MIDSOMMAR (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Summer movies are traditionally tentpoles and teen flicks … big budget action movies and those aimed at an audience that are on a 3 month reprieve from school. We are quickly learning that rising star filmmaker Ari Aster cares little for tradition. Well at least he seems to thrive on twisting tradition and spinning off in an unusual direction. His feature film debut was last year’s mega-hit HEREDITARY, a horror film which was noted in most every critics association Top 10 list for 2018.

HEREDITARY was filled with darkness and dread, and Mr. Aster’s second film begins with a similar setting: it’s a dark and cold night as Dani (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) frantically searches for her bi-polar sister through emails and phone calls. During her search, we realize that her relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, SING STREET) is a bit strained. The brilliant pre-credit sequence results in a horrific tragedy striking Dani’s family. Christian does his best to offer support, but he’s a typically weasel of a man who feels more at ease hanging out with his grad school buddies than providing love and compassion to his needy girlfriend … and he’s not man enough to tell her, despite the urging of his friends.

An awkward group conversation leads Dani to accept an invitation to go on the boys’ trip to Sweden. The purpose of the trip is twofold: to participate in a 9 day long village festival held every 90 years and for Josh (William Jackson Harper, “The Good Place”) to work on his thesis. The other guys in the group are Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) whose family in Sweden is hosting the festival, and Mark (Will Poulter, THE REVENANT) who provides much of the comic relief thanks to his overall cluelessness about pretty much everything related to graceful societal interactions.

And with that set-up comes one of the most deranged, unsettling and bizarre movie experiences this year (or most any year) is likely to bring. Try to picture a Folk Horror Comedy Fairy Tale Break-up Pagan Cult film, which at any given time reminds of MOTHER!, THE WICKER MAN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE VILLAGE, SUSPIRIA, and a handful of other cinematic oddities we’ve seen over the years. It is quite likely the sunniest horror film you’ve ever seen. And that’s a literal description … like the production could have been solar-powered. Most of it is filmed outside during Sweden’s Midnight Sun – constant sunshine accompanied by mostly bright white skin and even brighter white cotton costumes (embroidered as if meant for Woodstock). The daylight messes with your senses and expectations. Bad things are supposed to happen in the dark, not in broad daylight enveloped by picturesque wonders of nature. Although the opening is cold, dark and punctuated with tragedy, the rest is so bright, it almost blinds you to the atrocities on screen.

So without giving away anything, here’s what we are in for: a welcome to Sweden mushroom trip, a Waco joke, a caged bear, a sacred tree, a Powerball game you hope to lose, and flowers and trees that seem to breathe. We also are reminded not to forget the birthday of our significant other, living to age 72 is not really rewarded in this commune, and no one should ever dance till they drop – even to be named the Queen of May. Of course, as with most horror films, it’s easy to sit back as viewers and question the decision-making of the characters, but it’s not like they realize they are in a horror film … at least not until it’s too late!

Ms. Pugh (who reminds of another talented young actress, Haley Lu Richardson) is terrific here. Her character experiences shock, personal grief, a strained relationship, hallucinations, and a shot at revenge. The excellent music from Bobby Krlic, better known as The Haxan Cloak, is a mix of compositions and songs that create the mood for each character and scene. I was so shell-shocked at the end, that I’m unable to confirm that the version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” is that of The Walker Brothers (Scott Walker died earlier this year) or that of another band. Director Aster’s second film proves the exaggerated and diverse spectrum of what constitutes a horror film, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s disorienting camera work perfectly complements a rare cinematic blend of frightening and funny. The cheery faces and pastoral beauty very nearly distract us from what might be the ugliest break-up movie ever.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

watch the trailer:


THE REVENANT (2015)

December 28, 2015

the revenant Greetings again from the darkness. “Keep breathing.” A flashback in the opening sequence has Hugh Glass whispering the phrase as advice to his young son Hawk, the product of Glass and his beloved Pawnee bride. The phrase has a recurring role throughout the film … possibly serving as a courtesy reminder from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the moviegoers mesmerized (and nearly traumatized) by the incredible brutality of what is on screen.

It’s a master class in filmmaking by those at the top of their game. Inarritu is the reigning Oscar winning director for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and he has re-teamed with the reigning Oscar winning cinematographer from that movie, Emmanuel Lubezki. Two of the finest actors of their generation, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, strip away any semblance of pampered movie stardom to deliver ultra-realistic performances in a story “based in part” on the true to life novel by Michael Punke.

An early action sequence is startling in its ferocity as Arikara surround and attack a group of hunters and trappers, and the whoosh of arrows – many of which find their mark – abruptly drag us into a world that we are unfamiliar with and certainly unprepared for. It’s early 19th century U.S. frontier, and just about everyone and everything can kill you.  Providing just enough time for us to pry our fingers off the armrests, Inarritu stuns us with what is undoubtedly the most fantastic grizzly bear attack on a movie star ever filmed. In what appears to be a single take (which also happens to be the number of breaths I took), Mama Grizzly treats Leonardo the way a young puppy treats its first chew toy.  Scratched, chewed, tossed and stomped.  This scene is savage and brutal, and sets the stage for the true, yet still unbelievable odyssey of survival by frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Tom Hardy excels as the calmly psychotic villain Fitzgerald, though some of his early hillbilly-tinged dialogue is difficult to catch. His hulking presence fits with our imagined look of the frontiersman of the era … tough and unforgiving nearly beyond belief. His bullying of youngster Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter) and power struggles with Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) are at frightening levels of intensity. Fans of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds will smile as they recognize the name of mountain man Jim Bridger … though that’s one of the few smiles offered by this 156 minute gut-wrenching ordeal. It would not be surprising if DiCaprio’s mantel sports an Oscar in a few months. He is that superb in a role that has nothing to do with good looks or charm.

A tale of survival. A quest for revenge.  It’s both of those, as well as a reminder that nature can be both beautiful and brutal. Some of the photography is almost poetic, and often reminds of the work of director Terrence Malick.  And in the blink of an eye, that moment is shattered by the torrential force of river rapids carrying Glass over the waterfall, or his taking a horseback ride off a steep cliff (one of the most dramatic shots of the film). The journey of Glass is unknown in distance or time in the movie, but there is no question as to the numerous struggles with the elements and the raw physicality required to persevere. If you can avoid diverting your eyes, there are visuals here that will be sincerely appreciated – even as you squirm, cringe and moan throughout.

From a technical standpoint, the film was shot on location in Canada and Argentina using only natural lighting, and emphasizing aspects of nature that often are overlooked. The sound of arrows, bears, and even DiCaprio’s breathing are profound and crucial to the overall effect, as are the animal skin garments and other costumes. It’s impossible to tell where CGI meets reality, but the visceral experience will be quite unique for most viewers … and not soon forgotten.

watch the trailer: