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Movie Review: “Midsommar”

I can’t say I was the biggest fan of director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary.” Aside from a few gut-churning moments (including one visual that really ends up burned into your brain—you know the one), the movie often felt like an exercise in pointlessness. The chaos and violence on display was largely disconnected from any sense of moral desert, leading to a dispiriting and dissatisfying conclusion. 

Alas, Aster’s “Midsommar”—despite its artsy affect and stylish trailers—is not much better. In Aster’s hands, a story that wants desperately to be about something, to build to a shatteringly satisfying climax, lands with a dull thud.

The journey begins with young Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) reeling from a horrible family tragedy. As part of her healing process, Dani tags along on a trip to northern Sweden with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper), mulish Mark (Will Poulter), and Swedish expat Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their destination: Hårga, a small village home to Pelle’s family, where every 90 years a great Midsommar festival is held to commemorate the solstice. It promptly becomes clear, however, that Hårga’s festival is a surprisingly dangerous place.

It’s obvious that “Midsommar” (sporting a nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime) very, very much wants to be a kind of art-horror film in the vein of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake. It is not such a film: at bottom, this is a gussied-up version of “The Wicker Man” with more existential angst and prettier cinematography. Virtually everything that happens in “Midsommar” is telegraphed well in advance, and even the movie’s climax is altogether too predictable. 

To the extent there are underlying themes in play here, “Midsommar” seems to be a somewhat ham-handed parable about embracing the Dionysian element in life—staring defiantly into the cold indifference of existence and choosing to live (or die) on one’s own terms. (It’s surely no coincidence that Dani’s boring boyfriend’s name is Christian, while her last name is Ardor.) In line with that vision, the film sees to celebrate a kind of Nietzschean pantheism, a pagan ethos without a pagan cosmology. The naturalistic religion of Hårga does not appear to recognize an afterlife, any kind of deity, or much of anything beyond the rhythms of the world’s physical processes. Indeed, Aster’s camera regularly lingers on broken bodies and torn flesh, as if to say we are only masses of meat in motion. There is no room for transcendence in this world.

That angle isn’t particularly interesting: it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the genre. But there’s an alternate reading of the movie that, I’d suggest, is a significant improvement. Just as in “Hereditary,” Aster implies that the therapeutic ethos of late liberalism suppresses the Dionysian elements of life. As the film’s conclusion makes clear, Dani can only become fully actualized—fully herself—in Hårga, far away from the world of doctors and therapists and antidepressants. But where the protagonists of “Hereditary” found themselves torn and destroyed outside the edifices of the therapeutic world—when they realized their enemies were not psychological, but demonic—the heroine of “Midsommar” embraces and assimilates her encounter with the weird. I have no idea if such an interpretation reflects Aster’s intent—it strikes me as a little extravagant–but it’s certainly a step up from the mundane take on Nietzsche that plays out onscreen.

That’s not to say that “Midsommar” is a total wash—Pugh is fantastic in the lead role, and the film’s production design and cinematography are both exceptional. But it’s hard not to see this movie as a major disappointment: why, for instance, doesn’t the movie end with Dani fully embracing her Dionysian side and doing something truly dramatic—like self-immolating, or ascending to oracular status, or violently taking over Hårga? Instead, we get a conclusion that anyone with a passing familiarity with this genre could’ve anticipated from the start.

In short, for a film that demands so much time and attention of the viewer, the payoff of “Midsommar” is tragically paltry. And given the movie’s obvious potential, that is sad indeed.

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2019 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum”

In a cinematic marketplace glutted with throwaway action flicks, the “John Wick” films are something quite unique. They’re memorable and compulsively watchable, and yet it’s hard to say exactly what makes them so distinct. Is it the icy lead performance by the ever-stoic Keanu Reeves? Is it the sleek, rain-drenched, neon-noir set design? Is it the saga’s intricate lore, featuring a global High Table of assassins with detailed rules for conducting “business”?

“Parabellum” picks up minutes after the conclusion of 2017’s “Chapter 2.” After killing a rival on the grounds of the New York Continental—a hotel and neutral zone among assassins—Wick has been named excommunicado, with a $14 million bounty on his head.

As one might expect, “Parabellum” is an onslaught of chaotic action from the very start. Wick demolishes his attackers with books, knives, swords, belts, cars, horses, dogs, and many, many guns. If you have a taste for gorgeously choreographed displays of carnage, “Parabellum” is the film for you.

But as it so happens, this third installment takes the storyline in some unexpected directions. I never thought I’d find myself writing this, but beneath all the blood and bullets, “Parabellum” is a strangely spiritual tale.

It would be very easy for a film like “Parabellum”—featuring a secret global organization seeking to control the protagonist—to hit a series of predictable notes. Surely, one assumes, Wick will overthrow the existing regime and build a new one, a free one. But for the most part, the film avoids this temptation: despite Wick’s conflicts with the Table, the series shies away from casting him as the vanguard of something new. Indeed, Wick’s struggles throughout much of “Parabellum” are efforts to reintegrate himself into the order that his actions have defied—efforts to atone for his misdeeds.

Midway through the film, Wick travels to Casablanca in the hopes of making amends with the Table. In order to do so, he must come face-to-face with “the one who sits above the Table”—an enigmatic Elder who possesses the power to restore Wick’s status. To find the Elder, Wick must travel as far as he can into the distant desert, until his strength utterly gives way; then, and only then, will the Elder appear. Wick’s guide on this odyssey is an enigmatic figure named Sofia (Halle Berry).

This particular imagery is strongly symbolic stuff: Wick’s journey into the desert to commune with “the one who sits above the Table”—the one whose word is absolute law, who oversees the world’s governing powers—closely tracks the sojourns of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, who left the world behind in order to encounter God. And his guide’s name is surely no coincidence: in the writings of many Eastern Orthodox theologians, including Vladimir Solovyov and Sergey Bulgakov, Sophia is a moniker for God’s divine wisdom.

This reading of the series—as profoundly influenced by elements of Near Eastern spirituality foreign to many Westerners—explains a great deal. Unusually for a thriller film marketed to Western audiences, the “John Wick” series is a decidedly anti-introspective affair. While competitor franchises like “Taken” and “Die Hard” aren’t shy about allowing their protagonists to voice their thoughts and feelings, Wick is a far more taciturn figure. We catch quick glimpses of Wick mourning his late wife, but beyond that, he remains an enigma.

The theological reading of “John Wick” helps explain this:  Just as in Orthodox practice, this saga’s characters’ values are not merely professed or penned, but embodied, manifested in action. Wick doesn’t wrestle with “Catholic guilt” or a “Protestant work ethic,” because his universe is Orthodox to the core, oriented toward experiential encounter with a power beyond himself. The meaning and purpose in Wick’s world is thus not something superimposed on the world through his own strength of will, but something already there, something to be discovered. And so we never glimpse Wick’s inner thoughts because we have no need to: his conduct, and his general willingness to submit himself to higher laws, speak for themselves.

Towards the film’s conclusion, Wick confronts an enemy in the middle of Grand Central Station, and the resulting bloodshed goes completely unnoticed by passersby. It is as if Wick and his adversaries are invisible—inhabiting a viscerally real, yet unseen, world just beneath the surface of the ordinary. That moment captures the truly distinctive heart of the franchise—the series’ affirmation of a hidden, transpersonal, “cosmic” order with its own rules and principles, one within which death and sufferings are made comprehensible. And in that world, there is not even a trace of smugness or irony.

Certainly “Parabellum”—like all “John Wick” films—is something of an acquired taste. Those who prefer a slightly tamer breed of action flick will have little use for the film’s deluge of bloodshed. But for those who’ve followed this series since the start, “Chapter 3” will prove more than satisfying—and for newcomers, it’s worth noting that the series continues to double down on its intriguingly unconventional storytelling.

Among Western thriller films, the “John Wick” saga may well be the “least Western” of them all—a vision of premodern action cinema that confounds contemporary expectations. And that, I think, is well worth celebrating.

 

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Thrillers

 
 
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