“Hereditary”

Critics praise A24 for their award-winning hits like Moonlight and Lady Bird, but their standouts to me are their horror films. Hereditary is A24’s latest art house horror film; it might also be the best they’ve made yet.

Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has lost her abusive, mentally ill mother. As she copes with the loss, Annie’s demons resurface, as do her mother’s haunting secrets. Things only get worse when Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) questions Annie’s sanity, her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) performs ritualistic behavior with dead animals, and her son Peter (Alex Wolff) has violent hallucinations. Saying this family is dysfunctional is an understatement.

Hereditary is more a tragic melodrama than supernatural horror film, but don’t dismiss the horror! Writer/director Ari Aster doesn’t rely on false jump scares or an abundance of gore. Aster infuses real-life tragedy with supernatural mythologies and he doesn’t hold back. Decapitations and combustion haven’t been this horrific in quite some time.

Annie is a miniature artist who designs works based on her own tragic life. The works are expressionistic and nightmarish alone, but almost reflective of Aster’s directing. From the opening long take in Annie’s work shop set to Colin Stetson’s daunting score, we know we’re in for an unsettling ride. The film’s production design, cinematography, and editing are reminiscent of gothic horror films and Annie’s art works, leaving a surreal impression.

Collette gives an incredible performance as Annie and pulls no punches. Annie is a broken introvert who’s wrapped in her art. Collette shows versatility and anguish in her performance. Whether it’s a rage-fueled tangent at the dinner table or a series of awkward monologues about her horrible upbringing, Collette feels genuine as the tortured protagonist.

I have to admire Aster’s treatment of exposition. I normally dislike telling versus showing, but Aster adds some haunting ambiguity to Annie’s exposition-fueled monologues. Without going into spoilers, there are certain details in Annie’s backstory that sound tragic. When the revelations in the final act occur, a rewatch is necessary to determine what contributed to Annie’s said tragedies.

Hereditary shifts into full horror mode in the final thirty minutes. Aster packs it with frightening imagery in the corners and shadows, sound effects that get under your skin, and a wickedly scary inheritance. Like Annihilation earlier this year and April’s A Quiet PlaceHereditary is a harrowing genre film with more on its mind than genre conventions.

Grade: A+

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“Upgrade”

If there’s one thing to admire about the sci-fi action body horror comedy, Upgrade, it’s watching action sequences that combine physical humor, slick choreography, and psychological horror. Upgrade is the biggest (technically smallest) surprise of the year.

Quadriplegic mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) gives up on life after his accident and wife’s murder. When an eccentric engineer named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) offers to restore his mobility, Grey has a microchip implanted in his spine called STEM, which restores his mobility and guides him to avenge his wife’s murder. Grey gruesomely (and effortlessly) kills one killer when STEM takes over. That’s when Grey realizes he has an advantage on the gang with mechanically implanted weapons.

Upgrade sounds ridiculous on paper, but even the most absurd premise can be entertaining. Horror writer/director Leigh Whannell (Saw I-III, Insidious 1-3) shows versatility with this mid-budget genre feast. It starts as a hard sci-fi commentary on technophobia, transitions into a bloody revenge movie, and concludes as a psychological body horror movie. In the end, I wasn’t disappointed.

I haven’t been impressed with Marshall-Green’s previous performances, but he shows great physical and emotional range as Grey. Marshall-Green shows off some badass martial arts skills and expressions of horror during his action sequences; his priceless delivery results in some occasional laughs and convincing depiction of fear.

Marshall-Green also sells Grey’s technophobia and fleshes him out. Grey doesn’t want STEM controlling him, but his desire for revenge prompts him to keep STEM. His humanity mixed with technology reminded me of Peter Weller in the original RoboCop.

Whannell’s script and direction draw themes and tone from Verhoeven’s RoboCop, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Between the small budget, dirty urban settings, excessive gore, and cynical commentary on technology and our government, Upgrade should have these filmmakers cheering.

I was only drawn out of Upgrade when Betty Gabriel’s Detective Cortez appears. Every revenge movie has a police office who suspects the hero is a vigilante and tails them. Cortez is that character and offers no depth or originality.

Still, Upgrade was a total blast and given its final act, there’s franchise potential. And I’m okay with that!

Grade: B+

 

“Deadpool 2”

If Ryan Reynolds decides to play Deadpool for the rest of his career, I’m totally okay with that. Deadpool 2 is a sequel that tops its predecessor.

Wade Wilson AKA Deadpool (Reynolds) is now an international assassin. When he changes careers and briefly joins the X-Men, he meets a troubled mutant teen named Russell Collins (Julian Dennison from the great Hunt for the Wilderpeople). He takes a liking to the angsty kid and becomes obligated to protect him from the time traveling assassin Cable (Josh Brolin). But Cable has justifiable reasons for wanting to kill the kid.

For a sequel that changed directors and its entire crew, Deadpool 2 is an improvement in nearly every way. The action is bloodier and more kinetic, the meta jokes and pop culture references are edgier and more subtle, and the songs are better suited. Just when I got tired of hearing AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” in action movies, Deadpool 2 has me wanting more of that song.

John Wick and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch (credited as “One of the guys who killed the dog in John Wick”) understands the source material and knows when to get crazy with the action. His trademark single take choreography is present, but he gets delightfully frenetic in certain sequences, including one spectacular highway truck chase.

The movie gets darker and more dramatic by exploring Deadpool’s suicidal tendencies and Russell’s outsider attitude, but it still has heart. After all, Deadpool himself calls this movie a family movie (which, it weirdly is). That’s what I love about these movies – they improve upon the source material by humanizing their titular character.

Reynolds once again is delightfully vulgar, ruthless, and unhinged as Deadpool. I’m not sure if it’s the script or Reynolds, but Reynolds makes you root for a character that’s despicable. Brolin is a great foil as Cable. He’s not as compelling as he was in this year’s Infinity War, but he delivers plenty of dry humor and arm-breaking moments. Zazie Beetz also scores some great moments as the lucky mutant, Domino, who’s a member of Deadpool’s X-Force team.

Deadpool 2 may come off drawn out and a tad uneven to some and offensive to others, but it continues Reynold’s A-game streak. The question is will we get Deadpool 3 or x-Force next?

Grade: A

 

“Avengers: Infinity War”

Hey, everyone! Sorry about being absent for the past month. I needed time to redesign my site and settle some personal things. I managed to see a bunch of movies during April that I’ll mention later in my half-time report. For now, let’s talk about Avengers: Infinity War!

Intergalactic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) is ready to collect the Infinity Stones. He and his henchmen travel through the galaxy, destroying everything in their path. Meanwhile, our heroes are all split in odd pairings to stop Thanos.

We have Thor (Chris Hemsworth) paired with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) on one planet, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) on another, the remaining Guardians of the Galaxy in space, and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain America (Chris Evans) leading the rest of the Avengers to defend Earth. Each story has a purpose, but going into it further would lead to spoilers.

For a 159-minute movie that has over twenty-three heroes and one villain, Infinity War doesn’t lose balance. It’s focuses more on certain heroes (primarily Thor, Stark, Strange, and the Guardians) than others, but Infinity War isn’t a superhero movie; it’s a supervillain movie.

Josh Brolin has the most screen time and is a tour-de-force as the menacing purple giant. Thanos’s mission is insane, but he justifies his insanity with his tragic backstory. Thanos is reminiscent of Darth Vader in the sense he wants to be the hero, but acts in a villainous manner.

Thanos’s journey in the film leads us to some beautiful planets, nightmarish scenarios, and surprisingly brutal moments of violence. His scenes make Infinity War an uncompromising sci-fi epic that has more in common with Empire Strikes Back and Conan the Barbarian than Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies.

We also get plenty of great character moments from our other heroes. It’s fun to watch Stark and Strange bicker, Thor and Rocket form a bromance, and heartbreaking to watch Vision (Paul Bettany) and Starlord (Chris Pratt) choose between love and sacrifice. I could have used some more Captain America moments, but we’ll get more in the next film.

The Russo Brothers (who also directed Winter Soldier and Civil War) waste no time with Infinity War. We’re thrown right into the story in the first scene and have no time for a bathroom break. They do well exploring most of their characters, but it seems that the MCU doesn’t know what to do with The Hulk. Mark Ruffalo is great as Banner, but every movie changes the story of Hulk’s anger, resulting in some annoying plot holes. Maybe these will get sorted in the next movie or his own solo movie.

Avengers: Infinity War is a standout MCU film. Between it’s grim opening and jaw-dropping conclusion, I’m looking forward to what the MCU has in store for us next year.

Grade: A-

 

“Pacific Rim: Uprising”

Go, go Power Ra–… I mean Go, go Gypsy Avenger! That sounds right, yes?

Ten years after the Battle of the Breach, Jake Pantecost (John Boyega playing the son of Idris Elba’s character in Pacific Rim) re-enlists in the Jaeger program to train a new group of young pilots. He reconnects with his estranged best friend Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) and the two find themselves thrown into a new war with a mysterious group of rogue Jaegers. But why?

Uprising follows its predecessor’s formula – an underdog pilot joins the Jaeger program and ends up in a rivalry, there’s a motivational speech before a big battle, underdog saves the day, and there’s a setup for another movie. Good news is Uprising has some new tricks up its sleeve, despite being formulaic. It’s also goofy fun.

Uprising expands its world building. We learn in the first act that people enjoy living in abandon mansions, there’s a trade system, and Jake trades for his preferred goods (he trades a Ferrari for a sriracha supply). We also learn the Kaiju have telepathic powers, making them even more formidable. In terms of character arcs and narrative, Uprising is almost the same movie as Independence Day: Resurgence. I forgave the similarities because Uprising tries new things.

The movie takes risky moves with notable characters Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day). I won’t get into details, but I applauded the writers for once again taking the franchise into a new direction. Director Steven S. DeKnight might not be on Del Toro’s level in terms of flare and action sequences, but he still does a competent job with the Jaeger and Kaiju sequences.

I loved Pacific Rim, but it took itself too seriously. Uprising improves by acknowledging its own silliness. Boyega and Eastwood’s buddy cop banter, along with Day’s over-the-top performance add to the movie’s charm. I was reluctant going into the sequel, but I would be okay with a third, fourth, and even a fifth Pacific Rim.

Grade: B

“Red Sparrow”

After seeing Atomic Blonde, the Kingsman movies, and Daniel Craig’s 007 movies, the last movie I expected to see was a slow burn spy thriller that doesn’t glorify espionage. Red Sparrow is that revisionalist spy film!

Dominika’s (Jennifer Lawrence) ballet career ends after she breaks her leg on stage. In order to take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), she becomes a Russian spy called a ‘Sparrow’ – a master in seduction and manipulation. She then meets CIA operative Nash (Joel Edgerton) and falls for him, despite him being her new target. Will Dominika complete her mission or go rogue?

Red Sparrow has a lot of controversy surrounding it due to its sexual and physical violence. This is disturbing and bleak film, but I admired it. I normally hate movies that feature excessive sexual violence and torture; however, Red Sparrow kept me intrigued because it uses that content to debunk the spy genre. These spies don’t drink martinis and seduce the princess after stopping world domination! They’re traumatized and broken afterwards.

There’s no glorification in watching Nina seduce her would-be rapist classmate in front of their class. There definitely isn’t glorification in watching someone get skinned alive. Instead, Red Sparrow explores the uncompromising nature of being a spy. Dominika is trained to be soul less, so she has to seduce and torture. She doesn’t want to, but she needs to for her survival. Frances Lawrence’s (no relation to Jennifer) slow burn direction adds more tension to the violent scenes in Cronenberg-like fashion.

Jennifer is committed in her performance as Dominika and continues her streak of fearless performances. She at times plays a convincing survivor, but also has calculated moments. Is she playing both sides? Or looking out for herself? Her relationship with her incestuous uncle Ivan (a creepy Matthias Schoenaerts) adds more complexity to the film, not only exploring abuse, but gender politics and control. Ivan clearly has an infatuation for his niece, so it’s not surprising if he’s using his power to get closer to Ivanka. Ivanka’s cat-and-mouse game with Ivan takes some surprising turns that will discomfort and surprise viewers.

While Red Sparrow is gory, fascinating, and haunting, it’s also occasionally silly. There’s an extended sequence involving Dominika and a drunken US politician (Mary-Louise Parker) that derives from the film’s tone, briefly turning the film into a buddy comedy. Parker is a nice comedic relief, but it’s an additional twenty minutes that serves no purpose to the story.

Screenwriter Justin Haythe has come a long way from his previous film (the equally ambitious-though-awful A Cure for Wellness). Haythe has a point with his grisly content this time, but he can work on shortening his scripts. Still, Red Sparrow is a daring thriller that treads on both political commentary and exploitation film.

Grade: B

“Annihilation”

We’re only two months into 2018 and I’ve already seen two movies that will most likely be on my best of the year list. The first was last week’s exceptional Black Panther; the second is Alex Garland’s (Ex-Machina) latest sci-fi thriller, Annihilation.

Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is stunned when her missing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) arrives home ill. Shortly after, both taken to a military base outside a mysterious portal called “The Shimmer.” Lena then joins an expedition led by Doctor Ventriss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into The Shimmer to find answers; however, the laws of nature and physics don’t apply in The Shimmer.

Annihilation is a great example of a film with a mediocre trailer that throws you off guard. I expected a standard B-movie filled with more gore than ideas. There are a couple of gory moments reminiscent of The Thing and Alien, but Annihilation has lots to say. This is a provocative mindtrip.

We don’t get all the answers to what The Shimmer is or its purpose, but Garland trusts the audience enough to make their own interpretations. For me, The Shimmer feeds off of self-destruction. We learn Lena, Ventriss, and the other explorers’ back stories as they encounter mutant creatures and witness The Shimmer grow; none of these characters have an optimistic look on life.

Portman and Leigh both deliver grounded, complex performances as Lena and Ventriss. We see that they’re not only terrified by The Shimmer, but also mesmerized. Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok) is also terrific as Radek, a depressed physicist who has a spiritual view of The Shimmer.

Garland shows growth with AnnihilationEx-Machina was just as narratively intriguing and challenging, but Annihilation is far more ambitious and contains more attention-to-detail. Between composer duo Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s transition from a calm acoustic guitar to a menacing synthesizer and the simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish imagery, Garland creates a haunting world filled with beauty and terror.

Annihilation is one of the few sci-fi films of this decade that I’ll call an instant classic. It ranks with The Thing and Alien as one of the best sci-fi/body horror mashups of all time.

Grade: A+