HEREDITARY – movie review

HEREDITARY

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter:  Ari Aster
Cast:  Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 5/31/18
Opens: June 8, 2018
Hereditary Movie Poster
In his debut feature, Ari Aster—known for shorts such as “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” which is a dark family melodrama—graduates into a full length picture that goes beyond mere melodrama into the realm of horror.  But “Hereditary” is not a simple slasher movie like the “Friday the 13th” series but is instead for a discerning crowd.  The film will draw people who do not need to see scenes of killings, each one occurring within five minutes of the other, all the cuts edited so quickly you can barely see what’s going on.  Instead Aster is fond of long takes and intense close-ups, with patient buildups heading toward the inevitably concluding mayhem which is foreshadowed in a Hebrew inscription that fortells “pandemonium.”

While the story does not match up to the hype the film received at the Sundance Festival, its chief talking point is a stunning performance from Toni Collette in the principal role of Annie Graham, who lives in a wilderness home of undisclosed location (filmed by Powel Pogorzelski in Utah).  Annie, who creates and paints miniatures, has a mild-mannered husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) who is the only normal person in the family, a teen son Peter (Alex Wolff), and Peter’s thirteen-year-old sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  It doesn’t take long to see that something is wrong with Annie and her children, with Steve doing his best to contain the schizophrenic-type rages and impulses of the family, all of which come emerge in full bloom after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen.  When Annie delivers a eulogy for her mother she appears anything but broken up, yet her miniatures depict scenes from her life as though she is intent on holding fast to her personal history.

Yet this obsession with her recent past is based not on pleasant memories of her upbringing but with a feeling she cannot shake off that something was strange about her mother, something relating perhaps to the older woman’s belonging to a cult along with Joan  (Ann Dowd). John, despite her neighborliness and support for Annie, appears to have supernatural powers to communicate with the dead. As though these were not problems enough, Annie must deal with her young daughter’s antisocial behavior and strange appearance and we in the audience catch a whiff of the thirteen-year-old’s macabre activities when she slices off the head of a pigeon that had died when crashing into a building.

The story takes a grisly turn when Peter, forced to take his kid sister to a school party, must deal with a sudden medical emergency when her sister, having eaten some chocolate cake at the party, has an episode of anaphylaxis and must be rushed to a hospital.  She doesn’t make it.  What occurs at a series of séances should not be revealed but should be experienced first-hand by the audience, but don’t expect to be riveted by unbearable tensions unless you have the same outlook on this horror film as some of the attendees at Sundance.

The principal plus is the three-dimensional performance from Toni Collette, who goes from quietly painting her miniatures to a somewhat alarmed concern for her daughter’s awkwardness to an outright breakdown at a funeral and soon, one of the most chilling monologues you’re likely to see this year.  Colin Stetson’s music does it best to ratchet up the tension but there’s little available here that’s memorable; perhaps nothing that will raise the kind of post-performance discussions so indelible in the horror greats like “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Exorcist” and “The Sixth Sense”—the last featuring an expertly crafted dinner between Olivia Williams and a missing Bruce Willis.

Rated R.  126 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – B

MIDSOMMAR – movie review

MIDSOMMAR
A24
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Cast: Florench Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Archie Madekwe, Ellora Torchia, Will Poulter
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 7/1/19
Opens: July 3, 2019

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When you go to Europe on vacation, what do you expect to do? Take in the sights? Enjoy fine dining? Fishing and golfing and womanizing? Scuba-diving or mountain climbing? One thing is missing: the people who live there. Don’t you want to blend in with the locals, meet and chat with them, get invited to some of their social functions? If you don’t have family in France, Germany or Iceland, you are likely to gaze at some of the natives but unlikely to have conversations with them, and that may be the wise thing to do. After all, look what happens to a band of American graduate students who are invited by one of them, a Swedish-American, to travel to a remote rural area to observe some special festivities. When Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) suggests that his friends join him on a trip that bypasses Stockholm in favor of watching a nine-days’ festival that occurs that year, they go for it especially when Josh (William Jackson Harper) is doing his thesis about midsummer rituals for his Anthropology major.

“Midsommar,” which is writer-director Ari Aster’s second feature—his “Hereditary” dealing with dark secrets when the family matriarch passes away—finds Dani (Florence Pugh) in circumstances not unlike those of Toni Collette’s Annie in that first offering. Dani, who has a neurotic dependency relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), is urged by his male friends to dump her, but instead, perhaps feeling sorry that Dani has just lost her sister and parents in a catastrophe, Christian makes the mistake that they all make in taking the trip. What they find among a large ensemble standing in for Pelle’s cousins and other relatives is an inbred community whose warm welcome of the Americans belies their intentions. Like the folks in Jordan Peele’s stunning horror picture “Get Out,” finding African-American boyfriends of young family member Rose Armitage embraced by a group of people who go overboard to show that like Joe Biden they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, actually have sinister plans for the guys to whom they are introduced.

The extended (and this must be repeated) inbred family may remind old-timers here in America of Woodstock in mid-August 1969, with its hallucinogenic drugs, its nudity, its camaraderie, its peace-in-our-time atmosphere, one difference being that there, only two people died; one was run over by a tractor and another passed away on a drug overdose. You can’t blame the Yanks for thinking that the big bear kept in a small cage is an hallucination, but it has uses for the locals in white folksy costumes to celebrate an event that happens only every ninety-nine years.

Pawel Pogorzelski photographed the macabre party in the Hungarian countryside, taking a few startling close-ups when required, otherwise using a vivid imagination as when turning the Americans’ world literally upside down as they go well past the urban Stockholm landscape for the spacious family grounds. Production values are spot-on, and Aster’s solidly directed expansive action are big plusses. A sex scene involving a score of naked women cheering on one man’s performance in one moment will draw unintentional laughter from the audience, though one might surmise that this particular moment arises from the director’s sense of humor. A playful cinematography is marred by a convoluted plot, however, the editing taking a back seat to a chronological treatment of events though the visual effects department nicely projects a drug-fueled distortion of nature. Best of all, Florence Pugh turns in a dazzling performance in the key role, anchoring the show as a woman who opens on a mournful note, overly dependent on her boyfriend Christian, yet ending up having the authority of life or death.

147 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B

WHO WE ARE NOW – movie reveiw

WHO WE ARE NOW

Film Rise
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Matthew Newton
Screenwriter: Matthew Newton
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/1/18
Cast: Julianne Nicolson, Emma Roberts, Zachary Quinto, Jess Weixler, Lea Thompson, Jason Biggs, Jimmy Smitts
Opens: May 25, 2018

Who We Are Now Movie Poster

It’s not unusual for two actress to deliver awards-worthy performances during the prestige season of November-December. But it’s unlikely this early in the year for the academy members and all the other awards organizations to be delighted by two spot-on performances. One such actress would be Toni Collette, already considered by those in the know as one of the greats of her generation, this year delivering her best performance as a jinxed woman in “Hereditary.” The other? Julianne Nicholson, in the role of a desperate woman who, having served a decade in prison for a crime revealed only in the closing moments. Nicholson is not as known as Collette and has been underutilized, but in Matthew Newton’s naturalistic indie, we become patiently aware of not only the situation she has faced as ex-convict, but not so much about a young, not quite mature lawyer who is defender her in a custody battle.

The story unfolds so casually that we in the audience have to wonder just what is happening, what the stakes are. Soon after her release from prison, Beth (Julianne Nicholson) shows up unannounced at the home of her sister Gabby (Jess Weixler) and Gabby’s husband Sam (Scott Cohen), only to be told that next time she’d better phone before visiting. Why so? During Beth’s incarceration Gabby and Sam were granted guardianship over Beth’s ten-year-old boy Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith), a lively kid obviously well-nurtured by his guardians with ambitions to move from second trumpet to principal player at his school. Beth is, after all, the boy’s biological mother but I think her sister is correct in figuring that since Alec had not met Beth at any time and had been told that his guardians are his parents, what’s the point of confusing him now?

The title of the film, “Who We Are Now,” indicates that writer-director Matthew Newton wants us to compare and contrasts the lives of two women. One is a cynical criminal whose maternal talents are unknown and who is desperate for a job paying more than she earns in a nail salon. The other is a young woman recently out of Columbia Law School treated poorly by her Waspish mother (Lea Thompson) who is concerned mostly about her daughter’s upcoming wedding, demanding more of Beth’s time for the family.

Much of the dialogue involving Beth and her women friends is unnecessary and could have been cut to give up more insight into Jess’ conflicts with her job. She works with Carl (Jimmy Smits) who wants her commitment to remain with a pro-bono law firm that works with folks unable to afford lawyers, impressed by her defense of a youthful high-school dropout inside the prison system. By contrast, Beth cannot dream of working at anything better than a job as a waitress, and even for even a chance at that job, she has to sexually service Vince (Jason Biggs), a restaurant manager, if she has any hope of landing the gig. Her hard shell is softened by her casual friendship with Peter (Zachary Quinto), a barfly who had served in Afghanistan, reports that the war is a nightmare, and can’t wait to go back for another stint.

Australian director Matthew Newton has many acting roles in his résumé, both TV spots and feature films, and before taking on this project had been at the helm of three other features including “From Nowhere” (undocumented Bronx high schools try to get papers to stay in the U.S.), and “Three Blind Mice” (Navy officers enjoy one last night in Sydney before shipping off to the fight in the Gulf). Evoking entertainment value out of a film that emphasizes naturalistic conversations is difficult: Newton succeeds admirably.

Unrated. 99 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+