Midsommar (2019)

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Pagan cults in Horror filmmaking are one of those specific niches that very few people have nailed, there are only maybe two or three films which have remained staples in the canon whilst body horror or ghost stories have many variations. Pagan horror remains indebted to The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy) and possibly Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves). With Midsommar, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a vision of hell on earth bathed in sunshine and psychedelic imagery that will stick in the mind long past its first viewing.

Much like his last film Hereditary, Aster ties all the events of the film to a tragedy that happens in the first act and from there things spiral out into disturbingly strange territory. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the rocks following this tragedy, and a trip to Sweden to visit one of Christian’s friends’ mysterious Swedish commune, and witness their Midsummer festival presents a chance for them to get away and possibly start afresh. This is of course a bad idea that we as viewers are intensely aware of as soon as we see the white robes and overly smiley faces of the members of the Hårga. I will let the film reveal the events that happen with the Hårga in Halsingland, as it is important to experience what they do first hand, just as the characters do. It is safe to say though that your initial impressions of these pagan oddballs are correct, and things go downhill quite drastically by the end of their trip.

Midsommar is an ambitiously long film running at over two and a half hours long, but the visuals alone were enough to carry the film to another plane for me. It is not a snappy, fast paced, shock a minute film, but this is clearly a conscious choice by Aster. He is ambitious in his focus on horror storytelling and has obviously set out to create a lethargic rhythm to the film which will draw you in and challenge you. The film is probably closer in tone to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) than a conventional horror narrative. There is more story at play here, but the tone and pacing help mirror the disorientation of the central characters to you, pulling you in whilst not being sure what is happening.

The fact that you can stick with the film as easily as you can is in a large part in testament to the cinematography and vivid colour of the film. The film is beautiful at points, with Halsingland’s green grass and beaming blue sky contrasting with the creeping horror on screen. There has clearly been a concerted effort to make the experience of watching the film as visually pleasing as possible, despite many people in my screening having to look away when the Hårga really let rip in their pagan ceremonies. The natural beauty of the setting and the strangeness of the events which take place within it make the feeling of increasing dread even more palpable. A strange unease comes over you when you see such disturbing things happen in full daylight, Aster gives you nowhere to hide and you see every element of whatever horror he is showing you. There are multiple moments throughout the film where Aster employs the same dead eyed long shots of his characters going through hell that he used in Hereditary, not giving the viewer a chance to escape from the emotions within the scene. The film even harks back to Bergman at points; it’s hard to imagine a character being named Ingmar is unintentional. Think Wicker Man (the original obviously), mixed with Climax and maybe a little bit of the human angst in The Virgin Spring (1960, Dir. Ingmar Bergman) and this is quite close to what you get.

Leaving the film on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, however having sat with it in my head for a while now I can appreciate just how original an experience I felt it was. If you go into this film expecting to be terrified from beginning to end you could be pretty disappointed. The thrill for me came from Midsommar’s slowly unravelling sanity, until Aster finally releases the tension and the Hårga are shown for their true colours. Of course, there is much to be drawn in terms of meaning from the events on screen, especially about the film and its relation to theories about toxic masculinity and relationships in the modern world. However, for me I just really enjoyed the darkness Aster conjured in broad Swedish daylight, and the slowly building power of its images.

-Ed

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Midsommar (2019)

Suspiria (2018)

Suspiria 2018

To remake Suspiria is a bold move, the original is such a vivid slice of Giallo at its purest form it’s difficult to imagine how one would be able to do the original justice. Luca Guadagnino was named as the director of this remake of the Dario Argento shocker, Guadagnino hot off the back of his much-loved tender romance Call Me by Your Name (2017). You couldn’t help but think that these two names, Suspiria and Guadagnino were hardly a match made in heaven, one renowned for its violence and the other renowned for their deft and classy dramas. Having only recently seen the original (reviewed here by Alex), and loving it for its schlocky otherworldly expressive brand of witchy horror I felt that whilst it is clearly a great piece of horror cinema, it wasn’t perfect and I was interested to see where a retelling by such a different director would take us. From the first trailers it was clear that Suspiria (2018) would be a drastically different beast. Could this be a rare remake that succeeds in justifying itself as a standalone film and not just a clamouring homage? Having seen it now I can safely say that for me it has succeeded and bring so much more to the table than I could have imagined.


Luca Guadagnino has done a lot with Suspiria but has kept the basic framework of the original. We still have a naïve Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arriving in Berlin to join a prestigious dance academy under the tutelage of the brilliantly played Madame Blanc, Tilda Swinton is loving every moment of this film in one of three roles she fills in the film. The setting itself is what sets this film so apart from the original however. The opening scenes of the 1977 original had Berlin appear an utterly alien landscape with the dance academy being the only tangible reality, along with a few choice encounters outside its baroque walls. Gone is most of the expressionistic lack of reality, instead we are firmly rooted in Cold War divided Berlin. Guadagnino even places the film around the real-life turmoil the country was going through with the actions of infamous far-left radicals the RAF (Red Army Faction) and their abduction of a former SS officer come powerful industrialist. This is not to say that the film becomes overtly political, at its heart it is still very much a horror film with a penchant for gore, the director has just taken the story into a very necessary different direction. If Guadagnino had just aped the originals colour palate and story overtly the film would be effectively worthless. However, Guadagnino is much more astute and has created a different beast that slowly and surely seeps into your bones.

The beiges and browns of Berlin 1977 are brought out through the Bauhaus-esque dance studio, all wood and sparse modern dance studios. Colour is rarely seen in vivid tones unless Guadagnino wants you to be shocked by them. He keeps the colour central to the story and yet uses the sense of space and time so much more to root the film with some deeper meaning than just a slasher tale based around some creepy dancers. If the original was prog rock, this is much more post-punk, less Goblin and Yes, more Joy Division or Bauhaus (surprisingly) in tone. More screen time is given to the actual dance within the film as well, whilst the original may have had a little it was much more a background for the story to unfold on top of, in this remake however it has become a central point of the plot. Some scenes put the dance front and centre creating some incredible visuals, with the spastic movements of the contemporary dance being performed echoing a darker underbelly of the institution. Guadagnino is clearly drawing inspiration from the art scene of west Germany in the choreography used, echoing the work of Pina Bausch (See Pina, 2011, Dir. Wim Wenders) who would have been working in West Germany in the time frame of the film.

The pacing of this film is not on a par with the original I do have to admit, the originals 90 minutes rips by and Guadagnino has added a whole lot into the story. I found it much more slow burn than some have given it credit for, and for all its plot I must admit I never found it boring. The scope of the film is much wider than the original and I wonder that the fact this is such a drastic departure from the original is more of an issue for some than it needs to be. The acting in the film is also given much more space with everyone able to justify their character motives through backstory, no longer is Susie the blank slate that she is in the first film… Well she kind of is still but Dakota Johnson does a good job in imbuing her with a sense of willing ignorance and obsession. This however is clearly Tilda Swinton’s film, with her work as Madame Blanc along with two more central characters being almost more of the central focus of the film. She is such a mercurial talent, a fact that Guadagnino is clearly very aware of this due to his utilisation of her talents in three overarching roles throughout his Suspiria.

I found this possibly overlong and maybe pretentious art horror film to be a true highlight of the cinematic year. Whilst it may not always be scary in the conventional sense, there are high levels of creepy throughout and the focus by the director on the film and not just the bravado moments made it pop for me. A worthy and brilliant remake of an already revolutionary film, although I sense I may be in the minority on this one.

-Ed

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Suspiria (2018)

The King of Comedy (1982)

The King of Comedy

Everyone knows Scorcese and think they have a grasp on what he is about, however for such a well-regarded and widely known filmmaker he still has some hidden gems. The King of Comedy is definitely one of these and should not be overlooked. The film came to our screens just after Scorsese had directed his second true masterpiece Raging Bull and is shot through with the same level of cynicism and contempt for its main character as he showed in his other masterwork Taxi Driver (1976).

Rupert Pupkin is an autograph hunter when we first meet him, joining the throngs of fans waiting to meet a Johnny Carson style talk show host. However, Pupkin has other plans, he wishes to be a comedian guest on his show more than anything and this film tracks the lengths he will go to, to get onto the show at almost any cost. Pupkin is played by prime era Robert de Niro in a truly rabid performance. The levels of desperation and pure cringe inducing hunger for fame that De Niro gives the character at times are as hard to watch as even the most violent of Scorsese moments. He follows and pry’s his way into Jerry Langford, the talk show host’s life in such a relentless fashion that at points it’s hard to watch the screen for the lack of foresight shown. This is a man who will play talk show in his basement with cut-outs of Jerry Lewis’ Langford and Liza Minelli, believing that all he needs is one appearance to become a national star who will suddenly be a household name who everyone will know and love.

In a sense this is one of Scorsese’s saddest films purely because it is so centred around such a deeply troubled and desperate man. We are never really given room to breathe because De Niro is always there, always clawing at the man he believes will give him his big break. Jerry Lewis is also not the most sympathetic of characters, a man hounded by everyone of whom he meets, a household name and yet a snob at heart not able to live any kind of normal life. He is not shown to be a funny guy, his show is never shown and so what we’re left with is what Pupkin see’s, an unhappy man who has got to the upper echelons of American entertainment and is not any better for it.

I fear that by saying how rough this film can be I’m making it seem like a slog, however this is Scorsese we are talking about. The film is funny, at points in a ‘The Office’ style cringe inducing way but at other points just through the sheer charisma of the performers on-screen. De Niro is shown to be a truly incredible actor once again in a role obviously tailor-made for him, he injects human pathos and some level of sympathy into what could appear as just a completely unlikable slightly psychopathic man. He is also flanked by Sandra Bernhard’s Masha, a similarly fame hungry groupie of Jerry Langford whose similar levels of desperation similarly lends her character a humanity, just through the way she seems completely unaware of how unacceptable her actions are.

Scorsese at this point truly is at the peak of his powers and this film should really be as widely seen as any of his best. This is at its heart a satire of celebrity and what the promise of fame can do to people, and yet he is able to bring so much more into it. From the nouvelle vague way the street scenes are filmed to the unflinching look at Pupkin as he waits and waits and waits to see Jerry Langford, Scorsese shows himself as one of the true greats of American cinema. Don’t let this be an oversight in your watchlist, this is essential viewing.

-Ed

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The King of Comedy (1982)

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker, I don’t think im stepping on many toes by saying this. He specialises in issue led films which have clear and important messages often centred on American racial division. Here however Lee uses his anger at the racial segregation being pushed by the POTUS (Agent Orange as he calls him) to craft a powerfully prescient story of the importance of overcoming racism and the spread of hateful language in modern culture. However Lee is no fool and knows he needs to make it entertaining and oh is BlacKkKlansman fun to watch.

Lee uses the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black policeman in the Colorado Springs Police force who at first is overlooked because of his race. However when he is transferred to the intelligence section of the force he quickly begins to use his wit and intelligence to ingratiate himself over the phone with the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. As he is obviously not the desired recruit for such a group it falls to another undercover officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to visit and delve deeper into the Klan to monitor them and see how dangerous they are to public safety. John David Washington and Adam Driver as Stallworth and Zimmerman are a really effective duo, with Stallworth taking the job as a subversive crusade to fight racism from the inside, whilst Zimmerman slowly begins to understand that the investigation has more and more poignancy for him than he first realised. The two actors are perfectly cast, having not seen John David Washington in anything before he was immensely impressive, and seems to have picked up all the charisma and chops of his Oscar-winning father Denzel Washington. Meanwhile Adam Driver yet again teaches a masterclass in understatement and empathy. Lee uses this true story to craft a kind of buddy cop movie where the two men most identify with each other over their status as minorities in America and in definition by the Klan themselves.

Lee treats the Klan as both comic figures and as people who are genuine threats to America there may be braying bumbling idiots in the organisation but there are also more cunning and measured racists who are the real threats. Topher Grace as David Duke, the then grand wizard of the KKK plays him with a creepy self-assurance. Duke is more bank manager than racist monster but the language he uses gives him away. Lee is also very clearly drawing parallels between one monster and another, our current POTUS. Duke is responsible for the phrase America First after all, Dukes own political motives are viewed as a ridiculous pipe dream in the film, a cringe inducing exchange that really hammers home how dark America is right now. The power of language is really called to the forefront in the film, whether it’s from civil rights activists speaking truth to power, or from the bigots of the Klan spewing bile at every opportunity. Honestly the language that the Klan do use in the film became hard to hear after a while, the sheer abrasiveness of their speech really brings the power in those words home (if that was needed to begin with).

Somehow Lee balances the moods of this film very delicately whilst still being able to hammer home its political message. The film is challenging and yet incredibly fun to watch, it zips along with a real verve and is funny to boot. The pace and wit of the film may come from Lee’s clear influence he’s taking from the Blaxploitation films he namechecks within the film. Their slightly overwrought action and soundtracks make an appearance in the film as well as their humour. Lee has always managed to do this balance of humour and serious discussion, think of Do the Right Thing which is an incredibly funny film but also has a strong seam of pathos running through it. The 70s aesthetic of this film is all-encompassing, Lee is clearly drawing our attention to the period and trying to say that whilst this might seem like another world filled with beige and olive clothes and massive Afros, the issues are still the same and are actually getting worse in our current world. The world is incredibly well realised, with everything from the editing techniques to the spot on period detail and costumes.

The films ending is another strong point of this film but do not worry I am not spoiling the overall plot of the film, there is just a moment in which we are pulled out of the past and planted in the here and now which was immensely affecting. Lee uses a short montage of footage from the white power marches in Charlottesville North Carolina to reflect back on us the reality of what the film has been talking about, these bigots that may have had to hide before are now marching in the street with the support of the President, once again Lee is asking us to ‘Wake up’ and get woke to what’s going on. A message that after a film this good, is hard to say no to.

-Ed

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BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Wind River (2017)

Wind-River-Poster-1Taylor Sheridan has really carved out a space for himself in the past few years, with his writing credits and now directorial debut in Wind River. Starting with Sicario the brilliantly bleak and nihilistic tale of drug cartels and boarder force facing off against one another, his talent for writing modern American politically tinged adult drama became self-evident. The dive into true western stylings yet again payed off in Hell or High Water with great performances and its examination of the modern American South. Now we have his first effort at the helm of his own written work and he yet again delivers, although maybe slightly less convincingly than before.

In Wind River he brings his modern American western noir to the snow covered hills of Wyoming. Based around the gruffly brooding hunter Cory Lambert played with conviction by Jeremy Renner, a man estranged from his wife after the mysterious death of his daughter. One day he is working on his ex-Father in laws Native American Reservation when he discovers the body of a native girl who has been sexually assaulted, it is then up to him and an FBI officer fresh in from Vegas played by Elizabeth Olson to find out who is the culprit and to bring justice to this solitary area once again.

What this film does well is create the atmosphere of a barren and forgotten part of America. Whilst Native American’s are so often associated with the desert plains of Texas and Nevada, snowy Wyoming is where some must reside having been pushed off their natural land. We are deep in no man’s land where everywhere is hard to get to and conditions are deadly for anyone not wearing about 4 layers of clothing. Every shot involving the landscape is drenched in stark white with snow covering every surface, layer this on top of the bleak lives of some of Sheridan’s characters and we have what is quite a harrowing tale of a slice of modern America which has never been seen on screen before.

In Renner we have a main character who is quiet and secretive who rarely raises his voice above a low murmur, he plays the character with a real sense of realism. We can see that this man has gone to hell and back and his working on this case is only making him more determined to avenge his child. The Native American population are also deeply troubled, none of them seem especially surprised at the crime, the young men are off taking meth or in prison and women are often treated badly by the Caucasian population of the area. Sheridan evokes all of this really well and gives the film a definite pathos through his use of the atmosphere of the setting and the descriptions and representation of the Native American community.

This is not to say that I thought it was without problems, there is a definite sense that this was directed by a screenplay writer. What I mean by this is that there are multiple different scenes in which people will stop and start describing their emotions in long poetic speeches which does happen a few too many times for me to be completely invested in some characters. These speeches are very nicely written but you can’t help but imagine that if these were in the scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water that both of their Directors probably have trimmed one or two of them down a bit for sake of pacing. I also felt that Elizabeth Olson’s character was slightly underdeveloped for some of the involvement in the story she had. There are moments where she is at one moment a newcomer to the town and then suddenly is totally invested in everyone on the reservation and involved in the case. Whilst both these issues did tar the film slightly for me there was still enough intrigue and atmosphere in the story for these to not really ruin much of the film. Ultimately the film is successful in delivering a Top of the Lake/The Killing style feature film based in an original and grief drenched story of a community little addressed in films.

Wind River (2017)

Hereditary (2018)

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‘This generations The Exorcist’. (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) This is the quote that the advertising campaign for Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary (2018) have pushed the hardest. Influences in horror films are all-pervasive and in some ways cannot be ignored. The tropes and clichés that the genre holds are always going to remind one of some other totemic example of the genre. However for me it is often the way these touch points are hit which ultimately makes a Horror film work or not. Does the film rely on clichés and tropes to produce an effect or does it create something new and instead stray into homage or use the ingredients of horror in a new or interesting way.

This is what you may have to think of after seeing Hereditary. The film is not completely original but does this not make it effective? Not at all. Having recently lost her mother, Annie (played by Toni Collette) is feeling distant and disconnected from her family. She makes miniature artworks portraying real life experiences in minute detail, however whilst she may be able to control her art her family is less stable. Her son, Peter is a stoner who doesn’t seem to care about much apart from his high school crush and when he’s going to be able to smoke the next bowl. Peter however has minimal issues however compared with Annie’s daughter Charlie played with a creepy level of detachment by Milly Shapiro. Charlie seems to be deeply affected by the loss of her Grandmother and it manifesting in strange ways. She skulks around, seeing things and making bizarre figures out of wires and bits of anything she can come across. Her quirks and disaffected presence on-screen make her unbearably disturbing at times even if she is actually not doing anything. Oh yeah and Gabriel Byrne plays the Dad, Steve who actually seems to be alright. Ultimately though this family is not in the most stable of moods when we meet them, and to say that things only get worse for the family is an understatement.

If you’re a fan of the basic horror stylings of James Wan or Blumhouse productions usual schlock then this may stray a bit too far for your liking. Aster isn’t interested in giving you jump scare after jump scare, instead he wants to develop and make you empathise fully with his characters. No one feels like they are acting in a way which is just set up for a death, which so often happens in modern horror. I have to give credit here to the two main leads with all of them doing stellar jobs, particularly Toni Collette who is given space to experience everything in a true gift of a role. Her full range is on display here and she really holds your attention tightly throughout every scene she is in. She both displays completely in control and recognisably sane to the complete opposite with an unnerving ease. Alex Wolff’s Peter is also excellent here giving his character a goofy charm in the opening scenes with him which only adds to the tragedy of what the plot has in store for him. You believe totally in the family and you can really appreciate the effort Aster puts into character in order to actually give the scares a pathos, especially as things start to spiral out of control in the films last movements.

Aster here is as confident a director in his first feature as I have ever seen, there was a variety and confidence in the cinematography and framing of the film that I never felt the visuals fell flat. A simple cut from day to night or a glance in the wing mirror is imbued with a palpable sense of dread. There is a lot to like in the film visually with bold and shocking moments being held on for just the right amount of time. There are some extremely bleak points in the films narrative and yet it never really strays into the misery porn you sometimes see in horror.

However this being said this is not the most original example of the genre and does take a lot from perhaps the two most totemic chillers of the 70s. Yes both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) are written in capital letters on the walls at points in this film, this is not to say of course that it wasn’t done with style and panache but to say this is an original vision for horror like those two were in their day would be a lie. This is kind of what I love about this film though, I felt watching this like audiences surely would have when they watched those films in the cinema first time. Coming out of the film it felt like I had seen something which truly got under my skin and was going to live there for a long time, its little details living in my head every time I hear a particular sound or see something which will remind me of it. Hereditary is a film that genuinely freaked me out at points and made me excited to talk about it in a way that so few horror films give you the chance to, a truly nihilistic but very well made piece of genre filmmaking that leaves you wanting more from Ari Aster.

-Ed

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Hereditary (2018)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Umbrellas of Cherbourg

If you have a natural aversion to people breaking out into song in films it is safe to say that you should give this one a miss. Jacques Demy here has fully realised his vision of creating a ‘film in song’, it is less musical theatre more jazz backed modern opera. Add on to the top of this a large helping of deeply felt French romance and you have a film that remains a true curio of world cinema. It is not really a standard musical in that there is no spoken word in the entire piece, instead Demy uses normal speech and conversation as the lyrics of the songs, creating an interesting balance of fantasy and realism. It is a vibrant and heartfelt experiment in musical filmmaking which for the most part pays off very well.

For the story we have Genevieve and Guy, the former being played by a captivating young Catherine Deneuve and the later by the solemnly charismatic Nino Castelnuovo. The couple is freshly embroiled in a secret relationship and the chemistry between the two is immediately palpable. However all is not well, when they sing that they will love each other forever and that nothing will ever part them the alarm bells start ringing. These chimes soon crescendo as life take a hold of the romance, firstly Genevieve’s mother is unhappy with the two dating and then suddenly Guy is conscribed to join the French army in the fight in Algiers. We then watch as the two people struggle to find a place for their love in a world which cannot allow the two to be together. This is a fairly well-worn romantic tale of lovers kept apart despite their wishes, however Demy and his choice to heighten the mood through the operatic nature of the songs he has his characters sing breathes life into an otherwise fairly unremarkable plot.

The songs in the film are less songs than conversations with melody and rhythm, people talk in full sentences and interact normally just in a continuous melody. The effect of seeing a film tell its story in song but without a normal verse chorus structure gives the piece a real flowingly fast pace which may seem difficult to get on board with at first but soon you become enraptured into the beat of the film. Demy understands the humour and jollity that musicals can bring and yet gives his characters a fairly bleak hand to play in the film. At one point we may have upbeat jaunts underscoring a mothers nagging of her daughter to find the right man, but then the film shifts into its more sombre laments to the nature of lost or misplaced love. At one point Deneuve (or the overdub of Deneuve) sings ‘Why is absence so hard to bear’ in the films signature melody and we feel the emotion of the sentiment. We have watched and heard the joy that the young lovers had when they were together but as life continues we are carried along of the wave of regrets that the two people share. Much like other musicals the emotions in this are very earnest and close to the skin but unlike most there comes with it a sadness which feels very true and less forced than musicals can tend to be.

Demy does not just let the songs speak for the film however, this is 60s French filmmaking after all and we can see his cinephilia shining through in the vibrancy of his frame. Yes we don’t have the huge musical numbers of Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly or the sheer scale of Busby Berkley but Demy doesn’t need these when he has composition and colour. The Technicolor glow of every environment in Cherbourg is a sight to behold, he doesn’t need to use huge sound stages with dance routines to perform his art, and instead he makes real life magical and otherworldly through retina burning pinks, greens and blues. He shows a painters eye for using colour in composition with clear reference being taken from the great Hollywood classics, especially Gene Kelly’s oeuvre.

To say the film is a perfect example of musical filmmaking is not correct. At points the structure of the songs works against it with sentences having to be rushed or crowbarred into the beat of the background music. This is not necessarily a negative however and for me just added to the charm of the piece. It is not an overly happy film despite the vibrancy of every other aspect from the cinematography to the acting to the songs, the plot remains drenched in ennui. As with many of the films in and around the French New Wave both joy and sadness are to be found but you must always break through or reckon with an auteur vision of whatever subject is to be found. For me Demy here created an accessibly vivid tale of young love which dodges the pretensions of the day whilst still feeling artistically daring.

-Ed

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)