Hereditary Movie Review

**It is difficult to write a proper review of Hereditary without some light spoilers, so proceed with caution if you have yet to see it.

The real unsettling nature of Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary comes after the credits roll and not necessarily from heads rolling off bodies (though that happens too). The film is about grieving and the realization of not being able to control fate. Not until fade to black does it set in how truly powerless the people here are.

We begin with the text of an obituary. Ellen is the just deceased mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist who specializes in miniature designs for doll houses. She’s married to a kindly therapist (Gabriel Byrne) with high school aged son Peter (Alex Wolff) and middle school aged daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie doesn’t seem too distraught over her loss and her eulogy for mom hints at a secretive existence before dementia took over her final years. Only Charlie seemed to have a real connection with the late matriarch and we sense something is a bit off with her.

A second tragedy breaks the Graham unit apart. The history of Annie’s upbringing that she wants to ignore at first becomes inescapable. Every family has its demons. In Hereditary, we witness the literal meaning behind that phrase. The supernatural happenings that follow manifest themselves on Annie and Peter primarily. Collette and Wolff both are convincing at being scared out of their wits most of the time. For Collette especially (who has a bit of experience in the genre with The Sixth Sense), her performance is a terrified tour de force. The Graham clan are typically the only humans on-screen. Ann Dowd appears as a woman also grieving a recent loss who convinces Annie to engage in seance.

Hereditary has a conjuring, but it’s not as preoccupied with jump scares and sound effects wizardry for its frights like the successful franchise (not that they’re totally absent). Comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby are far more appropriate. Much of the movie leaves you in a state of confusion and you might need to do a Google or Wiki search after to digest what happened. Writer/director Aster announces himself as an exciting voice in the horror game and one who seems most influenced by genre tales of the late 60s and 70s. While this doesn’t rise to the level of the Roman Polanski classic from a half century ago, I found myself feeling rewarded after everything was over. The Graham family, on the other hand, doesn’t get that lucky.

*** (out of four)

Advertisements

The Disaster Artist Movie Review

The Disaster Artist begins with filmmakers J.J. Abrams and Kevin Smith and actors Adam Scott, Danny McBride, and Kristen Bell extolling the strange virtues of The Room. That terrible movie became one of the most unlikely cult hits of the 21st century. The rest of the picture details its strange maker Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and the process to bring it to a midnight theater showing near you.

Just as The Room was Wiseau’s warped vision all his own, this is clearly a passion project for Franco. I suspect many of the other well-known actors who turn up in parts large and small are devotees of the unintentionally hilarious 2003 film that Franco is recounting. Like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, this is a good movie about a bad director. Not as good, but it’s an entertaining watch that doesn’t probe too far into its subject’s real story. Truth be told, maybe we don’t really wanna know.

Tommy Wiseau wouldn’t want it any other way. We first meet him in San Francisco circa 1998 as he pours his heart into Marlon Brando’s monologue from A Streetcar Named Desire at an acting class. His rendering is quite awful, but it’s his devil-may-care attitude and blind commitment that gets the attention of Greg (Dave Franco). He’s a fellow student who’s more reserved. Tommy is too, but in a much different way. His age is a mystery and he’s not about to tell it. A European accent (where in that continent… who knows?) counters his contention that he hails from New Orleans. Most interestingly, Tommy seems to have a limitless supply of money and no one knows why.

His new pal Greg manages to ignore those puzzling personal aspects and they road trip it to L.A. to move in together and pursue their dreams. Although he seems to have some prospects, Greg can’t catch a break. Tommy’s overall bizarre vibe is an immediate red X to casting agents. The only solution is to finance his own feature.

And The Room is birthed throughout a long shooting process with a director who has no clue what he’s really doing. We see Wiseau torment his cast and crew because he read somewhere that’s how Alfred Hitchcock did it. Those who know The Room will revel in revisiting Wiseau (who casts himself as the romantic lead) and his humorously questionable line readings. There’s his screenplay that inexplicably brings up cancer subplots that go nowhere and sex scenes that would be deemed too horrible for 2am Cinemax play.

Franco, who also serves behind the camera, is obviously enamored with getting his portrayal of Tommy’s mannerisms and his journey to make this project as accurate as possible. Even if you’re not familiar with Wiseau’s cinematic opus, one YouTube viewing of an interview with him and you’ll know Franco nails it. The star/director, in addition to casting his brother, finds roles for Dave’s real life wife Alison Brie and his frequent costar Seth Rogen as a perpetually bemused script supervisor. Yet just as the real Tommy made his personal relationships and the shooting experience all about him, so is the case with The Disaster Artist.

That devotion from Franco is enough to make this a worthwhile experience. If you’re looking for any insight into what really made Tommy who he is, you won’t find it here. The ultimate irony is that Wiseau did end up succeeding in a town where that’s nearly an impossible feat. He didn’t know that the earnest drama he thought he was making would result in Rocky Horror Picture Show style late night screening madness. What kind of man could achieve this? We may never know, but it’s a fun question for Franco and others to ponder.

*** (out of four)

First Reformed Movie Review

Writer/director Paul Schrader has never shied away from the subject of faith in his over four decades in cinema. It’s present in often invigorating ways in First Reformed, which restored my own in Schrader’s ability to surprise and confound us. Here the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ seems more focused than he has in some time. His recent filmography includes two unfortunate Nicolas Cage straight to VOD titles and the Lindsay Lohan bomb The Canyons. This is a return to form.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Ernst Toller, who ministers at an upstate New York parish that bears the film’s title. The church is about to mark its 250th anniversary and holds great historical significance. However, there’s more people in attendance on field trips during the week than on Sunday morning. The Reverend is a loner (a frequent trait of Schrader’s subjects). Some of these reasons are tragic. He encouraged his son to enlist in Iraq, where he was killed. That loss ended his marriage. Toller is clearly experiencing serious health issues and he masks the pain with a bottle.

A sparsely attended service one day brings Toller in the presence of Michael (Philip Ettinger). He’s a hardcore environmental activist who was recently incarcerated for his protests. His wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant with their child (if that sounds like overt religious symbolism… you’re correct). Michael’s crisis of faith is questioning the validity of bringing a life into the world that he believes has precious time left. The Reverend offers platitudes, but is clearly not confident in his own reassurances.

This meeting ends up having a profound effect on the Reverend that veers into unexpected directions. His church is largely subsidized by an energy CEO (Michael Gaston) and a nearby mega church led by a pastor played by Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer in a change of pace role). His faith in them falters. Toller begins to espouse Michael’s beliefs in foreboding ways while establishing a strong connection with Mary. His mind’s journey is not dissimilar from Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in the landmark Taxi Driver.

Hawke is present in nearly every frame of First Reformed and it’s the kind of multi-layered part that most actors likely dream of. It’s his finest work to date. Schrader is not shy about mixing the themes of environmentalism and corporate greed with those of salvation and grief. This is not always a pleasant watch as we witness Toller’s descent into… well we’re never totally sure. Yet it’s often riveting to behold.

First Reformed fades to black with an ending open to interpretation. Like most everything preceding it, Schrader challenges the audience to reach their own conclusions about Toller. In a picture with these weighty themes, he deftly does so by not being overly preachy. That’s a testament to his power as a writer and we are witnesses again.

***1/2 (out of four)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout Movie Review

The Mission: Impossible franchise has now reached its sixth feature and its 22nd year of existence, providing the seemingly ageless Tom Cruise with a hit making series that continues to deliver. That’s a rather remarkable accomplishment and Fallout belongs in the upper echelons in terms of bang for your buck entertainment.

Truth be told, there’s been no total dog yet in the Mission sagas. My one minor complaint about its predecessor, 2015’s Rogue Nation, was its lack of directorial vision. Christopher McQuarrie and his large squad of tech and stunt wizards pulled off some impressive action sequences in that picture. However, unlike the previous four pics, it didn’t feel quite as distinctive. Part 1 was certainly a Brian De Palma experience and the first sequel was all kinds of John Woo (for occasionally better and more for the worse). Same goes for J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird in the next ones (Ghost Protocol still stands as my personal favorite).

McQuarrie is the first filmmaker to return in the director’s chair. I must admit that maybe I just didn’t fully recognize his stamp on the series the first time around. These latest missions are all about spectacle and not really concerned with melding the mayhem to its maker’s vision. In Fallout, that’s pretty much perfectly OK even more so than in Rogue. That’s because the team of people making the action are the best at it. We’ve seen plenty of car chases, helicopter battles, and bathroom brawls in our time. This franchise excels at it in ways few others do.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF squad (including Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) pick up two years after the events of the fifth installment. Learned Mission watchers know the plot will likely be convoluted and a secondary consideration. That’s true here, but let’s go over the basics. We have lost plutonium that IMF must find or risk nuclear attack. Part 5’s villain (Sean Harris) is involved. Ethan is forced to partner with a bulky CIA agent (Henry Cavill). MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) from Rogue resurfaces. She continues to be one of Hunt’s more interesting partners. And the short-lived wedded bliss that we witnessed Ethan in during part 3 with Michelle Monaghan becomes a focal point. Oh… and there’s plenty of double crosses. And those masks. Fallout also features the most satisfying use of a CNN anchor ever committed to film.

Of course, all of this leads to Ethan globe-trotting from London to Paris to Kashmir. And the song remains the same: our hero is the only one capable of figuring out how to keep the world from crumbling. What’s often startling is just how much care is expended in creating the impossible situations he finds himself in. McQuarrie’s biggest contribution may just be the go for broke style vibe to Ethan’s dangerous exploits. As always, Cruise is a more than willing subject and he even broke his ankle during one stunt.

Cruise and McQuarrie simply refuse to allow Mission to coast on auto pilot. The franchise continues to come up with new and exciting ways to put our mega star in peril. Six films in, that is quite a feat.

***1/2 (out of four)

Young Adult and Tully Movie Review

Two films this decade have combined the talents of director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody, and star Charlize Theron. Both have given Theron, who won a deserved Oscar 15 years ago for Monster another opportunity to step out of action heroine mode. That’s where she’s resided a lot recently and Reitman’s camera and Cody’s words have given her a chance to stretch.

Young Adult from 2011 is more rough around the edges, more uncomfortable, and ultimately more memorable. Theron is Mavis, who spends a little time ghost writing YA novels and the rest of her life in an aimless haze of alcohol and unreachable fantasy. She grew up in the small town of Mercury, Minnesota and moved on up to Minneapolis. When Mavis receives an email announcing the arrival of her high school sweetheart’s baby, it triggers a road trip. Her heart is set on getting Buddy (Patrick Wilson) back. Mavis seems blissfully (and often drunkenly) oblivious that his Buddy’s wife (Elizabeth Reaser) is a pretty cool mom, special ed instructor, and part-time band drummer.

Patton Oswalt’s Matt becomes Mavis’s drinking buddy and earpiece to her plans. Matt was badly assaulted in school in a sort of hate crime. They form a sad and occasionally sweet partnership accentuated by two fine performers playing them.

The title of this picture doesn’t only apply to the genre of novels that Mavis authors. She may be 37, but her mind is stuck in two decades old reversal. You may hear her bragging about leaving her small town roots, but she’s never fully escaped those prom queen days. Cody deserves kudos for making the central character a complicated one. You’ll cringe at her and sympathize with her moments later.

Tully from the spring of this year finds Theron in a different mode. She’s Marlo, a frazzled mother of two youngsters (one of whom has special needs). She’s extremely pregnant with a third when we meet her. While Mavis was the small town gal who made it out, Marlo made it to New York City in her youth and returned to the burbs. She finds her existence mundane with her little ones and slightly dull hubby (Ron Livingston). Her well off brother offers to foot the bill for a night nanny with the hope of restoring some balance to her long days and sleep deprived evenings.

This is when the free-spirited Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives. She doesn’t just help out with the new infant, but provides a sounding board to Marlo’s issues. Theron’s character here is more sympathetic while still maintaining some of the quirks (a word that gets some humorous play here) that we expect from Cody’s writing.

Theron’s award winning turn in Monster found her shedding her outward beauty. You find that in both projects here to varying degrees. Tully is more deliberate in its pacing and an act three revelation doesn’t feel as profound as it wants to be. It’s still worth your time for Theron’s work and some incisive commentary about the joys and sorrows of parenthood.

Young Adult is a bit more brave in its script and overall execution. You may not have any clue how Mavis will end up in life when the credits roll, but the time spent with her is even more rewarding on a cinematic level.

Young Adult

***1/2 (out of four)

Tully

*** (out of four)

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

1982’s Blade Runner has been reworked and remastered more in the past three decades plus than most classic albums. Along with Alien, director Ridley Scott created a one two punch of science fiction classics in a span of just three years. While the former spawned a series of sequels and offshoots, it’s not until 35 years later that a proper Blade Runner sequel has arrived.

Mr. Scott serves as executive producer because he was busy making the mediocre Alien: Covenant. So it’s Denis Villeneuve handling behind the camera duties one year after his highly rewarding alien pic Arrival. He proves himself as a natural choice to revisit this dystopian future that’s been an incredible influence on many sci-fi experiences that followed.

That influence has mostly been in its bleak look and astonishing production design. 2049, as the title tells us, takes place 30 years after what we saw in the early 1980s. Our central character is K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who serves the LAPD like Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original. These days, K’s kind are programmed to be more obedient and their primary function is in slave labor. K’s day job involves hunting down old school replicants. In the ultra stylish night, he invents a relationship with the gorgeous holograph Joi (Ana de Armas).

One of K’s assignments leads to a startling discovery that suggests replicants have the ability to procreate. The existence of a being of that ilk is troubling to K’s boss (Robin Wright), fearing a war will break out between humans and replicants. The revelation also intrigues Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind owner of the corporation that manufactures the product. He envisions this as a considerable financial opportunity and tasks his chief enforcer (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the now grown child.

This all eventually leads back to Deckard, with Ford completing a trifecta of revisiting signature late seventies and early eighties roles. It also involves his romantic interest Sean Young from the original. She returns in the archival footage manner. 2049 expands the Blade Runner universe and also expands the running time, clocking in nearly 45 minutes longer than part 1. In that respect, the sequel takes a bit longer to get its motor running.

Luckily for us, the visuals that were so special 35 years ago are remarkable here as well. There are sequences that are bleakly beautiful. Those expecting a full update on Deckard’s dealings may be surprised to find he doesn’t appear until about two-thirds through the proceedings. This is Gosling’s picture to carry most of the way and he does so with a quiet intensity.

Like Villeneuve’s Arrival, this is a sci-fi venture more steeped in its themes than action sequences. Violence comes in short and sudden bursts and that’s in line with two of the filmmaker’s other efforts Prisoners and Sicario. It’s no accident that I’m comparing 2049 just as much to those three movies as I am with the Scott original. Villeneuve succeeds in making this long gestating follow-up his own while clearly valuing an adoration of the first. That doesn’t happen too often as even Scott has fallen short with his return to Alien world. The legions of admirers of what came 35 years ago should be pleased.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Greatest Showman Movie Review

Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman doesn’t burden itself with much historical accuracy or being a full-fledged look at its title subject. Its pleasures are of the surface level variety. At one point, a stuffy critic begrudgingly tells P.T. Barnum that his show has succeeded in bringing joy to people. So does this musical in many moments.

Hugh Jackman is Barnum, an endless promoter who grew up poor and never forgot how he was treated by New York’s elite. He marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams), who came up with wreath and privilege. After some career misfortune in the 19th century era Big Apple, Barnum develops his greatest idea: a stage experience featuring society’s freaks. This includes a bearded lady (Keala Settle) with a beautifully booming voice and a dwarf (Sam Humphrey) who dresses as a general. He teams up with playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who also hails from the aristocracy but feels more at home among these outcasts. Phillip also finds love of the forbidden kind with the show’s trapeze artist (Zendaya).

While Barnum finally finds the financial success he’s longed for, it doesn’t buy him respect and that’s a consistent through line in the screenplay. Both the wealthy class and hecklers who lurk around the theater believe the freak show atmosphere is a disgrace. Barnum tries to combat this by touring with famed European opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Both his family and circus employees feel the neglect.

The brisk 105 minute running time features 11 song and dance numbers that move the plot along, often in montage fashion. Even a cursory Wiki read of Barnum’s grand life reveals that Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script aren’t making a biopic. Like the man it’s about, this picture is style over substance. The message of inclusion and acceptance is unmistakable and frequently touching. Most importantly, the musical numbers (from the team behind La La Land) produce plentiful happy feels.

With his theater background, Jackman is more than well suited to play the man in the top hat. He’s the focal point in many of the song and dance interludes. Yet it’s “Rewrite the Stars”, a gorgeously choreographed sequence with Efron and Zendaya, that proved most memorable for me.

A stuffy critic could gripe that a rewrite should have explored more of Barnum’s real existence. However, the joyous vibe while I was watching is enough to justify admission here.

*** (out of four)