Midsommar


Even hippies can do horror!

(2019) Horror (A24Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlen, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Agnes Rase, Julia Ragnarsson, Mats Blomgren, Lars Väringer, Anna Ǻström, Hampus Hallberg, Liv Mjönes, Louise Peterhoff, Katarina Weidhagen, Björn Andrésen, Rebecka Johnston. Directed by Ari Aster

Ari Aster, with just two films under his belt (his first being last year’s acclaimed Hereditary) has become in a short time one of the leading names in horror films. His newest is very different from his last…in fact, very different than any horror movie you’re likely to see.

A group of American grad students in anthropology take up an invitation from jovial Swedish student Pelle (V. Blomgren) to attend a summer festival in a small Swedish commune above the Arctic circle. Among those going is Dani (Pugh) who is still grieving from an unimaginable tragedy, and her self-absorbed boyfriend Christian (Reynor) who in fact has tired of her emotional neediness and is looking for a way out of the relationship. His pals Josh (Harper) and Mark (Poulter) are also not keen on having the fragile Dani along on their boys’ trip to the land of beautiful blondes.

Josh at least has the excuse that he’s writing his graduate thesis on the rituals and culture of the region but soon those rituals begin to take a sinister turn. Making all of them additionally crazy is the fact that the sun never really sets at that latitude at that time of the year. As the tension builds with each ritual growing more bizarre and bloodier than the last, it becomes clear that Dani has an important role to play – assuming she survives the nine-day festival.

Aster does a masterful job of building the tension, the feeling that all is not quite well here. While the movie does run a little bit long in my opinion – my attention began to wane near the end – you almost don’t mind because of the palpable sense of dread, interspersed with scenes of unexpected graphic and bloody violence.

While some have complained that the central relationship between Dani and Christian isn’t really fleshed out, I would argue that it doesn’t need to be. We know all we need to know and we can focus on the more meaty material within. Aster did a bang-up job on research and while the movie was filmed mostly in Hungary, it does a great job of conjuring up rural Scandinavia.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about what happens during the course of the film – the less you know, the more impact it will have – and giving it a more thorough review might well spoil some of the surprises therein. However, suffice to say that this is not only one of the best horror movies of the year, it is one of the best films of the year period. If you aren’t the squeamish sort, this is worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: A very creepy vibe. Clearly well-researched. Swedes are batshit crazy! Increases the “something is rotten in Sweden” tone exponentially.
REASONS TO AVOID: Just a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing images, ritualistic violence, graphic nudity, sexuality, brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Swedish spoken in the film is deliberately not subtitled, giving the audience the same set of isolation and confusion that the English-speaking characters must have felt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

Wanderlust


Wanderlust

Alan Alda is smug because he gets to hit all his marks in a scooter.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, Linda Lavin, Jessica St. Clair, Todd Barry. Directed by David Wain

 

Sometimes our life changes because we decide to change things. Other times it’s due to forces beyond our control. The latter often prompts us to do the former, truth be told – and occasionally that sends us in unintended directions.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a pair of yuppies living the dream in Manhattan. They’ve just bought what is called a micro-loft (but what George correctly identifies as being really a studio apartment) in the pricey West Village (more than six figures and just shy of seven) and they can barely afford it. George is understandably nervous but his enthusiastic wife and snooty realtor (Lavin) combine to get him to give it a good ol’ what-the-hell.

Then those forces beyond their control kick in. George’s company comes under a federal indictment and is shut down. Linda’s documentary on penguins with testicular cancer is rejected by HBO. With no income at all, they can no longer afford the apartment and have to put it up for sale at a tremendous loss, even though they’ve only owned it for a couple of weeks. With their tails between their legs, they go limping to Atlanta to live with George’s brother who has offered George a job.

They drive to Atlanta but have to stop for the night. They decide to try the Elysium Bed and Breakfast but are frightened by the sight of a naked man (they don’t get out much in New York City apparently) and manage to flip their car. It turns out that Wayne (Lo Truglio), the naked man, is harmless and he escorts them back to the B&B.

As it turns out the inn is more of a commune (although they prefer the term “evolved community”) who make them feel right at home and completely free. After a night of skinny dipping, guitar playing, pot smoking and general merriment led by the commune’s de facto leader Seth (Theroux), the friendly albeit somewhat eccentric commune members help turn over their car and send them on their merry way with the invite to join their community if they so choose.

Rick (Marino) is a complete charmless boor whose wife Marissa (Watkins) self-medicates with booze and seems oblivious to his many infidelities. Rick drives George and Linda crazy within a few days and George hits upon the idea to going back to the commune. It would be shelter and food, and they had been happier there than they’d been in a long while. Linda is skeptical but agrees to give the idea a couple of weeks.

Once there the adjustment period seems to take George a little bit by surprise. The food is uniformly bad and macrobiotic, there are no doors and no privacy, Eva (Akerman) has made it clear she’d like to make love with George and Seth makes it clear he’d like to do a lot more than that to Linda. There’s also a subplot going on with a casino being built on their land and Carvin (Alda) the somewhat addled founder of Elysium has misplaced the deed.

This is a Judd Apatow movie and for once Apatow’s involvement isn’t trumpeted to the heavens; while his signature is felt on the comedic aspects in many ways this is less overtly his work than usual. That is a pretty good thing even though I generally like his work, he’s been getting some overexposure from all the films he’s not only directing but also producing.

Rudd excels at these kinds of characters – neurotic yuppies going through transitional phases. He is immensely likable, as is Aniston who also does the high-strung career woman as well as anybody. They’re both charismatic but for some reason together (although they both spent time on the “Friends” sitcom in which Aniston starred) they just don’t have much spark.

The rest of the cast is nice, particularly Hahn as a bitchy commune member, Theroux as the full-of-himself leader, Marino, Watkins and Alda. There are some genuine funny moments that made me bust out laughing and a good deal of sexuality and nudity. There are also some long dead spaces where the jokes fall flat. For sure there is an uneven quality here that keeps this comedy from really hitting it out of the park.

Even though dramas get the lion’s share of attention once awards season starts, I maintain it’s far more difficult to pull off a good comedy than it is a good drama. Human nature being what it is, it’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. There are enough good moments to recommend the movie, but not much more than that. It is the best comedy out there at the moment, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny.  Women seem to find it more relatable than men.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of dead space. Rudd and Aniston don’t generate a tremendous amount of chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content including plenty of graphic nudity both male and female. There’s also some drug use and a heaping helping of swear words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aniston, Alda and Rudd all co-starred in The Object of My Affection (1998).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100. The reviews blow hot and cold.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Richer or For Poorer

THE STATE LOVERS: Five of the acclaimed comedy troupe’s members are reunited here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Babies

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen contemplate a world without the Oprah show.

(2011) Thriller (Fox Searchlight)  Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbett, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson, Adam Thompson, Allen McCullough, Gregg Burton, Diana Masi. Directed by Sean Durkin

The mind is a terribly fragile and easily manipulated thing. If you tell it something with enough conviction and enough reputation, it will largely believe anything. Someone with enough will and skill can turn a group of people into their own personal marionettes.

Lucy (Paulson) gets a phone call one afternoon from her sister Martha (Olsen) who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. Martha seems a bit skittish and somewhat confused; Lucy offers to pick her up, a three hour drive each way. She brings her sister home to a beautiful, sleek lake cottage (and I use the term “cottage” advisedly; it could easily sleep ten) where her husband Ted (Dancy) waits to meet Martha for the first time. Martha’s behavior is a bit odd, but nothing too out of the ordinary at first.

The weird things begin to happen. While Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha crawls into bed with them, seemingly oblivious to their need for privacy and intimacy. Martha seems to place no value whatsoever on possessions and has developed skills in cleaning and gardening that she never had before. She also has the look and feel of a puppy who’s been kicked by her owner too many times.

What we know that Lucy doesn’t is that Martha has been in a cult for the last two years. Introduced into it by her friend Zoe (Krause), the cult looks more like a commune at first, a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York where all possessions are shared as is the workload. It is presided over by Patrick (Hawkes), a mild guitar-playing sort. Patrick takes one look at Martha and proclaims her name is Marcy May from then on out and that’s what everyone calls her. Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She is intrigued by Patrick’s philosophy of being self-sufficient.

Except they’re not. The farm is in desperate need of things they aren’t yet able to provide for themselves, so it becomes part of the routine for members of the cult to go to neighboring homes and steal things. This leads to an unexpected and brutal conclusion after which Marcy May makes the decision to flee and return to being Martha again.

At home, Martha is still haunted by her experiences. Little things – a pebble skittering across the driveway, the splash from jumping into the lake – bring her right back into memories of the cult. She becomes paranoid, certain that the cult is after her and is out to bring her back to the farm. How much of her paranoia is real, and how much is the result of a traumatized mind?

Part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene (the Marlene is a reference to the name all of the cult’s women adopt when answering the phone) work is the chilling realism of it. Patrick takes control of the women by changing their names just slightly enough that it doesn’t seem like a bad thing and slowly but surely strips them of their own will. Of course, sex is a big part of that.

In a chilling scene, we are made to realize that Patrick himself “initiates” the women into the family by drugging them and raping them. Afterwards, the women are convinced by their “sisters” that not only was it not rape, that it was not just consensual, but it was a purification that they desperately needed and wanted. So indoctrinated is Martha/Marcy May that she assists in preparing and drugging a new member for Patrick.

Women are not allowed to eat until the men have finished; when a hungry Martha absently pops something into her mouth while preparing a meal, she is smacked upside the head and not gently. Even away from the cult, Martha is seen to be mouthing the platitudes that Patrick repeated to her. It truly is chilling.

At opposite ends of the spectrum we have Olsen – yes, sister to the Olsen twins – who plays Martha like a wounded bird; hopelessly naive in some ways, worldly in others and just barely holding it together. It is a performance that if it doesn’t merit Oscar consideration, should at least be leading to some bigger, more visible roles for Olsen who proves herself  to be a fearless actress.

Hawkes, so impressive in Winter’s Bone last year, proves that his Oscar nomination for that film was no fluke. His Patrick is mesmerizing; never overtly evil except in a couple of places, menacing without appearing to be. He’s the kind of guy that inspires trust and only too late do you find that you are ensnared in his web.

Paulson and Dancy play a very self-absorbed couple who fail to see all the warning signs that Martha’s trauma and seek out professional help for the girl. Dancy’s Ted in particular is more worried about his own comforts than he is about the well-being of his sister-in-law. They are both shallow and materialistic and are thrown into a complete quandary by the arrival of someone who is neither.

The tension here sneaks up on you. It’s evident from the beginning that something bad is going on, and it just gets worse and worse while you wait for the other shoe to drop. By the time it does, you haven’t noticed just how much the level of tension has been wound up on you. That’s good filmmaking. What doesn’t work as well is the switching of timelines between Marcy May and Martha, which is I think meant to convey the confusion going on in her mind but winds up confusing the audience as well. That could have been handled better and is the main reason I didn’t give the movie a higher rating; I still suspect I undervalued it a bit.

The movie does build towards a climax which is deliberately ambiguous. I left the theater with a creepy feeling that was unsettling, like you’d looked into the home movies of someone involved in a tragedy and the movie doesn’t make it plain what the fate of Martha and her sister were although it suggests that it doesn’t end well. While this doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Winter’s Bone, it leaves you with a good ration of something to think about. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer after watching it and quite frankly, not everyone wants to go through that at the movies. Those not looking for mindless entertainment would be well-advised to seek this out.

REASONS TO GO: Durkin establishes a tense mood from the get-go and only ratchets it up throughout, slowly and subtly until you’re a nervous wreck as a viewer. Some intense performances, particularly from Olsen.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to follow at times and an ending that is disturbing as it is ambiguous.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes of sudden violence, rape and sex. There are a few bad words and some nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Martha was the only one that the filmmakers auditioned. Durkin wanted an unknown actress for the role and after Olsen auditioned twice, she was cast two weeks before filming started.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see at home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Piranha 3D

The Last Station


The Last Station

James McAvoy displays obvious beard envy.

(2008) Period Drama (Sony Classics) Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, John Sessions, Patrick Kennedy, Tomas Spencer, Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Hantsch, David Masterson. Directed by Michael Hoffman

Although he has a reputation for writing voluminous novels full of Russian names and places that are enough to cause the heads of most casual readers to spin, Count Leo Tolstoy was in reality one of the world’s greatest writers. His ideas continue to influence world culture to this day, and in his day he was considered to be a living saint – an idea he apparently didn’t dissuade.

Tolstoy (Plummer) is an old man living on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and although he has espoused pacifism and celibacy his whole life (the latter of which he obviously failed to adhere to with 13 children), his life is turmoil and warfare. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren) fully expects the copyrights of his work (and the accompanying residual payments) to go to his family.

However, Tolstoy’s trusted aide Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) has other ideas. He believes that the rights should revert to the Russian people, which would be in line with Tolstoy’s political and social agenda – which to be honest Chertkov is entirely correct. This of course puts him at odds with the Countess who is a formidable woman and opponent in every respect.

Chertkov hires a young man, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), to ostensibly act as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, but is in fact there to spy on Sofya which makes Bulgakov, a Tolstoyan to the core, a little bit uncomfortable. He winds up caught in the middle of the power struggle which the elderly writer seems to be blissfully unaware of.

Bulgakov takes solace in the arms of Masha (Condon), a woman who works on the drab but pastoral Tolstoyan commune neighboring the Count’s estate. Tolstoy’s days are growing numbered and his legacy is at stake. Bulgakov finds himself sympathizing with both sides – but which one ultimately should the Count’s decision fall to?

This is a fictionalized version of the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, a number of the events portrayed here did take place as written, but quite  a bit of artistic license takes place as well. We see Tolstoy not as he actually was, but as we wish he was.

That’s largely due to the tremendous performances by Plummer and Mirren. Mirren gives us a multi-layered performance that portrays Sofya as alternately loving, shrewish, arch, witty, charming, devious and obstinate. To my mind, this is not only the equal of Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance in The Queen but in many ways it’s superior. She was rightly nominated for another statuette for it, although she would lose to Sandra Bullock as Best Actress.

Plummer was also nominated for his performance as Tolstoy (losing to Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor), an honor richly deserved. Plummer seems to be having a great deal of fun with his role. Rather than playing Tolstoy as a ponderous, weighty pontificator who bore the burden of his greatness in his shoulders (which is the temptation), he instead humanizes the man who would go on to influence Gandhi and the peace movement of the 1960s, making him warm and grandfatherly. He dithers over the disposition of his material things, somewhat embarrassed over his own wealth and station.

McAvoy is a fine actor who has yet to really move beyond being a merely competent leading man and becoming a star; he certainly has role models to look to here if he is to move forward. He does a solid job once again, making Bulgakov likable but not memorable. Giamatti is more crotchety and is the center of the story’s conflict, a role he inhabits well. He knows how to make a character unlikable without making him grating, a very fine line that he pulls off here.

The Russia Tolstoy inhabits is changing, moving inexorably from the repressive Tsarist regime to the eventual revolution that would turn it into a communist nation that Tolstoy would have welcomed had he lived long enough to see it – and then rejected as it would become even more repressive than the government it replaced. Even in the idyllic setting of Tolstoy’s beloved home, the sense of oncoming change is ever-present in the film.

There are a lot of grand gestures and thoughts here, few of which are truly realized. We are teased with weighty insights but this film belongs more to the conflict between Sofya and Chertkov. That is the center of the action and perhaps from the standpoint of traditional storytelling that would be the way to go. However, I found the movie worked better when the relationship between Sofya and Tolstoy was at the fore; Bulgakov is more of an observer than a catalyst here, and that makes the character somewhat bland.

To my mind, this is a movie that aims high and doesn’t quite hit the mark completely, something not to be discouraged. The performances of Plummer and Mirren are both well worth seeing, and if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to their efforts, at least the filmmakers had the sense to showcase the performances of these able actors and that alone should be motivation enough to rent this.

WHY RENT THIS: An opportunity to witness two glorious performances that are as different as night and day. A look into the life of a great man who was fully aware he was great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are actual historical figures here, you get the sense they are here to perform certain roles that may or may not jive with their place in history. The script hints at grand thoughts but never really realizes them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality that contains some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The descendants of the family still live near Yasnaya Polyana and the movie was made with their support and approval. One of the count’s descendants, Anastasia Tolstoy, an Oxford graduate, shows up near the end of the film as a mourner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel, as well as a segment from the AFI tribute to Christopher Plummer in which he takes questions from the audience regarding his brilliant career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.6M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bone Collector