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!

Rewatch: Notorious (1946) starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, & Claude Rains

Following the conviction of her (German) father for treason, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in her early 30s) takes to heavy drinking and partying. One night, she meets a stranger at her bungalow in Miami (a party crasher). They drink long into the night (after her pals leave or fall asleep drunk), and she insists on going on a drive. When Alicia’s car is stopped for speeding and swerving on the highway, the stranger shows the cop his ID. The cop salutes him and quickly drives off, issuing her no ticket. Alicia gets very angry and combative when she realizes that her passenger is a government agent, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant).

The next morning, he reveals that the feds have been bugging her house for 3 mos; she shared the place with her father. We also discover that Alicia is patriotic (she had an American mother and adopted the US as her homeland) and detests the doings of her father. The feds want Alicia to spy on some of her father’s old (Nazi) friends operating in Brazil. They land in Rio, Alicia quits drinking, and over a week, she and Devlin develop feelings for each other. She says “I love you” to him, but he doesn’t say those exact words back. They plan to have a romantic chicken dinner together (in her apartment), but Devlin is called away.

When Devlin goes to see his boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), he learns details about the mission which has been chosen for Alicia. His heart sinks- she will have to seduce a wealthy and powerful man, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who used to have feelings for her. The feds seem to think this will be an easy task for a woman (“not a lady”) like Alicia, who is “notorious” not only for her father’s crimes, but her wild lifestyle.

Wow, who knew Alfred Hitchcock could do romance this well!? It helps that he has megastar (and gorgeous) co-leads in Grant and Bergman who help to anchor this story. When these two actors are close- it’s like sparks are flying onscreen! Bergman is playing against type here (as some critics have noted). She looks tired, hungover, and disheveled the morning after she meets Devlin. Grant is quite reined in (as his character demands), so you need to focus on his eyes and the (small) expressions of his face. If you’ve only seen younger (he’s 42 here) and comedic Grant movies, you’re esp. in for a treat.

Hitch does a lot of things which reveal him to be “the master of suspense”- building tension w/ music, unique takes on close-ups, playing w/ shadows, and the trope of the controlling mother (played here by a formidable-looking Austrian theater actress- Leopoldine Konstantin). Even mundane domestic moments in the Sebastian mansion are made suspenseful, thanks to the director’s choices. The screenplay (which is lean, yet still gripping) by Ben Hecht scored an Academy Award nomination. Character is revealed not only through what is said, but w/ tone and action. Some embraces, kisses, and laughs conceal the truth, others reveal the truth. After all, Alicia and Devlin hide their love for each other, b/c of the mission and- like ordinary people- b/c they’re afraid of getting hurt.

The Woman in the Window (1944) & Scarlet Street (1945) starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, & Dan Duryea

These two films by Fritz Lang star the multi-faceted Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett (perhaps best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend), and character actor Dan Duryea. Lang was a half-Jewish refugee from Austria who fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s. Growing up w/ German cinema, Lang was “concerned w/ symbolism and good and evil existing w/in one character” (as Barbara Bordwell McGrew, former film instructor at Burlington College explained). Double Indemnity (where Edward G. Robinson played a fine supporting role), Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Phantom Lady were all successful noir films released in 1944. “This led the way for more dark, mature stories to be told in Hollywood,” Eddie Muller (host of Noir Alley on TCM) commented.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Mild-mannered Gotham College professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) and his two close friends (a district attorney and a medical doctor) become obsessed with the portrait of a woman in the window beside their men’s club. After dinner and drinks at the club, his friends head off to a burlesque show. Wanley decides to read for a while and seems to doze off. Late that night, he meets the woman, Alice Reed (Bennett), while admiring her portrait, and ends up in her apartment. While they chat and drink champagne, a man bursts in and misinterprets the situation. This intruder lunges at the professor and a fight ensues where the other man is killed. In order to protect his reputation, Wanley agrees to dump the body and help cover up the killing.

The Woman in the Window is considered to be one of the most significant movies in the film noir genre. It’s a film has many key noir ingredients: man meets woman and finds his life turned upside down, shady characters, a killing, shadows and darkness, and an atmosphere heavy w/ suspense. At its core, the film is about the dangers of stepping out of one’s normal life. The cast is very strong; Robinson, Bennett and Duryea re-team with Lang the following year. As on reviewer on IMDB noted: “The Woman in the Window seems to say that evil only lives when people look hard enough for it – practically a ‘film noir’ rebuttal.” The ending (which some liked, yet modern audiences may think a bit cheesy) had to be that way b/c of the Production Codes of that time.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a bank cashier who is given a gold watch by his boss for 25 years of honest service. Chris is kind of an Everyman who is respected by his peers, yet has a boring life w/ his loud/shrewish wife in Brooklyn. Chris has a love of beauty and painting (which he does on Sundays). One rainy late night, he sees a young, beautiful woman being beaten by a man on the street in Greenwich Village. He stops the villain and saves this (supposed) damsel in distress. In no time, he falls desperately in love w/ this woman- a struggling actress named Katherine March (Bennett). Kitty (her nickname) gets to know more about his inner life and starts making demands (w/ tears, saying how she is so poor). As Chris talks re: his love of art on their dates, Kitty assumes that he is wealthy.

According to Ben Mankiewicz on TCM, when first released, local censor boards in New York, Milwaukee and Atlanta banned this film entirely, for being “licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community.” Though this may seem tame to (modern) audiences, there are themes of dominance and submission in this film. Chris’ wife, Adele, bosses him around at every turn. On the other hand, Kitty, allows herself to be abused (emotionally and physically) by her fiance- Johnny Prince (Duryea). Her friend/roommate, Millie, keeps telling Kitty that he is no good, but she doesn’t listen. In her mind, this is “love” and Millie “doesn’t understand.”

Scarlet Street is compelling and unpredictable; Lang truly knows how to keep the audience hooked, even in quiet moments. “The film is full of irony throughout (ironically made by a non-American),” as one reviewer wrote on IMDB. The audience is never able to guess what’s around the corner. The movie is packed with stand out moments, but the ending is terrific. The atmosphere that Lang creates draws you in, as do the fine actors (esp. Robinson as the anti-hero).

Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in one scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).

Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!