With the summer of 2019 firmly in the rearview and a slew of anticipated films coming up this fall, it seems like an apt time to catch up with the most acclaimed, provocative, or notable films of the past few months. The state of theatrical moviegoing may be in flux and the cultural discourse surrounding cinema isn't what it used to be (unless the film in question is a three-hour superhero epic); but still, it's refreshing to know that some movies can engender some kind of heated debate.
With his follow-up to Hereditary, Ari Aster created a sun-drenched, wickedly funny folk-horror tale with Midsommar. The film begins with an absurdly tragic family calamity reminiscent of his feature debut, a murder-suicide so elaborately staged it must be meant partially in jest (which wouldn't be surprising considering Aster's pitch-black sense of humor). It also presages the morbid ritualized mayhem that will soon transpire.
College student Dani (Florence Pugh)—the only surviving member of the family that dies in one fell swoop in the prologue—decides on a whim to join her unsubtly-named boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his callous bro friends, all grad students in anthropology, on a trip to Sweden. They stay in an insular community that still practices age-old pagan rituals, which may or may not include forced impregnation, death by fire, and heads getting bashed in with giant mallets. The tone is somehow grim and loopy at once; Aster enjoys exploiting the gory potential of these scenarios but also recognizes the preposterousness beneath it all, making for a unique and highly enjoyable combination.
If Hereditary barely disguised its indebtedness to genre classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, it still catalyzed American cinema last year like a bolt of lightning: the scares were meticulously crafted and the parallels between the characters' emotional grief and the explicit horror they manifest was ambitious and effective. Midsommar can't compare to the thunderous shock of that movie, but it's also far from a sophomore slump. Once again, Aster reveals himself to be a sly manipulator of genre convention, updating The Wicker Man with a more caustic political edge. Intentionally or not, it's also reminiscent of Eli Roth's Hostel, with its story of clueless Americans consuming, exploiting, and ultimately getting brutalized by a foreign culture; it's not as proudly sleazy as Roth's subversive torture porn, but Midsommar's veneer of dark elegance is satisfying in its own way.
Aster prods at timely political themes: the Americans are entitled and xenophobic, though they disguise their conservatism in an air of intellectualism, pretending to be open-minded and liberal when their aims are almost entirely self-serving. The exception is Dani, desperate to find a replacement family after her own vanishes in the blink of an eye; she'll turn to any group that welcomes her with open arms, even if that group embraces blood-stained sacrifice. And so much the better if that sacrifice rids her of the repressive patriarchy (personified by Christian) that she's been suffering under. Florence Pugh (so powerful in 2016's flawed but provocative Lady Macbeth) is central to conveying these ideas, simultaneously developing a flesh-and-blood character and serving as a mouthpiece for Aster's mischievous themes.
Midsommar provides enough meat to chew on long after the film is over, but its most impressive sequence is the long buildup to the first, spectacularly gruesome sacrifice about halfway through the movie; we know something horrible is about to happen, and Aster strings us along with giddy masochism, delaying the inevitable bloodbath as long as possible. Now that's top-notch horror filmmaking. B+
Nostalgia is wielded as a weapon in the films of Quentin Tarantino, and nowhere is that truer than in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. There's no doubt this is the director's most personal movie: not only was he famously weaned on a steady diet of '60s and '70s classics (Hollywood and otherwise) during his formative years as a video store employee, but he grew up in Los Angeles and was only six years old when Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family—a tragedy that, as Joan Didion argued, may have sounded the death knell of hippiedom and the free love era. It's debatable whether Tarantino has ever made a personal movie before—his cinema is willfully artificial, taking place in a hermetically sealed world where the magic of moviedom matters more than anything else—but Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood finds him tiptoeing close to a self-reckoning.
But not quite. The first two hours of the film may be the best of Tarantino's career, more soulful and elegiac than Jackie Brown, more fascinatingly self-reflexive than Inglourious Basterds. We follow two aging, washed-up white men who have made their living in the movie capital: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an alcoholic, self-loathing actor who never became a star but appeared in a number of ultraviolent actioners (including one in which he roasts an entire army of Nazis with a flamethrower) and now appears in B-grade TV shows; and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a stuntman content to drift through life in anonymity, taking in all the artifice with a sense of bemusement. Tarantino clearly loves these two men, and it's hard not to: the best scenes of the movie consist of them hanging out and talking bullshit, driving through Los Angeles at night with a soundtrack of pop hits inevitably blaring.
A run-in with the Manson family—and concomitantly, an encounter with the end of an era, the death of blissful ignorance, getting left behind by time—is imminent. Rick lives next door to Roman Polanski (who, perhaps wisely, is hardly featured in the movie, though there's a great moment when he disdainfully shoos away a dog named Dr. Sapirstein) and his new, pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Cliff has an ongoing flirtation with an underage hippie who calls herself Pussycat (Margaret Qualley); he blithely resists her sexual advances, then drives her to the decrepit Spahn Ranch where the Manson family hides out (a wonderfully suspenseful scene in which everything—architecture, nature, culture—seems to be rotting away). How disappointing it is, then, that when all of these forces and ideologies do eventually collide, Tarantino offers us the same thing he's given us repeatedly before: ultraviolent fantasy that rewrites history, as if postmodern revisionism is mindblowing no matter how many times you do it. It's not so much offensive as it is boring, especially in comparison to the rush of moviemaking euphoria that has preceded the climax for several hours.
Arguably for the first time in his career, Tarantino deals with his own privilege and looming obsolescence. While he's still one of the most powerful and ubiquitous forces in American cinema (as evidenced by the fact that he can make this almost-three hour film, consisting mostly of dialogue and the exploration of a setting, on celluloid), the social and political forces of the real world have started to impinge on his bubble: his close proximity to the MeToo movement, thanks to his connection to Harvey Weinstein; the controversy over his treatment of Uma Thurman during the making of Kill Bill; his perceived insensitivity to non-white cultures and the pain they've undergone throughout history; his questionable treatment of female characters. Parts of Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood seem to be a reckoning with these accusations; this most insular of directors allows the forces of history and reality to creep in. In one scene, Rick, wallowing in feelings of inadequacy on a movie set, has a conversation with a child actress named Trudi (Julia Butters)—intelligent, professional, focused while Rick is sloppy and insecure—whom the movie suggests is the future of the industry. It's a remarkably uncharacteristic scene for Tarantino, and even if it doesn't entirely work, the moment in which Rick improvises while shooting a later scene and elicits a glowing compliment from Trudi is surprisingly moving. In another scene, while Cliff drives Pussycat across the Los Angeles freeways, she bluntly mentions that the violence of Hollywood is nothing compared to the brutality of the Vietnam War, and the scene abruptly cuts, as if the movie is unable or unwilling to deal with this real-world atrocity. It's a provocative, thought-provoking moment as Tarantino confronts accusations that his movies are oblivious to barbarity outside of the movie theater; but, he argues through a split-second edit, they have no place in his mystical pseudo-realities.
If much of the movie deals with the fact that Tarantino (and his films) remain unchanging as the world and its attitudes keep on moving, the controversial end of Once Upon a Time... calls for willful ignorance. If only Hollywood could have stayed as it was, the film fantasizes, and these aging white men could have maintained their positions of power. If only those privileged in the cultural hierarchy could keep on distorting reality through the magic of cinema. The drastic rewriting that takes place at the end of Once Upon a Time... is bizarre and revealing but also stridently regressive; it celebrates cinema as a tool not for conjuring something larger than life, but for replacing life with something that more self-servingly suits the needs of its maker.
That's why, of all the criticisms that have been flung at this film—from the portrayal of Bruce Lee (a scene that is strongly suggested to be Cliff's macho reverie), to the lack of dialogue for Robbie's Sharon Tate (who is meant to be mythological, an icon for the ecstasy of movie stardom), to the white masculinity of the main characters (a narrow depiction that seems, at least initially, critical)—the one that's most potent is the essential obliviousness of it all. Maybe it's touching that Tarantino's extreme nostalgia posits a world in which Hollywood (specifically the 1960s variety) and its spectacular imagery continues to reign. Maybe the wistful ending is unexpectedly autobiographical, an aching realization that the past is unrecoverable except through the transcendent power of movies. But it's also frustratingly insular, absorbed only in itself at a time when society and cinema were changing in fascinating, limitless ways. For a while, Tarantino's newest film seems primed to deal with those transformations, but ultimately it falls back on the same smug ultraviolence for which its director is most widely known. B–
There's so much to like about The Farewell that it's ultimately a shame there's not an ounce of stylistic ingenuity in it. The autobiographical story follows Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina), a college student who lives in New York City near her parents; she learns that her beloved grandma (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four cancer and been given only a few months to live, but the family has decided to keep this fact from her so she can live out her remaining days in (relative) blissful ignorance.
This story provides ample opportunity to explore cultural rifts for first- or second-generation immigrants, specifically differing attitudes in China and the U.S. toward mortality, truth, family, aging, and so on. To the extent that the movie works, it's because of this thematic richness and Awkwafina's performance; she's as good as the critics are saying, naturally and subtly blending comedy and tragedy, sarcasm and sincerity. She can often convey the movie's most complex themes through a mere look or line inflection: the way she eats the food that her family offers her, or her conversation in English with a Chinese doctor in front of her uncomprehending grandmother. There's also a clever shot late in the movie that makes the bustling streets of Shanghai and New York look nearly identical. Elsewhere, though, The Farewell feels the need to hammer its ideas home through mawkish dialogue or overdone stylistic tropes, like a late scene in which a character, having undergone an epiphany, runs down a sidewalk accompanied by stirring string music, or two scenes in the last twenty minutes that feature an ensemble of characters walking in slow-motion toward the camera, staring down the audience defiantly.
The critical and commercial success of the movie is ennobling, and it's sad how few movies treat diaspora communities with respect and sensitivity. (Writer-director Lulu Wang has talked about how difficult it was to find financing from producers, many of whom demanded that the film feature American characters speaking English to make it more palatable—a sad indication of most American financiers' tunnel-vision attitudes.) But that doesn't change the fact that The Farewell is visually bland and too eager to adopt simple cliches, which do a disservice to the rich experiences the characters undergo. B–
The funniest movie of the year so far is Booksmart, which only occasionally comes off as a female retread of Superbad; in almost every way, Olivia Wilde's feature debut is the superior film. The heroes are Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), high school seniors on the eve of graduation who are preparing to spend a year abroad in Botswana and go to college at Yale, respectively. Proud feminists who idolize RBG and Beyoncé, outspoken progressives who disdain the culture of ignorance that surrounds them, Amy and Molly are smart and admirable but feel they've missed their chance to enjoy their high school years the way you should: partying, having sex, and acting stupid. So they make a vow to indulge in one night of debauchery before they graduate.
This sounds like a typical teen sex comedy, which it is and it isn't: the horniness is there, the copious drugs and alcohol, the clueless adults and unrequited crushes, but the characters and their worldviews have changed. Amy is gay, she and Molly lambaste the 1%, and they idolize the bravery of political resistance (no surprise that Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony are name-dropped). The most refreshing difference here, though, is there are no villainous cliques or tacked-on conflicts to be solved in the third act; during the inevitable party scene late in the film, there's no class tension or racism, no homophobia or social ostracism. The driving plot mechanisms are insecurity and fear of an unknown future. As Justin Chang writes in his Los Angeles Times review, this movie makes you feel "unaccountably hopeful for the state of humanity," in ways that only occasionally feel forced and inauthentic. If the youth of America are this ambitious, open-minded, and good-natured (and so committed to the palliative powers of having fun, getting laid, and imbibing mind-altering substances), then maybe there's reason for optimism.
Wilde indulges in some distracting stylistic tricks: one dramatic confrontation is accompanied by the sound dropping out and the camera doing a pointless 360-degree rotation; there's also a stop-motion animation sequence (taking place after Amy and Molly drop acid) that's desperately unfunny. But there's also restlessly mobile camerawork, an adrenaline-fueled narrative pace, and wall-to-wall songs courtesy of Parliament, Lizzo, Anderson .Paak, Run the Jewels et al. that give the Baby Driver soundtrack a run for its money. B
Not all of Jim Jarmusch's movies are great, but they've never been as sloppy, pointless, and out-of-touch as The Dead Don't Die. Anecdotes about the formation of the movie point toward a superior movie that might have been made: the idea of making a zombie comedy was pitched by Tilda Swinton to Jarmusch on the set of (the vastly superior) Only Lovers Left Alive, and the original idea for The Dead Don't Die was for it to be a series of self-contained episodes in the manner of Coffee and Cigarettes. That might have been an amusing film to watch, the themes less obvious and the characters less aggravatingly thin. As it is, The Dead Don't Die is a marked low point for one of America's best directors, coming on the heels of his massively poignant late-period masterpiece Paterson.
The ideas behind The Dead Don't Die (if that's the right word) can be summed up as a misanthropic credo: we're all braindead anyway, consumed by technology and our own fleeting entertainments, that there's hardly any difference between the zombies that inevitably appear and the living souls that wander around the small town of Centerville. If you want to see these themes done well, watch practically any installment in George A. Romero's Living Dead series. The political edge that Jarmusch seems to tease at (but never thoroughly elucidate) pales in comparison to Night of the Living Dead, and the critique of consumerism has nothing on Dawn of the Dead. Otherwise, Jarmusch flails for signs of life or meaning—frequent breakdowns of the fourth wall, ponderous voiceover accompanying slow-motion carnage in the end—but it's all for naught.
With a cast this good, there are a few charming moments; but if the biggest laugh comes courtesy of Adam Driver behind the wheel of a SmartCar, you've got a problem. After Only Lovers Left Alive, which turned vampire mythology into a sad and unique comment on the decay and transformation of urban spaces, The Dead Don't Die comes off as vapid and desperate. D
The Souvenir is an odd and frustrating film, seemingly by design. Heavily autobiographical, it follows a young aspiring filmmaker, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), in London in the early 1980s. The story gives us many melodramatic tropes that should seem familiar from other movies, particularly artist biopics: obsession with a dangerous man, drug addiction, class tensions, terrorism on the streets, all of which turbulently coalesce in the artist's vision. But The Souvenir holds all of these things at arms' length, so stubbornly taking place inside the head of the protagonist (and the writer-director, Joanna Hogg) that we can hardly find empathy or poignancy in the tragedies onscreen. It's more a willfully obtuse comment on self-perception than an autobiography per se.
Which all makes for a fascinating and rich but extremely aloof experience. We're left with glimmers and fragments of scenes—pecking out a screenplay on a typewriter, momentary glances in a mirror, the sight of Julie's lover Anthony (Tom Burke) shivering from heroin withdrawal—without the surrounding narrative and emotional context that most films offer us. What's most effective is the bold depiction of a filmmaker's burgeoning practice, as Julie seems to manifest her memories by splicing together 16mm on a Steenbeck editing machine: visual manifestation and internal memory are linked in a way that few movies can accomplish. Hogg has to be given credit for her idiosyncratic treatment, and the excellent cast (including Honor Swinton Byrne's real-life mother Tilda playing her onscreen mother) gives mercurial life to extremely challenging roles. But The Souvenir leaves only a cerebral impact; the softening comforts of dramatic storytelling are nowhere to be found, which is both the movie's masterstroke and downfall. B
The extent to which the Toy Story series has paralleled the ups and downs of a human life, from youth to middle age to the twilight years, is remarkable; it's like the first five minutes of Up stretched across a tetralogy. At first glance, Toy Story 4 seems like the least necessary of the bunch, and the prologue leaves you wondering if this is just another cash grab courtesy of Pixar and Walt Disney. The arrival of Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), a decrepit toy pieced together by kindergartener Bonnie out of a plastic fork, pipecleaners, chewed gum, and googly eyes, introduces one of the movie's main themes: its celebration of outcasts and weirdos, its belief that the imagination of children is superior to high-end consumer toys (hardly an original concept, and ironic for this mega-blockbuster franchise).
What makes Toy Story 4 really special is the relationship between Woody (Tom Hanks) and Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Woody, of course, has gone through several different prepubescent owners, believing that loyalty to one's master/partner is paramount; Bo was sold off years ago (as revealed early in Toy Story 4) and has been wandering the world with only her sheep to keep her company, never accepted into another family—and so much the happier for it. Woody's foremost belief in domestic partnership is contrasted with Bo's liberating independence, though in the end they discover that their own romantic partnership may be possible, that the freedom to be an individual doesn't preclude love. Against all odds, Toy Story 4 turns into a celebration of self-actualization and a reminder that marriage isn't the only path to a blissful union—a remarkable conclusion to come to for an ostensible kids' movie. The sublime animation and satisfying narrative beats are hardly a surprise, but Toy Story 4's thematic breadth and sensitivity to the road less traveled are wholly unexpected, and a fitting coda (one hopes) to such a consistent series. B+
Jeff Goldblum as a sleazy lobotomist running rampant through 1950s America: the idea may conjure dark, whimsical comedy, but there's little that's funny about The Mountain, Rick Alverson's one-of-a-kind enigma. Alverson has often enjoyed blurring the lines between comedy and drama, tragedy and absurdity, narrative and mood, and The Mountain may be his most jarring and accomplished experiment yet. It's a tale of moral alienation and parentlessness: after his mother is institutionalized, Andy (Tye Sheridan) is raised by his unstable father Frederick (Udo Kier), a figure skating instructor. Following Frederick's death due to heart attack, Andy meets Wallace (Goldblum), a family friend, sham psychiatrist, and lobotomist who apparently was responsible for his mother's disappearance (and possible death). Desperate for any kind of father figure, Andy agrees to follow Wallace through the American Northwest, serving as photographer and assistant for the numerous lobotomies that transpire, inflicted upon seemingly powerless subjects (most of whom are women, though there are some men as well, a number of which are notably black).
There's a lot going on here: the backwardness of America's mental health system, the tendency to hospitalize problematic outsiders, the moral dislocation of the country in the mid-20th century, the callousness of turning violent and destructive scenarios into visual media. At times, all of these ideas seem to run away from the movie, which is content to climax with an insane and inscrutable monologue from another mentally disturbed character, Jack (Denis Lavant), and an ambiguous image of lobotomized antiheroes driving on a snowy mountain path. What does it all mean? This question, not to mention numerous plot threads, are hard to resolve. But it's to the movie's credit that it offers countless enticing questions to the audience and forces them to come to their own conclusions. The visual style, with a square aspect ratio, grainy 16mm cinematography, and an absurd minimalism that conveys dreamlike images such as hermaphroditic sexual fantasies and synchronized figure skating routines, is precarious; these oddities could easily tip over into sordid whimsy. That the film remains affecting and unsettling is a testament to the actors' finely calibrated performances (with Sheridan's taciturnity nicely contrasted by Lavant's outsized theatricality) and a serious examination of the maladies that fester beneath the tranquil surface of pastoral American life. B+