Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019) – review

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Below are my thoughts on Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are mild spoilers.

Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second wholly wonderful horror film, coming after last year’s Hereditary. It shares with his debut feature some stylistic, tonal, and thematic similarities. It stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who is coming to terms with a family tragedy and bereavement. So like Hereditary, the camera lingers on a character struggling with the aftermath of severe grief. Aster includes a very similar moment to one of the most affecting scenes in Hereditary, of Dani howling in anguish and being comforted by her partner after she has just received the most dreadful news.

It also includes some shocking and unexpected edits to close ups of deformed faces – both dead and alive, and there are several moments of blunt force trauma that are, if anything, more severe than that of the head collision in Hereditary.

The film is also about a cult/close community. But whereas Hereditary disguised this twist and revealed that it had been about a cult only at the climax, Midsommar‘s structure stays strictly within the formula of the folk horror movie/film about a cult from the beginning – using The Wicker Man as its template. (Though with its emphasis on flowers as a motif, May Queens, and with an errant boyfriend who is sexually tempted by other women in the community, it reminded me more of Robin Hardy’s belated, and maligned, follow-up, The Wicker Tree). That it sticks so closely to the Wicker Man‘s structure is not a criticism. The pleasure to be had in these films is the slow building of tension, and increasing weirdness, with the audience understanding exactly where it is all leading – typically to a final orgy of excess.

One way Midsommar foreshadows this eventual spill over into excess is through depicting tapestries and paintings hanging on walls that hint at some necessary bloodletting to come. Though one moment depicted in a tapestry, that recalls some disturbing self harm familiar from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, never arrives on screen for real.

Midsommar leads exactly where you expect it to (if you are familiar with this sort of film), and this is its strength. Aster plays with horror convention, but is not afraid to be formulaic where necessary, so part of the enjoyment is in seeing how those moments you know are coming are about to be delivered. And, also like his first movie, Midsommar is hilarious as well as being genuinely emotionally affecting (though the grief depicted in this film isn’t as impactful. There is no drama as effective as the dinner scene in Hereditary, for example).  The humour comes in a couple of very funny one-liners as well as in its moments of pure absurdity.

With only a couple of hours of daylight in the fictional community (supposedly Sweden), most of what we see is set in bright sunshine. Aster’s camera continually shifts perspective, from very high angles, shots that are upside down, and point of views (including of eyelids being closes). Later on he uses shots that are either super imposed or long cross dissolves (I will have to watch it again to see). The effect is frequently hallucinatory, to which the diegetic folk soundtrack contributes.

Overall, this is superb piece of horror, at once original and familiar.

 

 

Prince Charles Cinema Teen Horror Marathon (26th October 2018)

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I recently attended the Prince Charles Cinema’s all night movie marathon of the teen horror movies, consisting of The Craft (Andrew Fleming 1996), Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), Urban Legend (Jamie Banks, 1997), The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez, 1998), and Final Destination (James Wong, 2000).

Though I was familiar with each film, bar Final Destination, which I had only seen part of previously, it was a fascinating process to watch them back to back. In particular, while their self-awareness and reflexivity was always evident, it was only when watching them together that the full extent of how much they converge, correspond, and play off each other became fully apparent. (I am not claiming that this is an original thought – clearly the PCC had thought this through already).

Firstly, Kevin Williamson is the writer of three of the six, Scream, I Know…, and The Faculty. Urban Legend also contains a link to Williamson, it stars Joshua Jackson from the TV series Dawson’s Creek which Williamson wrote. One of the jokes in the film is a reference to Jackson’s role in the series (this had to be pointed out to me since it was a reference I didn’t get).

The casting cleverly bleeds over between films. Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich featured in The Craft before taking the two leads in Scream. I Know… stars Sarah Michelle Geller, and Urban Legend‘s masked killer is revealed as Rebecca Gayheart, both of which appear in Williamson’s Scream 2 (not shown on this night). I Know… also stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, and one of The Faculty‘s early intertextual gags has the character of Zeke (Josh Hartnett) flogging bootleg video tapes from the back of his car claiming they contain nude scenes of Campbell and Hewitt. So, while each film demonstrates an awareness of horror, Sci-Fi, and and other movie conventions, they are also dependent upon each other – referencing their immediate predecessors and competitors.

It was also interesting to note how the films from this cycle that made the most impact on the sell out audience were those that demonstrated the greater self-reflexivity. The Craft, Scream, and The Faculty, whose narratives are dependent on self-aware and movie literate characters, received the most vocal and tangible responses from the knowledgeable crowd.

Perhaps the biggest surprise and disappointment from the cycle is that The Faculty never led to further sequels, unlike what happened to lesser films. It deserved to become a successful franchise. For those who haven’t seen it, you would have to go a long way to find a more enjoyable ensemble movie. The stand out scene comes early, when each of the utterly engaging teen characters is introduced in a sequence of terrific swagger and maximum narrative economy. For me, it is probably Rodriguez’s best few moments of screen direction.

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Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo, 2018) Review

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These thoughts contain spoilers.

Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, a low key and low budget drama about the problems a family faces when their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses clashes with life events, has universally been described as a highly impressive debut feature. It has also received praise (on Twitter, at least) from ex-JWs who feel it provides a highly accurate reflection of their experiences within the faith.

Apostasy is about Ivanna, a devout Witness with a severely anaemic 18 year old daughter called Alex, and another daughter called Luisa who announces she has become pregnant after sleeping with a boy from college. It goes without saying that the performances, from Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright, and Sacha Parkinson as the three central characters are terrific, as are the supporting cast. Within the drama there are several heartbreaking moments – none more so than when Ivanna hands Alex a book called ‘Youths Who Put God’ first, an account of children who had refused lifesaving blood transfusions, as inspiration to remind her of her religious duty in the face of her illness.

There is also a definite sense of humour and an acknowledgment of the absurd moments that can occur when the beliefs of the JWs come into contact with 21stcentury British life – such as door knocking on a Muslim household, and Ivanna’s exasperated comments to Luisa; ‘What’s Jesus going to say when he comes back to destroy the earth and you’re at college?’.

Other details are only picked up on a second viewing, such as the significance of a party-piece play by three costumed young children, and immediately after the event (which I won’t reveal here) – when Ivanna leaves the hospital out of focus, and then the slow reveal to the audience across a couple of scenes of exactly what has happened to Alex.

Most of the reviews you read will focus on the excellence of such content. However, I want to discuss the framing. Like Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, the film is shot in 4:3, rather than the standard widescreen 16:9. This, traditionally, is thought to lead to a more claustrophobic aesthetic, going as it does against cinema’s selling point of being expansive and full of scale, with narratives that match the size of the screen, with grand plots told on large canvasses. Instead, Apostasy privileges the close up and the intimate.

Scenes end with CUs, and then the next scene often begins with another, eschewing the typical establishing shot that reveals the narrative space. The use of close ups during dialogue, and the tactic of holding the close shot for longer – with characters listening as they are spoken to by other characters immediately offscreen – gives the impression of disembodied voices, as if to allude to the presence of an unseen God. Alex also talks to God in voice over and onscreen.

An early dialogue scene in a car between four characters, and which reveals the slightly awkward way Alex converses with non-JWs, and demonstrates Luisa’s ability to interact and socialise more comfortably, is edited without a single two-shot. The film’s form reflects the sense of disconnection generated by the dramatic content.

When Luisa confesses to her pregnancy, it is broken up into individual shots, and hints at the fracturing of the family – the sisters in a two-shot, Ivanna on her own or with just her voice while the sisters listen, or a shot of Ivanna with Luisa in the foreground and out of focus. The scene begins with them walking along a canal path in the same shot, so the subsequent splintering of the editing is doubly powerful.

The framing also is atypical. Scenes in corridors in the Kingdom Hall frequently show lots of screen space above the character’s heads, with a disproportionate amount of ceiling. Another shot of a skyline above a row of terraced houses is framed from the upstairs bedrooms up – with lots of cloudy sky. There is a shot of an apartment block with a car parked in front, but framed midway down the hubcaps, rather than showing us the whole tyre touching the tarmac. There are multiple scenes shot through door frames, or in doorways, through glass, and against windows leading to half silhouette effects. These underlit moments are not for any noirish impact, but instead provides a sense of realism that still avoids using familiar short cuts, such as hand-held shots or overlapping dialogue. A deleted scene on the DVD release, when a member of the public harasses Ivanna while she is handing out leaflets, is kept entirely focused on the man. Ivanna is only heard answering his questions. It is possible, or even likely, that Kokotajlo shot the reverse, but it is entirely in-keeping with the rest of the aesthetic that the camera doesn’t waiver from just one character, despite him being in dialogue with another.

Such unusual framing, evident throughout, keeps the audience at an oblique angle, offsetting expectations of social realist visual tendencies (which might be expected given the small scale and its northern setting). The framing destabilises the viewer, keeping them at the antiseptic distance, making every exchange, even between family members, awkward and filtered through politeness, tradition, or dogma.

Apostasy is an incredibly rich drama, but the framing and form (there is also much to say about the use of sound and music), is what gives the film its depth. I can see myself returning to this film many times to consider how the form adds such nuance to the content.

The Nun (Corin Hardy, 2018) – Review

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The Nun is the latest film in The Conjuring franchise, and the second spin-off strand after Annabelle and its sequel. Out of the five existing movies it is the first in chronological order (set in 1952), and there are top and tail moments which provide the necessary link to the other films. (Plus, the lead is played by Taissa Farmiga, sister to Vera, who plays a major character in the others).

Farmiga is a novice nun called Irene, who, along with Father Burke (Demian Bichir), is sent by the Vatican to investigate the grisly suicide of a nun at a remote Romanian convent (mentioned as the real life Carta Monstaery – but not actually shot there). They are assisted by a handsome young local delivery man who goes by the name of ‘Frenchie’ (Jonas Bloquet).

Critical reception so far has been (if we are putting as positive a spin as possible on it) lukewarm. Much of the criticism centres on the lack of emotional depth and meaning, and in particular the predominance of cheap ‘jump scares’ over genuinely unsettling content. To me, this feels a little like the criticisms Tony Pullis’s Stoke City used to receive after they had just beaten far more fanciful and talented Premier League teams – that they only won because of their rudimentary tactics, and that their wins were devalued because they didn’t play the ‘proper’ way. Similarly, the critics who lament the tactics employed by Hardy are saying that The Nun is only scary because it is not playing fair.

Such critiques a little unjust. There absolutely is an extraordinary amount of jumpy moments, and it is accurate to say that by the end they become rather predictable and lose much of their power. However, many of the jumps are well handled and Hardy uses the screen space inventively. Also, part of the fun of this sort of popcorn horror movie is the audience’s knowledge of conventions around the use of safe and unsafe screen space, and attempting to anticipate where the next attack is going to come from (out of the darkness, from behind or in front of a character, or when the camera pans or tilts, for example). Mostly, the film gets these moments ‘right’, and the early scenes also play with expectations by setting up a jump that doesn’t arrive when an audience may be anticipating it. There is also an effective moment which delivers the anticipated jump, but triggers it a fraction too early (for this viewer at least) to be adequately prepared. During these scenes, and in another sequence which makes an explicit homage to Lucio Fulci, the film is in full control of its effect.

Also, in its favour is some terrific design work – especially around the set construction, and presentation of flowing robes, and characters (both dead and alive) gliding down corridors and from behind pillars or trees etc. The positioning of actors creates some striking compositions, as does the use of high and low angle camera placement.

Unfortunately, the film’s worst moments come late on during the climax when Hardy appears to lose confidence in the tone of the material. Jarringly, characters begin to use action movie-esque wisecracks. Not only are these unnecessary and simply unfunny, they feel cheap and tacked on. The humorous way Hardy plays with horror convention in the first 70 minutes is far more subtle and admirable.

It is also a shame because the final battle contains some fantastic stuff with a group of faceless nuns rampaging down a corridor, and a dungeon full of nuns dressed in white habits, with bloodied bags placed over their heads. Wisecracking heroes add nothing to such potentially exciting set-pieces.

As stated, this is a popcorn horror film, concerned with an audience’s reaction in the cinema at the time, and less troubled with unsettling viewers on a long term basis. It does not compare to recent future horror classics such as It Follows (2014) or Hereditary (2018), or even the undervalued Unfriended (2014). Yes, critics who say it lacks substance have a point, but this suggests a lack of understanding for what this sort of movie is. It is undoubtedly an ephemeral piece of work, but that’s ok, because the next episode in the franchise, or some other series, will be coming soon. This is not about creating a timeless, standalone experience, but about keeping the plate spinning for a franchise that lets the audience know exactly what they are in for. And, with this admittedly lowish bar, The Nun succeeds.

Ocean’s 8 – review

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Ocean’s 8 is a sequel to the earlier Oceans franchise starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, among others. Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Clooney’s character, who has since died. Debbie is determined to pull off a heist she has been preparing for while in prison, ever since she was double crossed and set up by her ex-boyfriend. To help, she assembles a crew, including Cate Blanchett, Rhianna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling.

The most positive aspect of the film is the occasional use of rundown locations, such as disused and repurposed industrial buildings, a frequently unobtrusive camera, and scenes which are very often underlit. All this hints at the possibility that director Gary Ross was flirting with the style of seventies’ films such as The French Connection or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Most intriguingly, is the recurrence of shots through glass or which use reflective surfaces. Windows, glass panels, phone and computer screens, and precious jewels dominate the mise-en-scene.

These more interesting stylistic elements – the attempt at seventies style grit, combined with the dominance of shots which reflect the overall plot (the heist of a diamond necklace), are too tentative, and are drowned out as the film opts for the more predictable foregrounding of slow motion walking, or shots designed for no other purpose than to make the principle cast look cool.  These are the weakest moments of the film. Sadly, they populate the movie too often, and are clear attempts at creating a slick crowd pleaser which is at odds with the detached and restrained performances of Bullock and Blanchett in particular. This creates an uncomfortable fit between two stylistic approaches which ultimately fail to hold together.

It all falls apart during the climax, which resorts to having characters explain what has just happened out of the view of the audience – complete with flashbacks of events which the viewer previously knew nothing about. We are also not shown the ultimate fate of the villains, and due to the effortless criminal competence of the lead characters, there is very little tension during the heist and subsequent fall out. The film is compromised stylistically and narratively. This is a common problem for Hollywood films which are concerned above all else with making its cast look untouchable.

This is not to say that Ocean’s 8 is unenjoyable. The cast are all excellent, and a genuine double act is formed between Bullock and Blanchett. Any sequel which gave them a tougher task, or put them under a bit more narrative pressure, could work well. There are also several effective moments of dialogue, and some entertaining interplay which is entirely expected of a cast this strong. They look like they all had a good time during shooting, and while this is not always desirable, in an ensemble piece the spark and connection between the leads is necessary.

Ocean’s 8 is an attempt to create a low key Hollywood movie which is dependent on a quality cast, good writing, and solid directing. It succeeds in moments, but overall doesn’t quite achieve the promise of its earlier scenes.