Writer-director Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary is a dark, deeply disturbing family drama intertwined with a gut-wrenching horror film that is, without a doubt, one of the most frightening movies audiences will ever have the pleasure of experiencing. Led by an awards-worthy performance by a distraught, unhinged Toni Collette, this nightmarish tale of family, loss, and grief is destined to continue to haunt its viewer, even long after they’ve left the theater.
“She was a very difficult woman,” Annie Graham (Collette) says at the funeral of Ellen, her 78-year-old mother who had been dealing with a number of mental illnesses in her final years. The only member of the family who appears to be taking the loss of the Ellen particularly hard is Annie’s daughter, Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro), while her first-born son Peter (Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) seem like they could care less. Annie even asks her husband at one point after they arrive home from the funeral if she should be acting sadder than she really is, which is understandable considering the fact that she shared a very complicated, somewhat disastrous relationship with her mother.
In an effort to better cope with the loss of her mother, Annie decides to attend a bereavement support group, where she awkwardly discloses a number of disturbing details about her family history and traumatic childhood to a group of some very concerned-looking fellow attendees, including how her father starved himself to death and how her teenage brother hanged himself just years later. She also mentions how she feels alienated inside her own family. Little does Annie know, though, that a vital turning point in the film is about to lead her to her breaking point and the events that follow will uncover something even worse than just family woes—something malevolent that has already begun to manifest within the Graham family without their knowledge.
Aster, whose 2011 short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons still makes me shudder with horror just at the thought of it to this day, introduces himself as a masterful horror maker with Hereditary. Aster’s dread-inducing script and well-orchestrated direction are flawless, and his crafty way of slowly building up tension and unleashing it like one big, fiery ball of horrific fury upon the viewer’s every emotion is nothing but pure brilliance. He’s a madman in the greatest sense.
Not only is Hereditary an incredible achievement from a storytelling perspective, but a technical standpoint too. Pawel Pogorzelski’s stunning cinematography captures every detail so well, including one very key scare near the film’s climax, and his long, extended takes seem somewhat reminiscent of those in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining. Additionally, Colin Stetson’s eerie ensemble of woodwind and brass instruments provide a superb score that accompanies each image on the screen perfectly, while Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston’s editing takes us from one scene to another with such remarkable efficiency.
As for the cast, Aster gives every performer a bit of room to shine, but it’s Collette and Wolff as the mother-son duo from hell that steals the show in Hereditary. Both characters come with a lot of bottled up emotional baggage and, over the course of the film’s final two acts, all of those emotions come pouring out one after the other. This is when Collette and Wolff are at their best, scaring the hell out of you and making you feel, well, probably a little sad and depressed. Byrne’s character does an exceptional job of trying to keep tensions in the household at ease, but even he begins to reach his breaking point as well, fearing for the well-being of his family.
Shapiro, perhaps known for her role as Matilda Wormwood in Matilda on Broadway, plays the strange, tongue-clicking Charlie in a way that no other young talent probably could. Her character’s very presence on the screen is unsettling, and the fact she spends much of her time holed up the family treehouse while creating creepy little totems made from household items and dead animal body parts is just straight up disturbing. “I want grandma,” she tells Annie in one scene right after the funeral, revealing the close-knit relationship she had with Ellen. “You know you were her favorite, right?” her mother responds.
By the time the Hereditary reaches the end of its wicked, shocking finale, it becomes clear to the viewer that what Aster has created here is destined to be hailed a new horror classic, much like it already has by critics who have been raving about it since the Sundance Film Festival and Southwest by Southwest earlier this year. It sticks with you, lingering, always, and its devilish intentions will, undoubtedly, have done their deed. You’ll never look at that dark corner of your room the same ever again.
‘Roma’ review: Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white family drama is nothing short of a masterpiece
As someone who has long championed Alfonso Cuarón‘s 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men as being the best film in the Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker’s career, I was astonished when I slowly began to realize about halfway through watching Roma, Cuarón’s latest offering, that my opinion about Children of Men was no longer the same.
Roma, Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white love letter to his hometown of Mexico City and the women who raised him, is arguably his best work to date for an assortment of different reasons, mostly because it’s a stunning achievement not only in Cuarón’s personal filmography, but rather cinema as a whole.
Set in the early 1970s in the bustling, upper-middle-class neighborhood of Colonia Roma, Cuarón’s most personal project to date follows the day-to-day life of Cleo (played extraordinarily by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), who is based on Cuarón’s actual real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, to whom the film is dedicated to.
Cleo is relatively quiet and mostly keeps to herself as she does chores around the house of the family she works for like picking up laundry, cleaning up dog poop, and making sure all of the bedrooms in the house are tidy. She even puts the children to bed late at night and is there to wake them up bright and early in the morning when it’s time to start getting ready for school.
In her off hours, Cleo enjoys gossiping and reminiscing with Adela (Nancy Garcia), the family’s cook, and going to the local movie theater with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts enthusiast with whom Cleo shares somewhat of a distant relationship with—a relationship that will eventually set them even further apart as the film goes on.
It’s somewhat of a shame that not every person will have the pleasure of experiencing Roma, which is currently playing in theaters in select cities before launching globally on Netflix later this month, the same way I did, in a theater, to fully absorb Cuarón’s masterpiece for the remarkable piece of work that is truly is.
Cuarón’s exquisite 65mm black-and-white photography beautifully captures every detail that comes into frame, making excellent use of long takes and wide shots, while Cuarón’s equally impressive editing allows the story to unfold with an incredible amount of patience, yet it does so with efficiency, never letting the film lag for even a second.
There’s also something to be said about Skip Lievsay’s marvelously complex sound design, whether it’s the sound of a splash of water hitting the ground or gunshots ringing out as a student protest turns deadly, and Eugenio Caballero’s meticulous production design, which utilizes sets that are so simple, yet so intricate at the same time.
A film that is packed with an overwhelming amount of beauty, emotion, and intimacy, Roma is a mighty impressive feat on the part of Cuarón and evidently sets forth a new standard when it comes to this type of personal filmmaking. Or perhaps just filmmaking in general.
Roma’s limited theatrical run is currently ongoing in select cities including New York, Los Angeles, and London. Find out if it’s playing in your city here. The film will launch globally on Netflix on December 14.
‘The Favourite’ review: Yorgos Lanthimos’ oddball period piece runs out of steam far too soon
A year after the release of his brutal, absurdist dark family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is back again with The Favourite, an unsurprisingly bizarre, rather over-the-top glimpse into the life of England’s least known ruler, Queen Anne, and the lesbian love triangle at the center of her life in the early 18th century.
The story of The Favourite is actually grounded in some fact, if you can believe it, and follows an obese, gout-ridden, emotionally unstable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as she struggles to help guide the country of England through its ongoing war with France from inside the confines of her Royal Palace, a place where she spends most of her time holed up in her bedroom.
Oddly enough, though, for some who’s a Queen and ruler of her nation, Anne is deeply insecure and highly susceptible to manipulation, and so she yearns for the love, attention, and guidance of Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), her life-long friend, political advisor, secret lover, and one of few people who know how to keep her in check.
But when Sarah’s younger, mud-covered peasant of a cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) comes around the palace looking for a job, before eventually becoming a royal herself, things begin to take an absolute turn for the worst as the two battle it out for Anne’s love—even if it means lying to and taking advantage of the Queen herself.
While there’s certainly something to be said about Colman, Weisz, and Stone, who are all beyond extraordinary in their respective roles and deliver what are undoubtedly some of the best performances of the year, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat annoyed by some of The Favourite‘s wild antics and extreme nature.
By the middle of the second act, it felt as though the once witty, profanity-laden jokes had grown old, while the story itself had quickly begun to lose the momentum it so excellently was able to keep up during the first half of the film, leading us into a ridiculously abrupt final act, which features an ending that felt more like a cop-out than anything else.
Nonetheless, though, I still very much admire and respect The Favourite‘s commitment to being an oddball period piece. The posh costume and production designs are downright stunning, to say the least, and the soundtrack, which includes classical compositions from the likes of Handel and Bach, fits it all just so well.
Not to mention there’s Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s dark, gritty 35mm photography, which captures every moment in the film in such incredible fashion. Perhaps he utilized the fisheye lenses one too many times for my liking but the rest of his camerawork is so flawlessly executed that it’s an issue I’m willing to let slide.
Despite its flaws, many of which I believe to be more the fault of Lanthimos than it is of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is still an exceptional piece of work and will undoubtedly continue to win over the support of awards voters as the Oscar race rolls on thanks in part to its three leading ladies.
‘Shoplifters’ review: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest offers an intimate look at Japan’s underclass
In addition to evoking a barrage of emotions, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winner Shoplifters is a film that begs many questions, especially in its final act, that have to do with family: What defines a family? Can you choose your family? Does giving birth to a child automatically grant you the title of being a parent?
To some, those questions are probably quite simple to answer. To others, they might be a little more complex. But Shoplifters, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today, dares to challenge each of those questions, making the case that it is love, not blood, that defines a family. And it makes a pretty good case too.
Following the day-to-day lives of a dysfunctional band of outsiders living in a modest home in contemporary Tokyo, the film mostly follows Osamu (Lily Franky, a face you may recognize from Kore-eda’s 2013 effort Like Father Like Son) who, when he isn’t shoplifting goods from the local supermarket or convenience store with the assistance of Shota (Kairi Jyo), the boy who he refers to as his son, works as a laborer at a construction site.
His wife, Noboyu (Sakura Andô), is also in the business of theft, pocketing the small, forgotten items she finds in the laundry she cleans at the hotel she works at. Another young woman who lives with the family, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), makes a living by performing for horny, lonely men at a local peep show venue. The matriarch of the makeshift family, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki, who passed away in September and delivers a wonderfully charming final performance here), generates income via her late husband’s pension.
Between the work they do at their full-time jobs and selling off the items that they steal along the way, like a pair of pricey fishing rods, the family manages to just barely get by. But things become increasingly more difficult for them when the arrival of an abused, quiet little girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki) puts them in a tough situation, which forces them to make an even tougher decision; one that can tear them apart for good.
Shoplifters, a film that is as socially conscious as it is empathetic, never feels like some sort of poverty porn that has been robbed of all of its humanity, which is something it easily could’ve been had it fallen into the wrong hands. Kore-eda handles the film with such incredible love, care, and affection, painting this captivating portrait of poverty and the underclass using his unique style and expert storytelling.
A master of his craft and one of the greatest filmmakers Japan has to offer, Kore-eda proves once again with Shoplifters, a rare treat of a film and one of the best in Kore-eda’s career, ranking among the likes of Still Walking and After Life, that he knows the definition of family better than almost anyone else.
Shoplifters is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will be released in additional select cities in the weeks to come.