Movie Review: Agony and Catharsis Fight for Prominence in the Emotional Turbulence of ‘Midsommar’: Which Makes It Out on Top?

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren

Director: Ari Aster

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Graphic Pagan Rituals

Release Date: July 3, 2019

Plenty of horror movies have served as metaphors for emotionally turbulent life events (Don’t Look Now, The Babadook, and director Ari Aster’s own Hereditary, to name a few), but never before have I been so relieved by that fact than in the case of Midsommar. Because if it weren’t a metaphor, its ending would be way too distressing to bear. The conclusion is about as terrifying as one could imagine given the premise, but it’s leavened with a sense of relief, as a breakup that really needed to happen has finally happened. If that sounds like a spoiler, rest assured that I’m just stating the inevitable.

Midsommar opens with Dani (rising supernova Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor, aka Seth Rogen’s long-lost Irish cousin) looking like they are both about to realize their need to split up, but then Dani experiences a sudden family trauma, and dumping her is fully out of the question at this point as she really needs someone to lean on. If nothing else, Midsommar is about the importance of having a reliable network of emotional support, and the danger of how that need can be manipulated. That fact is unavoidable when Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) takes Dani and Christian and their other friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to the Swedish commune he grew up in. It’s summer in Scandinavia, which means that the sun seemingly never sets, thus providing the perfect setting to confirm, or perhaps exceed, our worst suspicions of what a “commune” in a horror movie really means.

Ultimately, I am not quite sublimely thrilled by Midsommar; not quite underwhelmed, but perhaps just whelmed. It delivered what I expected, based on the trailer and Florence Pugh’s unrestrained agony on the poster. In that vein, it reminds me quite a bit of Get Out, which was similarly groundbreaking in its concept but rather straightforward in its accomplishment once I got onboard with its premise. But Get Out has proved ripe for revisiting and benefited accordingly, and I imagine that the same might be true in the long run for Midsommar once it is less weighed down by expectations. It certainly has the indelible imagery to make repeat visits worthwhile.

Midsommar is Recommended If You Like: The Wicker Man, Hereditary, Emotional Turmoil Raising the Stakes of Horror

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Unexplained Bears

This Is a Movie Review: Felicity Jones’ Spirited Ruth Bader Ginsburg Portrayal Helps ‘On the Basis of Sex’ Overcome Some Biopic Clichés

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates

Director: Mimi Leder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Occasionally Offensive Language of the Law

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

It is slightly disorienting to have both a documentary and a based-on-true-life narrative film about the same living person open in one year. But for certain subjects, there is value be to had in exploring familiar territory via multiple formats. For someone as influential as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her increased level of media attention has not diluted her potential for cinematic inspiration. On the Basis of Sex, Mimi Leder’s portrait of a young and hungry Ginsburg, wisely focuses on one chapter in her legal journey. And when it missteps, it is not because it retreads the same territory that RBG already covered sufficiently.

The focus is on the 1970 case of Charles Moritz, a never-married bachelor caring for his sick mother who is denied a caregiver tax deduction because at the time it was available only to women, widowers, and divorcees. Ginsburg, who was then a law professor at Rutgers, teams up with the ACLU to take on Martin’s case, and in addition to representing this one man, they set out to demonstrate how so much of the U.S. legal code discriminates (as the title says) “on the basis of sex,” and how that harms both women and men. That could be cinematic overreach, except for the fact that the real Ginsburg has very much committed her career to making the law more equitable.

On the Basis of Sex works best when it focuses on the truths of relationships, and there is plenty of material to be mined within the Ginsburg household. Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), here seen as a fast-rising tax lawyer, are equal partners, though not without their disagreements (like any marriage). But what makes their tension bearable, or even admirable, is that it is based on a shared desire to fight for what is right. Ruth’s relationship with her teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), however, is much more explosive, in the way that mother-daughter relationships often are at that age. You kind of want Jane to cut her mom some slack, because she is Ruth Bader Ginsburg after all. But sometimes kids can be their parents’ toughest critics, sometimes unfairly, sometimes rewardingly, or both in this case. There are a few moments that reek of over-inspirational biopic excess, like Ruth suddenly becoming struck with inspiration in the middle of a rainstorm. But for the most part, On the Basis of Sex knows how to capture the fight for justice and its beating human heart.

On the Basis of Sex is Recommended If You Like: Inspirational clichés, To Kill a Mockingbird, Legally Blonde

Grade: 3 out of 5 Closing Statements

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Detroit’ is a Nauseatingly Intense Portrait of Abuse of Power

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Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, John Krasinski

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: R for a Real-Life Waking Nightmare

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 4, 2017

To sum up my feelings on Detroit, I feel compelled to borrow from Trevor Noah’s take on the footage of the Philando Castile shooting: I can’t really recommend that anyone watch it, even though I think everyone needs to see it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s dramatization of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident is often sickening and rarely allows for any catharsis, even in its slower moments. Even the epilogue title cards, which typically let some light shine through and or at least offer some hope, are just as depressing. The ending left me on edge, about to break down and cry. The point of Detroit is not depression porn, or value posturing, but capturing a moment of a social ill that is not just a moment but a lingering epidemic. Its message needs to be heard, and it is presented in a manner in which it cannot be ignored.

Going into Detroit, I knew little about the specifics of this incident beyond its racial overtones. But soon enough the truth became depressingly obvious. As the film descends into the pit of its most harrowing moments, it becomes clearer and clearer what sort of terrible ending it is headed towards. We have seen this absence of redemption and justice again and again. The smallest of comforts can be drawn from the fact that this is not a new tragedy, but that only leads to the realization that we may be suffering through a never-ending cycle of violence.

Some of the details of the real-life July 1967 event remain in dispute, and the film makes sure to acknowledge that. What is clear, though, is that three black men died that night and that nine other motel residents – seven more black men and two white women – were badly beaten. Without the ubiquitous recording technology of today, it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but it is not hard to accept Detroit’s version of events.

The narrative unfolds in three portions. The opening is a survey of the racial tension of the country in general and Detroit specifically, with an animated prologue explaining how the end of Civil War and its resulting migratory patterns led to this crisis. The conclusion is a pointedly abrupt courtroom drama. But the significant majority is the middle, which reenacts the night at a seemingly real-time pace. It plays like a horror film, with the Detroit police as the home invaders. The Michigan State Police and National Guard offer some chances to escape the terror, but only in a way that protects themselves and provides no long-term relief.

Detroit features a notably large cast for such a painfully intimate setting, and each individual is given their moment to illustrate the major themes. As a security guard attempting to aid both the police and the victims, John Boyega is the personification of internal conflict. As a brazenly, sadistically racist officer, Will Poulter makes it difficult to hold on to the belief that no person is intrinsically evil. A certain well-known actor shows up late and plays strikingly against type as the officers’ lawyer. And Algee Smith has a star turn as one of the victims. He plays Cleveland Larry Reed, a singer attempting to break through with up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics. You can see his soul withering away at every turn, but just enough brightness shines through on his face to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a happy future could be in store.

Detroit is Recommended If You Like: Fruitvale Station, Home Invasion Horror, Getting Righteously Angry

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Death “Games”

This Is a Movie Review: Free Fire

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Living Up to the Promise of Its Title

Release Date: April 21, 2017

Free Fire dresses up an illicit arms deal in fancy ’70s formalwear and then bloodies up the pretensions with unrelenting chaos. The trick to making all this pleasant – or at least attempting to do so – is an equally endless stream of witty rejoinders. This technique is strongest between the odd couple pairing of Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer. The former is all high-wire, unpredictable energy. The latter is all suave unflappability. Both are thoroughly confident in their own skins. I would be happy to watch these two volley back-and-forth all day. But I gotta ask, is it necessary that their team-up occur amidst such a destructive hail of bullets?

The obvious antecedent, when it comes to a crime gone amok leading to ultraviolence and goons yammering on, is Quentin Tarantino’s breakout Reservoir Dogs. The difference is that QT’s characters have an inherent point of view, whereas Free Fire co-writer/director Ben Wheatley’s crew mostly just screeches hysterically (not always literally, but it feels like it). There can be humor found in the panic that sets in when a dangerous situation goes pear-shaped, but Free Fire too often confuses nastiness with lunacy. I don’t oppose on-screen graphic violence as a rule, but there ought to be a good reason for it. In this case, it feels like an excuse for a movie that hates all of its characters to just pick them off one-by-one.

Getting back to the folks populating this film, there are several more hooligans besides Copley and Hammer, among them Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Sing Street’s Jack Reynor (who often strikes me as Ireland’s less schlubby answer to Seth Rogen). The fun of these players is primarily geographical. Their dispersal around the warehouse after the shots start firing creates a sort of constantly shifting maze. The narrative thrust is basically sorting out this puzzle. Who makes it out alive? Who cares! What matters is the physical space and the treachery between these dots of human beings. But that’s small change. Let’s cut to the chase and get to work on the Copley-Hammer follow-up.

Free Fire is Recommended If You Like: Pulling the Heads Off Bugs

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 V Necks