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MIDSOMMAR (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW – AMAZING FILMMAKING LET DOWN BY WEAK STORYTELLING!

MIDSOMMAR (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Written and directed by: Ari Aster

Produced by: Lars Knudsen, Patrik Andersson

Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter etc.

Music: The Haxen Cloak

Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Midsommar (2019), is ultra-talented filmmaker Ari Aster’s second feature film. His first Hereditary (2018), was two-thirds domestic horror masterpiece and one-third insane, symbolic, nonsensical and demonic denouement. Both films have a lot in common. Both have communes or cults at the centre led by strong matriarchal figures. Both find seemingly innocent characters suffering from grief being lured to a fateful demise. Both have incredibly rich visual systems full of striking imagery, sudden violence and mythological folklore. Both, especially Midsommar (2019), are overlong, pretentious and indulgent B-movie stories masquerading as art.

I have to say, and I am not coming from simply a mainstream perspective, Ari Aster is a film artist. However, unlike many great film artists he has, in my opinion, not managed to marry his vision with coherent and emotionally powerful storytelling. Midsommar, for example, takes an age to kick its narrative into gear and when it finally gets started it drags and drags and drags. How many long, drifting tracking master shots can you abide? How many drawn-out-so-pleased-with-myself takes do you have the patience for? Well, get a strong coffee because when the story cries out for pace, Aster puts the brakes on, marvelling in his own indulgent genius. I might add that a plethora of characters screaming and crying does not make good drama either, unless there is sufficient context.

The narrative is very simple. In a nutshell, it’s Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) meets British horror classic The Wicker Man (1973). Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter are college students who take a summer break to experience a communal pageant in rural Sweden. While they are PHD students they are not particularly intelligent given the choices they make later in the film.

Moreover, aside from Pugh’s grief-stricken Dani, the script doesn’t particularly imbue them with much in the way of empathetic characterisation. Indeed, the film relies on Pugh’s dominant performance to create emotion for our protagonists. Aside from providing some comic relief there is no actual point to Will Poulter’s character at all. Lastly, there is some absolutely terrible dialogue throughout this film too.

As the film crawls along slowly, it’s reliant on the music to inform us we’re meant to be scared. Then when the gore does kick in during a particularly shocking ritual, I was almost falling asleep. Don’t get me wrong the production design is flawless with an amazing setting and incredible concepts from Aster. The death and torture scenes are particularly memorable. However, the overall pace and rhythm of the film is so bloody slow I just did not care about anyone by the end.

I don’t mind methodical films establishing dread and psychological fear, but I think Aster has been watching too many Kubrick films. Aster seems to believe slow equals art. What Kubrick did though was usually to have characters that were engaging. They may not have been likeable, but Kubrick’s characters hit you in the heart and mind. Not since The Blair Witch Project (1999) have I wanted such dumb characters (Pugh aside) to die so painfully in a horror film. Likewise, the characters in the Swedish commune are mere ciphers of Aster’s fantasy horror and two-dimensional at best.

Visually stunning Midsommar (2019), will no doubt impress critics and other reviewers. However, at nearly two-and-a-half hours it’s an indulgent-arty-collage-of-film-masquerading-as-therapy. The ending was so loopy that the audience I was with were laughing at how ridiculous it was. Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ aim, but I’m not so sure. Yes, I get that this is meant to be allegorical and symbolic about grief and guilt and religion and a relationship break-up and fate and cultural differences. Furthermore, I get the intellectual depth of the themes on show, but Aster tortures the audience as much as his characters. Mostly, it just doesn’t take so long to tell this kind of derivative narrative, however beautiful and artistic the film is presented.

Mark: 6 out of 11

THE ROMANOFFS (2018) – AMAZON TV REVIEW

THE ROMANOFFS (2018) – AMAZON TV REVIEW

Created and directed by: Matthew Weiner

Writer(s): Matthew Weiner, Michael Goldbach, Mary Sweeney, Semi Challas, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Donald Joh, Kris Turner Towner etc.

Composers: Anton Sanko, David Carbonara, Giona Ostinelli, Sonya Belousova, Marcelo Zarvos etc.

Cinematography: Christopher Manley

Original Network: Amazon Studios

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Matthew Weiner and his production team were behind one of the most brilliant television series of recent years in Mad Men. The quality of writing, directing, acting, art direction and attention to period detail on that show was incredibly rich. Overall, Mad Men wasn’t about big surprises and massive plot twists, but rather strong characterisation, evocation of an era and dense analysis of existential moments within romantic, family and industrial relationships.

Weiner’s next project The Romanoffs, finds him in a similar character driven mode. It’s a contemporary anthology series about people who are descendants of the Russian Royal family. The eight stories loosely connect but mainly stand alone, dealing with the lives, loves, turmoil and deaths of privileged people. As such mostly first world and high class problems abide. Altogether, the productions are expertly presented with Amazon clearly throwing a lot of money at them.

As they are self-contained narratives I have decided to order them in personal preference, rather than Amazon’s air order. Thus, here are said mini-reviews with usual marks out of eleven.

THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING (EPISODE 8)

Main cast: Hugh Skinner, Hera Hilmar, Ben Miles, JJ Feild

This is the final story in the series and they saved the best until last. It is an incredibly dark exploration of family conflict that traverses the life of Hugh Skinner’s tragic Simon Romanov. Flash-backs entwine with flash-backs as his story unfolds from various perspectives. The script is incredible and certainly one of the best stories I have seen all year.

Mark: 10 out of 11

HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE (EPISODE 3)

Main cast: Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Paul Reiser

This is an absolutely brilliant satire about the filmmaking process. It finds Hendricks’ movie star on the crazy set of Isabelle Huppert’s eccentric director. The narrative channels horror, surrealist, comedy, drama and romance genres with a complex screenplay. Huppert and Hendricks are superb; as is the jaw-dropping ending!

Mark: 9 out of 11

BRIGHT AND HIGH CIRCLE (EPISODE 5)

Main cast: Diane Lane, Ron Livingston, David Patton

Thematically very strong, the story finds Diane Lane and Ron Livingston as wealthy parents whose children may or may not have been abused by their piano teacher. It’s a subtle exploration of middle class paranoia and universal fear glued together by a superlative performance from Lane.

Mark: 8 out of 11

END OF THE LINE (EPISODE 7)

Main Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Jay R. Ferguson, Annet Mahendru

Like the very watchable Netflix film Private LIves (2018), this story finds Kathryn Hahn portraying another parent desperate for a child. Hahn and her husband, Ferguson, travel to Vladivostock to adopt a Russian child and face all manner of cultural, geographical, health and language barriers. It’s an absorbing piece which really drags you in but ultimately the drama felt protracted by the end.

Mark: 7.5 out of 11

PANORAMA (EPISODE 6)

Main cast: Radha Mitchell, Juan Pable Castaneda, Griffin Dunne

More travelogue and history lesson with a mild romantic drama added, this story promises much but peters out by the end. Castaneda’s journalist investigates medical malpractice but it’s left to Radha Mitchell and the wonderful setting of Mexico City to provide the emotional depth.

Mark: 7 out of 11

THE VIOLET HOUR (EPISODE 1)

Main cast: Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller, Louise Bourgoin, Ines Melab

What starts off as a fascinating culture clash dramedy between an elderly racist and her Muslim carer, strangely left-turns into an tacked-on romance story. The cast are excellent and there’s some fine dialogue but it felt unbelievable toward the end for me.

Mark: 6.5 out of 11

THE ROYAL WE (EPISODE 2)

Main cast: Kerry Bishe, Corey Stoll, Janet Montgomery

Mid-life crises and male “seven-year itches” drive the narrative as a bunch of selfish and adulterous actions made me hate Stoll’s character. The Jury Service scenes are interesting but aside from Kerry Bishe’s decent character, I found this a painful way to spend eighty-or-so minutes.

Mark: 6 out of 11

EXPECTATION (EPISODE 4)

Main cast: Amanda Peet, Emily Rudd, John Slattery

Amanda Peet’s character has a bad day – THE END! Even the appearance of the mercurial John Slattery cannot save this disappointingly empty story.

Mark: 4 out of 11