Ready or Not Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brian, Henry Czerny, and Andie MacDowell
Easily the purest, most urgent, and most stupidly one-sided antagonisms in “civilized” history has been the timeless struggle between rich and poor. The latter expending their lives desperately trying to crawl their way out the abyss of impoverished suffering whilst the former gleefully accumulate more and more atop the hellish pit all while making sure to kick as many strained fingers off the ledge as they can. But every once and a while a poor sap manages to make it to the top; they struck gold with an idea, won the lottery, or became a celebrity success story (Oprah or Beyonce). Or they married into a wealthy family.
Ready or Not sees such outcome as Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s said to be an orphan or a former foster kid, joins the wealthy Le Domas family by marriage to their estranged son Alex (Mark O’Brian). Like any despicably rich brood, the Le Domas enforce their own form of gatekeeping in accepting new members to the family. Each prospective addition to the successful gaming dynasty must draw a card from a mysterious wooden box. Printed on the card is a game, picked at random, that the new in-law must play to officially consummate the marriage. Most of the game options are harmless (checkers, some other arbitrary board game), but one proves fatal: hide-or-seek, where the newly wed husband or wife is hunted by the rest of the family armed with primitive-but-deadly weapons. The hider’s fate if found is clearly not good.
Ready or Not recalls semi-recent genre takes like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), and though those films definitely play better in their respective moments, directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet do a fine job synthesizing the two essences for a shrewd dialectic on class contempt and justified wrath. I’m not as over-the-moon for the snarky August release as its critical champions, but I can appreciate the aesthetic effort along with the refreshingly low-profile ensemble (not knocking the clearly talented cast) that really sell the figurative horror story.
Samara Weaving is an instant-icon final girl and our surrogate in battle against the monolith elite, whom are un-surprisingly incompetent at containing her. The impotent world we presently live in is not the product of competent leadership. Competent leaders don’t justify the future for present exploitation. Capitalism dictates those who own the most capital, the most wealth must wield the most power, otherwise the whole wonky system would cease to exist, which is mighty convenient for those with lots of money, but maybe not. The existential fatalism of capitalism predicates an insulated power class, safe from the violent repercussions of the violence they unleash n-fold. The thing is though, that violence they’ve insulated themselves from has real consequences no amount of money can save them from, and it’ll be their own damn fault.
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (2019) Runtime: 3 hours 3 minutes Rating: R Director: Francis Ford Coppola Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Marlon Brando
This August saw a momentary theatrical-IMAX re-release of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now, this time with a new cut from the legendary director aptly subtitled the Final Cut. Coming in at 183 minutes (roughly 10 minutes shorter than Redux and 30 minutes longer than the original edit), the Final Cut offers an renewed opportunity to delve back into the Heart of Darkness with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he tracks down the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in wartime Vietnam. The cultural context of the Vietnam War as represented in the film, itself a translation of the Belgian-colonial context of Joseph Conrad’s source novella, has always been emblematic of an inherent irrationality of war and ideological terror. The state of the world has not improved since 1979; the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report expects global food shortages and mass poverty by 2030, necessitating a complete and total diversion from current social, political, and economic function. Neoliberalism, and its various past incarnations, has effectively dropped us in a dialectic hell from which there is no comfortable escape – a tantamount hell to the one Captain Willard finds himself over the course of his surreal mission.
The plot goes, Captain Benjamin L. Willard is tasked by ranked U.S. Army officials with tracking down and assassinating the brilliant Colonel William E. Kurtz, a decorated Special Forces operative driven to insanity by the horrors witnessed in war, who’s since formed his own rogue outfit out of Cambodia. The idea of someone as tactically intelligent and capable as Kurtz operating out in the field, outside of America’s interests deeply disturbs the U.S. Army, the precise reason why being as obvious as it is illusive. Robert Duvall’s iconic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (“Charlie don’t surf!”) is a clear indicator the U.S. government has zero qualms with sadistic warfare from its personnel, as long as agents extend the symbolic olive branch postmortem. Kurtz’s offense cuts deeper than cruelty, it violates the number one rule of the reality construction project that is the bureaucratic institution: confronting the Lie at its heart.
If Apocalypse Now is about anything, it’s the moral contradiction serving as the basis, the pretense for countless acts of cruelty inflicted in the contrived arena of war. Willard and company stop a Vietnamese supply boat to search for contraband presumed to aid “Charlie.” He advises they dismiss the small boat, letting it pass without incident, but the crew insists. As expected, the routine procedure goes horribly awry when Mr. “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), with the itchy trigger finger, unloads the boat-mounted machine gun into the unarmed transport. Post-slaughter, they find a smuggled puppy hidden away in a basket – clearly not worth killing anyone over. One of the wounded, a Vietnamese woman who was trying to protect said puppy, doesn’t die right off. The boat captain, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) demands they bring her abroad to take her back to base for medical assistance. Willard’s seen enough; he walks over to the two soldiers attempting to carry her aboard and mercy shoots her point blank, to everyone else’s shock. Martin Sheen’s brooding voice over monologues his growing resentment for such “lies.” Later on when we finally meet Colonel Kurtz, he recalls a similar realization precipitating his own existential unraveling: the two really aren’t so different.
We’ve learned nothing from the great mistake that was the Vietnam War – America can hardly even acknowledge it lost the war. The cultural legacy of the war, Reaganomics of the 80s onward, along with entrenched nationalistic antagonism with the Soviet Union up till the 90s, has only amplified the moral insanity of our modern world. Just as Willard “sees no method at all” to Kurtz’s nightmarish haven of death, there’s nothing rational about the way Western-capitalist idealism has rendered us impotent in preventing our own destruction by our own hand, but that’s expected in any toy democracy where the real power is safeguarded by a paywall rather than its people. What’s left is fertile ground for “horror and moral terror.” The epidemic of white supremacist terrorism, openly encouraged by our own government officials, conveniently disavowed after the fact is nothing if not horror and moral terror explicitly defining our dour epoch.
In the film’s final sequence, Captain Willard **spoilers** strikes down Kurtz in dramatic fashion, yet he faces on final challenge after he completes his mission. Kurtz’s followers express no hard feelings for their leader’s execution. They bow to Willard as he descends the haunted temple lair, a clear gesture of willing servitude and a chance for Willard to succeed Kurtz as agent of “horror and moral terror.” The fact that anyone can rationally come to the existential conclusions Kurtz does from a dialectic logic of domination and cruelty, is a clear sign of cultural ruin. To see this manufactured reality for what it is, brutal workings and all, and no reasonable power to change it, is true doom. The apocalypse is here, not in the wake of raining fire, but an accepted propensity for blind insanity masquerading as righteous participation.
The Farewell Rated: PG Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes Director: Lulu Wang Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Han Chen, and Shuzhen Zhao
In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang poses a fascinating question on the logic of lying in the modern sense. Based “on [the] actual lie” of Wang’s experience with her real-life grandmother’s illness, the film is about Billi (Awkwafina), her relationship with her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), and the difficult news her Chinese family insists they all keep from the dying matriarch. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; the doctors say she maybe has three months to live. Having more or less assimilated to the American way of being since she, her Mom Jian (Diana Lin), and her Dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved West when she was still a young child, Billi naturally struggles with the prospect of keeping the known fact of her grandmother’s mortality hidden from her; especially given the cult of individualism so engrained in the Western dream. Her family has decided to stage a fake wedding back home in China so that everyone can come together for one last farewell before Nai Nai passes. Afraid Billi won’t be able to hide her emotions well enough, they plea for her to stay away, for Chinese people have a saying, “when people get cancer, they die.” Nai Nai may be sick, but knowing she’s dying will only affirm the prognosis and that will kill her for sure. At least this way, she won’t suffer from the impending knowledge of her death – she can enjoy the rest of her life worry free, as it should be.
Some spectral parallels to July’s Midsommar (coincidently another A24 release not even a month apart), TheFarewell is too juxtaposing contradictory cultural modalities, namely Western (American) and Eastern (Chinese) traditional perceptions of who one’s life belongs to. As Billi’s uncle puts it, in the East, one’s life belongs to the whole – the family is to carry the burden of the bad news so that Nai Nai doesn’t have to. To ruin what’s left of her time by telling her, so to keep their individual consciences’ clean, would be needlessly unfair to Nai Nai. There is little point to life if its remainder is to be tainted by dread and despair. In the West, one’s life is committed to oneself foremost. Billi and her parents even make a note of it being illegal in America to keep news of someone’s dire ailment from them. Lying in the West is primarily done to conceal individual insecurities as opposed to keeping information from people whom aren’t necessarily entitled to know, as Billi lies about the rejection letter for the fellowship she’s applied to that everyone’s waiting to hear about. We can look at the film’s parallel lies as inversions encapsulating the valuations of their respective cultural sources. Not to say one is right and the other wrong, but to simply value life where you can, how you can.
The Farewell is nowhere near as intense as Midsommar, but those intrigued by the latter’s themes of cultural consideration will find in the former a wise account of empathy missing from the existential discourse today.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 41 minutes Director: Quentin Tarantino Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, and Emile Hirsh
Like the many legion of Tarantino-Stans dispersed across the filmscape, I’m typically predisposed to adore anything the guy touches. I can’t name any of his eight prior films that I would deem anything less than masterworks in their respective goals (yes, even Death Proof and The Hateful Eight). However, while I have a soft-spot for all things Tarantino, I can’t deny the auteur’s problematic indulgences both in front of and behind the camera, even if I don’t personally hold every vice against him. From his liberal use of the “n-word” to his sometimes-questionable direction of female stars – Uma Thurman’s car accident on the set of Kill Bill and Diane Kruger’s unsimulated strangulation by Tarantino’s own hands in Inglourious Basterds – the optics of his directorial flavor understandingly leave a bad taste in his critics’ mouths. Then there’s his trademark stylistic elongation and contentual borrowing from past cinema presented as novelty that, while very entertaining and itself used as thematic context, can easily fall into the realm of gimmickry, despite how good his films are. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, OUATIH for short, is at once some of the director’s finest work to date and also the first time I’ve doubted his dramatic crux.
OUATIH treks the struggles of aging actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his trusty stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) as Dalton begins to come to the harsh terms of his fading stardom, highlighted all the more by his new next door neighbor, rising actress Sharon Tate (Robbie). Meanwhile, the Manson family has made their way to the city of angels, whose real-life tragedy surrounding Tate casts a foreboding shadow over much of the film’s near three hour runtime. But we should know better from Tarantino than to expect a one-to-one retelling of historical fact in the quasi-period pieces he’s been putting out. Both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained famously leverage a brutal epoch to revolutionary ends, providing a kind of gratification that manages to resist an underpinning exploitation. The same is mostly true with OUATIH.
On one hand, the film elegantly plays as hauntology of a cultural promise broken in real-time and restored in the revisionist climax that **spoilers ahead** pits the Manson family against Rick and Cliff rather than Tate and company on that fateful August night. In classic Tarantino fashion, this is the point in the otherwise blood-tame film that descends into extreme violence enacted against the Manson cult members (2 of the 3 assailants being female). Now, I’m not in the camp to sympathize with villains who in real-life successfully committed their heinous crime, but I will admit to be taken aback by Cliff and Ricks harsh dispatchment of the home invaders. **spoilers end** The gesture implied by the film’s credits is legitimately endearing, but how Tarantino gets there in the climax, while very much in his wheelhouse, feels sadly misguided, or knocked off balance, for the sake of an indulgence that effectively detracts from the narrative’s final proposition. But honestly, OUATIH is so good that I can’t help but dig the retrograde love-letter to a more optimistic future.
Midsommar Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes Director: Ari Aster Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter
In the Swedish commune that is the predominate setting of Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow-up, the community elders, at the ripe age of 72, willingly give their lives to the nature divine; in their archaic life economy, the pain and suffering of old age is circumvented through the ritual act of suicide, so as to not taint or corrupt the soul with needless torment. To the typical subject of modern society, which tends to value life only as far as its potential to produce material goods, such a macabre cultural mode is surely to inspire terror rather than celebration – exactly what happens when Dani and company witness the graphic practice in the film. But is the ancestral symbolization of suicide really that taboo held up to the mainstream attitude towards the subject? Midsommar is in major ways a spiritual sequel to Hereditary in its visceral dive into the psychological terror that comes with the existential challenge of living under the oppression of modernity’s uniquely alienating effects. **mild spoilers ahead**
Dani, our main protagonist and a magnificent, authentic performance from Florence Pugh, is the prime subject of the film, around whom the effects of social reality has rendered a guilt and anxiety-ridden mess. We meet Dani whilst leaving a nervous voicemail to her parents on the account of a trouble message she received from her mentally ill sister. It’s clear Dani has some issues of her own – she’s admittedly leaned on her emotionally inept boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) far more than she’d like as she confides to another friend in another early phone call. Dani’s lurking fears comes to pass with the news that her mom, dad, and sister have all been killed in an apparent murder-suicide, of her sister’s doing. Dani needs Christian more than ever, but he’s not equipped to give what she needs from him. And why would he? He came up in the same twisted framework she did. He’s pressured by friends (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) to break-up with her, but when the news comes and along with it Dani’s grief-stricken comatose, he can’t help but be there for her, even if he doesn’t know how. Dani and Christian’s relationship, fueled by a mutual desperation for connection and stability, is surely to resonate at least partially to any modern romance, and is requisite to the visceral horror at the film’s center. Codependency is a perfectly organic development under the psychosocial ineptitude of neoliberal modernity, incubating a permanent-lasting, dull drain on lived, irreversible time. When that codependent insecurity is touched by the collective tabooism of the Hårga Swedish commune, the subsequent culture clash yields horrifying conclusions.
Dani, Christian and company spend some time with the Swedish natives for sometime before any cause for concern arises; specifically the grotesque ritual suicide midway in. The film makes a point to contextualize the disturbing display of violence within the Hårga tradition, which doesn’t view the act of suicide/euthanasia in the derogatory light the neoliberal dreamwork does. In fact, the Hårga community isn’t even really an oppressive hierarchy at all from the perspective of its active members. I mean sure, they casually indulge in ultra-violence against the unlucky sacrifice victim, but everyone in the commune share a spiritually fulfilling livelihood where their material needs are sustainably met: food, shelter, emotional support, and a tangible, egalitarian purpose that gives a respectable meaning to everyone’s life. Who is the modern subject to judge them when our dominate social mode is infinitely pervasive, relentless in its ends, no matter the psychological cost to its people? The theme of suicide weighs heavy on the film, especially considering the explicitly graphic nature of its depiction in the film’s more harrowing sequences. The difference between the suicide at the beginning of the film at the one in the middle is clear in spiritual intent, but what’s mutually true of the respective acts is salvation from future misery understood to be ultimately unnecessary. Death is a cruel mercy from the harsh existential truth of suffering, but we don’t really have just cause to judge either.
Midsommar succeeds as dramatic commentary as well as compelling aesthetic exercise. It’s unconventional use of brightness, white, and daylight is almost disorienting, sneaking up on you like Dani and her group’s inability to differentiate the days apart in the region’s extended daylight hours. It’s very cool how the scenes in America are shrouded in darkness and shadows, which we tend to strictly associate with the vulnerability at the core of fear, juxtapose with the festive, flowery whiteness, perpetual illumination, like the communal openness, where that vulnerability is inverted in a scary way; where that fear comes not from being unable to see, but from being too seen, because where you come from, letting people see how you feel in its full extent is dangerous and you’ll be punished for it.
Like with Hereditary, Ari Aster once again uproots a horror inherent to our way of life in the 21st century: the unsustainable psychological deficiency of our system of relationships. Modernity has fundamentally done away with public accessibility to the mental facilities necessary to enjoy the life you have, with the irreversible time you are forced to forfeit. Some cope by finding meaning in their work, like their pHd thesis, or they play it safe through life, never committing to themselves in a state of permanent anxiety. Others cope by taking their own lives, and while not ideal by any means, the very logic of modern culture does not cultivate such sufficient valuation of lived time. The Hårga traditions are nowhere near as depraved as the ones Dani, her boyfriend, and us the audience, have been forced to live in. That’s scary.