Midsommar

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Style and story don’t cohere as rewardingly in Midsommar as in Aster’s debut, but his formal dexterity and ornate, hand-crafted aesthetics make for a visually distinctive and viscerally dreadful trip.

In Hereditary, Toni Collette’s Annie carefully toys with finely detailed dioramas of scenes from her and her family’s life, which, in turn, is being toyed with by an unseen evil. Aster builds this notion of manipulation and interference by outside forces into his film’s very form by shooting the family’s Park City home as if it were a doll house. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re looking at the house itself or a miniature replica of it, which furthers an unsettling atmosphere of ambiguity about what’s real and what’s not. 

Whether its the colorful and folksy sets, the Horga’s pristine white costumes, or the increasingly bloodied props, the fastidiousness with which Midsommar’s trappings appear have to come together enriches the world with detail, but at the same time, can feel too neat. My eyes were dazzled by the particulars, even as I occasionally questioned the authenticity of what I was seeing. The artisanal lottery balls, for example, struck me as perhaps overly ornamental.

Stylistic precision, in other words, is both a feature and bug, and it seems to have come at the expense of the story’s ostensible themes and characters. Pugh is fantastic, and yet she feels underutilized. Dani is a passive figure throughout, stumbling into her throne as the May Queen by chance and then sentencing Christian to death, which is one of the only active decisions she makes that I can think of. Arguably it’s symbolic of Dani’s emotional progress and her finally having the strength to sever ties with Christian and his friend group, having found a new “family”, but it’s hardly the emotional release it could have been since Aster manages to only cursorily imply the nature of their history together and what they’ve come to mean to each other. On a similar note, by the film’s end, I had no better understanding of how far Dani has come in grieving the loss of her family. 

I actually really like this movie though! Hence the very positive rating. I cannot wait to watch it again, and it’ll make a fantastic double-feature with Hereditary because of all their parallels and rhymes. I just think it’s better defended on sensory rather than thematic terms, and as a nerve-shredding nightmare of sunny psychedelia rather than a portrait of a relationship. Separate from theme or character, what Aster handles masterfully is tone. The horrific tragedy everything begins with, the cliff side ceremony of suicide (there’s some S. Craig Zahleresque skull-crushing there), Dani’s escorts wailing in harmony with her when she breaks down – scene after scene is staged with such a singularly unsettling suspense that’s all the more astonishing for being kept up as its balanced and blended with comedy. “Don’t think about it too much” isn’t usually a viewing strategy I endorse, but I do think Midsommar is better felt than decoded.

Midsommar Trailer

Midsommar is currently streaming on Kanopy and Prime Video.

You can listen Michael and Taylor discuss Midsommar in greater length on Episode 42 and Episode 59 of Drink in the Movies.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Dream Horse

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Dream Horse is exactly what it advertises itself: an unabashed crowd pleaser that wears its heart on its sleeve, fully aware of its cheesiness and making no attempt to hide it. The result is a film that, while it may not win any awards, leaves you with a smile on your face and perhaps a few tears in your eyes as well. 

Based on the true story chronicled in the 2015 documentary Dark Horse, Dream Horse follows Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, good as ever), a grocery bagger and barkeep living in a poor mining town in Wales. Jan and her husband, Brain (Owen Teale, turning in a wonderful performance), have been stuck in a slump, going through the same motions every day. Upon overhearing Howard (Damian Lewis) in the pub reliving his glory days as part of a racehorse syndicate, Jan, who used to raise livestock and racing pigeons, begins to formulate an idea. 

This idea involves buying a broodmare, impregnating her, and breeding a racehorse, then roping members of the town together to form a syndicate to help pay for the horse’s expenses. After initial balking, Jan is joined by several other colorful town members, including Howard, each offering charm and a bit of broad humor. From there, they embark on the quest to raise their foal, dubbed Dream Alliance. 

The rest of Dream Horse is utterly, completely predictable, but is buoyed by such a solid cast and made with such enthusiasm that it’s hard to get annoyed. To its credit, director Euros Lyn (director of some excellent Doctor Who and Daredevil episodes, as well as the eerie Torchwood: Children of Earth) avoids leaning too hard into the more obvious beats, so that the emotion lands without being overwrought. It helps that Lyn has such a fine cast at his disposal, who sell their joy and distress with such genuineness that you want to clap along with them.

The film focuses more on the human aspect than the horse, probably a smart move seeing as horses can only emote so much. Jan and Brian feel the old spark again, but Howard and his wife, Angela (Joanna Page), have a falling out: last time Howard joined a racing syndicate, it went under and they almost lost the house. However, by the end of the film, this has all been swept under the rug and everyone gets a tidy, happy ending.

Despite horses’ general lack of facial expressions, the scenes with Dream still play well. (Though it was highly amusing to see the tricks they used to get Dream to act unruly. Oh, no, he’s not facing the right way to start the race! Well, maybe if the jockey let go of his mouth… But to a non-equestrian viewer, these would be nonissues.) Toni Collette even sells the emotional monologues to the horse as he nibbles at her (probably peppermint-lined) sweater pocket. (Most of my verbal interactions with my horses, on the other hand, consist of, “Stop that,” “Don’t bite me,” and, “Stop spooking, there’s nothing there.”) Editor Jamie Pearson skillfully ratchets up the tension during the races even as you know the ending, cutting between spectators and horses in just the right places to keep you from getting too bored. 

It’s nothing groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean Dream Horse is bad. Sometimes a predictable feel-good movie can be just what you need, and by the time the film ends with the cast singing together along with their real-life counterparts, if you don’t feel tempted to join them, you might want to reconsider your life choices.

Dream Horse Trailer

Dream Horse played at the 2021 Atlanta Film FestivalComing to theaters May 21st.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Episode 83: An American Pickle / She Dies Tomorrow / Waiting for the Barbarians

“Losing all the preconceptions that I had about storytelling, about the world, you know, and learning to see the world from a different perspective. It sounds romantic, but it’s not an easy process at all.”

Ciro Guerra

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of a duo of Netflix Releases in The Devil All the Time & I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Followed by the Titles: An American Pickle, She Dies Tomorrow, and Waiting for the Barbarians.

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Streaming links for titles this episode

An American Pickle on HBO Max

She Dies Tomorrow and Waiting for the Barbarians on Hulu