Spider-Man: Far From Home
Toy Story 4
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Somewhere between The Wicker Man and Zardoz sits Midsommar, Ari Aster's follow up to his acclaimed horror breakout success Hereditary. While the introductory sequence suggested Midsommar would be as oppressively miserable as its predecessor, I was pleased to find that Aster managed to balance the darkness with plenty humor, absurdity, and some gorgeous visuals. In fact, it's almost as if he took my major criticisms of Hereditary and actively worked to ameliorate them. Chief of those criticisms was that the supernatural elements usurped the drama, elements that are here left ambiguous or explainable by natural events. Also some of the odd, stilted performances that gave me flashbacks to any of Shyamalan's dreck are no longer present or at least couched in language barriers and communal isolation.
Any review of this film will have a problem with spoilers as it's hard not to mention the movies I name dropped at the beginning. Anyone who has seen Robin Hardy's original The Wicker Man (much less Cannibal Holocaust or any other horror film) will not be surprised by much of the plot. A group of collegiates go to a remote commune populated by a nature cult and get picked off one by one as they naively assume their little anthropology trip is a completely benevolent setup. At the surface level there's some creepy things happening, some decent practical gore effects, and people hyperventilating and screaming like it's The Devils or Possession. It even surpasses Climax in hallucinatory simulation with a hefty helping of magic mushroom-infused warping effects. Much like Zardoz, usage of alien-like cult behavior and eye-popping visual design add to the already disturbing and sometimes confusing (if you live under a rock and have never seen any sort of magic/religious ritual) proceedings.
However, away at this remote commune in the Swedish countryside, the movie's characters are dealing with a lot more than being assimilated into a hive mind or eating pubic hair pies. Florence Pugh plays a young woman, Dani, whose entire immediate family has recently and suddenly died. Her boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Raynor, is emotionally absent and mostly self-centered, reluctantly bringing her along on this trip to Sweden, more than anything, out of guilt about her loss. As the trip progresses, their relationship reveals itself to be toxic and one-sided as Dani often suffers from panic attacks due to triggering events. She withdraws and internalizes these problems and blames herself when confronting Christian about his lack of mindfulness between them. Of all the brutal sequences in the film, this is probably the most disturbingly accurate portrayal of such a relationship as I've seen lately. It's hard to watch, and it eggs us on into celebrating Christian's demise and Dani's self-actualization.
This is another one of those clever things that make Aster's films stand out from most Blumhouse productions and other cheap horror fare. There's some real exploration of what it is to suffer and feel helpless, especially around those who you're supposed to trust and be loved by. Dani is asked, "When Christian holds you, do you feel as if you are home?" It's a difficult thing to deny when your life revolves around this other person. At the same time, the fate that befalls Christian isn't warranted, and it holds up a mirror to the audience. If we gleefully accept the film's violence as justified retribution for emotional failures and wrongdoing in relationships, we have failed to glean any sort of meaningful lessons from a movie that is fundamentally about the relative nature of empathy and the harmonious balance between all life that humans should be striving towards.
There's also some really goofy WTF moments, and whether you're looking for a weird trippy movie, or a slow-burn 70's style horror, or a deep look at how to be better humans, there's something there for everyone. Everyone, that is, except for morons who think creepy little dolls and loud noises are scary.
When I first saw Sienna Miller as Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl, I thought "Man, that gal can act, too bad she's playing the junkie equivalent of a Barbie doll." In American Woman, we are presented with a richly textured example of Miller's dynamic range. Perhaps an even bigger surprise is that one of Ridley Scott's kids has actually directed a good film, a first for any of the Scott household in years if All the Money in the World and Morgan are the low hurdles to jump in this argument. And no I didn't like The Martian either. Leave it to Jake, the kid who cut his teeth on 90's alt-rock music videos to give us something poignant and precise for once in a long while.
The film concerns a woman named Deborah Callahan (Miller) who lives and loves and loses in small-town Pennsylvania. Not since David Mackenzie's Hell or Highwater have I seen such a brutally accurate depiction of small-town life set to the screen. All the plights of working-class households, broken homes, and the bad decisions that travel between the two are laid out in their hapless glory. Deb's arc is a non-stop tour through the pitfalls of early parenthood, single life, infidelity, and tragedy that can devastate an entire community. When her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferriera), a young, single mother as well, goes missing, it sends ripples of grief, wrath, and the promise of change through the Callahan family, giving Miller the perfect scenario to showcase how much manic energy she can infuse into each scene.
While the main plot-line centers around the daughter's disappearance, life must go on for Deb and her family. Moments of hilarity sneak in from time to time (bouyed by the warm presence of Will Sasso and Christina Hendrix) as the family bickers and Deb gets her life on track. It is the story of a girl forced into adulthood too soon to develop healthy coping mechanisms for the tragedies that lie ahead, but when the harsh facts of reality quite literally hit her, Miller's Deborah emerges from them violent but sure each subsequent time. You see her scars, and you see her harden. However, it's empowering and indicative of her maturity and clarity over a tumultuous span of 11 years, a time that can break many people with less affliction.
Of course, it's all just a movie, a story to tell ourselves to make us feel a little better about the world around us and the problems we face. If you know the premise or have read a review, you probably won't be terribly surprised by what happens to the characters. But I don't think that that is because American Woman is a derivative or manipulative work, rather, the characters just feel and act so true to life. The familial strife, the grudges, the pain of infidelity, and the profound sense of grief is a sledgehammer to the gut because we have (barring folks who've lived in some privileged, upper-class malaise) probably all been somewhere in this film at some point in our experiences. This is working class drama for real people, and its impact isn't contingent on being depressing or dark or saccharine. It's a lens peering into the triumph after the tragedy of day to day living.
Teen Spirit is a mediocre, underwhelming cinematic experience. Absent Elle Fanning and the list of prominent auto-tuned teen idols that pop-ulate the soundtrack, there would be no justification for this bland, pedestrian retread of the "rags to riches" story of a hard-working, poor young singer finding near overnight success in the music industry with her innate/inane talent and a little guidance by a wizened master. She somehow rises above minimal adversity to deliver an electrifying performance that resonates deeply with her family, peers, and community to become a Starâ¢. I don't think it's an unreasonably elitist stance to say that music with the emotional depth of a hairspray ad jingle hardly justifies watching a feature-length reiteration of the first 20 minutes of any episode of VH1's "Behind the Music".
That could suffice for a review of the film, but I don't think I would have even brought up that I've seen Teen Spirit if my viewing hadn't been contextualized by the film I watched immediately after, the long awaited documentary of Aretha Franklin's jaw-dropping live performance at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Amazing Grace. One doesn't need to have any particular religious fervor or sentiment to appreciate the outpouring of spirit and soul from Reverend James Cleveland, the choir, and the audience, all beside Aretha erupting with vibrant joy and exultation from behind the pulpit. So with both of these films in mind, I would like to point out two of the most essential ingredients it takes to fully realize a quality music-centric film, whether it be biopic, musical, concert film, or musical drama.
First of all, music is, at its core, an art form that more than any other exists within the realm of emotion. Sound itself is a physical and invasive experience that, sans serious technological impediments or physical abnormalities, is completely unavoidable, and as we grow and experience the sounds around us, we associate each vibration within a matrix of moods and emotions. The more one delves into the world of music, the more connections one makes with their memories and associations, and however intangible, ephemeral, and indescribable those experiences are, they nevertheless serve as guideposts to our emotional state before, during, and after. Perhaps this feeds into why subjective musical taste is always personally valued yet completely irrelevant to communicating the value of a tune, rhythm, noise, or ambiance because we are all on our own journey, and what we value today might be more or less emotionally potent tomorrow.
Emotion is essential in anything that has to do with music (and experience in general), but to inform that emotion in any artificial context, and I might be going out on a limb here, we crave or at least have certain standards by which to verify the authenticity of that emotion. Now I'm not saying some of us can't just go with the flow, but I know for myself and many others, there is a brief moment of disconnect between the external experience and the internal dialogue when we watch a movie or hear a song, we don't immediately drop everything we are thinking and feeling to simply live in a moment that consumes us. To verify whether something is still worth our time we do checks on the authenticity of the experience and the place from which the art proceeds. Am I dreaming? Is someone putting me on? How much time do I have left, and should I spend it here, watching Elle mope and do Carly Rae Jepsen karaoke?
So Fanning is a Polish farm girl on the Isle of Wight, living in a broken home, and pining for a bright future of wearing cute clothes and singing angsty, millenial synth-pop songs on the tele. Aside from the fact that I'm not the target market for this film, there should be some deeper human experience roping me in to seeing Fanning as anything other than a Hollywood It-girl who really wants to audition for Tegan & Sara. Oh there's emotion there alright, but the authenticity of it has about as much soul as the deodorant of the film's namesake. Then I look at Aretha Franklin, an actual young woman from a broken home who had risen from a tumultuous time in society to use her success to shed light on and celebrate her real community, surrounded by the family and friends who gave what they could to help her along the way, and a beacon of hope for a people who had been disenfranchised for centuries with the only respite to help them through near-insurmountable years of discrimination, hardship, and hatred the very music that they communed that evening to sing.
I know, it's apples to oranges. It's a work of fiction versus documented reality, and who am I to pit the two against each other? I just think it's the perfect demonstration of what causes the bile to rise in my throat when I see mediocrity rewarded while true beauty falls to the way side time and again. Real beauty is sweaty and sometimes hard to watch, but it's always worth sitting through to the end. While Amazing Grace tore my heart out with zealous triumph, Teen Spirit was just hard to watch.
As I was driving home from seeing Avengers: Endgame I was passed by someone I recognized as a co-worker. On the back of his car was an "infowars.com" bumper sticker, and I wondered if he talks about fluoride turning frogs gay and reptilian humanoids drinking the pineal glands of newborn infants with the other bus mechanics. I imagine that would be a little bit embarrassing to actually converse about, almost as embarrassing as I might feel when discussing superhero movies at work. But why should I feel ashamed of it? When people I work with talk about movies, it's never about Barry Jenkins' latest rumination on the trials and tribulations of Black America or what won the Palme d'Or that year. No, it's always capeshit, and when they talk about it they usually don't say anything beyond whether they liked it or not. I never hear if they can see parallels to current international politics in Iron Man's authoritarian leanings or the Malthusian roots of Thanos' murderous motives. It's more "I liked it when character X fought character Y, and character Z made a quip that amused me."
Really, there's no harm in that. These movies do have some degree of political and philosophical subtext, but they aren't rich pieces of illustrated literature that warrant some voluminous dissection. Most people who have followed along with Kevin Feige's grand-sweeping film empire have done so not to expand their realm of experience and perception but to get their dose of mindless spectacle. The reason why it's embarrassing for me to talk about these films in any serious way is because it says a lot of a person who would sit three hours for something they obviously dislike. I could have rewatched Barry Lyndon or La Dolce Vita, but any self-respect I might have had is out the window after willingly subjecting myself to it all knowing full well I'm probably going to dislike it. It's amazing also that general audiences can get through the first hour alone with its glacial pace and weepy dreariness. Just like the first two episodes of the final season of "Game of Thrones" it is comprised of people standing around and droopily talking to each other about how hopeless everything is, then the weepy music perks up when all the people you forgot were still alive meet each other again. Huzzah, m'lady!
I would argue this sort of dynamic works well for HBO's flagship fantasy series because a) there's a palpable mise-en-scène while the endless glut of characters don't just unceremoniously emerge and disappear from the background like whack-a-mole, and b) the show is comprised of hour long episodes so the start/stop momentum of broader narrative arcs is excusable. I think I might have really enjoyed the Marvel "Cinematic" Universe if it had stayed where it belongs: on television. When it slows down it's pure tedium, and when it speeds up it's like a cartoon chipmunk hitting me in the nuts with a clown hammer. I could see myself loving it if it were a farce, but the tone is entirely dependent on which character inhabits the frame. It doesn't seem that bad while watching because we're conditioned to accept this scattershot melee of ideas after 20 movies of Ritalin-snorting chaos. Granted, it's a tighter wrapped package than the new Star Wars or the live-action Disney remakes, but that's a pretty low bar in the first place.
What we're left here with is space-"Bonanza". Broadly painted American ideals like faith in authoritarian power structures, "the good guys have the greater good at heart", a nuclear family is the most fulfilling ideal possible, etc. are the implied hope of all character arcs. Then there's a checklist of one-off progressive ideals - the movie's only gay character is casually accepted in conversation during his lone scene, a white man relinquishes his power and privilege to a black woman, and, despite 85% of the action occurring between buff, Caucasian dudes, there's that one sequence where every female character happens to be on screen together. "You go girls! Even you, jade vagina-egg-peddling Iron Woman!" None of these shoe-horned, faux-gressive add-ons are inherently bad, their presence just seems so ham-fisted since it's obviously an afterthought and entirely beside the point. Well, these are all totally different issues that could be unpacked at a different time, but that's what I mean when I talk about a clown hammer to my nuts.
Maybe I should be thankful that a major studio has the audacity to test the limits of good faith with its audience. Maybe I should be thankful that this is (hopefully) the consummate end of another era of blockbuster bombast. I'm still bitter that this movie eats up box office receipts while independent cinema languishes in obscurity in failing art-houses barely populated by retirees and the idle intelligentsia. "But movies like this are HELPING those small markets" blah blah blah. Ask Kansas City's historic Tivoli theater about how much help the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been for them. That's right, you can't because they closed, and there's no time traveling deus ex machina to resurrect that one.
In conclusion, I'm embarrassed I saw this movie, and one of my co-workers thinks that Sandy Hook was a hoax.