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!

"Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela" (2013) starring Ranveer Singh & Deepika Padukone

This Bollywood movie (directed by the prolific, yet shallow, Sanjay Leela Bhansali) uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a frame; it is also influenced by works of American director Quentin Tarantino and (in my opinion) Aussie director Baz Luhrmann. In a village in Gujarat, Ram (Ranveer Singh) is more of a flirt (Romeo) than a fighter. Though his hardened father’s gang deals in guns, Ram manages a small theater showing porn films. In another part of town, Leela (Juliet) is the spirited daughter of a petite boss lady dealing in spices. Of course, their families hate each other; these communities (the Saneda and Rajadi) have been enemies for 500 years. Ram sneaks into Leela’s part of town for Holi w/ his pals; they fall in love at first sight. This movie brought these two actors together (in real life); they were recently married.

The landscape of this movie (shot primarily in Udaipur) reminded me of Westerns (of the American Southwest), This movie has (for the most part) good/catchy songs, most notably the mega-hit Nagada Sang Dhol (sung by one of Bollywood’s best voices- Shreya Ghoshal- and Osman Mir). In order to perform the fast-paced/energetic choreography for this dance, Padukone had to learn to do garba (dance). The costumes are unique, intricate, and colorful, as seen in other recent Bhansali films (Bajirao Mastani; Padmaavat). There is a mix of modern (incl. ripped jeans) and historical fashions. The chemistry between the leads is obvious; the director had them spend time together alone and at various events.

If there weren’t cell phones, movies, bullets, or guns shown, it could easily be a historical film. Guns are fetishized throughout; this may put off some viewers. The title translates to A Play of Bullets: Ram-Leela. Rifles are being sold openly in the village market, a visitor is shocked to see. At the slightest insult, men and boys from opposing gangs start shooting (like the Wild West). There is very little blood shown, as that’s the norm in Bollywood. Even the chilled out Ram wears an embroidered pistol holder at his waist. The lovers flirt using pistols; it was unexpected and ironic. There are Gujarati slang terms and curses which Ram uses, some viewers/critics pointed out.

This movie clocks in at 2 hrs and 30 mins; this isn’t unusual for this genre. Padukone comes off as confident and natural; her large/expressive eyes are her finest asset. There are not many well-developed supporting characters. Leela’s mother, Baa (Supriya Pathak Kapur), makes a big impression as the villain She has very imposing looks and a rough/world-weary voice. We don’t learn much re: Ram’s father, his older brother, or Leela’s scheming male cousins (who want to succeed Baa). Instead of the old Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (or feisty Anita in West Side Story), we have Leela’s sister-in-law, Rasila (Richa Chadha). She tries to help the star-crossed lovers escape town. Bhansali chose Chadha for her more “typical Indian features and dusky skin” (which is in contrast to the leading lady). In one standout scene, Rasila (who has confidence and toughness) escapes being raped by Ram’s friends! I’m sure that scene will be upsetting to some viewers, though it is a common trope in Bollywood.

Priyanka Chopra dances during the song Ram Chaye Leela Chaye Ram; she was up for the role of Leela years earlier (after Kareena Kapoor turned it down). Chopra (now famous worldwide) is a rather limited actress. I though that this dance was unnecessary; it didn’t flow w/ the movie and mainly involved moving her (quite toned) stomach. Chopra got a more meaty role in Bajirao Mastani. Speaking of abs, Singh was put on a diet of mainly fish, broccoli, turkey, and green tea to help achieve his look. He also worked out at a gym built specifically for him. However, great (or defined) abs don’t equate to great acting. I don’t see the point of having actors (male and female) go to such lengths when their time would be better spent in acting classes. Also, with this type of (shallow) material, actors can’t do much!

"Midsommar" (2019) starring Florence Pugh

I think this film depicts a broader social commentary about cult mindset – the destruction of one’s individualism and systematic breakdown of one’s personality to become part of a “collective”/hive mindset.

To have another person acknowledge your grief, confusion and deep inner pain would be therapeutic. Instead of ignoring it, denying it, putting a mask on to try and be ‘happy’ without help. …the friend tells Christian, ‘dude, she needs therapy’ and he’s right- she does. But the group of boys Dani travels with are unable or unwilling to sympathize with her- the main person who should, Christian, was checked out.

I was also disappointed in how the main characters were handled. I hoped they would be given some depth, but they ended up becoming cliche caricatures.

-Excerpts from reviews posted on YouTube

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. -Synopsis from A24 (studio)

Whoa, WHAT did I just see!? And what does it mean? This indie horror film, or perhaps psychological drama, is now on streaming (Amazon Prime). The writer/director, Ari Astor, explained that this was the story of a break-up. It’s also about the individual’s need for connection, community, and acceptance. Warning: This is NOT for everyone, as it is slow, has a long running time, and has several scenes (incl. blood, nudity, etc.) which will be difficult for sensitive viewers. I heard re: this film in Summer 2019 from a few podcasts, so did get spoiled on some of the events. I was even shocked by the gruesome nature of two scenes in particular.

He’s my good friend and I like him, but… Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you? -Pelle asks re: Christian

Pugh (Amy in Little Women) does a fine job w/ her role; sadly, she is the ONLY character who is well-developed. We can empathize w/ Dani, who suffers a great loss, lives w/ anxiety, and fears being “too needy.” She is studying Psychology in grad school; she could benefit from some counseling herself. Reynor (an American/Irish actor) doesn’t have much of a screen presence, though he is tall and conventionally handsome. He is the boyfriend who has one foot out the door; from the get go, we know he’s NOT deeply invested in the relationship. Later, he tries to “collaborate” w/ Josh, who is more of a scholar and has done background work on the Harga. As some critics commented, Christian didn’t deserve the harsh ending which he received.

Christian and his fellow American pals (Mark and Josh) don’t speak and act like grad students in Anthropology; they seem like stereotypical/insensitive frat boys. Pelle (Swedish actor Vilhelm Blomgren) is the friend who invites the others to spend the Summer in his community; he seems trusty, sensitive and kind. Pelle is concerned about Dani’s mental state; it has only been a few months since she had a tragedy in her life. Mark (British actor Will Poulter) is the comic element; he wants just get high, and to hook up w/ Swedish women (who he calls “the most beautiful in the world”). One the other hand, Josh (American actor William Jackson Harper), has a curious mind and plans to do his thesis on these Harga people.

This film is very white; it’s about an insular/rural Swedish commune where the sun always shines. I did like seeing the diversity when it came to age, body type, and size. There are some scenes w/o English subtitles, so most viewers will be confused like the Americans. A black journo commented that she didn’t like seeing the few people of color (POC), incl. Josh and the British couple- Connie (Elloria Torchi from Indian Summers) and Simon (Archie Madekwe)- being used as one-note plot devices. Was this intentional? Or is this what happens in most horror stories to everyone, incl. POC?

Some things work very well in this film. Aster has a vision and he goes for it full-force (world-building). It is unusually beautiful to look at and the cinematography is award-worthy; it was shot primarily in Hungary (stand-in for Sweden). The special effects are unique; I’ve never seen anything like it). A few viewers commented that these reflect what it feels like to be on ‘shrooms. You will find yourself wondering- how did Aster come up w/ this stuff!? I learned that he conducted years of research. FYI: The rituals conducted all have basis in history- yikes!