“It’s Sort Of A Crazy Festival. It Only Happens Every Ninety Years. Special Ceremonies And Drinking And Dressing Up…”
After a variety of thought provoking and acclaimed independent short films, director Ari Aster burst into the spotlight for audiences and critics alike last year thanks to the release of Hereditary, the spine-tingling work of desolate dread which will forever remain as one of the most terrifying experiences I have had to endure within the confines of the cinema during my life so far. As per the remit of any good filmmaker, Aster’s decision to not milk the praised poured upon him for too long results in his swift return in the form of Midsommar, a film of which Aster himself proclaims as his first “true” horror movie after declaring Hereditary nothing more than a “family drama”, albeit the most unhinged and depressing cinematic depiction of such to ever have graced this good earth, and whilst Aster’s latest does indeed obey many of the rules laid down within the confines of such a genre, Midsommar is not your average, or even mainstream, horror flick, a disturbing, surrealist and surprisingly darkly comic folk drama which continues the many thematic qualities used in Aster’s works as it brings to light notions of grief, isolation and of course, ideology and religion, for a two and a half hour marathon of madness which successfully rubber stamps Aster as one of the most masterful and original horror filmmakers working in cinema today.
Firstly, if you head into Midsommar believing that what you are going to get is simply Hereditary volume two, you will undoubtedly walk away highly disappointed, and whilst Aster’s movie begins in familiar fashion as we are introduced to Florence Pugh’s (Fighting With My Family) grieving and emotionally unstable Dani, the opening, dread-filled act is the only slice of downright terror the movie feels obligated to offer. If Hereditary could fall into the category of domesticated drama then Midsommar is essentially a two hour plus break-up movie, one which allows the audience to follow Dani, her absent boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor – Free Fire) and Will Poulter’s Mark to the very sunny, Northern area of Hårga, Sweden in order to take part in area’s midsommar celebrations as requested by Vilhelm Blomgren’s Pelle, who returns to his isolated homeland. Whilst genre fans nowadays are well versed in the way of how films with this kind of set-up ultimately pan out, the familiarities with the likes of Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror classic, The Wicker Man, and to an extent, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, are easy enough to see, but with an extended runtime and a overarching sense of head tilting madness all the way through, Aster’s latest actually bears more of a raging similarity to Luca Guadagnino’s outstanding remake of Suspiria, particularly in terms of style and pacing, but with Aster also adding a surprising touch of black comedy throughout, Midsommar is a more impressive beast the longer you think about it. Whilst not as damn right horrifying as Hereditary, Aster’s second big screen feature is an impressively un-mainstream genre delight, a superbly written, expertly acted, cult flick with jaw-dropping exploitation violence which leaves you both startled and grinning as you attempt to make sense of how exactly Midsommar should make you feel.
Overall Score: 8/10
“There Is Something Inside This House That Hates Us…”
Based upon Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel of the same name, The Little Stranger sees the return of critically acclaimed Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, a filmmaker whose previous venture in the form of Room garnered universal praise, including here at Black Ribbon, alongside a fully deserved Oscar win for Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson. With Abrahamson already being renowned for layered, thematic works of cinema which cut across a wide range of differing genres with ease, the same can be said for his latest venture, a dark, gloomy and overly Gothic portrayal of one man’s venture into the life of a secretive family burdened with privilege and wealth, yet one haunted by the faint echo of death which seems to have canvassed inside their once prestigious home. Reuniting with Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) after their work together on the comedic oddity which was 2014’s Frank, The Little Stranger does ultimately fail to live up to the excellence of Abrahamson’s previous two ventures, with a sluggish pace and lack of real narrative push surprisingly making the Irish director’s latest a real struggle for the most part, but with some rousing central performances and a fleeting number of creepy set pieces, The Little Stranger is still interesting enough to be seen.
Whilst gothic cinema is always seeped in inspiration from timeless genre classics including the likes of The Haunting and The Fall of the House of Usher from the central macabre figure of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe, Abrahamson’s movie utilises the genre conventions as a somewhat secondary device, with focus primarily on Gleeson’s Doctor Faraday, a well-spoken and educated middle class local go-to whose envy of the Ayres family and their inherited fame and fortune has troubled and haunted him since childhood. With the movie latching onto Faraday’s point of view, his attempts to embed himself into the life and love of Ruth Wilson’s (Luther) Caroline leads him to unravel secrets and mysteries gently hidden within the confines of the Ayres family home, and whilst the movie only briefly contains elements of pure, spine-tingling horror, including a brilliantly constructed final act, these moments are undoubtedly the strongest of the piece, with the familial dramas and attempts at elongated character studies which make up the bulk of the run time agonisingly dull. With Wilson the standout performer of the piece, following on from her similarly creepy performance in the little seen Netflix chiller, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Abrahamson clearly knows how to get the best out of his performers but fails, this time at least, in managing to fine tune both the pacing and tonal inconsistencies of a piece which deserved to be more rewarding.
Overall Score: 6/10
“It’s A Warzone Out There, They Are Destroying The City…”
After the early days of Near Dark and the ever enjoyable Point Break, the turn of the century has solidified Kathryn Bigelow as one of the most reliable and tantalisingly adventurous filmmakers working at this very moment in Hollywood. Becoming the first and only female in history so far to win Academy Awards for best director and best film for 2008’s The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s critical success continued with the superbly crafted Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which not only marked Jessica Chastain as one of the leading acting heavyweights in the world, but one which sent a template for the type of movies Bigelow was going to make for the remainder of her entire working career. Returning this week with Detroit, a movie which follows in the footsteps of Bigelow’s previous two releases by being based once again on true and wholly controversial events, the American filmmaker directs a star-studded but wholly youthful cast including the likes of John Boyega, Will Poulter and the reasonably unknown figure of Algee Smith, within a movie which is as flexible with its’ dramatic tendencies as it is nail-shreddingly tense, and whilst Detroit feels almost too much of a movie at times, Bigelow’s latest is a superbly entertaining thrill ride which continues her riveting hit rate when it comes to hard-as-nails cinema.
Beginning with an animated tour guide of events leading up to the racial tensions present within the 1960’s era of Detroit, Michigan, Bigelow’s latest swiftly moves through a rafter of character introductions in order to set the key players up for the centerpiece of the movie which takes place within the confines of the Algiers Motel. In presenting a dramatic representation of the widely reported incident which took place between the night of the 25th and 26th of July 1967, Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal admit to using a rafter of dramatic liberties in order to beef out a final script, and whilst the final product may indeed be a work of unsubstantiated speculation, Detroit never falls into any sort of lull to allow the audience to become that picky, particularly with a middle act which is so nail-bitingly uncomfortable that it wouldn’t look strange being the centrepiece of a Ben Wheatley-directed horror movie. With Poulter on riveting top form as the film’s leading antagonist and Boyega giving a suitably dramatic, if underused, leading performance, the steal of the show belongs solely in the court of Algee Smith, whose portrayal as Larry Reed is the true through-line of the movie and was the one character that managed to effectively bring a fully rounded breadth of characterisation. Where the film ultimately doesn’t work is in its’ belief that the bigger the film, the better it ultimately will be, and with a constantly changing central narrative which concludes with a somewhat courtroom-esque drama, Detroit doesn’t hold the prestigious esteem of Zero Dark Thirty, but for two-thirds of its’ runtime, it sure came close.
Overall Score: 8/10
“I Ain’t Afraid To Die Anymore. I’ve Done It Already…”
Within the space of just twelve months, director Alejandro G. Inarritu has swiftly become the toast of Hollywood, a man whose last film Birdman generously took home the best picture award at the Oscars as well as slowly but surely imprinting it’s own brilliance upon myself after an initial bout of skepticism and uncertainty. Continuing such critical success is The Revenant, Inarritu’s adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel of the same name which focuses on the real-life story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass and his quest for revenge. So after the success of Birdman last year, what on earth would you expect Inarritu to do in order to try and replicate such critical attention just one year on for his latest pet project? Keep to what you know and love of course, with the commanding presence of Inarritu being sent aid from the returning duo of cinematographer and two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki as well as editor Stephen Mirrione, and it is this triplet that once again leads to success with each upping their game and becoming the sheer backbone of The Revenant, a film in which not only has a undeniable film-making sense of beauty but one that surely, surely, surely finally wins Mr. DiCaprio his long-awaited Oscar.
Although slightly stealing tactics originally from Hitchcock in Rope, Inarritu’s much acclaimed use of the seemingly one-take tactic of Birdman is ditched within The Revenant yet the Sergio Leone-esque desire to shove the camera right into the face of each and every actor that was prevalent within Birdman makes it’s way instead, with Inarritu choosing to place the viewer right into the heart of the danger and chaos that ensues throughout the many set pieces within the film. This particular way of filming is undeniably breathtaking and creates a sense of pain-staking realism on a entirely new level, resulting in being the first film in a long time to physically make me turn away and close my eyes from what our man DiCaprio has to endure in order to survive. Of his miraculous tale of sheer human endurance is the much talked about bear attack scene, a scene in which, although CGI designed, is without limits in showing the sheer brutality of such an attack. It’s a scene reminiscent of the velociraptor hunt within Jurassic Park but with an added R rating, and a scene which sets up the tone for the entire movie. It’s hard to watch, but beautiful nonetheless.
With twelve Oscar nods on its’ side already, The Revenant is undoubtedly a classic in the making. A dark, desperate revenge thriller that feels as claustrophobic as it does epic thanks to the sheer brilliant cinematography by Mr Lubezki, a man set to win yet another Oscar, whereby the breathtaking wilderness is gorgeously examined all within the backdrop of natural light, a time-consuming yet worthwhile tactic that has resulted in in The Revenant being a true cinematic experience, one that should most definitely be witnessed on the biggest screen possible. Understandably, all the talk has all been pointing towards the performances of both DiCaprio and Hardy, with the former literally going through hell in order to adhere to the realistic feel of his surroundings, and even though it is a performance of little speech, it is one of sheer brutality, one that brings with it a sense of sympathy for a man who so clearly wants to collect that prestigious academy award. Don’t let DiCaprio’s performance be the only thing you take from The Revenant however, it is a film made with exquisite skill and talent, a film that creates a world of dark, desperate despair and a film that, Hardy’s sometimes inaudible dialogue aside, is pretty much perfect. A excellent example of modern cinema.