“Midsommar” Art House Film Review

Ars gratia artis. The latin inscription around MGM’s Leo the Lion is the best way I can describe Ari Aster’s Midsommar. The highly anticipated companion followup horror piece to last year’s Hereditary arrived in theatres nationwide last night–to a packed house, I might add. Although even I use the terms movie and film interchangeably in casual conversation, this is a motion picture that I will refer to as a film not a movie. For fellow cinephiles, this is the type of film that reminds us of the power of the moving image and the art of visual design. Film is a visually driven medium, and Midsommar exhibits that in spades. Although it was predicted to be then confirmed by the director to be a companion piece to Hereditary there is little similarity except for one important point: the theme of grief. Furthermore, Midsommar also comments on relationship revenge and drug culture. I’ve heard this film described as one long acid trip by folks on Film Twitter, and that is not entirely inaccurate. From edibles to cocktails, many of the scenes are viewed through the lens of a drug-induced reality that creates a fever-dream-like state of being. Trippy, is putting this cinematic experience lightly. And it is that. A cinematic experience unlike any other that I have ever witnessed. Whereas, in my opinion, this film’s greatest flaw is the lack of a compelling plot–and that’s a big deal, no mistaking it–the film excels at typifying film as art. More specifically, this film is like a work of art in a museum that confronts the viewer with thought-provoking imagery that elicits a plethora of interpretations. And the ability for an art film to prompt us to interpret it differently gives the film the added dimension that doesn’t come to cinemas often.

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village that is the home of one of their graduate school friends. The carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that are increasingly disturbing.

Juxtaposition. There is a brilliant contrast in the imagery of this film. While much of the film is brightly lit and colorful, within that serene landscape and color pallet are acutely disturbing moments that will stick with you long after the film ends. And the nightmare-inducing imagery is not limited to body horror, there are times that unnerving images are of a surreal nature, or perhaps an otherwise warped perspective that keeps you on the edge of your seat. From carefree atmospheres filled with laughter and positivity to depictions of suicide, murder, and mutilation, you will find it all in Midsommar. There is a rich, immersive nature in this film that is inescapable. You will be instantly sucked into the beautifully twisted visually stunning story. Every scene is crafted with such a commitment to the art of visual storytelling that the plot takes a backseat, which oddly enough suits this film nicely. If I was to compare this film to literature, then it would be a poem versus prose. Both poems and prose tell stories, but poems are emotionally driven whereas prose is plot-driven. This is clearly an emotionally driven motion picture that will have you along for the pleasurable unpleasure ride for the rather lengthy runtime. Each frame is an artful expression of the emotion of the moment, and it my delight or rock you to your core.

With it being such a unicorn amongst horror films, if you’re searching for film to compare it to (which can be unfair), for all intents and purposes, I feel that you will find elements of Eyes Wide ShutThe Wickerman, and Requiem for a Dream. It also appears that Aster took inspiration from directors such as: Kubrick, de Palma, and Friedkin. It is difficult to talk about the thought-provoking content without getting into spoilers, but there are many ways to interpret the content and intention of the film. I found the film to creatively express, through the art of the moving image, the ideas of dealing with the (1) PTSD of untimely death and the grief that follows (2) relationship revenge and (3) the effects of a drug-induced state of consciousness. The beginning of the film opens with witnessing the broken relationship between Dani and her boyfriend Christian followed soon by the death of Dani’s sister and parents (this is right at the beginning, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Although Christian begrudgingly keeps the relationship alive (in all fairness, he’s finished with it), he keeps Dani at an emotional distance from him and his friends. At the same time, Dani is suffering from the PTSD brought on by the untimely death of her family that has truly taken a toll on her psycho-social stability. Just like in real life, drugs (both Rx and recreational) are used as ways to both cope and attempt to rise to a higher level of consciousness to deal with the positive and negative elements of life. However, augmenting reality can lead to a dangerous path from which sometimes a return is unlikely or impossible. All three of these themes in the film inspire the mindblowing images through the story.

While I have spent the bulk of this article talking about the macabre nature of this film, it is not without its comedic elements. In fact, some have characterized it as a dark comedy. I’m not ready to refer to it as a horror comedy, but it certainly contains many absurd, laughable lines and images. To get into them would reveal some important spoilers, so I won’t do that to you. But just the very idea of these typical American graduate students in this completely foreign commune of mystic Sweeds in a surreal landscape is enough to make you laugh. And the humor is not limited to the dialogue or setting, but even the very nature of a single image is enough to bring about laughter. Again, more playing around with the contrast that juxtaposing images and music brings to a film. All throughout the film, you will be disgusted one moment and laughing the next. Still, the amount of comedy isn’t enough to bring this into the horror comedy subgenre, but it’s more or less an art house horror film with comedic moments. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hauntingly beautiful score that becomes a character in and of itself during the film.

This is not a film for general audiences. Personally, I am shocked that this cut of the film even got a theatrical release. It strikes me more as the director’s cut that you would get on the BluRay. It is a hard R. So if you’re a parent or an older sibling, think before taking your child or younger sibling who loves horror as much as you. In addition to the drug use in the film (and it’s all within context), there is full male and female nudity and even a rather explicit sex scene. Nothing is in the film for simple shock value (tho, there are shocking scenes for sure), there is an intentional purpose behind element in this film to deliver the emotionally-driven story that Ari Aster has created.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 2)

Beyond name or image recognition, there is more that Hitchcock did to build his brand. Before anything else was intentionally accomplished, it was important for Hitchcock to specialize quickly and stick to it. Other than Psycho and The Birds, the rest of Hitch’s films are suspense. And even Psycho and The Birds are suspenseful as well (but skew more towards the horror genre than suspense-thriller. Hitchcock specialized in the art of suspense. And you can learn more about this specific subject by reading the book Suspense with a Camera by Jeffrey Michael “the Hitchcock Whisperer” Bays. Having grown up in the silent film days, Hitchcock took the visual storytelling techniques used in those films and adapted them to “talkies.” Interestingly, while so many were turning visual films (a bit redundant since films should be visual) and including expansive dialogue (on the verge of sounding like a stage play), Hitch embraced the power of silence and minimalist dialogue that was truly an extension of the plot itself. The camera was the unspoken star of the movie.

Hitchcock was not only a master of suspense but was also a master at surrounding himself with talent. A quick glance over his prolific filmography (approx. 50 feature films plus many TV shows) reveals that he almost exclusively worked with the best talent on screen and behind the camera. Princess Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Carry Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, Gregory Peck, and more. Hitchcock worked to forge relationships with the actors he wanted to work with. He made himself out to be someone they wanted to work with too. Of course, his reputation preceded him so many were predisposed to wanting to work with him even before meeting Hitch. This concept is referred to as branding by association. And you and I engage in this practice everyday on social media by following, commenting on, and tagging other users. We hope to be noticed, or we make ourselves someone that other influencers want to engage with. If you do all these actions under your name, then you are building your brand.

Creating engaging content, in which you are specialized, without knowing your audience can end in a lackluster performance. As a former marketing and sales professional, Hitch knew that he needed to identify his target audience to craft a story that would instantly resonate in a call to action (i.e. buying tickets). Through his studies and experience in marketing research and development, he knew how the human imagination worked and what cinematic elements would impact the audience most. Hitch started with the end result he wanted and worked backwards. Researchers call this inductive reasoning. By approaching his films this way, Hitch knew that the elements he chose to use and the method by which to execute them, he would achieve the desired result. The end result points us back to the “specialization’ step in the branding process because Hitch mastered the art of suspense with a camera evident in his ability to achieve it consistently. No one knew his audience better than Hitchcock did.

Although all the steps in Hitch’s branding process are vitally important, one step stands out in particular as perhaps the most important element. Take credit for your work. In no director today–or ever, really–have I witnessed a better and more entertaining example of taking credit for one’s work than Hitchcock. Between his famous cameo appearances and his show running of his title television program, which is largely what is responsible for making him a household name outside of cinephiles and film buffs, Hitchcock injected himself into our theatres and living rooms. And it’s that TV show’s opening that made the nine stroke profile sketch of Hitch world famous. In addition to taking credit for ones own work, there is also a need to allow others to promote you. And that’s where the critics and television hosts come in. Because of Hitch’s sense of humor and his mastery of cinematic storytelling, he was always a crowd favorite. Even though he never won an Academy Award (though, nominated several times), he was bestowed other awards in the US and UK. In fact, he was knighted by the Queen! So, we really should address him as Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

When many writers and directors were going full-talkie after Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, in order to stand out from the crowd, Hitch made the decision to hold back on dialogue. Sometimes, Hitch would even have extended periods of near silence to place emphasis on the visual aspects of the conflict. Hitch described this practice of holding back on the dialogue, as holding back your cards. Using a poker game analogy, don’t lay all your cards on the table. Hitch desired to add multiple layers of conflict or dramatic irony to each scene. This process layers the story by adding new dimension to the conflict and dramatic irony. Hitchcock made it a point to guide the audience through the story versus telling them what was happening. Practices like this reinforce the idea of the Hitchcock brand.

Hitchcock’s mastery of suspenseful cinematic storytelling is demonstrated through his lack of detail-giving throughout his stories, whether we are talking his films or television shows. This action contributes to just why his films and shows are brilliant! In many ways, Hitch provides opportunities for the audience to figuratively contribute to the dialogue in the films. There is a high degree of anticipation as the audience does throughout the story; and it’s this heightened sense of anticipation that contributes to to engagement factor. Again, it may seem that there are other directors who have also done this, but Hitchcock was the first. And this is part of his brand.

What sets Hitchcock apart from his contemporaries as the first director to brand himself, is the important step of the branding process that requires the content, service, or product creator to elevate the product or service to an art form. We have plenty of examples of this today such as Apple, Lego, Disney, and yes even Michael Bay. Think about it. As soon as I mention Michael Bay, you instantly form an image of his style of motion pictures to mind. Furthermore, you know precisely what you are going to get (and not get) and you’re guaranteed to get more than two hours of explosions, homophobia, over-sexualization of women, lack of coherent plot, car chases and more. In fact, the concept of an explosion is synonymous with Michael Bay; it is his brand, so to speak. Hitchcock accomplished creating his brand decades before Bay. Whether talking about Hitchcock films today or back when they were first-run movies, the general public knew precisely what they were going to get with a Hitchcock film. Interestingly, this is why Psycho was such a big deal because Hitch broke some of his own rules to redefine the American horror film. And it’s this breaking of cinematic rules that made the film a success then and now.

Just because you have a logo, a recognizable name, and a record of successes, that does not mean that you are a brand. It’s like this: just because you have all the ingredients to make that fancy dish you had at that exclusive restaurant, that does not mean you can replicate the dish. You need the recipe that details the order and amounts. That is not unlike becoming a brand in the art and science of motion pictures. Part of being a brand goes beyond the product or service in which you have demonstrated specialization; you have to take all the respective elements of brand building, and then create an experience for the audience. Motion picture director branding is experiential. More than a couple hours of exceptional entertainment, the audience desires greatly to experience the director’s vision. Through his understanding of audience, Hitchcock knew how to activate movie goers and create an emotional connection between his name and image and what they desire for the best cinematic experience possible.

While the knowledge for motion picture producers and directors to use logos, color pallet, typography, iconography, design, and imagery strategically was not new with Hitchcock, he was the first director in Hollywood to combine the power of all those elements and the others that have been mentioned in this essay. Separately, each of the aforementioned elements can be influential tools; but combined, they are extremely powerful for developing a brand.

PART 1

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Last Flag Flying” film review

An all-star cast takes audiences on a memory journey of war, loss, friendship, and patriotism as genuine human emotions are dealt with through comedy and grief. Amazon Studios hits a homer again with the release of Last Flag Flying distributed by Lionsgate. Now in select theaters, writer-director Richard Linklater crafts an incredible motion picture that organically deals with the loss of a loved one during a time of war through the stages of grief and irreverent comedy between friends. While this film is currently flying under the radar, don’t allow that to dissuade you from watching this incredible war film. I cannot remember the last time that I saw a film that felt so genuine. Watching this film, I truly felt like a fly on the wall, watching a Vietnam vet deal with the loss of his son and reconnecting with some of the closest friends he ever had in his life. Last Flag Flying is a subgenre of war movies that places the camera at a distance from the characters and allows them to mourn and laugh on screen without interference from censors and other outsiders. While not a conventional war movie, the topic of war is found underlying many diegetic components. Dialogue driven, this film provides social commentary on patriotism, God, and friendship. Bring your listening ear to this movie because the context of the tough subject matter contains subtle yet powerful messages that highlight otherwise unstated emotions. Sometimes the best way to go through the stages of grief is to throw caution to the wind and allow humor to work its powerful remedy.

Three Vietnam war veterans reunite for a different kind of mission that forces them to deal with the present and the past. When Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrel) arrives at the dive bar that belongs to former comrade Sal Nealson (Bryan Cranston), he asks his Marine brother to go with him without naming where. Sal drives Shepherd to a old country church now pastored by their Marine brother Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). When Shepherd doesn’t touch his pale cobbler, the group realizes there is something wrong. It’s then the Shepherd reveals that his son was killed outside of Baghdad, and wants his two Marine brothers to go with him to bury his son at Arlington. Along the journey, the three former military comrades are forced to come to terms with their shared past that continues to shape their present lives by discussing tough topics such as grief, God, war, honesty, and addiction.

The sheer storytelling beauty of Last Flag Flying is found in the solid writing made evident through the excellent direction and A-list cast (and one surprising cameo that I won’t mention because it will detract from the brief but powerful screen presence). While it may appear like a somber tragedy on the surface, beneath that surface of sadness beats the heart of dark but respectful comedy that takes audiences on the memory journey right along side the characters. War movies about the loss of loved ones is not something new; but this film allows the characters to go through the stages of grief in organic ways that paints a motion picture of how human these emotions are. Human. Truly human. At times, there are no holds barred when three very different voices all converge on the same topic. You have the grieving father, a reverend, and foul-mouthed barkeep discussing everything, just as friends in real life often do. In many ways, these three former military comrades could not be any different in their present states; but at one time, they were inseparable and very much alike. While the focus of the film could have been on Shepherd’s loss or the politics of war, the focus is clearly on what makes us human and how one genuinely has to deal with loss due to war. Not that discussions of politics and religion are not found in this film–they are–but the discussions and arguments between these friends are used as tools to comment on the human condition. Because we never see combat footage, the expositional dialogue about war and politics adds incredible weight and a little mystery to the events in the film.

Before you begin to think that Linklater uses flashbacks to connect the present to the past, think again. While that would have been the easy, lazy way of accomplishing that task, he chooses to connect the present to the past through exceptional exposition between characters that prompt the audience to engage their own emotions to connect the pieces of the story together. Because we never shift between the past and present, the main story is always the main story. When constructing strong characters as we have this this film, it is the responsibility of the actors (though proper direction) to not allow the actor to get in the way of the character. Honestly, there are times that I see the individual actors eclipse the respective character, but most of the time, the audience will see the characters themselves throughout the dark comedy. The cinematography is simple, but perfect for the story within this motion picture. Linklater uses no gimmicks to tell this thought provoking story. The movie has an intimate feel to it because you can likely identify with one of the lead or supporting characters, especially when they are talking about “Disneyland” in Vietnam (you’ll just have to watch to understand why that’s in quotes). So incredibly genuine. No pretense about any of the characters in the film.

The content of this film truly reflects the tenor of the times in which we live. Topics of war, politics, and religion seem to be inundating us from all angles. It takes a special film to deal with each of those respectfully, candidly, and effectively. The trifecta of voices in this film allows the thought provoking conversations to transcend the screen and enter the minds of the audience. While working through his grief, there were times that Shepherd could have gone on an anti-military or anti-American rant, but he never speaks a negative word against anyone, though he is sometimes in immense pain. Patriotism, God, and the human condition are shown and discussed in quite unconventional and maybe even controversial ways; yet, the manner in which these topics are discussed, as it relates to Shepherd’s loss, are absolutely perfect. In a seemingly binary world where you are either a red-blooded patriot or you’re anti-American, with no room for nuance or discussion, this film provides the platform to begin to realize that we are first human before we take sides.

Although I did not care for Linklater’s Boyhood, I can honestly tell you that this film is one that you don’t want to miss. Whether you are in a military family or not, this film offers a glimpse into a world that many people have to face on a daily basis. The genuine, organic approach to the hard topics in this film allows the humanity to shine through. Not speaking for ALL veterans, but the vets that were in the screening last night had high praise for the film. And the rest of us had many positive remarks and feedback for the screener hosts.