Review: The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

The Art of Self-Defense has been one of the tougher films for me to crack. There’s something insidious about its presentation, a dizzying dive into toxic masculinity that pushes so hard into black comedy that it borders on surreal horror. In 2019 and most of cinema it seems entirely singular – but there is one specific classic that it mimics so closely that it feels imitative.

Accountant Casey Davies joins a karate dojo after being assaulted by a gang of bikers. What starts as a mere riff on his social awkwardness as he gets in over his head transforms into something else entirely as the dojo master, a white man who goes only by Sensei, takes him on as a pet project. Casey soon begins to define himself entirely by his place within the structure of this karate system. Jesse Eisenberg is in fine form as Casey, though he’s not exactly breaking new territory as an emasculated nerd.

What sells The Art of Self-Defense is how matter-of-factly it sells the absurdity. The characters operate within a certain brand of nightmare logic but go about their actions plainly. Violence runs rampant with little to no consequences. The whole experience is as if we’re watching modern people role play a martial arts film, engaging in battles of honor and masculinity after a day at the office. It’s altogether uncanny; the presentation suggests a familiar world yet the narrative is so alienating.

On its own, The Art of Self-Defense could have been a truly mesmerizing work. However, I figured out exactly what it was doing with nearly all of its plot beats well before anything really happened – not necessarily because it was playing its hand too openly but because of how obviously it was playing from the same book as that other film.

The Art of Self-Defense is Fight Club for a generation that can now immediately summarize all the concepts at play with the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ The flaw of Self-Defense is that it speaks in that language. We are always put on the outside of Casey’s story – these figures are meant to be ridiculed from their first appearance.

Fight Club worked because it recognized how inescapable these ideas are in certain men. It resonated due to how intimately it captured the experience of a man lost to that system, to the point that some fail to recognize it as a critique since it so perfectly captures their own experience with masculine expectations. With The Art of Self-Defense, it’s all too easy to view oneself as above any of the characters. They exist solely to be mocked.

Ultimately, I’m not certain what this film is actually saying. It goes through the motions of black comedy so well that I almost mistook the atmosphere for meaningful social commentary. Obviously, toxic masculinity is a real issue – perhaps the flaw is Imogen Poots as Anna, who is a wonderful character on her own but her presence blurs the message. Anna is as caught up in the system and, though the film makes sure to highlight some mistreatment on account of her gender, she seems just as devoted to all the same toxic behaviors as the rest.

I’m breaking the film down this way not because I think it is a bad film but quite the opposite – this is a work that borders on greatness and I feel the need to explain why it doesn’t quite land. Its atmospheric mastery created one of the most spellbinding experiences I’ve had at the movies this year, and the screenplay is comparably uproarious. This movie hits far harder than I expected.

As such, I would easily recommend The Art of Self-Defense. If you can get past the gripes I had, I can easily imagine this being among some people’s favorite films for the year. Riley Stearns certainly appears to be a director to keep our eyes on.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Adapting a classic children’s book series that is as dreaded as it is beloved, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has a challenge in combining otherwise disparate pieces of micro-fiction. The source material consists of stories that end nearly as soon as they begin with little real substance, some so simplistic they merely ask the reader to jump out at their friends as they reach the end. The real selling point of this adaptation is to see the ghoulish illustrations brought to life – at least on that front, this is a moderate success.

The framing story carries a bit more weight than anything from the source, though that’s not enough to carry a feature film. Characters are cartoonish and shallow while the need to shoe in as many scenarios as possible leaves the entire work disjointed. Teenager Stella Nicholls is drawn to the macabre, a natural fit as the protagonist of a slightly cheeky horror film. The rest of the cast is typical monster fodder, there more to pace the scares than to get the audience invested. The one exception is Ramon Morales, who offers some light commentary on race and politics in 1960s America. It’s enough to stand out in this slight crowd but nothing beyond that, and his depth really just clues the audience into the fact that he’s the one to focus on.

Despite its attempt to offer up an overarching tale, this film comes off as little beyond a series of loosely connected vignettes. My umbrage with this is the total randomness of each encounter. The film starts strong with Harold, a terrifying scarecrow that lives on its eventual victim’s farm. Harold has a presence well before he bares his teeth and his sequence feels intrinsically linked to its target.

Every creature that follows feels pulled out of a hat. It’s clear the filmmakers combed through the most memorable designs from the books without considering how to incorporate them in a meaningful way. These individual sequences border on scary purely on a stylistic level but, as part of a larger piece, I instead found myself distracted by the total lack of symbolism. There’s no finesse, no reason why this character gets pitted against that monster. Most of the stories from the source are similarly shallow, but that’s a lot more acceptable in short form. Here, we have to sit through meandering exposition to get to the good stuff.

And don’t get me wrong, there is good stuff. On both a stylistic and technical level, this film looks pretty good. Despite their inexplicable nature, these creatures possess some gnarly designs. The actual horror sequences carry some disorienting twists – I was rarely sure how any individual encounter would end. While it never reaches outright scary it perfectly achieves ‘spooky’ – this is the right target considering its origins.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is popcorn horror with a slightly better than average visual edge. It briefly flirts with camp but drops that atmosphere when the monsters arrive, causing a stark tonal inconsistency that the film never shakes. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that the filmmakers hoped the bizarre creatures would lend a sense of surreal horror but they offer nothing to dig into. Not dark enough to be scary and not light enough to be humorous, Scary Stories is lukewarm and inoffensive but fun enough if you somehow didn’t get enough horror over this overstuffed summer.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Yesterday (2019)

Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is built around a fun topic for debate – if The Beatles never existed, could their songs still carry a social impact in the modern day? Unfortunately, the possibilities are squandered in the service of a generic and frustrating romantic comedy.

Himesh Patel is Jack Malik, a failing musician on the verge of quitting when he wakes up in a world where The Beatles popped out of existence. Though he briefly struggles with some of the best songs ever written now under his name, he quickly becomes one of the biggest stars in the world.

This turns out to be a problem because he’s madly in love with his former manager Ellie and is completely incapable of just saying it – you’d think since she is open about being in love since her childhood and he returns those feelings, he could simply promise to come back after the tour or even offer to move her out with him once he receives the loads of cash that seem imminent if he stays course. The romantic tension of this movie rides entirely on the two being incapable of saying the most basic things to each other, and the fact it isn’t resolved until the end feels entirely inorganic. All this does is cast Jack Malik as a socially inept buffoon.

The problem with a mainstream story that could question The Beatles’ legacy is that it has to play within certain rules. To feature a character playing their music requires legal agreements, which means the music is treated as an objective good. As Jack dots the walls of his room with Beatles’ song titles, one of the first we see is “Revolution 9” – even their generally agreed upon lesser tracks are spared any criticism.

A big issue at the heart of this film is convincing us that Jack is capable of reproducing these songs to nearly the same level. We’ve all heard lesser cover versions, and I’m sure one of them would pass as great without the original to compare. What stops me from believing the way it’s presented here is that Jack seems to largely work alone. How does he pull off their more elaborate work? The movie largely sticks to showing their simpler songs, and it was never clear if Jack himself was doing the same, realizing his own limits.

Even accepting that this movie is going to paint The Beatles as ‘objectively’ good, it could have at least explored Jack’s morals in this scenario. We teeter on the edge of interesting scenes when a few people ask how he came up with the songs and he simply can’t explain, but these moments are rarely pursued. Imagine how much more engaging this story could be if the public grew aware he was somehow plagiarizing seemingly non-existent songs. But again, this movie is a simple fluff piece with no deeper thoughts.

The use of Ed Sheeran in this movie seems rather out-of-touch. While he may be a megastar as far as sales go, his music lacks critical acclaim. Is this the closest equivalent they could think of in the modern scene? It again highlights a central flaw, the belief that this music can exist without the context of its time; there are, in fact, modern bands that do a phenomenal job capturing the sound of the Beatles. However, bands like Tame Impala rarely break through to the mainstream despite their adherence to this once classic sound. This is a film that correlates quality with an overly simplistic understanding of popularity. If The Beatles wrote the exact same songs yet never achieved as much success, would these same works somehow be lesser?

Luckily, Danny Boyle is still a stylish director. Musical sequences are full of energy, and it manages to be enjoyable despite all its shallow elements. That doesn’t add up to much, though, as I’d sooner recommend his other works.

Yesterday is a mediocre romantic comedy with Beatles as a stuffing. The leads are too annoying to sympathize with, despite their actors being fine enough. These performances are backed by an even more annoying Kate McKinnon and the groan-inducing presence of Ed Sheeran throughout.

The saddest bit? They get the severely underappreciated Michael Kiwanuka to cameo at the beginning. Could they not have graced us with anyone of his level instead of Sheeran?

2 Stars Out of 5

Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

From its announcement, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood threatened to be Tarantino’s most self-indulgent work. No matter his choice of subject, his love of cinema shines through each one of his films, and it’s a surprise it has taken this long for him to make one explicitly about the movie industry itself. That initial threat came true, and this is Tarantino at his most uninhibited. But like Fellini before him, this is a man who justifies his excess through the sheer artistry of it all.

This is the story of fading star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively. One of Tarantino’s better talents as a writer is his ability to capture close friendships, and this pair is one of his tighter bonds. These two characters convincingly have each other’s backs even as the film draws attention to the disparity of their situations.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate lends a certain enigmatic quality to the experience. She is never explored in the same way Rick and Cliff are, but that’s the bait. This film rides off creating dread due to our knowledge of what actually happens to her. Though these stories rarely intersect, her mere presence gives an endgame to a narrative that would otherwise seem aimless. Tarantino successfully plants the climax in our mind purely due to history.

The distance makes sense here. This was a real woman with aspirations of stardom cut down before we ever really knew her. Most of us have only heard of her as a murder victim and it’s a struggle to picture her beyond that framing. To be any closer to Tate would read as inauthentic, as the tragic irony is the fact we want to live in a world where we could have known her but also only care because we can’t. Robbie playing this role so charmingly only makes that harder to swallow.

While that particular longing plays out on the meta-level, it is that same feeling that guides Rick and Cliff. This is a narrative of longing for alternative realities, Rick desperate for a roll that will grant his second wind as he is haunted by memories of the almost successes. Cliff seems desperate for any work at all, and that guides him to perform unfulfilling tasks. He’s recklessly eager to play the hero that places himself in danger.

This mixture of longing and stardom produces a bittersweet atmosphere. Tarantino appears at his most optimistic here, even as he laments loss. To see a child actress commend Dalton for a good performance at the end of a hard day, or Tate gleefully listening to an audience enjoy her movie, there’s something inspiring here that is only brought down by the constant reminder that there could have been more.

This movie is stuffed with scenes that would seem unnecessary if the minor characters weren’t so immediately able to steal their scenes. Bruce Lee is cast as a braggart dying to grandstand at any opportunity, and the result is hilarious. The child actress first appears reading her script and tells Rick of all the extreme ways she prepares for a role, a scene that almost reads as subtle mocking of DiCaprio’s experience with method acting. Excess works as long as it’s fun.

Tarantino is desperate for any opportunity to use stylistic flairs, and the Hollywood setting gives him an easy excuse. We get constant cuts to Dalton’s works, allowing the grainy colors of old Hollywood alongside occasional dips near the Academy ratio. Even the more mundane moments are loaded with stellar framing, long takes, and the rare jump cut. The whole film is cast with the sort of saturation that suggests its placement within the era it tackles.

Tarantino feels at home playing around in 1969. This timing allows him to again explore his recent fascination with the Western, focusing in on an actor whose career is declining just as that legendary genre is starting to fade. The sets and costumes are peppered with reminders of the era, with Tarantino’s ear for music helping transform this into an effective nostalgia piece for an era I never lived through.

Like the actual Sharon Tate, this is a story that will be hard to talk about without jumping to the ending. I’m not going to dive into the details in a simple review, but this is perhaps the best finale of a director who always sticks the landing. While I love nearly all his works, they usually carry a certain distance that feels cold. This is his most straightforward emotional work, and I honestly felt myself near tears even as I laughed. All of the story’s ambling is justified by the payoff.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s best because it allows him to play with his favorite subject matter with no reservations. What once were sly winks and nods now serve as surface text. This is a work that’s joyous and affirming in Tarantino’s uniquely twisted way, even as darkness teeters on the edge. The Hollywood system is painted as wondrous as it is frustrating. It’s rare that I walk out of a theater longing for more, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood manages that even as it gleefully plays in its own excess.

5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Lion King (2019)

In many ways, the 2019 version of The Lion King is a difficult film for me to review fairly. The original is my definitive childhood classic, a videotape I played to the brink of my family’s sanity. This is a story I knew by heart before forming any lasting memories of my personal life. The natural response to such a shameless cash-in is annoyance, but an even more bothersome fact is that my knowledge of the original work fills in the gaps of what the remake lacks.

This is rooted in the elements we all knew were wrong from that first trailer, the ads conspicuously shy about showing the lions actually speaking. It’s the words that have plagued every review so far, that these animals lack a visually emotive language. As someone experienced with this story, I perhaps filled in the lines too easily, accepting the emotions I knew hid behind these emotionally void faces. I can’t begin to imagine how these moments read to someone unversed in the narrative.

The problem is not solely the lack of expression failing to sell half the emotions, but that the voices rarely match the characters they represent. The young Simba is paired with a particularly weak actor, but it goes beyond the delivery. Words rarely line up with the movements of the mouth. Director Jon Favreau, in his pursuit of so-called realism, misses the fact that we vocalize through certain shapes. Certainly, lions don’t express with their faces the way we do, but they also don’t speak. Neither end is going to be convincingly real – so why go all in on pursuing ‘realism?’

Favreau chose the wrong side, and this underlines what I find most problematic about these ‘live action’ remakes. They’re produced with the apparent suggestion that the animated films were only made as such because the stories couldn’t be made realistically with contemporary technology. It treats animation as an inferior medium, as if this story is somehow being brought to life by shedding as much vibrancy as possible.

As much as it follows the plot beats, this remake fails to grasp the spirit of the original. That film was in a state of constant motion, unafraid to embrace over-the-top musical numbers while filling every frame with color during even its quietest moments. This is a story written to take place in a fantastical world, despite its setting being grounded among believable animals.

Let’s compare the entrance of the hyenas. In the original, they step out from the inside of an elephant’s skull. This is stunning and blunt, immediately linking them to death purely through the image. Here, they simply walk into frame. Characters perform the necessary actions, but never with style. Much like Zack Snyder’s take on comic book adaptations, this new Lion King seems ashamed of its brighter origins.

The musical numbers are largely embarrassing here. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” with Favreau afraid to embrace even the slightest hint of surrealism, devolves into Simba and Nala just running alongside some animals. “Be Prepared” is gutted, Scar doing little more than speaking the lines and sounding completely off as the song should be rising. Again, no visual creativity here; Scar simply climbs to the top of the jutting rock as the hyenas look on. Meanwhile, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” doesn’t work without the questioning looks between Simba and Nala. Here, they’re two animals looking blankly at one another.

The one shining moment is “Circle of Life,” a perfect showcase for this particular technological achievement. Even in the original film, this scene was presented from an emotional distance, lingering on unimportant animals before focusing in on Simba and his family. It’s where The Lion King is most rooted in the natural world, a perfect fit for Favreau’s otherwise misguided style.

I have more mixed feelings on the treatment of Timon and Pumbaa. Their dialogue is switched up a bit, and where they used to rely largely on gross-out humor, it’s now mixed with a certain meta-humor. These new jokes were surprisingly effective. However, it gives the pair a certain distance from the story, and the film seems to gloss over their bonding with Simba.

That’s the oddest thing about this film. It adds half an hour to the runtime yet covers no additional ground, sometimes even seeming to have less content. How is that possible? Simply put, everything happens at a slower pace. The original was cut with a certain rhythm, a slim film that made every moment count. With this new version, every movement is drawn out for the sake of realism. Favreau apparently hoped to replace facial expressions with body language, but it does nothing but make an expertly timed story trip over itself.

While the visual effects are stellar, the other technical elements are phoned in. As with every other Disney remake, the film is shot and edited from the most convenient angle possible. During the “Hakuna Matata” sequence, the camera follows as Simba runs alongside Timon and Pumbaa, doing nothing but singing. These moments carry no dynamic energy, not in the actions of its characters or how it captures them.

The 2019 version of The Lion King is an exercise in how to drain all life from an animated classic. It’s by no means the worst film of the year, merely dull and unnecessary, but it might be the most easily hate-able. Its purpose is questionable at best, a testament to Disney misunderstanding the significance of their own properties. But it’s not a misunderstanding – this is a company fully aware they don’t need to try to make money. It’s bizarre that a film pushing technical capabilities to this level has no consideration for how to make proper use of it. Instead, it takes the backbone of the original and skins it down to basic plot beats, completely dropping several visual motifs in favor of nothing at all. Despite its surface luster, this is a film completely lacking in style. This is Hollywood at its laziest, cannibalizing its own classics and acting as if the most basic visual mimicry can hide the lack of care given to the image as a whole.

2 Stars Out of 5

Review: Stuber (2019)

Michael Dowse’s Stuber follows Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, a man working a soul-crushing job at a sporting goods store earning some extra cash by driving for Uber. One day he picks up Dave Bautista’s detective Vic, who forces Stu into his hunt for the man who killed his partner. Will Stu learn how to be a real man?

Whether intentional or not, that question appears to be the heart of Stuber, a film that feels a decade or two behind the curve, or at least written from the perspective of someone longing for the day men return to being ‘real men.’ Predictable for a film so stuck on classical gender roles, the characters that inhabit this movie fill simple niches and pursue shallow goals.

At times, Stuber threatens to say something, sometimes dabbling with the concept of toxic masculinity. Yet that central figure, detective Vic, is free to cause mayhem, the film gleefully embracing his violent acts to satisfy its action needs. Whatever backwards views he pushes, it feels that Stu is the one being prompted to change.

The problem with this is rooted in the film’s treatment of police. Vic is indisputably a bad cop, essentially going rogue and at one point straight up torturing a suspect. The film only rewards him for these actions. There’s a suggestion that police brutality is acceptable as long as the victims are bad people and if it serves as a means to an end. When it comes time for the leads to tear each other down, it’s not Vic’s brutality but his failure as a father that is treated as his defining flaw – it’s as if the film views these violent acts as emblematic of a certain flavor of masculinity, treating it as a legitimate alternative to Stu’s reserved nature. This is a buddy cop film that never convinced me to view one of its two protagonists with sympathy.

Being an action comedy, one would hope it could deliver on either front, but the very first scene gives us fair warning on how underwhelming that first descriptor will be. We begin in a shootout, the camera shaking and staying far too close to the action. When we do get a clear picture, the action is too simple in its choreography. This is all cut at such a rapid pace to cause disorientation – the whole experience is a chore, and the action sequences that follow are much the same.

The comedy is similarly shoddy, much of the humor living up to the easy pun in the title – it feels as though the team behind this film was setting itself up for ‘Stupid Uber’ jokes. That name is given by Stu’s boss at the sporting goods store, a complete caricature of annoying coworkers, so dully constructed that any joke he’s granted falls flat due to his artifice. Similarly, due to Vic’s failure to garner any form of sympathy, his banter with Stu carries little pulse.

The characters of Stuber are guided less by logical decision-making and more by the raw needs of a shoddy comedy writer. I never once believed Stu would stick around, his motivation literally limited to trying to earn a 5-star review to keep his Uber rating above a certain threshold. We at least have it established that Vic is desperate to find his partner’s killer, but would he really start that hunt a few hours after receiving LASIK eye surgery? Yet another highlight of his total lack of sympathetic traits, this quest begins with him barreling down a street and crashing into a manned construction site. He proclaims a desire to keep drugs off the street while happy to make himself a more immediate threat while under zero pressure – he is simply following the first lead at that point, so why the desperation?

The one positive that keeps Stuber above water is Kumail Nanjiani, this desperate driver caught between awful jobs and an inability to express himself. He does an excellent job capturing the ball of anxiety named Stu, and I wish he was dealt a better script. His characters spends much of the movie choosing between enabling Vic’s violence for a good Uber rating and visiting a friend for sex right after her breakup; the only reason he manages any sympathy is due to Nanjiani’s charisma.

Stuber is a largely mean-spirited action comedy that rarely lands its punches. It stumbles to establish any major themes, sometimes even seeming to embrace toxic masculinity and police brutality. The worst sin of all, however, is that it’s a comedy that rarely garners a laugh.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

The latest Spider-Man arrives in an unenviable position. Not only is this the first solo MCU to handle the fallout from the latest crossover event, but it’s coming hot on the heels of an unrelated Spider-Man film that completely showed up the entire MCU.

Far From Home follows Peter Parker and friends as they go on a European vacation, touring several cities as their trip is hijacked by Nick Fury, who demands Spider-Man’s assistance in a still recovering world as a group of elementals spread mass disasters. Assisting is new hero Mysterio, a supposed multidimensional traveler who’s certainly not among the series’ most iconic villains.

Homecoming was one of my favorite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe largely due to how it managed to carve out its own space in an increasingly formulaic franchise. It matched a burgeoning young hero with a smaller scale, also managing to capture Parker’s playful charm in a way previous attempts at the character failed. Far From Home, unfortunately, has fallen entirely into the familiar MCU mould, perhaps harder than any of the other solo sequels. This barely feels like a Spider-Man film; between a reliance on Tony Stark’s technology and Nick Fury’s constant interference, Parker acts as a mere pawn in a game that seems to lie largely outside of this particular film. Far From Home operates as a bridge for a wider story.

The film offers up the usual spectacle, but action with little depth doesn’t add up to much. The MCU rarely offers compelling choreography, and it’s even messier when the enemies are nearly shapeless CGI elementals. Early fights in this movie carry little stake with knowledge of the inevitable twist.

Far From Home really fumbles its lead roles, Spider-Man and Mysterio. Too much time passes before Spider-Man is allowed to play hero, or even act as a protagonist. He’s literally dragged into this story against his will. There’s nothing compelling or heroic about a lead character constantly being forced into action instead of making that decision himself. This is especially laughable when he’s forced into fights against creatures he’s virtually incapable of fighting against. He takes a constant backseat to Mysterio, which calls into question why Nick Fury keeps dragging Parker along. This story is guided by a character who keeps making nonsensical decisions.

Mysterio is one of the more entertaining supervillains around, an absurd showman – but we have to spend the first half of the film caught up in his illusions. While that seems like a logical enough decision, it really drains any weight out of earlier action sequences. It isn’t until the most obvious plot twist in film history takes place that the film finally begins to operate as a hero’s journey, Spider-Man having to make his own decisions to fight back against a threat he’s actually equipped to confront.

If the MCU could lean into the meta and poke fun at itself for a bit, they could have made a fun statement about how difficult it is to craft compelling action sequences while relying on CGI. Unfortunately, they decided to twist Mysterio into a legitimate physical threat by backing him with overwhelming firepower. The fun of breaking through an illusion doesn’t mean as much when the elements behind an illusion are just as dangerous as the image they’re trying to present.

Far From Home feels like a misfire within the MCU. Comparable to Captain Marvel, it hits all the expected notes of a modern blockbuster while struggling to find a voice of its own. It’s fun enough, and crafted as well as most other MCU films, but it doesn’t amount to much beyond a by-the-numbers entry in a franchise that probably has too many. Spider-Man can offer so much more.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Midsommar (2019)

Following up on last year’s phenomenal Hereditary, Ari Aster returns with a markedly similar film. Midsommar follows two college students in a bitter yet unending relationship, Florence Pugh’s traumatized Dani Ardor more unwilling than unable to recognize her boyfriend Christian’s desperation to leave. What was once an escape for Christian turns into a shared vacation to a pagan Swedish festival that quickly turns into a violent ritual.

Ari Aster holds a stellar command over the atmosphere of his films, but what surprised me here is how much Midsommar operates in the reverse of a traditional work of horror. The most terrible moments are upfront and brutal; by starting with such high tension, Aster is able to slowly lessen the load and twist it toward surprising directions. What starts as violent realism descends into surrealistic madness, the once solid turning metaphysical. This is a film that carries the surface style of a work like The Wicker Man while brooding within a certain existential phantasmagoria that transformed Ingmar Bergman’s career around the middle of his so-called Trilogy.

Aster manages to be such a compelling director because he imbues his metaphorical works with so much precision; the pagan ritual carries as much weight as the underlying pain of a relationship being dragged well beyond its death. The result is mystifying; both elements are so unpredictable, yet when the pieces fall into place, there’s a slick cohesion between the two.

As such, Midsommar certainly feels built for a certain audience; you have to drop any notion of this being a straightforward narrative experience before it begins. Aster asks you to join him on a descent into emphatic chaos, where emotions weigh heavier over plot progression than narrative logic.

The characters are simply defined, pawns in a twisted moral tale. Though their motives are straightforward, they still carry a heavy impact. Like Toni Collette in Hereditary, Florence Pugh puts on a performance well above the usual expectations of a horror film, one that should solidify her as one of the finest young actresses working today. Few of the film’s horrors would hit as hard without her ability to reduce herself to a puddle of despair, sobbing with such force that it becomes less bearable than the terror she’s witnessing. There are absurd moments to this movie, some of which are certainly intended to be funny, but all Aster has to do is show Pugh reacting in despair and any humor ceases immediately.

On a visual level, Midsommar is a true gift. The cult grounds mix beauty and macabre, loaded with colorful paintings of horrible scenes. Structures carry a certain intrigue, a bright yellow pyramid hanging over the movie as much as the ceaseless sunlight. The cult members are garbed in white, combining with the over-saturated footage to create a sense of midday haze. These designs reach a high anytime the characters achieve the same, their drug trips causing the image to pulsate in a way that suggests life where there shouldn’t be.

Key editing choices really guide us to the heart of the film, keeping the narrative focused on Dani despite the madness surrounding her. So many scenes search out her reaction that we stay rooted in her journey; the brutality is there to heighten her anxiety, and like many of the best horror movies, it builds a sympathetic bond between protagonist and audience. The movie reaches its peak as Dani finds herself lost in dance, the scene descending into a volley of superimposed shots as she flickers between confusion and mad glee, the image itself becoming a blur of layered images.

Through all these empathetic techniques, I was surprised to find that this film was building not to horror but a violent cathartic release. Midsommar so perfectly captures the desperate anger one feels toward a partner for the harm they have caused, ultimately embracing what is better repressed in reality.

Midsommar is a worthy successor to Hereditary, pursuing a similar trail of interpersonal relationships but casting it in an altogether different light. Aster merges theme and atmosphere like few others, to the point that his works almost transcend horror to something entirely new. These are stories of trauma and the need for release, milking human sympathy to create something altogether revelatory.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

I committed myself to writing two reviews a week at the beginning of this year, really not that long ago; yet even in these early months, certain movies come along that reduce this to a repetitive task, works so simplistic in their presentation and goals that there really isn’t much to say. Annabelle Comes Home is my seventh horror review over the last three months, and it adds almost nothing to the conversation. It’s certainly not the worst of the bunch, and that might be the problem – it’s as mundane as horror comes.

The Annabelle series highlights a certain surface level horror that mainstream Hollywood films rely on, largely at the expense of building more lingering fears. The Annabelle doll has been a laughable concept since its appearance in the first Conjuring. It looks scary, yes – but that’s the problem. Absolutely no one looks at that monstrosity and believes an actual child would treat it as a plaything. The ‘real’ Annabelle is a mass-produced Raggedy Ann, which suggests a comparatively terrifying idea that evil will attach itself to anything that happens to be there. But, no, these movies have to let us know in every way to keep away from Annabelle.

It’s difficult to resist comparing this to The Curse of La Llorona, another Conjuring adjunct released only two months ago. La Llorona was an exercise in poor horror movie choices, tossing character development aside and consisting of ceaseless jump scares. Where it was a terrible slog to sit through, it at least makes me realize where Annabelle Comes Home actually worked.

The characters here aren’t particularly compelling, but they’re full enough to have meaningful arcs. Judy Warren is grappling with her own unrelated visions before the horrors begin, while Daniela’s triggering of these curses comes not from the usual horror movie idiocy but a desperate attempt to contact the spirit of her father. Babysitter Mary Ellen serves well enough as the audience surrogate, the disbeliever dragged into chaos.

The horror at the heart of Annabelle Comes Home feels random, as if writer/director Gary Dauberman simply grabbed a few pieces of Warren lore that caught his eye. The film’s excuse is that Annabelle is merely a beacon for these other spirits, suggesting anything could happen. It goes too far to really feel rooted in Annabelle herself, but also not far enough to feel like a full-force tour; Dauberman is happy to cycle through the same handful of threats throughout.

As such, it all feels rather aimless. The movie feels too safe, as I don’t remember any moment where I was truly worried for the characters. It’s less of a haunted house than a fun house, an obstacle course for our protagonists to navigate.

Despite the overall simplicity of this work, its atmospheric structure is sound enough to create some moments of tension. Dauberman is at least considerate enough to build up a scene and not immediately end it with a jump scare every time, unlike the team behind La Llorona. Unfortunately, the payoff is always the same; something startling happens, but nothing carries enough weight to linger.

Ultimately, Annabelle Comes Home is a fun enough pop horror movie that will be forgotten about as soon as it’s over; this isn’t exactly high praise, but it’s a welcome change of pace when so many of these horror movies have been either bland or simply gross. With Annabelle, you’re at least getting what you’d want from it.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Jim Jarmusch has always been an oddball director, with works ranging from his ultra-minimal breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise to successfully understated genre works like Dead Man and Only Lovers Left Alive. He has proven to have a certain range where he could work in any genre and add a certain twist only he can provide. The Dead Don’t Die is a suitably odd addition to his oeuvre, taking the zombie comedy and draining it to a dry husk.

The Dead Don’t Die appears beyond proper criticism, a work so dense it’s difficult to get a sense of what, exactly, Jarmusch is trying to accomplish. It’s an intentionally bad film, one where it’s a struggle to differentiate between knowing humor and legitimately failed jokes within that context. This is a film that cycles between several characters and disposes of them in largely unceremonious ways, and in at least one case seems to completely forget about a group.

There’s a certain juvenile edge to a lot of the humor; Adam Driver’s Officer Peterson (get it, because he was named Paterson in Jarmusch’s previous film?) has a tendency to break the fourth wall, and I can’t tell if this is supposed to be read as clever or taken as intentionally dumb. A lot of the humor can be summarized in this way; it feels as if certain lines are repeated to the point of annoyance. There are constant references to the theme song (by Sturgill Simpson), which perhaps could be a clever suggestion that they had a low budget and could only afford one original song and wanted to milk it for all it’s worth – but this is tedious the sixth time around.

Perhaps my problem is that The Dead Don’t Die runs off of an imitation of constraints, a forced low budget feeling while being absolutely loaded with stars. Is that part of the joke? That this movie obviously isn’t as bad as it looks since you can name the actors?

Loads of people make intentionally bad films, and they always lack the charm of the unintentional works that become cult classics. There’s no sense of heart involved, no sincerity. The six other Jarmusch films I’ve watched are all great; I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe the hokey presentation on display, which was never the point – the real sin here is that the film is rarely clever enough to do anything with that artifice.

We can call it satire, but what is it satirizing? Low budget horror movies? What’s the point of making fun of that? These works are largely passion projects of people with less opportunity than Jarmusch. Sure, he’s a king of the indie scene, but he’s also flexing with his casting here – he only makes these quieter works because he’s choosing to remain in that zone. It doesn’t help that he’s making fun of works that tend to carry unintentional humor – by satirizing that, he’s instead removing the source of comedy.

I almost feel this has to be a satire of the concept of satire. The specific kind of zombie film Jarmusch is tackling here is low-hanging fruit- there has to be an awareness that this is too easy of a target. The question is, do I want to believe Jarmusch is working on such a level when his other displays of meta-humor are so surface level? But if this is the case, wouldn’t those surface level failures be part of the overall joke?

Despite rarely finding this supposed comedy funny, I walked away with a more distinct reaction; complete and total bafflement. This is a feeling largely reserved for existentially surreal horror films, and that Jarmusch managed such a reaction purely through my failed attempts at reading what this film is trying to accomplish is truly astonishing.

I also don’t know if that feeling is worth much at all.

2.5 Stars Out of 5