Hereditary

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne
Directed by: Ari Aster (debut)
Written by: Ari Aster (debut)

In what is easily the creepiest and most unsettling wide-release horror film since 2015’s Puritan nightmare “The Witch,” “Hereditary,” also produced by indie film company A24, manifests a kind of terror that digs under the skin and infects within.

First-time feature writer/director Ari Aster borrows from past films — “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Shining” — to fashion his own brand of emotionally disturbing storytelling. Aster is almost like “Hereditary”’s youngest character Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an introverted 13-year-old girl who spends most of her time sketching strange images in a notebook and assembling makeshift toys out of pill bottles, spools of thread and bird body parts. Glue enough weird elements together, and you’re bound to create a scary-looking curiosity.

Aster’s best work comes in the setup of the film where he introduces us to the entire Graham family — Charlie, her older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) and their parents Annie (Oscar nominee Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) — all of whom are mourning the recent death of Annie’s mother. During the first third of “Hereditary,” Aster, along with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (“Tragedy Girls”) and composer Colin Stetson (“Blue Caprice”), position the film’s characters in a framework they, or the audience, cannot escape.

This sense of dread found deep inside the bowels of “Hereditary” is palpable and petrifying. It kicks in soon after the family experiences another death — a shocking one not teased in the trailer — that throws the Grahams into a downward spiral. Overcome with grief, Annie tells strangers in a support group the long history of mental illness in her bloodline. It’s a detail that plays into her personal story as the film pushes forward, revealing a host of uncomfortable scenarios, including ones that center on mental health, trauma and motherhood. With Annie, Collette embodies a woman on the verge of all-out madness and does so in the rawest horror performance since Australian actress Essie Davis’ turn in 2014’s “The Babadook.”

Where the film falters a bit is during the second act when Aster relies on a handful of tropes one would find in any conventional horror film about an evil entity haunting a family’s home. Do we really need to see a photo of one of the characters with his eyes scratched out to foreshadow his demise or flip through a book on demonology at the last minute to tie up loose ends?

Nevertheless, “Hereditary” is devastating in its delivery and offers a bloodcurdling look into a hellish, supernatural narrative. Just be ready to live with it for a while.

Enough Said

September 27, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give”)
Written by: Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give”)

Imagine going on a first date with someone who instantly provided you with a hard-copy list of his or her bad habits and personality deficiencies even before you touched the appetizer. How much time would you save—and how many subsequent dinners could you skip over—if you automatically knew things weren’t going to work out because the seemingly normal person sitting in front of you likes to attend smooth jazz concerts and doesn’t recycle?

In “Enough Said,” a sharply written and moving romantic dramedy from director/writer Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give”), the question is dangled in front of Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a single mom and massage therapist, who unknowingly becomes friends with the ex-wife of her new boyfriend Albert (James Gandolfini, in his first film released posthumously before the crime drama “Animal Rescue” premieres in 2014). When Eva begins to take full advantage of the situation by asking Marianne (Catherine Keener) about her failed marriage, her curious nature and lack of moral judgment backfires as she uses the information she receives to expect the worst from Albert without giving him much of a sporting chance.

Ironically, the familiar set-up sounds like something Elaine and Jerry would debate in an episode of “Seinfeld” (wouldn’t you want to know your date was a Nazi from the get-go?), so having Louis-Dreyfus at the center of the narrative feels almost natural even though her iconic Elaine character is nowhere to be seen. What we find instead is an emotionally complicated woman who digs herself too deep into a lie she can’t crawl out of to make amends. With her well-known comedic background, Louis-Dreyfus rarely gets the opportunity to put her dramatic talent on display, so uncovering those little moments in Holofcener’s compassionate script is terrific.

Also showing his range is the late Gandolfini, whose soft-hearted and vulnerable approach to Albert is impressive. His shared scenes with Louis-Dreyfus highlight Holofcener’s craftsmanship as a screenwriter. The dialogue is effortless as we watch Eva and Albert (both divorced and preparing to experience empty-nest syndrome) maneuver through their dates like a veteran quarterback would a pre-season scrimmage. They’re not trying to impress each other, but they still want to perform well enough to stay in the game.

With a perfect combination of understated humor and unpretentious drama, “Enough Said” is a sweet and oftentimes sad portrait of two middle-aged souls searching for happiness and comfort the way people used to do it before technology took away the human aspect of interface. Plus, knowing we’ll never get to see Gandolfini in another touching role like this makes all the difference when the screen cuts to black.

The Way, Way Back

July 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney
Directed by: Jim Rash (debut) and Nat Faxon (debut)
Written by: Jim Rash (“The Descendants”) and Nat Faxon (“The Descendants”)

In 2011, writing partners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon burst onto the scene by taking home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film ‘The Descendants.” Known mostly for their bit parts in TV and film, the two collaborated with veteran director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and became a hot Hollywood commodity following their success. Going behind the camera for the first time, Rash and Faxon unleash their directorial debut, the coming-of-age summer tale, “The Way, Way Back.”

In the film, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) goes on a summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her annoying boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) who criticizes Duncan whenever he can. When they get to their beach house, Duncan feels out of place, finding only a little bit comfort when talking to his neighbor, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). While exploring the beachtown, Duncan stumbles across Water Wizz, a waterpark  run by a fun-loving and mildly lazy man named Owen (Sam Rockwell). As Duncan begins secretly working there, he finally finds a true connection with Owen and a hide out where he doesn’t feel like a complete loser.

Led by James, who is in nearly every scene the film, the young actor seems far less experienced than his past screen experience would indicate. His delivery throughout the film is incredibly unnatural and although his character is clearly meant to be an awkward teenager, James’ performance seems more on the side of a poor performance. While some of the secondary cast like Rash and Faxon are decent, the ever-reliable Rockwell keeps the film at a watchable level. Even though Rockwell’s character isn’t the strongest written, his on-screen charisma, which has become so consistent in his career, works like the film’s life vest and keep it’s head above water. His overgrown laziness and wit really work in some of his scenes with James. As one of the most under-appreciated actors working today, Rockwell simply needs somebody to give him the opportunity to shine in a bigger role.

As a whole, there is a certain unpolished sense that lingers through “The Way, Way Back.” Much of the dialogue is cliché and jokes frequently miss their mark. The film is also filled with half-hearted relationships that are never fleshed out or explored beyond surface level. Duncan’s relationship with Susanna and particularly Trent ring completely untrue. In fact, the only believable relationship is between Duncan and Owen, who really find their chemistry when they share the screen.

The film wraps up with a scene involving a waterpark legend that ends up being anti-climatic and lame rather than the larger than life moment it shoots for. When all is said and done, one really wonders how much work Payne did on his own for “The Descendants.” “The Way, Way Back” is in dire need to have someone else go through it with a finely-toothed comb. Rash and Faxon’s hearts may be in the right place, but even with Oscar statues in hand, their work as storytellers on their own is average at best.

Towelhead

September 13, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckert, Peter Macdissi
Directed by: Alan Ball (debut)
Written by: Alan Ball (“American Beauty”)

As a first-time screenwriter, Alan Ball hit one out of the ballpark in 1999 with his masterpiece “American Beauty.” As a first-time director, not so much. Still he manages to find an aggressive and discomforting voice that combines “Beauty” with something as disturbing as Todd Solondz’s 1998 film “Happiness.”

In “Towelhead,” which Ball adapts from a novel by Alicia Erian, 13-year-old Jasira Maroun (Sumer Bishil) is sent to live with her father after her resentful mother (Maria Bello) finds out her boyfriend shaved Jasira’s pubic hair so the girls at the pool will stop calling her Chewbacca. This happens in the first few minutes of the film, so if it’s already too appalling for your taste, don’t even bother.

“Towelhead” continues down its dark and comical path by writing Jasira, who is a half Lebanese Arab-American, into some emotionally painful and sexually awkward scenarios. It starts with her flamboyant and cold father Rifat (Peter Macdissi), who takes Jasira into his home out of obligation rather than out of love.

Jasira starts exploring her sexuality when she catches the young neighbor boy she babysits looking at one of his dad’s adult magazines. Her interest in the female body is timed perfectly with the start of her menstrual cycle, her interest in boys and the introduction of a sexual predator (Aaron Eckhart), a military man who seduces the 8th grader and takes advantage of her naivety.

Not all filmmakers play nice so don’t let Ball give your children the birds and the bees speech if you want them to stay innocent. His repulsive characters matched with his dark and effective dialogue is piercing. Ball does, however, let the narrative get disconnected and allows some of the characters to become too cartoonish. Adding Oscar nominated actress Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) to the cast as the only dependable adult in Jasira’s life was a solid decision. Her presence grounds these personas and doesn’t let them get overly outrageous

As a young girl growing up entirely too fast, Bishil is dead-on. In real life, the 20-year- old actress playing a 13-year old is so authentic, it’s terrifying to witness her life unfold without any real positive influence. Eckhart, who returns to a character more deplorable that the one in “In the Company of Men,” was bold to take this role. It works out well for him. He never shies away from the character and he is shocking enough to make us forget that he just starred in the biggest blockbuster of the summer. It’s always good when an actor can make you focus on present work and not what he or she is best known for during that specific year.

During most of “Towelhead,” you will wonder if Ball will do some of the things that the scenes are leading up to. When he crosses that line, it’s extremely coarse. It’s a noteworthy albeit flawed little gem, which, depending on the degree of explicitness you can handle, should be seen even out of morbid curiosity.