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: ‘The Little Stranger’ is Obscure Gothic Horror in an English Manor

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Properly Disturbing Behavior

Release Date: August 31, 2018 (Moderate)

Many of the crucial events in The Little Stranger are never fully seen. A dog attacks a girl behind a curtain. The bells used to call on the housemaid ring furiously even though nobody is ringing them. And the main character, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), is plagued by repressed memories and his own unconscious behavior. Or at least that’s what he suspects and what the editing leads us to believe. It all begins with Faraday arriving at Hundreds Hall, a large country manor that wrings plenty of gothic horror out of its perpetual state of dreary English autumn. He is there to treat Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter), a disfigured veteran with PTSD.

The house is a bit of a totem for Faraday, as his mother worked as a maid there when he was a young boy. He is a sort of Jay Gatsby figure, coming from modest means and existing so closely to, yet so far from, the rarefied air of respectable society. Unlike Gatsby, he does not crave glamor so much as acceptance. He has never really been rejected by the type of people he treats, but he still yearns to ensure his place among them. It looks like he has fully secured it via a romance with Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). But tragedy is hellbent against a happy ending coming to fruition. And what is the agent of that tragedy? Like so much of this movie, it prefers to keep itself obscure.

The Little Stranger is based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, who also wrote Fingersmith, which was adapted into the 2016 Korean film The Handmaiden. Both films deal with themes of class and traffic in plot twists involving major reversals uncovered by seeing an earlier scene from a different vantage point. The major thrill of The Handmaiden is when it fully reveals its machinations for a mindblowing conclusion. The Little Stranger is much more subdued, to a fault. It asks its audience to soak in its mystery without much hope for full answers. Its craft on its way to the anticlimax is plenty chilling, but it winds up in a corner that is too dark to draw any satisfying conclusion.

The Little Stranger is Recommended If You Like: Some Dreary British Mashup of The Great Gatsby and The Handmaiden

Grade: 3 out of 5 Repressed Memories

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Death Cure’ Wraps Up the ‘Maze Runner’ Trilogy with High-Octane Action and Personal Battles of Class Warfare

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CREDIT: Joe Alblas/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper

Director: Wes Ball

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Makeup, a Few Puncture Wounds, and Some Explosions

Release Date: January 26, 2018

Readers, I must be upfront with you: The Death Cure is the only Maze Runner movie I have seen. I was not yet on a regular reviewing beat when the first two came out, but as the trilogy comes to its conclusion, the assignment has fallen to me. Now, I suppose I could have made time to get caught up on the first two, but I often contend that viewers can watch multi-chapter entertainment properties in whatever order they feel like. The Maze Runner franchise is probably not the best choice for doing so, as it is the type of film series that doesn’t waste any time playing catch-up for newbies. But I decided to experiment a bit and see if any enjoyment could be had amidst the confusion.

The good news is that The Death Cure’s spectacle is exciting and well-crafted enough to be enjoyed devoid of context. The opening action chase sequence of vehicles barreling towards a cliff plays like a postapocalyptic cross between the opening of Fast Five and the tank chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is not as death-defying or as instantly iconic as its predecessors, but it sets itself apart enough to not be overly derivative. Director Wes Ball’s only three feature films thus far are the Maze Runner trilogy, but he has proven himself technically capable to fill in any openings that may exist in the action genre.

As for the story, I was generally able to fill in what must have happened in the first two enough to follow along, and it is not exactly what I was expecting. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his crew are dealing with the aftereffects of a virus that has infected most of the world’s population, leaving many zombified while those who are well-off wall themselves in the Last City. Thomas is one of a few who are immune, and he could be instrumental in developing a cure, but he does not exactly agree with the methods of those dedicating themselves to finding one. There is plenty to be gleaned here about the struggle between the 99% and the 1%, and I appreciate that that point is not underlined too hard.

It is also welcome that this series (or the conclusion of it anyway) is not too beholden to the stereotypical “chosen one” YA narrative. Sure, Thomas holds the key to saving humanity, but that fact is accidental, and it does not really have anything to do with what makes him a good leader. As for a (good) quality of this genre that The Death Cure does play into, there is its surplus of quality adult actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper) popping up in supporting roles.

Ultimately, The Death Cure is a bit too long. There is no need to flirt with two and a half hours when much of the last act involves one group chasing after another, and then that second group chasing after the first, moving along in a constant struggle to get to the last stand. But while it is a bit thick with narrative, it never lags. This is not particularly groundbreaking cinema, but it is also no cheap knockoff. It is unique enough and content enough to explore its own little world to make it worth a visit.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure is Recommended If You Like: The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, The Action Sequences of the Indiana Jones and Fast and Furious series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Infection Checks

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”