[REVIEW] Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Some have said that Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film is best watched without any understanding of the real story behind it. I was one of those who followed this advice and went I came out of the cinema, I got no clue on what happened. 10 months later, I gave this Palme d’Or nominee another shot and this time round, I appreciated the film better.

Although the film ends off with a happier version of the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders where Sharon Tate and her friends were left unharmed, the bulk of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not exactly about the murders. It is a jigsaw puzzle comprising of multiple storylines on life in the entertainment hub of the world.

LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD

We get to see how Hollywood operates behind closed doors in this 2.5 hours long film. The entertainment industry is a competitive one. To make it big there, it takes a good mix of luck, talents and connections. This was the case of Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a renowned actor who finds himself in need of a resurgence in his career. Later on, we witnessed how his eight-year-old co-star motivates Rick on an Spaghetti Italian film.

We also witnessed the seemingly normal life of Sharon Tate as she chills in the Bruin theatres while watching The Wrecking Crew. We also saw the seemingly normal life of Sharon Tate as she chills in the Bruin theatres while watching The Wrecking Crew. As the audience in the cinema hall laughed along, Sharon smiles shyly to herself and Margot Robbie’s acting here melts my heart!

A proud and smiling Sharon Tate at her on-screen achievements
Credits: https://twitter.com/x_warinmymind/status/1235004584965402624

While Sharon entertains herself with an afternoon matinee, our cowboy Rick Dalton receives praises from director Samuel Wanamaker and his young co-star. All’s well in Hollywood, well at least for this side.

THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD

Strictly speaking, Hollywood is a neighbourhood in Los Angeles and the film industry does not define it entirely. Brad Pitt stars as Cliff Booth – the stunt double of Rick Dalton – and we see him driving recklessly back home. Unlike Rick, Cliff’s house is just a tiny trailer in an empty backyard beside a drive-in theatre. We see a gym weight and a motorcycle outside his place and from here, we get the clue that Cliff is a tough guy. And that was indeed the case when we see him brawl with Bruce Lee. It was evident that Cliff had a passion for automobiles or a carefree lifestyle as seen by the posters of Grand Prix and automobiles in his trailer. And this was a giant contrast to his best friend and buddy Rick Dalton’s fancy mansion in Hollywood.

And let’s not forget the Playboy Mansion scene, the gathering of the celebrities all under one roof. I gotta say, I didn’t know Damien Lewis (who played Steve McQueen here) was in it when I watched it in Aug 2019 and after I watched him in Homeland, man was I blown away by his impression of Steve McQueen here. It is an interesting observation here as we see Steve McQueen spoke of how he “never stood a chance” with Sharon Tate, and later while prepping for his shoot Rick Dalton remarked how “never had a chance” when he lost to McQueen for the part in The Great Escape. Steve chases after Sharon who resides beside Rick who previously wanted McQueen’s part. And because life is just so unpredictable, Rick and Steve got the opposite of what each other wanted: Steve got what Rick wanted in The Great Escape and Rick caught Sharon’s attention at the aftermath of the story.

THE TATE-LABIANCA MURDERS

It may seem at first glance that the murders will be the focus of this story but it is not. Quentin dropped his first hint to us only at the 50th minute of the movie when we first see Charles Manson. Ever since we have been lured into the trap of predicting when exactly will the uneventful moment in history happen. A big portion of the movie concentrated on the happenings at Spahn Ranch. The Dutch angle shots there built up the tensions between the hippies and Cliff Booth. The hilarious part was that Tex and his gang only broke into their house to kill Rick Dalton, unaware that Rick and Cliff are buddies. Yeah, people run in circles all the time and wells, that is just how small Hollywood is.

Their break-in was met with an odd look on Cliff’s calm face. That man really just wanted to have a good time with his dog, Brandy, and his night was disturbed by the fellas he crossed with months ago in Spahn Ranch. They say a dog is man’s best friend. True enough, Brandy saved the day and attacked Tex and gang, leaving them screaming hysterically and bleeding profusely.

In the meantime, our male lead Rick Dalton is casually chilling and listening to the radio in his pool. And his well-deserved break was interrupted by the intrusion of Tex’s friend. Rick Dalton, for some reason has a flamethrower in his house decides to be the hero of the day and chose to burn the burglar to death.

A FAIRY TALE

History has been written entirely in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The gruesome murders which took place between 8-10 August 1969 are altered to a comedic scene. The portrayal of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee received mixed reviews with some considered it offensive and inaccurate. Nonetheless, this is a piece of art and Tarantino can exercise creativity to an extent. The phrase “once upon a time” suggests that this was Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age. At the same time, it communicates of Quentin’s fantasy of an idealised Hollywood. After all, one can reminisce and dream right?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

[REVIEW] Jojo Rabbit

I remember wanting to watch this show when it first came out last year. I was in the cinema and two popular films were airing then: Knives Out and this. Perhaps it was because of Daniel Craig or Rian Johnson, I caved in to that mystery crime-solving film. As I (finally) watched Jojo Rabbit, I kinda regretted not watching the movie in cinema because it featured some pretty soundtracks. Yes I’m a sucker for good OSTs) and Jojo Rabbit included my all-time favourite David Bowie’s “Heroes” or “Helden” in German.

Anyways, if you haven’t already know Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy war film by Taika Waititi, the man responsible for Thor: Ragnarok. The story is set in Nazi Germany in the waning years of World War Two. Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, is a ten-year old boy who idolises the Nazi doctrines so much that his imaginary friend is a wacky version of the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. While eager and enthusiastic to serve and dedicate his life to Hitler, Jojo finds himself unable to kill a rabbit during one of their training sessions. As a result, he was humiliated by his peers who labelled him “Jojo Rabbit”. Wanting to prove his worth and bravery, Jojo later threw a grenade unsupervised. Unfortunately, this accident left him with several scars on his face and a leg injury.

While resting at home, he discovered that his mother, Rosie who is secretly an active anti-Nazi supporter, was hiding an older Jewish girl, Elsa, in their house. So let’s see what we have here: A house with a young boy who reveres Hitler, an anti-Nazi mother and a Jewish girl. You might expect Jojo to report this matter to the Gestapo but Elsa simply threatened him with Rosie’s life, and yes being Jojo the ‘rabbit’ Jojo gave in. Fast forward a few months, Rosie was caught and publicly hanged. But things did not fare that bad for Jojo and Elsa. Soon after that, the Americans managed to break the German fortress and capture the city, effectively ending the war on the Western front.

THE HUMAN SPIRIT

One thing that struck me most was the characters in this show. We have a young Nazi fan, a Jew orphan and an anti-Nazi mom living under the same roof. Oddly, they live in peace (wells apart from the occasional squabbles over the tiniest things) amidst a troubled time. Although playing only a minor role, Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) leaves the deepest impression on me.

She certainly is not the average mom that berates her son for risking his life and joining the Hitler Youth. Instead, she loves him unconditionally despite their differences in beliefs and I especially liked the way she ties his son’s shoelaces every time it comes off. Rosie is certainly an independent woman and she stands fiercely for the cause she believes in: a free Germany. She loves Germany so much, felt the war was stupid and pointless and spreads the “Free Germany” messages to the locals in spite of all the associated dangers that come along.

And let’s not forget our title character: Jojo Rabbit. He is indoctrinated since young and faithfully volunteers his life to the Nazi mission and goals in creating a Greater Germany. But let’s omit the fact that he is after all just a ten-year-old boy. Now don’t get me wrong here. There are many incredible young people out there in the world who have contributed great deeds to the community. But as a ten-year-old, what does he know about the brutalities and horror of war and discrimination against Jews?

I am glad that it is the childhood innocence buried deep inside Jojo and not the Hitler worshiper that ultimately won his heart and mind. The boy did not have to make up Nathan’s letters but he decided to do so to make Elsa happy.

MOVING FORWARD

Another noteworthy point to talk about is the motif of shoes. We first saw Jojo with this untied shoelaces when he first left his house after the accident. We then see the shoes, in fact several of them, once worn by the anti-Nazi supporters who are hung in the public square. Rosie’s maroon heels keep reappearing throughout the film and often not, we see the shoes first before we see her face.

The maroon shoes that stands out from a dullish country

We later see him crying and struggling to get the knots of his mother’s shoes done, seemingly as a way of telling Rosie that he misses her and wants to do something for her just like how she has over the years. But Jojo fails to tie her lace and clasps her legs tightly with his arms as though begging his mother to wake up and teach him again for the last time.

Jojo sits in dispair as he sees his mother among those hung

Shoes are literally the essential tools to walk and move forward from a stationary state. With that said, it does represent the journey one has walked so far on the surface of this earth. While I may be looking too deep into this, it seems that the shoes (and it tied of course) represents the characters’ personalities in a way. Rosie’s shoes are always tied neatly, enabling her to move freely and advocate for the cause she believes in. In other words, she is not confined physically and literally.

As Rosie passed on, her laces are unlaced, but not tied together like Jojo’s shoes when they were at the park, symbolising how her fight for the free Fatherland has sadly cost her life.

The ballet shoes of Jojo’s deceased older sister, Inge

SEEING IS BELIEVING

They always say that “seeing is believing” and in this film, this was the case for Jojo when the invasion of Allied forces into Germany shattered the way he looked at war through his rose-coloured glasses. Having never battled on the front lines (of course), Jojo would never understand how war really is like and he really wanted to. Surely the idea of becoming a stronger nation is enticing and favoured by any patroitic citizen. But Jojo has not realised the cost (or cause) for it. The chance has come for him to serve his nation but when he finally experiences it, he is paralysed with shock and he fled like he first did in Hitler Youth Training Camp. War is no child’s play and more that but rather deafening explosions, flying bullets and grenades, and innocent civilians shot dead in the crossfire.

This brings me to another point: the imaginary Hitler played by the director himself. It is remarkable how for Jojo, the Nazi ideals have manifested themselves into the very form of Hitler himself. Initially, Jojo followed the words of the wise leader (and his friend) but as he saw the true nature of the war, it is a relief to see how Jojo ultimately stands up for himself and kicks this ‘Hitler’ out of his head.

DANCING IS FOR THE FREE

The whole setting and mise-en-scene of Jojo Rabbit just does not seem like a regular war film. Fighting scenes are at its minimum; you hardly see any soldiers or guns firing in the city. It, however, reminds me of a Wes Anderson’s film. The colours are unusually bright for a war film, as though siding with Rosie’s belief that optimism is the way to end the war.

I would have preferred if Taika Waititi had shed more light on the family, especially more on Inge and their dad. It is a theory that the dad, like his wife, is also an anti-Nazi supporter than a German soldier but no one really knows for sure. The movie seems too fixated on the friendship between Elsa and Jojo. While that is important and primarily the focus of the film, I wished the film had more comedic moments of the boys’ training and propaganda lessons at the Youth Camp. This would allow us to fully appreciate the power of information (or propaganda for the matter) and the importance of inculcating the appropriate ideas to young minds. Perhaps these may show a greater contrast in Jojo’s image of war towards the end of the film.

Jojo Rabbit is not just another war film that speaks of terrors. It is a film that also describes the beauty of freedom and human spirit and in this messy times that we live in, we are in need of more films.

Dancing is for the free
P.S. I love how the characters are dancing in sync with the non-diegetic soundtrack here

Rating: 3 out of 5.