Alex Wolff

Hereditary

14/06/18

The advance buzz about this film has been powerful. There have been comparisons to The Exorcist – the movie that in 1973, caused me to write my first ever film review, a habit that has continued unbroken ever since. In its central theme, however,  Hereditary is much closer to another classic, Rosemary’s Baby, but – while it certainly has much to recommend it – it’s not really in the same league as either of those other horror milestones; moreover, it’s fatally compromised by an ending that’s so risible, it actually causes audience laughter in the screening I attend.

After the death of her estranged and secretive mother, Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who specialises in recreating scenes from her life in miniature, starts to unravel a series of clues from the odds and ends her mother left behind. Her 13 year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), has clearly been powerfully affected by her grandmother’s death, behaving in a strange and very disconcerting manner, while her older brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), is more interested in the popular teenage pursuits of getting stoned and laid. Annie’s accommodating husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), just tries to keep everything rubbing along as best he can. But when Peter is a key player in a tragic and accidental death, something evil seems to settle around the house like a shroud, exerting an increasingly powerful grip…

The first thing to say about Hereditary is that first time writer/director Ari Aster has forged a powerful and highly effective debut. Eschewing the fast-paced jump cuts of many contemporary horror films, this is a real slow burner, a simmering pressure cooker that only gradually comes to the boil and manages to instil in the viewer an overpowering sense of creeping horror. The cinematography eerily manages to mix Annie’s doll’s house imagery with the actual interiors from the rambling, family home, while Toni Collette puts in an extraordinarily accomplished performance in the lead role, managing to convince us that she is genuinely terrified.

But then there’s that awful ending, which – to my mind at least – manages to destroy all the accomplishments that have gone before. And while I appreciate there’s an necessity to tie up the loose ends of the plot, it helps if that plot makes some kind of narrative sense. It must be said that other reviewers seem to have had no problem with this, so perhaps I’m just difficult to please – but trust me, the audience reaction on the evening I view this is pretty unequivocal. However, in an attempt to ensure fairness, I’ve decided to star-rate this film rather differently from our other reviews.

(Most of the film) 4.4 stars

(Last 10 minutes) 1 star

Philip Caveney

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My Friend Dahmer

04/06/18

My Friend Dahmer is a serial killer movie with a difference: there’s no killing in it. In fact, there’s barely any violence at all. Instead, this is a study of the boy who made the man. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by John ‘Derf’ Backderf, the film depicts Jeffrey Dahmer’s final year in high school. The young Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is troubled: his parents’ volatile marriage ends in an acrimonious divorce, his mother and father fighting for custody of his younger brother and ownership of the family home, without seeming to care what happens to him.

At school, he’s a bit of an outsider, but Derf (Alex Wolff) is intrigued when Dahmer ‘spazzes out’ in the hallway, pretending to have an epileptic fit. The audacity and impropriety are enough to make Dahmer a bit of a legend; in response, Derf and his friends Neill (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer) form ‘The Dahmer Fan Club’. At first, Dahmer is flattered: he has friends to hang out with and is no longer ignored, but he soon realises that the trio are laughing at him as much as with him, that he’s a kind of sideshow novelty who just amuses them.

Meanwhile, his fascination with ‘the inside of things’ is thriving, even after his concerned father tears down the shed where he has been dissolving roadkill in acid (‘I like bones,’ he says, like that explains something). Neighbourhood pets are found dissected; a local doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) becomes an object of malign fantasy as he jogs past Dahmer’s house each day. Dahmer starts drinking, knocking back bottles of vodka in the schoolyard. The future is beckoning; they’re all supposed to know what they want. But he just mumbles, ‘biology’ when he’s asked about his interests, and clearly has no real idea what path he wants to take. He tries to fit in; he even asks a girl to prom, but it’s all too much. He can’t.

This is a compelling film with an unusual perspective, demonstrating as it does that Dahmer is not that different from any other reluctant outsider, his quirks and perversions not so very peculiar. There’s a real attempt here to understand rather than monster him, to examine the distinct set of circumstances that inform his later crimes.

Ross Lynch’s performance is remarkable: the utter, unrelenting misery of the ignored, invisible child is conveyed in his shambling gait, his closed-off expression. Occasionally, Lynch shows us who else Dahmer might have become: the way his face lights up as Derf invites him to sit with him at lunch; the fumbling charm with which he asks Bridget to the prom. But these fleeting moments of belonging are dwarfed by isolation, and ultimately we are left with a sense of someone who’ll do anything to make sure people notice him.

It’s fascinating – definitely one to watch.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Patriots Day

25/02/17

Oh, that missing apostrophe! It’s threatening to derail my review; it just looks like a mistake and I’m itching to add it. Why have they left it out, I wonder? It must be a deliberate choice (there are enough people involved in the making of a film to rule out simple ignorance, and it is included in the captions telling us when and where events take place). A design issue, maybe? Whatever, it’s annoying, and it’s distracting me.

Which is a shame, because this is actually a very good movie, addressing issues far more important than errant punctuation. It’s a docudrama, detailing the police response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured hundreds more. Mark Wahlberg is the ideal actor for the role of ‘everycop’ Tommy Saunders: he’s convincingly ordinary, driven by a mixture of ideals and selfishness, a flawed and sometimes self-destructive individual. The bombing tests him – and he comes up trumps. When it matters, he – and Boston – have what it takes.

Really, this is a film about humanity. We are introduced to all the main players – victims, police officers and terrorists alike –  in their domestic settings, so that we see what drives them and what they have to lose. Brothers Dzokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) are depicted as nihilistic individuals, more akin to school-shooters than organised terrorists. Their affiliations are only to each other; they’ve self-radicalised, spurred each other on, building their bombs in Tamerlan’s kitchen, while his daughter plays in full view of them. Dzokhar’s childishness is especially poignant: he’s a little boy, despite his nineteen years. He whines and whinges at his older brother: I want to hold the gun. I want to drive the car. He’s a brat, whose teenage rebellion has been warped – and made him dangerous. He’s only a little bit different from his stoner friends, but that small difference is everything. It makes me wonder how he might have been saved.

But the heroes here are the police and FBI, working painstakingly to catch the bombers before they kill anyone else: reportedly, they’re on their way to New York to wreak more havoc there. The processes are made explicit in a way I haven’t seen before: it’s all logic and collation, sifting through potential evidence. The tension wracks up unbearably, even though the story is familiar, and the outcome is well-known. It’s the personal stuff that generates the suspense: will these people come out of this okay?

During her police interview, Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine (Melissa Benoist) remains tight-lipped, saying little. She does, however, contend that “worse things happen in Syria every day.” The tragedy is that she’s right. And goodness knows how those people cope, because this – one bombing, one day – is awful, and will have a profound impact on Boston’s population for many years to come. It’s a terrible excuse, of course: only a twisted logic justifies one atrocity by referring to another. But it should be enough to make us care, to make us want to help those for whom such events are devastatingly commonplace.

Writer/director Peter Berg maximises the impact by incorporating genuine CCTV and news footage into the mix, giving his film a realism and authenticity that makes it hit home.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield