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Hereditary — 5/10

HEREDITARY (2018, Ari Aster)

After some brief obituary text, it opens on a shot of a dollhouse and moves in to fuse live action into one of the bedrooms. That artificiality seeps into the rest of the movie and the result is a thrice-removed distance so impenetrable that even the upsetting, creepy horror imagery fails to land. Even if you love a good scare or Mike Flanagan-style unsettling dread (OCULUS wipes the floor with this), you’ll be disappointed by just how inert this becomes.

Heavily burdened by its own philosophy about free will vs. inherited traits (an early classroom scene spells it out in painfully obvious terms), Aster’s film debut is an obnoxiously showy piece of theater, despite some clever ideas. Take the dollhouse metaphors (Collette is an artist specializing in turning her own trauma into gallery-ready miniatures) and ladle it with ostentatious pans and tilts demonstrating Camerawork, added to characters who are mostly chess pieces, and you have a work that is constantly shouting at you that it’s a Movie, and as such it’s impossible to lose yourself in the story and become involved in its satanic supernatural horror.

We’ve seen plenty of fright flicks focused on family, and many of them work — but this is a family incredibly difficult to identify with in any way. Collette and Byrne appear to have just met each other last Thursday (and she might be wondering why this 70 year-old has two teenage kids with her), and while she’s reliably great (often the case), he’s lifeless and annoyed. Then there’s Alex Wolff as Peter, forced to carry a huge load (a good chunk of this bloated 2-plus-hour runtime is spent on close-ups of Wolff’s aghast face) and can’t carry through. He’s a bad enough actor, and the character lacks enough of an interior, that the distance is even worse. You won’t care about him or anyone else in the family that much, so the effect of watching this is that of an entomologist staring at bugs crawling around in a jar. Plus, even the attempts at comedy (and there are a few big, intentional jokes) ring hollow because they’re shoehorned into such serious, weighty generational angst. This a morose, arrogant debut that isn’t devoid of isolated pleasures, but the sum of its parts is so phony that nothing will get under your skin.

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Solo — 3/10

SOLO (2018, Ron Howard)

An exhausted, hurried, ugly, half-assed shrug from a franchise that had finally come into its own with three of its four best entries released in a 2-year span. THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE, and THE LAST JEDI were all inspired and idiosyncratic. This creaky, cornball place-holder is the opposite: formulaic, clichéd, and carrying no distinguishing vision or creative idea.

You can’t help but wonder what the JUMP STREET guys would have done with full control of this material (for the 7 people left on Earth who don’t know, Lord & Miller were fired off the project and Howard was brought in like a company-man consultant to wipe the movie clean of personality and deliver a product on time and within budget). A few lines peek out from the smothering blanket of crap (“That’s a rock! And you were just making a clicking sound with your mouth!”) indicating that a funny, satirical Western was the initial intent, but most of the jokes that remain are grossly ancient and waft through the theater like a fart that won’t die.

Pre-production did its job — Ehrenreich, Harrelson, and Glover are all fine actors with the ability to make a stamp, but the only characters who come to life are, ironically, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid L3 and the always-reliable Chewbacca. Harrelson is particularly disappointing; he’s an actor who usually elevates material, whereas in this he couldn’t be less interested in anything going on. Hard to explain why he showed up for WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES but sleep-walked through this. Glover is likable but the script seems too concerned with winking Lando in-jokes and handcuffing him to a mythology. (Not to mention he’s the center of two annoyingly predictable poker [yes, I know it’s not poker, but it’s poker] scenes with all the requisite slowrolls, string raises, and cold-decks that are depressingly de rigueur).

If it isn’t going to be about anything (STAR WARS movies rarely are), at least make it entertaining and fun to look at. Bradford Young’s photography looks like dark grey toilet water covering old magazine photos. It’s so dark I had to ask the theater manager to confirm they didn’t leave the 3-D filter on the projector for this 2-D presentation (she said they didn’t). It’s a colorless slog, blurring out incoherent action and dimming any chance at seeing the forgettable monsters and aliens on display. The fight scenes are pre-determined and suspenseless. The plot is an entire act too long. It’s a sad and greedy reminder that, like with Marvel films, this franchise has a ceiling of goodness but a floor that can sink to PHANTOM MENACE-depths of garbage, embodying the soulless, quality-indifferent cynicism that Hollywood’s sharpest critics accuse the studio system of far-too-often succumbing to.

 

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Tully — 6/10

TULLY (2018, Jason Reitman)

Plenty of good one-liners (Cody has those down pat), but for some reason — maybe it’s the thematic gambit — it doesn’t land as emotionally as, for example, RICKI AND THE FLASH (not that anyone expects Reitman to ever exist in the same orbit as Demme). Perhaps one needs to actually be an aging parent to register what Marlo is going through: the loss of her youthful body and energy, the thanklessness of her efforts, etc. But I can grasp those things cerebrally and while I like what this ultimately does with its characters, including the Manic Pixie Dream Nanny (if you’ve seen it you know why I’m being obtuse), I’m not sure there’s much to unpack. That is, there wasn’t much cabin pressure to be lost in the first place.

One thing I’ll say is that it’s really weird to cast Ron Livingston and Mark Duplass in the same movie and have them NOT be related. They’re brothers… in-law! How do you mess that up? Also, this fact means Marlo chose to marry a man that looks exactly like her own brother, which is fucked up.

 

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Revenge — 7/10

REVENGE (2018, Coralie Fargeat)

Fair warning: it’s hard to fully analyze this gnarly, thrilling, disgusting gore-fest without spoiling nearly every plot detail (of which there aren’t very many), so don’t read the rest of this if you don’t want the surprises revealed.

In the grand tradition of feminist rape-revenge exploitation thrillers like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and MS. 45, this explosive new entry also calls to mind French torture porn like MARTYRS, INSIDE, and HAUTE TENSION, thanks to its excessive violence, body horror, and the fact that every inch of the frame in the back half is drenched in blood. And like those boot-to-the-throat horrors, this one isn’t exactly subtle: Jen is introduced as a pure sex object to lull the male audience into a voyeuristic drooling stupor, then the shocking rape and attack turns the tables, and Jen proves a far more vicious hunter than the men who came to this desert to do just that.

After being penetrated by Stan, Jen is penetrated by a tree branch through the abdomen, and the film’s centerpiece sequence is the drawn-out, stomach-churning self-surgery Jen performs in order to seal and heal that penetration. So what does she do next? She fights Stan and penetrates his foot with a shard of glass (which he painfully — and also for an uncomfortable duration — extracts to ultimate exhilarating relief) before putting a shotgun shell through his brain. Then there’s Richard, the end boss of awful: Jen’s ostensible [married] boyfriend who pushed her off a cliff and defended her attackers rather than help her out. (These three guys embody every bit of evil men do — a rapist, a murderer, and Dimitri, who sins by allowing the rape to occur, even turning up the TV volume to drown out her screams). Richard has to spend his final moments on earth totally naked, the dehumanizing image of vulnerability he deserves after what he’s done. Like I said, not subtle.

Then again, subtlety is overrated in grindhouse. Fargeat’s style is mightily impressive — she uses bright, gorgeous color timing (props to DP Robrecht Heyvaert as well) and ultra-sharp images to make everything pop. There’s no need for vague hues, soft focus, or shadow here: most of the violence happens in broad daylight, the bright blood a jolt against white walls and yellow sand (the slo-mo shots of the blood dripping onto an ant is like if John Woo directed MICROCOSMOS). Her editing style reminds me of Tom Tykwer and Tony Scott, but her eye is more critical of the male gaze. She’s a major talent, evident from the opening shot — we’re looking at a beautiful Moroccan desert, unblemished… until we see a speck of black in the center of the frame. Is that dirt on the lens? No, it’s a helicopter coming right at us. And such is Fargeat’s world view: humanity is a speck of dirt sullying the beauty of mother nature.

Of course there’s a lot of absurdity here — Jen is more of a fantastic superhero than a person by the end of this (no mortal could suffer losing gallons of blood and wandering 36 hours without water; not to mention that when she treats her wound she only closes the exit wound, while the entry hole disappears on its own I guess?) and it’s hard to find three guys more cartoonishly awful than this trio. But the point is made. Women always fight back.

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Avengers: Infinity War — 4/10

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018, Anthony & Joe Russo)

I’ve said it, others have said it, it’s becoming a cliché, but it’s very true — the MCU plays like a big-budget, overblown TV series. And in a season of modern TV, the penultimate episode is always the action-packed, bleak climax to the story, leaving the last episode to pick up the pieces and restore order in the universe. Just as you wouldn’t jump into episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS without having seen the others, you wouldn’t want to sit through this without the benefit of films like AGE OF ULTRON and CIVIL WAR.

Because as much as this is an artless, thundering, exhausting spew-fest of digital debris splattered across the big screen at 160 mph with Defcon 2 audio levels and more colors than a Sherwin-Williams factory, it’s still a floundering attempt at a serialized story with character arcs. And Marvel has done their best to try to maintain continuity across several sub-series: the split from CIVIL WAR is still a thing, as Iron Man and Captain America won’t share a scene or speak to each other, with Spider-Man on Stark’s side, and Black Widow/Panther on Steve’s. But now the writers and directors are getting older, as they start putting parenting jokes into their material: cf. Tony mentoring Peter Parker and Quill getting annoyed by Baby-now-Teenager Groot. There’s also a through-line about hurting/killing the ones you love the most – family or not. GUARDIANS 2 had Quill facing off against his own father (who killed his mother); RAGNAROK had Thor facing off against his own sister (after battling his brother in the first AVENGERS); and now we’ve got Elizabeth Olsen having to make tough choices with Vision, while Zoe Saldana has to bear the burden of being the adopted daughter of the evilest villain of all time, Thanos.

If that last paragraph made no sense to you, you shouldn’t be reading this review or bothering with this series. I can barely stomach it myself, despite having enjoyed a few of these movies (IRON MAN and RAGNAROK are particular delights). It’s all fairly goofy, and any sense of individual artistry is rendered invisible by Marvel’s gung-ho commercialism: the floor is high, the ceiling is low, and you know what you’re gonna get when you walk in. A lot like McDonald’s. Despite a blistering pace, this is still a deadening bore at times, as the CG becomes a sandstorm blanket destroying your eyes, and all the hurtling plot can’t hide the fact that there is nothing really developed here in terms of anything personal or meaningful. It’s just 5-10 minutes of screen time granted to 20 different heroes, all surrounding Josh Brolin’s Thanos (the obvious lead by a country mile).

Seated directly to my left at my Sunday matinee was a father with his 6-7 year-old son (too young for these movies, I think) who kept asking, “Is this the big fight?” “When is the big fight?” “Is this the big fight?” “Is this the big fight?” “Is that Thor?” “Where’s Thor?” “Is this the big fight?” It was one of the most irritating things I’ve ever endured in a theater (even worse than the dad himself taking his phone out to text halfway through, which I swiftly stopped with a “Can you not, please?”) and my favorite part of this movie was when after 90 minutes or so, the dad finally just grabbed the kid and they exited for good. (Horrible timing, since it was about 3 minutes before Thor made his magnificent hammer-wielding superstar return to the Arclight audience’s whooping applause, and about 10 minutes before The Big Fight started, which lasts the final 45 minutes of the movie or so). But it got me thinking: a lot of us complain that all Marvel movies suffer from the same disease, which is an average/pretty good first two acts that devolve into a merciless upchuck of CG vomit in the form of a climactic battle between the cape-and-tights humans vs. aliens destroying a city. For us, that’s the worst. For this tyke, it’s all he wants. Hey kid: someday you’ll learn that it’s the little stuff (a scene involving Drax eating candy is the movie’s best moment by far) that makes The Big Fight matter.

 

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Lean On Pete — 9/10

LEAN ON PETE (2018, Andrew Haigh)

An emotional haymaker so blindsiding you’ll stumble woozy from the theater, wondering where that uppercut came from. Haigh’s fourth feature is unlike WEEKEND (I haven’t seen GREEK PETE; has anyone?) or 45 YEARS, though like the latter film it’s a literary adaptation, and it shows — mostly in the ramshackle narrative that lurches from incident to incident, deftly introducing supporting characters and tossing them aside in episodic, merciless fashion. But its singular focus on Charley (a galvanizing performance from Charlie Plummer combining naïve joy with vulnerable, aching melancholy) gives it a propulsive drive, even when you have no idea where it’s going.

Stylistically, Haigh knows his camera isn’t the main attraction here, so he wisely avoids sizzle, but he still manages a lanky, silky visual scheme involving long dissolves, slow focus racks, and tender close-ups. He shoots Plummer low in the frame, the extra headroom exploring both the big sky of the rugged Northwest USA and the relative smallness of Charley and his place in the world. A nearly invisible score (of low drones and sleepy chords) puts the boy-and-his-horse story at the forefront, two ambling souls wandering vast plains and looking for a connection and survival. Pete isn’t a metaphorical horse representing liberty or otherness; he’s an animal who just wants a job to do and to please those who take care of him. And when you put it like that, so is Charley.

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The Endless — 6/10

THE ENDLESS (2018, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)

COHERENCE meets THE SACRAMENT in a low-fi/sci-fi mindfuck, that turns out to be a stealth sequel to RESOLUTION. If not a sequel, then at least some sort of B-side. RESOLUTION followed Mike and Chris, and had Aaron and Justin (the directors, playing brothers with the same first names they have in real life) as cameo characters for one scene. THE ENDLESS follows the Aaron and Justin part of the story, checking in on Mike and Chris for one scene. All four characters are played by the same four actors in both films — in this case, it’s problematic because Moorhead isn’t a good actor, and the film suffers when it relies on him to emote.

In following the Justin and Aaron characters this time around, the filmmakers delve into the UFO cult introduced in the first film, which serves as a bit of a red herring — yes there’s supernatural shit galore, but like with their previous (and best) feature SPRING, it’s really an opportunity to focus on a human theme. SPRING was a plea for sincerity in a cynical world, while THE ENDLESS is a meditation on how our choices can result in us living in a dead-end loop; a meaningless existence. The way out of this Sisyphus-ian boulder-roll is to own your actions and respect your relationships. I like how committed these guys are to their world view, and there’s a propulsive energy to this narrative. Wide-angle fisheye lenses and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio create arresting visuals in a nearly exclusively exterior location, intentionally disorienting and often striking. But it goes so far into its own wormhole of philosophical metaphors that it often comes off as a confused jumble of cool ideas with a lack of clarity. Still, even when they come up short, Benson & Moorhead never fail to deliver a weirdly compelling watch, well worth thinking about on the drive home and for days to come.

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