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Hereditary ★★★★★

A tough, family melodrama or a deft character study – a well-developed narrative which happens to have thoughtfully presented and skilfully staged horror elements.

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Director: Ari Aster

Writer: Ari Aster

Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Mallory Bechte, Zachary Arthur 

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

There isn’t much I haven’t already seen when it comes to horror films. I’ve been watching them ever since I was old enough to get away with it, or even before (on one occasion I got in to see The Exorcist while underage because I was accompanied by a priest!). I’ve seen all the regular horror tropes play out in scores of films, with varying degrees of success.

Although the overriding premise of Ari Aster’s first feature, Hereditary, isn’t a particularly original one, the unfolding and execution of that premise is exceptional.

When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away after a period of dementia, her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) is shocked at how little grief she feels. She reveals in her candid eulogy how her estranged mother excluded them all from her “secret rituals and secret friends,”. It also transpires that, after a period of separation, Annie allowed her mother back into her life, and was dismayed as grandma Ellen then proceeded to have an unconventional and domineering interest in granddaughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

Charlie now appears to be the only one missing grandma Ellen and is herself, an unusual girl. She’s a dishevelled 13-year-old who may be on the autistic spectrum. She spends her time constructing bizarre toys of her own design from random odds and ends and devours nut-free chocolate bars. She scribbles weird graffiti on her walls, has a morbid fascination with death and, when distracted, has an odd habit of clicking her tongue. Nevertheless, Charlie is much loved by mother Annie, patient father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and older teen brother Peter (Alex Wolff).

The family live in a large woodland home that looks like a designer dollhouse. This is apt, because Annie is an artist who creates tiny realistic and meticulously crafted dioramas of her life and experiences. An introductory shot at the beginning of the film zooms into a room in one of her little doll-houses, which then transforms into the real thing – her son’s actual bedroom.

The family live in a house filled with dollhouses, which leaves us wondering whether these actual human beings may turn out to be as helpless as the tiny dummies in Annie’s unsettling installations. 

Like many clues that crop up in Hereditary, Annie’s tiny creations hint at something deeply unnatural which is slowly and insidiously creeping into their lives. An unnerving score by avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson establishes this feeling of disorientation and dread at the outset – something wicked this way comes, and signs are that it has long been festering.  

The film takes its time before unveiling its terrors. First, writer\director Ari Aster reveals the family dynamics. Many horror films treat their characters as flimsy, disposable victims of the plot and its monsters, the effectiveness and brilliance of Hereditary lies in Aster’s knowledge that we must be invested in this family and be anxious about them and not only about their survival, but about their connection to each other. His script sets out to make us care for them.

The first shock comes soon enough in a searing scene – something so unexpected, harrowing and upsetting, we ourselves reel from the event and wonder how the already damaged family can survive it. Brother Peter reacts to the trauma much as we do – with mute shock and denial.

This catastrophe proves to be a catalyst, as Aster then piles on personal resentments, confrontations, confessions, and breakdowns – he envelops us in this family’s despair, grounding the coming horrors in emotion, which makes them all the more frightening and tragic. The genius of Hereditary is how it involves us in the trauma and raw emotions of its characters, and then uses our empathy to enhance the potency of its unnerving set pieces and devastating twists.

The direction, cinematography, technical aspects, and music score are all excellent and contribute to the mood, but the film really rests on the talent of Toni Collette. Aster has given her a role which is impressively nuanced for this genre, and she plays it intensely and movingly. Her face, Medea-like, ranges from rage, to anguish, to bewilderment, to terror. She gives a fearless, riveting, operatic performance – connecting to her character’s sense of inadequacy, indignation, and violent suffering.

Alex Wolff too, is affecting as the druggie teen who is ill-equipped to confront traumatic realities and indistinct terrors which leave him insecure, confused, and close to broken. Gabriel Byrne’s husband Steve is steadfast and stoic, yet vulnerable, staunchly trying to keep his family and its fragmenting sense of reality together.  

Grace Yun’s production design and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography create a dreamlike quality to the Utah landscape, and the interior compositions create rooms which echo those in Annie’s dollhouse dioramas.  

Ari Aster may have gleaned inspiration from classic horrors such as Don’t Look Now and Rosemary’s Baby, in their sense of foreboding and conspiracy, Aster himself, at a post-screening Q&A, admitted that he drew, at least partially, on his own need to process a series of disasters that affected his own family, and the way they navigated a feeling of being cursed. He continues to do so as he works on his current project, another film in the horror genre, although he stressed that he would like to expand into other categories of film in the future. 

As a horror film Hereditary has the great advantage of being unusually well written, well-acted and well edited. On this evidence, it would seem that Aster has the capability to tackle any genre, as it would also be accurate to describe Hereditary as a tough, family melodrama or a deft character study – a well-developed narrative which happens to have thoughtfully presented and skilfully staged horror elements. Whichever way one chooses to see it, Hereditary is top-notch filmmaking, a remarkably assured and accomplished first feature, and I for one, am keen to see what Ari Aster has to offer in his next project.  

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2018 All rights reserved. 

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Beale Street Movie Marker

Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie Rating Movie Marker

Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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