Midsommar (2019) starring Florence Pugh

I think this film depicts a broader social commentary about cult mindset – the destruction of one’s individualism and systematic breakdown of one’s personality to become part of a “collective”/hive mindset.

To have another person acknowledge your grief, confusion and deep inner pain would be therapeutic. Instead of ignoring it, denying it, putting a mask on to try and be ‘happy’ without help. …the friend tells Christian, ‘dude, she needs therapy’ and he’s right- she does. But the group of boys Dani travels with are unable or unwilling to sympathize with her- the main person who should, Christian, was checked out.

I was also disappointed in how the main characters were handled. I hoped they would be given some depth, but they ended up becoming cliche caricatures.

-Excerpts from reviews posted on YouTube

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. -Synopsis from A24 (studio)

Whoa, WHAT did I just see!? And what does it mean? This indie horror film, or perhaps psychological drama, is now on streaming (Amazon Prime). The writer/director, Ari Astor, explained that this was the story of a break-up. It’s also about the individual’s need for connection, community, and acceptance. Warning: This is NOT for everyone, as it is slow, has a long running time, and has several scenes (incl. blood, nudity, etc.) which will be difficult for sensitive viewers. I heard re: this film in Summer 2019 from a few podcasts, so did get spoiled on some of the events. I was even shocked by the gruesome nature of two scenes in particular.

He’s my good friend and I like him, but… Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you? -Pelle asks re: Christian

Pugh (Amy in Little Women) does a fine job w/ her role; sadly, she is the ONLY character who is well-developed. We can empathize w/ Dani, who suffers a great loss, lives w/ anxiety, and fears being “too needy.” She is studying Psychology in grad school; she could benefit from some counseling herself. Reynor (an American/Irish actor) doesn’t have much of a screen presence, though he is tall and conventionally handsome. He is the boyfriend who has one foot out the door; from the get go, we know he’s NOT deeply invested in the relationship. Later, he tries to “collaborate” w/ Josh, who is more of a scholar and has done background work on the Harga. As some critics commented, Christian didn’t deserve the harsh ending which he received.

Christian and his fellow American pals (Mark and Josh) don’t speak and act like grad students in Anthropology; they seem like stereotypical/insensitive frat boys. Pelle (Swedish actor Vilhelm Blomgren) is the friend who invites the others to spend the Summer in his community; he seems trusty, sensitive and kind. Pelle is concerned about Dani’s mental state; it has only been a few months since she had a tragedy in her life. Mark (British actor Will Poulter) is the comic element; he wants just get high, and to hook up w/ Swedish women (who he calls “the most beautiful in the world”). One the other hand, Josh (American actor William Jackson Harper), has a curious mind and plans to do his thesis on these Harga people.

This film is very white; it’s about an insular/rural Swedish commune where the sun always shines. I did like seeing the diversity when it came to age, body type, and size. There are some scenes w/o English subtitles, so most viewers will be confused like the Americans. A black journo commented that she didn’t like seeing the few people of color (POC), incl. Josh and the British couple- Connie (Elloria Torchi from Indian Summers) and Simon (Archie Madekwe)- being used as one-note plot devices. Was this intentional? Or is this what happens in most horror stories to everyone, incl. POC?

Some things work very well in this film. Aster has a vision and he goes for it full-force (world-building). It is unusually beautiful to look at and the cinematography is award-worthy; it was shot primarily in Hungary (stand-in for Sweden). The special effects are unique; I’ve never seen anything like it). A few viewers commented that these reflect what it feels like to be on ‘shrooms. You will find yourself wondering- how did Aster come up w/ this stuff!? I learned that he conducted years of research. FYI: The rituals conducted all have basis in history- yikes!

Planet of the Apes (1968) starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, & Maurice Evans

It raises a lot of questions about our modern day society without letting social commentaries get in the way of the drama and action.

The movie based on this book [La planet de singes by Pierre Boulle] is an “Americanized” adaptation of it. Rod Serling did the first drafts of the screenplay, simplifying the plot by fitting it into the mold of his “Twilight Zone” TV series and introducing an anti-nuclear war theme not present in the Boulle novel.

Pierre Boulle raises such issues as balance of power, racism, the role of government, and evolution… 

The film is philosophical, creative, absorbing and scary. Excellent commentary on religion and just about everything else.

-Excerpts from comments on IMDB

This movie tells the story of George Taylor (Charlton Heston), when he and his fellow astronauts find themselves stranded on a seemingly unknown planet. It seems to have no life. After travelling across a desert, they discover plenty of life (incl. apes that are human-like and humans that are ape-like). The (orange) orangutans are the leaders; the (grayish) chimpanzees are intellectuals and technicians; the (black) gorillas are guards/police (or do grunt work). Taylor is shot in the neck rendering him unable to speak. He is taken to a human-ape study lab, where he meets Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee scientist. She notices that Taylor’s intelligence goes far beyond that of any other human she has seen; she encourages him to speak. However, the orangutan leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), sneers at Zira’s and her fiancé Cornelius’ (Roddy McDowall) belief in any human intelligence. He (and his council) won’t listen to reason. Despite Cornelius’ conflicted feelings towards Taylor, he agrees to help prove his intelligence.

As many critics and fans have noted, Heston basically played himself. This role is not unlike those he played before; he is often shirtless, tan, and bearded. Heston uses his physicality, as is needed for a action hero role. There are few moments (w/ Nova, the young woman who will be his “mate”) where his vulnerable side comes out. Zira and Cornelius are quite interesting characters. Hunter’s portrayal of Zira was considered very powerful by many viewers; she is the most developed character in the film. Hunter manages to make Zira what she was meant to be, more human then ape. The intelligent and curious Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) has a bit of a rivalry w/ Taylor (as they constantly challenge each other like males of any species).

Planet of the Apes is considered a pivotal work of American cinema. Modern viewers will be surprised (not only by the ending), but by the fine camera work, unique soundtrack (by Jerry Goldsmith), makeup (by John Chambers), and good performances. After the film’s success, there were sequels, a TV series, a remake and a prequel (2011). There were also toys/models, comics, cartoons, and T-shirts to sell. I think even those who avoid the sci-fi genre should check it out! The Simpsons (my younger brother was a big fan) did a parody of this film, so you know it left it’s mark on pop culture.

New Year, New Reviews: "Bombshell" & "Little Women"

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Bombshell (2019) starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, & Kate McKinnon

There are some fine performances here, esp. from Theron (in role of lawyer- turned-journo Megyn Kelly) and Lithgow (Roger Ailes); they are also transformed through prosthetics, wigs, makeup, etc. Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) was the most easy to empathize w/ (IMO); I wished she was had a bigger role. I have to admit that Kidman is having a great resurgence these past few yrs; I didn’t appreciate her skills (when I was younger). Robbie (I’m slowly warming up to her acting) plays a fictional character who is eager to get onscreen work. McKinnon (from SNL fame) becomes friends w/ her; they have some nice chemistry. As a whole, I was NOT blown away by this film (which may remind you of the works of Adam McKay, director of Vice). There are MANY cameos in to enjoy- I won’t give it away; after all, there are VERY serious themes to explore! If you follow the news/politics, then you should check it out ASAP! Otherwise, wait for it to come to streaming.

Little Women (2019) starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, & Meryl Streep

The new adaptation (directed by Greta Gerwig) is VERY good- I went to free screening w/ several friends the week before it was released (on Christmas Day). I’ve seen the major film adaptations- ‘30s, late ‘40s, and ‘90s (my family loved that one). There are a few odd choices w/ the casting, as you will see. This film has unique takes- it plays w/ time (starting from the middle of the book and going back, then forward); has more nuanced characterization of smaller characters; and Chalamet (who I really enjoyed) has a fresh take on Laurie (the boy who wants to belong to the March family in some way). Chalamet, who some feel is getting TOO many meaty roles, gives Laurie a light/humorous bent (one critic compared his movements to Chaplin). I loved Christian Bale’s take on Laurie- it will always be my fave. I thought Ronan made a great Jo; I thought the writing, then trying to publish, scenes were great additions. Pugh (who is a fresh face to me) does a great job as Amy, who is usually the sister people love to hate. Amy’s scene re: the practical side of marriage stands out in my mind. The scenery, clothing (some of which was styled by the actors), and music are great- as expected. I consider this a MUST-SEE for fans of the book or the previous movies!

Re-watching Problematic Movies: Gone with the Wind (1939)

In the late ’90s, one of my history classes (in university) examined this iconic film. Our 30ish professor (like many of us) grew up watching GWTW; she considered it very problematic, yet also admired Scarlett O’Hara as an empowered woman. I recall her getting a bit emotional about the story; I’m sure there are millions of others who admired parts of this movie (and novel). Upon closer examination, we find mixed messages, not only w/ regard to history and slavery, but re: war, social codes, love, and marriage.

I’ll think about that tomorrow. -Scarlett’s motto

No doubt this movie (made for less than $4M) was a technical feat! Students of film have been studying it for decades; on recent viewing, I was esp. struck by how well light and shadow were used (production design). There are 50+ speaking roles and 2,400 extras. Out of the 1,400 actresses interviewed for the part of Scarlett, 400 were asked to do readings. Here are some of the actresses considered for the role (who screen tested): Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur, and Joan Bennett. GWTW also used special effects, most notably the burning of Atlanta. Scarlett is described as having green eyes; Leigh’s eye color was corrected (post-production) from blue to green. As she could not dance, Leigh has a body double in the charity auction ball scene. One thing which amazed my mom, but it’s true- Leigh tightened her corset to 18″ (as Scarlett comments)!

Did you know GWTW went through several directors? David O. Selznick (producer) fired George Cukor as director b/c (as a gay man), Selznick though he would be unable to properly direct love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett. Cukor (who had a reputation of getting strong performances from women) continued to privately coach both Leigh and de Havilland on weekends. The scene where Mammy reprimands Scarlett for not eating is one of the few remaining in the final film shot by Cukor. Leigh wasn’t happy w/ macho director Victor Fleming’s style; when she asked for constructive advice, he said to “take the script and stick it up her royal British ass.” Of course, classic movie fans know that Leigh was involved w/ Laurence Olivier during this time; she must’ve gotten a lot of advice from him!

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865), which both set slaves free, have minimal effects on the plot of GWTW. The house servants at Tara (Mammy, Pork, Prissy and Uncle Peter) continue to serve the same masters and their families. We are to assume that they don’t want to leave or have nowhere to go. Scarlett thinks to herself (in the novel): “There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy.” If this isn’t romanticizing “the Old South” (antebellum) days, then I don’t know what is!

What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things, and I ain’t noticed Mr. Ashley asking for to marry you. -Mammy (telling it like it is) to Scarlett

When I watched it as a kid, I was surprised to see that Mammy was more concerned w/ propriety than Scarlett; I also saw that she was crucial to this story and has some memorable lines. After Scarlett and Rhett marry, he admits to his new wife that he wants Mammy’s good opinion. As an adult, I realized that- of course- Mammy had to know all the rules which governed the behavior of young ladies! Her life was inextricably tied w/ that of her owners, the O’Haras, and primarily Scarlett. Miss Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, seems to have been the ideal woman in Mammy’s eyes; Scarlett doesn’t quite measure up.

The fact that Hattie McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in (segregated) Atlanta outraged her friend Clark Gable; he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she could attend. McDaniel (in her mid-40s) became the first African-American to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award. She was criticized by some African-Americans; she commented that she’d “rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” Before she hit the big screen, McDaniel had a career as a singer, traveling across the South (as many black performers did in the early 1900s). Butterfly McQueen (who played Prissy) said that her stereotypical role totally put her off acting. Who could blame her!? Prissy is characterized as lazy and deceitful. In one scene, Scarlett slaps her hard on the face- ouch! McQueen went on to pursue graduate education in Political Science.

On my recent re-watch, I noticed that the field foreman from Tara, Big Sam (Everett Brown), was given two memorable scenes. Big Sam is walking through Atlanta (w/ his fellow male slaves) on the way to digging ditches for the Confederate Army. He is spotted by (a very excited) Scarlett; they catch up on news from Tara. Later on (after the Civil War), Big Sam is the one who rescues Scarlett after she is attacked by a white man while driving her buggy through the “shanty town.” He recognizes her voice, runs to the road, and beats up the would-be robber- what a heroic moment!

I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance. -Rhett comments to gentleman gathered together for the ball at Twelve Oaks

One of the main reasons to watch GWTW is Gable (then in his late 30s); he is full of charm, danger, mischief, and (after Bonnie is born)- a bit of vulnerability. As my dad commented years ago: “Why is Scarlett obsessed w/ Ashley when Rhett is around!?” Though he’s not gung-ho about the war (neither is Ashley), Rhett does eventually succeed as a “blockade runner.” Rhett is not about “the cause” (slavery), he’s in it for profit and excitement. After the burning of Atlanta, he joins “the lost cause.” Once their marriage grows sour, the troubled (and potentially violent) side of Rhett emerges. Modern audiences may cringe at the infamous (and quite disturbing) scene where he carries Scarlett up a long stairway, saying he “won’t be shut out” (of her bedroom) one night.

Author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler was Basil Rathbone. The only four actors David O. Selznick seriously considered for the role were Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. The chief impediment to Gable’s casting was his MGM contract; this was the era of contract players. He was not drawn to the material, didn’t see himself in a period film, and doubted that he could live up to the public’s anticipation. He was persuaded by a $50,000 bonus, which would enable him to divorce his second wife and marry actress Carole Lombard. Gable disliked his most famous film, which he called “a woman’s picture.” Leigh said she hated kissing Gable b/c of his bad breath. He was rumored to have false teeth (a result of too much smoking). Gable would sometimes eat garlic before his kissing scenes w/ Leigh- ugh!

Open your eyes and look at me. No, I don’t think I will kiss you. Although you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how. -Rhett says to Scarlett (after he returns from Paris)

Selznick always wanted Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes, but Howard felt that he was too old (the character was supposed to be about 21 at the start of the film). My dad agrees w/ that! Howard wore extra makeup and a hairpiece to make him appear younger. Selznick was only able to persuade him to take the part by offering him a producer credit on Intermezzo (1939). Vincent Price, Dennis Morgan, Douglass Montgomery, and Melvyn Douglas were among the actors who tested for the part of Ashley. Many viewers on Twitter (during my re-watch) were annoyed w/ the fact that Howard kept his English accent. Also, some women noted that he was a jerk for “giving Scarlett hope” and “leading her on” in several scenes. I realized that scene where Ashley and Scarlett talk re: maybe running away from Tara (and their responsibilities) was done very well- acting and the look of it.

While Scarlett is colorful/rebellious/independent, Ashley’s cousin/wife, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), is the epitome of a demure/calm/traditional lady. Her hairdo is simple (no curls), she dresses plainly (not seeking attention from men), and is 100% devoted to just one man- Ashley. Others (incl. elders of her society) look to her to determine what is “proper.” Melanie is selfless and giving (tending to wounded soldiers w/o complaint); Scarlett is selfish (wanting to run away from nursing, marrying her sister’s beau- Frank Kennedy- for his money, etc.)

In one memorable scene, when a Union soldier comes to rob Tara, Melanie (weak after giving birth) grabs a sword and clambers down the stairs in an effort to help Scarlett. There is a moral strength to Melanie; Scarlett (who is physically much tougher) eventually realizes that. These two women (who perhaps would be “frenemies” today) are like two sides of a coin; they have to rely on each other. In McDaniel’s pivotal scene (after the sudden death of Bonnie), Mammy cries and gently pleads: “If you can’t help us, who can? Mr. Rhett always set great store by your opinion. Please, Miss Melly.” Gable was reluctant to cry (in his following scene), but de Havilland convinced him that it would be the right thing to do for his character.

SPOILER-FREE Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

This French film (in limited release in the U.S.) was runner-up at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; the South Korean film- Parasite- was the winner. It is written/directed by a woman (Celine Sciamma) and focuses on the love between two women living in 18th century France- an independent/well-traveled painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and a noblewoman educated in a convent, Heloise (Adele Haenel). It also has much to say about being a female artist, as well as the power of bonds formed between women (as friends across social classes). Through research, Sciamma discovered that there were hundreds of women who not only posed as models- they were also painters in this time period.

Marianne travels to the remote island of Brittany where she has been hired by La Comtesse (model turned actress Valeria Golino- now in her mid-50s) to paint a portrait. The subject will be her daughter, Heloise, who is betrothed to a nobleman in Italy; this stranger will marry her if he likes the picture. This was commonly done in this time; in S3 E6 of The Tudors (Search for a New Queen), Henry VIII has Hans Holbein- the most famous portrait artist of that time- paint a potential spouse, Anne of Cleves. There was a painter who came before Marianne, but his work was unfinished; Heloise refused to pose. La Comtesse says that the work must be done in secret; Heloise is told that Marianne is a companion for walks. Marianne settles into a small parlor on the first floor w/ her supplies; she learns a bit more about the situation from a young maid in the household, Sophie (Luana Bajrami).

This is an unique film that has been loved by many critics; the theater was mostly filled when my friend and I saw it last weekend. Time is taken to build up the characters and move the story forward; it has a powerful payoff. I was surprised to be feeling emotional in the last act; I’ve seen many films, but not quite like this! There is no musical score, aside from one song. As several critics noted, every shot looks like a painting. The co-leads seem to be opposites, at first, w/ Marianne as the dominant (more interesting) character. In time, they are seen as equals; both are strong-willed individuals who chafe against the limitations placed upon them. The actors have terrific chemistry together! The love scenes are done in a sensitive manner; this is the (rare) female gaze in cinema. There is also much natural beauty to admire- ocean waves, towering cliffs, and untouched beaches.