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Midsommar (2019)

I was not a fan of Hereditary. It had some admirable craft and a potent sense of dread, but it felt like it was being made up as it went and little came to much without exposition that was literally highlighted. I worried the same was about to transpire with writer/director Ari Aster’s newest indie horror darling with the critics, Midsommar. It has many of the same faults I found with the earlier Hereditary yet I walked away mostly pleased from his campy, weird, and disturbing follow-up. I’m still processing why I hold one over the other, so come along with me, dear reader, as I work through this conundrum.

Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are hanging on in a relationship past its prime. Each is wondering whether to end it, and then tragedy strikes and Dani’s family is killed in one large suicide. She’s lost to her grief and Christian feels compelled to comfort her and guilty to leave. He invites her to a retreat he had been intending with his friends (Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper) to the idyllic home of a Swedish-born pal, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). The group travels to the northern reaches of Sweden to attend the pagan mid-summer festival, an event that happens once every ninety years, but things are not what they appear and soon it may be too late to leave.

From a technical perspective, Aster has some serious skills even if they don’t fully amount to much. His decision to film the majority of the film in bright sunlight provides a disarming contrast to most horror films that use darkness and our primal fear of it as the backdrop for their scary shenanigans. It produces a different landscape for the movie and the illusion of tranquility that will be shaken. The photography by Pawel Pogorzelski is often gorgeous in its framing and deliberate shot compositions. Aster’s command of technical craft and his ability with actors gives him such a great starting point with his projects. I just wish they amounted to more than the sum of their parts, and I’m not sure Midsommar is different.

It’s hard not to notice that Midsommar is decidedly less ambitious and more streamlined than Hereditary, and I think this has positives and negatives. First, it makes the film more condensed and accessible. It’s also a smart move to personalize the story through the experiences of Dani and her recovery from trauma. The plot presented is pretty predictable; you’ve seen enough other cult movies to know what should be ominous and what decisions will be regretted. I strongly suspect that Aster recognizes that his audience knows these things and that’s why the narrative isn’t built around what will happen next but more so how will Dani respond to what will happen next. There’s a deadly ritual at about the hour mark that just about everyone and their invalid grandmother will be able to see coming, though that doesn’t take away from the sick brutality of the moment and some stomach-churning prosthetics. However, even though I knew it was coming, the dread was more palpable for me because I knew it would trigger Dani, so I was lying in wait to observe her response and how it reopened her fresh emotional trauma. Midsommar is filled with these moments, where the audience may know what’s coming but not exactly how Dani will respond, and that personalization and emphasis on her perspective made the simplification work.

On the other end, Midsommar is very obvious with its very obvious influences. I’m hesitant to cite by name these influences because it gives away the game as far as where the plot is headed, but if you’ve seen the trailer then you likely already have a healthy guess. Again, it feels like Aster knows what his audience is anticipating because the homages are apparent. There’s literally a bear suit at one point and a homemade lottery system to determine participation. It’s all right there, in your face, and yet the movie doesn’t move beyond these unsubtle reference points. Midsommar ends exactly where you would expect it to end and without a more satisfying sense of resolution to tie things up. While it hinges on the choices made by Dani and her response to them, it doesn’t go into the consequences or implications of those choices, and leaves the audience hanging for more meaning never to materialize.

Lord knows they could have carved some of that needed resolution from the overindulgent 140-minute running time. Much of Midsommar is methodically paced to build its unnerving and inquisitive atmosphere, to better immerse the audience in the peculiar rites and customs of this secluded cult. But a little goes a long way and after so many rituals it can become repetitious. There’s at least twenty minutes that could have been trimmed to makes this movie less meandering. The woman sitting behind me at my screening openly complained, during yet another ritual, “When is this going to be over?”

I was genuinely surprised to be laughing as often as I did, and that’s because Midsommar has a very intentional camp element at its disposal. The cult rituals and behaviors are meant to be creepy but also goofy as we view them from the perspective of the outsider. It’s the same perspective that informs the whole movie. We’re learning alongside the characters about what this hidden world is like, layer by layer, and there’s a sense of discovery that helps drive the film and kept my interest attained. These are pretty stupid characters because they should be turning around and running for home time and time again, and yet they stay behind. It becomes an unexpected dark comedy watching them ignore the many warning signs that are obvious to the audience. It’s dumbfounding that after everything these characters would still drink what they are served. Horror is rife with stupid characters being ignorant to obvious dangers, but this movie turns it into consistent humor. There are moments of pure weirdness that just forced me to laugh heartily, and it definitely feels like that is the intended response. How else should one respond when a nude woman interrupts sexual coitus to start singing in your face?

The characters aren’t exactly the Ugly American depictions we’ve come to expect in movies where we root for their demise in a foreign setting. Nobody matters except for Dani and Christian, and even he is more a foil for her. He’s not a bad person but he’s also not helping her. The movie is dominated by Dani and her emotional journey. There are many scenes of her breaking down and Pugh (the breakout from the underseen Lady Macbeth) is our emotional anchor. Her performance is more grounded than Toni Colette’s in Hereditary and a respite for the audience to come back to. The empathetic community of the pagan cult provides a comfort she is searching for. Pugh feels like a normal person struggling under trauma and relatable relationship woes.

With two horror movies under his belt, Aster’s style and signatures as a filmmaker are coming more into focus. He emphasizes atmosphere and mystery at the expense of plot. His movies have creepy images and moments, and Midsommar definitely has its spooky share, but these moments can also feel rather arbitrary. Why does someone wear a bear suit and not a moose suit? It doesn’t matter because it’s just atmospheric ephemera that doesn’t tie into the plot. Why is there a “seer” with elephantitus who happens to be the byproduct of inbreeding? Because it looks weird, and never mind that that much inbreeding would take generations. The world building feels at the behest of the imagery and not the other way around. Also, you’ll know you’re watching an Ari Aster film if there’s older full-frontal nudity, an emphasis on mental illness, suicide, religious cults, and wailing women. I mean like loud, painfully prolonged caterwauling. There are even moments where the cult acts like a chorus to the cries, climaxes, and wailing of others, and it goes from being weird to being obnoxious rather quickly.

I predict Midsommar is going to be another hit with critics and self-styled horror elites and leave most general audiences bewildered and frustrated (Hereditary received a D+ rating from opening day audiences via CinemaScore). It’s hard for me to see a broad audience willingly hopping aboard Ari Aster’s wavelength, which seems engineered to be insular. It prizes creepy atmosphere at the behest of plot and structure, the pacing can be stubbornly slow and repetitious, and you’re left wondering if anything amounted to anything. At least with Midsommar I feel like stripping down the narrative and streamlining made me more empathetic with the main heroine and her reactions, but it does make for a less ambitious and more predictable film that, despite being in bright sunlight, is content to stay hidden in the shadows of its influences.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.

In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.

There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.

The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.

The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.

This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.

And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Mandy (2018)

Mandy is a gonzo, psychotropic mood piece that will infuriate some, test others, and delight a select audience that responds enthusiastically to atmospheric indulgences. Set in the 1980s, because of course it’s the 80s, a logger (Nicolas Cage) and his titluar girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have a bad run-in with a small cult. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), declares that the god of the universe told him he is entitled to everything, and he picks Mandy. Bad things transpire and Cage is left for dead. He sets off on a quest for vengeance against the cult and a fetish-clad biker gang they employ as muscle, and in the process he might be going insane.

So what kind of movie is Mandy? There really isn’t a plot here so much as an immersive experience of fever dream imagery with a loving yet detached nod to its cultural influences from the 1980s, heavy metal music videos, Heavy Metal magazines, heavy metal album covers (sensing a trend?). There is the bare bones of a plot here, a revenge formula, but it’s really more about the moments and the feelings that writer/director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is trying to communicate through the screen. He’s another disciple of the Terrence Malick/Nicolas Winding Refn School of Filmmaking, ditching the story details for a visually immersive and hallucinatory sensory experience. The problem with these kinds of movies is that you either check into that wavelength or you don’t. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, as all movies either engage or disengage, but because the story and characters are so minimalist, the opportunities to click with the material rely entirely upon the moody atmosphere and creative execution.

Mandy is overwhelmingly a campy revenge thriller that celebrates the unique Cage-ness of Nicolas Cage’s more unhinged, bizarre performances. This is a movie that asks Cage to go the full Cage, and that can be a beautiful thing. There’s a knowing campiness to the whole exercise that doesn’t feel condescending. It’s not making fun of the onscreen antics so much as it is celebrating the artful absurdity. This is the kind of movie where there’s a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel and it’s awesome. This is the kind of movie where every patch of woods has a blast of fog to make it feel like a dark fairy tale. It’s the kind of movie where the practical gore effects are stomach churning and memorable. It’s the kind of movie where Cage lights his cigarette from the fire of a decapitated head. It’s a movie where Cage goes on a journey where he transcends into the mythic. He is no mere mortal by the end; he is the mythic figure of vengeance. The man doesn’t just find his foes to foil; he has to first construct his own metallic scythe straight out of a fantasy adventure. Cage is fully aligned with the bizarre and eerie primal nature of the film. His crazed intensity is matched perfectly with the overwrought atmosphere and villains. There are moments where his bug-eyed stare or maniacal laughter will give you chills. He has one sequence that’s petty much non-stop screaming on a toilet as he tries to process shocking grief. It’s a performance that asks Cage to be unrestrained and tightly coiled at parts, relying more on physicality and intense looks than dialogue. For fans of the ironic and sublimely weird Nicolas Cage, Mandy should be a deranged delight to hoot and holler.

However, there’s really no entry point for a viewer if they do not celebrate the campy, gonzo, detached atmospherics of the film. Walking out of Mandy, I told my friends that it needed 20 percent more plot and 20 percent less movie. There’s no reason this movie needs to be over to hours long, especially with its threadbare plot. It takes far too long to get going, with the cult attacking Cage and his girlfriend at the one-hour mark. The second half has improved pacing but still takes its sweet time too. Cosmatos seems to favor a dreamy sense of pacing, so instead of, say, ten seconds of watching Cage’s pained reaction, we’ll get 30 seconds. The self-indulgence has a way of making the artful intent redundant. Did we need those extra 20 seconds to really feel the full artistry? Or, perhaps, could Cosmatos have used all the extra time saved from collectively trimming the excess moments and diversions to better develop the characters and story? The other problem with diverting the majority of the attention to atmospherics is that the eventual comeuppance of the cult lacks a full sense of satisfaction. If we don’t get to really know the cult members then we won’t feel the rush of catharsis when they are dispatched. I talked about this very topic with my review for Peppermint, another revenge thriller with inherent structural problems that mitigated audience payoffs. The revenge formula is a simple thing and engineered to deliver payoffs. Here are two September releases that fumble that formula, although Mandy places less importance upon it. Most of these cult members are given a look, at best, which makes them interchangeable and disposable. Jeremiah Sand is an intriguing, hilarious, pathetic creature, and so the final showdown proves satisfying and somewhat revelatory, as his ego-driven bluster transitions quickly to pleading and bargaining and abject fear. It’s a fitfully climactic moment but did we need two hours to get here? There’s a better 90-minute movie trapped inside here, subsumed and suffocated by Cosmatos’ love affair with his influences and indulgences.

This is also sadly the last score from composer Johann Johannsson, who passed away in February of this year. He was an eclectic creative voice whose musical abilities were diverse. He could create a thundering score that felt like an incoming army, like with Sicario, or a soaring melody that could lift your spirits, like his Oscar-winning score for Theory of Everything. With Mandy, Johannsson relies upon those 80s metal influences and produces a sonic landscape fitting for Cosmatos. The score is kept at a rumble that accentuates the nightmarish qualities of the visuals. To the end, Johannsson sought unconventional methods to give voice to his movies.

Mandy is a crazy, dreamy, moody movie heavy on brooding atmosphere and light on story and characters. If you can hop on its wavelength, Mandy will prove to be a gonzo good time. If you can’t, it’s going to be overly reverential to its cultural influences and laboriously long. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of most Refn movies because I feel like they fall into the trap of emphasizing pretty yet hollow imagery. The ideas don’t tend to go as deep as the filmmakers think they do, and I grow restless for more. Mandy needed more time spent giving greater shape to its world and narrative. This criticism may sound unfair given the nature of the film (do you ask for the details of a dream?) but I feel dismissing its lack of substance is a step too far. Mandy is essentially a dream with hazy plotting, vivid imagery, and intense feelings, but it can wash away upon waking. I left my theater torn over the movie, wanting to celebrate its artistic vision and weirdness while also wishing there was more weirdness and more of a vision.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary has built up a great roaring buzz from film festivals and its oblique marketing. Numerous critics are hailing writer/director Ari Aster’s debut film as one of the scariest movies of a generation. The studio, A24, which has built up a fine reputation for art movies and genre fare, is releasing it. Except A24 has some trouble when it comes to its horror thrillers. Last year’s It Comes at Night was similarly beloved by critics yet audiences generally disliked it, angered by the misleading marketing that framed it as a supernatural horror (there was none, no titular “it” to come at night). I wonder if A24 learned their lesson and that’s why the trailers and ads for Hereditary have been intentionally hard to follow. After watching Hereditary and feeling let down, I wonder if A24 is in for another disparity between critics and audiences. This is a sloppy, unfocused film with little sense of structure, pacing, or payoffs. It’s a movie of moments and from there your mileage will vary.

Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) are ordinary middle-class parents living with two teenage children, the older Peter (Alex Wolff) and the younger Charlie (Millie Shapiro), a girl given to peculiar habits. Following a tragic accident, the family is struggling to come to terms with their loss and their new lives. Annie seeks out comfort from a group meeting, and that’s where she meets Joan (the great Ann Dowd) who shows her how to contact the spirits of the dead via a handy incantation. From there, Annie tries to establish a connection to the realm beyond and possibly unleashes a spirit targeting her family.

With the rapturous critical acclaim that Hereditary has garnered, I was expecting something far more engrossing and far less sloppy. Structurally, this movie is a mess. It feels very directionless from a story standpoint, like the movie is wading around and blindly looking for an escape route into the next scene. Rarely will scenes have lasting impact or connect to the following scene; you could literally rearrange the majority of the scenes in this movie and not affect the understanding whatsoever. That’s, simply put, poor screenwriting when your scenes lack a more pertinent purpose other than contributing to an ongoing atmosphere of paranoia (more on that later). I’m struggling to make broader connections or add lasting thematic relevance to much of the plotting, and that’s because it feels so convoluted and repetitious for so long, until Aster decides it’s time to throw the audience the most minimal of lifelines. There is a moment late in the second act where a character finds a convenient exposition dump by looking through a photo album and a book that is literally highlighted. That at least explains the intent of the final act, but even as that plays out, by the end it’s still mostly confounding. The film ends with another exposition dump, this time as voice over, and I got to thinking that if it wasn’t for these two offhand moments you would have no idea why anything is happening. I had a friend whose girlfriend had been bugging him for Hereditary spoilers for months, so I carefully explained the movie to them as precisely as I could. By the end, he told me, “I still don’t get it.” Yeah, I didn’t get it either and I was actively trying.

There is a type of horror fan that will lap up Hereditary, namely the kind that places the creation of dread and atmosphere and memorable moments above all else. If you’re a gushing fan of David Lynch movies or Dario Argento and their sense of strange dream logic, you’ll be more ready to prize the sum rather than the whole of Hereditary. The aesthetics are pleasurable thanks to crafty production designer Grace Yun (First Reformed) and the moody photography from Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) that maximizes the space and draws out the anticipatory dread. There are effective moments where I gasped or squirmed, but there were also moments where I wanted to laugh. The key term is “moments.” Without a structure, sense of development, and attachment to the characters and their lives, Hereditary left me chasing fleeting entertainment.

Now when it comes to horror moments, I’ll again admit that everyone’s mileage will vary. Some people will watch Hereditary and be scared stupid. Others will shrug. That’s a deeply personal response. I can look at a movie like A Quiet Place and point to its intricate structure and execution to explain why its suspense was so affecting and satisfying. With Hereditary, because all it supplies is moments, I can’t explain why something will work or won’t for a person. Maybe you have a thing against headless corpses. Maybe you have a thing for jump scares (there are more than a few). Maybe you have a thing for invisible girls making clicking noises with their tongues. Then again maybe you’d enjoy a narrative that gave you a better reason to care and that organically built meaningful scares through tangible circumstances.

If you can hang onto the final nightmarish act, that’s when Hereditary is at its best, finally picking up a sense of momentum and finality. The first forty-five minutes of this movie more closely resemble something like Manchester by the Sea, a family unit becoming undone through grief and guilt, simmering grievances just under the surface. It’s well acted, especially by Toni Collette (Krampus) as a mother barely escaping the pull of her boiling anger at her son and the universe as a whole. She gets a few quality moments to blow up and it feels like years of painful buildup coming out. The awkward family interaction is chilly but missing greater nuance. It has marked elements that should bring nuance and engagement (Personal Tragedy, Mental Instability, Blame, Guilt, Obsession), but with Aster’s undercooked screenplay those elements never coalesce. This is a movie experience that is never more than the sum of its spooky parts. Byrne (The 33) is essentially just there, and the fact that the 68-year-old actor has two teenage children is a little hard to swallow. Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) does a fine job of showing his deteriorating mind late in the movie. The problem is that these characters just aren’t that interesting, so when the supernatural acceleration creeps in, there’s already a ceiling as far as how much we, the audience, will care about what befalls them. What are the stakes if you don’t understand what’s happening and don’t genuinely care about the central characters?

My pal Ben Bailey chided me after seeing Hereditary that I was trying to do the movie’s work for it by looking for deeper connections and foreshadowing clues. Is there some greater meaning for the headless women motif? Is there a larger reason why the dollhouse God imagery is prevalent? Is there a reason, after finding out about the haunting, that the family still leaves their beleaguered son alone? Is there a mental illness connection or is it all a manifestation of hysterical grief? The English teacher discusses the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (see: a better movie following this model, 2017’s Killing of a Sacred Deer) and whether being predestined for sacrifice is more tragic than choosing your own self-destruction, and is that a glimpse at thematic relevance in a way that seems almost half-hearted? The problem with a long, incoherent story built upon a heaping helping of creepy imagery and atmosphere is that it can often fall into the lazy trap where the filmmaker will just throw up their hands as if to say, “Well, it’s up for interpretation.” I don’t mind a challenging movie experience (I was on the side that enjoyed, if that’s the correct term, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!). I can appreciate a movie that’s trying to be ambiguous and ambitious. However, the pieces have to be there to form a larger, more meaningful picture to analyze and discuss, and Hereditary just doesn’t offer those pieces. It’s an eerie horror movie with its moments of intrigue and dread but it’s also poorly developed, too convoluted, and prone to lazy writing and characterization. I’ll highlight it for you, Hereditary-style: if you’re looking for more than atmosphere and tricks, seek another horror movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Master (2012)

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson met with great resistance when he was shopping his script around for The Master. It was dubbed the “Scientology movie” and reportedly based upon the controversial religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. It looked like Hollywood was spooked by the prospect of a movie that appeared to take on Scientology. Eventually Anderson got his financing and made the movie he wanted to make. Calling it the “Scientology movie” is misleading. I wish The Master was a Scientology expose because that would be far more interesting than the exasperating film I got, which is one nutty guy who dabbled in a Scientology-like cult. Maybe the resistance Anderson experienced wasn’t an indication of the subject matter. Perhaps it was only an indication that The Master just wasn’t a compelling story, a charge I can agree with wholeheartedly after viewing this disappointing film.

Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to adjust to life after World War II. Fresh out of the Navy, he works as a department store photographer, until his rage and social awkwardness lead to him being fired. He’s drifting about and hops onto a ferry leaving town. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a man.” Dodd has gathered a revered following. He believes that people can regress to past lives trillions, yes you read that right, of years into the past. Dodd’s own children admit that dear old dad is “making it up as he goes along.” His movement, known as The Cause, has been called a cult by detractors, the will of one man, and the followers don’t take kindly to challenges from the outside. Dodd adopts Freddie as a project. He’s on the verge of completing his second major treatise and Freddie seems to be an inspiration for him. Freddie finds some measure of acceptance within Dodd’s community of followers, but his erratic behavior keeps people on constant edge.

I found The Master to be boring; uncompromisingly boring, hopelessly boring, but worse than all that, pointlessly boring. Was this really a story that needed to be told? I cannot fathom why Anderson chose to tell this story or, in particular, why he chose to tell it through the character of Freddie Quell. A story about a huckster exploiting people with a religion he made up is a fascinating story with or without the Scientology/L. Ron Hubbard connections. That’s a story worthy of being made. Now, instead of this, we have two hours of a guy acting nuts. I would better be able to stomach the Freddie character if I felt like anything of significance was happening to him. He’s a broken man, clearly mentally ill in some capacity, and prone to outbursts that turn violent. Does he change? Does he grow? Does he do anything? Does his life have anything of significance happen to him over the course of 137 minutes? Not really. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish; his arc is essentially that he’s crazy at the start, meets Dodd, and then is crazy at the end. We get it, the guy is messed up. He makes a drink out of paint thinner for crying out loud. I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t need to see static scene after static scene of this guy acting out. I wasn’t a There Will Be Blood fan but at least Daniel Plainview was a strong central character with enough dimensions to carry a film. Freddie Quell just isn’t that interesting or entertaining. He’s actually a tiresome character because you get a perfect sense of who he is in just 10 minutes. The rest of the movie just seems to remind you what you already know.

It is a disappointing realization but I feel like the Paul Thomas Anderson I enjoyed is slipping away, as his flashy, propulsive, plot-heavy early work has given way to opaque, reserved, and plotless movies. It’s like I just watched someone with the verve of Martin Scorsese transform into a poetic film somnambulist like Terrence Malick; not a good move. I don’t know what Anderson’s message is or what he was trying to say, and I’m unsure why he decided to use a limited character like Freddy Quells as his prism. It almost feels like Anderson is compensating for his plot-driven films of his early career, like he has to balance the scales in his mind. I shudder where this recompense might take Anderson for his next film. I like to think of myself as an intelligent moviegoer who enjoys being challenged by movies. But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept anything challenging as quality. Case in point: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism, which was contemptuous of its audience. I don’t mind doing work but you have to give me a reason. There has to be a reward, either with the narrative or with the characters. I found no rewards with The Master and it’s not because I didn’t “get it,” film snobs, it’s because the movie was too opaque to say anything of substance beyond simplistic observations about the abuse of power and influence.

When I say plotless I don’t mean that we’re simply watching paint dry, though there are stretches of The Master where I would feel that could be a suitable test from Dodd. There are events. There are scenes. There are changing relationships. It’s just that none of this seems to matter, or at least it never feels like it does. There’s no build, no increase in urgency, and The Master just sort of drifts along to the detached rhythms of Freddie. The movie can feel interminable, and you may ask yourself, on a loop, “Is this going anywhere?” There are two scenes that stand out because there are so few that seem to matter. One is shortly after Dodd and Freddie have been arrested. The two men are locked in opposing cells and they explode in venomous anger. It feels like Anderson can finally allow his characters to vent out what they’ve truly been feeling. Another memorable scene, just for weirdness, is when we jump inside Freddie’s head. All the women, young and old, at a social gathering suddenly lose their clothing (think: Choke). It’s one of the best scenes at exploring Freddie’s sexual compulsions, plus it’s just peculiar. I wanted more scenes like this where we try and get inside the man’s mind. The rest of the characters are underwritten, especially Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve) as Dodd’s wife and fierce protector. This is a movie about two strong-willed men and everybody else gets relegated to minimal supporting positions. I miss the sprawling humanism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is very accomplished. The 1950s era setting is lushly recreated, aided by cinematography that seems to present this bygone age in a colorless manner. By this I mean that the world feels muted, repressed, the colors are there but they don’t pop, and I think this look fits the movie marvelously. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, which would offer startling detail to his images. I did not see the film projected this way (as will most) but you could sense the time and effort put into getting the details of his world right. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is minimalist but effective, with a few key strokes of a guitar to note rising tension.

The true draw of the film is the performances, which are excellent and at least provide a reason for staying awake. This is Phoenix’s first role since his two-year performance stunt documented in I’m Still Here. It feels like his off-putting, confrontational, bizarre antics for that faux documentary were all just training for playing the character of Freddie. The man has sad, droopy eyes, a fixed sneer that denotes his permanent displeasure and cocksure attitude. He speaks in mumbled sentences, he walks with his arms pinned out, donning the posture and behavior of a chicken. It’s at once an odd and striking performance, and Phoenix does his best to make the character worthy of your attention. He gives it his all, but sadly Freddie just doesn’t merit prominence. Hoffman (Moneyball) is equally alluring as the charming huckster who seems to come alive under a spotlight; the man exudes an oily presence, and yet there are a handful of moments where he lashes out, venting the roiling anger that seems to be barely contained at times. Hoffman’s performance is one of willful self-delusion rather than rampant self-destruction, which makes him far more compelling in my opinion. I would have preferred a Lancaster Dodd movie rather than a Freddie Quells movie.

The Master is a confounding, airless, opaque character study that is far from masterful. The faults of the film and its stilted ambitions lay squarely at the feet of its flawed central character, Freddie Quell. The movie adopts Freddie’s demeanor, managing a distant, standoffish, defiant attitude that thumbs its nose at audience demands. Don’t you know entertainment has no place in art, silly filmgoers?

Anderson is still a vastly talented filmmaker but I lament the path his career has taken. I adored the first four movies of Anderson’s career, but now I wonder if I’ll ever get something along the likes of Boogie Nights or even Punch-Drunk Love again. At this point Anderson has earned enough artistic latitude to tell whatever stories he so chooses. This is why my frustration has mounted because I am at a loss to why he feels compelled to tell this story and in this manner. The Master is an artistically stillborn affair. You want to believe there’s more under the surface but I don’t see it. The main ideas and themes are hammered with little variation, the slight plot drifts aimlessly finding no sense of momentum, and the characters are kept at such distance that the film feels clinical, like we’re observing creatures under glass for study. It just so happens that none of these characters warrant the attention. The Master will be praised by a plethora of film critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said it renews your faith in American cinema. I had the opposite reaction. The Master made me lose faith, mainly that I’ll ever enjoy a Paul Thomas Anderson film from this point on.

Nate’s Grade: C

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Unsettling but testing, the film Martha Marcy May Marlene is more than a mouthful. It’s about a gal, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sis to billionaire twins Ashley and Mary-Kate), who enters a creepy cult, and then in due time runs away to live with her detached older sister (Sarah Paulson). Writer/director Sean Durkin cleverly jumbles the timeline, so we follow two parallel storylines: Marcy May (her new identity) entering the cult and Marlene (her identity after fleeing?) adjusting back to the real world. At heart is Olsen, who gives a star-making turn as the troubled heroine fighting back prior programming. We get flashes of what cult life was like under charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, goin’ country once more). The sections concerning the cult are creepy but not exaggerated to break the film’s fragile realism. It’s uncomfortable stuff with lots of ritualistic raping. The film moves at a slow, deliberate pace, echoing Olsen’s dueling transformations. She’s having trouble readjusting but she can’t open up about her experiences for fear that she’ll endanger others. The film cranks up the paranoia and looks to be coming to a head when … everything just stops. End credits. Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like ¾ of a movie until you stop and think that we’re trapped in her omnipresent paranoia and that she will be essentially broken for life. While I wanted Durkin to find a way to reach that conclusion that felt conclusive and fulfilling, the ending, while abrupt, does feel appropriate. Olsen is terrific and expresses so many complex emotions even through her veneer of emotional reserve and mistrust. She has a bright future ahead of her. She’s no longer “the other Olsen sister.” Now she’ll be the “talented Olsen sister.”

Nate’s Grade: B

Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith, love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man is a natural promoter. Earlier in the year, the indie filmmaker self-distributed his first foray into horror films, Red State, on a nationwide tour of screenings. I first saw Red State way back in March when Smith visited Springfield, Ohio to screen the film and then answer questions afterwards. I’ve been trying to wrestle with my critical opinion in the ensuing months. Fortunately for me, Smith has made it extremely easy to revisit my thoughts. Red State eschewed the traditional theatrical release pattern for a new digital-age model. It was available on demand through cable systems, available for download, and even broadcast in special theaters for a one-night only event. A month later the film hit DVD. In its better moments, Red State is the unholy union of Quentin Tarantino’s love of language, and penchant for jolting violence, and the Coen brothers’ nihilistic, cock-eyed sensibilities. This is strange new territory for the man. I wish I could say Red State is worthy of all the attention, though this sinister, messy, gritty little movie can work its wicked mojo, at least for a while.

The Five Points Church is a notorious family-operated cult. Under the guidance of their shepherd, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), this fundamentalist Christian group pickets the funerals of dead soldiers, haranguing the grieved that their loved ones are dead because “God hates fags” (excuse me for failing to put two and two together). A group of teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) is lured to Sara’s (Melissa Leo) trailer with the promise of sex. The middle-aged woman plies her young bucks with drinks and they are knocked out. The boys awaken to find they are inside the Five Points compound and witness to Abin Cooper’s solution to sinners. Rather than railing with signs, the family has decided to take a more hands-on approach and execute them. While this is going on, a sheriff’s deputy alerts the authorities and the ATF rolls up to the compound. Lead by Agent Keenan (John Goodman), the government agency engages in a firefight with the rightwing cult. Ordered to take down the compound, and all witnesses, the various characters will try and escape with their lives, never knowing when that fateful moment of atonement may drop.

What Smith does well for a genre novice is to keep his audience constantly upended. Just when we think we’ve settled on a protagonist and a plotline, suddenly Smith switches gears. The surprises are sudden and often merciless, leaving the audience little room to adjust. In a genre usually beholden to formula, the consistency of Smith’s surprises makes for a darkly satisfying viewing. Watching Red State demands due attention. Naturally, not all of these tonal shifts work to the movie’s best interest. The final shift, to all-out action thriller, is the most leaden. The Ruby Ridge/Waco-style standoff allows for a lot of gunfire but very little action. We mostly just cut back and forth between the two sides firing and, inexplicably high numbers, being shot in the face. It can get repetitive and seem like all the mounting tension gets squandered. There is a nice storyline within of one family member, Cheyenne (Kerry Bische), forming a plan to save the compound’s children and escape. Bische (the lead on the last season of TV’s Scrubs) makes fantastic use of her limited screen time to render the anxiety and fear of her character. She’s second only to Parks in the performance department as far as I’m concerned. Then the climax comes along and Smith teases being audacious, going in a fire-and-brimstone angle that would completely obliterate audience expectations. And just when it seems like we’re about to get something radical… Smith falls back to what he knows – dialogue. For the final five minutes, Smith concludes his narrative with two government officials explaining what happened in florid detail. It’s a fairly big letdown.

The setup of luring teens to their doom is an old horror staple, though usually the ones doing the sacrifices are card-carrying Satanists. And when exactly would a Satanist be in a situation needing to prove their validity with a membership card (“I’m sorry Mr. Darkseed, but we can’t give you the ten percent discount on all those goat skulls unless we see some valid photo ID.”)? Smith flips the switch religious allegiance. Instead of Satanists or some other misunderstood fringe religion, the cult is a group of pious Christians. There’s plenty of room to work here and Smith refrains from making easy associations; the Five Points nutjobs aren’t meant to represent Christians as a whole or Christianity. They are extremists, and they will go to extreme measures. Ostensibly based upon the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps, you keep waiting for Smith to satirically carve up the clan, but this never really occurs beyond the superficial. Smith’s writerly instincts give Abin Cooper a ten-minute sermon/platform where the guy just unloads a hate-filled diatribe against homosexuals and progressives. For many, this will be the make it or break it point of the film. There are some genuinely tense moments to the first half of Red State. There’s one scene where the camera holds on Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut) inside a wired cage. He rattles and screams and generally comes unglued, and we too piece together what he hears, dreading what is to come. The many escapes and narrow calls are also harrowing and finely edited to ratchet up suspense.

It seems, though, that Smith’s bleak screenplay does not present any characters we can truly root for. Horror has been shifting this way for the past twenty years. Thanks to the rise of the slasher flick, audience empathy has shifted from being with the running/screaming victims to being with the gruesome yet personable killers. Red State has a high body count but you won’t feel much when those bodies hit the floor. You’ll feel a jolt of shock, but from an empathy standpoint the needle barely registers. Sure, we don’t want people to be tortured and we want the abused to escape torment, but that’s not the same as characterization. The closeted sheriff (Stephen Root) feels like the start of an idea more than anything else. The trio of teen boys is presented with as little care as any other throwaway slasher flick. They are but meat for the grinder, our entryway into this hidden and spooky fundamental world. These aren’t so much characters as bodies waiting to be slain. The people are set up so they can be knocked down. This issue can become troubling when Smith wants us to rethink our loyalties, especially once the siege has begun. He wants us, dares us, to start feeling empathy for members of the Five Points Church. The problem is that the plot’s adherence to shock value and the underbelly of human nature has desensitized our empathy. When the ATF starts firing most in the audience will probably just cheer, not reflectively question the moral relativism. I doubt anyone will be switching allegiances midway through.

Cults are usually held together with a charismatic leader, and Red State has that in spades with Parks. The man just dissolves into his twisted character, a preacher that uses the Word of God to indoctrinate and arm for his own holy war. Parks has done fine supporting work before in the stable of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, but Red State is the actor’s biggest modern showcase yet. The man makes your skin crawl the way he can wrap hate into a honeyed, easily digestible product. Abin holds sway over his flock and likewise Parks commands the screen. He provides grandeur and menace to Smith’s words. It’s not a scenery-chewing performance; Parks doesn’t go for the obvious notes when he can hit something deeper and more unsettling. You get a sense that this man fully believes the dogma he teaches, and that makes him all the more terrifying. The other actors peopling Red State are fine, though Leo (Oscar-winner for The Fighter) seems a bit unrestrained especially in contrast with Parks. Goodman (TV’s Treme) gets to talk on the phone a lot to his unseen superiors. The end of the film just descends into frenzied yelling on everyone’s part.

Credited as a horror movie, though I view it more of a survivalist thriller but I suppose genre specifications are subjective, regardless, Red State is miles away from Smith’s usual output. The movie has its share of creeping dread and menace, thanks to Parks’ transfixing performance. The screenplay is unrepentantly dark, cruelly cutting down lives with shocking acuity. The constant surprises and upheavals are a way to keep the audience guessing, though the shock value starts to wear off by the noisy, repetitive gun battle climax. It’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of commentary Smith is presenting. Obviously he doesn’t side with the hateful fundamentalists (this is probably why he pulls back at the end), but he also shows the government’s reaction to religious zealots to be morally queasy at best. It’s hard to get a read what the commentary is, and with horror, if you don’t take a stab at commentary then you’re just watching high-gloss snuff films. Red State resembles a snuff film in several ways and not just in its grimy aesthetics. You feel a little dirty after it’s over, and you can’t help but question your motives for watching it. Plus you can’t help but think it could have been better done (note: I have never watched an actual snuff film, you sickos, but the point remains).

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bless the Child (2000)

How bad is Bless the Child? How bad does bad get? Kim Basinger somehow forgets she actually won an Oscar for something good and takes up the mantle as a nurse or nun or whatever caring for a “special” child. But aren’t they all special in their own way? The child is deemed “the one” and kidnapped by a religious cult led by better-actor-than-this Rufus Sewell. Jimmy Smits comes in somehow as an FBI agent specialized in the field of Satanism. I guess Mulder and Scully couldn’t make the ride. There’s a point in the film where Smits reveals that he entered the bureau so he could have an easier time stopping Satan and his minions. I dare you not to crack a smile from any of this. Is this the movies Jimmy Smits left NYPD Blue over?

The special effects are lame, the story is knee-high in contrivances and loop holes, and the acting is laughable. Christina Ricci has a small part as a reformed cultist that shouldn’t even register if you pay attention – which requires more skill than you would believe. The dialogue in Bless the Child is laughably bad along the lines of Battlefield Earth smack yourself in the head. It’s not as mind-numbingly horrible to sit through, but it’s pure cheese no matter what sheep’s skin it hides under.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Ninth Gate (1999)

The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

There’s a certain awe one has to this film. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, took over two years in development, has the big name star couple, and no one knows ANYTHING about it. All I can say Eyes Wide Shut the movie is a challenging and engaging work from a titan of a director that will sorely be missed.

The first movie from Kubrick in over a decade comes sweeping in and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The steady cinematography is gorgeous, coupled with the dream like lighting that seem glowing about on the frames. The story captured my attention and drew me in quickly as I was enthralled. It’s all about the tale of a husband and wife with sexual inadequacies, fantasies, delusions, and jealousy. It’s about the trust in a marriage, and how sex can be used not only as an intimate showing of feelings but as a weapon and as a tool. Journey with Tommy Cruise as he ventures through the city exploring all the different characters and how sex has influenced, controlled, or manipulated their lives.

The movie is adult, yes, but not pornographic. Those who argue it’s expensive porn don’t know what they’re saying. Though there are probably more butt shots of Kidman then necessary the movie never becomes exploitative or gratuitous. The sex here is portrayed more like a Victorian era arrangement instead of the hard-core stuff of today. In fact the sex is far more creepy than erotic. The actors all contribute nicely to the ensemble, even though Nicole Kidman is the slowest talker in the world here. But I couldn’t wait to see what she’d say next; she had me. The movie as well had me mostly.

The movie will certainly not go over well with audiences planning to see a Basic Instinct sequel in this. I blame the poor marketing that made it into something it was far from: a sexy and steamy adult thriller with TONS o’ nudity. So when people file in and find out it’s a two and a half hour art movie with depth, symbolism, and layers they are no doubt disappointed. Especially those who show up in raincoats. The movie is a fitting final work to Kubrick’s collection. Rest in peace Stanley.

Nate’s Grade: B

This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”

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