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Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2020.5

Published by marco on

These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of around 1400 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood and. let’s be honest, level of intoxication. YMMV. Also, I make no attempt to avoid spoilers.

The Irishman (2019) — 6/10

This is a fictionalization of the murder of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), directed by Martin Scorsese. Actually, it’s the story of the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), an Irishman who made his way to the highest echelons of an American-Italian crime family.

The movie is 3.5 hours long and slowly paced. It tells the story of how Sheeran meets, is befriended and becomes employed by already-established crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran soon becomes an enforcer for the family and the unions that it supports. He helps them cheat the inspectors and we also see how lawyers like Russell’s son Bill (Ray Romano) help keep the federal wolves at bay.

For a while, the needs of the workers align with the morals of the family. Soon, though, the family sees too much opportunity in the pension fund worth billions: they want to dip into it for loans to build Las Vegas, among other lucrative land deals. Since they have such an interest in the investment they’ve made in Hoffa, the family assigns Sheeran to be his main bodyguard.

They become good friends, spending time with each other’s families. For whatever reason, it’s important to point out that, while Frank’s daughter Peg doesn’t like Russell or even her own father[1], she takes to Jimmy immediately. Though the film spends a lot of time throughout on Peg’s disapproval, it has absolutely no bearing on the story in any way.

Hoffa is less interested in satisfying all of the family’s wishes. Though he’s also half a mobster, he retains some of his initial revolutionary fervor and won’t simply rubber-stamp everything the family asks for. There is also an up-and-comer in the family. Relative to Russell’s comparative old-world placidity and charm, he a young, obnoxious and crude whippersnapper named Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). He gets under Hoffa’s skin nearly immediately.

Frank is hired to whack another gangster Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco). This is one of the most visually interesting parts of the movie, but also has literally nothing to do with the main plot (other than to perhaps show what a consummate and unfeeling professional Frank is, but we learn this because Frank tells us in the narration).

The family does its best to get John F. Kennedy elected because he’s promised to get rid of that bastard Castro for them—so that they can sweep back into Cuba and start up their lucrative casino businesses again. Hoffa is livid because he hates the Kennedys—and they hate him. Robert Kennedy, in particular, keeps hunting until he manages to nail Hoffa on something that’s much more minor than the egregious influence-peddling he was actually guilty of. While Jimmy’s in prison for four years, his replacement Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) provides the requisite rubber-stamping.

Kennedy soon falls out of favor with the family and it is intimated that the family had a lot to do with assassinating him.[2] With a lot of money and influence, Hoffa gets the new president Nixon to commute his sentence and he’s out, determined to get “his union” back. This makes far too many waves for the family and they register their “concern”, using Sheeran as the errand boy to deliver the news to Hoffa that he has one last chance to straighten up and fly right, to shut his trap and stop causing trouble. He doesn’t take it. It’s clear that he knows the danger, but that he doesn’t care.

A road trip for Russell, Frank and their wives twines its way throughout the film. That is, throughout the first 2.75 hours of the film, we see them headed on a road trip to a meeting that they would never attend—because the mission was actually to get Frank close enough to puddle-jump up to Detroit and whack Jimmy. Frank foreshadows this at one point when he says, “I’m behind you, Jimmy, all the way.”

With Jimmy out of the picture, the family should be riding high, but they’re soon individually taken down by either health or legal problems or both. Several of them—Russell and Frank, in particular—end up in prison together. Russell dies there, but Frank is eventually released to a nursing home. He’s doddering but sufficiently in control of his faculties to avoid revealing anything about his role in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this movie[3]: the flashbacks, the out-of-order storytelling, the CGI de-aging, the collection of Italian-American actors with long pedigrees (and longer teeth), Scorsese’s return to the genre that made his name. I haven’t heard very much from the usual sources about how there’s just one black man in it (holding a gun and assassinating someone and on-screen for only seconds) and that the very few women and girls are pure window dressing with almost no lines (e.g. they are allowed to annoy the men by constantly asking them to stop the road trip so that they can take cigarette breaks).

It was only when I read other reviews that I realized why people were complaining that the de-aging wasn’t good enough. It looked fine to me while watching—although it was, at times, difficult to tell in which decade something was supposed to be happening, it also didn’t really matter—but I wasn’t aware that they were trying to make DeNiro look 30 years old. The de-aging failed miserably at that. He never looked less than 55. Neither did Pacino. This didn’t really matter to the film, though. I honestly can’t figure out where they managed to spend $160 million on this movie, so I’m going to surmise that it was a money-laundering operation for the mob.

It’s a long-ass movie. There are some nice shots, to be sure, but 90% of the film is people talking to each other—usually a two-person conversation. Some of the conversations are comically long for their content. I can see this technique being used for emphasis, but it felt interminable in most cases. Just a couple of goombahs talking past each other for ten minutes. While this is most definitely Tarentino’s thing, it’s not so much Scorcese’s.

People are talking about Pacino’s and DeNiro’s acting chops, but they just looked old and tired (they move like old men because they are old men). DeNiro’s job was to look stone-faced and he did that well. They even crammed in Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, but he had absolutely nothing to do with the movie other than filling a booth in an Italian restaurant a couple of times. Just watching these actors[4] do another reasonably decent movie in the genre of other good movies they’ve been in wasn’t enough for me. It doesn’t stand on its own and I couldn’t muster up the extra psychic fan-boy bolstering required to make me like it more.

The last 45 minutes is literally watching Frank grow old. Nothing happens. That’s OK, of course. It certainly says something, but did it need to extend the movie to 3.5 hours to say it? I kept waiting for something awesome to happen, for a scintillating bit of dialogue, for a truly lovely cinematographic flourish, but it never happened. I was never moved.

The movie felt incredibly self-indulgent, but I’m not sure who was indulged. Was the director making a comment about what happens when you bring together a bunch of rich, white old guys and ask them to make a movie about their favorite topic? Was it trying to tell the story of Jimmy Hoffa? Was it making a point about America? About capitalism? About crime? About racism?[5] About unions? About … what? Points off for taking two movie lengths to tell half a story.

Ricky Gervais: Humanity (2018) — 10/10

I’d just seen SuperNature, which was amazing, just so good, so ludicrously irreverent and so funny. The haters just gonna hate. This show from just a year and a half before was very similar in structure, though he discussed his Golden Globes hosting in this show, though he didn’t do so in SuperNature. One of his jokes was about Caitlin Jenner:

“She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, though.”

He had a bit about losing a baby, completely not caring about whether it would trigger any snowflakes in the audience. “I’d have to text my wife, wouldn’t I?”

He talked about his Twitter escapades, “Please don’t worship me. I’m just an ordinary guy, with lots of followers trying to spread my message. Sort of like Jesus Christ I guess.”

It’s 80 minutes long and packed full. There’s a Full Transcript available.

John Mulaney’s Sack Lunch Bunch (2019) — 5/10
John Mulaney’s latest effort is a kid’s show where the kids play in skits and sing songs that are not for kids at all, really. Special guests are Richard Kind, David Byrne (musical guest), Natasha Lyonne, and Jake Gyllenhaal (also kind of a musical guest). There were some clever bits and it was a refreshing change from other specials, but there was too much child-singing for me.
Big Bang Theory S12 (2019) — 9/10

This final season sees Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik) settling into married life while working on a “super-asymmetry” theory together. Howard (Simon Helberg) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) balance their two kids with her work schedule. Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) deal with her utter lack of interest in having children. Stuart (Kevin Sussman) makes cautious headway with Denise (Lauren Lapkus), his girlfriend and assistant manager at his comic-book store. Raj (Kunal Nayyar) almost marries Anu (Rati Gupta) in an arranged marriage, but they drop it and settle for dating instead.

Major plot lines are that Amy and Sheldon’s paper is a breakthrough and may earn them the Nobel. Leonard gets himself a new laser. Penny gets promoted to push Bernadette’s newly approved drug and works more closely with her. Amy continues her manipulation of Sheldon to get him to strongly consider children, if only for their experimental possibilities (though he’s always been adamant that theory trumps experiment). As noted above, Raj and Anu had both given up on romance and decided to arrange a marriage, but then realized that they do like each other and want to give it a go romance-style instead. Wil Wheaton’s got a Dungeons and Dragons group with William Shatner, Kareem Adbul Jabbar, and Joe Manganiello.

The finale roars in with a Nobel Prize ceremony with all in attendance. The first half of the final episode is terrible. There was a manufactured controversy about Sheldon being an asshole and the other four whining and threatening to go home, literally like children. Sheldon’s speech honoring his friends’ contribution to his achievement is sweet and well-written, saving the episode, but in no way earning it the 9.6 rating that it has on IMDb (people are just sheep).

It’s got a laugh track, but the jokes are flying fast and furious and the whole crew is firing on all cylinders with their characters. I think a lot of it is due to Chuck Lorre’s writing, but also give credit where credit is due: these actors are living these characters at this point.

Wilder S01 (2017) — 8/10

Rosa Wilder (Sarah Spale) is a policewoman originally from the fictional Bernese village of Oberwies in Switzerland (which is actually Urnerboden in Glarus). She returns to visit her parents and celebrate with the town as they get approval for a large new spa that promises to reinvigorate—or ruin, depending on whom you ask—the local economy. The town’s benefactor is Karim al-Baroudi, an Egyptian investor. His daughter is Amina al-Baroudi (Amira El Sayed), student of internationally renowned artist and the town’s favorite son Armon Todt (Christian Kohlund). Manfred Kägi (Marcus Signer) is there representing the BPK (Bundeskantonspolizei) on behalf of another of the town’s successful citizens Bundesanwältin Barbara Rossi.

Thirty years ago, the town suffered a tragedy when 12 children were killed in an avalanche. Their teacher and schoolbus driver Béatrice Räber (Emanuela von Frankenberg) was never the same. She would marry Robert Räber (László I. Kish), the mayor of Oberwies. She’s not really of sound mind and often wanders the streets and forests at night in a daze, searching for the children.

On the night of the announcement that the spa was to be built, Armon is murdered and Amina goes missing. Young Jakob Siegenthaler is a local ne’er-do-well who likes filming things and smoking pot. He’s a witness, but highly unreliable. The local hotelier Martin is also somehow involved. He actually hit Amina with his car, sending her to the hospital and into an artificial coma. Kägi has a history with Amina’s bodyguard.

Robert is delighted with the building plans and is quite an asshole for much of the series, though it turns out that his machinations are far less Machiavellian than they initially appear. Barbara, Rosa’s father Paul, Armon and another young man “The Pirate” turn out to have been the unknown cause behind the avalanche. They caused it to draw attention to NERATOM, a company whose building projects were threatening the untouched nature of the region. Instead, they killed most of the town’s children, including Rosa’s brother Markus.

There are a lot of twists and turns but those are the broad outlines. It was quite well-filmed and mostly well-acted, with only a few hollow notes. The dialect was an interesting mix of German, French and English. Kägi knew Arabic from his tour in Lebanon (which is how he recognized the bodyguard, who turns out to have been the murderer or his life-partner). All in all, a high-quality show with the extra flair of having been shot in what were for me highly recognizable locations (the Klöntalersee features heavily). I saw it in Swiss German.

Doom Patrol S01 (2019) — 5/10

This is the story of several people with supernatural powers, all living together in a mansion together. The pilot introduces us to Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser, who would, after an initial backstory, only be providing the voice for a completely metal robot called, unsurprisingly, Robotman), a former race-car driver who gets into a horrific car accident, killing his wife, but not his daughter.

We also meet ‘50s movie star Rita Farr, who’d ingested some spooky green river spirit that imbued her with body-morphing capabilities over which she has nearly no control—even after several decades. She is called Elasti-Girl, but the parts I saw just had her transform to a mindless blob. That she looks much younger than her years can be explained away by her ability to control her elasticity, I guess.

There is also a 60s-era test pilot Larry Trainor, whose “power” is utterly unclear, other than that he is also inhabited by some seemingly extraterrestrial spirit that leaves his body and does electrical stuff. He’s called Negative Man in the credits, but it’s unclear why.

Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) has, apparently, 64 personalities, each with, apparently, its own superpower. She doesn’t seem to be in control of any of the switches even though she, like the others, has had decades to try to get it under control. She, like the others, looks much younger than her supposed years.

Timothy Dalton plays Niles Caulder, whom they call Chief. He owns the mansion and runs their team as they spend every evening watching television for decades. He seems to be terrible at running his crew, even though he’s also confined to a wheelchair, suspiciously like Professor X.

Their to-them-unknown nemesis is Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), a man who’d paid a Nazi scientist in Argentina to transform him into something with super-powers and who appears as some sort of extradimensional tetris/jigsaw puzzle or farting donkey with a bagful of weak jokes and fourth-wall-breakages.

Cyborg (Joivan Wade) is a cybernetically enhanced young man whose father experiments with him. He joins the Doom Patrol as they get to figure out what the hell Mr. Nobody wants.

I watched the pilot of season one, which slogged its way through all of the origin stories, narrated by Mr. Nobody. The second episode introduced Cyborg, who’s just a very stilted character. He meets Cliff in the ruins of a town that was the recent site of the Patrol’s first encounter with Mr. Nobody. When they meet Jane, she goes through about half-a-dozen personalities, which is when I stopped watching because it was just terrible. I chopped off a few extra points from my score and stand by that rating for the part I’d watched.

Detachment (2019) — 8/10

Mr. Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher at a broken inner-city high school. His grandfather is in an old-age home, a shadow of his former self: “I don’t remember much. I’m mostly habit. You can’t think in this place. You can’t make new memories.” Henry’s mother exists only in his memory, where we see flashes that suggest that she drank herself to death.

At school, he is detached, but a less hopeless teacher than many of the others at his school. They are an interesting bunch. The principal is played by Marcia Gay Harden (her husband is Bryan Cranston). James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson play the teachers, all with varying levels of desperation and resignedness.

Barthes meets a teenage prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle) and takes her in. After a rocky start, she starts taking care of him. He takes care of her. She takes a call from the old-age home and sits with his grandfather all day. She is there when he tells his grandfather it’s OK for him to “go”—speaking in his mother’s voice because grandpa thinks he’s talking to his daughter. They visit a park afterward and he tells her about his mother’s death. She’d overdosed and he’d found her sprawled naked in a closet. He says that he suspects that his grandfather had done something to her, once, when she was younger.

Erica finds his writings and drawings. A fellow artist and student Meredith (Betty Kaye) visits him in his classroom by herself. She’s torn up and doesn’t know who to turn to—she’s horribly lonely. She cites his speech from class, where the world is just broken shell, ready to eat everyone alive. She crushes on Barthes and tries to hug him, asking him to just hold her. He can’t really, although he knows she just needs some human contact. Ms. Madison (Christine Hendricks) comes in just at that moment and, of course, assumes the worst. He flips out on her, telling her to stop being so judgmental.

Barthes’s grandfather dies. Erica accompanies him to pick up his effects. Barthes doubts his career: “These kids need something else. They don’t need me.” They’re eating breakfast together when there’s a knock on the door. He’s called social services. She’s devastated. So is he. But it can’t go on. His apartment looks emptier than ever.

It’s parent-teacher night. Almost no parents show up.

“I was in my room for 2 hours and saw one parent. Where are they? Where is everybody? It’s uncanny, no air raid sirens, not bombs. It doesn’t happen that way. It starts with a whisper, and then nothing.”

Principal Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) calls a conference to announce major changes, but speaker Clay Davis (Sheeee-it) just talks about property values and how the school has to get better in order to attract a better type of person. The teachers literally don’t know how to process this. They accost him and leave, disgusted.

Meredith makes a collage with pictures of Barthes and her parents. Their eyes are all gone. No-one really sees her. She bakes cupcakes, presenting them at a school fair. Mr. Barthes talks to her and she chooses a cupcake for him—she won’t let him have the dark-green, sad-looking one. That one’s for her. To no-one’s surprise, she commits suicide with that cupcake. It was Barthes’s last day.

Barthes recites Poe to his class. They are all there, except Meredith. Her chair is empty. Papers fly everywhere, a veritable snowstorm of detritus raining down on a classroom that has fewer students and then no students. Then it’s just Barthes in a destroyed classroom in a closed school reciting Poe’s poems.

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019) — 9/10

We meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor with what might be his most successful days behind him. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his best friend and occasional stunt double. It is February 1969. Dalton’s greatest success was in the 50s with a series called Bounty Law. Dalton is star-struck that Roman Polanski and his wife, starlet Sharon Tate, have moved in next door. To cement their star status, we see them at a party at the Playboy Mansion.

Dalton is on a set with a rare job. Booth is not needed for this, so he returns home to repair a TV antenna. Pitt’s on the roof with his shirt off, revealing deep scars that tell of a life well-lived—and of a man capable of defending himself. He remembers the time he fought Bruce Lee to a standstill on a set, just before he was fired for doing so. Sharon Tate wanders Hollywood and stops at a theater to watch herself in her latest film.

Booth finishes the repair and is out driving when he picks up Pussycat, a hitchhiker he’s seen several times. She’s living out at Spahn’s Ranch with her “friends” (the Manson family/cult, it turns out). While there, Booth checks up on George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whom he knows from his days with Dalton on Bounty Law. Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) is unable to dissuade Booth from going in to visit with George, who’s “sleeping, because I fucked his brains out”. Booth comes back out to find one tire slashed and he beats the guy who did it into repairing the tire for him. He leaves just before “Tex” shows up to teach him a lesson (or so the family thought it would go).

At the same time, Dalton at first falters, then yells at himself in his trailer in an epic performance, then actually kills it on the set of his latest show (Lancer), where he is, once again, playing “the heavy”. He does so well that he attracts the attention of the second-most-famous director of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Corbucci. Dalton resists, but soon realizes that he has no choice. Dalton and Booth travel to Italy to make four films in quick succession. They return with Dalton’s new Italian wife Francesca in tow.

Dalton’s finances aren’t what they once were and he tells Booth that he’s going to have to let him go—but not before they spend one more night out drinking to celebrate their career together. Booth takes his pitbull Brandy for a walk, smoking his acid cigarette. Dalton makes Margaritas. He hears a loud car out front and goes out to run it off. He berates the four members of Manson’s crew who’d shown up to kill everyone in Tate’s house. He runs them off. They retreat down the hill. Dalton floats in his pool with headphones on. Francesca sleeps, jetlagged. Booth returns home with Brandy.

The four Manson Family members come back and break into Dalton’s home instead, determined to exact revenge on him for having yelled at them and “taught them how to murder” (with his films, naturally, as part of the societal killing machine that they’ve chosen to blame for any action they take). They instead find a very drunk and high Booth, who recognizes them from the ranch:

Cliff Booth: Oh, I know you. I know all three of you! Yeah, Spahn Ranch! Spahn Ranch, yeah! Woo!
Cliff Booth: I don’t know your name, but I remember that hair.
Cliff Booth: And you, I remember your white little face.
Cliff Booth: And you were on a horsey! Yeah… you are?
Tex: I’m the Devil. And I’m here to do the Devil’s business.
Cliff Booth: …Nah, it was dumber than that. Something like Rex.
Sadie: God, shoot him, Tex!
Cliff Booth: Tex!”

As with Inglourious Basterds, Tarentino imagines a slightly better world. In that film, Hitler and his whole coterie of top leaders were killed in Paris before they could do any more damage. In this movie, Cliff Booth and his dog Brandy beat the ever-loving life out of the assholes from Manson’s Family who’d actually slaughtered Sharon Tate and her friends at their home in our timeline.

Tarentino kept the story 100% accurate (dining at El Coyote, for example) right up until the point where they chose a home to invade. Instead of ending the evening dead along with her unborn child, Tate and Sebring ended up inviting Dalton in to her party while Francesca slept with Brandy and Booth recovered in a local hospital from eminently survivable wounds. The end. Happy ending.

Each scene, taken individually, is lovely, but contributes only a bit to the overall story. Each one could be taken away without losing the thread. But each one contributed in its own way. Tarentino and crew’s craft brings the world of late ‘60s Hollywood to unblemished life. Every little detail contributes. The cars, the storefronts, the way one moved in that world, were all perfect. For example, the change in the ashtray, acid cigarettes, hitchhikers, endless sunshine, the clothes, the hair, the language.

Brad Pitt has perfected the dry delivery. He has so many seemingly lackadaisically delivered lines that just land beautifully. When Dalton is in the parking lot with him, telling him “It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”, Booth hands him his sunglasses, “Here, put these on. Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans.” (referring to the valets). It’s racist, of course, but it’s appropriate for the character and the time.

All of the members of Manson’s gang existed (see the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Wikipedia) page, which links the bios of all of the portrayed individuals.

Midsommar (2019) — 6/10

The director of Hereditary Ari Aster’s sophomore slump is a languorous and quite pretty low-key horror movie with creepiness, ritualized murder and no jump scares. The lack of jump scares isn’t the problem. The problem is more the cast, characterization, and the sheer amount of time they’re allowed to spend on the screen in what feels for the first hour like a mumblecore film.

Dani (Florence Pugh) is a sad young woman. That’s it. She’s sad. What is her education? Her job? Her convictions? We do not know nor do we find out. We are supposed to ally ourselves with her, though, of that I’m fairly certain (#believeher, #imwithher). She is Christian’s (Jack Reynor) girlfriend. Director Ari Aster films her in extreme closeup for the first half an hour. She’s pretty. She has great skin. A lovely mouth. She is very emotional. She does what she can with the rather slow-moving material.

Christian is a PhD candidate, along with several of his friends: Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter). There’s a bunch of horseshit relationship stuff where we’re clearly expected to pick sides between Christian and Dani, but it’s hard to care when we’ve just met them. Aster may think he’s provided enough information to make an informed choice, but he has not. I am probably very lonely in thinking this, though (see linked review below).

Aster is clearly expecting us all to read our own context into this—but it’s not actually there in the film. This would be a recurring theme, with the film throwing a bunch of neat-looking stuff onto the table and asking the viewer to assemble it into a coherent narrative.

The group of friends travel to Pelle’s hometown, where he was raised in a “commune” (it’s totally a cult). They are woefully unprepared for everything. They are tourists intruding on a sacred ritual. None of them thinks to ask why they’re allowed to be there (Pelle invited them, but it’s very weird nonetheless). None of them feels like they’re out of place—they give nary a thought to being out of place. They clearly feel that the whole ritual is being put on for their entertainment.

They don’t seem put out by the overall weirdness of it all (until the ritual and very public suicides/murders). They drink and eat whatever’s handed to them—even though the very first tea they got was psychoactive. They stick out like sore thumbs everywhere, taking the townspeople’s seeming acceptance of them for granted.

Josh wants to study the nine-day ritual for his PhD. So does Christian, who suddenly decides this while he’s there. There’s a fight that we’re supposed to care about. Mark is coarse and crude, loudly swearing and ogling everything like a fratboy. He takes a leak on the ancestral tree and ashes. It’s hard to think of any of these people as scholars. It’s also hard to conceive of Pelle having been raised in that village and being able to assimilate anywhere else.

So there’s warning signs aplenty, all completely ignored by our idiotic protagonists. They start to disappear: The two Brits brought by Pelle’s brother “went to the train station”. Mark wanders off with a girl he thinks is “hot” even though she looks like she’s got a vitamin-D deficiency despite the lack of nighttime. He does not return. Josh disappears one night, running into someone wearing Mark’s skin before being concussed to death.

Dani is taken into the ritual by the local girls and “wins” May Queen. Christian is selected as an optimal astrological match for a local girl and pressed into breeding with her before an Eyes Wide Shut–style audience. Poor Nick Cage didn’t get to nail anyone in Wicker Man so I guess Christian’s ahead of the game. Dani is drugged out of her mind and confined in a giant pile of flowers that she drags around with her like a snail does its house.

The final ritual is in the yellow house, where the corpses of the Brits, Josh and Mark are placed on bales of very flammable hay. Christian, having been selected by Dani as the sacrifice (presumably this is her revenge on him for being basic, a dipshit and a lackadaisical and only partially attentive boyfriend?), is ensconced in a bear carcass and placed on his own hay bale, still alive, but paralyzed. Two townspeople are selected as local sacrifices. They go quite willingly.

Whoosh. It all goes up in flames. The others mimic the screams of their townspeople (the only sacrifices capable of screaming), tearing at themselves and going into histrionics out in the field. Dani crawls around in her flower heap, having yet another panic attack (which she makes look believably debilitating, to be sure).

At the end, she smiles, showing her teeth for the first time. I guess she won? She’s been kidnapped to the Swedish countryside, trapped in a heap of flowers and will likely be made to pull a train for the whole village until she dies in childbirth years later, but holy shit is she the vindicated hero because she got to condemn Christian to death. Winning.

Dude, they don’t even mention why they’re doing this ritual. I presume it’s some sort of way of getting new genes into the community without poisoning it with new ideas? And maybe they’re praying to fertility Gods for both their crops and their children? These are just guesses.

As with any piece of art, it’s what you bring to it that determines how you interpret it and what it ends up saying to you. This review by Tomris Laffly (RogerEbert.com) gave the movie 4/4 stars and ended with the following “lessons learned”.

“Some will be troubled by the excess in “Midsommar.” The unburdened surplus of lengthy customs does overshadow some of the film’s potentially ripe avenues of interest, such as the scholarly rivalry between Christian and Josh, as well as racial dynamics that are only briefly hinted at. But the invigorating reward here is the ultimate sovereignty you will find in Dani, a surrogate for any woman who ever excused an inconsiderate male, rationalized his unkind words or thoughtless non-apologies. Pugh knows it in the film’s liberating final shot. And you will know it too, so intensely that her freedom might just feel like therapy.”

This is so misguided and delusional that I barely know where to begin. There is nothing interesting in a “scholarly rivalry between Christian and Josh” because it’s utterly unbelievable that Christian is a scholar. I’m not even sure he or Dani knows how to read. It wasn’t an interesting avenue to pursue even as far as Aster pursued it and more character development wouldn’t have improved things. The outsiders were all terrible. As were the villagers, in fairness.

And “racial dynamics”? Don’t make me laugh. There was nothing to “hint at”. Instead, no-one in the movie even noticed that Josh was black, as it should be. No-one cared, as it should be. But it has to discuss race: Josh is black.

I don’t know whether the director was being lazy in trying to sell that group as “scholars” or whether no-one noticed that they were not just not erudite, well-spoken or seeming intellectually interested at all, but outright dumb. Mark was laughably dumb. Christian, as a supposed anthropologist PhD candidate, seemed nearly completely uninterested in anything for the first half of the movie. Only Josh evinced an ability to write and an interest in asking questions.

And Dani was the hero for this reviewer? How? There was literally no background given for what she did other than being Christian’s girlfriend and suffering from panic attacks. The reviewer sees their relationship as between Dani (not described, but presumably an unblemished soul) and Christian (“inconsiderate […] unkind […] thoughtless”). That is bringing a lot to this movie.

They were both putzes, unimaginable as friends or conversational partners. She talks to a girlfriend on the phone, who tells her that “his job is to be there for you”. Dani wonders whether she asks too much. A legitimate question, as she seems to be quite an emotional handful. This is before her sister kills herself and her parents, a well-told plot point that was completely unexplained and would turn out to be utterly irrelevant to what would follow. I mean, did Dani need to have had a personal experience with suicide in order to be shocked by the plummeting suicides in the village?

I don’t even know whether the juxtaposition between the slovenly, cursing American students (who were supposedly in PhD programs) and the murderous but bilingual and well-mannered denizens of the Swedish village was deliberate or whether everyone associated with the film thought that the students “looked cool”. I honestly don’t even know anymore. Christian, in particular, wore ugly pants, ill-fitting T-shirts and giant-laced sneakers everywhere. In a movie littered with pagan symbolism but suffering from a paucity of narrative direction, we’re all forced to bring a ton of explanation to the table—and sometimes even I just don’t have the energy for it.

It was a pretty movie, nicely filmed. It didn’t feel as long as it’s 150 minutes, but it could have been edited down a bit. I saw it in English and Swedish with no subtitles (I’m not sure if they’re available, but don’t feel I missed much narrative … at best, I experienced the rituals the same way that our supposed protagonists did).

Deception (2008) — 5/10

Accountant and auditor Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is just finishing up the taxes for a law firm where he meets Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman). They become friends, with Bose definitely the cooler half, but seeming to genuinely like McQuarry. They go out for drinks and play some tennis. They get lunch and switch their phones by (what would turn out not to be an) accident—just before Bose is set to go to London for two weeks.

McQuarry gets some odd calls and agrees to meet up with one of the women who’d called. They sleep together—she seems to have called for just that purpose. McQuarry makes the next call and gets into a sex ring of some sort. There are rules: the initiator arranges for and pays for the room; no rough stuff; no names.

Bose tells him to have fun with it. McQuarry goes through a montage of encounters, then finally meets up with a woman that he kind of knows (Michelle Williams): they’d spoken on a subway platform before. This is a reason for neither of them to want to get it on and instead spend the evening chatting and falling asleep in each other’s arms. She’s gone in the morning. He’s pretty much already in love.

He stops taking calls until she calls again, a month later. They see each other again, at a Chinese restaurant, where she orders in the same way that they pick lovers in their sex club: she just points to things without knowing what they are. Smitten, they retreat to a nearby hotel, where they are very close to consummating their relationship. He steps out for a bucket of ice that she requested.

She’s gone. There’s blood on the linens. He’s hit on the head from behind by what looks like a ninja. When he comes to, the police are there and there is no sign that she was ever there. McQuarry is on the hunt for her, using his special talent for sniffing out details. Wyatt shows up again, with a deal to blackmail McQuarry into transferring over $20 million to a private account on his next auditing job. If he does, he gets his girl back. At this point, it was already obvious to me that she was in on it with Wyatt. I suspected it, but McQuarry eventually knew, because he could tell that the picture of her in his apartment that Bose sent to him was two weeks old.

McQuarry finds out Wyatt’s real name and his past, but is still forced to go through with the heist. Wyatt cleans up loose ends later by blowing McQuarry up in his own apartment. Next, we see Wyatt and S (Simone) in Spain, ready to pick up the money from his account. He’s dressed up and identifying as Jonathan McQuarry, in whose name the account was opened.

Everything’s ready to go. The bank informs him that he just needs to get his co-signer Wyatt Bose to show up. McQuarry has double-crossed him and Bose (as McQuarry) is unamused. He exits to the street and gets a call from the real McQuarry, now posing as Bose. Apparently, it had been someone else in his apartment.

Together, they return to the bank and warily make off with the money in two briefcases. McQuarry (the real one) offers half of his loot if Bose will tell him where to find Simone. They head to a secluded park to finalize the transaction. Bose pulls a gun on him, but Simone shoots him from out of nowhere, grabs the briefcase and runs away.

McQuarry hands Bose his “real” passport and the remaining briefcase so as to finally incriminate Bose and follows Simone. They see each other again an unspecified time later, still in Madrid. They meet and…presumably live happily ever after?

The cast is quite famous and includes Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Q as two of the other lovers. The movie’s not so great and is both too long and too short. There’s a shocking lack of nudity, tension and eroticism for a movie about a sex club full of attractive people. At eight minutes long, the film shows a dedication to the credits that was lacking in the film itself.


[1] There is an early scene where Frank goes to beat up a shopkeeper because the guy had dared to reprimand his daughter. He takes Peg along to show her what he’s going to do to the guy. He throws him through a window. The scene is embarrassing because DeNiro was sleepwalking in it—and he doesn’t move at all like the young muscle he’s supposed to be. It was gratuitous to include it simply to “show” us why Peg doesn’t like her dad.
[2] As with the Chernobyl series, most people won’t be able to discern this movie from a documentary and will soon start citing it as “proof” that the mob had Kennedy killed. I welcome the increased muddying of the already muddy waters around this no-longer-relevant event of the 20th century.
[3] It’s been nominated for ten oscars—even in categories for which its laughably not qualified, e.g. Costume Design…um, they all wore black suits nearly all the time or Film Editing…um, the movie dragged on to 3.5 hours. (Did they leave anything on the cutting-room floor?)
[4] Hoffa was more than casually racist about Italians. The Italians, in turn, were more than casually racist about blacks.
[5] Because actresses weren’t given lines or really roles of any significance. They were utterly insignificant next to the men except for maybe “Jo” Hoffa, Jimmy’s wife. Anna Paquin, no slouch, had almost no lines and was left to indicate her disapproval of her father with a bevy of unhappy stares.