Film Review: Hereditary

A Truly Remarkable Horror Movie

High quality film-making from top to bottom sets this film apart from the rest of the genre. I thought it was extremely effective on a lot of levels, playing with audience expectations right up to the very end. Is it hallucination or are there supernatural forces at work? You are kept guessing until the final moments. I think it is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years and it would have been on my top ten list for best of 2018 if I’d seen it when it came out. It’s nothing short of brilliant.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist who builds miniature houses and recreations of events. She is married and has two children and the film opens with the funeral of her mother which causes friction in a family we come to realize is already somewhat dysfunctional. A family tragedy follows close on the heels of the funeral and the family is plunged into further disarray with hints of either madness or supernatural powers working on the family to some sinister end.

I thought the film was instantly remarkable for the power of its images. Writer/director Ari Aster uses some very interesting camera moves and angles to draw you in and make you feel unsettled. The story unfolds at a nice, slow-building pace which gets very frantic toward the end. The production design is great, making the film feel totally authentic and rooted in reality but also allowing for this other-worldliness that pervades everything. It also managed to surprise and stun me with some of its imagery and ideas.

The cast was marvelous and really made the film feel real. I especially liked how Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Steve, the beleaguered husband trying to hold the family together through two close tragedies, anchored the film in an authenticity that made the situation believable. Alex Wolff also deserves special mention as Peter, the older child who goes through some incredibly dark stuff. Toni Collette really carries the film and gives one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen her in. She really is amazing.

Hereditary is a truly remarkable horror movie. It is top-notch film-making in every department with talented people delivering great work and it shows on screen. Not only is the script really sharp, the telling of the story by camera, production design and performance operating at such a high level of quality makes this a great movie, regardless of genre. A must-see.

Film Review: A Star Is Born (2018)

Bradley Cooper co-writes and directs the latest in a long line of remakes of the classic tale A Star Is Born, about a big star taking on a fledgling artist who becomes an even bigger star. There’s nothing deeply revealing or original about this movie, but it is exceptionally well cast and I found it very effective.

Bradley Cooper stars (in addition to directing) as Jackson Maine, a boozy, drug-fuelled rock star who stumbles into a drag bar one night in search of a drink only to discover Ally, played by Lady Gaga, who has the most amazing voice he’s ever heard. She lacks self-belief but with his help finds a way to embrace herself and go on to find success as a musician, but at the cost of their relationship. I found the movie to be pretty predictable and superficial but it really worked because of its cast, particularly Lady Gaga who turns out to be a very good actress. The supporting cast is all great too, with Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Elliott among others.

Everyone on screen is very appealing, which helps make the movie work. The songs are good, but I don’t have the best ear for music so that’s as much as I can say about it. One thing I admired about the movie was its way of avoiding cliche, despite the familiarity of the subject matter. As much as I could see the end coming from before the movie even began, I still shed a tear because I was so invested in the characters. This movie is all about casting.

I really like  A Star Is Born and would recommend it. It’s a familiar story given a compelling spin by two very well-cast leads, a perfect example of how important casting is to making a movie work. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it is a very pleasant two-hour entertainment. I liked it a lot.

Film Review – 2001: A Space Odyssey 50th Anniversary IMAX

I recently had the good fortune to stumble upon a screening of the 50th anniversary Imax edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my top ten favourite films, and I am very glad I caught before it left theaters. What was mostly luck of circumstance turned out to be one of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had.

First of all, the restoration was amazing – the movie looked freshly made. That and the mastery of Kubrick’s eye makes the movie feel very modern and accessible. There are very few details that date the film, which is more than one can say of most science-fiction movies. Speaking of details, the massive Imax image was a revelation for someone who has only ever seen the movie on television screens. For example, I was stunned by the number of shots where I was able to see people moving around inside the windows of the spaceships – and this was produced in the 1960s! I really didn’t think that kind of special effect was even possible at that time.

The magisterial pace and the minimal dialogue of the film make for a story that relies heavily on imagery. I understand why many people find it inscrutable when they see it, as I was one of them, but with repeated exposure and learning other perspectives the movie came into full flower for me. Without characters explaining things for the benefit of the viewers, they are left to themselves to decode the pictures and I know there are many different interpretations of what it all means. For myself, I think it is the best story about encountering a superior alien intelligence ever put on film. I appreciate truly alien aliens, and in 2001 they seem to be a species that exists outside space and time as we understand it, appearing to us only in the form of an absolutist black monolith of perfect mathematical proportions. That is pretty far out, man.

Of course, the best parts of the movie are the space ballets set to Strauss’ The Blue Danube and the pure spectacle of the Stargate sequence, but on a screen this size with all-enveloping sound every part of the movie dazzles. The landscapes of the Dawn of Man sequence and the dizzying interiors of the spaceship Discovery are equally spell-binding and even lesser moments like conversations held my attention completely. The screening included a 20 minute intermission which I felt unnecessary (the movie is two and a half hours, not three, which is easily manageable in my opinion) and might have even disrupted my trance a little as I had a feeling the post-intermission part of the film felt a tad draggy. I still loved it, anyway.

Kubrick was the ultimate film maker, in my opinion. His movies are the ultimate in each genre he tackled: The Shining is the ultimate horror film, Full Metal Jacket is the ultimate war film, Dr. Strangelove is the ultimate political satire and 2001 is the ultimate science-fiction film. I already love this movie, so I’m obviously biased, and seeing it in crystal clarity on a giant screen while seated basically dead center in the auditorium was pretty electrifying and I know I sat there with big eyes and a smile for a lot of the movie.

Film Review – BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest film is based on the true story of a black police detective who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. I thought it was exceptional, one of Lee’s best films, playing comedy against the ugly tragedy of racism to great effect. It suffers a bit from Lee’s characteristic overreach but on the whole it is very entertaining.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, a real cop who worked in Colorado Springs to expose the KKK, infiltrating the group with the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (one of my favourite actors). The supporting cast is very good, particularly Ryan Eggold and Jasper Paakkonen who are uncomfortably good at portraying the sociopathic Klansmen who were fooled by Stallworth into bringing him into the fold.

There is a subplot involving black student union protesters which seems to serve as a counter-point to the toxic racism on display in everything the Klan characters do or say which I felt worked, even if they sometimes were a bit broad in their depictions of each side. I thought the film did an excellent job of sending up the racists as essentially stupid silly man-children with their clubhouse meetings and ridiculous names and titles, but nevertheless dangerous, as any angry child with a gun would be. I thought the balance of making fun of their shit and yet acknowledging how deadly serious they are at the same time gave the film a terrific tension throughout which amplified the laughs as well as the danger. Adam Driver is just so damn likable, I was mortally afraid of him being exposed while undercover because I just hated the idea of seeing anything bad happen to him.

The movie does suffer from Spike Lee’s habit of overstating a point a number of times. I really liked how many points to the current state if the US were made, things like saying how Duke’s ultimate goal is to install a president sympathetic to the Klan, or his cry of “make America great!”, all of which land on the right side of being on-the-nose. How disappointing and unnecessary, then, to throw in footage from Charlottestown, including the shot of the car mowing down the counter-protesters, as an epilogue. I felt it ruined an otherwise excellent film that had thus far handled the allusions to modern America more or less subtly and it left a sour taste.

I definitely would recommend seeing this movie, in spite of my misgivings about the final coda. I loved the cast and felt the tension of lampooning the Klan gave rise to big laughs. I felt Lee’s usual preachiness was more moderate than usual, which let me enjoy the story and characters more. Funny, exciting, thought-provoking; I’d say it’s a good movie, in my opinion.

Film Review: First Reformed

Writer/director Paul Schrader has crafted one of the most intriguing movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found it complex, subtle, with many unexpected turns and a compelling cast. One of the year’s best, in my opinion.

Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a depressed priest who lost his only son in Iraq. Unable to pray, he pours his thoughts and feelings into a diary while drinking whisky. His church is a historical landmark with few followers, with most of the faithful preferring the local mega-church. Amanda Seyfried plays Mary, who comes to Toller concerned about her husband’s increasingly extremist beliefs and from there the film examines the modern relationship of people and their faith on one hand, and the relationships between institutions of faith and big business on the other.

I really liked the way the film depicted how at odds with the modern world religion seems to be, except for its usefulness by people with money seeking influence in a community. There is a definite sense of impending chaos and loss of shared values in the mood and character of the film, but always a lingering feeling that the worsening of the world could be largely a matter of perception. There is a particularly interesting scene between Toller and Mary about halfway thorough which sublimely transcends the gloom and alienation of the rest of the movie. There is hope, the film seems to be saying, if you just knew where to look for it. That was how I felt about it, anyway, but there is enough complexity that I’m sure many things can be taken away from it.

The film is shot in a very austere way, with cold, formalistic camera work and a very subdued palette. The score by Lustmord is perfectly supportive of the material, enhancing the mood without ever being obtrusive. Everything in the film contributes to the sense of alienation and loneliness and Ethan Hawke holds the center admirably, drawing you in and making you genuinely concerned about what’s going to happen to him. The movie deftly avoids cliché and has a really interesting ending.

I really liked First Reformed for its quiet tone, its austerity and the challenging material which really gives you a lot to think about long after the movie is over. There is a depth to the film which may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate. I found it captivating, surprising and it is definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.