A group of grad students visits an isolated Swedish community for a ritual that takes place once every 90 years.
Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, and Vilhelm Blomgren
Review by Jon Kissel
Grief as a motivating theme in horror movies has been a dominant trend, especially amongst the arthouse horror genre of which Midsommar is a part. Directed by Ari Aster, Midsommar is the follow-up to Hereditary, his debut film that opens with a funeral and features a few more before the end credits. Before Aster broke out, he was preceded by The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, and The Witch, all of which background some unspeakable loss in their characters’ lives and then either compound that trauma or personify it in some terrifying visage. It’s not like this is a new development, as you can’t tell a ghost story without a dead body, but the last several years have accentuated emotional rawness and heightened feelings of dread over horror’s usual jump scares, both tactics that make what’s viewed as a B-genre more meaningful. There’s plenty of meaning to be found on the walls and in the background of Midsommar, a film that combines its thinking on grief with a cult, something that always sparks my interest. Aster doesn’t quite top himself after the intensity of Hereditary, but he’s two-for-two thus far, and just as able to create tension in broad daylight as he was in Hereditary’s pitch black.
Someone’s going to make a great legal thriller one day about the Satanic Panic, wherein delirious fears of devil worship combined with quack psychology and a gullible justice system to send people to jail on made-up charges. No one’s done it yet on the feature level, though there’s been strong Satanic Panic-adjacent documentaries like the ones about the West Memphis Three. Pre-Hail Satan, director Penny Lane’s first impulse was to make just such a documentary, but the devoted and earnest outcasts of the Satanic Temple caught her attention instead. The resulting effort is perhaps the first evangelizing documentary, or at least the first one that’s ever worked on me. Hail Satan presents such an inspiring vision of countering credulousness and theocracy that I wonder if this is the same feeling morons experience when they babble in pieced-together baby talk, or, as they would say, speak in tongues. Based on the transgressive thrill the film gives me every time someone says Hail Satan, I think the church might’ve just gained a convert.
Martin Scorsese’s 2019 has found the hall-of-fame director in the center of two of the biggest concerns in the cinematic world. His thoughtful and high-minded discourse about where superhero movies fall in the film landscape endeared him to every cinephile concerned about monopoly power and the worrying trend of anonymous fans sticking up for multi-billion corporations. His choice to make his latest film with Netflix put him on the opposite side of the purists, though it’s hard to imagine a studio financing a $160 million, 209 minute epic that’s far away from the perversely enticing boisterousness of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street. A still-vital director wading into so many corners of the cultural landscape makes Scorsese a worthy spokesman for American film, especially when he has the goods to back up his talk. The Irishman places Scorsese as the driving force behind one of 2019’s best films, though anytime he makes something new, it’s likely to be in that conversation. What’s surprising is how viciously fanboys have attacked Scorsese’s eminently fair arguments. What’s unsurprising is that one of the medium’s best creators has once again made a masterpiece.
Marriage Story isn’t the first time director Noah Baumbach has taken instances from his life and slapped them onscreen. In The Squid and the Whale, a literary NYC couple divorces just as Baumbach’s parents did and the teenaged kids have to deal with it. Subsequent films of his like While We’re Young and The Meyerowitz Stories are surely infused with Baumbach’s relationship to the younger generation that he’s surrounded by in Brooklyn or with the rest of his family. I’ve seen most of Baumbach’s filmography, and while there’s always some sense of the man himself, especially in the non-Greta Gerwig collaborations, Marriage Story is the one that feels the most raw and real. Baumbach divorced actor Jennifer Jason Leigh in the early 2010’s, and there was likely a point in that three-year process that he pulled out a notepad and started making observations. By engaging in such intense self-examination and writing characters that do the same, Baumbach does that old thing of making the specific into the universal, of finding one couple’s peculiar problems and distilling them into broadly relatable fears and insecurities that most people, married or no, likely have.
To a greater or lesser extent, all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies have been partly about movies, or his life as viewed through the prism of movies. Reservoir Dogs is about acting and performance, and Inglourious Basterds is about film being the literal weapon that topples fascism. His characters talk about movies, and model themselves after other fictional characters. Despite Tarantino’s obsession with cinema, none of his work has featured characters who actively work in the movie business, with the odd exception of Basterds’ Goebbels. Tarantino’s filmography, now supposedly with only one film left to go, would feel incomplete if he didn’t put aside his criminal/assassin/historical surrogates and just make a movie about actors already. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a title befitting a man constantly making references and allusions to days of cinema past, sees Tarantino do exactly that as he indulges in a nostalgic journey into mindless TV serials and B-movies filmed on dingy backlots. Despite functioning as a potentially infantile time travel device into a hazy period Tarantino missed out on, the film’s low-stakes setting allows him to do what he does best without having to worry about outbursts of violence, resulting in perhaps in his most mature and meaningful film.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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