SPOILER-FREE Reviews: “Jojo Rabbit,” “Joker,” & “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Jojo Rabbit

This is an unique movie- that’s for sure- and it worked! It is a mix of comedy (satire), history, and drama from the mind of New Zealander, Taika Waititi, who also plays Jojo’s imaginary friend (Hitler). Waititi (who used to focus on acting before directing) is far from Aryan; he gets his unique (for mainstream Hollywood) looks from his Jewish mother and Maori father. This movie is a must-see for the touching/nuanced/realistic acting of its child/teen actors: Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo), Thomsin McKenzie (Elsa), and Archie Yates (Yorki). Scarlett Johansson (who got a Supporting Actress Oscar nom) does a fine job as the mom (Rosie). Jojo is fascinated by Hitler and joins a sort of Youth Movement (a Nazi-inspired Summer camp). The sunny/bright look of the film is in direct contrast to its themes. The supporting actors incl. Sam Rockwell (not a fan but he gets a good scene), Alfie Allen (from GoT fame), Rebel Wilson (who I found distracting), and Stephen Merchant (a tall/British comedian who is hilarious).

Joker

As a whole, this movie (loosely connected to the world of Batman) wasn’t as effective (or realistic) as I was expecting. It’s partly an exploration of mental illness, so not the (typical) development of the comic book villain- Arthur Fleck (AKA The Joker). I felt the audience was uneasy (incl. one particularly violent/bloody scene); Arthur gets beaten in several scenes. However, it’s a must-see for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance (incl. his physical transformation). The dark/dreary look of the film is very fitting of its themes. As some critics commented, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, Falling Down, and/or Fight Club– I haven’t, then maybe this movie won’t be original to you. I was surprised to learn that director Todd Philips worked on The Hangover franchise. The supporting actors come from the theater world (Frances Conroy plays the invalid mother) or are character actors. Critics have commented on the way race (particularly black women) are treated here. There are (at least) two big twists to this movie, but were they expected? You’ll need to see/judge for yourself!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I’ve only seen three of Tarantino’s movies (so far): Natural Born Killers (1994)- which I barely recall, Inglourious Basterds (2009)- which I thought was very well-done, and Django Unchained (2012)- which was interesting, yet also self-indulgent. This is Tarantino’s 9th film; its a mix of buddy comedy, nostalgia for ’50s Hollywood/Westerns, and strong violence. In the first third, we see the development of the friendship between a middle-aged/fading TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his former stuntman-turned-driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). These two actors have great chemistry together! Rick is somewhat insecure re: his talent, and drinks way too much to compensate. Cliff maintains a more chill vibe, though we learn about his (potentially) dark past about at hour into the story.

The supporting actors are a mix of well-known TV actors who may or may not be distracting (incl. Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, and 90210’s Luke Perry- his final role); the daughters of famous actors (Margaret Qualley, Rumer Willis, Maya Hawke, among others); and also some actors who never quite “made it big” in Hollywood. The super-serious child actor really did great in her scenes! There has been criticism of how B-movie actress, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and martial arts expert, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), were portrayed in the film. Tate comes off as a beautiful object; she gets one really good scene. The (flashback) scene between Cliff and Lee just seems unreal; I think it’s open to interpretation. It has some fine moments, but (as a whole) is self-indulgent, slow, and muddled.

“Humraaz” (2002) starring Bobby Deol, Akshaye Khanna, & Ameesha Patel

…a look into the dark side of ambition. Each character has questionable motives, and the human drama alone kept me riveted through the film. The acting is convincing and the plot has many surprising twists and turns.

The plot was sneaky. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was totally shocked with the ending. They put a lot of work into the dancing, and it showed.

Abbas Mustan [the directing duo] lay pretty heavy emphasis on the villains in their films, and this film is no exception.

This is the Bollywood remake (or re-imagining) of A Perfect Murder (1998) starring Michael Douglas, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen. It was also somewhat influenced by Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). The title of Humraaz (“soulmate”) refers to “someone who knows your secret or someone whom you have shared your secret with.” You can’t skip the songs here, b/c every great playback singer of that era sung in this movie! Karan (Akshaye Khanna), the head of a dance troupe and his girlfriend, Priya (Ameesha Patel), are two 20-somethings who have energy, passion, and talent. They audition to perform on a cruise ship owned by young industrialist, Raj Singhania (Bobby Deol).

They get the cruise job and put on a fun number (Bardaasht Nahin Kar Sakta sung by KK and Sunidhi Chuahan). Raj can’t keep his eyes off Priya. He sends her flowers, invites her to a fancy dinner, and they dance under the stars. Raj is quickly developing feelings for Priya; they go sightseeing in Malaysia (Dil Ne Kar Liya sung by Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik, my favorite Bollywood duo). Priya didn’t want to go out, b/c she vowed to walk barefoot all day (since the troupe had become “permanent status” on the cruise line). Raj decides to go barefoot also; he finds her beautiful, charming, and innocent (basically the girl of his dreams)!

On her birthday, Raj throws a big bash, and asks Karan for a “special song” (Piyar Kar sung by Udit Narayan, Shaan, and Kavita Krishnamurthy). The lyrics fit very well w/ the story. Later on deck, Raj offers Priya a ring. For a brief moment, Priya looks conflicted, but then puts it on, saying “some dreams do come true!” Priya reveals to Karan that she’s engaged. At first, Karan looks shocked, but then smiles and hugs her, exclaiming “I can’t believe it happened so fast.” It was their plan all along- get Raj to marry Priya! One of the guys in their troupe watches from afar, wondering what is up.

Raj takes Priya to his family estate in Jaipur. Dadi (Raj’s grandma w/ whom he shares a close bond) declares the couple will be married ASAP. The family and guests celebrate w/ a sweet/hopeful song (Life Ban Jaayige sung by Sonu Nigam and Jaspinder Narula). On their wedding night, Priya tells Raj that she took a vow of celibacy for one month (b/c destiny had brought them together, as she’d prayed). Raj is surprised, but then says he respects her decision.

Raj and Priya hold a reception at their house; Karan comes to congratulate them. Raj describes his new life and the many emotions w/in him (Tune Zindagi Mein by Udit Narayan). This song starts off as pretty innocent, but we get some lines where Raj talks about jealousy (foreshadowing). More drama (life-altering) ensues. We see more of the violent side of Karan (as in the opener). One morning, Priya realizes that she does love her husband! We get the title song (Sanam Mere Humraaz sung by Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik). From here on (the last 45 mins or so), the movie takes dark turns (w/ scenes that are guaranteed to shock some viewers)!

Are you missing the (loud/colorful) hair and fashions of the ’90s? FYI: Khanna is wearing a hairpiece (as he started losing his hair before his mid-20s). Do you get a kick out of seeing (old) technology? Then this may be the movie for you! It’s around 3 hrs long (no joke), so it could take 2 days to watch. The first 90 mins go pretty quickly, thanks mainly to the musical numbers. The dancers here are also supporting actors (which is rare for Bollywood). I’m a fan of Khanna; his older brother (Rahul Khanna) is also actor. Rahul is seen in indies and TV shows (in both the US and India). I recently came across an article re: Patel (who is now 44); she celebrated 20 yrs of working in Bollywood. She still looks youthful and fit; she is producing movies now.

The comedic supporting characters are mostly one-note; they are present to serve the larger story. Raj’s loyal personal assistant, Mr. Darshan (Johnny Lever) is a veteran of Bollywood. In one scene w/ Karan, Darshan (who is always worried re: “what ifs”) sums up the entire story! After leaving school (lack of funds) as teen, Lever worked on the streets (selling small items) and copied famous actors. He worked at Lever’s soap factory in Mumbai, where he entertained co-workers and earned the nickname “Johnny Lever.” Eventually, he studied comedy and toured in variety shows. In the ’80s, he met Amitabh Bachchan and started getting small roles in movies. Lever is short, stocky, curly-haired, and dark-skinned. He is from Andra Pradesh; Telegu was his first language, not Hindi. In Bollywood, there are few actors like him who have become a success.

“Padmaavat” (2018) starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, & Shahid Kapoor

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from this movie.

Set in medieval Rajasthan, Queen Padmavati is married to a noble king and they live in a prosperous fortress with their subjects until an ambitious Sultan hears of Padmavati’s beauty and forms an obsessive love for the Queen of Mewar. -Synopsis

I didn’t know I would have to suffer THIS much just to see Shahid Kapoor’s spectacular abs! Seriously, this is one Bollywood movie (directed/co-written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali) which deserved the controversy it got- it’s misogynistic, Islamaphobic, and homophobic. One army is shouting and riding through a desert carrying green flags w/ a white crescents (just like the flag of Pakistan). There is a scene of many men all wearing white thobes and turbans doing namaz (prayer), then yelling and picking up weapons to fight in the next moment. The stereotypes are so blatant, this movie could be considered dangerous (esp. given the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Modi’s India)! For those of you who watched Game of Thrones, there is a murder scene very similar to the killing of a lesser Lannister cousin by Jaime in Season 2.

I’m sure some of you’ve heard re: the characterization of the medieval sultan, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh); he is violent (even w/o cause), lustful (incl. for power/lands), obsessive, and animal-like (eating raw meat w/ his bare hands). In stark contrast, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), is peaceful, loving (having eyes only for his wife), calm, and honorable leader. I learned that one of my fave veteran actors (who has worked all over the world), Naseeruddin Shah, is a maternal uncle of Kapoor! Yes, the actor has both Hindu and Muslim heritage; this is not unusual when it comes to some of Bollywood’s film families.

In the early 1300s, an arrogant/confident prince named Alauddin marries his cousin, Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), and plots to take the throne of her father/his uncle- Jalaluddin (Raza Murad). None of the Muslims in this movie are portrayed as good, aside from the luminous/sad-eyed Mehrunissa. In one memorable scene, a warrior named Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), kills two hardened soldiers with balletic/swift strokes of his knife. Unfortunately, he spends most of the movie pining after Alauddin like a love-sick teenager.

When Mehrunissa is close, Kafur is jealous. In one scene, he is washing Alauddin while they sit in a big bathtub (talk about homoerotic undertones)! In the original story (written by a Muslim poet), Malik Kafur was both a fighter (respected general who fought in many successful battled) and a lover. In Ridley Scott’s Alexander, he has a handsome male companion who hails from somewhere in the Middle East; this was based on records uncovered by historians. In this case, Malik Kafur’s homosexuality serves as a running joke and makes Alauddin seem like even more of a freak of nature.

The princess (of what is now Sri Lanka), Padmavati (Deepika Padukone- sporting an unibrow), is first seen frolicking in the woods w/ a bow and arrow. This might bring to mind Diana (the huntress in Greek mythology) or Katniss from The Hunger Games trilogy. She attempts to shoot a deer, but ends up wounding the King of Chittor- Ratan Singh! He admits that it was his fault- he was staring at her (struck by her beauty, not just her arrow). Padmavati takes care of the king (in the cave where she lives- no reason why) while he recovers. This section of the movie reminded some viewers of Wonder Woman.

Of course, Padmavati and Ratan Singh fall in love; the actors portray this well. She gives Ratan Singh handfuls of pearls (which he had been searching for at the request of his queen). The marry and go off to his kingdom, where his first wife, Nagamati (Anupriya Genka) is put on the back bench. When the court priest- Chetan- is caught spying on the king and queen; he is promptly banished. Chetan ends up working for Alauddin, convincing him that in order to succeed, he must have Padmavati by his side! This is one character I wanted to see a bit more of, along w/ his motivations.

The middle section of this story drags on… and on; the viewer is bombarded w/ scenes of dust, desert, marching armies, as well as the opulence (of the Rajputs). Honestly, I couldn’t judge who had the better costumes- Kapoor or Padukone! Eventually, Ratan Singh invites Alauddin to share a meal and talk alone (w/o any men or weapons). When Alauddin asks to see Padmavati, Ratan Singh is deeply offended and says no. Alauddin says that he expected to meet both the rulers. Padmavati convinces her husband that, in order to appease Alauddin (and maybe save the kingdom from war), she will let him see her. Before Alauddin can get a good look, a curtain is pulled down, hiding the queen. This makes the sultan very angry; he vows to get Padmavati to come to him! Alauddin invites Ratan Singh to his tent for meal, then kidnaps him. Though Nagamati pleads w/ her not to, Padmavati insists on going to rescue her husband (w/ his two best soldiers by her side and 800 attendants).

The movie opens with some disclaimers, one being that it is not endorsing jauhar (Wikipedia: “the act of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by Islamic invaders, when facing certain defeat during a war.”) As some of you may have guessed, jauhar is closely connected to sutee (“bride burning”)- the custom of a Hindu widow being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband. Kaushik Roy said that the jauhar was observed only during Hindu-Muslim wars; John Stratton Hawley states it was present before them and was likely started by the actions of the Greek conquerors.

Well, in the last act of the film, jauhar is most obviously valorized! After the fight between Alauddin and Ratan Singh (where the good king is shot in the back), the girls and women (incl. ones who are pregnant) inside the fort are seen dressed in their finest (bridal) red outfits. They are led by Padmavati, who defiantly declares that Alauddin’s army will not defeat them. They walk in a slow procession for some time- too long- and bravely walk closer… and closer to a huge wall of fire. No one looks nervous, scared, or even hesitates for a second- that can’t be realistic!

“Planet of the Apes” (1968) starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, & Maurice Evans

It raises a lot of questions about our modern day society without letting social commentaries get in the way of the drama and action.

The movie based on this book [La planet de singes by Pierre Boulle] is an “Americanized” adaptation of it. Rod Serling did the first drafts of the screenplay, simplifying the plot by fitting it into the mold of his “Twilight Zone” TV series and introducing an anti-nuclear war theme not present in the Boulle novel.

Pierre Boulle raises such issues as balance of power, racism, the role of government, and evolution… 

The film is philosophical, creative, absorbing and scary. Excellent commentary on religion and just about everything else.

-Excerpts from comments on IMDB

This movie tells the story of George Taylor (Charlton Heston), when he and his fellow astronauts find themselves stranded on a seemingly unknown planet. It seems to have no life. After travelling across a desert, they discover plenty of life (incl. apes that are human-like and humans that are ape-like). The (orange) orangutans are the leaders; the (grayish) chimpanzees are intellectuals and technicians; the (black) gorillas are guards/police (or do grunt work). Taylor is shot in the neck rendering him unable to speak. He is taken to a human-ape study lab, where he meets Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee scientist. She notices that Taylor’s intelligence goes far beyond that of any other human she has seen; she encourages him to speak. However, the orangutan leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), sneers at Zira’s and her fiancé Cornelius’ (Roddy McDowall) belief in any human intelligence. He (and his council) won’t listen to reason. Despite Cornelius’ conflicted feelings towards Taylor, he agrees to help prove his intelligence.

As many critics and fans have noted, Heston basically played himself. This role is not unlike those he played before; he is often shirtless, tan, and bearded. Heston uses his physicality, as is needed for a action hero role. There are few moments (w/ Nova, the young woman who will be his “mate”) where his vulnerable side comes out. Zira and Cornelius are quite interesting characters. Hunter’s portrayal of Zira was considered very powerful by many viewers; she is the most developed character in the film. Hunter manages to make Zira what she was meant to be, more human then ape. The intelligent and curious Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) has a bit of a rivalry w/ Taylor (as they constantly challenge each other like males of any species).

Planet of the Apes is considered a pivotal work of American cinema. Modern viewers will be surprised (not only by the ending), but by the fine camera work, unique soundtrack (by Jerry Goldsmith), makeup (by John Chambers), and good performances. After the film’s success, there were sequels, a TV series, a remake and a prequel (2011). There were also toys/models, comics, cartoons, and T-shirts to sell. I think even those who avoid the sci-fi genre should check it out! The Simpsons (my younger brother was a big fan) did a parody of this film, so you know it left it’s mark on pop culture.

Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 2 (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”)

WARNING: This post is dark and full of spoilers.

Let’s face it, Jon and Dany are one of the MOST boring couples in GoT (at least on the TV show; I haven’t read the books). There is no chemistry between the actors, thought I heard they were close friends in real life. One of my fave pairs (NOT a typically romantic couple) are Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwedolyn Christie); they get some meaty scenes in this ep- YAY! Jaime has to face Dany, Jon, and Sansa after riding into Winterfell; of course, Cersei has NOT sent her army. As MANY critics (and dedicated viewers) have commented, Jaime and Cersei are “officially broken up” after being emotionally (and ethically) distanced from each other for quite some time. Jaime is NOT apologetic in front of his (would be) allies, so Brienne (in a rare move), walks over to his side and offers her support. I think Sansa, who trusts Brienne w/ her life, is quite moved by her words and Jaime’s little trial ends.

Later in the ep, in the fireside chat scene, several characters chat, share jokes, and Pod sings (VERY well). Tormund has some funny lines here; I’m slowly beginning to like his character. He also comments that it’s stupid that woman can’t be knights in this society; he has a big crush on Brienne, we know from a few previous eps. Jaime decides to forget tradition in the case of Brienne, since ANY knight can make another knight. Of all the knights (men) in this show, Brienne is the MOST honorable. The big and unguarded smile (rare for this show) after the brief ceremony on Brienne’s face is SO wonderful!

The moment was also an acknowledgment of the ludicrousness of the chivalric traditions of Westeros, which had elevated him to godlike status while largely ignoring or marginalizing her. Jaime, even in his diminished state, is a legend walking into the halls of Winterfell… In knighting Brienne, he not only acknowledged his obvious love for her, but also nodded at a potentially bright future if everyone can make it through this darkest night. -David Sims (Vulture)

MANY people were surprised (OK, some were shocked) by Arya and Gendry’s love scene! Sure, we watched Maisie Williams grow up on this show, BUT she’s now 22 y.o. (her costar Joe Dempsie is 32 y.o.) It wasn’t THAT unexpected (IMO); they have a history, are close friends, and are both getting prepped for the biggest battle of their lives. When they were on the road MANY seasons ago, Arya said: “I could be your family.” He commented: “You wouldn’t be my family. You’d be milady” (assuming that he would serve the Starks). Now, he knows he’s the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, and a valuable player in this battle. Gendry created MANY daggers out of dragonglass, a new weapon for The Hound, and (eventually) a new spear for Arya. They had some cute/awkward moments where you saw their chemistry. Let these young people be happy before they face death!

From where Arya’s standing, she’s an older teenager whose formative years have been spent balanced on the knife’s edge of survival. Her entire purpose has been to avenge her family’s deaths; she knows death intimately, and she is more than capable of caring for herself. But Arya has had no time to behave like a teenager. -Kathryn VanArendonk (Vulture)