Tag: Florence Pugh

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.

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Fighting with My Family

fwmfSaraya “Paige” Knight competes as part of a wrestling mad family from Norwich, who run a local wrestling gig out the back of a van. This is the “pro” brand of wrestling, complete with fake punches, body slams and dramatic leaps off the top rope onto some poor sucker waiting to take the fall—the kind of wrestling that spawned the likes of Hulk Hogan and (yes) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For Saraya (the excellent Florence Pugh) and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden), the dream of making it to the glitz and glamour of America’s WWE hits a snag when the inseparable siblings have to split their tag-team … she got selected to trial, he didn’t.  

This simple but true story is Saraya’s after all—it’s a classic rags-to-riches tale, a kind of Rocky story built on sweaty training montages and more eye-rolling cliches than a wrestler’s verbal retort.  

Of course, no film about wrestling would be complete without an appearance from the aforementioned mountain of machismo himself. The Rock’s planetary sized screen presence orbits his goofy charismatic charm, sucking your attention with tractor-beam-like command—that’s no moon, it’s The Rock. So it’s unfortunate then, that he only makes two brief appearances (despite promo material suggesting otherwise). But hey, that’s one for each bicep, so you take what you can get.

However, as is so often the case, the film’s heart and soul rest with its writer/director. Here, Stephen Merchant (The Office) proves that he can pen some heartwarming moments and very funny gags for the big screen. Sadly, his directorial efforts don’t fare so well—he’s on autopilot and although hanging on tightly to his inflatable pen, he seems to be drowning in a sea of predictability.  Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) delivers a rib-tickling performance as Saraya’s dad, lacing this film with plenty of feel-good vibes as he vicariously lives through his daughter’s fortunes. Beyond that, Fighting with My Family remains an entertaining but lightweight affair of humorously choreographed muscle.

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

Lady Macbeth

Macbeth“I’m thick skinned”—a seemingly innocuous opening statement from Lady Macbeth’s protagonist speaks volumes about the film’s central character, Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) and its exploration of liberation within an oppressive marriage.

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s book “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1865) by Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth keeps the action in the same period but shifts the story from Russia to northern England. As the title suggests, it is a thematic reworking of the character from Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play, although some might see more similarities with Charlize Theron’s character in Patti Jenkin’s 2003 thriller Monster. This is a black widow story and Katherine is a femme fatale in the truest sense. Its investigation into a corrupt feminine power within an oppressive marital system renders the film dark and brooding, and at times quite brutal … but it’s thrilling to behold.

Katherine is a chattel, bought as her husband says, “along with a piece of land not fit enough for a cow to graze upon.” He, along with his grumpy father (played by the wonderfully earthy Christopher Fairbank), keep her under their strict set of rules.  Indeed, there is very little joy here. When Katherine strikes up an amorous relationship with a farm-hand things don’t go down too well. It is one of those films where everyone is a nasty piece of work … except the poor housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who finds herself in the middle of the hostilities and acts as the film’s only form of moral compass.

Director William Oldroyd, a relative newcomer to feature film set, has breathed some fresh air to the staid old period drama. He comfortably ratchets mood and tension without any musical score, which is also a testament to the wonderful work of cinematographer Ari Wegner. There is plenty at play in Lady Macbeth’s visual style, not least Katherine’s character who is illustrated with an evocative use of camera and lighting, allowing Pugh to work a commanding performance. Pugh’s slightly unhinged portrayal is the perfect foil for this enthralling piece of psychological period cinema.

Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.