Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

I’ve been writing reviews for almost fifteen years now and I don’t have many regrets about any of my reviews.  There are reviews that maybe could have deserved an extra half star here or there and a few that I maybe could have removed a half star or two from, but in broad strokes I think I’ve generally come down on the side I stand by in most of my reviews.  But among the ones I might want to take back is my April 2015 review of Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, which I gave a light three stars to and considered going down to two and a half on and never got close to ranking high among my favorites that year.  I think my issue with that movie was that I got a little too focused on the robotics of it all, focused too much on its questions of how human artificial intelligence can be which I find to a somewhat tired theme, and kind of missed the forest for the trees: namely everything the movie is trying to say about very human issues like misogyny and power struggles.  Eventually I’ll finally give the movie a re-watch and figure out for certain.  Since then I guess you could say I “made it up” to Garland by providing strong praise for his follow-up feature Annihilation, but that movie was a book adaptation rather than something directly from Garland’s mind.  By contrast his new film Men, with its similarly confined setting and themes of patriarchal oppression, feels more like his direct follow-up to Ex Machina.

Men is set largely at a house in the fictional English village of Cotson where a woman named Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has retreated to after the death of her husband James Marlowe (Paapa Essiedu).  It is revealed through a series of flashbacks that Harper has reason to have very mixed feelings about this husband’s passing as he appears to have been a rather toxic personality who became abusive in his last days and his eventual death was intertwined with a moment of particular toxicity.  Harper has rented this house from a guy named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who tours the house with a very quietly concealed condescension but leaves her with nothing to be terribly worried about.  But then she spots a naked man standing in the distance and, unnerved, returns to the house.  Not long after she spots this same mysterious man standing outside her house trying to break in.

So we have this divisive movie that kind of feels like a horror movie but isn’t one, that’s set in a house out in a rural area and is in many ways a two hander with a male and female actor, and also contains some disturbing imagery and who’s success is highly dependent on how willing you are to decipher its possibly religious symbolism that feels at once obvious but also cryptic… yeah this movie kind of reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in a number of ways.  That comparison might scare some people off but personally I loved that movie so it’s not meant as a criticism.  Where that movie seemed to be a sort of elaborate metaphor for the bible and the rise and fall of human civilization, this movie (if you couldn’t tell from the title) is meant to be more of a meditation on the topic of male violence against women and misogyny in general.

The film at some points hints at being a folk horror movie but I think that’s a red herring, this is at its heart a highly psychological horror film.  Harper is recovering from an act of unquestionable domestic abuse and is trying to come to terms with everything that influenced that behavior.  The various demonic “men” she encounters in the village are in some ways meant to be reflective of some form of the patriarchy whether it’s the raw sexual aggression of the naked man, the condescending ally who doesn’t believe her about what’s going on, the entitled and possibly red-pilled teenager, the clergyman who seems nice but ultimately advances toxic ideas, or the largely ineffective police officer.  It then all culminates in an ending where these entities start to literally give birth to each other in a moment of outlandish body horror which is perhaps making a point of how this misogyny gets passed down through the ages or perhaps more directly it’s trying to show how all these toxic concepts and patterns are ultimately what “birthed” the sexist violence that existed in her husband.

That finale, I’d say is probably one of the weaker elements of the film.  I think I get what he was going for and the visuals Garland employs are certainly bold and transgressive but the CGI being employed is not perfect and the imagery its working with is outlandish to the point of almost being comical rather than truly disturbing.  There are some gory moments in the movie that are handled better including one really nasty moment involving a knife and a hand, but in general people coming to this looking for a normal scary horror movie are probably not going to get what they’re looking for.  I’m also not sure that the choice to have Rory Kinnear play all the male characters here aside from the husband really paid off.  It works alright for some of the characters but in the case of the teenage character it involved using some visual effects the movie wasn’t really able to pull off and landed somewhere in the uncanny valley.  But the movie is not without some solid atmosphere and filmmaking elsewhere.  The village and the house are appropriately creepy areas without really having anything overtly scary about them and the sound team along with composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow give the film an appropriately moody soundscape.

So now, seven years since writing that Ex Machina review I kind of regret I’m once again faced with an Alex Garland movie where I’m not quite sure where to land.  Part of me wants to avoid my previous mistake and give this the benefit of the doubt that it would grow on me, but I feel like I have more grounded comparisons to make this time around and frankly I do think this is actually a lesser movie than Ex Machina even if it’s more bold in its own way.  In some ways I feel like it’s more productive to go back to my mother! comparison.  This is more focused than that movie and less obtuse in its symbolism and purpose, but also certainly less ambitious and cinematically it doesn’t stick the landing as well.  I guess ultimately I’m going to have to fall back on my overall philosophy that, to a point, I’d rather see something try something bold and stumble a little than coast on easy mode.  This is definitely better than your average horror movie and I’m more happy I saw it than a lot of other movies even if there are aspects to it that feel a little “extra.”

***1/2 out of Five


Mortal Kombat(4/24/2021)

There are a lot of people who look back on their childhood and have vivid memories of playing little league baseball or going camping or riding bikes through the suburbs to save alien or whatever else normies do.  But some of my most vivid memories involved spending summer days in my basement den trying to finally beat Motaro, the cheap-ass centaur sub-boss from “Mortal Kombat 3” on my Super Nintendo.  In fact the number of hours I’ve dedicated to the Mortal Kombat franchise is right up there with James Bond and Universal Horror for me as far as things I became obsessed with as a child.  On some level I always knew that Street Fighter was probably the mechanically superior fighting series to Mortal Kombat but the mechanics of actually playing the game had very little to do with it: Street Fighter just never let you rip a dude’s spine out or cut a dude in half with a hat, so it was never going to stand out as much to me.  But my interest in the series wasn’t just rooted in bloodlust, like a lot of people I came for the gore but stayed for the lore.  It had a large roster of colorful characters each with their own backstories and a lot of the fun of the franchise came from trying to piece together the canon series of events from each game based on the limited info you got from the various intros and ending texts, in fact I might have spent more time looking up stuff about each character online than I ever did playing the actual games.

Was all of this actually worth my time?  Well, I’m not sure I can answer that objectively. I certainly wouldn’t tell an adult looking at these story elements that it was actually good and worth their time given that it’s actually a bunch of weird bullshit that probably doesn’t actually cohere outside of my imagination, but I still like it and I don’t think I’m alone because the new games have kind of doubled down on story despite what most people actually know the games for.  I don’t actually buy the games anymore because I’m actually terrible at playing fighting games, but every time one comes out I immediately check youtube for montages of the latest fatalities and for the cutscenes so I know what Johnny Cage and Scorpion are up to these days.  Anyway, people have seen the potential in this character roster outside of the gaming context for ages, most notably in the 1995 Paul W.S. Anderson film that I certainly enjoyed at the time but which most people view as being “fun trash” at best these day, but there have also been several attempts to bring the series to television and the internet for a while and I will neither confirm nor deny having read a Mortal Kombat tie-in novel at the height of my youthful fandom.  And now, while the games are as popular as ever, Hollywood has come knocking again and the result is the new Warner Brothers (theoretically) theatrical release Mortal Kombat.

Unlike the 1995 film, which revolved around the actual Mortal Kombat tournament and is instead set before the critical tenth tournament as fighters start assembling and the forces of Outworld try to kill some of them before it begins.  Our point of view protagonist is an original character named Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who is a low level MMA fighter.  When Young is attacked by Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) a fellow fighter named Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mehcad Brooks) and his colleague Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) help him escape and tell him that a birthmark on his chest means he’s destined to fight for Earthrealm in the Mortal Kombat and that Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is sending assassins to kill these champions before the tournament begins.  The trio, along with their prisoner Kano (Josh Lawson), eventually regroup and assemble at a temple where they meet the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and others and need to prepare for further attacks by Shang Tsung’s attack squad.

This is going to be a difficult movie to talk about because it’s a movie that’s clearly made “for the fans” and as a fan I quite enjoyed it but it’s the guiltiest of pleasures and I don’t know that it’s something I can actually defend.  At the very least I expect a lot about this plot is going to sound like absolute nonsense to people who haven’t been exposed to this stuff before as the movie does very little to either slowly introduce all the weirdness or bring it down to earth like the 1995 film did.  The appeal of the movie is largely in bringing these famous characters to the screen and doing so without making too many concessions to watering them down; if the 1995 film was the equivalent of the 2000 X-Men giving its heroes black leather suits this one is like an MCU adapting their characters’ to the screen complete with outfits that are colorful and not too dissimilar from their comic book origins.  For some characters that works better than others.  Kano is his usual over the top seedy self and it’s cool seeing Sub-Zero finally unleash his powers in maximally gory ways, but some characters just don’t have the screen time to really be done justice.  Liu Kang and Kung Lao are both relatively relegated in the film despite the former basically being the series’ protagonist in the video games and some fan favorites like Mileena and Kabal are basically turned into background henchmen.

Did I mention that this movie was dumb and pandering?  Because it totally is.  It’s the kind of movie that goes out of its way to stop in the middle of certain fight scenes to deliver catch phrases like “finish him” and it’s willing to ignore certain aspects of logic and consistency in order to make the characters exist in their most iconic forms, namely through a device where characters just sort of magically acquire certain powers at random.  It’s dumb, but the fight choreography isn’t half bad.  I mean, nothing here is going to make Iko Uwais or Donnie Yen fear for their jobs, but people looking for some decent fight scenes won’t come away disappointed.  It was nice to see this film able to unleash the gory mayhem that made the games famous but which was missing from the PG-13 90s movies, but the special effects here are passable at best and its cast is B and C tier and the presence of just one legit celebrity might have elevated the movie a bit.  The movie ends with a clear set-up for a sequel which I wouldn’t mind seeing as there is a decent foundation here but as a story unto itself there’s not a ton to write home about.  I don’t know, the more I write the movie the more I talk myself out of thinking it was any good at all, but that wouldn’t be true to my actual experience while watching it.  As an MK fanboy I did have a lot of fun with it, but I would have grave reservations about recommending it to anyone else.

*** out of Five


[Editor’s note: this review was written in mid-December but held back until the film was released to the wider public]

It’s been a long and winding year since premiered to much praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was picked up by A24, a studio that was kicking ass and taking names the last few years but hasn’t quite known what to do over the course of the pandemic.  They’ve been holding most of their movies until later when they can really do theatrical runs, which is probably my preferred move but it’s painful nonetheless.  In fact I’m still not sure if Minari is on track for a clear release plan, I watched it through a one-week only virtual cinema thing, but you can clearly envision a world where there wasn’t a pandemic and this would have been perfect arthouse counter-programing in the middle of a summer filled with bigger movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul… though I suppose we’re about to be getting them soon as well so maybe destiny was fulfilled just the same.

The film is set in the 1980s and follows a family of Korean immigrants who had moved from the peninsula to California and then to (of all places) Arkansas where the family patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) has a dream of starting a farm for Korean produce that he can sell to ethnic markets.  His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is skeptical about this plan and isn’t thrilled to be living in a manufactured home but has gone along with his dream just the same and while it’s getting off the ground they need to hold down a day job at a chicken plant.  They also decide to bring in Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to help around the house with raising the children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) as they adjust to their new surroundings.  A local man named Paul (Will Patton) helps with the agriculture and they have some luck, but there are great challenges.  Getting fresh water to grow the crops becomes a challenge and the financial troubles test Jacob and Monica’s marriage and all the while and David has a heart murmur that becomes a topic of much anxiety for the entire family.

Minari was directed by a guy named Lee Isaac Chung, who has actually made three scripted features previously but I don’t know that any of them really had much of a life outside the festival circuit.  I haven’t seen those earlier films but two of them seem like kind of standard American indies and the other seems to be tied into humanitarian work he’s done in Uganda.  With this latest film he appears to be taking a more personal approach to the point of making a film that is openly autobiographical.  The names here are changed but Chung did in fact grow up in an Arkansas farm and even if you don’t know that autobiographical fact it’s not hard to intuit that the film, while also showing things not directly witnessed by him, is essentially being told from the perspective of the little boy in this house and is ultimately about his early life.  His telling of the story seems rather clear-headed, he does have a certain nostalgia for this town and land and has a certain pride and affection for his parents’ desire to make a good life for themselves in a new country but he’s also more than willing to show their flaws; how his fathers’ dreams of success could make him a rather cold parent and husband at times and the mother isn’t always the strongest advocate for herself or for the kids.

That it is so clearly rooted in Chung’s own memories does have a couple of drawbacks, namely that it kind of gives short shrift to his older sister’s story, which I would have liked to see a bit more of given that she probably had a clearer perspective on these events, but having that personal touch probably adds more than it subtracts.  The film is primarily in the Korean language (if I were to hazard a guess I’d say its maybe 20% in English), but make no mistake this is an intensely American story.  Movies about the immigrant experience are perhaps inherently going to have a bit of extra power and weight when they’re made in the era of Trump even as that winds down here in late 2020 given his attacks on that American institution.  Minari doesn’t exactly break the mold in how these stories are told, in fact this could be read as a pretty traditional take on the pursuit of the “American dream” in many ways but that vague familiarity in many ways grounds it within that tradition.  In many ways it’s an interesting movie to watch in relation to this year’s other big Sundance movie The Nest, which also deals with a man who’s maybe in a bit over his head convincing his family to make a move they maybe aren’t comfortable with, but this tells a version of that story that a bit less operatic and a bit more optimistic in the end.  It’s keenly observed and thoughtful cinema constructed well and what it lacks in novelty it makes up for with truthfulness.

**** out of Four

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom(1/1/2021)

On August 29th 2020 the world received the sad news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died after a secret fight with colon cancer, probably the most shocking Hollywood death since the announcement that Heath Ledger had been killed by an accidental overdose before the release of The Dark Knight, which would have changed his career.  Almost as shocking as the death was the fact that the actor had apparently been working pretty consistently with the shadow of death hanging over his head.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, meaning that he played Black Panther in four different movies, played Thurgood Marshall, made that 21 Bridges movie, and also made his contribution to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods all while fighting for his life without anyone knowing it at the time.  Now it’s likely that he didn’t know that whole time that his condition was terminal, but still, this clearly says something about his passion for performing and how important he viewed his work.  If you look at the movies he chose to make during that stretch that 21 Bridges movie is the only one that stands out as being something of a frivolous paycheck depending on how much you value an MCU film like Black Panther.  There was, however, one final screen performance he gave before his passing and it looked like quite the acting showcase in general: a new adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The film is set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio.  A session has been set up for the blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) to record some singles.  The record label owner Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) have arranged to bring in a band of studio musicians to back her.  This band is led by a trombone player who’s worked with Rainey before named Cutler (Colman Domingo), an older piano player named Toledo (Glynn Turman), a relaxed bass player who goes by Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and finally a young upstart trumpet player named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman).  Green has come up with a new arrangement for one of Rainey’s signature tunes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Irvin has brought him in with the intention of recording that version, which hues closer to Louis Armstrong style improvisational jazz than traditional blues, but Cutler isn’t interested in recording that version and is fairly certain that Rainey won’t either when she arrives.  This sparks a series of conflicts that escalate over the course of the afternoon.

Ma Rainey’s Black Body can in some ways be viewed as a follow-up to the 2016 film Fences as both are based on plays from August Wilson’s Century Cycle and like that film it’s produced (though not directed by or starring) Denzel Washington and features Viola Davis in a major role, but this time Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe is in the director’s chair.  The Century Cycle is set up in such a way that there’s a different play for every decade with Fences being the play about the 50s and this being the play about the 20s, and that place in history is pretty important here both in how it’s looking at a particular moment in the great migration north and unlike all the other plays in the cycle this is set in Chicago rather than Pittsburgh in part because the differences between that city and the south is particularly emblematic of changes in the music industry that are key to the story.  The play and film are about a number of key themes beyond the great migration, it’s also about black music and its commodification by a white record industry, about what African Americans need to do to get respect in white institutions, and also about the stresses that African Americans needed to live under and how that plays into black on black crime… it’s heavy stuff, but it doesn’t make these points in didactic ways.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, who was an actual historical figure though she has been turned into a fictional character for August Wilson’s purposes.  She doesn’t have quite as much screen time as you might think given that she’s the title character but her time in the film does sort of challenge you to consider what you think of her.  Rainey is what you’d call “hard to work with.”  She shows up late, makes all sorts of diva-ish demands, and is completely closed minded about plans to jazz up her son and you are somewhat tempted to take the side of the white record executive and manager as well as Levee Green in thinking she’s a pain in the ass, but as the film goes on you start to see a lot of this behavior less as a sort of needless stubbornness and more as a sort of fight to stave off exploitation.  Levee Green, who would probably be the most important character if you were to choose a lead out of this ensemble, is similarly fascinating as someone who is just trying to break into music but isn’t quite as savvy and as the film goes on you come to realize that he’s somewhat unstable in part because of some very rough experiences he had early on in life and this makes him rather confrontational when dealing with the rest of the band.  Chadwick Boseman appears in the film rather gaunt and noticeably less muscular than when he was playing Black Panther, which seems like something of a sad reminder that he was fighting terminal cancer when he filmed this, but ignoring that it fits the character as this is supposed to be a rather younger man than the 43 year old Boseman.  Boseman takes on a bit of a southern dialect here and manages to really nail some key speeches and does a great job of conveying some key changes in mood at certain points.

If there’s anything that holds back Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom it’s that at its core it still very much feels like what it is: a stage play adapted to film.  Major character swings seem to happen over the course of an afternoon, it’s largely told through dialogue and there’s even a key moment when someone essentially soliloquizes to the camera, which are all moments that scream “stage play” and while much of it retains its power and is done well, there is always going to be something of feeling that a square peg is being inserted into a circular hole.  I don’t want to make this into a bigger problem than it is, frankly as someone who doesn’t get out to much live theater it’s nice to have adaptations like this, but with rare exceptions their basic nature make them kind of hard to view as ten out of ten type things even when they’re as well made as this, you just kind of feel like giving more of the credit to the original playwright than you do to the filmmaking, at least when they don’t bring any particularly new twists to the table.  Still, when the underlying play is this good, the actors assembled are this good, and the direction works out this well, it’s hard to complain too much.

**** out of Five


When David Fincher announced he’d be making the American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I thought “yeah, that seems like something he’d make” what with its focus on technology and serial killers.  Then when he announced that he’d be making an adaptation of Gone Girl I though “yep, sounds like another thing he’d make” as he’d just done a pretty good job adapting a novel of that caliber.  Then when he announced he’d be working on the “Mindhunter” TV series I was a little surprised by the medium but still, a serial killer show certainly seems to be in his wheelhouse.  But when he announced that his next film project would be a black and white film about the life of the early Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz that threw me for a bit more of a loop.  Firstly it seemed odd that anyone would get funding to make a movie about Mankiewicz, who was something of an obscure figure to the general public and who was (to my eyes at least) not even as important as his brother Joseph Mankiewicz.  Secondly it seemed like an odd project for Fincher, both because he has as of late doubled down on using commercial thrillers as catalysts for his skills but also because more than most filmmakers Fincher does not strike me as someone who is overly sentimental about film history.  He came into directing through the (at the time) cutting edge medium of the music video, he was an early adopter of digital filmmaking, and his visual style is pretty heavily based on giving his movies this really sleek look that kind of screams modernity.

So on that level this project did not make a lot of sense as Fincher’s next project, but on other levels it kind of did make sense.  For one thing, Fincher differs from the other major auteurs of his generation like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson in that he does not write or co-write the scripts for any of his own movies and has instead collaborated with high profile screenwriters like Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Eric Roth, David Koepp, and Andrew Kevin Walker which I think maybe gives him a somewhat unique respect for the role of the screenwriter in the cinema process and in a way that makes him something of a perfect director for a movie about a legendary screenwriter and by extension screenwriters writ large.  On top of that there’s a rather personal angle he seems to be coming to this project from in that this screenplay about screenwriters was actually written by Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, who was a magazine writer who also wrote various unproduced screenplays, including this one, prior to his death in 2003.  David Fincher has apparently been interested in making this since way back in the 90s and has only now brought the movie to the screen.

The film begins in 1940 with Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) arriving at a cottage in a small town outside Los Angeles where he plans to work on this latest screenplay while recovering from a leg injury he got in a car crash.  That screenplay is an as of yet untitled project he’s agreed to work on with Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who has been given a promising contract from RKO and intends to use to make a film which is a fictionalized telling of the life of the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.  Interestingly, Mankiewicz had actually known Hearst (Charles Dance) and his younger paramour Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) through his various dealings with Los Angeles high society and we get to learn about that and a handful of other interesting tidbits about Mankiewicz through the film’s second timeline which follows the writer from 1930 up to the Kane timeline as he witnesses his dealings with other major Hollywood figures like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) as they along with Hearst respond to the depression and the 1934 gubernatorial election between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam.

It doesn’t take long to understand what Fincher is up to visually here; he’s presenting something of a fusion of modern and classic aesthetics.  The film is in black and white, a medium that Fincher has worked with before back in his music video days and while the movie was filmed digitally he’s added a great deal of artificial grain to the image.  The movie even has cigarette burns to signal reel changes despite the fact that it was made for streaming.  This is pretty far removed from the really smooth look that Fincher’s films had even back when he was working on 35mm, though you can still see Fincher’s trademark perfectionism and smooth camera movements and he definitely has a good time playing with shadows here.  The film also uses period appropriate fonts in its opening titles and even tries to replicate vintage audio recording in the dialogue, giving every line  certain echo which will be recognizable to classic movie fans if perhaps a bit alienating for more general audiences.  The film is not, however, a complete slave to 1940s filming conventions.   It is shot in widescreen, which is not something that would have been available at the time, and the movie also doesn’t insist on being restrained by Hayes code censorship and includes a sprinkling of profanity that wouldn’t have been used in Hollywood’s golden age.

Of course the golden age film that this is most intentionally riffing on is Citizen Kane, but keeping with the subject matter the aspect of that film it’s borrowing from the most is the writing and particularly the flashback chronology it’s working with.  A majority of the film takes place over the course of various segments about Mankiewicz’ experiences in the 1930s, including some peaks into the day to day life of a Hollywood screenwriter during that era but it increasingly becomes about Mankiewicz’ growing disgust with the elites in Hollywood and their responses to the depression.  This aspect of the film feels surprisingly topical in a way I wasn’t necessarily expecting.  Discussions of the rise of fascism in Germany combined with elite disbelief that the people of that country could “fall for that” certainly brings to mind the rise of… a certain someone else four years ago.  Meanwhile you’ve got this unconventional figure running a perhaps ill-fated campaign for office on a socialist platform that freaks out the establishment, so it basically seems like a parallel to the more paranoid readings of Bernie Sanders’ recent electoral history.  Then of course there’s William Randolph Hearst himself, a Rupert Murdoch figure if ever there was one (or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Murdoch is a Hearst figure).  Of course if it’s true that all of this was written by Jack Fincher back in the 90s then a lot of these parallels to today are sort of coincidences, but David Fincher was almost certainly mindful about them when making the actual movie at this particular time.

Mank is in many ways a movie that was made for me; it’s a movie about movies and about movie history that’s told in a thoughtful way and which respects its audience and expects them to go into it with a certain degree of historical and cinematic knowledge.  That said I’m not sure it’s movie that’s particularly accessible to people who aren’t primed for this sort of thing and I’m not sure it’s going to be the audience pleasing awards contender that Netflix is hoping it will be.  For one thing I’m not sure that Mankiewicz is going to be a figure that a lot of people are going to be as interested in as I am and even if they do, the movie they’re being given has a really cynical world-view in which the powerful pretty much always get their way and even projects that are meant as a broadside against them are ultimately co-opted and marginalized.  If I personally had an issue with the movie it’s probably that I don’t think it perfectly handles its ending, in which it sort of concludes by picking a fight that’s kind of tangential to the main themes of the rest of the film and tries to handle a rather loaded controversy briefly and largely off screen in a way that kind of feels like the resolution to a conflict that wasn’t really there in the rest of the movie.  In fact, I’d say the 1940 framing story is generally less interesting than the flashbacks and maybe could have been handled a bit differently.  That aside, I’m largely impressed by the final movie and look forward to revisiting it.

**** out of Five


I don’t know that I necessarily saw this coming but the “A24 horror film” has somehow become something of a filmgoing institution.  These are horror movies that are noticeably artier and more intelligent than what cinema-goers are normally used to and critics love them.  However, as a byproduct of these being horror enough to play in normal theaters they also bring in a lot of audiences who expect their genre fare to offer simpler pleasures and as a result they end up getting really low “Cinemascores” (which are like these exit-poll things that are done by a research company and are considered important by Hollywood insiders) and end up getting these hilariously clueless user reviews in places like IMDB and RottenTomatoes.  Honestly I think this critic/audience disconnect is a bit overblown, it’s basically just the result of a cadre of people who were never really in these films’ audience in the first place also tagging along and not knowing how to process what they’re being given.  The main movies in this trend have been Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Trey Edward Schults’ It Comes At Night, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and while Hereditary was the last of these films to come out its director was the first of the three to have a follow-up come out.  That new film, Midsommar, is opening this week on 2707 screens and should lead to some rather interesting audience responses.

Midsommar begins with something of a prologue set somewhere in the United States during the middle of winter.  Here we’re introduced to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a psychology student who’s struggling with a troubled sister and a fairly shaky relationship with her boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor).  Christian and his friends are planning a trip to Sweden in the summer to visit the home village of his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) which lives a traditional lifestyle and still engages in centuries old rituals during festival times, which is of great interest to Christian and his fellow anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and of course European decadence is also very much of interest to his other friend Mark (Will Poulter).  After a tragedy occurs Christian decides to invite Dani along to get away from it all, but it could soon become clear that they aren’t exactly sure what they’re in for.

Despite what Cinemascore might suggest I do think Hereditary ended up pleasing standard horror audiences more than some of the other A24 horror films.  It grossed more at the box office than the other two films and I’ve generally heard fewer anecdotes about dumb people being “bored” by it.  I think that’s because, in its last third, the film does start to deliver on some of the more conventional scares that people are looking for.  That in many ways seems to be what may set Ari Aster apart from someone like Robert Eggers; even when he’s making a horror film in his own idiosyncratic ways he does know how to throw the horror audience a bone.  In this film that bone is probably the set of characters he’s assembled, who do roughly fall within the usual trope characters even if they feel richer than usual.  Dani might not be a virgin but she still has plenty of “final girl”-isms, Christian certainly seems like the jock boyfriend who ultimately won’t be able to protect her, Josh is the “smart one” who knows a lot about the sub-theme, and Mark is the boorish party dude who acts as comedy relief.  The film manages to challenge some of these tropes without self-consciously subverting them but it isn’t afraid to exploit them just the same and is surprisingly funny at times in the way it depicts the interplay between some of these guys.

The other big connective tissue between Midsommar and Hereditary is that both films are in many ways movies about mourning and feature characters who are just recovering after experiencing a loss that makes them rather emotionally vulnerable right from the jump.  Also, in much the way Hereditary basically shows the dissolution of a family as a result of both grief and supernatural shenanigans, Midsommar explores the toll of both a loss and horror scenarios on a relationship.  Dani and Christian are two characters who are established as being pretty close to the end of the road already as the movie opens, with Christian’s friends establishing that he’s been planning to break up with her for reasons that seem cruel but understandable.  Dani is shown to have been someone who’s gone through a lot even before her family tragedy and that she’s been a handful and a half and that Christian has been at wits end and that he’s on some level been staying in the relationship out of a sort of uncertain pity.  Christian knows this, the audience knows this, but Dani does not necessarily know this and that kind of establishes for the audience that they’re about to be metaphorically watching a car crash in slow motion and the rest of the movie can almost be viewed as a sort of operatic manifestation of how this kind of breakup can go wrong in the most extreme of ways.

Of course this is a horror movie, or at least it poses as one.  The obvious reference-point for all of this is obviously Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, which is about a similarly paganistic commune which may or may not be sinister in its adherence to “the old ways.”  Like that movie it doesn’t necessarily try to be “scary” at all times and instead gains power by exerting a sort of quiet threat at all times.  In fact a lot of what makes the movie so appealing in its paranoia is the way the characters are constantly having their survival instincts over-ridden by the hospitality of these cultists, who have this uniquely Swedish way of seeming completely reasonable and inviting no matter what they’re saying.  Where the film may lose some people is that, outside of a couple of gory moments thrown in, the horror in the film is generally left at an intentional simmer rather than brought to a boil.  Though it goes into some fairly transgressive places towards the end it isn’t necessarily leading to anything as viscerally exciting as the finale of Hereditary.  Rather, the film’s finale is almost more like a really, really, really dark joke rather than a thrilling chase in the dark and that could be a bit polarizing.

At the end of the day, Midsommar is built to be a niche genre movie… the Swedish title probably should have been your first clue there.  It’s a film that’s uncompromising, it’s got a long running time, it takes its time, it will gross out people who come in expecting it to be The Conjuring, and it just generally behaves different from mainstream horror movies (even more so than Hereditary).  That it’s opening wide will maybe lead to the same pattern of critical acclaim and fan backlash that we’ve seen before… but maybe it won’t.  Maybe if A24 keeps putting out interesting product like this the right audience will continue to catch on and the people who aren’t equipped to enjoy them will increasingly stop showing up expecting the wrong thing.  As for this one, well, even as someone very interested in what it was doing I will admit that this is pushing the limits of how long a horror movie can go without really trying to be conventionally scary and as such I probably preferred Hereditary on a whole.  But maybe that’s a sacrifice worth making in order to see what Ari Aster can do when he’s really allowed to just go nuts.

**** out of Five