Midsommar (2019, Directed by Ari Aster) English 9

Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren

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(9-Great Film)

Beautiful. Disquieting. Distinctive.

     I’m not going to take sides-though it’s largely the male characters who suffer in this film, you could counter that it’s a consequence of their mistakes-but it’s established from the beginning of this two-and-a-half-hour descent that its protagonists, Dani Ardor (Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Reynor), are in a bad relationship, growing more and more toxic, and it’s from this relationship that the rest of the film spews. They’re a ticking time bomb; the kind of couple that ruins parties and makes everyone around them feel awkward. They made me feel awkward sitting in the theater eating Sour Patch Kids. We learn in the opening scene that Christian’s ready to break up with her. His friends, most forcibly Mark, a loudmouth played by Will Poulter, urge him to end things. They have a trip to idyllic Sweden approaching and Mark points out the potential barrage of foreign beauties waiting for them, Christian included if he can simply rip the band-aid off. Dani senses the truth. She has a troubled sister and leans on Christian too much. Instead of breaking up, however, Dani receives a phone call that leaves her shattered, Christian incapable of being honest with her, and the film, Midsommar, off to a gruesome start. And so, instead of a guy’s romp in Sweden for the Summer, Christian brings Dani along, as they visit Hårga, a commune, and home of Pelle, one member of their group. What follows makes Midsommar the wildest film I’ve seen in a long time, a great one and a first-rate horror flick.

    Writer-director, Ari Aster, referred to Midsommar as a ” breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film.” Many classic horror flicks build from realistic, fundamental fears. Rosemary’s Baby deals with anxiety about childbirth. The Exorcist features a mother helplessly watching her daughter go through an illness of sorts, but the immediate comparison or influence here is The Wicker Man. Not Nicholas Cage’s hilarious remake but the unforgettable original starring Christopher Lee. You can’t make a film about a sex cult and not be influenced by The Wicker Man. Midsommar even ends with a sinister image of a pyre burning as we process what’s led to this point, but Midsommar is otherwise a very different film. The more apt comparison for me is Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You have a group of outsiders-Christian, Dani, Josh (Harper), and Mark later joined by Brits, Simon and Connie-who are invited into a secluded, idyllic space and who are slowly excluded one by one after revealing their character. While the temptations in Willy Wonka’s factory were candy and chocolate, the commune in Midsommar seduces with flirtatious red-heads and ancient secrets. It’s emotionally scarred Dani who emerges, like Charlie, victorious in the end. What makes her so worthy? Like with Charlie, I’d say it’s humility. Christian and his group of college graduate students seem awfully entitled; entitled to privileged information, entitled to pissing on trees at random. It’s at the end when Dani wears the crown that Midsommar feels like a sordid fairy tale. To go from albatross around her boyfriend’s neck to become a queen is the stuff of fantasy and works in making Midsommar dreamlike but also touches seriously on how cults operate. They make her feel special, call her queen, and offer an escape from difficulties in reality.

There’s been much said about the look of Midsommar. From the moment the trailer dropped, we’ve known that Aster has fashioned a nightmare in the midst of broad daylight. More than that though, he’s made a film that’s gorgeous; a film that grows in visual splendor as its story becomes increasingly hellish. It’s clear that he’s an exciting new filmmaker with a grim eye for family drama and in his lead, Florence Pugh (previously unfamiliar to me), he’s found an actress of unique, innocent features to carry the weight of all the ugliness of Midsommar. She’s terrific.

If I were pressed to question logic, I would ask the protagonists what they are doing visiting a pagan cult and what did they expect? Unlike the characters in Scream, these guys haven’t seen enough horror flicks apparently, because Midsommar unfolds precisely how you’d expect it to aside from precise, disgusting detail (now I know what the blood eagle is, thank you Ari Aster). That I can know what’s going to happen and still be shocked and floored by how it happens is a sign of tremendous skill and talent by those who made this film.

     -Walter Tyrone Howard-

(649)

The Cincinnati Kid (1965, Directed by Norman Jewison) English 8

Starring Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, Cab Calloway, Rip Torn, Joan Blondell

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Fast. Gripping. Cool.

How much time does Steve McQueen shave off a film by making traditional character development unnecessary? Edward G. Robinson, as well? As soon as the two legendary actors walk across the screen, I’m invested. The entire cast is fantastic though (all the way down to Blondell and Cab Calloway in small supporting roles) in this story of a hotshot stud’s poker player, Eric (McQueen), out to prove he’s top dog against Lancey Howard (Robinson), who’s been top dog for decades. That aspect of the film may sound derivative of The Hustler but that’s where the comparison’s end for me. The Hustler is a bleak, powerful character drama. The Cincinnati Kid is star-driven, stylish, grand entertainment. Consider that I know nothing about poker and the film’s climax, an extended game between world-class players, became a foreign-language film to me. How remarkable is it then that this portion of the film was as exciting and tense as any I’ve seen in a long time. Its outcome, both unexpected and welcome.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(648)

 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Directed by Alexander Mackendrick) English 8

Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Same Levene, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Gritty. Quotable. Classic.

J.J Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a powerful newspaper columnist in New York City. For reasons hardly mentioned and best left to be inferred, he has his most persistent flunky and press agent, Sidney Falco (Curtis),  destroy his sister’s engagement to an up and coming Jazz musician. Sidney will do anything for some spotlight. I love the way the characters (mainly Sidney and Hunsecker) talk to each other. “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.” Sidney’s mile a minute verbal style perfectly fits his grimy desperation and Hunsecker’s deadpan demonstrates a man who doesn’t have to yell. The performances are perfect. The dialogue is first-rate. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is brilliant. Stellar noir.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(645)

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017, Directed by Guy Ritchie) English 4

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Annabelle Wallis, Aiden Gillen, Eric Bana

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(4-Bad Film)

Dull. Uninteresting. Uneven.

Vortigern (Law) usurps his brother, Uther, for the throne of Camelot, but Uther’s young son, Arthur, escapes, destined to one day return and claim his birthright. As an adult, Arthur (now played by Hunnam) joins the resistance after pulling the powerful sword, Excalibur, from the stone. This dingy rehash of the oft-told tale had me bored from the jump. It’s not that Guy Ritchie’s film is unoriginal. Though I’ve seen many of his tricks before in better movies (funky soundtrack, disorienting editing, slow-mo), I will say that I’ve never seen a King Arthur story told like this before. It fails, however, to create any compelling characters. I’ve yet to see Charlie Hunnam emote on screen, and continue to be skeptical of his leading man ability. The side characters are forgettable. Jude Law’s villain is the most interesting character in the film, and even he feels like a miscalculation (too much emotion with no obvious motivation except I guess he’s power hungry). The action and moments of spectacle also fail to connect. Overall, a harmless but definite misfire from a director I like.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(644)

Crooked House (2017, Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner) English 6

Starring Max Irons, Terrence Stamp, Gillian Anderson, Glenn Close, Stefanie Martini, Julian Sands, Christian McKay, Christina Hendricks

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Adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel following private detective Charles Hayward (Irons) as he investigates a case given to him by an ex-girlfriend. The case involves the death of an enormously wealthy and corrupt patriarch, and, of course, all his relatives are suspects. Hayward meets the entire family of greedy eccentrics, as he tries to catch a killer. Christie became a world-renowned master of the whodunit mystery, and nobody does it better. Her story has been transported to the screen with skill and a cast full of strong performances. While this is not the best Christie adaptation, it is a perfectly good time though devoid of any truly memorable moments.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(643)

Hero (2002, Directed by Zhang Yimou) Mandarin 9

Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen, Chen Daoming

(9-Great Film)

Stunning. Epic. Awesome.

Set before China was a unified country, a nameless hero (Li) is granted an audience with the emperor (Daoming) after defeating the three most dangerous assassins in the land-Broken Sword (Leung), Flying Snow (Cheung), Long Sky (Yen). The emperor demands to hear Nameless’ story of how he managed the feat, and as the hero tells his story, we, like the emperor, begin to suspect hidden motives. Time has dulled some of the film’s technical marvels, but not its ambition, scale, and beauty. It’s a sweeping tale of myth-making and nationalism. It’s one great set piece after another with a surprising, powerful finale.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(638)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954, Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki) Japanese 10

Starring Toshiro Mifune,  Rentarō Mikuni, Kuroemon Ono, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada

(10-Masterpiece)

Epic. Gorgeous. Awesome.

The first film in this epic trilogy charting the evolution of the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (Mifune). This installment follows Miyamoto in his early years as a rebellious soldier out for personal glory along with his friend Matahachi. After fighting for the losing side in a war, the two men forge wildly different paths for themselves, with Matahachi becoming idle after marrying an older seductress, and Miyamoto becoming a priest after a saintly man rescues him from his life as a fugitive. Added to the plot is Miyamoto’s romance with the woman who was supposed to marry Matahachi, and the story is set up for later installments. It’s a beautiful film on its own, but even more substantial as part of this sweeping series.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(628)