Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Hereditary Review (2018)

Grade: A-

Ari Aster’s superb debut horror film “Hereditary” is so methodically stretched out-- using every second and minute of its runtime to ratchet up suspense and generate terror. It’s relentless but in a subdued and quietly unnerving way. From the very beginning, the movie grabs you by the neck and holds you in a state of stress and uneasiness, not letting go until the final credits. Even the most mundane domestic scenes have an atmosphere of unshakable menace hanging over them. Aster constantly keeps you on edge; you’re always waiting for something bad happen. Yet, when the bad things happen they’re never less than nightmare inducing.

 “Hereditary” opens on a run of the mill obituary, as if it was clipped directly from a newspaper and put on screen. That obituary is for Ellen, the mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette giving a layered, frantic, manic, sympathetic, powerhouse of a performance). There’s a funeral service, attended by Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their kids Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Somberness is in the air but there’s also a sense of tension, even relief.  When the Graham family returns to their giant wooded house (that’s practically engulfed by a surrounding greenbelt), Annie asks Steve if she should feel sad. Without giving away too much, lets just say that spooky things start to happen and dark family secrets surrounding the late mother gradually come to light.

Aesthetically, “Hereditary” is overdetermined, which contributes to its overall sense of dread. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski captures the action primarily via long shot (both in terms of shot duration and distance from the characters) with a lot of slow, careful pans and zooms. Meanwhile the blocking is overly stagey; Annie and the rest of her family move around their massive, empty house in a heavily controlled manner. The film’s Mise- en-scene is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s dollhouse style. Of course, here it’s used for more sinister purposes.

On the one hand, it directly mirrors Annie’s profession as a miniatures artist; she meticulously recreates scenes from her life with balsa wood, paint and figurines. On the other, it underscores the tragic and terrifying way in which the Graham family is carefully manipulated by various shadowy forces around them. Much in the way Rosemary (Mia Farrow) from Roman Polanski’s classic chiller “Rosemary’s Baby” gradually loses her personal agency, so do the Grahams.

Aster’s screenplay does such a brilliant job of keeping you in the dark about what’s really going on until the last scenes. The central mystery is surprisingly intricate and though you’re given hints throughout (so none of the major plot points or twists feel like they came out of nowhere) Aster doesn’t hold your hand. There are no flashbacks or contrived moments of exposition. Sometimes you can detect crucial bits of information through casual dialogue exchanges, other times you’re picking up clues at the same time the Graham family does.

And then there are questions, regarding Ellen’s past activities and relationship with Annie, that aren’t definitively answered, leaving you to fill in certain gaps yourself. Even the final scene, which reveals quite a bit, doesn’t neatly explain everything and tie up every loose end. So, while “Heredity” ultimately rewards your patience, it still requires your undivided engagement and leaves you with plenty to mull over.

Furthermore, the slow burn approach allows Aster to sufficiently develop the relationship between the central characters (which gradually evolves from frayed to destructive). If you remove the more conventional horror movie aspects from the film you would still have a compelling, anxiety ridden family drama. “Hereditary” is about the horrors of parent hood and family life; coping with personal tragedy, trying to repress simmering resentment you hold towards your loved ones and the fear of not being able to protect your family from outside forces (and yourself).

Aster takes the time to dig into these anxieties through tense and emotional confrontations between family members. The scene in which Annie wakes Peter up in the middle of the night with a surprising and horrible confession is both terrifying and heartbreaking. You come to care about the Graham family.

Often times in horror films we could care less about the victims who are being haunted by ghosts or slaughtered by killers. In fact we may even cheer on their deaths. In great horror films we are genuinely invested in their livelihood and we don't want bad things to happen to them. We can’t stand to see Rosemary be taken advantage of and manipulated. We don’t want to see the Graham’s routinely tormented. Our empathy makes the horrors in “Hereditary” all the more bone chilling and its immaculate craftsmanship all the more impressive.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story Review (2018)

Grade: C+

Ron Howard’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (the second spinoff/prequel “Star Wars” film following “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” from a couple years ago) is a thoroughly unremarkable picture—a mildly entertaining and safe prequel/origin story that has little to say about its iconic protagonist and therefore has little reason to exist.

Which is a shame because “Solo” moves at such a swift pace. It may be the shortest two hour and fifteen minute movie I’ve ever sat through. Leaving the theater, I didn’t feel beaten down and fatigued like I would during a “Transformers” movie. But two days removed from my screening, little from the actual movie has stuck with me.

 “Solo” is ineffective as an origin story as it provides no real significant insights into Han’s past. The first section, which revolves around Han’s (played by Alden Ehrenreich) upbringing as an orphan by a gang of criminals, is so brief that nothing in it resonates. The first meetings Han has with Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian are handled in such a hasty manner that you wonder why they all couldn’t already be established acquaintances. We’re given explanations for things that don’t need explaining. The name, “Han Solo” is a cool name that speaks for itself, so why do we need a scene wherein the origin of the name “Solo” is explained? It indicates a lack of ideas on the filmmaker’s part.

Furthermore, great origin stories depend on great character arcs. In “Solo,” Han doesn’t have much of an arc. He doesn’t go through any kind of significant transformation as a character or have any kind of epiphany, like Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins” or Tony Stark in “Iron Man.” Han is an arrogant, selfish intergalactic outlaw with a streak of empathy and goodness, and that’s OK. But when trying to be a “Han-before-the-Solo” style movie,” “Solo” fails.  I would have been fine if the movie had simply started with Han as an established outlaw trying to survive.

Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of fan service—winky lines of dialogue and references to forthcoming events in the original trilogy. There’s even a peculiar cameo near the end that doesn’t make sense in the grand “Star Wars” timeline. It seems to be included solely for empty shock value and fan speculation. Meanwhile, the central mission has to do with, you guessed it, the Kessel Run. None of this fan service ever seriously impedes the action or pacing but again, it indicates a lack of creativity. Why not focus on adventures we haven’t heard about? After watching the challenging and subversive “The Last Jedi” (a film that literally tells us to “kill the past”) it’s a little disappointing to watch another “Star Wars” movie fixate so much on the past.

“Solo” is better when it’s just a stripped down heist film. Han eventually teams up with an older criminal mentor named Beckett (Woody Harrelson) for the Kessel mission and they put together a team that includes Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), childhood friend/love interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Lando (Donald Glover) and the droid L3-37 (Pheobe Waller-Bridge). Yet, “Solo” still never rises above mediocre. The heist narrative is aggressively conventional, free of any genuinely tense or surprising moments.  

And the film never fully takes advantage of its criminal underworlds. One thing I really appreciate about “Return of the Jedi” is how much time it spends inside Jabba’s drab, sleazy lair. It’s seedy and overflowing with criminals and monsters you wouldn’t want to interact with. It’s an unpleasant, three dimensional space. None of the gangster dens, gambling rooms or back alleys in “Solo” ever gave me that same uncomfortable feeling.

Instead, “Solo” bounces from one unmemorable plot point to the next, eager to get to the end. The final third is somewhat intriguing only because there are a few sudden twists and betrayals. I wish there had been more of those throughout the rest of the movie, though.

Thankfully the cast is very good and keeps “Solo” from being a bore. It takes a few scenes for Ehrenreich to find his footing but before long his Solo exudes charm. Harrelson brings his usual easygoing, folksy energy to Beckett and Glover is effortlessly smooth. However, the real standout here is Waller-Bridge. Her empowered droid is the most vibrant aspect of the entire film. Going beyond the sassy robot sidekick, her witty, down to earth demeanor makes her more human than droid. She could be the star of her own movie.

Ultimately,  “Solo” is never outright bad; it’s just inessential and forgettable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

You Were Never Really Here Review (2018)

Grade: B+

I wouldn’t want to mess with Joe, the protagonist of Lynn Ramsey’s feverish, psychological crime flick “You Were Never Really Here.” He’s got a large, bushy beard and long hair that he often keeps in a bun. His body is bulked up and covered in scars. A former war vet, Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix) now works as a tough guy for hire—mostly rescuing little girls from underground sex clubs. Wielding only a hammer, Joe dishes out pain with such mechanical finesse; he’s been around enough violence for it to just bounce off of him.

Yet, I also spent much of the film wishing I could give Joe a great big hug. Maybe it’s his soft, gentle voice or his propensity for spacing out or that he straight up breaks down in tears at a couple points. This guy needs help… and a friend. Phoenix has such a knack for playing menacing, unhinged characters that also give off a nonthreatening and vulnerable aura. For Joe, violence is both second nature and a burden.

Right away we see how tormented and haunted he is. Traumatic memories, from his childhood, his war days and past rescue missions, flash on the screen in disorienting and suffocating fashion. Joe continues to be violent in a futile attempt to suppress these painful visions. “You Were Never Really Here” is a claustrophobic, nightmarish film about an individual whose mind and body is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Based on a terse novella by Jonathan Ames, “You Were Never Really Here” follows Joe over the course of an intense few days. After a spending some quality time with his ailing mom (who has her own traumatic background), he’s hired by New York Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to rescue his teenage daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a local sex club. Joe buys a new, shiny hammer from a hardware store and then drives to a nondescript town house at the dead of night. He breaks into the house with ease and makes his way through its mostly barren interior.

 In the film’s best-shot sequence, Joe takes out security guards and clients with swift precision before finally reaching Nina’s room. Ramsey and cinematographer Thomas Townend capture the action in long shot, via black and white surveillance cameras that line the ceilings. When Joe makes quick work of a random customer in a bedroom, a little girl (not Nina) wanders out into the hall.

The sequence has an austere, chilling sense of detachment. There’s nothing exciting or romanticized about the vile stuff that’s going on in this place or Joe’s actions. All of this icky stuff is brutally matter of fact. “You Were Never Really Here” is affectively gruesome and disturbing without being excessive. In fact in most cases, Ramsey emphasizes the build up and gory aftermath more than the actual violence.

Joe easily finds Nina and they escape the house of evil but things quickly dissolve into chaos. Joe is yanked into a conspiracy involving corrupt cops and politicians that leaves a trail of suffering and violence behind. At times, “You Were Never Really Here” resembles a combination of “Taken” and John Boorman’s splintered, elliptical Neo-noir “Point Blank” but much bleaker than both those films. The ominous flashbacks are brief enough that they don’t interrupt the picture’s flow, while Johnny Greenwood’s eerie score (an unsettling, off kilter mix of synthesizer, strings and percussion) accents the disarray.

Of course, Ramsey isn’t really interested in plot. She doesn’t dig too deep into the conspiracy or draw the girl rescue narrative out like “Taken” did. It resolves itself pretty quickly and she lets the audience put the remaining pieces together. No, Ramsey keeps the picture’s focus on Joe’s damaged psyche. How much more of this suffering can he take before he snaps? Is there any way for him to break out this destructive cycle?

Ramsey provides an answer to that question of sorts, which turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The main problem with Ames’ book is that it’s missing an entire final act, concluding on a frustratingly open-ended (i.e. unfinished) note. Ramsey fixes that, partly by giving the character of Nina far more agency and presence than Ames granted her. She’s strong-willed and resourceful. And the two wounded souls form a poignant, remedial bond. It’s harder to heal when you’re going at it alone.   The movie even suggests that Joe needs Nina more than she needs him.

The final outlook is refreshingly optimistic and empowering. Satisfying, while still somewhat open-ended.  Samsonov gives such a mature, understated performance that I wish Ramsey had given Nina a couple more scenes, either by herself or interacting with Joe, to further strengthen their relationship.

 Overall, “You Were Never Really Here” lacks the character and thematic depth of Ramsey’s last effort, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,”--another hallucinogenic, terrifying movie about coping with trauma and evil.  But it succeeds as an intense examination of the mental and physical toll nonstop violence can have on someone.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Unsane Review (2018)

Grade: B-

Prolific chameleon director Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature, “Unsane” is a wild, ambitious and altogether delirious ride. Writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer manage to pack a lot into a tight pulpy genre movie mold while Soderbergh (acting as his own director of photography) captures the mayhem with only an IPhone--alternating between gritty “shot-on-the-fly” style coverage and more impressionistic, hypnotic horror movie shots. “Unsane” is at once a disturbing, absurdist indictment of institutional corruption and abuse and an unabashedly sleazy old school slasher movie. It doesn’t entirely work but there’s rarely an anxiety free moment.

“Unsane” is at its most unsettling within the first thirty minutes. Without disclosing too much plot, the action revolves around Sawyer Valentini, (Claire Foy, assured and fiercely determined) a young woman trying to move on from past trauma. She goes to a nearby mental hospital, only looking for someone to talk to. However, the hospital won’t let her leave and through a little coercion disguised as run-of-the-mill paper work, Sawyer is involuntarily committed.

This sequence of events left me in a state of unshakable anxiety. I felt trapped and powerless along with Sawyer. The film unfolds like an absurd, deadpan nightmare. There’s a bland feel to the proceedings overall. The actors who play the hospital employees give stilted, awkward performances. But this banality is precisely what makes the film so scary and twisted. The hospital is so mundane and the employees handle Sawyer’s questions and pleas for freedom with such a cold professionalism, as if keeping people here involuntarily is the norm.

Sawyer’s predicament is further complicated by the fact that she’s a woman. In many ways “Unsane” is a horror movie very directly about the violation of consent and the way reports of abuse are mishandled and belittled by institutions that are supposed to care. Sawyer is manipulated and eventually left powerless by the people who she went to for aid. Her inquires and protests are met with a chilling, hostile indifference. They don’t listen to her. They don’t want to listen. And at times Sawyer even starts to believe their diagnosis and vague responses to her questions, which is absolutely terrifying. In the context of the #MeToo movement, “Unsane” is unexpectedly timely.

Otherwise, “Unsane” unfolds like a mix of Samuel Fuller’s angry, “in-your-face” mental hospital exposé “Shock Corridor” and a grindhouse style horror movie. Someone from Sawyer’s past comes back to haunt her, taking things down a deeply unpleasant and nasty path. While the film’s commentary on institutional corruption (how capitalism infects and rots the field of medicine) is convincingly rendered the grindhouse stuff gets tedious after a while.

The mechanics of the plot start to break down. In fact the last fifteen minutes are chaotic and sometimes flat out incoherent. In the moment it’s still viscerally involving (like the rest of the movie) but afterwards you’ll find yourself trying to plug up a litany of plot holes. Additionally, in a rushed attempt to bring everything to a neatly satisfying conclusion, (in an old fashioned genre movie sort of way) the ending is underwhelming.  The rest of “Unsane” is strong enough to warrant an easy recommendation even if Soderbergh ultimately loses control of his ambitious project.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tomb Raider Review (2018)

Grade: C+

Roar Uthaug’s “Tomb Raider” (based on the popular videogame series) is a reboot; an origin story for archeologist/ treasure seeker/athlete/badass Lara Croft. That sounds like a good idea. After all, we like to learn how our superheroes came to be. Unfortunately, Uthaug’s film is remarkably simple and breezy--often generic but light on its feet and never flat out wretched. The action is occasionally gripping. For being just under two hours it goes by very quickly. Overall, Tomb Raider” plays like a thoroughly mediocre (with splashes of fun) one off action flick.

That sounds like a mild compliment rather than a criticism but “Tomb Raider” also has the burden of setting up a new film franchise/ character. In that context, it feels like a hectic, forgettable warm up rather than a substantial origin story.
“Tomb Raider” moves along at a snappy pace. The action begins in London with our heroine in the making Lara (Alicia Vikander) as a young and intelligent but misguided woman, working as a bike riding food deliverer and practicing Mixed Martial Arts on the side. She holds out hope that one day she will reconnect with her explorer/billionaire father, (played by Dominic West) who went missing searching for an ancient Japanese Queen’s tomb.

That day comes fast. Lara uncovers her father’s research and races across stormy Pacific waters to an uninhabited island to find him. There, an expedition, sponsored by a shadowy organization called Trinity and lead by a deranged archeologist named Mathias (Walton Goggins, effortlessly menacing) is taking place to recover the contents of the tomb.

And well, that’s pretty much it. “Tomb Raider” is thin on substance; Mathias is underdeveloped as a villain while the central mystery involving the Japanese Princess is vague and not all that compelling or elaborate. The script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons doesn’t devote much time to archeological work or clue hunting outside of a few dull montages of Lara furiously digging through her father’s research. I get that she’s a novice but you’d think that the first mystery (the mystery that gives her her life’s calling) would be just a little more intricately wound and fleshed out.

The vagueness of the Japanese Queen mystery is partly intentional so that the movie can drop a twist on us during the climax, set in The Queen’s booby-trapped tomb. But this twist is rote and not worth the build up. Even worse, in its primary goal of setting up a new franchise, the picture ends with another uninspired twist and one of those cheap “our-hero-will-return” cliffhangers that made me roll my eyes.

Of course, the father-daughter relationship is more the focal point here than the Japanese Queen stuff and that dynamic is gently touching. (West and Vikander share a few strong moments onscreen). But like the rest of the film, their relationship is rushed and not all that deep. Too often it settles for skin deep, saccharine flashbacks featuring Lara as a girl.

Vikander is quite good, playing Lara with an engrossing combination of toughness and vulnerability. She’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful but expectedly inexperienced. During the action sequences, (one of which involves her floating down mighty rapids and hanging on to a rusty airplane wreck over a massive waterfall) she proves to be strong and feisty but also reckless and unrefined. She gets hurt and sometimes cries out into pain. Lara is not the seasoned badass yet.

The film’s combination of comedy and dark drama (Mathias relies on slave labor for his expedition) doesn’t always cohere tonally. In fact most of the attempts at humor feel forced; an extended scene featuring Nick Frost as a cheeky pawnshop owner is tedious from the get go. Meanwhile, all of the witty banter between Lara and supporting characters falls flat.

In the end, “Tomb Raider” does its job in setting up a new franchise (that may or many not continue) and does so in lightly pleasing but mostly mediocre fashion.