REVIEW: “Hereditary”

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It’s probably a good indicator that you aren’t in for a happy two hours when the film you’re watching opens with a newspaper obituary. In “Hereditary” it turns out the obit is for 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh. It’s the launching point for this stunning and genuinely creepy filmmaking debut.

Writer-director Ari Aster’s fiendishly disturbing film gets under your skin through slow-boiling horror beats while patiently maneuvering its characters through scenes/stages of grief, mental and emotional instability, and finally full-blown terror. It’s one part a heart-wrenching family story, but as Aster begins carefully peeling away the surface layers of his tale, a dark and deeply unsettling heart is revealed.

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Toni Collette is extraordinary in the film’s lead role. She plays Annie, an artist who specializes in miniatures many of which are based on her own life experiences. She lives in the mountains with her soft-spoken husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their 16-year-son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). She happens to be the daughter of Ellen Taper Leigh. You remember, the woman from the above mentioned obituary?

As Annie eulogizes her mother at the funeral service it becomes clear their relationship was strained. We also learn Annie’s childhood was tough. Her father battled psychotic depression, her mom had dementia and her brother was a schizophrenic. All of it feeds into the estranged Annie’s frame of mind, but it also feeds into the wickedly uncomfortable horror element that simmers at the core of Aster’s film.

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Plot-wise being intentionally vague is pretty essential. The fewer details you have going in the better the effect. It starts a bit slow as its pieces are put into place, but once the psychological terror begins to uncoil the movie methodically grows more and more discomforting. Aster’s examination of grief and mental illness gets darker and more queasy with every scene.

“Hereditary” is a genuinely terrifying movie, not in the gory gruesome or lazy jump-scare sense. Instead it bores deep down under your skin much in the way Robert Eggers did with his exceptional 2016 film “The Witch”. With fine performances, a strong directorial debut, and soaked in the strategically menacing score by Colin Stetson, “Hereditary” slowly pulls you in before giving your nerves and your senses a good working over. That’s the kind of ‘horror’ that lands with me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “BlacKkKlansman”

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Spike Lee has been called an angry filmmaker and it’s hard to argue otherwise. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Throughout his career it’s that anger that has fueled some of his very best scenes. At the same time it’s that very anger that can sometimes drive his movies to be too preachy for their own good. But to his credit I don’t think Lee really cares. He makes the movies he wants and he makes them his way.

“BlacKkKlansman” is his latest hard-nosed socio-political movie and it sports many of the same strengths and frustrations of his past pictures. But what’s most interesting is how “BlacKkKlansman” feels very much its own thing. It’s a bit uneven, yet Lee’s storytelling is thoroughly compelling both in its audacity and its messiness.

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“BlacKkKlansman” is loosely based on a hard to believe true story taken from Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. Stallworth was the first African American police officer at the Colorado Springs police department. But his claim to fame was infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan over the phone. Stallworth duped a local KKK recruiter into not only meeting him but offering him Klan membership. He did all his work over the phone posing as a racist white man. A wired white officer stood in for him during any actual meetings.

Lee dolls up this incredible true story with a ton of dramatic dressing which gives him a bigger space to say whatever he wants. His first change was in shifting the time to 1972 (the actual events took place in 1979). This is where we meet Ron Stallworth (played with confidence and gusto by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). He is hired to be what one character calls “the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force”.

Lee zips through Ron’s early days on the force, quickly elevating him to detective and soon intelligence with barely a hint of struggle or resistance. It feels rushed, even a little sloppy, and leaves behind a lot that could have been explored. One key player we do meet in this segment is Patrice (a very good Laura Harrier), the president of Colorado College’s black student union who Ron meets while undercover. Their playfully combative relationship highlights a great chemistry between Washington and Harrier.

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When Ron notices a KKK recruitment ad in the newspaper he calls the number pretending to be white man looking for membership. Chapter prez Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) buys the ruse and sets up a meeting. Ron recruits a Jewish narcotics officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to join the investigation and build a case against the Klan. Flip stands in as Ron at the in-person meetings burrowing deeper into “The Organization” and eventually meeting the Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a wonderfully calibrated Topher Grace).

The finally act features Lee going full fiction and letting his creative and dramatic imaginations run wild. Most of it (and the movie as a whole) works and offers a bruising indictment of anyone even remotely sympathetic to the disgusting hate-mongering we see. Lee likes stirring the pot and provoking conversation. His piercing portrait of unbridled racism is rightfully uncomfortable and offers up plenty to talk about.

Other parts don’t quite work as well. Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the ever suspicious and always maniacal Klansman Felix. He is the movie’s epitome of evil and comes across more as a cartoonish caricature than a thought-out character (perhaps by design?). Also, while the trailer highlights the film’s sense of humor, much of it is lost when slapped against the darker stinging reality which makes up most of the movie. There are a handful of really funny moments, but others don’t land as firmly. You also get a few pretty lazy Trump slams that will resonate with some despite their on-the-nose delivery and some pointlessly crude dialogue which isn’t unusual for a Lee picture.

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Yet despite these shortcomings “BlacKkKlansman” is still strikingly magnetic and a fascinating bit of filmmaking. Never a slacker behind the camera, Lee has a fantastic sense of time and space. Every frame drips with early 70’s style and personality. And it’s fed by a stellar soundtrack and Terence Blanchard’s wonderfully jazzy score. Some of my favorite scenes are when Lee sits us down for more personal moments. Take when Ron and Patrice meet up at a predominantly black nightclub. Their sweet ‘get to know you’ conversation ends with a wonderful dance floor sequence to “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. It’s a soulful and joyous moment and for them a brief respite from the turmoil of the era.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a skillfully guised epic, far grander in scale than it may appear on the surface. It’s a film rich with metaphors and juxtapositions which we experience through the two main characters, both of whom are carving out their own identities. The entire cast is top-notch led by Washington and Driver who perfectly sink into their multi-layered roles. Lee knows they’re good and utilizes them to the fullest. Of course it’s preachy and at times too on-the-nose. After all it’s Spike Lee we’re talking about. Yet there are still plenty of gray areas which give us room to think for ourselves and reckon with what we see. For me that’s when “BlacKkKlansman” is at its best. “All Power to All People”

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

Random Thoughts on the 2018 Golden Globes Nominations

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And just like that awards season is upon us and the first big announcement (and precursor to the Oscars) comes from the Hollywood Foreign Press. The Golden Globe nominees were announced this morning and to call it a headscratcher would be an understatement. These awards are whatever you make of them. Sure they are flattering but this year more than any shows why I take them with a grain of salt. Here are a few random thoughts…

  • First and foremost where the heck is Ethan Hawke? He gives what is probably his most acclaimed performance in “First Reformed”. It’s easily one of the year’s best performances and its glaring omission is just nuts.
  • Speaking of “First Reformed” apparently the entire movie failed to leave a mark on the HFPA. And considering some of the other nominations that’s pretty sad. But more on them later.
  • “Black Panther” gets a Best Picture nomination, something that was pretty much carved in stone back in February. I’m all for superhero movies getting a seat at the table. But as time has passed “Black Panther”, while still really good, hasn’t stuck with me like a Best Picture nominee should.
  • “A Star is Born” is one of the biggest non-surprises of the announcements. It grabbed big nominations in the drama categories – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and of course Best Song. That’ll surely give the film’s strong fan base a movie to root for.
  • But arguably the best performance of “A Star is Born” came from Sam Elliott yet no nomination for him.
  • Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” is considered an Oscar front-runner but due to a rather dopey rule it is deemed inelligible for the Best Picture category. Still it managed to nab a Best Picture – Foreign Language, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Can’t wait to see it on December 14th.
  • It looks like “Vice” led the way with six nominations. It kinda makes sense. David McKay’s hyper-political Dick Cheney biopic is sure to tickle the fancy of many of those casting the votes.
  • Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” had a big morning getting getting nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor, Supporting Actor, and Director category. It’s a pretty good movie but I’m on the fence with it. Not sure if it’s awards worthy.
  • And while John David Washington is very good, beating out Hawke for a nomination leaves me scratching my head. But why put it on Washington who I really enjoyed? Instead, I would toss Hedges who was fine but nothing particularly mind-blowing.
  • While not a perfect movie “The Hate U Give” is a piercing drama with a more grounded perspective than Spike Lee’s joint. I felt it was an underseen movie and it could be that the Globes verifies that. It was left high and dry.
  • “The Hate U Give” also features a brilliant supporting turn from Russell Hornsby – a performance that certainly deserved a nomination.
  • Not much love for Damian Chazelle’s “First Man”. Claire Foy earned a Supporting Actress nomination but that’s about it. Such a shame.
  • Speaking of “First Man”, nothing for Ryan Gosling for his portrayal of Neil Armstrong. I still believe it to be one of the most misunderstood performances of the year. Quiet for sure, but hardly without an emotional drive.
  • There is actually a tough competition for Best Animated Feature. I’ll be rooting for Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” but it will have to fend off heavyweights “Incredibles 2” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet”.
  • The Timothee Chalamet love continues. This year he is nominated for “Beautiful Boy” which should surprise no one. Essentially he is the new Jennifer Lawrence from a few years back. Good young actor but maybe a little overhyped?
  • Aaaaand “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a movie that provoked a fairly mixed reaction yet it wakes up to a couple of big nominations. Best Picture and Best Actor? Really? It results in some pretty great performances and pretty great movies missing out.
  • Nothing for the Coen Brothers and their excellent “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. It’s certainly not a mainstream movie but I still feel it’s one of the year’s best.
  • Great to see Elsie Fisher  get a nomination for “Eighth Grade”. It’s such a strong performance in a year full of rich performances from young newcomers. But Best Actress – Musical or Comedy? Sure, there are amusing moments but it’s hardly a straight-up comedy.
  • “The Quiet Place” seems to have lost some of its umph but I still adore that film. It’s a shame to see it all but forgotten here.
  • While there are a lot of compelling names in the actress categories I guess the big question is which one of them will be knocked out come Oscar time for Meryl Streep’s obligatory spot?
  • “Crazy Rich Asians” was a surprisingly fun little movie. But as with several other nominated films I hardly see it as an awards caliber movie. Is this the HFPA’s attempt at reaching out to a broader audience? Will the Academy follow in their footsteps?
  • And nothing for “You Were Never Really Here”, a fantastic movie from director Lynne Ramsay. She is one of several female filmmakers with strong 2018 movies who couldn’t penetrate the male-dominated Best Director category.

So that’s it from me. The Golden Globes air on Sunday, January 6th. Personally, this year I’m more amped for the Independent Spirit Awards.

REVIEW: “Malevolent” (2018)

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In the new Netflix Original “Malevolent” siblings Angela (Florence Pugh) and Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) own and operate Sayers Medium Service. It’s basically a paranormal racket where they dupe grieving clients into believing they can communicate with their loved ones or in some cases drive out their ghosts. I bet you can already see where this is going.

The story is set in 1986 Glasgow. I’m not really sure about the significance of 1986 other than it conveniently rules out cellphones and it forces the twenty-something hucksters to use older (and potentially spookier) recording equipment when pulling off their ruse. Regardless, Angela is contacted by Mrs. Green (a very good Celia Imrie) who lives in a creepy old foster home she once ran. Mrs. Green claims ghosts of the little girls haunt the home and she desperately wants them silenced.

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Angela turns down the job as she is growing more and more uncomfortable with their scam. After a little haggling over some old family baggage, Jackson calls Mrs. Green back and promptly accepts. Turns out he owes money to some pretty bad dudes and is in quick need of some cash. Along with their cameraman Elliot (Scott Chambers) and equipment operator Beth (Georgina Bevan) the siblings head to Mrs. Green’s remote and fittingly spooky place.

To no viewer’s surprise there is something freaky going on at Mrs. Green’s foster home. Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur leans on a handful of conventional horror tropes but wisely he never fully relies on them. Instead he toys with us about what we are seeing. Is it psychological or in fact ghostly? That question lingers until the macabre final act that feels slightly at odds tonally but admittedly fun and satisfying.

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Another strength is Pugh’s performance. She is the film’s emotional center and asked to carry that load throughout the movie. She’s an impressive young actress as evident by her work in 2016’s highly acclaimed “Lady Macbeth”. Here the camera puts a lot of its focus on her. The material doesn’t allow for a particularly dynamic performance but she is still consistently good.

While “Malevolent” does a lot of things right I still wouldn’t call it a game-changer or even particularly fresh. But several smart decisions turns it into a surprisingly effective genre movie. And in a day when really bad horror movies are churned out by the dozens, “Malevolent” does stand out. So perhaps it’s a little bit fresher than I’m giving it credit for.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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Great Images from Great Movies (8) – “Schindler’s List”

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Truly great movies leave indelible marks. It may be through an emotional connection to the story. It may be through a remarkable performance or a signature scene. But it could also be through the brilliant imagery that films carves into your mind. That’s what this feature is all about – highlighting great images from great movies. Today we look at an intensely moving Steven Spielberg classic.

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So what are thoughts on this look at “Schindler’s List”? Is there a particular image that stands out to you? There truly too many to mention in a single post. Share your thoughts on the movie and its best scenes in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

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One of the most exciting yet baffling movies of 2018 is none other than “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. Exciting in that it’s the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, a filmmaking tandem that always has me champing at the bit for what they have up their collective sleeves. Baffling in trying to figure out what this movie intended to be (it’s said that it was originally written as an episodic television series). Also Netflix’s promotional model didn’t exactly help things.

Now the movie is out and we have a clearer vision of what “Buster Scruggs” is all about. It’s far from what you would consider a conventional movie. Instead it is a collection of six unrelated short stories, each telling its own tale “of the American frontier”. Each has its own unique flavor and each highlight different aspects of the Coen’s filmmaking brilliance which has long cemented them among the very best in modern cinema.

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The first is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a tale of a sharpshooting singing cowboy hysterically played by Tim Blake Nelson. Think Gene Autry with a violent edge. It’s followed by “Near Algodones” where James Franco can’t seem to keep his head out of a noose. Third is “Meal Ticket” featuring Liam Neeson as a struggling traveling showman and his lone atraction – a limbless thespian orator played by Harry Melling.

“All Gold Canyon” starts the second half with Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector mining for gold in a pristine mountain valley. It’s the slowest of the six yarns but it meanders in the best possible way. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most surprising and bittersweet tale of the bunch. Zoe Kazan plays a young woman traveling by wagon train to Oregon. And the film ends with “The Mortal Remains”, a gothic tale with a tilt about five people on a late evening stagecoach ride. Think of an offbeat Western episode of The Twilight Zone.

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While each tale is completely distinct they still feel cut from the same cloth. Each find the Coens tipping their wide-brimmed hats to a genre they clearly love, embracing classic tropes and paying homage along the way. Yet the tones from story to story couldn’t be more different. They bounce from whimsical to heartbreaking, hysterical to tragic, violent to serene.

If there is one throughline connecting all of these stories it would be the theme of death. It’s something familiar to Coen brothers movies and here they explore in a variety of ways. Their handling of it is sometimes bloody and downright gruesome. Other times it lingers in the distance and we see more of its effect. And in typical Coen brothers fashion they’ll have you laughing at it in one scene and shocked by it in the next.

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From start to finish “Buster Scruggs” flaunts the stamps of its creators. It’s rich with their signature dense wordplay and bursts of rib-splitting absurdity. Yet there are moments of tenderness and heart that are sure to catch people by surprise. Toss in Bruno Delbonnel’s dazzling cinematography and yet another fabulous score from Carter Burwell (a composer who has never had a problem operating on the Coen brothers’ quirky wavelength).

“Buster Scruggs” is sure to leave some people scratching their heads and may not satisfy those hungry for a full-length feature. But for those willing to get onboard, it is a sparkling example of an anthology done right. From the opening credits to the final scroll the Coens lean into their creative freedom and show off an undeniable joy of filmmaking. And whether they are honoring or satirizing the Western genre, they adoringly navigate their brilliant ensemble cast through the violence of the ‘Old West‘ and through the indelible complexities of the human spirit. It ends up being a truly delightful romp.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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