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Movie Reviews

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. 

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and untameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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