Super Chill Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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CREDIT: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures Entertainment

A movie that presents an alternative history can be cathartic, and there may be no better example of that than Hitler biting it at the theater in Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino goes back to that well once more with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by considering: in 1969, a pregnant Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family, but what if things had gone a little differently? It must be said, though, that while going back and getting rid of Hitler as soon as possible is a fantasy harbored by many, I don’t think it’s as widely-held a wish that Tate and her baby had been spared. Since the relatability factor isn’t as built-in, Tarantino lets us see Margot Robbie as Tate just living her life and finding the joy in being a movie star, ultimately giving this what-if scenario enough oomph. And on a pure cinematic level, the climactic showdown with Charles Manson’s associates just ramps up the preposterousness factor to an irresistible degree.

Beyond that wild what-if, I found Once Upon a Time most satisfying in the comfy friendship between struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his steady stunt double Cliff Booth (Mr. Brad Pitt). After a busy day on a Hollywood set, a typical night for them consists of pizza and beer at Rick’s house. That sounds like an ideal evening, if you ask me. There are a lot of kooky characters and psychological pitfalls in Hollyweird, and sometimes, especially in 1969, there is also real mortal danger. So the melancholy-but-resilient mood between Rick and Cliff in the face of all that is by contrast delightfully optimistic and downright inspiring.

I give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 40 Job Securities out of 50 Flamethrowers.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Novitiate’ is the Latest Harrowing and Also Inspiring Peek at the Inner Workings of the Catholic Church

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Denis O’Hare

Director: Margaret Betts

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Sexuality and Profanity-Laced Anger That Can Be Suppressed for Only So Long

Release Date: October 27, 2017 (Limited)

An institution as massive and long-lasting as the Catholic Church is bound to be filled with corners that many of its members are completely unfamiliar with. Sometimes those areas are not even the ones that are shamefully hidden. They may actually be intrinsic features, but if allowed to function independently, they can involve into a weird hybrid of both doctrinaire and renegade. I was raised (and remain) Catholic, but I was born decades after the reforms of Vatican II, which rendered the most extreme practices of convents as seen in Novitiate verobten. But even if I had been a churchgoer in the ’60s, I doubt I would have been familiar with the ins and outs of the nuns’ rigorous training. And yet, this story does not feel fully alien, nor should it feel so to anyone of any background who has ever desired feelings of deep love and devotion.

This examination of religious life is mainly told through the story of Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who in 1964 is one of the convent’s new class of postulants (candidates to become nuns) who eventually become novitiates (nuns-in-training). Margaret’s ready acceptance of the convent’s extreme practices, e.g. self-abnegation, has nothing to do with lifelong indoctrination, as she comes from a family of bitterly divorced, agnostic parents (at least Mom is agnostic, Dad is never much around). Her attraction to marrying God is perhaps a desire for stability, but it is also more than that. Stirring in her is an aching for transcendence that cannot easily be explained by nurture (or lack thereof). Setting her up as the novice character to follow in this secretive world is crucial, because otherwise the convent’s frightening elements would feel almost abstract and theoretical.

As the convent is resisting the reforms of Vatican II that were then being enacted, the message is clear that this is not the right way to practice religious devotion. But that historical background of rebuke is unnecessary to make that point, except perhaps for viewers with the most hardened of souls. The training and practices – oppressive silence, avoidance of eye contact, asceticism, confession in a group setting – are reminiscent of the auditing of Scientology, so memorably approximated in The Master. Ostensibly designed to make its adherents better people and closer to God, its true effects are vulnerability and surrender to authority. Overseeing all this is the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who while sitting on her throne of a central chair, is reminiscent of Pan’s Laybrinth’s Pale Man.

Novitiate is powerful grist for the mill for those who decry the problems inherent to all religions and for those who remain religious but point to this as an example of the wrong way of doing things. And quite frankly, it may very well also make such a connection to the ultra-traditionalists and reactionaries, who might see this as a lament for the old, better way. It is a fascinatingly human look at all those urges, appealing both to a desire to connect to a higher power and a desire to not be wrong.

Novitiate is Recommended If You Like: Spotlight, The Master, Silence

Grade: 4 out of 5 Grand Silences