"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Midsommar: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A flawed, but creepy and symbolically rich horror movie that is both deeply unsettling and mythologically satisfying. If you love horror movies then go see it in the theatre, but for everyone else watch it on Netflix or cable.

Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, is the story of Dani, a young women in emotional turmoil who accompanies her lukewarm boyfriend on a trip to Harga, an isolated rural commune in Finland, for a once in every 90 years religious festival. The film stars Florence Pugh as Dani, with supporting turns from Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter.

Midsommar describes itself as a “folk horror film”, which is an intriguing twist on the horror formula. In general I am not a fan of horror movies, the ones I do enjoy, like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, are more great movies of horror than they are great horror movies. Those movies deal with the occult and spiritual horror as opposed to just slasher or monster type movies, and that is probably why I appreciate them so much.

Midsommar is director Ari Aster’s second feature film, his first was last year’s Hereditary, another ambitious horror film. I liked Hereditary and even though it was flawed I thought Aster showed a great deal of potential as a filmmaker as he coaxed some terrific performances out of his leads Toni Collette and Alex Wolff and put together some really gripping sequences. Hereditary was also chock full of really rich symbolism and sub-text…so much so that I wrote an entire piece about it.

Hereditary’s biggest flaw was that Aster’s creative eyes were bigger than his directorial stomach…which is my way of saying that Aster is a better writer than a director as he was unable to entirely capture the entirety of his unique vision on film.

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Midsommar is a worthy follow up to Hereditary, and is very similar in many ways as the film boasts a stellar female performance at its center and has a wildly creepy and unsettling story at its center. Midsommar is also bursting with insightful symbolism and sub-text that make it a very layered film. Hereditary and Midsommar are also twins in that they explore a dark occult underbelly to the rather benign settings of suburbia and a seemingly gentle Finnish commune respectively.

Sadly though, the similarities don’t end there as Midsommar also suffers from the same ailment that hampered Hereditary, namely that the narrative was too dramatically unwieldy for the director Aster to tame fully.

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The very best thing about the film is the performance of Florence Pugh, who won a Breakout Performance of the Year Mickey Award in 2016 for the independent drama Lady MacBeth, and lives up to that promise in Midsommar. Pugh is so spot on in her characterization that it is at times uncomfortable to watch. Pugh’s Dani is deeply and specifically wounded and reeks of desperation, so much so that she relentlessly needs to accommodate others to an embarrassing degree. The camera adores Pugh as she is blessed with an exquisitely perfect face that is both stunningly gorgeous and approachable. Pugh’s magnetism and girl-next-door beauty are used to great affect as it makes Dani’s insecurity and low self-esteem a conflicting yet captivating mess.

Dani’s at best indifferent boyfriend, Christian, is played by Jack Reynor, who sort of looks like a slightly less douchebaggy version of Seth Rogan. Reynor’s Christian is a pitch perfect asshole, and he wisely never goes over the top with his asshole-ishness, but it is certainly a palpable presence. Reynor as an actor is a bit overwhelmed by Pugh though, as he currently seems to lack the charisma and skill to go toe to toe with his very formidable leading lady. That said, to Reynor’s great credit he proves is certainly game for anything and shows he has enough balls (literally and figuratively) to try and tackle a role that ends up being just a bit out of his reach.

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Midsommar’s cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, does fantastic work as he captures the pseudo-David Lynchian creepiness beneath the quaint facade of the commune. Pogorzelski uses the midnight sun of Finland effectively to create a disorienting visual experience that is subtly alarming. There are psychedelic sequences where Pogorzelski shows his talent in not overwhelming the viewer with obviousness but rather makes the delirious experience so seamless as to be unnerving. There are also some deliciously well-done shots using the reflections from a mirror or a television set that I thought were glorious. Pogorzelski worked on Hereditary as well and his style and skill definitely elevate both films.

The thing I liked the most about Midsommar was the symbolism and sub-text. This film, just like Hereditary, is bursting at the seams with political and social commentary that is hiding in plain sight. The commune at the center of the story is an alluring combination of old world folk religion, New Age spirituality, modern day social progressivism and extreme environmentalism. It is easy to imagine that the divergent anti-Trump resistance could come together to form the alleged utopia that is Harga.

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The character arc of Dani is that of the modern women who has put her needs second to those around her and has made herself small so that others feel big. As Dani goes through the odyssey of the commune she is forced to choose between the way things are now with her as a pliant caretaker to others, or the way things could be with a women in charge. In this way the film is, much like Hereditary, a commentary on the Trump presidency and the fall of Hillary and the rise of neo-feminism. While those things are potentially over-analyzed subjects in our current political and cultural climate, Aster does a magnificent job of deftly addressing these issues in an unconventional way and subtly layering the film’s inventive perspective throughout the film.

To be clear, I truly did enjoy Midsommar, just as I did Hereditary, but as with Hereditary, Midsommar does go a bit off the rails about two thirds of the way through and the film loses dramatic momentum. I think Aster’s biggest issue, in both films, is that the major beats of the story are not well placed in the narrative arc, and so the film feels a bit off in the final act.

In conclusion, while I think Ari Aster has slightly missed the mark with both Hereditary and Midsommar, I am very glad for his ambition and that he is out there making movies. I think he is a very original voice and his expansive ideas on horror and the nature of evil are remarkably insightful about the world in which we currently reside. I hope Aster keeps exploring the depths of that unique darkness that he shared with viewers in both Hereditary and Midsommar.

While Midsommar is not worth shelling out big bucks to see in a theatre, I do think it is worth seeing on Netflix or cable for “free” for Pugh’s performance alone. The movie is also genuinely creepy and not of the instantly forgettable horror movie formula that has grown so tiresome. Midsommar is definitely a flawed film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile or that the message it sends isn’t right on the money. If, at some point, you have a chance to check it out I think you should…it will unsettle you…and we all need to be unsettled every now and again.

©2019

Lady MacBeth : A Review

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!****

My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SKIP IT.

Lady MacBeth, written by Alice Berch and directed by William Oldroyd, is the story of Katherine, a young woman in 1860's rural England, stuck in a stifling marriage and a suffocating culture. The film stars Florence Pugh as Katherine, along with Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton and Naomi Ackie in supporting roles. 

Lady MacBeth has all the trappings of an art house gem, an exquisite period setting and costumes, a breakout performance from a talented young actress and a political sub-text of female empowerment in the face of a controlling patriarchy. Sadly, Lady MacBeth is not the sum of its parts and winds up being little more than a pretender to the art house crown. 

The biggest problem with Lady MacBeth is that it tries to do too much, too fast and goes too far. The reason period pieces like this work is because they set up constraints upon the characters in the form of cultural customs and traditions, and they force the characters to struggle against or break free of them. The cinematic drama is born and bred in that struggle. That is why people loved Downton Abbey for example, or Netflix's recent hit The Crown, those shows put the restraints of tradition upon human emotions and yearnings and we all watched to see the characters resist against them. The problem with Lady MacBeth is that those traditional and cultural obstacles are too easily discarded, ignored and overcome, rendering the struggle against them dramatically impotent and entirely moot. 

The first third of the film is very compelling because those cultural hindrances are front and center and are a cross that seems unbearable for Katherine. Her confinement to her husband's house is palpably stultifying. Director Oldroyd makes the interesting choice to shoot all of the indoor scenes as static shots to effectively enhance the rigid sense of emotional suffocation. Oldroyd also wisely contrasts this static indoor approach with hand held shots when Katherine finally goes outside, indicating her sense of freedom and abandon.

But then the train goes off the rails in the latter two thirds of the film when the narrative unravels as the traditional reins upon Katherine aren't simply loosened, they disappear completely. The film rapidly deteriorates from there when all of the tension and drama those constraints brought with them dissipates entirely. The art house ship is scuttled at that point and a rather predictable and conventional film takes its place.

The one bright spot in the whole endeavor is the discovery of Florence Pugh. Pugh, who is vaguely reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet, has stardom written all over her. She is a beautiful woman, but her beauty never overshadows her talent. She is blessed with the skill of being able to convey her character's intentions and vivid inner life with the slightest of glances. Pugh is a charismatic and powerful screen presence who exudes an intelligence and strength that few young actresses possess. I am willing to bet that she has a most stellar career in front of her.

The rest of the cast are all eclipsed by the supernova that is Ms. Pugh. Cosmo Jarvis plays the love interest but is entirely of no interest. Naomi Ackie is given a rather thankless job of having to portray a character that is so poorly written it is difficult to reconcile. And Paul Hilton's Alexander is so terribly one-dimensional he might as well be twirling his mustache whenever he's on screen.

I was ready to go all in on the ride of Lady MacBeth, but the film made the fatal error of not grounding it's story in a consistent reality, and thus the entire exercise seemed a rather empty and fruitless endeavor that became harder and harder to buy into. I was very disappointed with the film, but on the bright side found solace in Ms. Pugh's sublime performance despite it all. 

My recommendation is to skip Lady MacBeth entirely. Even watching it for free on Netflix or cable would be a waste of time as the film neither reveals nor illuminates anything of worth or substance. It's a shame, for if the filmmaker had screwed their courage to the sticking place, maybe the film could have been elevated to the art house throne. Instead, Lady MacBeth took the easy and cowardly route of the ordinary and won its hard earned exile from artistic relevancy. 

©2017