Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Movie Review: Incredibles II

Incredibles 2 **** / *****
Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Brad Bird.
Starring: Holly Hunter (Helen Parr / Elastigirl), Craig T. Nelson (Bob Parr / Mr. Incredible), Sarah Vowell (Violet Parr), Huck Milner (Dashiell 'Dash' Parr), Samuel L. Jackson (Lucius Best / Frozone), Sophia Bush (Voyd), Jonathan Banks (Rick Dicker), Catherine Keener (Evelyn Deavor), Bob Odenkirk (Winston Deavor), Isabella Rossellini (Ambassador), John Ratzenberger (The Underminer), Brad Bird (Edna Mode), Kimberly Adair Clark (Honey).
It’s always a little bit frustrating when someone who is a genius at one thing, decides they want to do something else instead. Brad Bird is one of the greatest directors of animated films America has ever produced – with The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and the original Incredibles as more than enough proof of that – but after that trifecta of near perfection, he wanted to try his hand at live action filmmaking. Sure, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is stellar action filmmaking at its finest – it’s one of the best Mission Impossible films and his first foray into something original, Tomorrowland, was at least an ambitious failure (but it was still a failure) – but neither really approached what Bird does best in those animated films. Finally, we have Bird back to doing what he does better than just about anyone else – and it’s making the one sequel everyone seems to agree we actually needed – to his wildly popular super hero epic The Incredibles for Pixar – 14 years after the original. The wait, was worth it.
The film picks up quite literally where the last film left off all those years ago – with the family suiting up to stop the Underminer from robbing a bank right as the credits started to role. Smartly, though, while Bird picks up at the exact point he left off story wise, he knows that the world – and the world of Superhero movies – has changed immeasurably since the first Incredibles movie (think about it for a minute – the original came out a year before Batman Begins kick started Nolan’s acclaimed Batman trilogy – and four years before Iron Man kick started the MCU). So while you can argue that certain themes and plot points are repeated here – what Bird is doing is deepening them, and offering a different perspective on them. He isn’t just in lather, rinse, repeat mode like most action sequels are.
In Incredibles II, the world is still against superheroes – while the Parr family kind of stops the Underminer, they don’t actually catch him, and a lot of damage has been caused. It would be simpler for all involved to just let him get away – they have insurance after all. The one person who doesn’t agree with this is Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), an eccentric billionaire CEO of a tech company where his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) is the genius behind all the innovations, and Winston is the genius sales person bringing them to the world. He has always loved supers – and wants to make them great again. While the plan is to eventually get them all working again, for now, they just want Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) – she causes the least amount of damage. So, while she heads to the big city to be a hero, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) has to stay home with the kids – teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), going through some relatable teenage girl stuff, adolescent Dash (Huck Milner), who still moves a mile a minute, and baby Jack-Jack, who has just gotten powers of his own – and they are completely unpredictable.
In his work, Bird has often challenged a couple of different things – one is the prescribed roles that everyone is supposed to play, and the other is exceptionalism. Here, of course, he flips the typical gender roles – husband stays home, woman goes off to work, and the results are quite what we expect. The scenes of Mr. Incredible trying to become a stay-at-home dad are clever, and while they begin in the sitcom cliché of klutzy dad doesn’t know what to do, it grows steadily throughout the film. Elastigirl’s plotline – as she fights against a villain known as Screenslaver, who quite literally enslaves people through their screens (an obvious, but effective metaphor) is constantly exciting. Bird stages action sequences in animation that puts almost anything done in live action to shame. The various chases and fight sequences here move quickly and fluidly – they aren’t cut to ribbons with rapid fire editing, but allowed to play out beautifully in front of our eyes. The film makes some comment on exceptionalism as well – not as much as before, but Bird still clearly believes that some people can do more – and should be able to do more. There is a pointed bit of anti-intellectualism commentary beneath the surface here.
If Incredibles II doesn’t quite hit the heights of Bird’s previous animation work, its more because of the nature of doing a sequel – you cannot ever quite surprise and delight people the same way a second time out. But Incredibles II comes about as close as possible to doing that. Yes, I wish Pixar in general, and Bird specifically, would concentrate more on original work, and less on sequels. But that’s not the world we live in now, so if we’re going to get more sequels, we need more like Incredibles II.

Movie Review: Beast

Beast **** / *****
Directed by: Michael Pearce   
Written by: Michael Pearce.
Starring: Jessie Buckley (Moll), Johnny Flynn (Pascal Renouf), Geraldine James (Hilary Huntington), Trystan Gravelle (Clifford), Olwen Fouéré (Theresa Kelly), Charley Palmer Rothwell (Leigh Dutot), Shannon Tarbet (Polly).
Who is the Beast in the movie Beast? When you start watching the film, and see it is about a beautiful young woman, from a wealthy family named Moll (Jessie Buckley), who falls for a man from the wrong side of the tracks, Pascal (Johnny Flynn) who is also a suspect in a string of murders of young women you think you know where it is headed. Yet, from the beginning, there is something off about Moll as well. The way she stands apart from her own birthday party, the way she can be brought low by a single comment by her domineering mother, the way she doesn’t just fall in love with Pascal, but looks at him with hunger that could be lust, but feels somehow more animalistic, you are not quite sure. Who is the predator and who is the prey here?
Beast takes place on the beautiful island of Jersey – which gives the film a gorgeous backdrop on which to paint some truly disturbing things. Moll is a little older than we first think – in her mid-20s, not earlier than that. She lives with her parents – she says it’s to take care of her father who has Alzheimer’s. She works as one of those tour bus guides – taking old people around the island to sample wine and see the sites. At that party that opens the film, she is approached by an old friend – Clifford (Trystan Gravelle) – a cop, who clearly wants to be more than just a friend. When her sister upstages the party by announcing she is pregnant with twins, Moll doesn’t react well – downing shots of vodka, before cutting her hand – deliberately – on broken glass, and heading into town where she meets a man at the club and dances all night. The next morning, out in the wilderness, he won’t take no for an answer. That’s when she first meets Pascal, who defuses the situation and drives her home. She won’t be the same again.
Beast is a movie that withholds a lot of information from the audience as it progresses – but not in a cheap way. I get annoyed by movies that basically announce they have a secret they are keeping, and then spring it in the last act as a way to shock the audience. The way information in Beast is doled out makes more sense – it has to do with the dark family secrets we don’t much talk about, the lies we tell ourselves and each other, in order to function peacefully. As we watch Moll’s mother, Hilary (Geraldine James, in a terrifically chilling performance) and the way she is able to cut her daughter down with one perfectly timed passive aggressive comment, we think of her as a monster. And perhaps she is – because as the film moves along, you also cannot help but think she has a point. Clifford is in some respects the same way – he fixates on Pascal in part because he has the girl Clifford always wanted – and in his final meeting with Moll he perfects the act of those petulant man children who bemoan the fact that women don’t like nice guys like him, when in fact they don’t like him because he isn’t a nice guy at all. And yet, doesn’t he have a point in suspecting Pascal anyway?
The movie though is at its best when it focuses on Moll and Pascal – who we sense from the start are two damaged people, who somehow fit together. They are kind of the prototypical couple in a costume drama – the refined girl from the upper class and the rough man who works with his hands, and tracks dirt into the house without noticing. Theirs, of course, could be a great romance. But there is something much more animalistic about the way these two observe each other – the way they talk and flirt, and eventually have sex – they look ready to devour each other that makes you think of something far darker.
The police procedural parts of Beast are fairly standard – although there is a terrific interrogation of Moll by a veteran female detective (Olwen Fouéré). I’m also not quite sure of the ending of the film, which strikes me more of an ending of someone who wanted to give the film a definitive ending, instead of embracing the natural ambiguity the story seems to lend itself to. Still, this is the debut film of writer/director Michael Pearce, and it is a remarkably assured debut feature – beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. And the best thing about it is the performance by Jessie Buckley – an actress previously unknown to me, but who should become a star based on her work her. She goes to truly weird, strange, uncomfortable places – and embraces them all. Even if the movie falters once or twice, her performance never does – making Beast one of the more surprising films of the year.

Movie Review: Flower

Flower ** / *****
Directed by: Max Winkler   
Written by: Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer and Max Winkler.
Starring: Zoey Deutch (Erica), Kathryn Hahn (Laurie), Adam Scott (Will), Dylan Gelula (Kala), Eric Edelstein (Dale), Tim Heidecker (Bob), Maya Eshet (Claudine), Joey Morgan (Luke), Romy Byrne (Alli Whitman), Jordan Campbell (Officer Lerma), Celestine (Cora).
Zoey Deutch is a movie star who is just waiting for the proper vehicle in which to showcase the obvious talent she has to the world in a way that makes that clear. Flower is not that movie, because it is a fundamentally flawed and offensive movie that never takes itself seriously enough to realize just what kind of poisonous, sociopathic character it is putting out into the world, And yet, even as I know this, I couldn’t help but love Deutch in the film – who fully embraces this weird, wacky character and plays it to the hilt, just like the filmmakers want her to. It’s not her fault that the screenwriters don’t take her character seriously enough to see her for who she really is – nor is it her fault that the last act flies off the rails (or would if the movie were ever on the rails to begin with) and turns what they could have at least argued up to that point was a film about female empowerment (they wouldn’t be right, but they could claim it anyway) into a misogynistic mess. I wanted to hate Flower, but Deutch is so charming, has such great comic chops, that I found myself enjoying her performance in spite of the rest of the film.
The film opens with the 17-year-old Erica (Deutch) giving a blowjob to an on-duty cop in his patrol car – just the latest guy to fall victim to the scheme of her and her friends blackmail plans – her two friends film her, and the use the video to get money out of the men. I say victim in only the loosest sense of the word – they are of course men willingly paying a 17 year old to blow them, so how much of a victim can they really claim to be. This, of course, is Erica’s vision of them as well – as creeps and perverts who deserve what they get. Although later, Erica will also claim that she likes “sucking dick”, and draws a line between that and sleeping with men – which she never does. You would think that a teenage girl who does this would have some darkness in her – that she was damaged in some way – but the movie gives no hint of that, other than some daddy issues, because her dad is currently in jail – the blowjob money is being saved up for his bail. Erica is a sociopath, but it doesn’t look like anyone associated with the movie understands that.
Anyway, the plot of the movie basically kicks off when Erica’s future stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan) gets out of rehab, and moves with Erica, her mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) and her fiancé Bob (Tim Heidecker). Luke is overweight and getting out of rehab for drug addiction. He is also painfully shy and prone to panic attacks. He doesn’t even take Erica up on her offer of a feel better blowjob. He says all of his problems stem from being molested by a former teacher, Will (Adam Scott) – who Erica knows as hot old guy at the bowling alley she’s always hanging out in. Erica becomes determined to get even with Will, which becomes awkward because she is also clearly besotted with him as well.
The movie is a mess in terms of its plot, which the filmmakers try to tie altogether in the last act of the film, which of course, is the messiest of them all. The film ends up being another Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy film, but this time, a stealth one because the filmmakers don’t work hard at showing their hand earlier in the film. It concentrates on the Manic Pixie Dream girl this time, to try and fool you it’s really about female empowerment, but the last act make clear its just more male wish fulfillment (one of the final revelations Erica makes to Luke is particularly egregious, and betrays the more puritan attitudes of the filmmakers, that they were clearly trying to hide). In the final scene, they simply toss out a few lines of dialogue to try and tie everything up in a nice, happy bow.
I can see a way in which a film like Flower could work – a film that would be truly disturbing, and would be worthy of the performance Deutch gives here (to be fair, most of the performances here are quite good – the actors do their best with them anyway). But that would a much darker, more self-aware film – something like last year’s Ingrid Goes West, with Aubrey Plaza as a stalker for the social media age. But Flower somehow thinks itself is a buoyant teen comedy, which is somehow more disturbing – but not in a deliberate way. Flower should be one of the worst films of the year – perhaps it is. But Deutch is so good in the film, I really had fun watching the film, even if by the end, I felt I needed a shower.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Movie Review: Ocean's 8

Ocean's 8 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gary Ross.
Written by: Gary Ross & Olivia Milch based on characters by George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell.
Starring: Sandra Bullock (Debbie Ocean), Cate Blanchett (Lou), Anne Hathaway (Daphne Kluger), Mindy Kaling (Amita), Sarah Paulson (Tammy), Awkwafina (Constance), Rihanna (Nine Ball), Helena Bonham Carter (Rose Well ), Richard Armitage(Claude Becker), James Corden (John Frazier), Dakota Fanning (Penelope Stern).
You cannot really blame Ocean’s 8 for not being quite the perfect, lightweight, endlessly re-watchable film that Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 was – after all, Soderbergh himself couldn’t pull off that magic trick twice even though he made two sequels to the Oceans movies (to be fair to Soderbergh, he didn’t really try – those movies increasingly became about themselves more than anything else – and he was able to get there with Logan Lucky – everyone else just needs to realize that now). The frustrating thing about Ocean’s 8 is how close it comes to being that, without ever getting there. They clearly have the right cast – there is not a weak link in it, they’ll all having a blast, and it’s fun to watch them work together. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but wonder why they hired Gary Ross to direct it. No offense to Ross – who is a fine filmmaker in his own right, but this movie needed the lightweight, breezy kick that a master like Soderbergh gave the original film. And if you weren’t getting Soderbergh back, why not hire a woman to direct? Ross’ direction on Oceans 8 isn’t – its solid, but not spectacular – he’s clearly seen Ocean’s 11 countless times (as have we all) and is trying to ape Soderbergh’s style, but it just never quite gets there. The resulting movie is still undeniably fun – I cannot imagine anyone with any interest in seeing it who would walk out not having had a good time. More there was more here that could have been done – and it just feels like they left it on the table.
The plot of the movie is both very simple and hugely complex. In a nutshell, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of Clooney’s Danny, is just out of jail, and wants to kill two birds with one stone – one commit an impossibly complex robbery and two, get even with her ex-boyfriend Claude (Richard Armitage) who was responsible for her going to jail in the first place. She immediately hooks back up with her old partner Lou (Cate Blanchett) – and tells her the plan to rob a $150 million Cartier necklace from the Met Gala that will be around the neck of Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Of course, they’ll need a team – hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), diamond expert Amita (Mindy Kalling), fence Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina) and fashion designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) all join up pretty quickly. The plan is, of course, impossibly complicated, and gets more so as one unexpected wrinkle after another comes up – but we all know how this is going to turn out in the end.
A chief pleasure of these movies has always been watching movie stars be movie stars – and few have done it better, or made it look so easy as Clooney and Pitt in the Ocean’s movies. Bullock and Blanchett pretty much pull it off however. Yes, there relationship is cribbed perhaps too heavily from Clooney/Pitt in the original – but since both are so perfectly cast, and work so effortlessly together, it doesn’t matter. This is also the movie that proves that Rihanna can have an acting career if she wants – she doesn’t do all that much to be honest, but she does it so well. The wonderfully named Awkafina isn’t given much to do either, but she’s so charming and funny while doing it, it doesn’t really matter. I loved how Helena Bonham Carter decided to make her character Irish for no reason, although it works wonderfully. Sarah Paulson is clearly overqualified for her role as the criminal turned mommy turned criminal again – but she’s still in fine form. Poor Mindy Kaling may be the weakest of the bunch – not because she’s bad per se, but she’s certainly the one who fades most into the background. The standout performance is clearly by Anne Hathaway – not playing a version of herself, but playing a version of herself in the minds of all those idiots who have decided they hate her for reasons that have always escaped me. The more vapid and over the top she goes here, the more I loved her in it.
The movie moves along at a brisk clip through, and is never less than fun. It’s just lacking that certain something that would make it go from fun movie you’ll forget about in a few days, to the type of classic that plays on every cable channel once a week for entirety like Ocean’s 11. If they make a sequel to this film – and they should – they need to swing for the fences more. Bring in someone behind the camera capable of giving all that talent in front of the camera the movie they really deserve.

Movie Review: Hotel Artemis

Hotel Artemis *** / *****
Directed by: Drew Pearce.
Written by: Drew Pearce.
Starring: Jodie Foster (Jean Thomas / The Nurse), Sterling K. Brown (Waikiki/Sherman), Sofia Boutella (Nice), Jeff Goldblum (The Wolf King / Niagara), Brian Tyree Henry (Honolulu), Jenny Slate (Morgan), Zachary Quinto (Crosby Franklin), Charlie Day (Acapulco), Dave Bautista (Everest), Kenneth Choi (Buke).
Hotel Artemis reminded me of the type of movie I used to go see all the time that Hollywood doesn’t make much anymore. In the good old days of the later 1990s, early 2000s when every wide release movie didn’t have to be a sequel/prequel/remake/spinoff or part of some sort of Cinematic Universe. They used to make these mid-level, B action movies, filled with movie stars – or at least recognizable actors – that didn’t have a ton of ambition. Some of them were horrible, some were wonderful – and most were, like Hotel Artemis, mediocre. I would never have guessed at that point that one day I’d grow nostalgic for those film – most of them, I’ve probably forgotten completely. But studios don’t make a lot of these movies anymore – so when one comes out, you want it to be really good so they’ll keep making them. Hotel Artemis is just good enough to make me miss those days, but not good enough to be really memorable or convince anyone that they need to make more of these. But they do.
The film is set in L.A. in 2028 – and other than the opening bank robbery sequence, it takes place entirely inside (or just outside) the Hotel Artemis – which is kind of like The Continental in John Wick – a hotel for criminals, although this is also a hospital. The hotel is run by Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster), a nurse who uses her high tech medical devices to heal people rather quickly. The guests are anonymous – defined by room name – and currently there is Acapulco (Charlie Day) – a slimy arms dealer, and Nice (Sofia Boutella), a trained assassin. Arriving from the bank robbery gone wrong that opens the film is Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry). There is a riot going one outside – a corporation has cut off the city’s water supply, and people are not happy. Everest (David Bautista) is the orderly trying to keep the power on – and everyone in line. Outside the door is Crosby Franklin (Zachary Quinto) who wants to ensure his father The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum), the gangster who runs the town, gets the last room left. This, and way more, start coming to a head over the course of one, long crazy night.
With a cast like this, you know the acting will at least be good – even if some of the people are basically going through the motions (Charlie Day does the same thing as always). It’s nice to see Jodie Foster on screen again – for the first time since 2013’s Elysium. She doesn’t dawn the kind of insane accent she did in that film, but she does have a strange walk. I’m starting to think she only does movies know for the sheer fun – the ability to do something weird in them, and I’m fully on board with that decision. She anchors the film, and yet unlike many main characters she is also perhaps the most eccentric character in the film.
The plot of the film does lack a certain momentum. Writer/director Drew Pearce spends too much time setting everything and everyone up, so by the time that is done, it’s just about time to start bringing everyone together, and the violence to kick in. What Pearce does excel at is some of the more technical aspects of the film – the Hotel itself is a great location, and while he takes too much time setting up the characters, he is very good at establishing the world we are in, without too much explanation. He is also good at the large set pieces – from something as seemingly simple of trying to get someone up an elevator and into the hotel without anyone noticing, to the various fight sequences that end the film. I want to see him direct a movie with a better screenplay next time.
Hotel Artemis moves fairly quickly, and is entertaining throughout, without ever quite reaching that next level – that level that takes a film from decent to very good. It’s a programmer – a time waster – but on that level, it works just fine. I wish studios would make more films like this – not because this one is great, but because we need more films like this that are self-contained and don’t take themselves so seriously, or worried about building a world to sustain 10 other films.

Movie Review: Oh Lucy

Oh Lucy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Atsuko Hirayanagi.
Written by: Atsuko Hirayanagi & Boris Frumin based on the short film by Atsuko Hirayanagi.
Starring: Shinobu Terajima (Setsuko Kawashima / Lucy), Josh Hartnett (John), Kaho Minami (Ayako), Kôji Yakusho (Takeshi Komori / Tom), Shioli Kutsuna (Mika Ogawa), Megan Mullally (Hannah), Reiko Aylesworth (Kei).
Oh Lucy is an odd movie. When it begins, you think you know where it is going to go, and then it keeps going off in a somewhat different direction. On a plot level, the film doesn’t have too many surprises in it, but in terms of being a character study of the type of character we do not see very often, the film offered quite a few surprises. I’m not sure it all works – that it all holds together – but it’s an odd, funny, sad film that keep you engaged and entertained.
The film opens in Japan, where Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a typical office drone – working in an open office bureaucracy, doing god knows what. She isn’t happy, of course (no one who works in an office is ever allowed to be happy in movies – people like me are always miserable in their jobs of course). She gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) who has ulterior motives for calling her Aunt. She signed up for English lessons – but can know no longer go. She cannot get a refund, so would like to know if her Aunt would like to take these lessons – and, of course, pay her niece all the money she otherwise would have lost. She agrees – and ends up meeting the teacher, John (Josh Harnett) – who doesn’t seem to know what the hell he is doing. He puts Setsuko – and the only other student, Komori (the great Koji Yakusho) – in wigs, calls them by American names – Lucy and Tom – and teaches them to act casually, and hug a lot. The real plot of the movie starts when John ends up leaving Japan – with Mika – to go back to California. Setsuko and her sister, Mika’s mother, Ayako (Kaho Minami) follow them – not quite sure where they are going. They find John easily – but not Mika – which doesn’t seem to bother Setsuko too much – she’s much more enamored with John.
That’s a lot of plot in Oh Lucy – and we’re really only about a third of the way into the movie. Where it goes from there has some surprises, of course, but for the most part this is a character study of Setsuko. It’s really an understated examination of mental illness – people who function in society, but have things hidden underneath the surface. The fact that Setsuko is a pretty much a hoarder – her apartment is filled with junk – goes unremarked on. She has emotional needs that are not being fulfilled – she has never gotten over the fact that her boyfriend left her for her sister (and is Mika’s father) – although now they are divorced as well. Her sister is not a particularly nice person – every word out of her mouth is condescending to her sister. She also misreads people pretty severely – she isn’t able to see John and Mika for who they are, and puts too much emphasis on both at different times. She can be downright cruel – her interaction with a retiring co-worker is both understandable – we all have co-workers who are overly chipper that we cannot stand – but is also undeniably mean.
All of this makes Shinobu Terajima’s performance all the more impressive. We probably should dislike her from the start, and yet Shinobu’s performance shades it in nicely. We feel for her, even when she does some bad things, because to a certain extent we understand her. The rest of the performances are not up to that level because they aren’t as complex – but that’s by design. What writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi excels at is giving us a little hint of the complexity underneath the surface of these characters. Part of the point of the movie is how much we do not know about others – even those we are close to – and what is going on under the surface. The characters then are complex – we just don’t see that complexity. It’s an interesting choice, and one that yields interesting results.
I’m not quite sure that all of Oh Lucy works. It is based on a short film, expanded to feature length, and although I haven’t seen that film, I do think that perhaps a short was enough to explore what they have to explore. And yet, Oh Lucy is never less than interesting and fascinating – at turns funny and sad, the film is an unromantic look at this character – the type who we normally do not see, or only see as surface level in most film. I look forward to seeing what Atsuko Hirayanagi does next – her debut is interesting and complex, and now it’s time to do something even better.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Movie Review: Hereditary

Hereditary **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ari Aster.
Written by: Ari Aster.
Starring: Toni Collette (Annie Graham), Gabriel Byrne (Steve Graham), Alex Wolff (Peter Graham), Milly Shapiro (Charlie Graham), Ann Dowd (Joan). 
You don’t want to know anything about Hereditary before you see it – this is true for a lot of movies, but especially something like this. That isn’t to say that the film is all surprises and twists and turns and shocks – and that if you knew what you were getting yourself into, the movie would lose its effect. Far from it. Hereditary is a horror movie that takes things like trauma and grief seriously, where the pain inflicted on the family at its core comes from both outside and in, and in many different forms – so it is a horror film that can, and will, stand up to repeat viewings. But the first time through, you should go in as fresh as possible, just knowing that the film will shake you to the core. (This is your clue to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film).
The film is about the Graham family, who when the film opens are getting ready for the funeral of the family matriarch. The eulogy delivered by Annie (Toni Collette) for her mother makes it clear that the deceased was a difficult person to say the least – it’s about as harsh as a eulogy can be without tipping over into being downright cruel (that will be saved for later, when Annie goes to a grief support group – and lays bare her tortured family history – revolving around her mother). Annie is barely holding it together – dealing with the grief for this woman she loved and hated, losing herself when she can into her work – she is an artist, who specializes in insanely detailed diorama’s – her favorite subject is her family, and we find out even more about that tortured past through those dioramas. Her oldest son is Peter (Alex Wolf) – a teenage pothead, who seems distant from his family, but then again, what teenager doesn’t? There is also Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a 13 year old girl, who is clearly disturbed in some way – the drawings she is constantly making her notebook give it away, if what she does with a bird early in the film does not. Annie’s husband is Steve (Gabriel Byrne) – the only one not from the same bloodline as Annie of course – who just wants everything to run smoothly, and for everybody to be safe and secure. He’s deluding himself if he thinks that. The only other major character in the film is Joan (Ann Dowd) – a woman at the grief support group, who seems so nice – open and receptive to whatever Annie has to say. That’s never a good sign in a horror movie – especially considering the things Annie says.
To say more would be to ruin the, well, fun isn’t the right word – but surprises doesn’t quite fit either. I oftentimes complain about the marketing of a film that gives away too much – but perhaps because I avoided anything for the film that I could – meaning I only saw the trailer playing in theatres before other movies – I will say in this case, what A24 did was quite ingenious – they are selling one movie, and delivering another – and while that alienates idiots who want to know exactly what they’re getting when they sit down, for the rest of us there is a definitive moment when our whole conception of what we are seeing shifts completely – and there is little more satisfying than when that happens.
In general, I don’t like it when critics – or directors themselves – describe a horror film as “elevated” horror – or go even farther and say it’s not really a horror film at all. Horror seems to be the only genre this happens in, as if the genre itself is so disreputable that if someone has made a great film, it cannot possibly be a horror film. Hereditary is quite clearly a horror film – by any definition it fits. But what I will say about it is that it is an uncommon horror film in that it really does trauma and grief seriously – and examines them in ways most more serious films on the subject do not. There are a lot of horrible things that happen to the Graham family in Hereditary – lots that is outside their immediate control. But they do a pretty good job of destroying themselves as well. This is not a family that communicates well together – they cannot tell even basic truths to each other – for example, Annie tells her husband she’s going to the movies instead of letting him know she is going to a grief support group. Why? We get no indication that he wouldn’t support her doing that, or mock her. But she cannot admit even that weakness. When they do finally speak – when real things are said – they are the type of things that sting and hurt – that can never be unsaid or forgotten – that scar more deeply than physical trauma. For much of the movie, we are inside that house with the family – inside their heads – and we cannot tell if the strange things we are seeing are real, or imagined – if there is a legacy of mental illness coming out in the family, or there is a real threat – or more likely, both.
First time director Ari Aster has crafted a truly terrifying movie here, because it’s the type of thing that goes deeper, and gets at something more primal than most horror films. He is aided by great performances by the entire cast – no one more so than Toni Collette, who gives one of the very best performances of the year so far as Annie. But every aspect of the movie works – this is a film that can be both beautiful, and terrifying. The attention paid to the smallest production design details – in the dioramas especially, and the sound design amplify the horror, without becoming a distraction. Hereditary is a masterwork of horror filmmaking.