Tag Archives: B+

HEREDITARY

Producer: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen and Buddy Patrick
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and Mallory Bechtel
Studio: A24 Films

B+

The rare horror movie that’s not merely a good horror movie but a good movie, period, Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is definitely slow-burning but builds up a powerful head of squirm-inducing tension over the course of two hours. If the ending goes into rather outlandish territory to tie things up, you can’t say that it hasn’t been telegraphed well in advance; you have no more reason to complain than you did with, say, “Rosemary’s Baby.”

The film is filled with remarkable performances, but the one that anchors it is that of Toni Collette, who plays Annie Graham. Annie is an artist specializing in miniaturized, meticulously sculpted scenes of daily life, and as she is working on an upcoming exhibit, her mother dies. She and Annie had been estranged for years—as Graham explains in a shattering outburst at a grief-group meeting, one of several riveting monologues Aster provides Collette with in the course of the film—as a result of the blame Annie placed on her for the treatment of her father and older brother, which she believes led to their deaths. Nonetheless when her mother fell ill with dementia, Annie and her placid, supportive husband Steve (Gabriel Bryne) took her into their home, a secluded wooden mansion, complete with stain-glass windows, somewhere in the Northwest.

During her time with the family, Annie’s mother apparently grew close to the couple’s younger child, a girl named Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an odd duck who seems to live in a world of her own and periodically makes odd clicking sounds with her tongue (there’s even a suggestion of telekinetic abilities). Annie says the old woman stuck her claws into Charlie—although she had never shown much interest in Charlie’s older brother Peter (Alex Wolff), a solemn high school student who tries to fit in but doesn’t have the knack and smokes a lot of pot to compensate.

Annie is surprised at the number of people who show up at her mother’s funeral, because before her illness she had been a secretive, reclusive person with a disconcerting interest in spiritualism of a sort, and Charlie spies some of them doing very peculiar things when viewing the body. But that pales when Annie thinks she sees her mother’s spirit in the darkness of the room where her boxed-up belongings are kept. Of course, that might have been just a hallucination. What’s undoubtedly real is a phone call from the cemetery informing Steve that her grave has been desecrated.

Annie’s stress at coping with her mother’s death and her exhibition deadline take a toll, and she decides to attend that group grief session where her feelings spill over. But her emotional state takes a horrible turn when Peter asks permission to go to a high school party where he hopes to connect with a girl he likes. Annie insists that he take Charlie along with him—to give her the opportunity to work in quiet, apparently, though she insists it’s in the hope that Charlie can make some friends there. He does, and the evening turns out horribly wrong. It is in the aftermath of that tragedy that Annie returns to the grief meeting and meets an incredibly sympathetic woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who introduces her to a mechanism that might assuage her pain.

To go beyond this point would constitute a massive string of spoilers. Suffice it to say that the Graham family dynamic deteriorates to gruesome levels and secrets emerge about granny’s interests, her friends and her plans for the future. The revelations ultimately take a turn that some viewers won’t be able to swallow, considering the explanation a ludicrous twist that transforms what has until then been a supremely unsettling supernatural thriller, a frightening tale of how mental instability can run through generation after generation, into something more blatantly genre-oriented.

But whatever your reaction to the denouement, the caliber of Collette’s performance is amazing. She is positively ferocious, especially at those times when she spits out those bitter monologues Aster has composed for her. But the power of the film does not rest on her alone. She is actually matched by Wolff, who, in his portrait of a cruelly damaged young man, is both her opposite and her complement. The young actor has done fine work in the past, but nothing that has prepared us for this scrupulously observed depiction of a profoundly sad boy. Byrne’s quizzically observant demeanor stands in stark contrast to both, and Shapiro quietly conveys Charlie’s peculiar vibe with a degree of reticence that is truly alarming. At the other end of the spectrum, Dowd positively explodes in a show of friendship that could be either genuine or nefarious.

“Hereditary” depends less than most of today’s horror films on visual effects, but those that occur under Eran Dinur’s supervision are harrowing, and the editing of Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston use them for all they’re worth, particularly in distinction to the morose, lapidary atmosphere they and Aster bring to the rest of the film. Grace Yun’s production design is exquisite, most notably in the interior sequences of the Graham home, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski takes full advantage of the atmosphere she has created. Special praise must be paid to Steve Newburn for his shrewd design of Annie’s miniatures, which Aster and Pogorzelski employ for some truly creepy transitions.

Most modern horror movies are gory, grisly junk, but occasionally one transcends the dross and becomes a work of artistry in its own right. “The Babadook” was one. “Hereditary” is another.

ON CHESIL BEACH

Producer: Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley
Director: Dominic Cooke
Writer: Ian McEwan
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough, Bebe Cave and Jonjo O'Neill
Studio: Bleecker Street

B+

A honeymoon goes dreadfully wrong but the film that details the deterioration turns out very well. Dominic Cooke’s “On Chesil Beach,” adapted from his own novella by Ian McEwan, is an elegant but heartbreaking tale of a love affair that blossoms at a time of sexual repression—the early 1960s—and collapses in recrimination after a wedding that delivers pain rather than joy. Some readers of the book will argue that McEwan miscalculates at the close, adding a contemporary postscript that they interpret as a sentimental concession to the expectations of filmgoers (as opposed to readers, who are accustomed to harsher realities). But there is no denying the emotional satisfaction of the ending he has chosen.

The newlyweds in question are Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle). Both are recent university graduates, she in music and he in history, but they come from very different backgrounds. Her family is upper middle class, her father Geoffrey (Samuel West) a brusque factory owner and her mother Violet (Emily Watson) a haughty, opinionated academic; there is also a younger daughter, Ruth (Bebe Cave). They live in a well-appointed house in the city.

By contrast, Edward hails from a troubled rural family. His father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough) is a teacher in a public school who cycles to work each day, and his mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) suffers from brain damage caused by a long-ago accident. Their household is a perpetual mess, and Edward’s younger twin sisters Anne and Harriet (Anna and Mila Burgess) are often left to fend for themselves, while all are devoted to caring for Marjorie, who is susceptible to shedding her clothes out in the garden.

Florence and Edward meet at a lecture on nuclear disarmament and quickly become friends, and the friendship grows into romance. It is, however, a restrained and decorous one, governed by the rules of the day. Both are sexually inexperienced, Florence more so than Edward; she is a virgin, one whose fear of disappointing him—not to mention her own ambivalence–are profound.

Thus the nervousness as the couple sits down for dinner served by two rough-and-ready waiters in the room of the shabbily genteel hotel on the Dover coast that serves as their honeymoon suite. They manage to get through the meal, but when they repair to the nearby bed, disaster strikes. A long, difficult conversation that follows on the beach proves even more disastrous.

That is the essence of the film, played out with a deliberation that is often cringe inducing—not because the writing is poor (in fact, it’s brilliant), or the direction misguided (in fact, Cooke shows extraordinary skill in dramatizing the action), or Nick Fenton’s editing dilatory (it helps to create a mood in which things are almost always held back), but because the decisions taken by the characters are so painfully etched. And the acting is remarkable, from the beautifully calibrated supporting work by Watson, Duff and Scarborough (only West veers toward caricature), but especially by the leads. Ronan, as she has so often been, is amazing, and she’s matched by Howle; together they succeed in conveying, through their gestures as well as the dialogue, the inner turmoil of the characters that McEwan could reveal by access to their thoughts in the book.

There is, moreover, a dimension to the story that the film can provide more effectively than its source did: the music to which Florence is so devoted (Edward’s tastes run more to jazz and rock). She is a violinist, in fact the first violin in a string quartet (sometimes augmented to perform quintets), and here one can hear their playing rather than merely being informed of its effect. That’s an important aspect of what becomes the group’s signature piece—Mozart’s D Major Quintet (K. 593), with its achingly gorgeous opening (described by Florence as a question-and-answer, reflective of the story’s theme). But it’s also good to hear the first movement of the “Haffner” Symphony rather than just having it described; and other snippets by Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Rachmaninoff add to the emotional texture of the scenes they accompany. They all dovetail well with Dan Jones’s original score.

The film looks impeccable as well, with Suzie Davies’ production design and Keith Madden’s costumes creating a convincing period effect and Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen cinematography using the play of light for maximum impact in both the interior and exterior sequences, the latter shot on magnificent locations.

Be forewarned that “On Chesil Beach” is not a date movie, despite the radiance of Ronan and Howle. Or perhaps it might be, providing as it does a salutary warning against the dangers of over-expectation. Of course, in this far more permissive day and age its characters might seem almost incomprehensibly reserved, but as a portrait of past reality—especially of the British sort—it’s exquisitely rendered.