Archive for June, 2018

Hereditary

Posted: June 17, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne.

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Just one big happy family.

At the funeral of her mother Ellen, Annie Graham (Collette) gives a eulogy detailing the difficult relationship she had with her mother due to Ellen’s secretive ways. She also mentions the loss of her father when she was a baby, and the fact that her brother committed suicide.

In the aftermath of the funeral, and unbeknownst to her husband Peter (Byrne), Annie visits a grief support group. She’s an artist specialising in miniature dioramas and an upcoming show has put her under added pressure, this stress isn’t helped by her uncommunicative daughter Charlie (Shapiro) and her slacker son Peter (Wolff).

As time passes and bizarre events begin to occur to the family, Annie becomes more and more convinced that the family is in some way cursed, and that a supernatural presence is stalking them, but are her fears genuine or is it a symptom of the mental illness that runs through the family?

 

Hereditary arrives on a wave of “Horror movie of the year/decade/century” level hype and expectation, and that’s always difficult to manage, but if you can get past the hysteria what lies behind it is an exceptionally well-crafted horror movie, albeit one that at times might be too well-crafted for its own good, but I’ll come onto that.

The first thing to say is that if your notion of a horror film is something like Insidious, a funfair ghost train of a film with a jump scare every five minutes, then Hereditary might disappoint. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have frights, but this is a slow burn of a film that prioritises atmosphere over action for most of its running time, and what an atmosphere! In tune with films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, or more recently films like The Blair Witch Project and Get Out, Hereditary is a film that aims to unsettle. There’s a palpable sense of dread that hangs over the film like a mouldy sheet. Even before much in the way of the supernatural occurs this world feels off kilter, from the odd way Charlie acts, to Annie’s work creating miniaturist art (and kudos to the design team because these miniature sets are wonderful) that is at once intriguing but also disquieting.

Once bad things start happening it’s a downward spiral for the family, but you have to give Aster credit, because he doesn’t let the story follow the path you imagine, in fact there’s one moment early on that left me awestruck at its audacity. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a certain level of predictability at work here, but there has to be, the best twists are ones that arise out of logical actions, and the film is littered with little clues which will likely make a repeat viewing even more interesting.

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The cast are excellent. Few actors can do frazzled and on the edge of nervous breakdown as well as Collette, and this is her film. Annie is a character seemingly out of step with the world even before the supernatural intrudes on her life. You get the feeling she’s hovered on the edge of a breakdown for a while, yet Collette never quite lets the character tip over the edge. Byrne has less to get his teeth into, because he’s tasked with being the grounded member of the family, but he does it well and between them they convince as a couple who clearly love one another, yet are somehow distant strangers.

1238244As Peter, Wolff does a great job essaying a young man who goes from someone whose only concerns are weed and girls, to someone who has to deal with incredible tragedy and then the fact that his family may be being haunted by an evil force, and much as with Collette you really fear for him. Then there’s newcomer Shapiro as Charlie and what a performance. Charlie is, to put it mildly, an odd bird, but despite her inexperience Shapiro never overdoes things. She’s an unsettling presence in every scene, the sort of loner you imagine would be bullied, yet somehow isn’t because everyone is, if not afraid of her, then unnerved by her.

Rounding out the small cast is Ann Dowd (yes Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale!) as another member of the grief support group.

Aster directs his own script, and whilst he has written and directed short films before, this is his feature debut and he does an excellent job, knowing when to close in on the family to emphasise the claustrophobia, but also willing to pull back to emphasise the isolation of the characters. He makes full use of the camera, from skewed angles to making wonderful use of shadow and reflection to highlight some very eerie moments, and he makes great use of the landscape, both the geographic and the more personal landscapes, focusing on every anguished line on Collette’s face as if her visage were itself were the surface of the moon. As with the best horror sometimes the worst parts of the film are the bits you don’t see, and Aster judiciously cuts away from several gorier elements that a lesser director would have focused on. Not that Hereditary isn’t gory, Aster just knows when to show and when to tell.

The one downside is that, with the tension wound so tight, and with the film walking such a razor’s edge between ludicrous and terrifying, occasionally the more melodramatic moments can teeter on the side of funny rather than frightening. For me it never quite fell into that trap, but I can see with the wrong kind of audience there may be more laughs than screams.

Assuredly directed, wonderful acted, this is an unsettling, yet utterly mesmerising film that will likely only get better with repeat viewings.

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Embers of War

Posted: June 11, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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30748899By Gareth L Powell

It’s the future, and a devastating conflict known as the Archipelago War is bought to a shuddering conclusion by a heinous war crime that devastates large swathes of a planet. One of the perpetrators of this attack, albeit under orders, is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. In the aftermath of the conflict Trouble Dog develops a conscience and resigns her commission, signing on with the noble, if underfunded, House of Reclamation, an organisation whose purpose is to provide aid and rescue to those in distress. The ship has a minimal crew and is captained by Sal Konstanz who was on the opposite side during the war.

After a tragedy, Sal imagines she might lose her captaincy, but when a pleasure liner is attacked in a mysterious solar system known as the gallery—where an alien intelligence carved planets into giant sculptures—the Trouble Dog is the only ship that can speed to its rescue in time.

Meanwhile, on a distant jungle world Ashton Childe, a burned-out spy, is given new orders. He’s to also make his way to the Gallery, and he’s to rescue one particular passenger from the downed liner, the renowned poet Ona Sudak.

Sudak isn’t quite who she appears to be however, and the Trouble Dog is heading towards more danger than she realises, which given this particular dog has had most of her fangs removed, could mean trouble!

There’s some ship to ship combat towards the end of this book that’s almost worth the cover price alone. It’s like the very best Star Trek battle transferred onto the page. Beyond this there’s a lot else to enjoy here, though this isn’t a perfect book by any means.

Powell’s world building feels a little sparse at times, but on the whole he does a good job of imagining a conceivable universe. I’m sure people might say it feels a bit derivative, but while sentient starships are nothing new, I liked the idea of a ship with a conscience, a ship that regrets what she was ordered to do and wants to make amends, and I loved the fact that, despite her noble aspirations, this is a ship that still enjoys a good fight!

If I had a problem with the book then it’s the use of first person, or more specifically the use of first person to cover multiple points of view. This would be fine but, despite Powell’s obvious talent as a writer, too often it was hard to tell one voice apart from another, and if it wasn’t for the handy aide memoir that each chapter is named for the character, it would have taken a while to determine which character’s POV we were with at any given time, especially once most of the characters are on board (or are!) Trouble Dog. Ironically the one character whose chapters do feel different is the alien engineer Nod, though it’s chapters are kinda superfluous, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

Yes it’s a tad lightweight in tone, never quite managing to hit the epic sweep it clearly wants to, but it was a fun read, with an interesting central conceit, and Powell writes well, especially scenes of combat, and it’s certainly a way better sci-fi novel than the last one I read.

So long as you don’t go in expecting Banks or Reynolds this is an enjoyable book, I’m certainly on board for any sequels and I’d really like to see Trouble Dog get into a few more scraps!