Critic After Dark

Directed by Ari Aster
Apollo 11
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

MIDSOMMAR, Ari Aster’s follow up to his terrific (at least for the first three-fourths) Hereditary, improves on the earlier work this much: instead of situating his narrative in Utah he moves his story to an exotic faraway land (well, Sweden) where the notion of a possibly malevolent conspiracy can be more easily established. Yes, xenophobia, though arguably much of horror literature and film sprouts out of a fear of the Other.

Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is having a bad day, to put it mildly: her anthropologist boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is thinking of leaving her but doesn’t have the courage to let her know; her bipolar sister is thinking suicidal/homicidal thoughts; Dani herself (if we are to believe her boyfriend and his friends) seems too wound up to enjoy much of life, clings to Christian too tightly to allow him to breathe much less enjoy his life.

Enter Christian’s classmate Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) who proposes a trip to his home community in the province of Halsingland (Sweden) for the midsummer — a special celebration that happens only once every 90 years. Dani learns about the outing and wants to come along; Christian reluctantly (and to his friends’ dismay) agrees. Do we know where all this is going? You bet.

Arguably the film’s best scenes occur early on, when the American visitors are wide-eyed and slack-jawed, and the community at first blush seems like a wonderful place to live. Mr. Aster drops little details here there and leaves them uncommented, for us to either freak out quietly to ourselves or miss completely: the camera gliding over a series of runes and painted images (at one point we see the drawing of a woman mutilating her genitals — a reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers?); a bear sits hunched in a wooden cage (you know that’s not going to end happy); allusions to events later in the film (Pelle explains that the stages of human life are like the seasons of the year, with winter ending at the age of 72. Dani asks: what happens at 72? Death). We’re understandably disturbed, but the sunlight is so relentlessly bright and the Swedish landscape so breathtakingly beautiful (actually the film was shot in Hungary) that we can’t quite find ourselves entirely convinced that we’re being threatened.

Or rather sunlight, landscape, and people are so unfailingly smilingly radiant we know where this is all going.

Pugh’s Dani starts out extreme — after film’s first 10 minutes her life has become so horrifying you wonder if anything worse can happen; Mr. Aster’s answer: “yes and no.” Dani is being less victimized than seduced — selected out of an elaborate (if unexplained) vetting process (though one wonders what would happen if she had lost the maypole dance contest — or was it rigged?). Arguably the story isn’t of a woman to whom “bad things have happened and worse is yet to come,” more like “bad things happen and you have nothing left to lose.” And that’s a trajectory for a character, of sorts. Mr. Aster claims he wrote this story while undergoing a breakup, and you can see where he tries to weigh things more fairly — Dani Ardor is a victim not just of circumstances but of her own intense feelings, while Christian (Allegorical name much?) is less than forthcoming with his own sentiments. But there’s this uneasy sense you have watching events unfold that Mr. Aster does blame the woman, or at least sets things up so when push comes to shove, the woman will be fully justified in doing the wrong thing. Christian — or Mr. Aster — ends up enjoying the fruits of masochistic martyrdom, with a bizarre sex scene (that may or may not be intentionally comical — at this point Mr. Aster seems to have lost control of his film’s tone) included, apparently for our gratuitous enjoyment.

Throw in long lingering shots of gore and mutilated flesh (at some point you find yourself noting how the prosthetics might have been developed). Throw in CGI effects, which at times are suitably eerie (especially when they waver in time to Dani’s breathing), at times seem like gilding a perfectly lovely lily. I did say Mr. Aster improves on Hereditary somewhat (though he hasn’t improved on that earlier film’s initial family dynamics), but has yet in my book to create a fully satisfying horror movie.

Critics have noted how much Mr. Aster has been influenced by Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man, and while I’m reluctant to use one film to bash another (Oh, who am I kidding? Do it all the time) I do think it’s instructive to compare their dramatic strategies. Our attitude towards Dani and the community develops linearly: we feel sorry for her and sorrier thereafter; the community for its part starts out creepily happy and only gets creepier.

Anthony Shaffer’s script for the earlier film proposes a more complicated protagonist. Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is the authority figure that intrudes on the isolated Hebridean island of Summerisle. Howie is investigating a child’s disappearance; all well and good, all very official. Howie’s investigative approach however raises eyebrows: not only does he question the townspeople’s veracity he questions their hedonistic lifestyle. Sex in the open? Casual nudity? Instructing children in phallic symbols and nonchristian rituals? Howie comes off not just as a prude but an arrogant one, dismissing the people as “all raving mad,” and insisting on the existence of “the true God, whose glory, churches, and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past.” Spoken to audiences in the early 1970s, when the popularity of alternative religions was on the rise, the words are a provocation, and so was the man; you instinctively felt for the islanders and against the unasked-for intruder.

In the end, Howie’s self-centered paranoia — that it’s all about him and his Christian faith — is proven right; that’s the film’s true dramatic arc, not the revelation that the cult harbors sinister intentions (this and Midsommar belong to that particular subgenre of horror after all). Mr. Shafferer — a skilled dramatist whose works include the classic theatrical mystery thriller Sleuth and screenplays for Murder on the Orient Express and (better yet) Hitchcock’s Frenzy — is better at distracting us from the narrative’s hidden intentions, and choosing the perfect moment to reveal. Mr. Aster shows talent for the odd unsettling shot (early on the camera flips over to depict Dani and her friends in a car creeping across the Swedish landscape overhead) but still needs to work more on his screenplays. Nice try, better luck on the next effort.

For the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there was a re-release of Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 documentary in several theaters (plus Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu) that includes spectacular never-before-seen 65 mm color footage of the launch, recovery of the capsule, what happened after (mainly activities aboard the USS Hornet).

Mr. Miller tells the story direct cinema style: no narration or interviews staged for the film, only what’s available on archival footage — most notably Walter Cronkite’s voice acting as the nation’s official storyteller, explaining events onscreen.

Verbally flat but visually the film is a blast, especially early on. Where we’re familiar with the murky black-and-white video footage transmitted by broadcast news (back when there were only three channels in the USA), or the later released shots of space and the various vehicles and spacesuits, the 65 mm is a revelation. Arguably the best dramatically staged launch in a narrative feature is Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, where Atlas rockets shuddered off their icy carapace and lifted themselves into the sky, to the strains of Gustav Holt’s The Planets; this footage if anything surpasses Kaufman, the image stretching across the theater wall, crystal clear and in brilliant color. The PA counts relentlessly down, the watching sundrenched audience is caught holding their collective breaths, the Saturn V — one of the most powerful rockets ever developed — vents a titanic roar as 7,600,000 pounds of force thrust against the launch pad, lifting 300 feet of metal into the air.

The rest of the film may feel anticlimactic as more familiar footage (some of it shot by the astronauts themselves, who have earned honorary membership in the American Society of Cinematographers, and reveal a startlingly deft eye for framing) takes over: 16 mm and still photographs of the second and third stages burning, sending the men into lunar trajectory. When Mr. Armstrong lands the lunar module on the planet’s surface Mr. Miller does resort to a device familiar to video game players and 24 viewers: a clock at one corner of the screen, indicating distance to the ground and remaining seconds of fuel. Even if we know the ultimate outcome (though it’s close) you might find yourself clutching your armrest once in a while for a bit of reassurance.

If you want to learn what the astronauts felt — though we do hear some of their words here — you might want to look elsewhere. Maybe not First Man; Damien Chazelle’s drama does make a dramatic attempt to crack open Neil Armstrong’s hermetically sealed persona, but doesn’t quite go far enough for me, or at least doesn’t quite succeed in evoking the man’s alienated nature (the most revealing sequence, a private moment on the moon, is alas a fictional, disappointingly sentimental conceit). I’m thinking more of For All Mankind (available on the Criterion Channel) journalist-filmmaker Al Reinert’s “documentary” of the Apollo program, really a collage of seven missions cut together into a single epic journey.

No, Mr. Armstrong doesn’t reveal much here either; you notice his absence in the list of narrators Mr. Reinert approached (neither is the loquacious Buzz Aldrin — which is odd, considering). But other astronauts do speak up, and their words reveal an eloquence and depth of feeling and occasional surrealism that adds to the imagery (Ken Mattingly, before the launch: “And here was a kind of strange quiet. You look out and you can see the large part of the state and ocean and this, this thing out here. You have a feeling that it’s alive.” John Swigert: “Everything that I know — my family and my possessions, my friends, my country. It’s all down there on that little thing.” Charles Duke, dreaming about driving the rover across the lunar surface: “…we found this vehicle. It looked just like the rover. The two people in it — they looked like me and John — had been there for thousands of years.”).

The collage effect — the fact that the missions use identical vehicles going through identical stages (three-stage ascent; travel interlude with command and lunar modules linking arms in a hundreds-of-thousands mile dance; lunar module’s descent and ascent; return and parachuted landing); the fact that suited up and helmeted the astronauts could be interchangeable, and even with helmets off one middle-aged clean-shaven Caucasian is difficult to distinguish from another (even their voices tend to run into each other) — actually comes to have a point. The Apollo program can be seen as a single mission — to develop the training, equipment, and techniques to reach the moon and explore its surface — and its people are really a single collective consciousness focused not just on achieving its scientific objectives but savoring the glories visible along the way, the meaning of the achievement. In effect we — all mankind — and not just a select few have touched the lunar surface, have realized how small we can be and how much we can do despite our relative stature in the universe.

To Mr. Miller’s credit he cites Mr. Reinert’s film as an inspiration. Mr. Miller’s own work is not nothing — for the 65 mm footage alone the film is more than worth the price of the ticket. By all means, see the 2019 documentary for the mindblowing imagery, then go watch the 1989 film to listen to their voices (and, Oh hell, why not look at Mr. Chazelle’s biopic while you’re at it) — the more Apollo in my book the better.