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Midsommar (2019)

10 Jul

There is a sinister characteristic that runs throughout Ari Aster’s work. The director of 2018’s landmark horrorshow Hereditary seems to embrace all things taboo and macabre.  His latest creation, Midsommar, is no different.

Mostly set in the Swedish countryside, the film follows a couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) as they try and process Dani’s recent family trauma by attending a pagan summer solstice festival.  Strange occurrences start to make the two suspicious of the festival group, and the couple soon have to reckon with not only the problematic aspects of their own relationship, but also disturbing history and traditions of the reclusive commune.

Midsommar is not your typical horror movie; in fact, it might not even be one at all. Aster shuns most tropes of the genre here, opting instead for a disturbing, slow-burning psychodrama about a relationship in chaos. In Hereditary, Aster’s more conventional take, the long shots and empty atmospheric scenes lessened the overall impact of the film’s more truly shocking moments. Here, with Midsommar, this slow kind of editing plays up the film’s strengths, and deepens the emotional beats that detail the character’s headspace.

Horror fans should feel instantly at home with the texture and shape of Midsommar; Aster does enough to play the genre’s narrative notes in a way that still feels fresh and exciting. Ever the provocateur, there is a perverse sense of accomplishment that seems a part of Midsommar’s shell shock; Aster knows exactly what gets under the skin and delivers it to us tenfold. Part of the film’s ability to effect lies in it’s beautiful contrast between the ugly and the sublime elements of both the movie’s unique environment and the ritualistic traditions of the commune. The cinematography works wonders here, with a bright blue, green, and white palette coloring scenes so brightly lit you feel like squinting.

Most surprisingly, Midsommar is quite funny. Smart amounts of humor are dabbled in and out of the script which adds again to the film’s bold contrasting components and the audience’s eventual discomfort. This isn’t the campy, popcorn-munching stuff of Zombieland or Evil Dead fame; what’s most haunting here is that both the comedic and horror aspects feel so intimate and real. All performances are on point, but in particular Florence Pugh steals the show, giving an impressively grounded portrayal of someone in an extended state of crisis. Over the course of the movie, we explore the world of the Swedish commune through the POV of our star couple, sometimes separate, though more often than not from the perspective of Dani. We feel her psyche heat up into a frenzy, fueled by both her past trauma and her current relationship’s turmoil (and the occasional hallucinogen). As layer by layer of the festival gets exposed, the audience’s anticipation and dread gains more weight, building up finally to a fated but terrifying destination.

Bottom Line: While on paper, Midsommar seems like familiar territory, the stylish execution of the drama and weighted anticipation of mystery make for a singular moviegoing experience that is hard to shake. 

Rating: 7.6/10

Film recipe: The Wickerman (1973) + Magic Magic + Antichrist 

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

14 Jun

American indie darling Jim Jarmusch enters genre territory for arguably his first time in The Dead Don’t Die with frequent collaborators Bill Murray and Tom Waits in tow. Known for his poetic portrayals of subtle human interactions, Jarmusch would seem, on paper anyway, to be an obvious mismatch for taking on a horror-comedy about zombies eating their way through a rural Pennsylvania town, and the mixed reaction from its Cannes premiere had me less-than-enthused.  Fortunately, the acclaimed director leans into the material with a self-aware smirk and gives the colorful cast of characters room to breath and embrace the absurd.

The film opens with a country radio track (an appropriately-titled song bearing the same name as the film) that soon gives way to a breaking news alert: the moon has been knocked off its axis and is affecting the earth in all sorts of spooky ways including – you guessed it – zombies.

Along with the aforementioned Murray and Waits, the film boasts what has to be one of the best ensembles of the year. Adam Driver, Selena Gomez, Chloe Sevingy, Danny Glover, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, even Iggy Pop and RZA make an appearance.  Jarmusch, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, gives in to his inner camp sensibilities with the comedy and delivers some of the best bits tongue-in-cheek.

The Dead Don’t Die is stacked with sly pop culture references and meta commentary. Hell, there is even a near-perfect caricature of the film bro here (played brilliantly by Caleb Landry Jones) who only seems to be missing his Criterion Collection pins. Puns, winks, and in-jokes are drawn out almost to a fault which would become annoying if not for the sardonic chemistry between the cast members.  Driver and Murray are particularly great together, playing up the buddy-cop moments with ease.

There are a few left-turns in the script for sure, and some of the dad-joke-worthy moments induce more groans than laughs. Still, there is no denying the sense of charm on display here, and most notably The Dead Don’t Die knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be and hits all the right notes with total consistency.

Bottom Line: Delightfully absurd and genuinely funny, The Dead Don’t Die shows Jarmusch embracing the best of his comedic sensibilities and plays perfectly to its audience’s expectations. 

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: What We Do In The Shadows + Zombieland 

2018 year end wrap up

1 Jan

Another year. Another list. 

 

Here is a video where I countdown my favourites from the year in cinema.

 

 

If you are, let’s say, at work or perhaps in the woods with limited data connection, or in another environment where watching a video would be inappropriate here are my top 25 films of 2018:

 

25- Have A Nice Day 

24- Thunder Road

23- Isle Of Dogs 

22- Juliet Naked

21- First Reformed 

20- Revenge

19- Unsane

18- Sicario 2  

17- Phantom Thread

16- Mandy

15- Hereditary

14- Assassination Nation 

13- Mid 90’s

12- Night Comes On

11- 8th Grade

10- The Sisters Brothers

9- The Favourite 

8- Sorry To Bother You

7- Roma

6- White Rabbit 

5- Support The Girls

4- Vox Lux

3- You Were Never Really Here

2- Annihilation

1- Suspiria 

 

Looking forward to 2019 and we have some good stuff on the horizon. Here are my most anticipated films of 2019:

 

10 – The Nightingale 

Why? Jennifer Kent proved she would be a major horror talent to keep an eye on within the genre with her stunning debut The Babadook, so seeing what she does on a bigger scale should be fascinating.

Release Date: Unknown 

9 – Sound of Metal 

Why? Derek Cianfrance has always chosen interesting projects and so it’s no surprise that his discarded script now being directed by frequent writer/collaborator Darius Marder would catch my attention.

Release Date: fall? 

 

8- JoJo Rabbit 

Why? The creative mind behind the best entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Thor: Ragnarok), What We Do In The Shadows, and Flight Of The Conchords is back with a new project surrounding a young boy and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. A master of dark comedy, Taika Waititi is never one to disappoint.

Release date: fall? 

7- Uncut Gems 

Why? The Safdie Brothers are back!! After the 1-2 punch of Heaven Knows What and Good Time, we see the siblings direct a crime thriller starring Adam Sandler of all people?? Hell, if it worked for Noah Baumbach, a Sandler-against-type can work for anyone.

Release date: Late summer?

6 – Ad Astra 

Why? A sprawling, big-budget space epic starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland?? Count me in. Directed by James Gray, this one will hopefully be joining the likes of Chris Nolan’s Interstellar and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity as a modern sci-fi classic.

Release date: Wide on May 24 

5- Climax

Why? Because it’s the new Gaspar Noe film and the reception from its festival bow at Cannes earlier this year is beyond positive. As one of cinema’s most interesting provocateurs, you can expect something stylish, loud, and unpredictable.

Release date: March 1 

4- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Why? A new Tarantino film is always cause for excitement, but this one – a story involving the infamous Manson murders from the 70’s – seems to have the most impressive ensemble cast of any Tarantino to date.

Release date: July 26

3- Velvet Buzzsaw

Why? Nightcrawler was one of the best hidden gems of 2014. A searing satire of Los Angeles culture and one of the absolute best films to truly show off Jake Gyllenhaal‘s acting prowess. The noted thespian is back again, joining forces with director Dan Gilroy in another satire/horror/wtf-freak fest centered around the LA art scene.

Release date: Feb 1st on Netflix

2- US

Why? Jordan Peele’s marvelous Get Out seemed to arrive at just the right time to encapsulate the post-Trump cultural zeitgeist. His follow-up seems more geared to be a straight-up horror flick compared to the zany and unpredictable satire piece that made Get Out such a powerful viewing experience. Peele has said his influences for this project range from The Shining to Funny Games to Martyrs. Color me intrigued.

Release date: March 15 

1- The Irishman 

Why? I’ve had this one on my lists for a while now. Roma proved the streaming giant Netflix can be taken seriously as a legit platform for awards-contenders, and this long-gestating project from Martin Scorsese should hopefully be worth the wait.

Release date: who knows? Netflix can’t possibly put this off for another year can they?? Perhaps the company will pull a “Cloverfield Paradox” and drop the thing without warning right after the superbowl. Your guess is as good as mine. 

 

Sorry To Bother You (Sundance 2018)

13 Jul

After spending years in development hell, rapper-turned-director Boots Riley‘s dark satire Sorry To Bother You finally hit the big screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of the buzziest titles of the festival.

Set in a not-too-distant-future of Oakland, the film follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they try to save up cash with plans to finally move out of Cassius’ uncle’s garage. Cassius takes up a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles to make sales until he discovers the magic secret: putting on his “white voice” when talking with potential customers.  Cue the post-Obama racial satire as Cassius quickly climbs the ranks of telemarketing and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets brought on by corporate figurehead Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer).

Shot on a minimal budget and produced with the self-described “stone-soup” method (every new crew member brings something big to the table to collaborate on) Sorry To Bother You has a renegade punk vibe embedded within its DNA. Thompson and Stanfield both give incredibly bold performances and help the more outlandish lines of dialogue seem grounded within the film’s unique reality.  A supporting cast with Danny Glover, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and voicework by Patton Oswalt and David Cross help create the vividly colorful world the film lives in.

It becomes apparent during the first 15 minutes that writer/director Boots Riley has stacked his script full of details that lift the film above a cultural pedestal and into a world of its own. The story goes from being socially provocative to radically ambitious to levels of Charlie Kauffman-esc meta-satire referencing everything from social activist culture to gentrification to celebrity status in the digital age to the meme-ification of fake news to the ever-present display of corporate America. Seriously, there are more ideas floated around in the first act of Sorry To Bother You than you will find in the most viral of Ted Talks.  Not all of the cultural commentary sticks however, and some ideas feel senselessly shoehorned into the plot for little or no reason. Still, Riley clearly has a passion for his chaotic mess, and even in its most confusing or cartoonish moments Sorry To Bother You thrives off its ever-emanating creative energy and ambition. Coincidentally, this unique gem ends up being a lot of fun in the process.

Bottom Line: While Sorry To Bother You makes more sense as a haphazard cultural collage than a narrative film, the ideological soup the film creates is impressively ambitious and wildly entertaining. 

Rating: 8.2/10 

Film Recipe: Get Out + Being John Malkovich + Office Space + Dear White People

Hereditary (2018)

9 Jun

Judging from the title alone, you wouldn’t think a movie called Hereditary would be the kind of thing to keep you wide awake at night thinking demons have run amok in your house. Though it was appropriately placed in the Midnight section for its premier at this year’s Sundance, the description in the film guide made it seem like a dysfunctional family indie drama in the same vein as something like The Squid and the Whale. That is not the case. Make no mistake, this film fits squarely in the horror realm – and just might be the most eerily effective one to come along in decades.

Hereditary‘s premise is simple enough: after the untimely death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to mend the emotional gaps with her strained and distant family. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) though loving, is unsupportive and detached while her adolescent son Peter (Alex Wolff) tries to spend every waking moment partying with his friends and away from the family. Strangely, Annie gets closest with her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) after the funeral, though she soon learns that Charlie may have inherited a few ghastly traits from her late grandmother. Annie’s journey in discovering her family history leads her to cross paths with a spiritualist (Ann Dowd) and a few other-worldly beings.

With a runtime of over 2 hours, Hereditary feels a bit weighty from the get go and takes its time getting to the spooks. Patience is rewarded big time during a shocking mid-point twist and things really get cranked up a notch during an emotionally brutal third act. There are moments of almost-unbearable tension in Hereditary; director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski should get all the credit for their amazing work at commanding attention to various parts of the frame in the heat of the moment – even when it’s deeply troubling. Aster is particularly great at creating atmosphere and subverting audience expectations, even those who are well versed in the genre. It’s clear that the first-time director is familiar with great psychological storytellers like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Polanski; comparisons to The Shining are not that far off.

Unfortunately, the highs of the film are diluted by it’s lengthy runtime that fails to justify itself. There are too many stretched out periods of little substance in the film that drain the terrifying power from it’s better moments (of which there are more than one) so that the real terror fails to be sustained from scene-to-scene. Trim off 10 or 15 minutes and you would have a bona fide horror masterpiece – instead we have some incredibly great scenes sandwiched by lots of filler.

Still, the peaks of Hereditary are just so damn high – usually without resorting to the cheap jump scares audiences have become accustomed to. The performances are all on-point and bring a sense of realism which grounds the superstitious subject matter of spirits and demons. Newcomer Milly Shapiro, in particular, is absolutely fantastic as Charlie and steals every scene she is in. This is a bold piece of cinema, one that boils with intensity and lingers in the subconscious long after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Although the lengthy runtime tragically dampens the impact of its spookier scenes, Hereditary displays a chilling cinematic intensity and contains some of the boldest and (most importantly) scariest moments in contemporary horror.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film recipe: The Shining + Bug + Paranormal Activity 

Annihilation (2018)

23 Feb

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation cements director Alex Garland as one of the most ambitious talents in contemporary sci-fi. Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Benedict Wong, the film tells the story of Lena and Kane (Portman and Isaac, respectively), a military couple who become caught up in investigating a government-restricted ecological disaster zone titled “Area X,” where a series of mysterious events have been puzzling authorities for the past several years.  Things go from bad to worse as Lena, a microbiologist by trade and academic by profession, gradually discovers the horrific details of failed missions designed to mine Area X for clues explaining its perplexing nature.

Alex Garland, who previously wrote and directed 2015’s superb techno-thriller Ex Machinadisplays much more confidence the second time around. As with his first feature, Garland plays heavy into big philosophical ideas about the nature of mankind, only now things feel bigger, less sterile and more experimental. In the film’s first half, you get a strong sense that individual scenes have a chimerical and visionary purpose to them, one that gradually builds up to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and dread. There is a slow, meditative transition from fantasy towards nightmare in Annihilation, as characters slowly realize – along with the audience – that things in the environment aren’t quite right. Though most of the film is subtle in its examination of psychological unease, parts of the film’s latter half go into full-bore survival horror with surprisingly effective results.

Performance-wise, almost everyone is solid with Garland’s script, and thankfully many of the scientist-type movie tropes are left aside. Isaac, who previously starred in Ex Machina, is fantastic and Portman might be even better. The weak character moment comes with Jennifer Jason Leigh – an actress I’d long associated with energy and flamboyance – playing Dr. Ventress, the subdued and jaded government psychologist who is supposed to be seen as some sort of character foil to our emotionally-driven protagonist. Even more out of place is the film’s bizzare score which mixes subtle synth-work with… folksy blues guitar? Whatever shortcomings the film has on the audio side are more than made up for with Annihilation‘s unique visuals which, at times, boast some of the best sci-fi production design and visual effects since Under the Skin. 

Garland has obviously shifted away from the science-based, tech-conscious realism of Ex Machina towards something more transcendental and abstract. While I think I would have appreciated it if the film were more grounded in its dialogue, the story is wildly imaginative and itches that sweet spot in a way that only great cinema can.  Annihilation is a terribly ambitious film that was designed to inspire – and it hits the right notes more often than not.

Bottom Line: Annihilation feels a bit too weighted in fantasy rather than the gritty realism it’s aching for, but the film’s atmosphere, visuals, and ambition prove director Alex Garland has raw talent for telling engaging, thought-provoking sci-fi. 

Rating: 9.2 /10 

Film Recipe: Stalker (1979) + Arrival + The Fountain + The Thing

MOST ANTICIPATED 2018

2 Jan

After looking back on last year, and with the Sundance Film Festival right around the corner, it’s time to look ahead and see what stuff is on the horizon helping to establish 2018 as another great year in cinema. Here are the top ten films that I’m looking forward to seeing. You can check out last year’s list here.

10 – Untitled Suspiria remake/sequel 

Why? As an avid fan of the original I was one of many who rolled their eyes at the idea of yet another classic horror being remade (you can thank 2012’s The Thing, 2013’s Evil Dead and Carrie, 2015’s Poltergeist, among others). But then I heard the new project was being directed by Italian arthouse favorite Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) and it’s allegedly not so much a direct remake as it is a new take on something “inspired by the same story”. Color me intrigued.

Principal Cast: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth

Release Date:  TBA 

9 –  The Nightingale 

Why? After terrorizing audiences with the surprisingly-great Babadook, director Jennifer Kent is back with another horror thriller up her sleeves. This one is supposedly a revenge tale set in 18th century Tasmania.

Principal Cast: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin

Release Date: August 10

8 – Isle of Dogs 

Why? Everyone and their dog loves Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore) and based on the trailer, we can expect another bone-fide crowd pleaser. Get ready for a barking good time.

Principal Cast: Greta Gerwig, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray probably.

Release Date: March 23

7 – Piercing 

Why? Just when I thought I had become desensitized and jaded towards genre films, Nicolas Pesce comes along with the beautifully haunting Eyes of My Mother. While on paper this looks like another great entry into the 2018 horror slate, my gut tells me this might end up being more on the artsy side. Both Mia Wasikowska and Chris Abbot have a solid repertoire with these types of indie films and the fact it’s playing in Sundance’s Midnight section gives me solid hope.

Principal Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Chris Abbot, Laia Costa

Release Date: Sundance

6 – The Irishman

Why? Netflix is hosting the long-awaited reunion of Scorsese and De Niro (It’s been 20+ years!). While the streaming giant doesn’t have the greatest reputation of quality when it comes to original movies (looking at you Bright and War Machine), this mob drama looks like it has all the neccisary ingredients to become a major awards contender.

Principal Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannevale and other associated wiseguys

Release Date: Late 2018 or early 2019

5 – Widows 

Why? After directing one of the most powerful films of the decade (12 Years a slavebritish auteur Steve McQueen is back with a script co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).

Principal cast: Liam Neeson, Viola Davis, Robert DuVall, Colin Farrell

Release date: An awards-friendly November 16

4 – The House That Jack Built 

Why? Because it’s a Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville) film about serial killer(s?). Count me in.

Principal Cast: Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough

Release Date: TBA 

3 – Hold the Dark 

Why? Because Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) and Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore) have proven to be THE most badass team of genre filmmakers working today.

Principal Cast: Riley Keough, Alexander Skarsgard, Jeffery Wright, James Badge Dale

Release Date: TBA

2 – You Were Never Really Here 

Why? After seeing We Need To Talk About Kevin and having my soul sucked out, I was convinced Lynne Ramsay was one of the best and boldest in a new wave of dramatic directors (along with Denis Villeneuve, Michael Haneke, Steve McQueen and Paul Thomas Anderson) whose sensibilities lie somewhere in the uncomfortable middle of European neo-realism and arthouse psychodrama. Her latest received nothing but rave reviews out of Cannes where it premiered and it’s always refreshing to Joaquin Phoenix in his post-hip-hop-career.

Principal Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola

Release Date: Sundance, and then everywhere April 6

1 – Annihilation 

Why? Ex Machina became the surprise sci-fi mindmelter and one of my favorite films of 2015, and so I’ve been eagerly waiting for whatever director Alex Garland does next.  A stellar cast and intriguing premise make this an absolute must see.

Principal Cast: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Release Date: Feb 23

Of course, 2018 will likely be filled with surprises and many great unknown films I’ve yet to hear about.  Let me know what you are looking forward to seeing this year in the comments.