Midsommar (2019): An Amazing Film About Grief and Isolation

Image result for Midsommar poster

   “Hereditary” was one of my favorite films last year and this year “Midsommar” has the potential to be that too. This is a psychological disturbing horror film that delves into the depths of grief. The only thing that really holds it back is the only likable character is our main character.

The film was written and directed by Ari Aster.

The story follows Dani (Florence Pugh) after her sister kills herself and her parents she finds herself isolated and alone. When her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends when they travel to an isolated Swedish village that is the hometown of one of the friends for the village’s midsummer festival.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Cinematography – The cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen all year. There are wide shots that suck in just how isolating open spaces can be. The film largely takes place in daylight and Pawel Pogorzelski uses this to give an ethereal alien feel to our characters as they are drugged by their hosts and the midsummer 9 day festival begins.

Soundtrack – The music uses lots of chants and quick strikes on the strings and drums. This plays beautifully into the isolation and the nature focus of the cult and it plays into the isolation. The music is striking and it makes the scenes and experiences of the characters stand out.

Dani’s Isolation – Dani’s isolation is our primary perspective in the film. It is done beautifully and nature is used to portray it. She is alone, even when she is with people and this is reflected in wide shots of wherever she is (her college or the village) and her visions. The drugs cause some of those visions as well which compounds how alone she is feeling. In the end she is the Cult’s mark and her isolation she feels from the beginning the film is what is taken advantage of.

The Terror of the Cult – The cult is creepy. They view themselves as part of nature and will kill themselves when they reach a certain age or to keep the balance of how many people are in the village. This extends out to people bringing sacrifices to keep alive longer and to sustain the village bloodline. The creepiness is there the moment you enter the village. The villagers never give much information and there are hints in the art on what will happen to the tourists. They are the scariest part of the film and seeing it from Dani’s fear and isolation only makes it more powerful especially as she chooses Christian as the final sacrifice for the festival showing just how in the cult she has become.

Facing Grief – The main arc of the story is Dani facing her isolation and grief over her sister killing herself and their parents. The cult has a life built around the seasons and villagers willingly give up their lives for the cause. This acclimates her to death to the point that by the end she smiles even as her friends and ex are now all dead. For her the breaking scene is when she finds Christian in a sex ritual with a girl from the village. It is here the village women cry with her and in the burning of the past she is reborn in the village and smiles for the only time the entire film.

Okay:

The Characters as Expendable Tropes – The characters are all jerks except for Dani. Her boyfriend doesn’t want to be in the relationship and never listens to her, his friends are a partier and the one who is studying the village for his Thesis and never shows kindness to anyone. The friend who brought them there is terrible as well as he knew he was bringing them there to be sacrificed. The one reason it isn’t a con is it does play well into Dani’s isolation and her eventually becoming the May Queen and a member of the Cult.

If you enjoy horror films or Ari Aster, this is a film I highly recommend. The film is long but it doesn’t feel that way at all. “Midsommar” has has a Kubrickesque feel as it has you sit with characters and scenes so they sink in and you feel uncomfortable by what is happening or what might be about to happen. This is the kind of horror enjoy and the fact that the film uses the theme of grief as an exploration adds another layer to an already great film.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 If the other tourists with Dani had been likable it would be perfect.

Mandy (2018): A Heavy Metal Revenge Fantasy

    “Mandy” is a psychedelic trip that I highly recommend. The story is simple, but so much of what makes it work is your time where you can just sit with the world and the visuals. This is a film that could have been a silent film and worked just as well given how clear each of the actions of the characters are and how it uses visuals to tell story and given depth. The film is done like a fantasy book too with each part broken into chapters. I want to see more Panos Cosmatos films after this as if he is this out there with his other stuff I’ll be in for quite an experience of cinema.

The story follows Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) who live in the forest away from the world. Mandy is a painter and works at the nearby store while Red is a lumberjack. There world of isolation and peace quickly turns to horror when a cult leader named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) sets his LSD drug ridden cult on the two so he can have Mandy and make her one of his brides.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The action is brutal and fits with the feel of the film of a Heavy Metal album come to life. Nicolas Cage’s Red makes his own axe to take on the bikers and the cult and systematically takes them on one by one to get to the Cult Leader Jeremiah and get his revenge for the death of Mandy. The film is really slow and reflective until it isn’t and that is when the action doesn’t let up as we go with Cage’s Red to the dark recesses of his mind where the only reason to live is vengeance.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning. Scenes are draped in black and reds giving it the feel of album artwork or one of Mandy’s dark fantasy paintings. Sequences feel like dreams and it is worth the slow scenes just so you can soak it all in. The soundtrack magnifies the visuals and it plays together like an album brought to life. Benjamin Loeb truly did a fantastic job. This is easily the most visually unique film I’ve watched all year.

Red and Mandy – The core relationship of the film works. Red and Mandy are two people away from the world facing their damage and PTSD together. We see moments of that love when Mandy opens up about her story and you see it in Red’s eyes that he has done the same on multiple occasions. They only have eyes for one another and it makes the tragedy of Mandy’s murder hurt all the more. You see why Red is full of rage afterwords and why he is willing to go so far to avenge her death. The actors do an amazing job and Nicolas Cage truly inhabits his role as Red. Mandy is a strong character too who nothing can phase. When she is drugged up by Jeremiah she pulls down his illusion and laughs in his face at just how pathetic he is. He may have caught them both, but they win even though she dies.

Okay:

The Cult – The cult is alright. Jeremiah Sand is a creep who has his followers addicted to drugs and thinks he is the best thing. His narcissism works. The problem was I didn’t understand why a bunch of Biker Dudes would follow and become demons for him. They are nearly supernatural in how they are presented and I didn’t get his control over them, especially as any skeptic like Mandy will just laugh in his face. They worked as an antagonist, but in hindsight I would have built them up more. They deserved to be a great threat, while I largely accepted them as working alright but not great.

The Cons:

Deeper Meaning – This is a simple revenge story. What would have made it make my Top 5 to end the year would have been seeking some deeper meaning. There is the potential for deeper meaning there, but I wanted it explored more. I wanted to see Red’s love for Mandy explored more deeply or the Cult Leader’s twisted love for himself or him feeling he didn’t have it. Love could have been expressed as the theme better, or revenge but we don’t get that. This film is still great, but what keeps it from crossing that line to perfection is that lack of clarity in a major theme. I wanted more story and motivation and the film wasn’t ready to give that.

This is a film that will not be everyone’s jam. The violence is extreme when the story gets around to it and it does start out very slow. You have to be invested in the music and visuals and care about Red and Mandy to truly love this film. Luckily all those things worked for me. This is a film that may need multiple viewings as there are a lot elements going on. If any of the things I’ve described above are your jam you should check out this surreal horror fantasy. If the competition wasn’t so steep this year it might have made my Top 5 of 2018. This has been a great year for film.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. More story and the cult getting more development would have made it perfect.

“Helix” Season 2 Assessment – Lost Potential and the Death of a Cool Idea

Helix Season 2

     I really wanted to like this show. I enjoyed Season 1 as it was “John Carpenter’s The Thing” done in such a way that incorporated some of the ideas from “Battlestar Galactica,” since Ronald Moore is one of the Producers this made sense, and it made the show strong. The first season was crazy, scary and characters had arcs that advanced until the cliffhanger end….Which was where the show fell apart in trying to set things up to be much bigger, which this season completely failed to deliver on. This season failed to deliver on a lot of things and this was largely because it was an unfocused mess. More on all of this later.

     Helix was created by Cameron Porsandeh with the executive producers being Ronald Moore, Lynda Obst, Steven Maeda and Brad Turner. It was produced by Sony Pictures an aired on the Syfy Channel.

     The story picks up where Season 1 left off except we are in the future. Julia (one of the scientists who was turned into an Immortal) is now working for Ilaria and trying to stop them from using the upgraded virus from last season by finding a compromise and seeking a way to keep the human population from breeding. In the past we see Doctor Jordan, Peter and Kyle who have come to St. Germain to investigate an outbreak that happened near the Island. This leads to the discovery of the Cult lead by Michael who has a dark agenda as well as Alan who has been targeting immortals and seeks an end to them.

The Pros: Time Jumps – The use of time is one of few things this season did well. We dead the Island was after the outbreak and with it we see that Julia was on the Island prior and also why she doesn’t know what happened to Alan. This is done really well, especially in regards to the reveal at the end.

The Premise – An Island run by a Cult leader with members who seek dominion over each other and outsiders is fascinating. It is it’s own horror trope, just like “The Thing” idea in the North Pole that existed in Season 1. The CDC is unwanted and the early manipulations by the leaders of the Island to try and remove them or set them up is done very well. It’s creepy especially with the reveal of Michael’s birthing chamber where he takes all the women who rebelled against him. The Cult is never presented in a good light, which I appreciated.

The Soundtrack – The music is still ironically happy, like Season 1 which was a strength in that just as it is in this. Reinhold Heil did a good job of making the music very happy but also creepy and foreboding when it needed to be.

Helix - Season 2

The Cons: The Characters – I never understood why the characters did what they did. Peter and Alan fighting each other made no sense. They just decided to turn Peter into a bastard and villain so that they would have another antagonist. His reasons for joining the Cult and becoming a leader made no sense…the same went for Alan’s refusal to open up to anyone, including Sarah Jordan even though they’d had a baby together. The three wives of Michael were also unfleshed out with the youngest wanting power for the sake of power, the second one being a follower who wanted power and the eldest trying to help? It made no sense and the relationship drama was so contrived. In the end I didn’t care about any of the characters…though the biggest disappointment was how the made Dr. Hitaki try and kill Julia his daughter and them making him insane and talking to the corpse of his dead wife and son. That was the part I began to realize the writers were writing character drama for the sake of drama and had forgotten the core of what drove their characters in the first season.

The Writing – The writing was bad, so much of it was telling and in the end very obvious telling that still left questions. Why did Ilaria want to kill the human race? They had a board meeting that they didn’t invite Julia too, so what was the deal? Why hadn’t more people rebelled against the Cult and why didn’t the Cult try and deal with the CDC immediately if they saw them as such a threat? What happened to Dr. Jordan’s baby? Why did Soren return to the Island? What was the birthing chamber at the end? What happened when everyone came back and what was the fallout? There were so many dropped arcs, unexplored characters, characters made crazy for no reason (Hitaki and Peter) and so much contrived drama. It was just bad, and not fun bad.

The Ending – The ending was a giant cliffhanger again with Dr. Jordan doing a birthing chamber for the new world run by Ilaria with her working for Ilaria. We don’t know about anything that happens to the other characters just that Alan is an immortal now, Peter went to jail (But did Ilaria get him out?) or what happened to the surviving members of the cult minus Soren. It was an even worse cliffhanger ending than season 1…and pretty much killed any future interest I had in the show.

   This show was some of the biggest missed potential, it was fun and campy but dealt with the ideas of immortality and flaws in human relationships. This time it was drama for the sake of drama, lack of focus on any point or theme and in the end this drove it down. I could not tell you what the point of this season was and didn’t seem to have a message. If you didn’t watch this season and you watched season 1, don’t watch this season. Season 1 is at least good (minus the ending) this one is just bad. I watched it because I hoped it would get better and there were the inklings of good ideas…but all that was wasted because characters were written to cause drama for the sake of drama and had no purpose beyond that and great characters like Dr. Hitaki (best character from this series) was wasted. I cannot recommend this season at all.

Final Score: 4 / 10.

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The Master (2012): A Critique of Cults and an Exploration of an Anarchistic and Tyrannical Mind

The Master 2012

      This film was a trip, but I would not expect any less from Paul Thomas Anderson. He is one of those writers and directors who have really good quality films but none of them are really favorites. I think a big reason for this is the actors do a great job but the characters they inhabit are so horrible it is hard to have sympathy for the plights they face. This is very true of this film as well where we follow a Cult Leader and Drunk as the primary characters of the narrative.

   “The Master,” was directed, written and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson with the other producers being JoAnne Seller, Daniel Lupi and Megan Ellison.

     The story follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who is a drunk drifter who makes special liquor with paint thinner as he alienates every environment after World War 2 ends. He starts out as a photographer, loses the job after he fights a client, a laborer until he accidentally poisons an old man and ends up hopping on the boat that the Cult Leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on. From here is taken in by “The Cause” as he tries to be a part of it while dealing with his rebellion against any form of authority over him as the drama of the Cult unfolds through the story.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful. There are elements of 50’s Jazz and the instrumentals are great as well. It really captures the desolation of the characters too and how they all feel alone.  Jonny Greenwood did a good job.

The Cinematography – The movie was filmed in 70mm which ended up giving it some great wide shots and making the film feel large, even if most of the seasons were very personal scenes. It allowed glimpses into the characters’ minds. Mihai Malaimare jr. did great work.

The Themes – The big themes of it are that power corrupts (The Master Lancaster is always using people to his own end and ego), humans have a need for leaders and are lost without them (the drifter Freddie never changes and never finds purpose except when he was taking photos with “The Cause”), and to not believe those who claim things that cannot be proven (The most reasonable characters are those that are yelled at by Lancaster or beaten up by Freddie for questioning Lancaster Dodd).

The Message – There are few messages that the themes explored. The human need for authority and how those in authority, especially religious authority often use it to their own ends and that authority unchecked is dangerous. Within this is the theme that authority should be questioned, especially when it makes claims it cannot prove. There is also the importance of direction as Freddie has none and never finds peace which seems to be something he’s trying to find throughout the film.

The Actors – Amy Adams does a great job playing the manipulative “girl next door” type character, Hoffman was masterful as the demagogue who had a calm confidence that was lost whenever he was questioned and Phoenix played the drifter really well as he contorted his body and murmured every line like he wasn’t ever fully present in anything. These performances were great, but I couldn’t stand the characters.

The Cons: The Characters – The Master and his family are only out for themselves and believe they are saving the world and are therefore entitled to others wealth. You see this constantly in how they turn on those who question their claims and try to shout over them rather than answering the questions. They claim science without actually using it. Freddie isn’t any better as he is always picking fights, poisoning himself and others and never committing to anything. He is the drifter in a nutshell in the worst way as he never grows and has no arc. He like the Master is the same person he was when they met. Because I couldn’t like any of the characters it’s a major con for me as characters are what keep me interested in the story and caring about what happens.

     Paul Thomas Anderson is a director whose movies may grow on me with time. For now though, the unlikability of his characters is a major con that keeps his films I have watched (including this one) from being favorites. It was good, it was well made,had relevant and great themes that were shown and not told, well filmed and acted…but if I’m not invested in the characters than I’m not invested enough in the plot and what happens to the characters. This is a major problem for me and what made the film good and not great.

Final Score: 8 / 10.