Sunday, September 1, 2019

Strap You Hands 'Cross These Engines

Movies: Blinded by the Light

In 2002, Gurinder Chadha directed Bend It Like Beckham, which became an arthouse hit. Audiences loved the comedy to be found in an Indian girl living in the UK and straddling both the traditional world of her Asian parents and the modern world of her English peers. By the end of the film, her strict parents have come to understand and admire Jess's (Parminder Nagra) talent on the soccer field and Jess, in turn, has a new level of respect for her hand-working parents.

Blinded by the Light, also directed by Chadha, follows nearly the exact same formula, with sadly diminishing returns. The film follow Javed (Viveik Kalra), a 16 year old Pakistani kid living 1987 Britain. Javed loves to write, especially poetry, but his super old-school dad finds no value in writing. He expects Javed to work and hand over his wages (the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher's recession-plagued Britain is one of the best aspects of the film) to help support the family, and also prepare to enter college--not to follow his passions, but so that he can get a good job and eventually marry (a woman his father will choose, naturally).

Like Jess, Javed is stuck between two worlds. His English peers try hard to get him to rebel a little: they invite him to parties and encourage his writing. But Javed is, generally speaking, a meek and obedient young man. That is, until his Sikh buddy from school gets him turned on to the Boss.

Hearing the music of Bruce Springsteen for the first time is no less than a revelation for Javed. Springsteen's music, which is basically about "getting out this dump", speaks to him in a way nothing else has before. It's not long before he becomes obsessed.



On the one hand, Javed's newfound passion ignites his writing, gives him the courage to ask out a girl in his class, and lets him push back against his father's strict rules. On the other hand, Javed becomes kind of a dick. He makes fun of his best friend from childhood for listening to synth music, demands that an article about his love of the Boss be published in the school newspaper, and even leaves in the middle of his sister's wedding celebration to buy tix to see Springsteen.


But by the end of the movie, all is well--he wins a prize for his Springsteen essay and his parents come to see him read it and he ends up improvising a little speech about how Springsteen and his dad would get each other--they both came from poor backgrounds and worked hard to succeed. Javed makes up with his friend, gets into the college program of his choice (for writing, NOT economics as his dad prefers), and has a new level of respect for his hard-working parents.

Sounds familiar, right? Blinded by the Light almost feels like Chadha plagiarized her own work--even down to a pivotal scene that takes place during a character's sister's wedding. Both Jess and Javed's parents are pretty two-dimensional: they are strict, no-nonsense first generation immigrants who have secret hearts of gold underneath their old-school exteriors.

Blinded by the Light feels like a movie the should have come out 15 years ago. There's even a throwaway line about how people in America are less racist/more open to different cultures than Britain than made me chuckle darkly. The optimism in the film feels practically naive. Granted, it's a PG-13, family-friendly film. It's a safe, comforting popcorn movie where *hard work* actually gets you where you want to go. But to me, it felt too by-the-numbers.

My mom loves Bruce Springsteen, and fans of his music will greatly appreciate the film (which is inspired by a true story, by the way. There are pics of the real Javed with Springsteen at the end). There are definitely some joyous moments, as when Javed, Roops--Javed's Springsteen-obsessed pal, and Eliza--Javed's girlfriend, run through the town singing "Born to Run". "Born to Run" is a fucking great song. But it's not enough to save the movie from its cheesy, cringe-y moments.

Overall, imma give Blinded by the Light a B-. It's not a bad movie, and it definitely tugs your heart strings. But it feels so similar to Chadha's previous (and better) work that there is a touch of disappointment in how predictable it is. Families, those looking for a comforting, happy flick, and fans of the Boss will likely enjoy it more than I did.

Grade: B-



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Boring Stories to Tell in the Dark

Movies: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Y'all, I am sad to report that Andre Ovredal's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the beloved books by Alvin Schwartz is boorrrrrrring.

Now. This may just be because I am a horror veteran who has an *extremely* high tolerance for spookiness. But I don't think that's it. It may be that this film is a mere PG-13, but I don't think that's it either, because Insidious, one of the scariest movies of all time is PG-13 too. I just think SSTTITD is not a good movie.

SSTTITD takes place in 1968. On Halloween, horror fan Stella, her friends Auggie and Chuck, and drifter Ramon break into a "haunted" house that belonged to the Bellows' family. The family was infamous for supposedly locking away their daughter, Sarah, who liked to write scary stories. Stella discovers Sarah's hand-written book of scary stories and takes it with her.



After reading a story written about the town bully, Tommy, and realizing it coincides with Tommy's real-life disappearance (the story in question is "Harold", which fans of the book will recognize as the story with the killer scarecrow), Stella figures out that Sarah is still writing stories from beyond the grave that actually result in people's deaths. This is confirmed when her friend Auggie falls prey to a story in which a corpse is looking for his missing toe (which Auggie has accidentally eaten in a stew).

From there, Stella and Ramon try to figure out exactly how to get Sarah to stop killing from beyond the grave. The movie is a slog that I barely have the patience to explain. Fans of the books will recognize one of the most iconic images from Alvin Schwartz's books during the sequence where Chuck is hunted down by an obese, pale, stringy-haired ghoul in "The Dream"--one of the only truly scary scenes in the entire film.

The film comes to...a conclusion. Stella is able to confront Sarah and convince her to stop writing her stories, But Auggie and Chuck remain missing, which sucks because neither character did anything to deserve their fate (unlike the bully Tommy). So,  a scary movie with a central theme of justice doesn't actually...give our characters justice in the end. What a waste.

While Alvin Schwartz's books remain absolutely iconic, especially with the original illustrations by Stephen Gammell, the movie based on these books is aggressively mediocre. There's no way around it: save your money and buy a copy of the original books, which are still sure to give you a tingle and raise the hairs on your neck.

Grade: D

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Of Cults and Cowboys

Movies: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino is a director I love to hate (or hate to love?). He's an asshole in real life, having put Uma Thurman in a situation on the set of Kill Bill where she nearly became paralyzed and having defended Roman Polanski on Howard Stern in 2003 suggesting that Polanski's rape of a drugged 13 year old was consensual sex (he has since apologized for saying this, but I don't buy it).

People often ask if one can separate art from artist, and I suppose it's possible, but if you actually watch/read art by assholes and predators, their sickness sometimes seeps through the screen or book. Consider Woody Allen's obsession with younger actresses and "May/December romances" and Louis CK's jokes about men being sexually out of control. Art, it seems, imitates life.

While I have given Tarantino many passes because he is, I believe, a truly great director, it is becoming increasingly difficult to watch his work and not see his misogynist and racist beliefs play out in front of you. While Tarantino has always reveled in violence and shocking the audience, his recent work (everything post-Inglourious Basterds, I'd argue) is becoming less interesting and truly provocative and more and more "edgelord".

All this said, his talent as a storyteller as well as his ability to really set the scene and submerge the audience in time and place (Los Angeles in 1969 in this case) is still top notch. I liked Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, but I didn't love it. Not the way I loved Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood has a story at the center and a story on the periphery and in the final act of the film the two stories meet (yes, this review will have spoilers, but I'll put a warning beforehand). The central story is that of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, bringing his excellent acting game)--a middle-aged actor who still drinks like he's in his 20's and has moved on from his glory days as the hero of a TV Western, Bounty Law, to playing "the heavy" in various shows and movies which, as Dalton's agent (played by Al Pacino) warns, is not a good idea because it gives the spotlight to younger, upcoming actors in the hero role and subtly encourages viewers to hate Rick.

Rick whines that he is officially a "has been" to his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, playing an alpha male in all the worst and best ways here). While Dalton still has a career, as well as a nice car (that he can't drive since he had his license revoked after too many DUIs) and a beautiful home on Cielo Drive, right next to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, Booth has a shitty car and shitty trailer where he lives with his pitbull and eats mac n' cheese out of a box every night. While one might feel bad for Booth and the way Dalton takes advantage of him, Booth is a loose cannon. He's a man who doesn't shy away from a fistfight (even against Bruce Lee) and is said to have killed his wife and gotten away with it.

While Dalton is trying to get his shit together on set, Booth picks up a young, flirty hippie chick (played by Margaret Qualley) and drives her "home" to the Spahn Ranch where he discovers dozens of skinny, dirty hippie girls living in squalor. This is where the two stories meet, and where history meets fiction. The Spahn Ranch was a real place where members of the Manson Family camped out in the months leading up to their infamous murders. Booth interacts with real-life Manson Family cult members Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme (played by Austin Butler and Dakota Fanning, respectively) as well as 80-year-old, blind-as-a bat-George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the owner of the ranch. He also beats the shit out of a hippie. It was at this point when I started to realize what was going to happen at the end of the film...

Warning! Spoilers ahead!




***

If you've seen Inglourious Basterds, you know that half the fun of the film is its historical revision in which a group of Jewish Americans machine gun and burn a bunch of Nazis to death (in fact, one of Rick Dalton's films, The 14 Fists of McCluskey, pays homage to IG). At some point in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood I realized that ol' QT was going to pull the same stunt again. And I was weirdly dreading it. Sure enough, in *this* timeline of 1969 Los Angeles, three Manson Family members break into Rick Dalton's home on Cielo Drive instead of the neighbors, where a very pregnant Sharon Tate is hanging out with friends. Unfortunately for Tex, Sadie, and Patricia, Cliff Booth is hanging out, having just smoked a cigarette dipped in acid, with his pitbull, Randy (or Brandy? I didn't quite catch the 'bull's name).

After a few witty remarks, Tarantino-style, Booth sics the dog on Tex and throws a can of dog food at Sadie's face. A fight ensues in which Brad Pitt beats the ever-loving shit out of a teenage girl and a dog mauls a bunch of people. But it's not over! That same girl stumbles outside and into Dalton's swimming pool, freaking out Dalton who is drunk as a skunk. He goes and grabs his flamethrower and torches the girl (like ya do). Once all three Manson hippies are dead, Cliff ends up going to the hospital and Dalton wanders over to the Tate-Polanski residence where he is invited inside to hang out. Ob-la-dee, ob-la-dah, life goes on, wah.

So here is where I have my issues with this movie. I get that these hippies, including the teenage girls, are "the bad guys" who in actuality brutally murdered a 8-months pregnant woman and four of her friends. So why didn't I feel the same elation as when a Jewish "inglourious basterd" machine-gunned Hitler in the face? Maybe because seeing a Jewish adult male kill a Nazi is more fun and cathartic than seeing a grown-ass man smash a young girl's face against a telephone until it's a bloody pulp? Maybe because I thought it was disrespectful to the memory of Sharon Tate? Maybe because I *know* Quentin Tarantino is a misogynist, so having the alpha male "win", even against a bad person, doesn't feel right knowing the sentiment behind it.

The movie seems to say "if there were any justice in the world, jacked, white men like Brad Pitt would be putting women, skinny long-haired dudes, and Asians and Mexicans in their place where they belong" (there's also a scene where Cliff Booth nearly defeats Bruce Lee in a fight). And I'm not alone in thinking that. It's not just me, the humorless feminist.

At the same time, the movie--and that scene in particular--still has QT's signature sick humor. The audience was laughing, me along with them. But what was lacking in me was a sense of satisfaction. This violence didn't seem "earned". It just seemed...gross and cheap.

***

End Spoilers!

So how to grade this movie? At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it was overly long and not much happened. But it was funny and well-acted and the dialogue was good. I'm going to give it a B. It's not close to being Tarantino's best, but I can't actually say it was a "bad movie". I just wish Tarantino would use his considerable talent and vision for something truly interesting and provocative. At the rate he's going, he will be Rick Dalton eventually--a sad, old drunk yelling at himself in the mirror of a makeup trailer.

Grade: B

PS: yes, there are FEET


Monday, July 22, 2019

Black Belt in Toxic Masculinity

Movies: The Art of Self-Defense

Riley Stearns' The Art of Self-Defense is a movie that was barely on my radar, until I read this article (which contains spoilers) on Slate. In this case, spoiling the movie actually intrigued me enough to watch it.

It's an odd little movie that is a rather bleak dark comedy. It's one of those movies where everyone speaks very robotically, with flat affect--like a Wes Anderson movie or Napoleon Dynamite, only with a lot more violence (aside for dog lovers: DON'T SEE THIS MOVIE).

Jesse Eisenberg plays a typical Eisenbergian character--a severely beta male, if such a thing exists. His character, Casey, is a 35 year old bachelor who lives alone with his dachshund and works in accounting. One night when he goes out to buy some dog food, he is chased down and beaten to a pulp by some anonymous people on motorcycles. Casey survives and, in his quest to regain a sense of safety, wanders into a karate class lead by a man who goes by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, doing great work here).

Casey joins up as the new white belt and quickly advances to yellow belt. After some prodding by Sensei, he admits that the reason he started classes is because he is afraid of everything, including other men. "I want to be what intimidates me" he confesses. Sensei invites him to join the "night class", which is basically Fight Club. The students are allowed to beat the shit out of each other, the only rule being "no guns" since "guns are for the weak".

Although clearly in over his head, Casey starts coming to night class. He begins to observe Sensei's blatant misogyny when the only female student, Anna (Imogene Poots), is not given the black belt she clearly deserves while another male classmate, Thomas, is allowed to advance over her, despite being not as good a fighter as her. Sensei bluntly tells Casey, "I realized that Anna being female would always stand in the way of her becoming male." Additionally, Sensei encourages Casey to pick up more masculine hobbies and interests: instead of learning French (Casey is a Francophile), Sensei tells him to learn German. Instead of listening to adult contemporary music, Sensei tells him to listen to metal. In his quest to become more of a violent, alpha male, Casey does as Sensei's instructs....until a shocking secret is revealed.

*Stop here if you want to avoid spoilers!*



***
***
***

Casey finds out that it was Sensei himself, and his students, who beat him up and put him in the hospital. In fact, they would have killed him if it were not for Anna who pretended to hear sirens and lead the group away before they could finish him off. Additionally, the male student who was promoted to black belt over Anna broke into Casey's house and killed his dog. Casey finds all of this out after *he* is taken along on a motorcycle ride and encouraged to beat up an unsuspecting victim.

After making this discovery, Casey plots out a simple, yet effective plan for revenge. He challenges Sensei to "an unarmed fight to the death". Sensei agrees. As soon as the fight commences, Casey pulls out a gun and shoots Sensei in the head. Later that evening, at night class, he sics his new dog (a German Shepherd gifted to him by Sensei) on Thomas, the asshole who killed his last dog. Casey promotes Anna to the head of the class, and he himself takes his proper place as the lowest member of the night class.

Obviously, if you're not prepared for it, The Art of Self-Defense goes from "quirky dark comedy" to "violent pitch-black comedy" real quick. And anyone who has ever taken karate knows that basically the whole point of it is to AVOID violence (let alone murder) in the first place. But that seems to be the point Stearns is trying to make here--poking fun at the culture of toxic masculinity. While Casey is indeed a timid weirdo, he's also a good person and a person who understands justice and fairness. Sensei (real name: Leslie. He makes fun of Casey for having a "feminine" name and his name is Leslie!) is using martial arts to express his violent urges and calling it "masculinity". Likewise, our culture has allowed male violence, sexual and physical, to go...perhaps not "unchecked"...but to fly under the radar as "boys will be boys" and "that's just how men are". The Art of Self-Defense just takes toxic masculinity to an extreme. It also shows how futile and how much of a performance it is by having Casey break "the rules" and straight up shoot Sensei in the head. He tells Sensei's dead body "You might say that using a gun makes me weak, and maybe it does. But you are dead and I am alive, so I would argue that *you* are the weaker man". Male bluster only goes so far and it ends up eating its own tail.

The Art of Self-Defense is overall a decent film. It's not incredibly profound, but it's entertaining and ballsy in a certain way. I could have done without the affected robot voices--I felt like Stearns used the flat, blunt way of speaking as an almost protective measure against getting too close to the characters. Would have been interesting if he had allowed us to be more emotionally invested in them by fleshing them out into *real* people instead of caricatures.

Grade: B


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Blood Rites

Movies: Midsommar

There is so much I want to say about Ari Aster's sophomore film Midsommar, but I'll just start by saying that the director's follow-up to last summer's gut-wrenching horror film Hereditary proves that Aster is not a one-hit wonder and is indeed a masterful filmmaker and storyteller who understands that grief and loss are just as scary as ghosts and cults.

I'll do a quick spoiler-free review first, followed by a more in-depth review after a warning so that folks who want to go in with a relatively blank slate will be able to do so.

Midsommar opens in winter. Dani (Florence Pugh in a phenomenal performance) is a college student with a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, appropriately groan-inducing in the shitty boyfriend role), who is planning to break up with her. But before he pulls the plug, Dani receives some devastating news which makes it nearly impossible for Christian to dump her, so the two continue on in the most depressing relationship of all time.

Flash forward to summer. Dani finds out that Christian is planning on taking a multi-week trip to Sweden to witness a once in a lifetime midsummer celebration (literally once in a lifetime, as the celebration only takes place every 90 years) taking place at the ancestral commune of his grad school friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Along for the trip is anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, aka Chidi from The Good Place) and annoying horndog Mark (Will Poulter). Upset that Christian failed to inform her about this trip, Dani invites herself along and no one is reasonably able to say no, given that she is still reeling from her loss.

The trips seems to start out well. Pelle's home is idyllic, with fresh-faced Swedes wearing all white and offering booze (and drugs, among the younger set), fresh fruit, and smiles to the Americans. Because they're in a northern part of Sweden, the sun basically doesn't set and the days are bright and hot.

While everyone seems welcoming and kind, there are small things that unsettle Dani and, eventually, other outsiders including two young adults from London whom Pelle's brother, Ingmar, invited. While Josh is fascinated by the culture and customs, Mark is chasing Swedish pussy, and Pelle is loving being home, Dani and Christian's relationship begins to unravel, especially after some of the rituals during the nine-day celebration begin to get, well, bloody.

I'll stop there and point out, as a warning to sensitive viewers, the violence in Midsommar is limited to a few key scenes...oh, but those scenes. They are NOT for the faint of heart. Read my spoiler review below if you want to hear the (literally) gory details. That said, Midsommar is not "scary" in the way Hereditary was or the way typical horror films generally are. There aren't jump scares. There isn't anything supernatural. The movie is long (2 hours and 20 minutes) so the horror is more of the unsettling, slow burn variety. If you could handle Get Out, you can probably handle Midsommar.

And it's completely worth it. While Midsommar is ostensibly about a cult whose rituals go too far, it's really about grief and how loss can completely gut us and leave us feeling unmoored. It's also about what makes a family. Is it blood? Or is it, as Pelle puts it in one scene where he has a private moment with Dani, about feeling "held". For all the strange and violent rites the Harga (the name of the people/commune in the film) indulge in, they also seem to understand the importance of supporting their fellow commune members and feeling/releasing emotions.  Perhaps what would be a trip to hell for one person is a homecoming for another.

Grade: A

***

Spoiler-filled review! Ye be warned!



Just as in Hereditary, Ari Aster weaves unimaginable grief into the tapestry of this film. Where Annie Graham loses her mother and then, in a grotesque freak accident, her daughter in Hereditary, Dani loses her entire family--mom, dad, and sister--in one fell swoop after her bipolar sister commits suicide (and brings her parents along) by allowing carbon monoxide from the family's cars to flood their house at night.

[It's important to note that Midsommar could be viewed as abelist not only because of its portrayal of a bipolar person as someone unstable to the point of committing murder-suicide, but also because of a disabled character who is considered a prophet by the commune. However, the latter is no accident and Aster has said as much. Here's an article with more info. I didn't find the abelism worth throwing the whole movie out, but others may feel differently.]

Dani's agonizing screams of grief as Christian holds and rocks her parallel the heartbreaking scene of Annie (played by the wonderful Toni Collette) moaning and rocking on the floor while her husband holds her after she discovers that her daughter has been decapitated. Aster has a flair for both gruesome death scenes and capturing what the depths of grief actually look like.

Additionally, Aster understands how acute grief transforms into a throbbing, numbing depression. 6 months after losing her family, Dani is--to put it mildly--not well. That Christian would plan a month-long trip without telling her says all we need to know about this asshole. To be fair, neither one of them seems happy in the relationship, but rather than ending things and helping Dani find additional support systems, as a decent person would do, he stays with her and resents her and takes her for granted at every turn.

Dani's depression is contrasted against the backdrop of never-ending sunshine of Sweden. Halsingland is gorgeous: tall grass, colorful flowers, asymmetrical buildings, and beautiful (if bizarre) artwork adorn the commune. There has been much discussion of the runes that Aster plants all over the film like tiny Easter eggs. Surely a place so beautiful filled with people so generous and kind couldn't be a haven for ritualized violence....could it? LOL OF COURSE IT IS.

I'll come right out and get to the "scene" in question. Pelle informs his friends that they will be witnessing a very special ritual--an attestupa--as part of the midsummer celebration. When he says this, booksmart Josh (William Jackson Harper is extremely good in this role, by the way) has a knowing look on his face, while Dani and Christian beg for more details (Pelle says "you really have to see it for yourself"). As soon as two elderly people are seated at the head of the table for the meal that commences the ritual, I knew what the fuck was up, even if our characters were slow on the uptake. Haven't these people seen the movie North before? Sure enough, after the meal, the elders are taken up to a high cliff, where they cut their hands and wipe their blood on some runes...and then throw themselves to their death. This scene is filmed in stomach-churning detail, with crushed skulls, legs pointing in the wrong direction, and loose eyeballs. While Dani and Christian are quietly horrified (horndog Mark misses the spectacle since he was taking a nap), Connie and Simon, a couple from London, are disgusted and outraged, screaming "what the fuck is wrong with you people". They are inconsolable even after the matriarch of the commune explains that the Harga see life as a cycle and ritual suicide as a gift a person can give to the community.

Unsurprisingly, witnessing two violent suicides is not conducive to Dani's healing. She plans to leave, but before she can, she overhears Connie freaking out upon finding out that Simon left for the train station without her. "He wouldn't do that!" she cries. "He wouldn't leave without telling me anything!". Hmm...indeed. And it's not long before Connie is "driven to the train station" (wink wink, Connie and Simon don't actually leave the commune, wink wink) herself. So, due to fear and also due to the fact that the Harga increase their efforts to befriend her, Dani stays.

What's interesting about Midsommar is just how much of a sneakily feminist film it is. While the women of the commune do stereotypical "women's work" such as cooking, they also appear to have a lot of power--especially over the rituals (ok, ok, human sacrifices). The women of the commune are also very supportive of one another, sharing in one another's grief and joy. When Dani participates in a Maypole dance where she is crowned May Queen, the other young women embrace her as family. And Dani, who has lost her family of birth, can't resist the gentle, insistent pull of the Harga to bring her in as "new blood".

Speaking of blood, while all this May Queen stuff is going on, Christian is drugged and all but forced into a mating ritual with a young woman, Maja, from the commune. The Harga see it as an opportunity to get new blood into the gene pool of the commune. Christian is a means to an end--surrounded by naked women (including Maja's mom--awkward) who grunt and groan along with Maja until they tell Christian to finish and unceremoniously push him off the girl once his manly duty is done. Unfortunately for Christian, Dani spies on him during this ceremony, which finally breaks any ties or good will left between them.

Poor Christian. After he discovers the dead bodies of Josh (killed for his greedy attempt to photograph a sacred book he was explicitly told not to), Mark (killed for being an idiot who literally pisses on the ashes of the commune's dead), and Simon (killed for trying to get out), he is poisoned with a paralyzing solution and wheeled out for the final, and most important ritual: the sacrificing of nine humans--four "new bloods" (Josh, Mark, Connie, and Simon), four Harga (the two elders plus two volunteers) and one additional person to be chosen by...dun dun!...the May Queen herself. And let's just say that Dani isn't ready to forgive and forget. She is, however, ready to see any remaining ties to her previous life literally burn to the fucking ground. Christian is sewn into a bear's skin and placed in a barn with the other sacrifices, both living and dead, and burned alive, as Dani looks on with an expression of, not glee exactly, but of righteousness. She has found her new home.

End of movie. Oh man, and I didn't even get to Reuben, the prophet with a deformed face who is the product of intentional inbreeding! Aster said in an interview that Reuben is a symbol of "things happening in Sweden right now that are echoes of the things that happened in the second World War" (I'm guessing he's talking about eugenics and white supremacy. Sweden isn't notable for its diversity). I'm not sure I fully buy this--Reuben is so poorly sketched out that he seems more of a red herring designed to spook people in the trailer than anything else. But Midsommar is a layered movie, so I'm not unwilling to believe that he served a greater purpose. It's also not lost on me that all three characters of color (Josh, Connie, and Simon) end up dead. I *do not* believe this was an accident. I think it was an intentional choice on Aster's part to show that while the commune may be welcoming to outsiders, it's only going to accept "pure blood" (i.e. whiiiite people) into its fold.

Midsommar was, to me, just such a pleasure to experience. In addition to the wonderful performances, beautiful cinematography, and spooky suspense, it just has so much to say about grief, family, cultural relativism, gender politics, and more. Some reviews have called it slow and derivative, but I never wanted it to end and I haven't seen a movie do exactly what Aster does in this one. It is definitely inspired by other films (The Wicker Man, The Shining, even a little The Silence of the Lambs is thrown in there), but I found it to be original, masterful, and satisfying.

Grade: A


Sunday, July 7, 2019

One Minute Reviews

Movies: misc

Although I haven't seen much in the theatre this past month, I've been watching up a storm of movies on streaming. In fact, I've reached a critical mass where I can't realistically give all of them their own, individual review. Instead, I have endeavored here to review them all--in three sentences or less--in one go. Enjoy!

***

Under the Silver Lake

Imagine if David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Rian Johnson's Brick had a baby and that baby grew up to not be as good as either one of them. That's David Robert Mitchell's stylish, yet pointless neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. On the plus side: the soundtrack is awesome, and Andrew Garfield is a snack and a half.

Grade: C+




















***

Kaboom

In Gregg Araki's film Kaboom, bisexual college students hump like bunnies and also discover that a cult is trying to blow up the earth. Although it certainly has its moments, and it's pretty fun at times, the ending just falls completely apart.

Grade: B





















***

The Oath

What starts as a dark comedy about a family at political odds with one another coming together for the Thanksgiving from hell ends up a movie where a government official makes a joke about the family's elderly father being raped in prison and also threatening to kill the family's children. So, uh, All Cops Are Bastards: The Movie. Definitely not for everyone, but I actually liked it a lot.

Grade: B+




















***

Spy

I watched this Melissa McCarthy comedy on a transatlantic flight and was not disappointed. The movie, directed by Paul Feig, is funny, entertaining, and light. It also boasts performances from folks like Jason Stratham, Jude Law, and Rose Byrne who are game to be as ridiculous and silly as McCarthy.

Grade: B+




















***

Double Lover

This French erotic thriller is about a young woman who falls in love with her psychoanalyst, only to find out he has a twin brother--also a psychoanalyst--and fall in love with the twin too. This film features pegging, cunnilingus during menstruation, and a side plot about someone cannibalizing their own twin while in the womb. Did I mention it's French?

Grade: C+




















***


Cam


Madeline Brewer plays a camgirl in the surprisingly not very sexy Netflix original, Cam. Her character, Alice, is locked out of her own webcam account and discovers an imposter who looks just like her, taking all her clients away. Spooky and entertaining, despite an unsatisfactory ending.

Grade: B




















***

Revenge

This French (what is with the French!?) rape and revenge film is a cut above other rape and revenge films in that it doesn't linger on the rape, but it sure as hell lingers on the revenge. Jen is raped by her boyfriend's asshole friend and then the bf attempts to kill her to cover the crime. He fails, and she comes back to murder them all (including the other friend who watched the rape and didn't stop it).

Grade: A-




















***

Prevenge

This British dark comedy finds Ruth carrying a murderous fetus who talks to her and compels her to kill a group of seemingly unrelated strangers. Turns out, they were all involved with (spoiler spoiler spoiler) her husband's death. Points for hilarity and total absurdity, although not really all that memorable or substantial in the end.

Grade: B-






Tuesday, June 11, 2019

When a Man Negs a Woman

Movies: The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg's coming-of-age drama The Souvenir is a strange, quiet movie. I saw the preview some months ago and was intrigued even though I couldn't figure out what the movie was supposed to be about other than a tumultuous relationship between a young man and woman.

And it is about that, albeit with a twist (which will be revealed below, so spoiler alert). But it is also about a young woman, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne--Tilda Swinton's daughter), who is emerging from a cocoon of privilege and severe naivete´ and blossoming into an artist.

The time period of The Souvenir is the early 1980s in England. Julie is in film school and being supported by her rich parents (real-life mom Tilda Swinton plays Julie's mom). She meets Anthony (Tom Burke) at a party and the two start meeting regularly for lunch and champagne. Anthony is the ultimate rich, arrogant preppie. He wears Tucker Carlson bowties and slyly undermines Julie's ambitions and opinions. But he hides a pretty intense secret of his own.



During a dinner at home with a pair of mutual friends, when Anthony is in another room, Julie's friend casually calls Anthony a "habitual heroin user" as he is puzzling out how Julie and Anthony know each other. Julie is struck silent, and this revelation informs the rest of the events of the movie, especially when Julie comes home to find all of her jewelry and film equipment missing and Anthony claiming that they were robbed. Her willingness to believe him is both cringeworthy and understandable. A 24 year old girl in love is going to hard-pressed to believe that not only would her boyfriend steal all her shit to feed his drug habit, but that he would do so and then lie so blatantly to her, as if she's that stupid. It's almost less insulting to her intelligence to believe him.

And so The Souvenir goes. Anthony acts like an ass while denying his drug problem, then can't hide it, then disappears, then reappears claiming he is fine, then relapses. All while Julie is puzzling out film school and what filmmaking means to her.

Words I could use to describe this film are "frustrating", "insufferable", "pretentious", "repetitive", and "boring". But despite its difficulties and almost stubborn unwillingness to be a likable or accessible film, I admired it because it was honest about how relationships really work. It's also honest about the human ability to lie to ourselves and others. Julie isn't foolish and she isn't weak, she's simply inexperienced. And because of that inexperience, she lets herself be influenced by a man who is arrogant and attractive in his arrogance. I have been Julie. I have been a young woman who is attracted to art, beauty, and arrogant men. Haven't we all been Julie, to some degree or another?

The inevitable conclusion of The Souvenir is almost annoying in it's clean resolution. Julie is free of Anthony and able to fully pursue her work, all the more wise for having had a borderline emotionally abusive relationship. And while that is what I wanted for her character, it's too neat a resolution for all the messiness and pent-up emotions that came before it. The Souvenir might be the most British film I've ever watched: despite everything--the drugs, the stealing, the sex, the fights--there is never truly an explosion of emotions. Maybe that's one benefit American have over the English: we're willing to scream and cry when it is warranted.

The Souvenir is like a museum: beautiful, curated, clean, elegant, and ultimately cold and frictionless. It's an imperfect, yet poignant film that feels like it only scratches the surface of a more interesting film lying underneath.

Grade: C