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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Once Upon A Time

Leonardo di Caprio (right) plays a legendary movie star and Brad Pitt (left) plays his stunt-double best friend in the surprising Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Normally when one hears of another Quentin Tarantino film, some will look forward to it while others will think “Not more blood and guts!” Even when I heard Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about the Manson murders, I too was expecting that and killers with no mercy and no regrets. Instead I got more than I thought. And you will too.

It’s interesting that this is a fictional story of a friendship taking place around a real murder that happened. We have a movie star whose heyday seems to be fading just like Hollywood’s Golden Era. Rick Dalton was part of that Golden Era too. If there’s one person that doesn’t leave Rick, it’s his best friend Cliff. Even Cliff has trouble finding work because of what he’s rumored to have committed. Not to mention getting fired for having Bruce Lee injured in a sparring competition on set. Also this happens around the time of the Manson murders. Some could argue that Hollywood’s Golden Era ended with the Manson murders. Others like Tarantino could argue it ended before.

On the subject of the murders, the film does a good job in presenting the Manson family as people that were brainwashed into being evil. It does seem that Manson created a cult of followers to carry out his evil deeds and were every bit as blood-thirsty as him. One thing we should remember is that the murders took place at the former home of record producer Terry Melcher. Charles Manson first came to California with the dreams of becoming a musician. He was first approached by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson who introduced him to Melcher. Melcher was the producer who took one of Manson’s songs and rearranged it for the Beach Boys. No doubt Manson was furious and that’s why he wanted blood. I always wondered why did they kill anyone in Melcher’s house? Why didn’t they save their attack on Melcher and Melcher alone? I always wondered that. However that scene where the girl from the Manson family talks how she wants blood and doesn’t care answers that question for me. It’s obvious they were blood-thirsty and they didn’t care if Melcher was no longer there. As far as they were concerned, the five at the house were worthy of being killed just by being there.

One thing people frequently think of when they hear of a ‘Tarantino Movie’ is ‘blood and guts.’ Tarantino has developed a reputation for that, and for ruthless merciless villains with no regrets. There wasn’t as much of that here in the film, but there were a lot of scenes which would make one nervous. The biggest of which was when Cliff visits Spahn Ranch just to simply drop off a girl who goes by the name Pussycat. Also that scene when Booth walks into Spahn’s house. Those scenes will make anyone nervous, especially those that know the story behind the Manson murders.

What a lot of people overlook in a Tarantino film is that Tarantino has a love for film as a whole. Many of his latest works, if you look closer, have a style of cinema mixed into his story. The two Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown and the Deathproof part of Grindhouse show Tarantino paying tribute to cinema genres of decades past. The style can be a film noir style, or a cult move style from decades past or a spaghetti western style or even an Asian style. Just look closer. However he does his story, even his most brutal and bloodiest stories, with a style of film genre mixed in. Here, it’s obvious this film is about his passion for the old Hollywood: the Hollywood that was one glorious city. That was Hollywood before the Manson murders. However you can still see how Tarantino shows Hollywood in possibly the last of its golden age in this film. Tarantino himself talks about growing up as a child in Hollywood in the 60’s and being mesmerized by its charm. I think that’s what he’s trying to incorporate in this film.

I know I mentioned that Tarantino’s films are known for have ruthless, merciless villains and that you should not expect to see sentimentality in a Tarantino film. In fact I’ve sometimes joked that the ending of the Hateful Eight is the most sentimentality you’ll get out of a Tarantino film. Of course even in this film,  there will be some type of merciless bloodshed. We’re talking Quentin Tarantino! Despite the ending being as brutal as you’d expect of a Tarantino film,  there are some moments of feeling in the film. There’s that scene where Dalton is between shoots of Lancer and is sitting near his eight year-old co-star Trudi Fraser. He breaks down because he can’t remember his lines, but Trudi gives words of encouragement, which gives him the drive to deliver an excellent performance. I’ll admit I was not expecting that. Another thing I was not expecting in a Tarantino film was the depiction of Sharon Tate. There’s that scene where Sharon goes into the movie theatre to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, a screening which Booth is attending too. She’s thrilled to see her face on the screen. She’s also happy to see the audience loves how she’s making a klutz of herself on screen. That scene of an actress and her dreams. That shows another side of Tarantino few knew.

SPOILER ALERT: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Now there was a lot of concern about the making of the film. The Tate family was especially concerned about Sharon’s murder being exploited. One can understand. Her murder has already been exploited enough with people’s intrigue of the Manson murders. Instead the murder doesn’t happen at all. For those that didn’t notice, the film also leaves out the marital troubles of Sharon and Roman Polanski as well as the fact Sharon was pregnant at the time of her murder. This story is more about the friendship of a fading Hollywood legend and his stuntman double who stays with him through think and thin. It takes place during the time of the Manson murders, but there’s a twist of plot which both Cliff and Rick are involved. In short, we don’t get what really happened in the film. This is another case where Tarantino plays around with history just like he did with Inglourious Basterds and with Django Unchained. Instead he gives us the history that we want. And right at the end, we see Rick go to Sharon Tate’s party. Sharon and her friends are happy and safe from harm, and you leave the theatre satisfied knowing that’s how it should be.

Quentin Tarantino does it again. I have to say this is the least blood and guts I’ve seen in a Tarantino film. Mind you this is is less about blood and guts than it is about a unique transition in Hollywood. It’s Golden Days were fading and Hollywood was going in a new path. Many major movie stars saw television as a domain of wash-ups back then. However Tarantino reminds you of a charm of Hollywood that didn’t leave, but just changed for a new era. It’s not the same, but it’s a charm all its own. As I mentioned previously, we’ve seen Tarantino incorporate many different past style of films when he tells his stories. He doesn’t just simply tell a story, he adds an atmosphere and a feel to his films. We see it here again as we get various feelings through various scenes.

Top acting credits have to go to Brad Pitt. Funny how he’s nominated for the Supporting acting category for the Oscars while Leo is nominated in Lead. The film does belong to Cliff Booth as it is mostly his story. He’s the friend of Rick’s through thick and thin, he’s the stuntman who has trouble finding a job, but he’s the right person when trouble arises near his house and has what it takes to stop it. Brad does an excellent job of creating the character of Booth and owning the film. Leonardo di Caprio was also excellent as a fading movie star. The role of Rick Dalton reminds you that behind the glamor of movie stars, they still faced difficulties such as pushy producers, demanding directors and an industry that considers even the most legendary actors disposable. Yes, even back then, the powers that be in Hollywood still believed an actor was only as good as their last opening weekend. Leo was good at showing the insecurities of Rick, but ending on a positive uplifting note. Leo’s performance as Rick was just as arresting as Brad’s performance as Cliff and the chemistry between the two were excellent.

It wasn’t just Brad and Leo that made the film. There was Margot Robbie who gave a 3D performance as Sharon Tate. She did a great job of showing Sharon as a girl with big dreams and big hopes. There’s also Mike Moh’s performance as Bruce Lee. Note that the Lee family were angered how Bruce was made to look egotistical. However Quentin stands by his claims. There’s the performance of Julia Butters as Trudi Fraser. She’s in the film for one brief scene, but she steals it. The actors who portrayed members of the Manson family were also good as a team. The film also has a lot of great technical efforts like Robert Richardson in cinematography, Arianne Phillips in costume design, and the production design team in setting up the various sets. The film also shows another Tarantino film trademark: excellent music. The film had to have excellent songs from that era to fit the film. Tarantino delivers an excellent selection of songs from the late-1960’s that fit the movie perfectly.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is less about Tarantino’s blood lust than it is about his love for cinema and the days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It also ends unlike any Tarantino film before. Which is what makes this film so unique and worth seeing.

VIFF 2015 Review: Nina Forever

Nina ForeverMy first taste of the more edgy film making shown at the VIFF was the British movie Nina Forever. You don’t know whether it’s a horror movie or a romance!

The story begins with what we think is a dead body on the road after an accident. Instead it appears to come alive again and get up. We meet Holly, a young paramedic student who breaks up with her boyfriend because he thinks she’s too nice. While working at her part-time job at a pharmacy, she meets Rob as she comes to help him after an on-the-job accident.

Holly and Rob start a relationship and have sex together but are interrupted all of a sudden by Rob’s deceased girlfriend Nina now undead and bloody. Holly is shocked and Rob is trying to make like nothing happened. They try and go about it and move on but Nina returns again while the two have sex. Holly tries playing seductively with Nina in order to win the battle but it doesn’t work. Holly tries to learn more about Nina and even meets her parents. Holly even tries to get a ‘Nina Forever’ tattoo like Rob’s but Nina keeps on returning. Even the two having sex on Nina’s grave fails to end her recurrences. Moving in with Rob and changing everything about the house every time she returns fails to fix the problem.

It’s then Holly decides she’s had enough and wants out. Holly goes for on-the-job training as a paramedic and a car crash victim she helps save changes her. She even catches the interest of one of her students. She takes him to her place to have sex with him, thinking Nina’s as far gone as Rob only for her and the audience to get a big surprise. The film ends on a confusing note.

I’ve seen films done before of one person in a relationship trying to rid themselves of a past beau before. However this film is something different. This is a case of one person in a relationship trying to move on past his deceased beau. This is no easy task as Nina would even make clear: “We never really ended it.” That adds to the situation and adds to the story. However the story is something funny that it becomes a case of the undead girlfriend unearthing itself. I know the movie is trying to show a bizarre and humorous story on the theme of the difficulties of moving past a deceased beau but this story takes a bizarre and humorous twist.

Overall the film comes across as bizarrely funny and often unpredictable. Even at the beginning, you don’t expect an undead ex-girlfriend to come up from under the bed. You expect the new girlfriend to play along with the undead girlfriend even less. It’s humorous because it’s trying to mesh a romance with a horror movie with a message about human nature. A very unique combination by the Blaine brothers. However there were many areas in the film that didn’t appear to make sense, especially the ending. There were times I had my head scratching. There were even a few times I may have mistaken Rob’s parents as Nina’s parents or if it was a trick from the film makers the whole time.

This is Ben and Chris Blaine’s first attempt at a feature-length film. Both are better known for their television work. Their first effort is good but imperfect and its flaws show. The acting from Abigail Hardingham, Cian Barry and Fiona O’Shaughnessy are very good. They pull all the right moves in making this bizarre film work. Especially the character work of Fiona portraying an undead woman with sexual desires unfaded. The parents were a good addition, especially with them being the ones away from all the supernatural weirdness. The music added to the film also blended in well with the film.

Nina Forever is an original comedy horror film that will get you laughing and even freak you out. However it does have some noticeable imperfections like moments that don’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless a good first feature film from the Blaine brothers.

Movie Review: Ender’s Game

Asa Butterfield plays child genius Ender Wiggin in the family sci-fi thriller Ender's Game.

Asa Butterfield plays child genius Ender Wiggin in the family sci-fi thriller Ender’s Game.

Very rarely do I go to see a live-action family film nowadays. There isn’t usually one that makes me want to go out and see it. However Ender’s Game was one that caught my eye. It’s based on the novel written by Orson Scott Card.

It’s the future and the Earth is under threat from alien Formics. They’ve already attacked in the year 2086 but their advances were halted by a small reserve force which involved an attack which had commander Mazer Rackham sacrifice himself in the battle to win. The International Fleet or IF was created shortly after to protect the Earth from the Formics.

Years later, IF commanders Colonel Hyrum Graff and Major Gwen Anderson are screening out teenage cadets as part of their next battle. They’re impressed with the intelligence and strategic thinking of cadet Andrew Ender Wiggin both with his playing of virtual games and his ability to deal with rejection in a fake dismissal. Ender is a complex boy. He’s smart as he can deliver what it takes to win virtual games but has a sensitivity as he feels like a misfit because he’s the ‘third born’ and frequently confides with his older sister Valentine. However it’s when Graff and Anderson visit the Wiggin household that things change. They offer him a place in their battle school. It’s after an intimate talk with Graff that Ender accepts because: “it was what he was born for.”

On the trip to the school via the shuttle, Ender and the other recruits or launchies are given lessons of the school by Sargent Dap. Ender further impresses Major Anderson when she asks him to create a mind game for the sake of analyzing recruit’s emotional states. He creates a mouse and giant game where he causes a surprise win to Anderson’s amazement.

The intrigue on Ender continues to grow. Ender is then promoted to the Salamander Army headed by Commander Bonzo Madrid. Bonzo is a fierce trainer with an unlikeable personality. One of his top students, Petra Arkanian, takes a liking to Ender and teaches him how to shoot free time. Bonzo starts a feeling of dislike to Ender especially after he cheats with Petra during a training game and they win with a surprise attack. Ender continues with his mouse mind game where he also has a Formic, an image of his sister, a snake he kills off and his brother in the game. The military are further amazed with Ender and switch him to the Dragon Army. To everyone’s surprise, he defeats the other two army’s including the Salamander Army headed by Bonzo in a weightless battle contest.

Despite Ender amazing the heads of the military, things start to take a turn for the worse. Bonzo is infuriated with Ender after his army loses and challenges him to a fight. Ender seriously injures Bonzo in self-defence leaving Bonzo badly injured enough to return to Earth. The emotional toll weighs in on Ender and demands to be flown back to Earth and leave the army. It’s right after Valentine convinces him to stay and fight that he continues on.

Ender learns of his mission through a travel to a Formic outpost of the IT. It’s there through the image of the deceased Mazer Rackham that he learns of his mission and of his most deadly devise on their ship. Ender then becomes a commander and assembles the best launchies and trainies he’s been working with. They continue training up for a ‘Graduation Day’ exercise. Gaduation Day turns out to be a game but it turns out to be a lot more. After the outcome, everybody is happy with Ender and themselves for what they have done, except Ender. He’s remorseful and it’s only after meeting with one of the Formics in his mind that he makes clear what his next mission is.

The movie is intended to be both a sci-fi action film for the family and the first book of a potential series. The film shows Ender Wiggin as a fighter who triumphs via brain more than brawn. It was once said in a US Marines commercial years ago: “To compete, you have to be strong. To win, you have to be smart.” Ender’s that smart competitor who’s able to make his mind do incredible things even to the point of the supernatural in the virtual world. That was the type of hero Orson Scott Card intended with Ender Wiggin. However Ender is unique in terms of his sensitivity and feeling for others, including his enemies. In fact a unique quote from Ender appears at the beginning of the film: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” It’s there where we understand Ender Wiggin and how he’s able to do what he does. He’s a very unique protagonist in both how he thinks and how he feels and how someone so young can do all this.

You may remember how back in the summer I talked about big-budget action thrillers losing at the box office. I figured that the fall season would provide a better picture for them. It has been better but the outcome has been better for the more established movie franchises like Riddick, Insidious and Thor. Ender’s Game is a sci-fi thriller that is the first of the trilogy of Ender Wiggin novels. Any hope of future films rode on the success of Ender’s Game. The film debuted at #1 but with a weekend intake of only $27 million, it was questionable whether it would hit its $110 million budget. The latter weeks have shown it wouldn’t as it gained less and less. It now stands at just $55 million. It’s unfortunate that the success didn’t pan out, especially since this is 28 years in the making. However all is not lost. If there are no additional films, it may be turned into a television series.

Harrison Ford did a good job as Colonel Graff, even though I’ve seen him play better and stronger action roles. He shows that even after three decades he can still make the thriller. Viola Davis was probably the best scene stealer as Major Gwen. She showed that she’s able to upstage Harrison at times. Asa Butterfield was also very good as the protagonist Ender Wiggin. Actually he’s a major reason why I saw this. He impressed me in Hugo and I was looking forward to seeing how he would do in Ender’s Game. He did a very good job of playing a child soldier that was both an outside soldier and an inside soldier. Also he was able to give Ender more dimension with his sense of emotions and feelings. Asa helped make Ender a unique character. Ben Kingsley was also good in his role of Mazer but lacked scene-stealing qualities. The young supporting characters were also very well done. Haille Steinfeld made Petra likeable, Abigail Breslin was very convincing as making Valentine the source of Ender’s mental strength and Moises Arias was very successful in making Bonzo dislikeable.

Gavin Hood did a very good job in terms of directing. The screenplay was also done well but I feel the ending could have been done better. His best effort is the South African film Tsotsi which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but he already has experience in directing sci-fi with directing X-Men: Wolverine. The movie’s qualities that most stand out are its visual effects and the score by Steve Jablonsky. The film did have some controversy as Orson Scott Card’s opposition to the same-sex lifestyle and gay marriage has caused outspoken critics and pundits. Card has defended his views each time. As for my feeling, I feel Card’s opinions should not matter in terms of this film because his opinions are not made present in the film anyways.

Ender’s Game is an impressively smart sci-fi film for families and young adults. It’s a very smart story that’s very well-done. However it does fall prey to the box office because of its lack of buzz and tight competition of other sci-fi releases this November.