Month: September, 2019

Midsommar

minsommarThere is an uneasy tension in the air with Ari Aster’s latest horror.  In his follow up to last year’s harrowing and unsettling Hereditary, the brooding filmmaker has extended his cold touch into the warm reaches of a Scandinavian summer.

Midsommar follows a group of American students into the rural Swedish hinterland where a closed-off druidic community has lived for hundreds of years. The community provides Anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor), the opportunity to study their pagan rites and rituals. But when one ritual turns from an innocuous flower-clad-romp into an insidiously horrific death, the group start to doubt the community’s principles.  

Far from a diet of schlocky jump-scares and giggles, Midsommar is a slow burn, a ruminating and sinister film that ratchets tension with a vice-like grip. Aster maintains Hereditary’s grief-stricken psychological brilliance but dispenses with the disappointingly supernatural literalness that plagued its ending.  Instead, Midsommar, while flirting with the uncanny, roots itself in the real … and feels more creepy for it.

Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) plays the film’s mainstay, Dani.  Suffering from a tragic loss in her family she cuts a needy figure desperate for stability and security, something she hopes a trip to Sweden with her boyfriend, Christian, might provide. Pugh’s skill, once again, proves why she is one of the most impressive actors working today, with a nuanced performance that masterfully distills the suffocating effects of anxiety.

It’s an odd but refreshing experience to have horror in the sunshine. Rather than skulking around in the darkness offering opportunities for lazy production design, Aster has quite astutely put Sweden’s perennial summer sunlight to good use. With a prowling camera that keeps the cast at arm’s length, he has employed a bright canvas and ironically daubed darker themes of grief and shame with striking results.

Horror films should never outstay their welcome and if I had one reservation, it would concern the film’s length which becomes one pagan ceremony too many. Yet again, Aster can’t quite nail an ending down and almost overcooks what is otherwise a superbly crafted film.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Advertisements

High Life

hlMovies from the enigmatic French director, Claire Denis (Beau Travail), are often described as elliptical in nature—a cinematic version of those three provocative dots at the end of a sentence prompting an “and?” response, where more is denoted by what isn’t said. High Life is one of those films—a smouldering question mark that casts a giant shadow over the film’s other concerns.

Set in an undefined future, Monte (played by a detached but oddly warm Robert Pattinson) is one of eight prisoners in a ship hurtling through space towards a black hole, all of whom have elected to give their lives to science rather than undergo an earth-bound sentence.  The ship’s resident scientist, a prisoner herself, is a femme-fatale styled matriarch (played by Juliet Binoche) whose motherly gaze cautiously watches over the crew with one eye and keeps tabs on her reproductive experiments with the other.

The film takes pleasure in showing us a cocktail of bodily fluids pumping through the film’s industrial retro-chic production design. Aesthetically, High Life owes much to films that have gone before; the plastic-wrapped grime of Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, the damp biological machinations of Scott’s original Alien (along with Mother’s built-in DOS prompt), the syrupy darkness of Glazer’s Under the Skin and finally the the organic hope of Boyle’s Sunshine.  And while Denis doesn’t inject much originality into her production design, High Life is still an evocative sensory feast for the senses.

Although the dark and foreboding palette may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s the perfect companion to Denis’ angry take on humanity’s self-destructive nature. Make no mistake, High Life is cold, bitter, perverse and very violent in parts—unsurprising, I suppose, for a film about a bunch of violent criminals cooped up in a shoe-box.

However, my biggest reservation rests with High Life‘s seemingly impenetrable wall of final ambiguities. It leaves you floating in a seething broth of questions, tasking you to fill in the gaps—a rewarding process for some, but I suspect many will balk at the film’s final vagaries. Simply put, Denis’ deliberately obtuse and elliptical style keeps you at arm’s length for too long and offers an ending that feels about as complete as this senten…

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Girls of the Sun

gotsBased on true events, Girls of the Sun is set during the volatile period of Isis expansion into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. It follows Mathilde, a French war journalist (played by Emmanuelle Bercot) as she documents a group of Kurdish women anti-Isis fighters and their struggle to reclaim their town and the children captive within.  A far cry from the warmth of her role in Jarmusch’s Paterson, Golshifteh Farahani plays the battalion’s leader, Bahar, whose own horrific back-story is revealed to us through flashbacks.  Her capture was just one of the many stories of women and children killed or captured and sold (along with 7000 others) as sex-slaves. They are important stories to tell for many reasons, and Girls of the Sun pays special attention to the battalion’s uncompromising female spirit in the face of a ruthless misogynistic regime.

French director Eva Husson (Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)) handles plenty of tricky material with conviction, bringing about a movie that juggles the brutality of war with accessibility to a wider audience. In particular, Husson injects some edge-of-the-seat set pieces; a tense tunnel scene to match Sicario and a nerve-frying birthing scene reminiscent of Children of Men, are just a couple worthy of note. And while none of it is original movie-making, the sum of its parts is a bruising assault on the nerves.

Not without its faults, the film does occasionally lose focus, suffering from the (enviable) problem of having too many stories to tell; the displaced Kurdish people, the treatment of women and children, the plight of western journalists, and the personal stories of each participant all struggle for attention in a film that tries its best to narrow its scope. 

As a result, Husson’s film does become a little uneven in parts—its style bouncing between a taut gritty war tale and melodrama. Nonetheless, Husson’s confident approach, if occasionally overbearing, built enough suspense and sympathy to get me swept up in the film’s cause.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Amazing Grace

ag2Archival footage documentaries are knocking it out of the park at the moment. And if last week’s release, the technically dazzling Apollo 11, literally took you to the moon and back, then Amazing Grace metaphorically does the same with a cinematically enthralling and spiritually charged presentation of a titanic talent.

In 1972 Aretha Franklin returned to her roots and graced the microphone laden pulpit of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles to record her iconic gospel album, Amazing Grace. Standing beneath a giant mural of Jesus Christ (looking every inch a Californian surfer-dude) and backed by the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin belts out an array of gospel songs to an enraptured congregation—the footage of which is almost an other-worldly experience to take in.

The late great director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) was tasked with the job of recording the show for later release. Unfortunately, it became an incomplete project, and while Franklin’s recorded album went on the be the biggest selling gospel album of all time, Pollack’s footage was separated from its soundtrack and lay dormant in the vaults for decades.

Thankfully, director Alan Elliott has taken the reins of Pollack’s wandering horse and lead it back to water. And drink deeply from the spiritual well this final film does. Raw and shambolic in appearance, the film’s imperfections only serve to enrich and highlight Franklin’s jaw-dropping vocals. It captures a sense of dignity and authenticity to her performance that peaks at the film’s titular centrepiece—a sweaty, focussed and transcendent rendition of Amazing Grace that is tearfully received by both the congregation and backing performers alike.

Pollack clearly looks like someone who has found the winning lottery ticket as he joyously, but frantically, gestures his crew to point their camera to this once-in-a-life-time performance and then off stage to an audience that can no longer contain themselves (Mick Jagger included). It’s impossible not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, and if this film doesn’t move you then you might want to check your pulse.

 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.