world behind.  I felt like I had been on the same journey that Clare and Billy had been on.

Without the stylistic energy of Kill Bill or John Wick, The Nightingale leaves you to ponder the unanswerable questions of its narrative.  There are many layers to The Nightingale’s story, but at its heart, the film is about class, corrupt power, and how more fortunate humans profit from the misery of others.  This element is elegantly established through the chemistry of the two leads, Aisling and Baykali.  Without the relationship between these two unlikely companions, the film would lose a tremendous chunk of what makes it work so well.  Each conversation shared between the two takes a great leap forward emotionally, and its impossible not to be moved by their stories.

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Clare has been oppressed by a system built to hold her down her entire life, and her anger at this system has finally boiled over as she’s ready to bring her attackers screaming down into hell with her.  But as she travels through the winding trees and brush of the Tasmanian wilderness with Billy, her eyes are opened to the oppression and pain that her guide has lived with for his entire life.  Before this journey, even Clare considered Billy subhuman.  In the world of The Nightingale, even the heroine is not without major flaws or prejudices that have been established from years of conditioning that begin to melt away as Clare realizes she’s not the only one underneath the boot of Hawkins.

One of the biggest aspects of the film that is emphasized due to the minimalist approach, and one of the reasons why the viewing experience is so challenging, is that its violent subject matter is nothing short of horrific.  Specifically, the violence against Clare cannot be understated.  Filmgoing audiences have seen violence against women depicted in film before, but never in the way that Jennifer Kent presents it to her audience.  It boggles the mind to think that the majority of depictions of this kind of violence on film have been portrayed by male filmmakers and Kent’s specific vision for such horrendous acts is the biggest case in point for why it matters so much for women to tell these stories instead of men.

Although the horrors of The Nightingale run dark and deep, Kent understands the importance of giving us rays of hope and redemption.  These flashes of humanity are brought to us through Kent’s practiced understanding that although her protagonists wear absolutes on their sleeves, they are trudging through a grey world that is indifferent to their ideas of justice.  This doesn’t sound much like an argument for beauty and hope wrapped inside a grim story, but I promise that the humanity of Clare and Billy shine through.  Their own personal journeys and the struggles they go through, the change that we witness onscreen are revelatory.  The fact that their world throws more and more roadblocks at them at each turn only makes their victories feel that much more worth it by the end, even when the euphoria fades and reality sets back in.

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Nothing about The Nightingale should be taken lightly.  As much as I want to recommend it to anyone and everyone, there is a responsibility that needs to be taken in recommending the film.  Its handling of the violence and brutalism of this film is important and deserves to be applauded and respected, but it is far from material that anyone can handle.  Serious consideration should be taken before going on this journey with Clare and Billy, and there is no shame in feeling that it is not for you, but if you do choose to go, I believe that you will find one of the most challenging and beautiful films of the year, and an exciting entry in the career of a filmmaker who is already changing the face of independent cinema, pulling it out of the dark, and into the light.

 

once upon a time in…hollywood

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by/amanda clark
Columbia Pictures/161 min.

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Let me begin this review by saying that I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I’ll also remind you that Leo is my all-time #1. I’ve loved Brad Pitt since I watched “Legends of The Fall” at a too-young 8 years old. Margot Robbie is one of my top 5 girl crushes. So it pains me – nearly KILLS me – to write a less than absolutely stellar review of this film. I think I’m the only person I’ve heard of that did not love what others are calling Tarantino’s “masterpiece”. I did enjoy the film, but it was quite a departure from your typical Tarantino flick. What I love so much about his films was not present here. I’m very prepared for my readers to revolt and call me crazy, but this is my honest reaction.

Leo is pretty spectacular as Rick Dalton, an aging (hardly) but still beautiful action/Western star. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s aging (hardly) but still beautiful stunt double from the beginning of Rick’s career, but lately fills more of a buddy and support system role. The two drink their way from meetings to movie sets and back to Rick’s pad in the Hollywood Hills, where he resides by 60’s starlet Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. Margot Robbie resembles Tate so eerily well and gives an understated performance here. I would have loved for the entire movie’s focus to be about her (I think all of America is so fascinated by this story) but perhaps that level of mystery just adds to the intrigue. I don’t think Quentin gave her enough to do in this film. I also hoped that Quentin would take us somewhere brilliant with the Leo/Brad storyline. Unfortunately, we never got there.

As a film buff, I thought the scenes where we see Rick on-set were fascinating, but perhaps there were one too many of them. Some of Leo’s strongest scenes are when he’s chatting with his 8 going on 50-year-old co-star (Julia Butters) and when he berates himself for being a washed-up drunk, only to follow this tantrum with nailing a scene in one take. Rick is clearly having an identity crisis – his talent and good looks are still there, but his hard-partying past and younger competition are beginning to run him out of town.

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Meanwhile, Cliff is out having his own adventure. The film takes place in late 1960’s Hollywood, when the Manson Family slowly began to sink their teeth into society. In one scene, Cliff drives a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) home to the Manson Family compound. What begins as an incredibly riveting and unnerving scene falls terribly flat. I’m really not sure what Quentin was going for in some of these long and drawn-out scenes that didn’t lead us anywhere. That’s his style, but typically, the wait is worth it.

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Blink and you’ll miss an incredible supporting cast that are each given about 7 minutes of screen time. If you’re a Tarantino fan, I’d love to know your reaction to this film. I think my bar was set so freaking high with this cast, concept and director, that it was impossible to meet. There was no way I was going to love it as much as I expected, and sadly, I didn’t. This didn’t make my top 5 Tarantino films (“Pulp Fiction”, “Kill Bill: Volume 2”, “Kill Bill: Volume 1”, “Django Unchained” and “Jackie Brown”, in case you care) but it’s one I would re-watch eventually, and may need to sooner than later so I can try to understand what all the hype is about. I’m just not in any rush to spend another 2 hours and 40 minutes(!) trying.

the farewell

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by/quentin norris
A24/100 min.

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Billi calls her Nai Nai one evening, taking the older woman off guard.  She’s surprised her grandchild is calling her at such an early hour, but as Billi reminds her, it may be seven in the morning in China at the moment, but a whole day has gone by for Billi.  There are sounds and noises coming from Nai Nai’s end of the line that are unfamiliar to Billi.  She asks where Nai Nai is, and Nai Nai says she’s still at home.  The seemingly innocuous statement is a lie, though.  Nai Nai is sitting in the hospital, patiently waiting to see her doctor.  As she tells her granddaughter that everything is fine, a large mural of a serene countryside, filled with flowers, rolling hills, and an impossibly blue sky.  This juxtaposition is the perfect opening image for Lulu Wang’s feature debut, The Farewell, subtly announcing to the audience exactly what the film that follows is all about.

On the surface, The Farewell is the true story of Billi (A surrogate for Wang, performed wonderfully by Awkwafina) and her family travelling to China to see her grandmother one last time before her cancer advances much further.  The trip is disguised with a fake wedding between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend, because Nai Nai doesn’t know she’s dying of cancer. Although when we meet her, she’s in the hospital, her sister has talked with the doctor about her diagnosis, making sure that the results are tweaked so that Nai Nai believes she’s simply getting over a cold.  Below that surface is a universal story about family that has so rarely been told with such melancholy grace.  It is a story about the bonds that keep us wrapped closely to those in our bloodline, even when we feel nothing but distance, and about the secrets we keep from each other, even until the bitter end.

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With one feature film, Lulu Wang has tapped into a story that is so deeply, emotionally raw, that I can’t even begin to think of another film on The Farewell’s level.  Its quiet, calm demeanor is just as deceptive as the family’s lie to their matriarch, luring you into a peaceful state of calm before approaching you with a family trauma that runs through generations.  On my first viewing, I was unprepared for the bluntness of the emotional content and how I would physically and mentally react to it.  I found myself distancing myself from the film on an emotional level, not in a way where I couldn’t still appreciate or enjoy the movie itself, but I instinctively knew that if I let the story of Billi’s dying Nai Nai get too far into my head, I’d break down into a million pieces.  I was right.  During an emotionally climactic sequence, I allowed myself to open up to the film in a way I had been avoiding, and immediately felt my eyes grow hot with tears.

Lulu Wang has crafted one of the most relatable and important family tales of the last decade.  I saw myself in Billi, and not just in the way she carried herself through the film, quiet, insecure, and so hunched over that it’s like she’s shrinking into herself, attempting to will herself out of existence.  I saw myself in her feelings of complacency, of disconnection from loved ones, an inability to express how she really feels, and a fear of rejection that leads to more lies and secrets in order to protect the ones we love.  When you watch The Farewell, Wang’s fictional family is your family.  I wasn’t just watching Nai Nai onscreen.  I saw my own grandmother, and I saw my feelings of failing as a grandson to her.

There is such a beautifully singular vision that is on display in this film that it’s truly baffling and awe-inspiring that this is a feature debut.  We’ve had plenty of fantastic feature debuts from filmmakers over the last few years, but there is a graceful, mature, and tempered approach to Wang’s cinematic style that I don’t think I’ve seen in a film since Moonlight, which is still an early film from Barry Jenkins, but not his first feature.  Like the first shot of the film, Wang continues to find small, devastating ways to communicate her story through us, not through words, but by the slightest of images.

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There is a particular scene that has stuck in my mind and lingered there since watching The Farewell.  After a particularly exhausting day of performing charades in front of her grandmother, Billi is curled up in her lonely hotel room, neon red light from the streets outside pouring in.  In the opposite room, her father Haiyan sits at his window, quietly smoking a cigarette and blowing the smoke out the window, so as not to disturb his wife, who is less than thrilled that he’s picked up the habit again.  The smoke travels lazily outside of Billi’s window and curls around itself, twisting in the neon city lights.  Billi watches the smoke dissolve into nothing, her gaze never breaking.  Just like everything that Billi held dear in her childhood, that smoke has faded away into nothing but a memory, a fate that Billi fears is coming for her grandmother at any moment.

But all this talk of the melancholic sadness that Wang perfects does a disservice to the fact that The Farewell is also incredibly funny.  But just like the more aching emotions in the film, the laughter is handled with extreme care, never playing to a cheap ploy of schmaltz or easy gags.  The humor is indebted to the story, and built into the DNA of the characters.  Laughter is triggered by awkward reminders for the family that the reason for their visit is much more than just a nice family gathering.  The Farewell is funny in the way that real life is funny, especially when no one feels like laughing.

Cinema is perfectly suited for repressed emotions of any form: love, hate, anger, embarrassment, sadness, and joy.  All of these emotions will run through your heart while The Farewell plays out its runtime, and each character experiencing these given emotions will do their best to bottle them up, to not let the others on to what they’re feeling or thinking.  The characters are so relatable, that it will be easy to do the same as an audience.  But once you open yourself up, the floodgates of emotion will burst open, and although its frightening at first to be that emotionally vulnerable in a theater, just like The Farewell’s final outburst of feeling, the act is both cathartic and rewarding in the best possible ways.

 

once upon a time…in hollywood

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by/nicholas leon
Columbia Pictures/161 min.

Director Quentin Tarantino is known for a lot of things. A great writer of dialogue, a master of tension, great taste in visual style, and having a savvy way of subversive storytelling.

One thing he might not be known for, however, is a storyteller of traditional narrative.

That’s what makes his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, such a pleasant surprise. Starring a plethora of big-name actors as figures both real and fictional, it’s a story with high stakes for the characters but also one that is personally relatable for a Tarantino film.

Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV actor of westerns trying to get into film. After a conversation with an experienced Hollywood mogul Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) he comes to a realization that he may be on the down-and-out. This is what starts the character on an almost downward spiral of his own feeling, and a character journey unlike Tarantino’s usual M.O.

Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) is Rick’s stunt double, driver, and his only friend. His journey is not as deep and personal as DiCaprio’s, serving instead to advance the plot, connecting the characters’ personal path to the overarching historical one: that of the Manson family and their crimes, but more on that in a bit.

Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) is the one that ties everyone together, as you see, she is Rick Dalton’s next-door-neighbor. The audience doesn’t spend nearly as much time with her as they do with Cliff and Rick, but her story is just as important.

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The Hateful 8 presented an interesting challenge to Tarantino: how to find new ways to film in a relatively cozy interior location without using the same angle and shot too many times. In this film, he and his cinematographer Robert Richardson are set free. Set in 1969, the Los Angeles of the film is recreated down to the tee, with everything from studios and their backlots, to the neon signs of iconic restaurants El Coyote and others, the two shoot the film with everything from two or three camera setup, to long takes with wides and closeups, and even a Dutch angle here and there. And it is that long take that I view as the biggest innovation in Tarantino’s cinematic technique. Making fairly frequent use of it, it’s nothing flashy, like you might see of Cuaron or Innaritu, but rather constrained, made use of only when it is efficient to do so, such as when the story follows Rick through one of his rehearsals as a guest star on a TV show.

I view Tarantino as more of a great writer of dialogue than a visionary auteur. Yes, he knows to tighten the wire when it comes to composing tension onscreen. But that’s all in juxtaposition with his great writing skills. Often, his signature shot is showing people talking, and that happens here as well. It’s just as good as any Tarantino film but there’s something a little different going one.

Compared to his oeuvre, I would call this is as traditional a narrative style the director has ever utilized: that of a linear narrative that follows a character on a journey. But don’t worry, this is still very much a Tarantino film. There’s still there extremely violent, razor’s edge tension we’ve come to expect, but it’s spread out and paced differently, compared to the usual format that we’ve come to know from him.

Something really interesting about this movie is the opportunity the audience gets to spend with the characters.

Case in point: we spend time with Cliff Booth as he sits in his trailer, eating homemade mac’n’cheese, putting more focus on making dinner for his dog than for himself, and then sitting down to watch some TV. With Rick Dalton, we spend multiple days on the set of the TV show Lancer. Rick struggles to remember his lines and display an affect on the level of newcomer James Stacy, played by Timothy Olyphant. In essence, we see Dalton fail, fall, and struggle to overcome his personal challenges. And, last but certainly not least, there’s Sharon Tate. Tate’s story plays in parallel to Rick’s and Cliff’s, not really intersecting until the climax of the film. She serves as the placeholder of where Rick, but not so much Cliff, wants to be, along with her husband Roman Polanski: Hollywood elite. Being on their level should, in Rick’s mind, enhance his life, bringing him back to his glory days. But as we see in the scenes with her, Tarantino still depicts her as a normal person. When she goes to see a movie (Wrecking Crew) that stars herself, the person at the box office doesn’t recognize her. Even so, when she watches the film, we see her react to the audience reacting to her performance. It’s a great depiction of someone who we might see as larger-than-life behave like a human being.

 

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All this brings to mind the performance of the actors: they’re just as good as one would expect with this combination. Leo fully embodies the pathetic Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt easily fits into the gruff guy that he’s played in Fury and Killing Them Softly. While Margot Robbie is good, I do wish that she were given more to do. Although she embodies Tate overall, she doesn’t do much besides walk around, dance in her room, and do laundry. That’s not so much Margot Robbie’s fault as Tarantino’s.

In addition to the time spent fleshing out our characters, there are also a number of Tarantino’s signature vignettes, although their nature, like the whole film, is different in nature than the way he usually depicts them. His time jumps, nonlinear storytelling and crisscrossed narratives take a backseat to a more traditional, linear storytelling structure. We see the film progress from beginning to end with relatively few interruptions. Occasionally, there is an abrupt flashback, sometimes short, sometimes lengthy, that serves to explain why the protagonists are in the situations they’re in.

For Rick, we learn that the reason Cliff is driving him around is because he crashed his car and lost his license due to drunk driving. For Cliff, the reason he’s out of work and agreed to drive Rick is because he got into a fight with Bruce Lee (who is played quite well by Mike Moh, but written rather curiously) on the set of Green Hornet. There are a few others, all relating to our characters, while such jumps in time do seem a little jarring when set against such a linear narrative, they serve as a welcome shot of energy to a narrative that sometimes seems to drift along with non-events.

If there’s anything slightly negative to say about the film, it is that drifting. With all the personal time the audience spends with the characters: driving, watching TV, and fixing satellite antennae, it will seem as if nothing is happening. Tarantino probably knew this, hence the sometimes lengthy flashbacks. But that’s where the Manson family comes in. If you know anything about Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, then you already know that this movie will get dark. But it doesn’t get dark in the way one might expect. Like many of Tarantino’s films, it subverts events in surprising ways.

Something else I’d like to harp on in the humor of the film. With jokes both verbal and physical, this is much more lighthearted compared to his previous film, The Hateful Eight. Still, Tarantino does have a few of his signature, ill-timed jokes that serve to give the audience laughs and equally make them uncomfortable. It almost seems as if Tarantino has learned to look at people as people, although he still has a way to go. Although my theater found the Bruce Lee scene funny enough, (thereby I would say that it worked) it still shows Tarantino using violence done against the bodies of men of color for humor. See Marvin from Pulp Fiction and Demian Bichir’s character Marco from The Hateful Eight to see what I mean. Every time Tarantino seems to be saying something intelligent about film or some other theme, he seems to drop back three paces. Maybe he thinks he’s intelligent.

But rather than his usual shtick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Tarantino taking a measured approach to storytelling, and that is something that I can appreciate.

 

wild rose

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by/quentin norris
NEON/101 min.

Country music is wild and untamed.  As unpredictable as it is soulful, it jumps straight through the listener’s ears into their hearts.  Country music has mastered every emotion, from unbridled joy to crushing waves of despair.  Wild Rose, directed by Tom Harper and written by Nicole Taylor, could function just as well as a country album as it does a feature film.  From its opening notes, it gets our feet tapping to the rhythm of the life of Rose-Lynn as she bounces out of the prison she’s spent the last chunk of her life in and back into the streets of Glasgow, Scotland.  The film ropes us in and makes us fall in love with its heroine like an opening title track, a catchy tune that will easily get stuck in our heads for days to come, before sitting us down and beginning to peel back the layers of ecstasy to show the wounds within.

Rose-Lynn is scabby-kneed and firey headed, an electric woman who has her heart and mind set on one thing, to perform country music for the rest of her life.  For humans, it is as natural to dream, in any shape or form, as it is to breathe, and Rose-Lynn is immediately relatable to every audience member because her dream runs through her veins and crackles off her lips like sparks of inspiration.  Some of us find ways to make our dreams into hobbies, but Rose-Lynn never figured out how to do that.  She lives and breathes country music.  But life has thrown her a curveball she was not prepared for and still has trouble accepting.  Due to being arrested for possession of heroin, she’s been locked away in a jail cell for twelve months.  Now that she’s finally free, although she would simply go straight back to singing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry if she could, she has to face the music of various bumps in the road, including a cleaning job, parole curfews, and certainly not least of all, her two young children that have been raised by her own mother (Julie Walters) for the time she’s been gone.

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Just as the film is the perfect equivalent of a batch of country ballads, the film is also exactly like its main protagonist, Rose-Lynn herself.  The film and the protagonist are both intense balls of energy, unable to be bound.  Rose-Lynn tears through the streets of Glasgow, and the camera is never far behind her, jostling and bobbing up and down as it keeps up.  Boisterous, loud, and proud, Wild Rose and Rose-Lynn are unapologetic and wear their hearts on their sleeves.  They laugh along with the good times and stick their middle finger up at the bad.  In the quiet moments, when there is no one around to distract Rose-Lynn from her shortcomings or dark thoughts, she’s quiet and looks inward.  The film follows suit and settles down into simple scenes of quiet, poignant reflection.  Rose-Lynn’s personality is embedded into the DNA of the film.  It feels like a direct product of who she is.  The character practically directs the movie herself.

None of this would be possible without the incredible performance on display from Jessie Buckley.  Buckley inhabits the role effortlessly.  She can talk the talk of the freewheeling Rose, but more importantly, she can walk the walk.  Buckley carries herself with wondrous strength and creates a body language that is entirely her own.  When she isn’t telling off detractors, starting fights, or belting out fantastic tunes, a single look from Buckley’s eyes say more than a monologue ever could.  Some of the most impactful moments come from the pain and distance from Rose-Lynn trying to interact with her children or the joy while singing onstage, or the wistful adoration from watching country music performed.  Jessie Buckley has created a magical character who deserves more than this world has to offer, and while watching her move through life, we hope for a miracle to sweep her off her feet.

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But as much as we would like it to be, the story of Wild Rose is not a fairy tale.  Wild Rose understand that it doesn’t have to be bleak and utterly defeating to still be emotionally effective without feeling manipulative. The tale of the rising star is a tried and true genre of cinema, from four A Star Is Born to countless biopics, we, the movie-going audience, love nothing more than to watch a story unfold about an undiscovered talent, a diamond in the rough, being discovered, polished, and placed on the pedestal they’ve always deserved. Wild Rose begins in a way that makes you think it might follow this well-worn path, but it veers off into a much more interesting trail, posing a fresh thesis that isn’t considered enough in this genre. What if there is someone with an undeniable extraordinary talent who works hard to push themselves into the field of the art they love so much, but continue to lead an ordinary life?  Wild Rose reminds its audience that there are other forms of success that one can find when pursuing the passions burning inside their hearts.

Another way that Wild Rose finds solidarity with its protagonist is in their similar scruffiness and short-comings.  Rose-Lynn cannot play guitar and she does not write her own material, but she knows country music better than the back of her own hand, and probably loves it more than any given mulit-instrumentalist that was formally trained in music.  Wild Rose is a film that does not have a particular grasp on its tone or sense of atmosphere, but its pure passion for the lead character and the subject of country music is displayed proudly for all to see.  The film fluctuates between the kitchen-sink realism of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, standard over-the-shoulder coverage scenes for most of the dialogue, sweeping and grand coverage during performances, and one scene of pure fantasy while Rose-Lynn cleans the home of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo).  Each of these scenes work perfectly fine on their own, and do not detract from the film as a whole, but can be distracting at times.

Just as Rose-Lynn is sometimes her own worst enemy, denying chances for advancement or attention to her talent, Wild Rose accidentally shoots itself in the foot a couple of times, forgetting its wonderful premise of small-time success and happiness, to throw in a couple of heavy-handed moments of inspirational fodder, like when Rose-Lynn is invited to visit the BBC radio offices to meet radio DJ, Bob Harris (Playing himself), who can’t help but wax poetic about how Rose-Lynn can do anything she sets her mind to.  Its a treacly speech that we’ve heard before, and one that we didn’t need in a film like this, one that states this fact so much better without the aid of a maudlin monologue.

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Despite better judgement, Wild Rose chooses to go out on a sentimental ballad that finds comfort in familiar tropes.  Its finale is one we’ve seen before, but the good news is that with Rose-Lynn’s fresh coat of paint on top of it, the film finds a way to make this story feel fresh and brand new, a rising-star film for a new generation.  The last song is one we’ve heard before, but with toe-tapping tunes, and Rose-Lynn’s powerful voice shattering our cynicism and blowing us all away, even the most hardened of hearts will hardly notice or care.

 

midsommar (another view)

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by/nicholas leon
A24/147 min.

I’ve never been a big fan of flower people types. They think they’re really cute, with flowers fitted through every part of their body they can, but in truth they just look weird and smug. I have a feeling that director Ari Aster might empathize with me.

In his second feature film, Midsommar, out now from A24, he takes a similar approach to his debut, 2018’s Hereditary. The film follows the path of Dani (Florence Pugh), a woman in the middle of a family crisis and who is in a relationship with a guy who really does not care about her. After said family crisis occurs, Florence joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and Christian’s friends Josh (William Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a trip to Pelle’s native Sweden for a midsummer festival that happens once every ninety years.


imageSome might describe Dani as needy. But what is more accurate is that she is traumatized, and what her boyfriend provides isn’t enough of what she needs. It doesn’t help that Christian wants out of the relationship, and that his friends Mark and Josh aren’t that keen on Dani sticking around either.

But it’s not the same with Pelle, as from the first moment they’re together onscreen, he gravitates to her, claiming to know her pain. Dani is hostile to Pelle’s seeming empathy at first, as the specter of her family crisis looms over her throughout the first half of the film. But this changes once the characters become further enveloped in the festivities of Pelle’s village.

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A village full of people who look like they enjoy being around each other immensely, and even populated with other tourists than our American characters, Pelle’s home of Harga is a place that may seem immensely ideal to some. With days that last well past 9 PM, and the free taking of illicit narcotics, it looks like it might be fun for a time, even as Mark casually asks if they’re making a stop in Waco, Texas before the festivities start.

This, obviously, is a foreshadowing of events to come in the film. If you’ve seen the marketing, then you may have a suspicion that the film has a tinge of the horror element to it. While this is certainly true, Aster clearly favors the drama generated between characters, rather than cheap scares. As I said, this is what powers the first half of the film. The horror elements Aster saves for the back half. It moves in slowly, but in a natural way. Christian and Mark are competing with each other to make a good thesis, even though the village is secretive about their rituals, location, and their names being revealed. This is a natural way to coincide human tension with a bit more of the sinister kind. There are plenty of other moments, but to dive too deep would be to spoil things. Let’s just say that although the horror feels natural by way of the narrative filmmaking aesthetic, Aster unfortunately steeps himself in some classic genre horror tropes that one might think he would rise above. It also doesn’t help that as the horror envelops the film, the family crisis aspect of Dani’s drama proportionately peters out.

But in addition to the mesmerizing story are the acting and filmmaking. The former element, luckily, has a strong performance by way of Florence Pugh. She’s earnest in her misery and sadness, and I feel her pain. Blomgren’s Pelle and Jack Reynor’s Christian are pretty consistent throughout, but they are naturally static characters, playing off of Dani’s emotions in one way or another. William Harper’s Josh is similarly one-note, and it’s probably because he is only used for a subplot. Of particular note is Will Poulter’s Mark. Mark is the jackass of the movie. From the beginning, he’s set against Dani’s happiness, and then there’s his casual disregard for everything sacred in the village. Poulter invokes a slightly campy performance, and at times I can’t tell how seriously to take it. Pretty much, this is Florence Pugh’s show.

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The aspect of the film I was most amazed by, however, was Aster’s camerawork. Shot on location in Budapest and Hungary rather than Sweden, the film’s outdoor locations are naturally lit (read: daytime horror), and the sets are astounding in their construction and authenticity. Aster shoots all this with multiple long takes, utilizing camera movement in one space that makes great use of blocking and visual communication. To gather it all in, I think this is a film that you have to see twice.

Midsommar is, at this point, my favorite film this year. Well filmed and packed with a great story and earnest cast, it is the type of movie that we don’t seem to get all the time, but maybe that’s a good thing.