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Hereditary, Ocean’s 8 & a Mixed Bag of Indies in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Hereditary, Ocean’s 8 & a Mixed Bag of Indies in TheatersOcean's 8 still, via IMDb.
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What are you up for? Family dysfunction of the most sinister kind? A smooth and stylish con job? Taxi Driver for the modern age? Maybe a period romance or biopic? This week has all of that and more, some of it good, some of it less so. Let me walk you through it.

Hereditary

Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.

The Graham family is maybe less grief-stricken over the loss of Grandma than you might expect. Daughter Annie (Toni Collette) delivers a eulogy that admits her mother was difficult, secretive. Her oldest son Peter (Alex Wolff) seems nonplussed by it all. He’s probably stoned, though.

Supportive but exhausted husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is almost relieved, but the loss does bother the Graham’s socially isolated younger daughter, Charlie (Millie Shapiro, in one of the more chilling performances this year).

With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.

Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.

Applause to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski for turning this intricately designed home into a foreboding character all its own. Like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Haunting, The Others and any number of brilliant genre hauntings, Hereditary uses its surroundings to create a space where the most mundane moments take on a diabolical chill.

You will have been quietly unnerved, startled from your seat, and then unsettled by the time the supernatural elements overtake the story. The peppering of hardline genre tropes in act three may feel like a cop out, but Aster’s interplay with the differing family members is too careful for such an easy summation.

The web of mental states, understandable suspicions and direct bloodlines layer the brutally effective fable, and Aster wields these weapons with stealthy precision. His work here is so smartly embedded that Hereditary continually tempts potential non-believers to dismiss where it leads as something you’ve seen before.

Don’t. You haven’t.

Grade: A-

Ocean’s 8

More than 15 years ago, Steven Soderbergh recast the Rat Pack, pointing out a set of Hollywood A-listers led by George Clooney who were as stylish and cool as Sinatra and the fellas.

This time it’s Danny Ocean’s sister Deb (Sandra Bullock) with a job to pull.

The music bumpers, throwback scene segues and comfortable pacing set the cool vibe, and Ocean’s 8 is cheeky enough in its outright impersonation of the previous installments to shrug off feeling derivative. Instead, it comes off as second class, which may be more disappointing.

Though director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) can crib the style—his cast (including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and a spunky Awkwafina) can’t generate the same chemistry. No one does a bad job — far from it — but Ocean’s 8 lacks the overlapping dialogue and easy rapport of earlier efforts. They have the talent, they just don’t have the material.

The best of the Ocean’s films rely on sharp characterizations and sharper sleight of hand. You believe you’re watching the con unfold only to find that …whaat?….the real heist was somewhere you weren’t looking. It is you who’s been conned.

While 8 follows that formula, it succeeds only to a degree, its script simply not crisp enough to charm you into buying all in. The con itself is not believably intricate, and Ross, who co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch, cops out in act three with heavy exposition.

But hey, heist movies are fun, and movies with this much star power are fun. Ergo, Ocean’s 8 is a fun time at the movies.

Glitzy, forgettable fun.

Grade: B-

First Reformed

Writer/director Paul Schrader delivers a nearly flawless meditation on faith and despair with First Reformed.

Schrader’s film centers around Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), overseer of the small church, First Reformed. His quiet life changes drastically when he’s approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who seeks counsel for her despondent husband. Toller agrees to meet with him. It’s a decision that will open the door to the question: Will God forgive us?

In what is possibly his best performance, Hawke perfectly portrays the inner turmoil and anguish that seizes Reverend Toller. It’s a slow slide from a pleasant façade to destructive rage, and Hawke perfectly captures every emotion, every nuance of Toller’s internal crisis and its external manifestations.

Schrader’s commentary on the state of the world is bleak, and there’s not much hope to be found in First Reformed. However, it can be seen in simple moments Toller spends with Mary. It provides a few moments of balance, and light, as Toller questions the right way forward.

Schrader’s film is a masterful character study that asks thoughtful questions about how our choices will be viewed in the eyes of God.

Grade: A-

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach reunites Saoirse Ronan with novelist Ian McEwan, whose Atonement garnered Ronan her first Oscar nomination back at the tender age of 13.

Adapting his own novella this time around, McEwan deliberates on the romantic struggle of two young lovers, Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle, who also co-stars with Ronan in an upcoming adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull).

They are also identifiably at an age where a person may see this very moment in time as the only moment, the only way it will ever be, the only way they will ever feel. This terrifying, ignorant, innocent moment is something Howle, Ronan, McEwan and director Dominic Cooke capture effectively.

Elsewhere, they falter.

Though Ronan’s performance perfectly captures both Florence’s love and her reticence, Howle struggles to convince as an impetuous, even volatile young lover. He seems nervous and sweet, and every sudden outburst feels out of place.

Director Dominic Cooke, known primarily for stage work, has trouble creating a welcoming atmosphere. Cooke keeps you at arm’s length from the lovers, less likely to empathize with them than to judge.

On Chesil Beach is a pretty film and a nice story, but never finds the depth to break your heart.

Grade: B-

Mary Shelley

Not long after scandalizing society by running off with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin accepted a bet during an infamous summer with her husband and their lover Lord Byron. She penned Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. She was 18 years old.

Such a life story would seem like fertile ground for a stirring biopic.

We’ll have to settle for Haiffa Al-Monsour’s stiff and middling effort, Mary Shelley.

Elle Fanning portrays Mary, a melancholy rebel who has yet to find her literary inspiration or her voice. She does become muse to Shelley (Douglas Booth), a handsome scoundrel more opportunistic than idealistic.

The film hopes to encapsulate the abandonment, longing and loneliness that fueled the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel, and more directly, her creature. But there is no life in these scenes—none of the gumption that must have fueled Mary’s early decisions.

Fanning’s listless performance casts an awfully prim shadow. She’s surrounded by perfectly reasonable if somewhat anemic turns by her supporting cast. All this subdued hush only makes Tom Sturridge’s bluster that much more, easily stealing scenes as the lothario, Byron.

Al-Monsour seems unsure of her intent. She struggles to illustrate the power struggle between male and female inside this free-loving environment. But more than anything, she fails to find any kind of spark or passion to propel her central character or her film.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
Hotel Artemis (R)
Kaala (NR)
Paris Prestige with Directors (NR)
Sollers Point (R)
Veere Di Wedding (NR)

Reviews with help from George Wolf and Rachel Willis.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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