Midsommar- Movie Review

Year: 2019

Director: Ari Aster

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

3/4

If nothing else, horror auteur Ari Aster has proven over the course of two films that he is a master at capturing the essence of grief and suffering. What he does with (or to?) his actors during filming, I am uncertain. But I’ve learned through watching Hereditary and Midsommar just how discomforting and unsettling it can be to hear someone’s seemingly endless wailing, as if they’re striving to be heard by their lost loved from beyond the grave.

This is perfectly encapsulated in the first twenty minutes of Midsommar, a well-shot cocktail of horror and drama with just enough mystery to keep you watching. I’ve always resented the horror cliché of beginning with dread, always preferring a slow descent into madness rather than a full 140-minute barrage of despair. But Midsommar’s inciting incident is so subtly executed and realistically performed, I was not bothered in the slightest, more intrigued and empathetic toward Dani (Florence Pugh), our emotionally dependent and romantically lost heroine, and wanted to see her through her sojourn of overcoming her neglectful oppression.

After the aforementioned incident, and after awkwardly humorous banter between her, her boyfriend (Jack Reynor), and his college companions, we see them go as a group to a Swedish “commune” to witness a midsommar celebration, one that supposedly occurs only once every ninety years.

The premise is begging for caricatures of character idiocy and boring by-the-numbers drivel, but thankfully Aster shows himself to be a disciplined filmmaker. In the first ninety minutes he doesn’t try to keep our attention with predictable jump scares but with small character revelations and establishing this new culture they’ve immersed themselves in. Although they don’t have the depth of Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters, the group of young students are reasonably well-rounded and complete with flaws, passions, and genuine personalities. As for the commune, Aster treats it like an aging home; seemingly as ancient as time itself, and filled with secrets that are only granted to the careful observer. But, like in much of horror fiction, not all the secrets of Midsommar are gratuitous reveals.

As the group initially traversed the commune, I could not be more invested. It brings about the great question of importance regarding traditional versus progressive ideals, and our sheltered fears of the uncanny lifestyles of foreigners. None of these themes are ever spoken out loud, as Aster teaches us to show our stories in cinema, not simply tell them.

However, that didn’t stop this film from overreaching its ambitions. Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, Midsommar eventually beats its themes over our heads, and begins taking its characters in absurd and rather tortuous directions that at times seem to betray the story it was telling in its beginning. One could easily watch this film and conclude that it had two (albeit strong) ideas for a horror drama and meshed them into one movie, hoping for a masterpiece but sacrificing some of its altogether cohesiveness.

After the film was over, I read online that Aster was expressing his frustrations over a painful breakup through Midsommar, calling it “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror movie.” Speaking as a lover of film, I love nothing more than a clever balance between entertainment value, thematic artistry, and something more personal. Although all three of these elements are present in Midsommar, the result was lukewarm, particularly in a third act with overarching themes and a dragging plot weighing the film down into a rut that mainstream audiences will likely label “pretentious.” Self-indulgence is a disease amongst artists, and its frankly disconcerting to see such a clearly talented filmmaker overindulge during his second feature.

There is a wonderful story in Midsommar, one I’d even argue to be better than that of Hereditary. But what Hereditary lacks in originality, Midsommar lacks in realized vision. To surmise, I give both these films the same rating, and encourage Ari Aster to continue his filmmaking endeavors if for no other reason than to learn to properly walk the narrow path between entertainment and artistry without toppling down to one side.

 

-JCE, 2019

Greta- Movie Review

Year: 2018

Director: Neill Jordan

Starring: Chloe Grace-Moretz, Isabelle Huppert

3/4

After seeing The Prodigy only days earlier, it was entirely refreshing to see the lighting and color palette of Greta. Here is a thriller that doesn’t rely on dark tones and gray matter to shove its genre in your face. This doesn’t take away from the dread or lonesomeness that Chloe Grace-Moretz feels throughout the experiences of Greta though. All one should want or expect from Neill Jordan’s newest film is a simple and intriguing at best viewing experience, qualities that this reviewer feels it delivers.

Grace-Moretz plays Frances McCullen, a young waitress and novice to the New York scene, living with her rather insufferable friend Erica, portrayed by scream queen Maika Monroe. Frances finds a bag on the subway in the film’s opening credits, and, upon discovering an ID for a Greta Hideg, she decides to return the lost item. Upon doing so, she meets the gentle and seemingly compassionate older woman, who is played by Isabelle Huppert, who is more known for French films and the works of Michael Haneke.

Anyone who knows the film’s premise knows the drill. There’s something off about Greta, but we can’t quite place our finger on it. For a woman with apparently no friends, she seems awfully sociable with Frances. And our first real red flag is raised when we see her, by herself, looking up information on Frances on her laptop, after making it clear only minutes beforehand that she was terrible with technology. Despite this, Frances falls victim to her through her desire for a surrogate mother, as her biological one had recently passed.

What this film excels at is building its tension, and understanding the effectiveness of a certain minimalism and mystery that’s uncommon in modern thrillers. Instead of giving us tsunami of answers, it unfolds gradually, like a kaleidoscope, revealing small secrets about who both our female leads are, both in personality and in history. And when we do get answers, they aren’t necessarily grandiose. There’s no grand scheme, there’s nothing abhorrently large that’s been functioning in the background the entire time. And many of the factors about Greta remain an enigma for the entirely of the film, which this reviewer personally sees as a positive. The scariest thing about Michael Myers was his lack of motive or backstory. Greta is definitely more human than the Halloween antagonist, but director Neill Jordan doesn’t give us needless information.

There are a few slip-ups for Greta, however. Some moments of lashing out are a bit overused. The manner of speaking and the facial expressions of a brilliantly bitchy Isabelle Huppert are substance enough, to the extent that we don’t need her to spit gum in Frances’ hair. And there’s a rather obnoxious plot hole toward the end of the film, as well as a murder that, in my opinion, took away from the mysteriousness I cherished so much about Greta’s character.

Even if the flaws listed weren’t a factor, its easy to complain that this premise is something that has been reformatted in both better and lesser films within the preceding two decades. There’s nothing revolutionary about Greta the film or Greta the woman, and I likely won’t be revisiting this film. But if you enjoy thrillers and want to kill 98 minutes, go ahead.

-JCE, 2019

Perfect Blue- Movie Review

Year: 1997

Director: Satoshi Kon

Starring: Junko Iwao

4/4

I needed to see this film a second time to affirm my love for it. The first time, I was admittedly uncertain  how I felt about it. There’s a lot to digest in the Satoshi Kon masterpiece known as Perfect Blue, and certainly plenty to unpack in its themes of fame and psychological duality. I’m lucky enough to have recently received a theatrical experience the second time, and in this, I found myself leaving the theater quite invested.

Perfect Blue is about a Japanese pop idol named Mima Kirigoe, who, in the first scene, announces her departure from the girl group CHAM to pursue a career in acting. Simultaneously, as she performs her final show, we watch as a man cups his hand before his eyes so he can envision himself holding Mima, as if she were a prize. This is the first dosage of disturbing imagery, and the first implication that we’re not getting a standard anime experience, or a story that takes place in the sugar-coated world of pop music. As Mima traverses her newfound career in acting, we see the unraveling of multiple facets—the compromises one has to make for their artistic endurances, for one. And for another, her own psychological well-being. There’s plenty of scenes that may be dreams and may be hallucinations. Mima thinks she’s going crazy, and we believe her.

This film instigates a great deal of discussion to the dual nature of artistic and professional work, similar to Alejandro Iñárritu’s recent Birdman. Mima sees herself as a blossoming artist, but her passionate fans refuse to see her as anything more than a pop icon. The aforementioned disturbed fan in particular disputes this by posting slander from his idealized perspective of her online. When she agrees to suggestive photography, he furiously buys them all so nobody will see it. We realize it’s not love but obsession, and that this man is in need of serious help, but that’s not quite the point Satoshi Kon is making. He represents the mob mentality in seeing these monolithic figures not as people, but as servants to his perfectionist vision. He is the fans, and in some situations, he’s all of us.

Mima struggles with this image in all factions of her life, both externally and even more so internally. She has hallucinations of herself in a pink dress, a vision that jovially declines to be in a rape scene for a film. It’s a side of herself that both she and the audience soon begin to expect has taken a mind of its own, going as far as to be suspected of murder. From the scene of the first murder, this could be perceived as an animated slasher film, but it never loses its tone or deliberately unkempt narrative of a tale of insanity and/or inner conflict.

It’s entirely understandable if, upon first viewing, people find this film to be overtly jarring or relentlessly confusing, and therefore walk away with a certain distaste for it. But like many classics (2001: A Space Odyssey) or many potential future classics (Inherent Vice), if those same audience members gave Perfect Blue repeated viewings or let the substance of the film simply wash over them, I think they’d find it to be more worthy of consideration, or, at the very least, thorough analysis.

-JCE, 2019

Everybody Knows- Movie Review

Year: 2018

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz

3/4

Everybody Knows is clearly an exercise of great passion for everyone involved, but will it stand the test of time? While I enjoyed Asghar Farhadi’s latest, I am not terribly optimistic the answer is in this film’s favor. This is my first foray into Farhadi’s work, and while it makes me want to explore what critics are calling his “better” films, this one left me in no complete rush.

Everybody Knows takes place outside Madrid, and its photography is one of its finest selling points. Its location is lush and picturesque, which only adds to the disquiet and unsettling nature of the actions to come. Penelope Cruz plays Laura, a woman who, with her teenaged daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and her young son in tow, visits a small villa for a wedding, reuniting with her childhood sweetheart Paco (Javier Bardem) in the process. In the set-up and even in the earlier sweetness of the meet-and-greets, you can feel a sense of tension between Paco and Laura and her family.

Then, on the night of celebration, Irene suddenly disappears from her room, whereas kidnappers send threatening texts, demanding a ransom. They say if they go to the cops, they’ll kill her immediately. And naturally, she doesn’t have her inhaler with her, narrowing the time frame even more. This causes the psyches and emotions of the characters to unravel, in a web tangled by secrets and things left unsaid. People question their trust and loyalty in one another, as well as the love they receive from each other.

This is more a film about tradition and first love than it is one about the disarray of a kidnapping. Everyone suspects one another, but that’s not where Farhadi’s fixations lie. They lie more within the dynamic between Bardem’s Paco and Cruz’s Laura. Married in real life, these two actors show a certain intimacy onscreen that is difficult for even the best of actors to emulate, especially when portraying characters who are married to separate people. Everybody Knows depicts the rough parts of certain relationship-based therapeutic measures through the guise of a kidnapping story, with all the breakdowns and distrusts that come with it.

Unfortunately, the film does seem to be bogged down by unnecessary amount of characters and repetitive nature. Paco will have the same conversation with three or four different people before he has the one that really seems to count, and by then we’re less invested. This film is 132-minutes long, and could’ve easily been at least 20 minutes shorter. By the time the culprits and their plan are revealed (in a way that feels shoehorned at the last second), a small part of us just wants the film to wrap up. And there are so many characters with so little depth and investment. The cast list could’ve easily been severed and the film would be no different.

Despite its flaws, this is an enjoyable film that transcends the genres of thriller, drama, and romance in ways that are mostly seamless. I still strive to see films like A Separation and The Salesman. I just hope those films are more consistent to Farhadi’s reputation.

-JCE, 2019

The Prodigy- Movie Review

Year: 2019

Director: Nicholas McCarthy

Starring: Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott

1.5/4

You know what I realized on the drive home from watching The Prodigy? Its title is completely irrelevant. If the character played by Jackson Robert Scott was completely average-minded, the film would be no different. No spark of genius is necessary for the events of Nicholas McCarthy’s new film to take place. And, unlike in the character of Miles Blume, there’s no genius to be found in The Prodigy.

This irrelevancy is only one of many problems, my main issue being the level of disappoint I received after watching the first fifteen minutes. There’s great horrific juxtaposition established between the connections of both birth and death in two seemingly unconnected events in two different states. Despite these scenes being well-directed, cutting at similar angles to indicate their similarities, it does instantaneously plant within the viewer all notion as to the film’s twists, and a great deal of suspense is lost.

One night in 2010, one person dies while another is born. The mother of this new child is Taylor Schilling, working hard despite her rather unpolished and cheesy dialog. The child grows to the age of eight, and is played by Jackson Robert Scott, another decent performance that is sometimes hindered by the script. The playful nature between mother and son is never convincing in the words exchanged between the two, and Taylor Schilling’s Sarah Bloom may as well have a big tattoo on her forehead that reads “VICTIM”. Aside from these two and the psychologist portrayed by Arthur Jacobson, you never feel like any actor onscreen truly wants to be there. This is a typical early-year horror film. Just a stepping stone in their careers.

Anyway, Scott’s Miles Blume begins displaying bizarre behavior, in sequences any seasoned horror fan has likely seen before and will likely roll their eyes at. So then we gradually see his problems unfold into not only the supernatural, but hints at the thematic content of rebirth and the way unfinished deeds leave their mark on the world. Think The Sixth Sense, except twenty years later with tired concepts and uninspired presentation. As early Shamaylan proved, there’s a great deal of potential in this subject matter, but The Prodigy goes about one of the safest routes imaginable, all for the stereotypical “horror” ending and the open-ended sequel ideas. The color palette is the typical modern horror setup of dark blue and gray tints. This is a dreadful film, not only in its overarching sense of despair, but in its quality.

There are other clear inspirations here. Child’s Play, The Exorcist, even the more recent Hereditary come to mind. But those films at least have consistent tones and unique presentations. Child’s Play brought an original concept for the slasher film to fruition, one that in its time would have been conceived as extremely difficult to pull off. The Exorcist expanded our ideas of what could be done with child actors in the world of horror. And Hereditary had plenty of clichés, but at least it portrayed them in the best directorial execution and gave us more nuances about real-life horrors, particularly familial stressors and mental illness. The Prodigy, however is subpar and forgettable in all these aspects.

-JCE, 2019

Loveless- Movie Review

Year: 2017

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvei Novikov

4/4

Loveless begins with the eerie “11 Cycles of E” during the studio credits. Before we even glimpse into director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s world we get a taste of the dread in what’s to come. Then after beautifully composed stills of a frigid 2012 Leningrad, we see young Alyosha (played surprisingly well by Matvei Novikov) throw a strip of police tape onto a tree branch, where it flows freely in the wind. This tape is the only thing with any essence of freedom in Loveless, the latest tragedy from the Russian visionary. I doubt I’ve seen such a dreadful film since Klimov’s Come and See, in a tearful family drama reminiscent of a classic Bergman film.

The central family live up to the feeling of the film’s title; Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) make no attempts to guise their spite toward one another, nor their disinterest in their only son. They’ve both taken new lovers, and consider sending Alyosha off elsewhere when their divorce is finalized. Sure, they never fight directly in front of him, but don’t even bother to lower their voices when they think he’s sleeping in the next room. This is a modern couple in the worst of ways. She is constantly glued to her phone, he is more interested in his career life than his home life, and they both move on from each other without missing a beat.

Then, as if by some cosmic force, one morning when returning from her lover’s home, Zhenya finds that Alyosha has vanished. In the last moments we see of him, he seems very intent on leaving, but there’s no distinct evidence that points to him being a runaway. This causes the two to reunite, much to their disdain, to help find the boy. As the plot and characters unfold, its impossible to not be fixated on the performance and directorial subtleties.

Is this a meditation on modern dispassion, a comment on the paralleling 2012 apocalyptic theories, or something more political? At this point in Zvyagintsev’s career, we can trust him enough to assume any one of these possibilities, or even all of them at once. But even on a surface level, there’s a lot to chew on in regards to acting and filmmaking. Spivak’s Zhenya is a woman who wields a sharp tongue at every opportunity and Boris constantly carries a solemn and sad quietude, beaten down by the path he’s been set on. There are multiple long takes of character-based sequences, including one where a tearful Alyosha listens from the bathroom as his parents argue, and another where Boris secretly talks to a coworker about his fears of his disintegrating marriage causing his career to go down with it. We also get long sequences of both Zhenya and Boris in intimate moments with each of their respective lovers, and see them having long talks about their futures and their pasts, fleshing them out and making their dialogue recitations all the more impressive. These are not bad people, and anyone could find themselves in their shoes. But who they are to the outer world is petty and despicable, maybe even irredeemable.

There are many photogenic but distant shots of the outer world of the snowy cities and suburbs of Leningrad, showing that freedom is always from a distance. It is not the fact that Alyosha has disappeared; its how the world reacts to it—so detached and uncaring. They seek him out as a form of duty, not desire. The couple make it more about them then about their son. No matter who’s face is on the poster of Loveless, it was never about anything other than their them. Zhenya and Boris are over at the time of the film’s beginning, and although Alyosha never made any impact on them with his presence, his absence may be their permanent undoing as free individuals.

-JCE, 2019

Django Unchained- Movie Review

Year: 2012

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

4/4

Django Unchained is the movie that made me fall in love with movies. For me, it transcended what cinema could do. At the time of its release, I had gone through phases of loving things like slasher films and comic-book blockbusters, but this was something completely new. I’d already seen Kill Bill (and loved it) but that film had more value in exploitation than that of the social relevance of Django. This film inspired me to learn everything about it, which involved going down the rabbit hole of Tarantino’s influence, which eventually motivated me to know as much as possible about cinema. There’s no film like Django Unchained, and the feeling of seeing it for the first time is one that has not been replicated, only vaguely emulated.

A film about slavery in the guise of a western, Django Unchained is set in the antebellum South in 1858, just before all this “slavery malarkey” is over and done with. Upon a chance meeting with Christoph Waltz’s wonderfully eccentric and mysterious dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz, a slave known as Django (Jamie Foxx) garners his freedom and embarks on a quest to save the love of his life, who was lost in the slave trade. In doing so, the doctor and the freeman meet with DiCaprio’s volatile Calvin Candie, a man who pits muscular slaves against one another to fight to the death. And upon uncovering this illegal trade within Candie’s plantation, they not only find Broomhilda, Django’s lost love, but they also encounter the Uncle Tom slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the single most despicable role I’ve ever seen him in.

The synopsis in the preceding paragraph contains no spoilers, but it does trim a great deal of baggage of the film’s 165-minute runtime. In the events leading up to the meeting of Calvin Candie, there’s bounties, blood, and a great deal of humor. I’ve always maintained that some of the best humor comes from moments of ironic comedy in the most serious of environments. Breaking Bad is one example, Django Unchained is another. There’s a scene that involves a pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan-like group, which is one of the funniest sequences I’ve ever seen in any film. In his more modern films, legendary director Quentin Tarantino sprinkles in jokes that are satirical to the time and genres they are parodying, jokes that are never pretentious or exclusive to those who don’t get his obscure cinematic references.

Then there’s the performances, and the more serious parts of the script. Christoph Waltz earned and was awarded an Academy Award for his role as Dr. King Schultz, who spends every moment onscreen as charismatic as he is bloodthirsty for the next bounty. He strokes the intrigue of every individual he confronts, and has more of a clear moral compass than that of the typical western bounty hunter. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is the other kind of charming; he carries a menacing presence as he is introduced by jovially sentencing a slave to his death. Despite this, he is less terrifying the more you learn about the person underneath, an insecure and uncertain pseudo-intellectual, whose hate only signifies himself as someone who will be forgotten or dismissed by history. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is, as stated, one of film’s most pathetic characters. He worships the ground that Calvin walks on, and doesn’t mind indulging in his nonsense to maintain his status as the head house slave. Jamie Foxx’s Django shows some of the strongest character growth in a Tarantino film. He is like most slaves when we first meet him; subdued, timid. But through his escapades with Dr. King Schultz and his natural ability to fire a gun, we see him transform into a smooth and confident western hero tradition, something that the African-American community had been deprived of up until this point.

Being quintessential Tarantino, the film is riddled with references and nuances to other films. The namesake of Django is a tribute to the original Django from 1966, complete with a cameo from Franco Nero himself. The name Broomhilda von Shaft is a subtle implication that Django and Broomhilda are the distant relatives of the blaxploitation hero Shaft. Mandingo fighting was never real, but there certainly was a film called Mandingo. I could go on, but you get the idea.

For its bloodshed and its use of a certain infamous word, this film has received a certain backlash from certain audience members, including Tarantino’s contemporary Spike Lee. I think those who fixate on these matters are simply missing the point. There’s so much substance in every frame of Django Unchained, and so much to read into, I can’t help but pity those who write this film off due to small details like violence and cuss words, and I feel those individuals are depriving themselves of one of the few cinematic experiences that are truly worthy of applause.

-JCE, 2019