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.

the last black man in san francisco

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by/quentin norris
A24/121 min.

The places we grow up in affect us more than we can ever know.  The longer we inhabit them, especially during our formative years, the more stories of our lives are developed and hidden inside the corners and folds of the location.  There are secrets whispered into alleyways and corners of the cities or towns that nurtured us, and a mythology that is built up behind the walls of the structures we call our homes.  These places may be eroded by the ravages of time, but the ghosts of their former glory will always remain frozen in the amber of our minds, a perfect, solidified monument to our past lives, both good and bad.

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To some of us, this pedestal of our childhood is simply a sentimental issue, nothing that needs to be fought for, because it simply belongs to us.  But for others, this is also a political issue, one that follows them everywhere, in a city that is consistently being taken away from them, one block at a time.  In today’s America, this is a problem appearing in more and more lives of its citizens, and as gentrification becomes more of a problem, we can see this issue garnering more attention through the medium of film.

Last year, we had two films set in Oakland, California.  Both Blindspotting and Sorry To Bother You approached the idea of encroaching capitalism taking over their once vibrant city in very different ways.  Sorry To Bother You had a much wider scope, taking on the rotting core of capitalism itself, and how it affected the lives of the workers on the ground floor with an acerbic and absurd tongue planted firmly in its cheek.  Blindspotting was a much more grounded, yet still electric and lively story of two childhood friends watching their city be pulled out from under them in new ways every day.

This year’s film about those left in the dust of gentrification is a love letter to San Francisco, in Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ The Last Black Man in San Francisco.  In some ways, Blindspotting and The Last Black Man In San Francisco are very similar.  Both films focus on the lives of two friends whose histories go back years, watching the city that lives in their hearts turn into something they hardly recognize anymore.  But The Last Black Man In San Francisco has a few different ideas on its mind.

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Jimmie and Montgomery are so close, they could practically be brothers.  They’ve been best friends for years.  They know each other’s every move before the other makes it.  Montgomery has a passion for the arts, particularly theater, but Jimmie has his mind fixed on one pursuit, the home he grew up in as a child, that was built by the hands of his own grandfather, a house that has been taken away from Jimmie’s family by the city.  Every day, Montgomery follows Jimmie into the city, so that Jimmie can tend to the garden of the home that now belongs to an affluent white couple who hardly seem to realize the value of the roof over their own head.  When he realizes one day that the couple has had to move out due to unforeseen circumstances, and the local real estate agents don’t seem to be aware of the available property, Jimmie realizes he can finally take back his home, although not in a legal way.  They move all of his grandfather’s old furniture back inside the house and claim it for their own without anyone else’s permission.  They don’t need money or legally binding documents when Jimmie’s own family blood binds him to the walls of this house.

Jimmie’s story is one of glorious defiance, one that brought tears to my eyes.  It’s such a simple statement, that no one can truly take anything away from you physically if it belongs to you spiritually and emotionally.  And yet, I don’t think I’ve seen anything in recent years that announces this thesis in such a clear and emotionally resonant way.  Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails, sharing the same name as the character, who is meant to be a semi-autobiographical reflection of himself) truly does love this house more than anyone else in the world.  Even his family members seem shocked to hear he’s still holding on to living inside it.  An expression of true love caresses Jimmie’s face when he lies on the hardwood floor and watches dust motes dance in the golden San Francisco light shining in through his stained glass windows.

Jimmie’s aspirations may be narrowed down to one goal, but the vision of the film itself is not.  The Last Black Man in San Francisco takes on the admirable challenge of creating a vast web of complicated human stories weaving in and out from each other.  And for the most part, it works.  Especially when the film checks in on Montgomery and his passion for the arts, specifically drawing in his notebook and writing experimental theater.  Montgomery sees the whole world as a stage and is constantly giving direction to the people in his life, giving them notes on how to improve as side characters in his story, even going so far as to coach two men in a fight outside his home.

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Montgomery lives with his Grandpa Allen, a man with failing vision, lovingly played by Danny Glover.  He and Montgomery are almost just as close as Montgomery is with Jimmie, which makes it harder for Grandpa Allen when he realizes that Montgomery is growing away from his old life of coming up with play ideas and describing late night movies to him on the couch.

Jimmie’s own family life is much shakier. His shares a wavering bond with his father, who is focused more on crackpot get-rich-quick schemes than he is on being the role model that Jimmie has gone without his entire life.  His mother may have left his father for his irresponsible ways, but she is even less present in Jimmie’s life, barely even recognizing her own son when they meet together on the bus.

And the list of stories goes on, with dozens of supporting characters, each with their own wants, needs, and desires, which is absolutely a good thing.  Fellow writers should take notes from the story and screenplay by director Joe Talbot, Rob Richert, and Jimmie Fails.  The world certainly needs more films that care as lovingly for their characters as these filmmakers do.  The problem unfortunately lies in the fact that Talbot, Richert, and Fails eventually bite off a little more than they’re able to chew.  The middle of the film can often feel distracted, overstuffed, or weighed down, particularly a climactic scene in which Montgomery puts on an elaborate one-act play in the attic of Jimmie’s house so that he can communicate a piece of tragic news that he has no idea of how to say otherwise.  The hyperactive film slows down to a halt to focus exclusively on the play and the awkward reception from its baffled audience.  It is a scene that works by itself, but takes away from the flow of the film as a whole, especially since there is still a decent chunk of the film left after that.

But the movie recovers quickly and brings us back to its good graces, finding its footing, and sticks the landing in an emotional, abstract, and ultimately heartbreaking and beautiful ending, which speaks to the most important part of what makes this film work so well.  Despite its flaws, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is achingly sincere, wearing its passion for its city and its righteous anger against exploitation of its people on its sleeves.  Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography bathes us in the golden hues and warmth of the city, while first-time composer, Emile Mosseri’s sweeping and elegant score carries us high above the building tops and lets us look down upon this vibrant world, full of organic and colorful life, a flame that refuses to die out.  Its only flaw is that it cares too much to leave any of the lovingly crafted film on the cutting room floor, and that’s an admirable failure, no matter what.

 

midsommar

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by/quentin norris
A24/147 min.

The opening of Ari Aster’s second feature film, Midsommar, is desolate and cold, wrapped in the middle of a wintry night, when Florence Pugh’s Dani finds herself inside a nightmare, a family tragedy that seems like it could never happen, the kind that one only imagines in the darkest recesses of their minds when creating the worst possible scenario.  The only comfort she can find is in the arms of her unempathetic boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).  As she sobs uncontrollably, and he stares into the middle distance, unsure of what to do, the snow outside gently drifts by the window, blown by the winds of change.  Winter can only last for so long.  Summer is on its way, and with the new season, comes cleansing.

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In Aster’s first film, Hereditary, a particular nerve was struck and analyzed.  Aster dissected grief in its purest form, in the complicated feelings of losing a mother figure that you had difficulty loving, and losing your child to the cruelest forms of nature itself.  Aster returns to grief yet again in Midsommar, but this time, the grief is not for the departure of a loved one, but for a relationship that has run its course, and is doomed to failure.

 

Midsommar is the story of Dani, a woman adrift in a world that leaves her rattled and alienated after the family tragedy she experiences in the opening.  Unfortunately, her anchor continues to be Christian, more concerned with getting high with his friends than making sure that she is doing okay.  After finding out that Christian and his friends, Josh, Mark, and Pelle have been planning a trip to Sweden, specifically to Harga, a commune that Pelle grew up in, without her knowledge, she confronts Christian about his behavior, but her anger is faltering, because as upset as she is at Christian’s carelessness, she is more frightened of scaring him away in her time of need.  After the argument, Christian unwittingly and halfheartedly invites Dani along on the trip, not realizing that she will actually take him up on the offer, and so they head to Harga, to experience a summer festival where no one knows what to expect and no one is prepared for.

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What follows is a superb exercise in slow-burn horror that is akin to Aster’s first feature, but challenges him in different and exciting new ways.  Hereditary was a film whose horrors remained in the shadows.  Aster’s camera haunted us with the unseen, the phantoms hiding right behind our shoulders.  In Midsommar, the horrors are in plain sight, bathed in heavenly light, draped with feathery white robes, and crowned with blooming flowers.  The horror of Midsommar does not lie in a physical menace chasing our protagonists.  Instead, our protagonists stumble blindly into a community that has been thriving for years and does not care whether or not their guests make it to the end of the festivities.  Their true antagonist is themselves, and as the men in Dani’s life slowly fall away, she begins her own emotional and spiritual journey of realizing that the relationship she thought she could depend on has been slowly rotting away, and only in the light of day, does the decay become undeniable.

Its no wonder that Ari Aster seems to be obsessed with the inner workings of cults, as his own filmmaking style takes on a ritualistic and meticulous structure, like a doomsday clock counting down to an explosion that you know is coming, but can never truly tell when.  The young filmmaker has clearly mastered the art of Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb under the table.  Hereditary’s bomb was present from the opening frame, but in Midsommar, the director succeeds at keeping the bomb hidden for much longer.  We know it’s there, but we can only hear the faint sound of the ticking, as Aster lures us into a false sense of calm, just like the protagonist of the story.  We’re coaxed into a comfortable ease, relaxed by the soft, bright colors and cheery atmosphere. Perhaps this won’t be so bad, we think to ourselves.  And then Aster lets the bomb explode right under our noses as the first big event of Harga’s summer festivities is revealed, and we realize that there is nowhere safe to run.  Ari Aster is a conjuror of images that will haunt me for the rest of my life in the best possible way.

After the Midsommar festivities begin, the awe and wonder is gone, and the dread begins to slowly creep in.  Ari Aster is no stranger to putting his characters through the wringer, and just like in his first feature, he does not hold back from twisting the knife in deeper.  One could accuse Aster of hating his characters, but that is an unfair assumption.  The writer/director’s admiration for Dani is written on the sleeves of the film.  He simply has confidence in Dani and knows that she will persevere through these horrors.  A hero’s journey can never be easy, and the harder the journey is, the more satisfying the ending is.  Even the obnoxious and meat-headed men of the group feel less like the butt of a joke and more like real people you can imagine barging through European cultures, expecting everything and everyone to bend to their own wills and mindsets.

And this is thanks to the brilliant cast assembled for the picture.  While it can be easy to lavish praise on Aster’s vision, it would be criminal not to mention the incredible work put in by the rest of the cast and crew.  William Jackson Harper, Jack Reynor, and Will Poulter give fantastic and darkly comic life to the worst kinds of grad student party boys you can think of.  Their human approach to the characters is a key element in making good horror work. It’s easy to laugh them off, but the audience can still see their worst tendencies reflected back at them.  Vilhelm Blomgren’s performance as Pelle creates the perfectly ideal guide, simply wanting everyone to have a good time, although there’s something menacing lurking under the surface of his Nice Guy demeanor.  Florence Pugh’s performance as Dani is a revelatory experience.  She perfectly encapsulates the pain, trauma, and alienation of the character, while also giving her a sense of agency and determination, making sure she never succumbs to the tropes of the helpless scream queen in distress.  She may be floating aimlessly in the sea of her isolation and depression, but she refuses to drown, and that shows in just a simple glance.

Pawel Pogorzelski’s sparkling, gorgeous cinematography aids in creating the lulling sense of peace mixed in with the growing unease, and Bobby Krlic’s atmospheric score fits in perfectly like an adjacent puzzle piece.  Quite possibly the most effective visual aspect of the film is the incredibly detailed production design by Henrik Svensson.  It’s astounding to realize that this is his first credit as Production Designer.  Every corner of the town of Harga feels lived in, feels like it has some separate story to tell.  The layers of lore and mythology run deeply in every frame.  In fact, if you keep an eye out for visual cues even before the crew arrives in Harga, there are a few brilliant moments of foreshadowing hidden in the background.

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All of these elements slowly helps the film build its way up to a climax that is equally shocking, horrifying, and cathartic.  On the surface, Midsommar is a brutal, relentless tale filled with blood, fire, and carnage.  But Ari Aster is telling a story that goes much deeper below the surface, hitting us at our very core.  This is not simply a story of hapless youths meeting gruesome ends at the hands of a death cult.  This is a story of Dani’s revelation and rebirth, realizing her true self, and stripping away the dead weight of her past.  The journey is intense, and we may not be physically prepared for what we are about to go through, but like Dani, by the end, we, the audience, will re-emerge, shaking, changed, and newborn, cleansed by the ritual of Midsommar.