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Countdown (2019)

I have history with Countdown. Nothing personally with this movie written and directed by Justin Dec but because of the concept, a killer countdown ticking down to a specific person’s ultimate demise. In 2015, a screenwriting pal of mine Joe Marino and I were developing a TV series pitch for… a mystery involving a website counting down to the specific second of specific people’s deaths. We even called it… “Countdown.” Our pitch, which we presented to a producer and, as far as I know, never got further than that, would have opened bigger and bigger, starting with a mysterious slasher killer on a college campus that opens up to, eventually, a self-aware machine arranging life-and-death judgements and manipulating technology to see it through. I still have the pitch document and, if I do say so, it’s not bad. I don’t hold any suspicion with Dec and the filmmakers behind this version of Countdown. Anyone can independently come up with the same high-concept premise, it’s just funny to me the similarities between the two. It’s also unfortunate because, after having seen this 2019 Countdown, that there won’t be any other versions of this worthwhile premise.

Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail) is a nurse who is still coming to terms with her mother’s tragic death, her feelings of guilt over the accident that caused it, and being harassed by her boss (Peter Facinelli). Her younger sister downloads a new cool app that predicts when a user will die. It’s only a countdown timer and some people get ninety years and others get three days. Quinn tries deleting the app, even buying a new phone, but it cannot be stopped, and she’s now having strange visions and meeting up with other users who fear the app’s threats are very real.

There’s a reason Countdown almost kind of works. The premise has power. It’s a modern mash-up of The Ring and Final Destination, with a technological trap that curses the user like The Ring and then as the seconds tick closer it becomes a paranoid guessing game of what could befall the victim, much like the sneaky appeal of the Destination movies. This is all evident in the film’s opening eight-minute prologue, which is actually, genuinely a good watch. Had Countdown merely consisted of this opening segment, it could have been an enjoyable short film. It establishes its premise, some degree of rules, then simmers in the dread, and produces a few solid creepy moments and a clever conclusion that signals what Plan A had been for the victim’s demise. It’s got enough punch and dread that I could see it performing well on a fest circuit.

The problem comes when the movie tries to arrange a reasonable explanation for all the supernatural spookery. The mystery of the unknown, a haunted app, is going to be better than uncovering the secrets behind the app and its “terms of agreement.” The mystery behind the app is less interesting to watch than the question of how a character is going to die, which is why this would work better in a smaller time frame like as a short where it plays its trick once. The killer app cites breach in agreement terms if users “alter their acceptance of fate.” It’s legally vague but could basically apply to any time any person cancels plans (an introvert’s worst nightmare come true). This is a silly notion because why is a magical phone app so particular about plans? Then there’s the moment where we get the specs on the data for this app and it’s… bigger than expected (“Like a whole season of Game of Thrones on your phone”). I guess that’s slightly unexpected but who cares? It’s little things like this that start to break down the internal logic of the movie’s menace and Countdown was better off when it didn’t have to support a feature.

The movie starts to crack when it tosses in subplots to fulfill a feature-length running time. Again, this premise could sustain a movie (and even a series) but when the conclusion is simply that the app is demonic and uses divine evil powers, then any sense of mystery about the particulars around it feels like jogging in place. What does it matter when the app can justify any action, counter action, or outlandish scenario because of its demonic nature? Our characters gang together with the belief they can somehow break the curse if they beat the counter by one second, but why would they have any sense this could work and with a supernatural presence that can just change the rules? When you’re dealing with, you know, evil demons, they’re not trustworthy. This explanation means that whatever happens can change at any time just because. It makes it feel like all of the untangled mysteries and the determination to beat the system through some assumed understanding of agreed-upon rules as unsatisfying detours.

The most egregious subplot happens to be a very serious case of sexual harassment and assault by Quinn’s boss. This feels entirely out of place for “scary phone app” movie, and it very much feels grafted on by some studio executive who thought they would make their movie more relevant with the changing times. Like some exec said, “Hey, throw in some of that Me Too stuff. That will show we care. Bring in the women. It’s a very real problem.” I understand that the filmmakers wanted to present a villain who could be conquered in the place of an unknowably powerful demonic entity. It feels monumentally tacky to awkwardly cram in a real story of sexual assault as a questionable means of making the film more topical.

I think there’s an interesting story potential of people, knowing the exact second of their death, using it as a motivator good and bad. Perhaps it motivates them to quit their job and finally tackle a long list of personal goals, ask that one girl out, write that novel as some sort of legacy. Or perhaps it motivates them to live a life free of consequences and to take vengeance against others knowing full well their remaining years have been cut short. There could be an entire group of people who view themselves almost as spiritual warriors who have been blessed with foresight so they run roughshod over society’s rules. There could be lots of interesting sociological and psychological areas this degree of foreknowledge could provide, so it feels a little reductive to simply have it be a demonic curse that nobody thinks much more about.

After appearing on numerous Worst of the Year lists, a countdown in its own right, I was expecting Countdown to be an awful, intelligence-insulting experience. I didn’t hate this. In fact, I think it’s rather competently directed with some effectively eerie moments for a PG-13 horror movie. I enjoyed the TWO comic relief characters, a sarcastic and unscrupulous phone salesman (Tom Segura) and a nerdy priest who is eager to help (P.J. Byrne). I thought the opening eight minutes could have served as a complete short film that would have gotten attention. The film even presents some interesting ideas and complications with its premise. It’s not a good movie, especially with its lackluster conclusions to a lackluster mystery, but it’s not really a bad movie either. It’s 85 minutes of a killer premise but lacking necessary development to keep the interest level high, which is why the jump scares with grabby, clammy demon hands pop up. Countdown isn’t bad as much as it’s more disappointing, a premise that could have been so much more.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019)

I knew going in about the film’s sour reputation and cries of it being exploitative and offensive, but I was questioning whether any film the purports to show the personal history of a real-life person who ended in tragedy could be considered exploitative. Someone is using a person’s real tragedies as a form of entertainment, and even in good taste there’s a profit to that design. Is featuring a story of Sharon Tate any less exploitative than, say, a serial killer drama, or maybe a slavery narrative, both of which will feature dramatizations of very real suffering? I knew I was destined to watch The Haunting of Sharon Tate and determine for myself, and about halfway through I had a very drastic change of opinion. The movie went from being bad to being legitimately offensive. It was already destined to be one of the worst films of 2019, but now it also serves as one of the movies that made me the angriest for the entire year.

Before diving into the exact reasons for my ire, I’m going to warn all readers that the only way to fully express just how rotten this movie is at its core requires significant spoilers. I’d say you’ve been warned but you know why you’re reading this. You want to know the horror.

Sharon Tate (Hilary Duff) is pregnant, anxious, and awaiting the return of her husband, Roman Polanski. In the meantime, the Hollywood star is relaxing in her home with her former beau Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett), and house guests Wojciech Frykowski (Pawel Szajda) and Abigail Folgers (Lydia Hearst), heir to the coffee dynasty (in nepotism news: Hearst is the daughter of Patty Hearst and great granddaughter of the powerful publishing magnate). One fateful summer night in 1969, all four will perish at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult. Tate is plagued with disturbing visions of her demise that nobody seems to take seriously.

I was worried early that this was going to be an E! True Hollywood Story version of The Strangers, and I found that drawn out home invasion scenario to be very depressing. It’s true that the Manson family murders don’t officially come in until an hour, which means we have a long time until the movie justifies its existence, because this sure isn’t a character study. It’s a sleazy slasher movie at heart with little respect for its real-life figures, and you better believe I’ll go into more detail on that front later. Because of this back-loaded structure, we spend a lot of time with Tate magically fearing a future she should really have no way of anticipating. The very opening seconds of the film are a recorded interview where Tate talks about a dream where men broke into her home and murdered her and her friends. In case you didn’t understand, the movie then cuts to “one year later” and the camera slowly swoops over the bloody crime scene. Then the movie cuts to “three days earlier,” which was the first moment of distaste for me. Every single person watching a horror movie about Sharon Tate knows what happened, so why did we need a time jump to the murders when the whole reason the interview is included is for irony? We don’t need the example of irony to be followed by an immediate, “Here’s WHY it was ironic, guys!” It’s tacky and unnecessary, but that tart summation could apply to the entire film project.

The filmmakers think Tate running around and having wildly specific premonitions of her own demise is meant to up the tragedy, when instead it seems to portray Tate as being schizophrenic. She’s seeing glimpses of the murders but her mind is also doing Dumb Ghost Movie scares. There’s literally a jump scare tied to an ice machine making noise in the night. First, it’s an ice machine, but second, shouldn’t Tate know what her ice machine sounds like by now? There’s a moment where Charles Manson’s reel-to-reel recording turns on by itself. This is accompanied by audio distortion and quick cuts, along with a pounding musical score, that made me think of the overkill of the Saw movies when they were trying to be edgy. Then there’s Tate hallucinating that the bathtub is overflowing with blood. There’s one scene that made me burst out laughing. It involves Tate and Abigail Folger walking along the Hollywood hills and two people pass them on a walk, and it cuts to absurdly dramatic slow-motion and close-ups of these strangers, as if this portentous moment is meant to mean something so spine-tingling. Of course, with this movie being what it is, they do end up turning out to be two of the Manson family killers. We know what befalls Tate and the others but they don’t, so they view Tate’s hyper specific warnings as some form of mental breakdown. At one point, Abigail says they’re here to keep Sharon’s baby safe. “Safe from who?” she asks. “Safe from you,” Abigail responds. Allow me to clarify exactly why this storytelling decision is so off-putting: it’s trying to squeeze extra perceived tragedy from the events by providing early warnings that nobody believed, but in doing so it makes Tate look mentally ill to fit this aim. It feels like further insult to someone who already suffered plenty.

And that brings me to the biggest point of contention I have with The Haunting of Sharon Tate and that’s its gross game of watching Tate and her friends die repeatedly in a misguided attempt to surprise the jaded audience. As stated, we know ahead of time what fate awaits Tate (oh man, it’s bad taste, but I want to appreciate that use of rhyme right there) so it becomes a waiting game of when the Manson family shows up and slays our characters. I was shocked it was happening so soon, around the 45-minute mark, and then settled into a depressed realization that meant the remaining half of the movie would be a tiresome Funny Games-style torture sequence. I didn’t have to wait long because the Manson family killers get to business quickly, but you see, dear reader – IT WAS ALL A DREAM. That’s right, Sharon Tate wakes up screaming having dreamed a prophetic nightmare. This was a breaking point for me with the film. It was using fake-out murder sequences to keep an audience guessing. Is THIS the time Sharon Tate gets murdered? Nope, maybe it’s THIS time? Nope, I guess we’ll just have to endure many sequences of Tate and her friends being killed to learn which is the legit murders. That’s so gross. It’s using her victimization as a reset button for exploitation thrills. It’s bringing Tate and company back to life again and again only to torment and defile them anew, and that I found righteously offensive.

Then the movie does something very different, borrowing a page from Quentin Tarantino, and rewrites history. The fateful night when the Manson clan has tied them up, Tate and the other captives fight back, killing their attackers. This caused me to pay more attention to the movie, especially with what seemed like a science fiction detour. The voice over of a very mundane philosophical conversation comes back, and we hear, “I don’t believe in one fate,” as well as, “I believe in infinite realities, and we’re trying to make things better.” Was The Haunting of Sharon Tate presenting a bizarre scenario where Tate was tapping into the future memories of a parallel reality version of herself in order to avoid that same deadly fate? If this was the case, well the movie would still be bad, but at least it was trying something insanely different. I would not have expected a multi-verse to make an appearance in The Haunting of Sharon Tate. However, I knew there was no way this movie would avoid undercutting this revelation, and in the closing minutes it manages to potentially erase all of this. We see the next morning and dead bodies lying on the grass with sheets over them. Sharon Tate hovers over one body, pulls the sheet down, and it’s revealed to be – HER! Does that mean the previous sequence of their survival was another fake-out? But if so then whose memories were we watching? Is it another Sharon Tate from a different parallel reality but in ours it didn’t work out so well? I have no clue. It’s a cheap twist ending already following a cheap gimmick, which makes me question which was worse.

There is little redeeming value to the schlocky, offensively bad Haunting of Sharon Tate. It purports to be a sympathetic portrayal to a victim, yet it plays upon her death for fake out thrills and makes her seem crazy in order to project some added sense of tragedy because I guess what happened to her wasn’t tragic enough. If you needed any further proof to suggest the bad faith of writer/director Daniel Farrands he has another movie slated for release in early January 2020. The title: The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Oh, but dear reader it gets even worse from there. According to the one available film review published, it turns out that Farrands is theorizing that Nicole Brown wasn’t murdered by her husband, O.J. Simpson, a jealous, wife-beating, controlling liar who had all that DNA evidence linking him to the crime. Instead it’s some drifter played by Nick Stahl who turns out to be a serial killer on the loose. Please just let the audacious offensiveness of these last few sentences just sink in and remember that this man is using this grievous shock value to make a name for himself. I feel confident with one New Year’s prediction: I will have a slot already reserved for The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson on my Worst of 2020 List. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and don’t go near these sinkholes.

Nate’s Grade: D-

Climax (2019)

I honestly have no idea who could enjoy Climax. I have watched dozens of movies where I knew it wasn’t for me but I could at least fathom some appeal to a select viewer. Climax is the rare film where I cannot even fathom any person enjoying it, because to even attempt to enjoy it on its fever dream level it purports would only lead to disappointment. I don’t think it’s even possible to enjoy this movie, and maybe that’s even some subversive point from writer/director Gaspar Noe. Is the very act of titling a movie called Climax with no climax itself a post-modern jape? Is that it? I’m confounded by this monotonous experimental triviality.

The plot: a Parisian group of dancers is practicing in an old school building one 1990s wintry night. One of the members spikes a bowl of sangria with LSD. The dancers unwittingly get high, freak out, and lash out, leading to one long sordid night of tumult. That’s it, folks.

Firstly, Climax is incredibly, unbearably, crushingly tedious. It’s 97 minutes that could literally be condensed into a music video for a three-minute song as far as substance is concerned. Apparently Noe was working off of a five-page script (note to readers: typically, in screenwriting terms, one page equals one minute of movie), so it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of this movie feels empty. The first six minutes or so are watching boring interviews of the various dance troupe members answering mundane questions. It’s still difficult to attach impressionable personalities or points of distinction for them beyond the superficial (Tall Blonde, Girl with Glasses, etc.). After that it’s an extended dance sequence, then about twenty minutes of chit chat where the dancers are improvising, and then we have another extended group dance, and then we get to the fateful spiked punch. What I’ve just described is the first 45 minutes of the movie, also known as half of the film, and it could have all been removed without missing a beat. That’s a serious storytelling problem. Oh, I hear others preparing the defense, the movie is intended to be an experience and not a story. If that’s the case I need more of an experience. Noe described the first half of Climax as a “roller coaster” but it feels more like the long wait in line and then the brief five minutes of actual activity. Even the opening dance sequence, while energetic, is less than extraordinary. It’s not exactly a sequence that would wow me any more than a deleted scene from a direct-to-DVD Step Up sequel.

Climax fatally errs by, of all things, restraint. I could accept the slow buildup, the tedium, and even the paper-thin characters if, and that’s a big if, Noe was able to pull out all the stops with his freak-out finale and just went bonkers. However, it’s not quite the same when we don’t also experience the hallucinations and madness befalling our dancers. Instead we watch them pace around and scream, cry, sometimes writhe, sometimes fall down, sometimes fall down and writhe, sometimes fall down and writhe and cry, and that’s about the extent. It can be downright embarrassing to watch especially as Noe’s penchant for tracking shots makes the performance takes so agonizingly long. There are brief moments of unpredictability where the dancers become violent and paranoid, but these are fleeting and we’re back to watching people we don’t care about scream about imaginary things. Imagine if Noe let the audience in on these personal, psychedelic, and monstrous drug trips. Imagine how much more visually alive that would be and also how much more it would connect us with the characters, perhaps linking their hallucinations to personal traumas and anxieties. I’ve had friends discuss going along for the ride with Climax, but what ride does it even offer? The final ten minutes consists of a confusing upside-down camera angle, a scathing red light, and more antic writhing on the floor with the occasional sexual copulation. At that point, I had long lost any interest to even attempt to decipher the screen.

None of these characters matter, so I kept waiting for the eventual bad fates to fall upon them as the movie ramped into its horror section but Climax doesn’t even do this. I was expecting things to get progressively worse and take on a tragic momentum of escalating mistakes. I was expecting something and all I got was an extended music video where the extras had taken over, trying to convince me that their little spheres of drama were worth following (there were not). The little moments of conversation between the characters feel like you’re eavesdropping on normal, ordinary, and boring people but also people without clear indication for character arcs, ironic reversals, or any of the sort of contexts that can make people interesting in narratives. There’s just no potential here for the characters and nothing that amounts to satisfaction (oh the ongoing irony of its title, I know). Here’s how bad Noe miscalculates: at the very end, we discover which character was responsible for spiking the sangria, and it’s treated like a big reveal, except this was never an important mystery and I didn’t even recognize the culprit. It didn’t matter because the mystery never mattered and the characters especially never mattered.

Noe has been a cinematic provocateur ever since his first film, 2002’s Irreversible, began with a grueling, graphic nine-minute rape scene. He seems more drawn to pushing button so he might devote an entire movie to a floating spiritual perspective (Into the Void) or shoot a love story with un-simulated sex including graphic 3D use of said parts (Love). He’s not exactly the kind of man who wants to tell a simple story in a simple way (though I would argue a majority of his stories are pretty simple). So, if it’s all about technical bravura and showmanship and pushing the envelope, then let the man be judged on those grounds, and he is found wanting with Climax. The long swooping camerawork can be impressive as it tracks all over the confines of this building but the positives are weighed down by the banality of the visuals. Far too much of this movie is simply following people walk down corridors. There aren’t key, striking visuals to sear into your memory and it feels like Noe’s heart just isn’t in this. There’s one scene where a dancer, goaded by an angry and accusatory crowd, starts stabbing herself in the face. I was expecting something far more graphic or bloody or consequential, but it’s like a shrug. It feels like he’s even bored by the assignment of directing his own movie and just keeping the camera running so he can cross the 90-minute finish line and call it over.

I come back again and again to the question of how it is even possible to enjoy Climax. I think, even if you were to be overly generous, Noe’s film just cannot measure up on any artistic or entertainment metric. If you’re eager for a crazy, trippy, immersive drug-fueled experience, get ready for something more akin to standing by and holding the hair of your friend while they vomit into a toilet.

Nate’s Grade: D

Ma (2019)

I’ve just sat and watched the entire 99 minutes of Ma, a low-budget horror thriller starring a three-time Oscar nominee, and I’m genuinely confused who exactly this movie is for. Does it qualify as campy? Is it meant to be campy? Is it meant to have a message? The optics are just all over the place and begging for more context, and you have Octavia Spencer holding court with a movie that teeters into Mommie Dearest territory of bizarre choices. If someone asked me to recommend this movie I wouldn’t know whether it was possible. Not because it’s so overtly bad that no human being could find some degree of enjoyment, though make no mistake it’s certainly not good, but because I have no idea who to recommend this to. It almost feels like if you’re that very small niche that absolutely loves Showgirls, Sleepaway Camp, Falling Down, and Everything Everything, then maybe this will be for you. Is that person out there? Does that person exist?

Ma (Spencer) is a lonely veterinarian technician in small-town Ohio who is enlisted by a group of teenagers into purchasing them alcohol. She offers up her basement for the kids to get their drink on, free from the law and other prying adults, and it becomes a hangout space for the entire school. Ma starts dressing younger, stalking the kids online and in person, and getting a little too attached to her new friends and the feeling of being young and part of the in-crowd.

This is a Crazy Person Movie, which means it falls under the formula of the Crazy Person infiltrating the likes of, presumably, non-crazy individuals, warming to their company, and then eventually going too far and revealing themselves to be dangerous and crazy. As such, there’s a natural plot trajectory where the Crazy Person cannot be too off-putting early on. They need to be a little odd, maybe misunderstood, and very vulnerable, enough so that other characters may take pity upon our Crazy Person and invite him or her into their lives. That doesn’t work when your Crazy Person is acting crazy and dangerous so early and at every turn. The entire premise hinges on a group of teenagers befriending a 40-something woman who opens up her house for their parties and underage drinking. I have to imagine, even in a small town as the setting, that teenagers have to find other places to go drinking. It can’t be that hard. Given the opioid crises, there has to be more than one or two abandoned houses in this neighborhood. Regardless, the first time this older woman invites them over to drink, under the auspices of making sure they’re going to be safe with their shenanigans, she literally points a gun at one of them and pretends like she will murder him. Then it’s revealed it’s not loaded and everyone has a laugh. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but if a stranger pulled out a real gun and threatened a friend of mine, that would be our last interaction with that strange stranger. This tenuous grasp on reality makes the movie feel much dumber as it goes, as we keep waiting for what the final tipping point will become for our teenagers to finally conclude that Ma might not be all right.

The problem with this is that it makes all of the characters into complete morons, and they’re not very well developed beyond stereotypes to begin with. I was struggling to remember the difference between the white guys. The adults aren’t much better. Nobody seems to be acting like actual human beings and they’re all so boring. This means we’re drifting along and either waiting for them to get a clue or get killed, and when it feels like neither is happening any time soon, Ma can become a dreadfully tedious experience that invites further criticism.

Tonally, I don’t really know what director Tate Taylor (The Help) was going for here as he stepped into unfamiliar genre territory. This was also evident in his film adaptation of The Girl on the Train, which got really confusing and sloppy and potentially campy itself, at least with how self-serious it got to be even when it was twisting corkscrews into necks. When Ma wants to be scary, it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be funny (?), it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be dramatic, it gets very serious but never follows through, falling back on camp or creeps. Ma has a tragic back-story involving a sexual humiliation, and it just happens that her all-white high school are the cackling faces pointing and laughing at her pain. The flashback scenes of young Ma feel like they were made in the 1960s and not, presumably, the 1980s. She is victimized by the collective white supremacy of her school and the film never deals with the racial aspect. There’s a truly weird moment where Ma paints the black male friend’s face white, saying there is only room for one of them in the friend group, implying they are token minority positions, I guess. But she literally puts him in white face, and this moment isn’t given any more thought and the movie simply hasn’t earned any of this. None of the moments relating to race are given any more than passing mention. There’s a motherly revelation that, much like the other heavier elements, feels tacked on and never explored in depth, calling into question its very inclusion. There are so many story elements that get thrown out that it feels like Taylor and his screenwriter are just blindly stumbling through their narrative and hoping that something sticks together.

If there is in fact any reason to watch Ma, besides morbid curiosity, it’s Spencer (The Shape of Water) who works to find the humanity of an increasingly cartoonish character. Finding out Ma’s back-story provides a suitable tragic motivation for her to seek vengeance on the children of her high school tormentors, but there’s also the strange element of her intense attention on Andy, the son of the man she was crushing on in high school. Is she setting him up for some devious end result to get back at his father, or is she trying to get with this kid as a means of tapping into the intimacy with his father that Ma was denied but still obsesses over? She seems to zone out at work often, but is this a general malaise, the idea of a physical or mental sickness that she alludes to, or just her being a poor employee who daydreams about her murder vengeance fantasies? Spencer is bouncing around many different emotional poles and maintains a sense of dignity even when the movie is asking her to behave in cringe-inducing, youth-imitating behavior. I don’t know what movie Spencer thought she was acting in from scene-to-scene, but then I don’t know if Taylor knew what movie he was directing from scene-to-scene either.

Ma is a strange movie for Taylor, Spencer, and every viewer left scratching their head. It’s not really a comedy. It’s not really a horror movie despite some blood and gore. It’s not really a drama because whenever it introduces potent dramatic elements the film abandons them. And it’s not really a good movie. It feels like a game experiment that everyone attached just lost clear sight of, ultimately losing whatever thread or meaning had appealed to them with the project. Just say no to Ma and yes to Mamma.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Doctor Sleep (2019)

Mike Flanagan has taken the mantle from Frank Darabont and become the best film adapter of Stephen King’s stories. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining but it’s a sequel to Kubrick’s movie version, which King notoriously hated for its alterations. We follow an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he struggles with addiction in the wake of his family’s tragedy linked to the Overlook Hotel. He starts a new life for himself as a hospice worker, aiding the elderly into a peaceful demise (where he earns the titular nickname), and he takes it upon himself to mentor a young girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has the same “shining” powers that he has. Trouble is others are looking for these same gifted few, namely Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her gang of traveling undead mutant vampire people feeding off the “steam” or life force of the super-powered they kill. They’re after Abra and her abilities so Danny must rescue her and eventually head back to the source of all his nightmares. This is a relatively solid sequel that has enough intrigue and suspense to cover over the dull parts. It takes too long to get going and then finishes things up too quickly, especially with a climax at the reawakened Overlook that is beginning to hit a groove with nasty ghostly suspense. It felt like I was watching Stephen King’s X-Men with his assortment of super powered people banding together and tracking each other down. The gypsy-like caravan of villains are pretty disposable and lacking strong personality or menace. Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is fun to watch even if she doesn’t feel that threatening. The rules and limitations feel vaguely defined and refined. The nods to the original Shining are selective and bring their own degree of power, as does seeing different actors portray these famous characters in flashback. Flanagan has reverence for both King’s source material and the beloved 1980 film, and bridging the two is a source of enjoyment. The characterization overall is pretty slack and there aren’t much in the way of genuine scares. It’s creepy, it’s occasionally atmospheric, and it’s also really long and drawn out, clocking in at 151 minutes, which is even longer than Kubrick’s movie. It’s an epilogue that gets by on the emotional investment and resolution it provides for Danny while setting up a larger universe of super “shining” psychics. If you don’t care about one, there’s at least some degree of the other to prove entertaining albeit also being underdeveloped. Doctor Sleep (a wasted title) is a workable balance between two masters of horror.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Lighthouse (2019)

If you’re writer/director Robert Eggers and just made a most delicious impression with your debut movie, 2016’s The Witch (or, stupidly, The VVitch), where do you go next? Apparently it was off the coast of Nova Scotia with Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, and a sexy mermaid? The Lighthouse follows the story of two men, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), as lighthouse keepers trapped during a torrential New England storm in the 1890s. This fraught relationship comes undone over the course of some very severe cabin fever. While The Lighthouse might not be as enjoyable as The Witch, nor the arthouse genre masterpiece some critics have been hailing, it is an exceptionally realized throwback with its own beguiling sense of peculiarity. They don’t really make them like this anymore, folks.

The Lighthouse feels exactly like somebody meticulously melded an episode of The Twilight Zone with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The vision is so specific and so fine-tuned that it can be startling, like watching a high-wire act of an artist perform a feat and so well. Eggers is definitely a man with definite talent and here is a movie that serves as a strange, loving homage to an earlier age. The shooting style, camera equipment, lenses, and nearly 4:3 aspect ratio coalesce to make The Lighthouse feel like a forgotten curio of an older age. The very nature of the movie’s presentation adds to the enjoyment level of the two hours of madness. This is a highly impressive movie, first and foremost from its technical side. The black and white photography is rich and stunning, making elaborate and precise use of shadows and camera movement. You feel the grime and salt. Pattinson’s face is filmed with such heaviness, shadows draped over him, that he looks like he was carved from stone to resemble a modern-day Robert Mitchum. There are several moments that unveil themselves with startling meticulousness. There are several images that stick in my memory. There are moments of levity that had me snickering madly. Eggers has a terrific instinct when it comes to staging scenes and drawing out the suspense as well as the humor. Some scenes will cycle from horror to comedy and then back again, allowing the movie to continuously feel slippery in tone as well as effect. It’s such a handsomely mounted production that it’s easy to admire the dedication. The craft is remarkable. Eggers had a very exact style he was going for with his second film,and he commits fully to the process. Whatever you think of the lasting impression, the man achieved his vision to the bitter end.

Being a two-hander, the entire movie is going to rest on the shoulders of our acting duo and what insights we can glean from them as they become combative and ultimately suspicious. There’s only one other credited actor for the entire film, Valeriia Karaman, as a lustful fantasy for Winslow, or maybe she’s not a fantasy? We’re stuck with two very capable thespians and they just dig into these meaty, hammy roles. The dialogue has a delightfully daffy out-of-time cadence and vernacular that adds authenticity as well as a sprinkle of approaching madness. Dafoe (Aquaman) is a delight as a soused old captain given to self-important and abrasive behavior. An insult over his cooking unleashes a ridiculous monologue where he lays out in great, poetic detail a curse, and like much in the movie, it goes from being funny to being serious to being outright impressive. It’s like watching actors get to play with Shakespeare, that’s how immensely pleasing it can be to listen to Dafoe and Pattinson deliver Eggers’ dialogue with great flourish. Pattinson (Good Time) has gotten a bad rap for being the Twilight pretty boy but he’s taken exciting chances on artistically daring and dangerous prospects (this is his SECOND 2019 indie thriller that prominently features his furious masturbation). Pattinson serves as our entry point into this secluded seaside shack, and it’s through him we watch the madness of the movie plant. He’s got a real fire he’s able to harness that makes him vulnerable, sympathetic, and dangerous. Should we root for Winslow? Being trapped alone with them never gets boring because of their characters, the revelation of secrets each man may or may not be embellishing, and their explosive confrontations.

This is also very funny movie. Eggers understands the thin line between madness and humor and uses this to his great advantage where the embrace of comedy enhances the overall feeling of WTF insanity. You’ll be forgiven for laughing but Eggers seems to invite it almost as a needed release. Much like Ari Aster did with Midsommar, the filmmaker is clearly playing with camp elements intentionally. It’s a tricky artistic maneuver to willingly invite camp and to make sure it doesn’t pervert the rest of the film and its ambitions, but I think Eggers pulls it off. There is literally an audible fart before the two main characters share a line of dialogue together. You’ll be surprised how much farting is actually in the movie (all added in post-production, the Internet trivia proudly crows, because I guess Dafoe didn’t want to go that far Method). There’s an exciting unpredictability to the movie even as it feels very much on a foreseeable collision course that you await.

After all that artistic sturm und drang, I was left wondering what exactly there was to hold onto for clarity and substance. Firstly, the artistic exercise, dedication to a specific vision, and level of execution will likely be enough for a certain group of viewers, especially those titillated by old school horror peppered with David Lynch peculiarities. It’s a moody work of art with definite finesse but ultimately I don’t know how much there is to take away from it. The Lighthouse feels like a well-handled experiment that deserves your admiration but I don’t know what engagement exists beyond simply the experience and then the discussion it leads. There are plenty of movies that invite an active deconstruction and this interactive interpretation serves as a central selling point, but I was wondering what I should be thinking here. I don’t know if the movie is adopting Winslow’s point of view and I shouldn’t trust what I see onscreen, or I shouldn’t trust Thomas, or I shouldn’t trust either, or whether the movie was adopting either of their perspectives or neither. By the end, I don’t know what is supposed to be taken as legitimate, and this can work with plenty of movies but the majority doesn’t seem to operate on a dream-logic. It’s a dank, claustrophobic, paranoid thriller but it’s so dutiful to an older style of thriller that the eccentricities don’t take over and become the movie. It’s entirely a movie about men being stranded, going mad, and turning on one another, and that’s about it. There is a definite Promethean analogy with Winslow’s desire to “have the light” and the old man standing in his way (this is hit even harder in the very obvious, concluding image). If you cut out maybe 40 seconds of the movie it could have played on TV back in Hitchcock’s day and would fit.

It’s hard for me to articulate but The Lighthouse is an A-level execution of an idea that feels all too limited and small. It’s thrilling and accomplished and a fun movie to just get lost within and laugh at the screen when it goes overboard. I wouldn’t even mind taking another trip and getting lost in this sea-soaked curiosity. Maybe I’ll be able to impart more meaning, because while the technical craft and extraordinarily honed artistic vision shine through, the lasting power of the whole enterprise feels a bit too locked in place. It very much is a remnant of the past, a loving homage to old Hammer films and television anthologies and tales of men losing their minds when it comes to loneliness, desperation, and helplessness. There’s much to champion with The Lighthouse and I’ll assuredly be in line for whatever Eggers decides will be his next project (a quick search comes up with a tenth-century Viking revenge thriller starring Dafoe, Ana Taylor-Joy, two Skarsgards, and Nicole Kidman). When Eggers commits to a story and style, he commits completely and the results can be breath-taking. I hope he aims for more than A-level execution with his next movie and goes for an A-level story experience to match. Still, The Lighthouse is a fascinating and delightfully weird experience that will enchant and baffle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

It Chapter Two (2019)

To be fair, It Chapter Two was always going to be the less interesting half. There’s a reason when they thought they would only get one movie that the producers and writers decided to focus entirely on the childhood storylines, and that’s because it’s the superior material. Director Andy Muschietti and most of the same team from the 2017 film return with a bigger budget, a bigger running time, and some new famous faces (not counting the cameos). At a whopping 169 minutes long, It Chapter Two rumbles into theaters as a big scary surefire hit, enough so that no other Hollywood studio scheduled a competitor during its release weekend. As anyone who saw the 1990 TV miniseries can attest, the adult half of Stephen King’s story is the harder slog, and Chapter Two makes it even sloggier (I’m making this a new word starting now).

The Losers Club from Derry, Maine have all grown up as 27 years have passed from that fateful day that they battled the evil Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and lived. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed behind, cataloguing the events of the small town, waiting for the return of their nemesis. He alerts his old friends to once again return so they can take care of Pennywise as he feasts once again on the children and adults of Derry. Bill (James McAvoy) has become a famous and frustrated horror author. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) has married an abusive man. Richie (Bill Hader) has become a famous standup comic. Ben (Jay Ryan) has slimmed down and become a wealthy architect. Eddie (James Ransone) is with another overbearing woman and fraught with anxiety as an insurance risk assessor. Stanley (Andy Bean) is conflicted about returning as he views himself the weakest of the group. The old gang revisit the town of their youth and take turns remembering what they had selectively forgotten through the years. Only they can band together to stop Pennywise but they must all work together to survive yet again.

Every time It Chapter Two was cutting back to its numerous childhood flashbacks (more on that in a moment) I was reminded how magical this younger cast was together, how much more I cared, and I was secretly wishing the movie would just stay in the past for good. In short, the adult versions of these characters are pretty boring. They each only have like one note of added characterization for the ensuing 27 years after we’ve seen them, meaning I guess according to the movie that whomever you are in middle school is who you’ll be as a grown-up? That’s a scarier thought than anything Pennywise has to offer. It’s as if our understanding of them was put on hold for those 27 years as well, so there’s too little to unpack, or what’s there seems peculiar and unsatisfying. Richie’s big personal secret that Pennywise taunts him with seems decidedly less scandalous in our modern age. Bill has to suffer people telling him the ending to his book was unsatisfying. He also has survivor’s guilt over responsibility for the death of his little brother, Georgie. Beverly is with an abusive husband who she leaves in the opening scene. So that seems to be the end of that development. Ben is still nursing his crush from middle school on Beverly; the man hasn’t moved on from a middle school crush! He’s gotten rich, gotten in shape, and still waiting for this one girl to like him, which is a weird message. Maybe the movie is positing that all of the characters have been emotionally “on hold” since the childhood trauma they cannot remember, put in a stasis as much as Mike who elected to stay behind when the others wanted to get away. That feels like excuse-making to me. These versions of the characters just aren’t that compelling and given little to do and too much free time.

Structurally, this movie is a protracted muddle and could have sliced out a healthy 45 minutes. The first act checks in with each character for us to see where they are in life and then concludes with their reunion at a Chinese restaurant. The uncomfortably long second act follows each character wandering around the haunts of Derry and essentially having their memories activated. It follows a formula that gets to be rather redundant. The adult goes to a place, they have a scary flashback about that place as a child, then they have a scary moment as an adult. It means each character has two linked scary moments/set pieces to go through, and there are at least five characters to get through, which means this whole sequence takes up like an hour. Also trying your patience is the fact that there is no new information. You’re watching the characters try and remember things that you, the audience, already know, so it gets to be rather boring. Then there’s the extended ending that is undeserved for a two-part franchise. The ending gets drawn out so long, with so many little minor stops, that my father said, “It’s like everyone came up with a different ending scene, they voted and they all tied, so we got them all.” A Lord of the Rings-style sendoff was not needed for these characters. The misshapen and drawn out structure is a result of adapting a book where the narrative drive was from the childhood experiences using the adults more as a conduit to explore trauma and as a means to finally deliver a last confrontation. It’s hard to assemble a full movie out of that material but this doesn’t feel like it (pun intended?).

It Chapter Two is also noticeably less scary than the original movie. Part of this is because we have a baseline of expectations from the childhood spooks, but it’s also because the horror doesn’t seem to have the same level of care and craft attached. Because of that formulaic middle, there’s less an anticipation for Pennywise’s big scares and more a resignation. It’s a skipping record of scares, waiting for the non-scary thing/person to become the scary Pennywise. With the 2017 It, the scares were able to develop in fun ways, playing upon their childhood fears, and were developed with careful craft to heighten the tension. Pennywise was genuinely terrifying. Now in the sequel, because the scares aren’t delivering the same impact, the movie veers too often into comedy, which only further de-fangs the power of its demonic clown. The 2017 It naturally understood that its horror would take steps into the goofy but that made it scarier. With the 2019 sequel, the human characters are calling out the horror tropes, which doesn’t work. This is even more noticeable and unhelpful when the big scary scenes all involve some CGI monster. There’s very little actual Pennywise in this movie and too many dull CGI monsters rambling about. Then there’s a terrible over-invested secondary villain with a childhood bully breaking out of a mental hospital and being instructed to kill the adult Losers. Every time the movie kept cutting to him, I sighed. He doesn’t deserve the amount of screen time and importance he seems to have been given. I don’t care about this guy and the movie shouldn’t waste time trying to make me care.

The returning assets are welcomed, providing a sense of continuity that helps carry over our good feelings and good times from the 2017 hit. Muschietti (Mama) is a talented director and an excellent mood setter, but he’s also excellent at directing child actors. There’s one standout scene in It Chapter Two that would rank with the quality of the previous film. There’s one scene that follows a little girl with a splotchy birth mark on her cheek as she follows a firefly under the bleachers at a high school baseball game. Waiting below in the shadows is Pennywise, who plays upon her insecurity of her facial deformity, and his own, to promise her a better life. It’s the one moment in the movie I actually felt something close to fear. Muschietti draws out the development organically and plays upon the mounting dread, holding onto a moment of Pennywise frozen, like the creature below the facade is trying to remember what to do next. It’s a stellar little moment, beautifully directed and written, and it’s almost completely superfluous to the main story. The child actors are all still outstanding, even if some of them get a slathering of de-aging CGI to make them look more like their pre-puberty selves (sorry Finn Wolfhard). Then there’s the breakout sensation Skarsgard (Assassination Nation) as our favorite dancing clown. He’s under served by the story problems and the hazy rules leading to his eventual confrontation. I enjoyed every actual appearance from the character and Skarsgard’s eerie command over his physicality, the way he can simply move through a scene or fixate his face, is astounding. The degree of his brilliance in this role will get downplayed because of of its genre but he is doing remarkable acting here.

The adult actors all deliver capable and even great performances with what little they have. It doesn’t take a great actor to act scared, as judged by the litany of low-budget horror available, but it does take a great actor to try and funnel that into the narrow band of a character. Chastain (Dark Phoenix) is enjoyable, because she always will be, but her character is meant to sleepwalk through the movie, putting together the memories of old and becoming more aware. It makes for a restrained performance, which works for an adult woman raised with abusive men, but it can also mean that Chastain is given less material as an actor to work with. McAvoy (Glass) breaks into a childhood stutter when he’s really freaked out but even his character seems to vacillate between under-performing and over-performing, especially when he’s obsessed over saving one little neighborhood kid who probably views him as the real danger. His character was the unquestioned center of the 2017 It, but that center seems more with Richie with the 2019 It. Hader has taken a surprising and very affecting turn into darker dramatic work with HBO’s Barry, and his performance is the best of the adult Losers. He has his expected funny moments but it’s the sadness and anxiety that coats his words that Hader is able to bring out. His is the character that seems to open up the most through the second installment and Hader was a terrific choice to facilitate this.

It Chapter Two falters in comparison of the first film where the qualities all felt so wonderfully organic, arranged, and developed. It was a grade-A funhouse of goofy terrors. The sequel is far far too long, misshapen structurally, overextended, underdeveloped, lacking in sustainable tension, overusing CGI and comedy, and strands the talented actors with little to do. I heartily enjoyed the first chapter and that’s why I’m feeling as let down as I am for Chapter Two. It’s certainly not a bad movie. It still has enough slick technical skill and good acting to warrant a viewing if you’re a fan of King’s novel or the 2017 movie. Just be prepared for a longer, duller, and less satisfying concluding half that seems to be running on half the imagination. It might work well enough but it only makes me appreciate the charms of Chapter One even more.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ready or Not (2019)

Ready or Not is like the twisted lovechild of the home invasion thriller You’re Next and the meta-horror funhouse that is Cabin in the Woods, and it’s a total blast. This is no game.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying into a rich family of socialites, famous for their family’s history with board games. Grace’s husband is reluctant about his bride joining the family he had walked away from for years. There is one big tradition: every new member of the family has to play a game upon their wedding night, dating back to the great grandfather who founded the family company through a chance encounter. Grace pulls a random card that says hide and seek, and that’s the game they must play. She’s bemused at being enlisted into a child’s game but little does she know that the family is arming themselves to find and murder her. They fear that if they cannot kill her before dawn, they will all be doomed thanks to an old curse.

The movie is entertaining from beginning to glorious ending thanks to finely developing its unorthodox premise and staying consistent tonally, whether it’s dark humor or tension. This is a very funny movie. In fact, I laughed more and harder during this film than I have with movies sold as comedies. It’s not afraid to spin its macabre premise for fun, but it impressively doesn’t lose sight of character and scenario along the way. That means that the screenwriters are deriving their humor from the absurdity of their situations and finding organic wellsprings of comic relief. The humor doesn’t detract from the danger of the moment while also enlivening the rest of the movie. The incredulity of the situation leads to some wonderfully ironic moments, like one relative studying YouTube videos for how to operate a crossbow, someone looking up on Google whether or not deals with the devil are real, and a running gag of the estate’s maids meeting horrible accidental deaths. And then there’s the ending, which finds a wonderful way to essentially have its cake and eat it too. I won’t spoil it but the ending to Ready or Not is a fist-pumping, cheering, clapping, highly memorable closer, and one of the best endings in years. It’s one of those endings you can’t wait to talk about with others.

All of the various family members have little notes to play and character beats that provide a more realized glimpse into their histories and the family dynamics than I would have anticipated. It made me feel like the filmmakers had given great consideration to even the smallest of details in what is, at its core, a murderous version of a children’s game. There’s the wife to Adam Brody’s character who is all-in on whatever it takes to maintain this family because she hints at what kind of horrible life predated her new life here. Then there’s the patriarch of the family who is all about ceremony and staying true to the rules until he has to experience the smallest challenge and wants to use whatever cheats he can at his disposal, arguing that great grandfather would use security cameras too if he could and why should they be penalized for simply playing the game in a more technologically advanced era. He’s just another rich douchebag who drops his pretenses the moment something isn’t handed to him. The characters are varied so that you can never feel relief when anyone is in a room, and that even includes the children, who seem destined to become new participants in this cycle.

Even with its tongue-in-cheek humor and premise, there is a lot of clever thinking put into Ready or Not. There are plenty of setups that connect to later payoffs, including that amazing finish. The screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy thinks things through step-by-step so that it’s always ahead of the audience. If any of us found ourselves in this scenario, we would likely try and escape as quickly as possible to an outside refuge. They provide an explanation for that hurdle. Then when Grace finds a way out, the screenplay finds a logical yet clever way to curtail that escape. There is a gruesome sequence where Grace suffers a specific injury and then has to pull herself out of a bad situation, and the movie sets up a gnarly out that connects to that injury, and I sat with baited breath just waiting for the puzzle pieces to connect, and Ready or Not has several moments like this. It’s a fun movie because while it doesn’t take itself that seriously it’s very serious about its storytelling and structure.

Weaving deserved to be an A-list actress after her star-making performance in Netflix’s The Babysitter. This woman is so magnetic and so great at roles that require a tightrope of tone; she sizzled as the darkly advantageous yet lovable babysitter in that other movie, and with Ready of Not she’s our increasingly baffled heroine just trying to make sense of the insanity. The audience gravitates toward Grace pretty quickly as a grounded woman who seems genuine about her desire to have the family that she never formed as a foster child. There’s a latent tenacity that emerges from Grace as she pushes herself through one survival scenario after another. Unlike the similarly themed You’re Next, Grace is not some secret badass raised by crafty survivalists. She’s a normal person thrust into a very abnormal situation, and her responses stay reasonable and formidable when called upon. She is our center for the fun and she makes a winning heroine, and Weaving is so good at the heavy moments, the gross moments, the sly moments, that she deserves to have great material handed to her because she is ready, Hollywood.

Ready or Not is a sneaky, nasty, delightfully dark little movie that left me hooting, hollering, squirming, and grinning with satisfaction. It’s a late summer surprise that delivers everything I was hoping for and has great, delicious fun with its humor and violence. It’s smartly paced, smartly structured, with supporting characters that leave a mark as well as thematic questions over culpability and group think. This is the kind of movie I wish Hollywood was making more of, with screenwriters that can take a premise and write the best possible version of that and with the best possible ending. Any misgivings I have for this movie are small quibbles, like maybe more specific payoffs linked to onscreen deaths, but even that would detract from later events and payoffs, so even my quibbles can be excused. Ready or Not deserves to be seen with a raucous crowd that will appreciate it to its full extent. I look forward to the Twister-heavy sequel.

Nate’s Grade: A

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Based on the popular horror anthology for children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun, spooky appetizer for tweens and teens, and those who remember what it was like, as they transition into horror. Set in 1968, we follow a group of marginalized teenagers who come across a haunted book that is literally writing vengeful stories with their names in them. The stories are plucked from the books and brought to wonderful life with ghastly impressive practical makeup effects that eerily mirror the illustrations by Stephen Gammel. I wouldn’t call the movie disturbing or gory or even overly gross, but it can be unnerving at times drawing upon the suspense of someone hiding and/or worrying about what is advancing without recourse. I had some quality squirming in my seat in this movie. It’s a simple yet effective formula that is played well by director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe). Even when the signature vignettes aren’t on display, I was enjoying spending time with the teenage characters and watching them try and navigate being different in a small town, feeling lost or misunderstood, and really trying to decipher some system of rules with the haunted book. It feels akin to a Final Destination where a small band of characters are doomed and have to out think their supernatural boogeyman before the next one is picked off. It’s just enough that the movie doesn’t feel like it’s losing too much momentum when we have to transition back to the original material after leaving the scary story stars, the monsters. This is an enjoyable throwback to 80s children’s movies that were allowed to be a little creepy, a little odd, a little spooky, and not so safe and mundane. It’s also a fun movie for your more macabre-enchancted youngin’s out there and older adults that remember being macabre-enchanted youngin’s themselves.

Nate’s Grade: B

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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