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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 2018 Review: Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back is about a son (played by Lucas Hedges) returning home from rehab for Christmas, but under the watchful eyes of his mother (played by Julia Roberts).

Another movie from the VIFF anticipated for bigger release later on is Ben Is Back. The film consists of a lot of dark subject matter, but does feature a lot of elements that make it worth seeing.

It’s Christmas Eve in a New England home. The Burns family is rehearsing at church for the Christmas play. Unbeknownst is that their son Ben has returned from rehab to spend Christmas with them. He sees that the house has an alarm system since he was sent there. Smart parents. When the family arrives, they are shocked to see him there. Ben has fun with his two younger half-siblings at first, but mother Holly, stepfather Neale and sister Ivy are nervous. Holly decides 24 hours and Ben must be in her supervision. Ben agrees.

On Christmas Eve, she tries to take his mind off things by going to the mall. The first person they see is the doctor: the one who prescribe painkillers he claimed weren’t addictive, but were. Holly gives the doctor a piece of her mind. To take Ben away from the frustration, she takes him to a store. Ben notices Clayton, the town pusher, going down an elevator. As Ben appears changing in a store,  Holly notices Ben is taking too long and suspects the worst. Holly shouts to get Ben out.

After that, they go to a church hall that’s holding an AA meeting. In the hall are two or three teens Ben deals drugs to, including one that wants to meet up with Ben later and get ‘done.’ Ben agrees, but that infuriates Holly to the point she takes him to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave.

The family with hope the Christmas play will take their mind off things, until they see the mother of one of Ben’s ‘customers.’ The daughter died and the mother is looking distraught. Ben is moved to tears during the show. Coming home, they find the house broken into and the dog is stolen. The father pins the blame on Ben. Ben feels he has to help the family out and get the dog back. Ben learns the dog is with Clayton who’s holding it hostage for money Ben owes him. Ben and Holly go out together to get it solved. However there are people who want Ben dead.

Ben soon leaves Holly on his own pursuit to get things done. Holly takes the other car and searches like mad to find Ben. Holly finds herself in the home of the mother of the deceased daughter. Holly tries to be friendly with her. The mother gives her something in case Ben overdoses. Ben meets with Clayton to get the dog back, but Clayton expects a favor involving drug trafficking. While Holly feels lost, Ivy calls and says she’s able to track Holly and Ban through her iPad. As Ben does the ‘favor’ for Clayton, Clayton ‘pays’ him with a special pill. Meanwhile Holly senses Ben in a solitary location, thinking he’s dead. The story ends with a hugely climactic moment.

I’m sure when a lot of you first heard the premise of the film, some of you probably thought “I know where this is going.” The film I’ll bet you were thinking about is Rachel Getting Married. It does seem like it’s starting in similar fashion as Rachel Getting Married where a child who’s in rehab returns home for a special occasion. One thing to say is that a child returning from rehab during a holiday or a festivity is a common occurrence in real life and something a lot of families experience on a day-to-day level. It’s a story that can be played out in real life hundreds of different ways. Some may be redeeming and some may even be tragic.

Ben Is Back is a different story from Rachel Getting Married. Kym goes through her struggles at home, but returns back to rehab as a stronger person. Those who saw Rachel know that’s the main theme is about healing and the struggle to achieve it. Ben Is Back is a different story. Ben Burns is home for 24 hours in a town that’s full of memories of his drugged past. On top of it, Ben is a former dealer who is responsible for leading other teens of his town to their own drug addiction, including one fatal. You hope that Ben stays as strong through the fight the way Kym was, but you see that Ben succumbs to a lot of the pressures along the way. The film ended with a different ending from the message of hope Rachel appeared to have. True, Ben’s ending was more dramatic and almost ended up making for a tragedy, but it made for its own story.

One of the key themes of the film is that of family relations. Without a doubt, the biggest relation of focus is a mother for her son. Holly has seen the hardest of the issue. She has to lay down rules for Ben during these 24 hours. She is also very suspicious Ben will back to his old ways during that time. One key scene is when Ben is talking about drugs to a teen he saw during an AA meeting. Infuriated, she takes Ben to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave. Of course that was very impulsive and very wrong of Holly, but it represents the frustration of dealing with a child of drugs Holly is supposed to have a ‘tough love’ attitude about it, but doesn’t go about it best. The whole film is a case where Holly wants to keep Ben sober during that period of time, but the events become a case where it’s down to where she just wants him to be alive.

Other family relations play a part in the film. There’s the sister Ivy who’s very nervous about Ben coming home feeling he’ll be a wreck again. In the end, she becomes the one who is best in helping Holly find Ben. Then there’s the stepfather Neal Burns. He feels a load of contempt for Ben and his addiction. When the dog is stolen, Neal touts the whole blame on Ben. Even while Holly is searching, Neal doesn’t bother helping, even referring to Ben as ‘that drug addict’ instead of his own stepson. It’s only until the end that he’s willing to help.

One weak thing about the film is the ending. I know that it ends right at the very moment of the drama, but it does seem like it ends the film abruptly and way too soon. I know directors have two or three alternate endings for a film, but it makes you wonder if this was the right choice for ending?

This is a good film for writer/director Peter Hedges. It may not be his best film as he has had bigger accomplishments in the past, but this is a film Peter can be proud of. Peter’s son Lucas has become one of the biz’s rising stars right now. It started happening with Manchester By The Sea and he’s been on a role. This film is one of two films he plays a lead role in. I have not seen Boy Erased, so I can’t compare. He does a very good very intense performance here. His career can only get better. However the film belongs to Julia Roberts. Even though Lucas plays the titular character, Julia stole the show as the mother. Her emotions and feelings shown in the film are like so many mothers in that situation. She played the part excellently and stole the show. There were other minor performances that were very good like Courtney B. Vance as the stepfather with an axe to grind, Kathryn Newton as the nervous sister and Michael Esper as the heartless drug supplier.

Despite the abrupt ending, Ben Is Back is an excellent movie about the struggles of drug addiction. You might first think it’s a rehash of Rachel Getting Married, but it tells its own story.

VIFF 2017 Review: Suck It Up

Suck It Up

Erin Carter (left) and Grace Glowicki play two old friends trying to rekindle their friendship after a tragedy in Suck It Up.

The VIFF is my best chance to see a Canadian feature film each year. I got my chance with Suck It Up. I’m glad I saw it.

The film begins with Ronnie collapsing by a lawnmower drunk. Ronnie has just lost her older brother Garrett. Faye is in Vancouver having a job interview for a school board job she really wants when she learns the news about Ronnie. Ronnie was her best friend until Faye broke up with Garrett last year. She is encouraged by Ronnie’s guardian aunt and uncle to come over to Calgary. Faye meets with them all and they feel the best way to help Ronnie recuperate is for her and Faye to go someplace for a getaway. Faye decides to go to their old cabin in Invermere.

At first, you think things won’t work. Faye is the cool one under control while Ronnie is outrageous enough to flash her breasts to any car full of guys passing by. Once in Invermere, they try to make themselves comfortable in the cabin. However it seems Ronnie is making herself all too comfortable with every guy she meets up with. Especially this creepy guy names Dale who rubs Faye the wrong way. As Ronnie is getting closer to a guy names Shamus and his freewheeling friends from the bowling alley, Faye meets a guy of her own. His name is Granville. Granville may come across as geeky at first because of his asthma and diabetes, but the two connect as Faye is charmed by his artistic dreaminess.

Things prove too much for Faye as Ronnie’s craziness is cramping her style and her life. Faye tries to have a good time, but can’t deny that she has things to take care of in her life, like a potential job in Vancouver. One day, Ronnie and her friends come after a day of fun and give Faye some lemonade. It’s after Faye drinks it that she finds out it’s laced with MDMA, and just 1/2 an hour before her job interview on Skype! Faye humiliates herself during the interview.

Even though Faye is given a second interview days from now, Faye appears to be the one falling apart now. It’s not just about the interview and dealing with Ronnie. It’s because Faye is having trouble dealing with Garrett’s death. She can’t handle that she didn’t answer the call from Garrett’s phone just hours before he died. She came to Invermere with Garrett’s ashes and two envelopes from Garrett: one for her and one for Ronnie. She open’s Ronnie’s envelope instead. Even hearing info about Garrett from a woman names Alex who works at the town ice cream parlor makes things all that more frustrating for Faye.

Then the two decide to hold a party at the cabin. All of their Invermere friends are invited and they all show up, including shady Dale and his mud-filled inflatable pool for mud wrestling. Ronnie’s in a partying mood but Faye is having issues. It’s still all about Garrett. Spending time with Granville doesn’t make things easier and talking with Alex makes things worse. Then Ronnie films out what Faye did with her letter. She confronts Faye with harsh words about the phone call from Garrett’s phone. This leads to a fist fight where they both end up in the pool of mud. But after that, the two suddenly make peace and resolve all that happened. Even the opened letter. It turns out Garrett was a controlling person in his life and tried to control both of them. Faye and Ronnie pack up with Ronnie being in great spirits and not looking as troubled as she was at the beginning. They promise to get together again soon.

At first, I found this comedy entertaining. Then I did a bit of thinking. This is a kind of comedy that I can see the script working in Hollywood. Have you seen a lot of the Hollywood comedies in theatres now? They’re pretty dreadful, eh? They’re relying too much on jokes with shock value and even lewd or crude one-liners to get a laugh. They make you think they’re that desperate for laughs. This comedy doesn’t need to rely on one-liners or crude jokes. All it has to rely on are the characters and the scenarios to make this work. That’s what made this comedy work. We have a bizarre situation of two friends who are two opposites going away to a resort town to help one recover from her brother’s death. The other friend has unresolved issues over his death too. The mix of the two causes havoc, but it all ends when they get into a fight where they accidentally end up in the mud wrestling pool. Then the friendship is rekindled and they’re both able to make peace with his death. To think Hollywood couldn’t think this up, but Canadians did!

The film is also about ironies. The two girls are complete opposites. You first wonder how on earth they became friends in the first place. You first think Granville is a nerdy guy, but he becomes the perfect one for Faye. There are even times later on when you wonder which of the two are having a harder time dealing with Garrett’s death.  It’s the fistfight that becomes the turning point where Faye and Ronnie are finally able to resolve things and go back to being the good friends they were. In the end, both get over his death when they come to terms with what a control freak he was in his lifetime. Even seeing Ronnie toss Garrett’s ashes off a cliff with them still in the jar is a bit of comedic irony too.

One thing about the film is that it doesn’t try to mess with the crowd too much. The subject of death and how Ronnie’s family is full of cancer-related deaths even makes you wonder if this would become a tragedy soon, but it doesn’t. It’s able to take a dark troubling matter and turn it into a good comedy. It also won’t get too manipulative. One thing you’ll notice is that there are no flashbacks to when Garrett was alive, nor are there scenes of Garrett coming from nowhere to talk to either of the two. Another thing about this film is that the story lines are placed out very well. I’ll admit the film starts on a scene that makes you think it could have been given another take, but the film gets better over time and the whole story is kept consistent from start to finish.

This film directed by Jordan Canning and written by Julia Hoff was very well-done and well put-together, even more than most Hollywood comedies nowadays. This is kudos for Julia because this is her first screenplay for a feature-length film. Erin Carter did a great job as Faye and Grace Glowicki was great as Ronnie. The film needed them to be in their characters to make it work, but they were able to keep their roles from being one-dimensional. I addition, they had the right chemistry together to make this story work on screen. Dan Beirne was also very good portraying the misfit Granville who wins Faye’s love. Toby Marks was also great as Alex: the one caught in the middle between Faye and Garrett.

Suck It Up is a Canadian-made comedy that is way better-done than most of today’s Hollywood comedies. It starts out sluggish and even may appear to tread into ‘drama territory’ at times, but it ends on the right note.

 

VIFF 2016 Review: All Of A Sudden (Auf Einmal)

all-of-a-sudden

Sebastian Hulk plays a man accused and his world falling apart in All Of A Sudden.

All Of A Sudden is a story of a crime mystery that leaves you wondering what the truth is.

The film begins with a party with many adults. A man named Karsten sees a woman named Anna at his home. He gives her a cupcake with a candle and sings her Happy Birthday. Then she gets sick. Karsten runs to the town clinic to seek help but it’s closed. Upon returning home, it’s too late. She’s dead.

His parents offer him relief at their home along with his girlfriend Laura. Unfortunately more information unfolds.  Anna’s widower has Karsten charged with wrongful death. A video from a smartphone of Judith–one of the friends of Laura and Karsten–shows Karsten talking to Anna at the party just shortly before her death. Karsten is constantly questioned about why he left to run to a medical clinic instead of calling emergency. Because of the turn of events and sudden findings, Karsten is demoted at his job and Laura leaves him feeling she’s betrayed. Karsten’s relationship with his parents even becomes heated.

One day Karsten just leaves for a hike just to get away from it all only to be found by his best friend with the news. Anna’s husband has dropped the charges. Karsten is shocked and wonders why. He confronts her husband Andrej to find out why. Only Karsten knows why, much to Andrej’s disappointment. Karsten goes back to his job and demands he be returned to his original position or else he will sue. Karsten meets with Judith ‘intimately’ only to set the record straight with her and the video. Finally it looks like Karsten has his life back together.

The most unique thing about this film is how it tells the story. It presents the events as they unfold and it tosses the opinions from others around Karsten. It’s almost as if you’re a part of the situation yourself and you’re led to draw your own conclusions. I’ll admit that when I first saw this, I was ready to draw my conclusion that he was responsible for this. He appeared criminally negligent. Like why did he run to the clinic when he could have called 911 instead? Did he do it to hide from Laura that he was with another woman at the time? They’ll leave you questioning. Even that video Judith took of Anna during the night with Karsten will leave you guessing.

Just as unique about it is how it took that one break, when Andrej decides to drop the charges, that Karsten becomes a changed person. He first comes across as a man who’s all together at the beginning. Then he comes across as a victim, like the world is against him. Then after this sudden reversal, Karsten soon becomes a man who settles the score with those who did him wrong. It’s like a complete change of character and traits I didn’t see in Karsten before. In order to make such a major change of character, the actor had to make this work. I feel Karsten’s change of character came off well. It was drawn out longer than I feel it should have but it worked.

In retrospect I think this story of Karsten and Anna can come across as any crime story. Any situation can lead one to believe certain things. Any set of facts you know and facts you don’t know can cause you to draw your own conclusions. Anyone in the same situation like Karsten can easily be preyed upon by others. No surprisingly the victim in all this can easy ask themselves: “Why is the whole world against me?” However it just takes that one change of fortune for a person to become a changed person the same way it happened to Karsten. I guess that’s the trick of the film. It takes Karsten’s story and shows how it’s so much like many situations before it.

Turkish-German director Asli Ozge writes, directs and edits a very good thought-provoking film. Without a doubt, the film belonged to Sebastian Hulk. This was Karsten’s story and the whole film rested on Hulk delivering the performance of Sebastian in the right manner. Hulk did a very good job of acting without having to be overdramatic. There were also excellent performances by Julia Jentsch as the girlfriend struggling with the situation and Luise Heyer as two-faced Judith.

All Of A Sudden is a unique story. It presents a before-and- after story that will lead one to draw their own conclusion. It really makes you think.