Film Review: Midsommar (R)

There are few things more terrifying than Swedish hippies: well-mannered, meat pie munching, salt-herring slurping, commune dwelling devils that they are. Actually, that’s not true. There are few things less threatening than Swedish hippies. They’re total goobers. But that’s all part of director Ari Aster’s gambit in Midsommar. The audience knows this is a horror movie going in, they know the nature worshipping flower children are going to be bad guys, so Aster dares you to be afraid of them by making them incredibly likeable. And it works. Sure the hippies have a couple of creepy customs, but they’re super nice and willing to share their shroom tea, plus they have a bear. Aster fills the film with so much sunshine and good vibes that the steady stream of malice tends to trickle by unnoticed, like a psychedelic trip that’s gradually turning bad.

At its core, Midsommar is a breakup movie. Dani’s (Florence Pugh) and Christian’s (Jack Reynor) relationship is at its end, but gets extended beyond the expiration date due to a family tragedy that results in Dani being reluctantly invited on a summer trip to a Swedish commune. Dani is still haunted by the loss of her family and is scared to be alone. Christian, meanwhile, is too cowardly and lazy to break things off. Luckily, there’s a bunch of smiling Swedes in a surrealistic land of sunshine to help them through their issues.

Aster seems to be positioning himself as a playful trickster despite his bleak subject matter. Midsommar is filled with deceit and narrative sleights of hand. The very first image of the film lays out the entire plot, and yet pointing that out will spoil nothing. Aster brazenly reveals plot points throughout the film in ways that only multiple viewings and a passing knowledge of Elder Futhark runes will make apparent. But these sorts of winks and nods are for studious viewers and take nothing away from the story if unnoticed.

Midsommar makes a perfect companion piece to Aster’s debut, Hereditary. Hereditary was cold and dark, Midsommar is bright and sunny. Hereditary is about being burdened by familial baggage, Midsommar is about nihilistically casting off that burden. Both films trade in deep psychological torment, utilizing gore and grotesqueries as mere punctuation. Aster revisits the familiar themes of family trauma, mental illness, and smashed faces and redeploys a score of disconcerting strings that mimic and meld into all manner of screams and cries.

Also like Hereditary, this film is destined to be polarizing. Although engaging and briskly paced, Midsommar is still a two-and-a-half-hour slow burn drama. This is not the sort of horror that leans on indestructible slashers and whiz-bang chase sequences. So if you aren’t into artsy movies and/or suffer from a short attention span, you may want to skip this one.

Film Review: Hereditary (R)

Hereditary

Hereditary

“No nuts.”

Hereditary has garnered a lot of hype on its way to movie theaters, drawing comparisons to such scary stalwarts as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Repulsion. And while those comparisons may be somewhat misleading in terms of what to expect, Hereditary is certainly worthy of occupying a space next to those films in the hallowed halls of horror. It’s sophisticated, dark, uncomfortable, challenging, and it may leave some rank and file jump scare seekers confounded, but certainly not empty-handed.

The level of craft on display would be impressive for a seasoned director, but this is Ari Aster’s first film. His nimble use of cinematography and editing is clever and jarring. From the opening scene, Aster uses some cinematic sleight of hand to seamlessly drop actors Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne into a miniature diorama. Static exterior shots abruptly jump from night to day, bolstering the sense of turmoil and disorientation that pervades the film. Colin Stetson’s score supplements that mood, creating an oozing pulse accentuated with industrial rattles and clicks and a scraping, screeching arrangement of atonal strings.

The story centers around artist Annie Graham (Toni Colette) whose name betrays her enigmatic nature. Colette delivers an amazing performance as Annie, coping with the recent loss of her abusive mother while struggling to be attentive to her aloof children and increasingly beleaguered spouse. The strain is coupled with anxiety over the veritable minefield of her gene pool, a family curse that includes everything from dissociative identity disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia, to sleepwalking and food allergies.

Like A24’s other critical horror darling, The Witch, Hereditary is an unnervingly voyeuristic experience. Audiences are forced to witness some of the most private and tense moments of family life, like dinners and bedtime confessions filled with blame, bitterness, and regret. These moments are completely relatable but so personal in nature that it feels as if you shouldn’t be seeing them. The film derives some of its most horrific and squirm-inducing moments not from ghosts and gore but from the quiet oppression of parental hell.

That’s not to suggest that this is entirely a psychological drama. There are plenty of ghosts and demons stalking the shadows. As with other recent arthouse horror flicks like The Babadook and It Follows, the bogeymen are metaphorical but provide a very real and visceral onscreen threat. They also provide a fairly graphic supply of gore. Aster has no qualms about lingering on scenes from which other directors would have quickly cut away or omitted altogether. It’s this penchant for reveling in distress that leads to a gobsmacking first act break that’s on par with Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Hereditary’s intellectual plotting and occasional scenery chewing may alienate some moviegoers, but this is a definite must-see for cinephiles and hardcore horror fans. The film itself isn’t easily accessible for everyone, especially the surrealistic pandemonium of the film’s fever-pitched third act, but its fears are universal. There’s nothing quite as horrifying as becoming your parents.

Film Review: ‘Ghostbusters’ (PG-13)

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“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.”

Neither a direct sequel nor a true remake, ‘Ghostbusters’ takes a cue from the newest Star Wars movie by taking brand new characters and surrounding them in all too familiar territory. And it works for director Paul Feig just as well as it did for JJ Abrams. While the plot isn’t novel, following the same story beats of the 1984 original, the comedic chemistry between Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy brings fresh air into the old franchise.

The film immediately offers up the sort of rapid fire, deadpan quips that should put nervous fan boys at ease. We are treated to a cold open of Zach Woods (‘Silicon Valley’) guiding a tour through an historic haunted mansion that boasts of such then-modern conveniences as a “face-bidet” and an “anti-Irish fence.” Like its predecessor, ‘Ghostbusters’ is filled with quotable one-liners.

McCarthy and McKinnon’s characters get off to a rocky start, initially coming off as juvenile and mean-spirited. But once the necessary groundwork is laid and the ladies are suited up, the rough edges disappear. The SNL pedigree and camaraderie of the main cast does the heavy lifting in the film and they are given plenty of room to play off of one another. Jones and McKinnon on their own may have been an overload of quirk, without Wiig’s straight man (…err, straight person?) to keep them grounded. Surprisingly, McCarthy takes a more understated approach letting all but a few scenes of slapstick fall on the shoulders of Jones and Wiig.

It’s to the writers’ credit that they avoid making the new crew surrogates for the old. Despite some similarity in appearance to the cartoon version of Egon, McKinnon’s mad scientist engineer would have flustered and frightened off Harold Ramis’ character long before the first ghost was busted. And despite both being the lone black and blue-collar team members, Jones portrayal of a gregarious, well-read history buff who volunteers to join the “club” shares little in common with Ernie Hudson’s no-nonsense “just here for the paycheck” Winston. The film may pay near-constant homage to the Ivan Reitman original, but it’s careful to maintain its own identity in the Ghostbuster universe.

It should come as a relief to fans (and perhaps to the dismay of the troll-happy “GhostBrosters”) Feig delivers a film that’s a worthy successor to the original and is completely superior to ‘Ghostbusters 2.’ ‘Ghostbusters’ tries too hard at times, but shows nothing but love for its cult following while taking winking potshots at its pre-agitated detractors. Not only is this summer movie worth the price of admission, it’s even worth the extra few bucks to have 3D proton beams and projectile slime fly at your face.

Film Review: ‘The Witch’ (R)

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“Woudst thou like to live deliciously?”

Despite how terrifying the trailers make it look, ‘The Witch’ is not that kind of horror film. There are no bogeymen popping out of dark corners, no gratuity of gore and nudity (mostly). You will not be jumping out of your seat. It is a more subtle film, where the monsters are real but kept in silhouette and acts of violence are committed off screen (mostly).

The film deals in squirming, psychological uncertainty moreso than traditional scares. After being banished from his village for heresy, Ralph Ineson and his family trek out into the American wilderness. The family is already fragile, racked by poverty and fear but too proud to acknowledge the direness of their situation. The titular crone only needs to apply the right pressure for Ineson’s family to start ripping itself apart.

We see the witch early on; we know she is real; we know that she is powerful and remorseless, but we don’t know when she will appear again. It is her influence rather than her actual presence that weighs on the narrative. Every journey into the woods is filled with quiet dread; every cute, fuzzy woodland creature is a potential source of malice.

Given the political paranoia and a shared supernatural subject matter, comparisons between ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Crucible’ are inevitable. Debut director Robert Eggers deftly captures the sentiments of the current election year. The witch in the woods embodies the malevolent unknown, the “other,” that breeds anxiety and anger and, in the end, drives us to commit acts no less evil than its own out of pride and desperation.

Eggers first effort is something to be envied. His casting choices seem to be pulled straight out of an early colonial painting and the employment of the score is masterful. Eggers cranks up the volume, approaching the unknown like a Kubrickian space odyssey, but is unafraid to pull the cord and let the audience sit unmercifully in silence. His abilities to conjure unease in a few wordless shots and build tension to unbearable levels are the foundations of the film.

‘The Witch’ is a beautifully shot and emotionally uncomfortable movie. But it has more in common with ‘Under the Skin’ than it does with ‘The Conjuring.’ It is meditative and slowly paced, which means it will likely leave gore hounds and thrill seekers unsatisfied. ‘The Witch’ is well worth your attention, but it definitely won’t appeal to everybody.

Film Review: ‘Montage of Heck’ (2015)

By Ben Niedrach and Mary Lynn Ritch

Nineties music began in a greenhouse in Washington. The guy that pulled the trigger was Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.  We all know the story by now; tortured genius commits suicide due to the fact that he was a tortured genius addicted to heroin. But there is more to the story as we will learn in watching “Montage of Heck.” Kurt Cobain had not treated obvious mental health issues, and no one did anything about it or knew how to address them.

Defiantly on the forefront of celebrating alienation, Cobain somehow furthered the idea that being strange, creative, and able to think on your own and not apologize for it are attributes. In a direct contrast of his work, Cobain’s last act of life made him a celebrated myth whose light never seems to fade. People still talk about him, which is why it’s not surprising that yet another documentary is being released in his honor, but for the first time, it’s fully authorized and backed by the Cobain family.

Most of the documentary is extremely inspirational and creative to watch. Director Brett Morgen pulled all the stops turning Cobain’s many doodles into cartoon sequences. He incorporated super 8 home movies and narrations to make it seem like the subject is telling his own story. There’s a scene where baby Kurt waves sweetly to the camera and you can’t help but feel emotional knowing the story of what’s to come.

In the film, it is obvious Cobain’s downward spiral began early on in his life following his parent’s divorce. The trigger was that no one knew how to nurture him due to his sensitivity and untreated but diagnosed manic depression. His step-mother puts Cobain’s mindset in perspective, saying that he couldn’t sit still, lashed out by picking on his step-siblings, bounced from home to home, eventually turning to street due to the rejection of his entire family. Viewers also learn that Cobain couldn’t handle humiliation very early on after a suicide attempt due to a talk about having sex with a mentally disabled girl and being the laughing stock of the entire school. Both rejection and humiliation haunted him throughout his short life and contributed to his death.

Cobain was the outsider, friendless loser, and tortured soul that had nothing except a world that did not understand him. Once he got a steady girlfriend and established for himself an outlet in which his music could be heard, he seemed to be the happiest. He was an uncontrollable force of creativity that the underground music simply couldn’t contain.

When his music caught on and the success of Nirvana spread nationwide, the world Cobain so hated started to love and adore him. The message he worked so tirelessly to achieve was given to corporate sponsors, who plastered it on overpriced T-shirts and stickers. It started the seed of hatred in his belly for the media and that hatred only expanded once reporters started writing about his personal life.

“Montage of Heck” dives deeper into another plot line we already know—his marriage to Courtney Love and him navigating fatherhood. In the 21 years since Cobain’s death, Love (who is a star in her own right) has been demonized and even accused of her husband’s apparent murder by conspiracy theorists. In the film, we see a different side to Love. She is a brilliant, loving, and funny free spirit, who banters back in forth with her equally quirky husband whom she adores. She is also an addict.

After the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean Cobain, rumors swirled about Loves’s heroin use during her pregnancy which turned out to be true. There are many scenes with their only daughter as a baby, who is 22 now. While watching, especially during a hard to watch moment where Love is cutting her hair while she is sitting in the lap of her father who is high as a kite and covered with sores, you can’t help but feel like that baby is a survivor. The story ends abruptly after touching on the heroin use with a simple stock card saying Cobain ended his own life in 1994.

“Montage of Heck” is a harrowing incredible piece of art and gives Cobain fans a little bit of closure by showing us the descent into his depression. The movie seemed incomplete and lacking, like seeing most of a beautiful painting. There were parts that went unexplained, but viewers are able to fill in the gap which makes this documentary so masterful. It doesn’t give a clear picture as to why Kurt Cobain took his own life, but it does give enough insight to figure it out.

What made Nirvana relatable to many is that the leader suffered from something that affects 1 in 5 Americans. Every 40 seconds someone attempts suicide in the United States. It is the 10th leading cause of death, killing 36,891 people in 2009. In the beginning of the film, Cobain’s best friend and founding Nirvana member Krist Novoselic mentioned that all the signs were there, but no one did anything about it or knew how to. The ending of Cobain’s story is a tragic one because he numbed his feelings with addiction and ultimately gave into the lies that his depression told him leaving his friends and family behind. One positive thing that has come from this documentary and his death is the fact that depression is not being pushed to the side. Instead, it is shoved into the spotlight of awareness.

“Montage of Heck” is available on HBO and HBOgo.  For more information, visit: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/kurt-cobain-montage-of-heck#/

Film Review: ‘It Follows’ (R)

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“It’s slow, but it’s not dumb.”

Finally in wide release, “It Follows” is a rare breed of intellectual and innovative horror in a film genre too often mired in formulaic and uninspired exploitation. The premise is novel, but simple. After having sex with her boyfriend, budding scream queen Maika Monroe (who stared in the equally impressive “The Guest”) is stalked by a predator that only she can see. The rest of the film is pure sustained tension as the titular “It” ceaselessly “follows” Monroe.

Like “The Guest,” “It Follows” takes advantage of nostalgia, styling itself after vintage slasher flicks like “Halloween” and employing an 80s synth pop score. In a stroke of genius, writer/director David Robert Mitchell makes the sexually transmitted stalker able to manifest as anyone it chooses. This makes every extra in the background a potential threat. “It” habitually pops up in the most unexpected and unsettling of forms, adding a lot of extra mileage to the concept.

Up front, the concept behind “It Follows” sounds like another slasher-based safe sex morality play, and it could have easily settled for such low hanging fruit. Instead Mitchell takes the “virginal survivor girl” cliché and flips it upside down, creating a scenario in which the heroine must have anonymous sex with multiple partners in order to survive. And that may sound like it is equally as demeaning and exploitative as the virgin survivor cliché, but Mitchell is making a statement with the film that is far deeper than “watch out for STDs!”

The film dwells in the dread of being imprisoned by your circumstances. Gradually transitioning from idyllic, pastoral suburbs to a squalid and decaying “bad part of town,” the film meditates on the psychological horror and desperation of having no way out and the degrading things some people are forced to do to survive. This is handled very cleverly in the beginning, but becomes a little too “on-the-nose” in the third act. But preachy underpinnings aside, “It Follows” is far better than any of the lazy remakes or schlocky franchises that typically flood the multiplexes. This is an invigorating thriller that will keep you squirming in your seat.

The 2015 January movie guide

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In the frenzy of Oscar season, now is the prime time to spend in the theater before the February drought. All of the “prestige” pictures have been trotted out for consideration. But which films are the bores and which are worth your $13? Well, fortunately for you, I have spent some time in the weeds and was benevolent enough to create a late-January guide to the box office.

MV5BODMxNjAwODA2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzc0NjgzMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_ The Bio Pics

This Oscar season has been packed with bio pics and right now you can catch “The Imitation Game,” “Big Eyes,” “American Sniper,” and “Selma” in the theaters. I haven’t seen “American Sniper” yet; Bradley Cooper stars and Clint Eastwood directs so I’m sure it’s good, but it seems like a pretty depressing flick.

A perfect fit for MLK Day, “Selma” tells a story on par with Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” This is a tale filled with strum und drang and political double dealing all in interest of advancing civil rights. It is a fascinating tale and a vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. you are not likely familiar with. David Oyelowo turns in a masterful performance as a conflicted and emotionally harassed MLK. An absolute Oscar worthy performance.

Next up, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” Cumberbatch is believably robotic and socially ill fit as the genius Turing. The film focuses more so on his Vulcan-esque intellect and discomfort with his sexuality than highlighting his achievements, Cumberbatch’s performance in “The Imitation Game” is uncomfortable but fascinating to watch. In a world where we still struggle for LBGT civil rights, “The Imitation Game” put into perspective how far we’ve come and how far we still have to travel.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the bunch is “Big Eyes.” A return to the “Ed Wood” (and unarguably the best) era for director Tim Burton, “Big Eyes” is a bio pic that delves into the endearingly zany artistic niche of the Keanes. Christoph Waltz dominates the film as the charismatic yet indomitable cad, Walter Keane. The story has an unmistakable “forget the critics, the fans know what they want” attitude, which only seems appropriate for Burton. But the tone and form for which he makes this statement creates hope that Burton can still deliver.

MV5BMTAyNDYxOTI4MzNeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDQ3MDU3NjIx._V1_SX214_AL_ The Musicals

It’s not often that we are granted a musical. A bygone relic of the “talkie” age, the musical doesn’t hold the same wonder or prestige as it once did and neither of these films are Oscar contenders. But if you are in the mood for some carefree song and dance, there is really only one option…

Let’s cut to the chase. No matter how much you want “Into the Woods” to be good, it is not. Less a film than “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” and certainly less so than Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” “Into the Woods” is a hot mess. Despite the star power of Meryl Streep as a wicked witch and Johnny Depp as a big bad wolf (a character that is introduced and summarily killed off in roughly 10-minutes time) the movie is stiff and contrived. There are no musical numbers that your kids will be humming ad nauseam like “Frozen.” Instead you will find a series of fairy tales shoe-horned into a forgettable and irritating film that prominently features lyrics like, “The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood, no need to be afraid there.” This is a movie that does not need to exist.

Still in a few theaters, the battle tested “Annie” still holds up. With an ethnic, modern spin that pokes fun of itself, Jamie Foxx’s workmanship and Quvezhane Wallis’ charisma alone make this a film worth checking out. This is a film too saccharine and “on the nose” for any real award consideration. But if you happen to be in the mood for catchy Broadway tunes and loveable characters, “Annie” isn’t a bad way to spend the afternoon.

MV5BMjI4MTIzODU2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjE0NDAwMjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_ The Kids

Unfortunately, there are not many rewarding films out for the kids right now. The new Hobbit movie is a self-aggrandized and overly padded fight scene that may appeal to the younger fans, but will leave their nerdy parents shaking their fists. The new ‘not-Pixar’ Disney film “Big Hero Six” is every bit as loveable as its predecessor, “Wreck-It Ralph,” but every bit as hollow. Your best bet, if you can find it playing, is Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (a film far superior to the lackluster “The Boxtrolls”).

MV5BMjI2ODQ2NzUwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU3NTE4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_ The Real Deals

If you’re looking for something to make you look smart at parties, there are really two “must see” films of the season (well three honestly, but I have yet to see “Force Majeure” yet so I can’t vouch for it, but I’m sure it is great).

Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, “Inherent Vice” is every bit the spiritual successor to “The Big Lebowski.” In perhaps what is Pynchon’s most accessible novel, Joaquin Phoenix plays The Dude-ish “Doc,” a stoner private eye on the cusp of the 70s. The film takes one noir turn after another as an all-star cast of Martin Short, Josh Brolin, Maya Rudolph, Owen Wilson and songstress Joanna Newsom complicate the plot of a real estate deal gone sour. Famed director P.T. Anderson revels in the quirks and absurdities of his characters. This is a departure from, but worthy successor to the stuffier pretensions of films like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” Absolutely must see.

“Whiplash” might just be my favorite film of the Oscar year (next to “The Babadook”). In a “not-horror” tale of a music teacher pushing a student beyond the bounds of greatness, “Whiplash” is a cringe-worthy tale that explores the moral limits of utilitarianism. There is really no other film out there that remotely comes close to “Whiplash.” This is a film that demands every second of your attention. “Birdman,” “Selma,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood” are all phenomenal films worthy of Oscar praise, but “Boyhood” is the only film that can truly rival “Whiplash.”

MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_ The Rest

If you just want to stay in and watch movies in your pjs, there are plenty of movies on VOD worth your time. Taking over 12 years to shoot, “Boyhood” is a monument to filmmaking and a heartbreaker for any parent dealing with empty nest syndrome. “Birdman” is a psychedelic masterpiece and Michael Keaton deserves an Oscar nod for his amazing performance. “Gone Girl” is faithful to the source material and is a perfect display of director David Fincher’s ability to disseminate a dense plot. Finely acted, this is a perfect substitute for those too lazy to read the book. “Nightcrawler” is an amazing, but highly unnerving movie that flew under the radars of most, but it is definitely worth seeking out. Like Russian nesting dolls, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a storybook within a storybook and a comedically rewarding tale of grace under fire. “The Babadook” is a soul crushing horror tale of a single parent battling a children’s book boogeyman and a reality that she is unable to face. It is without a doubt the best horror film of the year and criminally overlooked for the Academy Awards.

This is prime cinematic cherry-picking season. So whether you decide to stay cozy indoors, or experience an Oscar-worthy performance on the silver screen, now is your time.