4 1/2 Stars Movies

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

Nowadays, I am to the point where very few film makers are able to still deliver me with shock and awe. Some of them are still working, like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Quintin Tarantino. With only eight previous movies to his (directorial) credit, his newest one, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is one of his more (somewhat) subtle films, but is still nevertheless a borderline masterpiece, riddled with plenty of the expected humor only QT could provide.

While the setting is in the title, the time is 1969. We soon meet former TV star, now fading movie actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio, who, like Tarantino, is in his first film in four years). Never feeling that the public has ever forgave him for leaving TV for film, he is heading for a mid life crisis. The only solid support he has is his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). His dream of making it big are only escalated when he realizes he is living next to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), actress of filmmaker Roman Polanski (who would later go on to have his own dark history).

Of course, being a Tarantino film, the movie is not at all as simple as that. From lead roles to the smallest of supporting (more on the cast in a bit), every character is as deeply developed as need be. This can be seen especially when Cliff is paying a visit to the old Spahn Ranch, where he used to shoot old westerns. It has now been taken by the Manson “family” (“Charlie’s gonna dig you.”). Even those on screen with no lines seem like they have their own back story.

The old saying “There are no small parts…only small actors” has always applied to a Tarantino film. As to be expected, no one here gives a bad performance. Just a few of the actors include Dakota Fanning as one of the main Manson girls, Damon Herriman as Charles Manson, Bruce Dern as the old Spahn Ranch owner, Emile Hisch as Tate’s friend Jay Sebring, Al Pacino (!) as a studio executive, and the late Luke Perry (in his final role) as one of the actors on set. We also get roles from normal Tarantino faces such as Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen.

It also helps that (as in all his films), there are countless scenes that nearly live as their own small films (which helps when some of the scenes are about filming). My favorite involves the scenes between Rick and a young upcoming child actress (an absolutely delightful young talent named Julia Butters). The chemistry between her and DiCaprio is truly special. Yet the one who steals the film is Pitt. His unparralled charm and delicious line delivery are truly mesmerizing. He truly should get some awards consideration here.

Another key aspect in the film is what Tarantino may be better at then any other working director: a solid soundtrack. As someone who grew up listening to “oldies” (shout out to my parents), I can say that most of these are songs I had heard at one point or another, but forgot the name of (with the main exception being the use of Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson). We don’t get what would be considered “the best” of the 1960s, but we do get the perfectly placed songs in accordance with the story. These include hits from Paul Revere & the Raiders, Bob Seger, The Rolling Stones, the Box Tops, and Neil Diamond.

The relationship between DiCaprio and Pitt is the true heart of the film (Tarantino has said they are the most dynamic film duo since Paul Newman and Robert Redford.) We see this at the beginning as Cliff must drive Rick around, offering his sunglasses to Rick as he breaks down in tears. The only other real relationship Cliff has in the film is with his dog (love that dog). It truly brings out a cinema friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). The same could also be said for Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity”.

Parents, it is Tarantino, so there is virtually no way this film is for kids. Though the violence is somewhat toned down (at least compared to his other films), the scenes that do show violence is really graphic. Add in the language and the sexual dialogue (though there is no nudity, there is one scene with a younger teen in a car with an older character that is rather disturbing, even though it does not go anywhere further), and you have a movie that deserves its R rating.

Despite some minor flaws (there are some scenes, especially with Margot Robbie, that drag on a bit long), this is another Tarantino classic, proving that originality still exists in film. In my years as a movie goer, he is one of  the select few who (like Cliff) have stuck closer than a brother.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
1 1/2 Stars Movies

The Lion King (2019)

I have a working theory that everyone has one film that was the staple of their childhood. Sure, a child would have seen many a film in their youth, but there is still one that stands above the rest. For my little siblings, these ranged from Space Jam (1996), Spider-Man (2002), Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), and Dolphin Tale (2011). Without a doubt, mine was 1994’s highest grosser, The Lion King. I have seen over a 1000 movies or so, and can safely say that I have seen The Lion King more times that any other (the only possible close second would be the 1980 comedy masterpiece Airplane!). I even knew the struggles of the SNES video game of the film (it took me years to finally beat “I just can’t wait to be king” without using the cheat on the options menu.) In short, my expectations for the live action remake of The Lion King were exceedingly high.

The plot is unchanged (if you have not seen the original, I don’t know what could be holding you back). The kingdom has a new future king born in Simba (JD McCrary), who lionizes (pun intended) his dad Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only returning actor from the original), unaware of his scheming Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) planning to reclaim his right to the thrown. After tragedy strikes, Simba runs away, makes friends with Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen), and realizes he needs to return to take his place in “The Circle of Life”.

As stated before, my expectations were as high as ever. Sadly, they were (for the most part) not met. First the voice acting. It is true you cannot have anyone other than James Earl Jones (owner of one of the most notable voices in history) playing Mufasa, and he is basically as iconic as he was a quarter century ago (though age has made him sound more of a grandfather figure). However, you want to know who also has an iconic voice? The original animated Scar (arguably one of the top five or so best Disney villains), brought impeccably to life by Jeremy Irons (Ejiefor is undoubtedly a talented actor, but he can’t fit in the shoes that Irons left). The same could be said by the animated films’ vocals by Whoopi Goldberg (Shenzi), Cheech Marin (Bonzai), Rowan Atkinson (Zazu), Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Young Simba) and Matthew Broderick (Adult Simba).

The new film has (somewhat) notable performances, including the voice of Adult Simba played by the immensely talented Donald Glover and his love interest Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter). John Oliver also does his own unique take on Zazu. There is also some nicely done chemistry between Eichner and Rogen as the duo behind the immortal “Hakuna Matata” (Eichner manages to make the role his own, even after it was played uncannily in the animated film by the great Nathan Lane). Their take on how to create a “distraction” at the end of the film is just as funny and memorable as the one from the animated film.

One thing that I (or anyone) cannot argue about is the visuals. This is as close to a live action retelling of the pride lands as we can ever get, and all the credit goes to director Jon Favreau (who, along with the original Iron Man, also directed the 2016 live action version of The Jungle Book) and his team of technicians. The effects are nothing short of extraordinary (if you think you know what it is like to see a lion eat bugs, think again).

Proverbs 19:21 says that “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails”. After his father’s death (like I said, who did not see the original by now?), Simba runs away from his problems (to be fair, Scar manipulated him to). He tries to take it easy and have “no worries”, but his past does catch up with him. Then (with the help of the ever-wise Rafiki), he sees his true purpose: to take his place as king. It reminds me a bit of Jonah, running away from God, only to realize his fault later on before returning. Something we have all done at one point or another (minus the whole being swallowed by a whale).

Parents, there is nothing new added to the live action that was not in the original. If your kids have seen the original, they can see this film (though the darker moments are still there).

There is a lingering question for The Lion King remake: If the original was not broke, why try to fix it? Undoubtedly, the answer is to make money, but that does not make it any easier to digest. We have many (and I mean many) more remakes of Disney classics on the way (Mulan, The Lady and the Tramp, and The Little Mermaid, just to name a few). It reminds me of a speech from 1993’s Jurassic Park, given by Dr. Malcom (Jeff Goldblum). After viewing the park, he is telling those at the table (as well as the audience) of the dangers of this endeavor. He utters one statement that perfectly sums up my reaction to Disney remakes.

“The were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that the didn’t stop to think if they should.”


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

4 1/2 Stars Movies

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

The turn of the century was also the turn for me as a moviegoer. I began seeing that stuff happened behind the camera as much as in front of the camera (it also helped that DVDs came into the full). There were so many questions I had to ask the likes of names like Spielberg and Lucas. Still, I like to think that there is some bit of me that is naïve enough to believe that what I was seeing on screen was real. Which brings us to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a movie I still refuse to see what happened behind the scenes.

Set in the (unspecified) past of China, the film starts with the reunion of sword master Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow) and his partner/friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). He has returned from a long time of meditation, realizing the ways of fighting are behind him as he looks towards a future of peace and prosperity. He asks of Shu Lien will take his famed sword, Green Destiny (one of the coolest swords in the history of film) to be put in the care of his friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung).

During this time, Shu Lien comes across the daughter of Governor Yu (Fa Zeng Li), Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang). She is set for an arranged marriage she is not looking forward to and tells Shu Lien how she dreams of a life of adventure like the ones she reads about in her stories. She clearly idolizes Shu Lien and Mu Bai, and the two women become as close as sisters. All this changes when a thief in black takes the green destiny sword for her master Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Chang), who murdered the former master of Mu Bai.

I know the film is almost two decades old (!), but it is still a film that (like most films) does not deserve to be spoiled.  Certain characters are in different aspects of life, but are still learning despite their ages. One thing the film also reminds us of is the role of teachers. When Mu Bai notices the thief, he is impressed in knowing that they have learned his martial arts style (this is because of a book the thief had read in the past).

All this, however, would not substitute for a guiding hand to explain why the words were written in the first place. It is like having a young person given a bible for the first time, but not letting that person’s questions be answered (or worse still, being given the wrong answers).

The thief is clearly rebellious, unable to admit they are lost (“No growth without assistance.”). This is not all their fault (Jade Fox is clearly a false teacher). It is basically like that of Anakin Skywalker (from Star Wars). He started off well, only to be seduced by Palpatine (aka the emperor) and the dark side. Both try to be better than the teacher, which is never a recipe for success (“The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” – Luke 6:40). The key part of the verse is “fully trained”.

Parents, the film does include one flash back sequence which has a moment where two characters sleep together. Nothing is fully shown aside from some extreme kissing. There is also (of course) some intense action and some violence (rather mild though considering what is in movies and TV shows nowadays). The PG-13 rating is rightly applied here, but mature middle schoolers may be okay.

Of course, what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is mainly known for is being one of the first films to introduce “wire fu” to American audiences (basically stunts on wires, then removing the wires digitally). The result concludes with one of the more beautiful films of the 21st century, paving the way for other films like Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). Words cannot do justice to describe the scenes: they are handled with the same amount of care, grace, and determination as a Fred Astaire dance segment.

Yes, the films are foreign, meaning you have to read subtitles (I feel the utmost pity for people who can’t watch a movie because they need to read subtitles), but that does not make the message of the film any less palpable. As Li Mu Bai would say, give yourself up and find yourself again.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
4 Stars Movies

Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

For those who are suffering from film fatigue of the superhero genre, you can at least rest a little easy knowing that Spider-Man: Far from Home (the ending of Phase Three of the MCU) is the last we will see for at least a year. For those who are fans (such as yours truly), it is another (somewhat) solid entry into the MCU, and an even deeper dive into the world of Spider-Man.

Taking place just months after Avengers: Endgame (meaning if you have not seen it, stop reading now, because it is impossible to review this film without talking about the fall out of Endgame), Peter Parker (Tom Holland, proving again he is the best Spidey to date) returns to high school after the reverse of Thanos’s snap (called the “blip”) from five years ago. While Peter and many of his classmates did return, those that stayed still aged five years older. He still tries to be the “friendly neighborhood” webslinger, but is soon thrown into the position of having to fill the shoes of his late mentor (and father figure) Tony Stark/Iron Man. This is apparent as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) attempts to call Parker, only to be ghosted (“You don’t ghost Nick Fury!”) It also does not help that his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is starting a budding romance with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). In short, Peter is in desperate need of a vacation.

 He is on his way for a class trip to Venice, where he looks forward to hanging out with his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon), and may even get to spend time with his crush M.J. (Zendaya), who has a bit of a slightly darker/awkward side than her past cinema portrayals. This of course is put on the side when big water and fire monsters (called Elementals) are terrorizing the locals, meaning Peter will have to join in with Fury, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and the one fighting the monsters from the start, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who becomes known as Mysterio.

All the actors are top notch. Gyllenhaal (who I still think is underrated as an actor) works off of the younger Holland, and there are times it is hard to tell who is the veteran thespian. As for Zendaya, I admit I was very worried when I heard she would take on the role of M.J. (though not entirely Mary Jane, she may as well be). The chemistry between her and Holland is so palpable that I admit to being totally wrong. While they are not teenagers in real life (both are in their early twenties), they look, sound, and act like actual teenagers that we don’t care.

As is always the case, the film has enough of those nicely seasoned comedic moments that will have you in smiles and giggles (such as the acronym for the gift that Stark has given Parker). It is also rather amusing to know that, at the start, Peter is somewhat almost oblivious to the fact that he can’t get out of helping Fury. It some ways in reminded me of Proverbs 16:9: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

(Note: The following paragraph contains a spoiler for the film). [bg_collapse view=”button-blue” color=”#ebebeb” icon=”eye” expand_text=”Show Me the Spoiler” collapse_text=”Close the Spoiler” ] The movie also reminds us how we as humans can sometimes trust the wrong person. When we are vulnerable (especially if we have just lost someone close to us as Peter has lost Tony), we can look for nearly anyone who can fill that void, or for someone to share our burden with. While God would certainly be able to provide that person for us, Satan will do all he can to make us follow the wrong person, making our situation end in chaos. (End Spoiler)[/bg_collapse]

Parents, the film does have a little violence and some good amount of swearing (including one use of the middle finger), but nothing else to worry you. If your kids have seen any other MCU movie, they will be okay with this PG-13 rating.

While this is not the best of the Spider-Man films (2004’s Spider-Man 2 was always the best until 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse came along), it still does service for fans and non-fans alike. While watching it, the theater was sold out (unsurprising), meaning I had to sit in the front row (not to mention next to young teen girls, and if you are sitting next to teen girls when the movie has Tom Holland, you can be sure to hear their reactions). The special effects were so uncanny I actually was happy to sit as close as I did. The film will satisfy everyone’s inner spider- sense.

Or, to be more accurate, “Peter tingle”.


Rating: 4 out of 5.