Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

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Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

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Peter Morgan’s ironed out some of the flummery from Philippa Gregory’s Tudor bestseller, already adapted by the BBC a few years earlier. The Boleyns need money so dad Mark Rylance plots with his brother in law the Duke of Norfolk (the awful, honking David Morrissey) to whore his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to Henry VIII (Eric Bana), that great ugly philanderer whose wife just will not reproduce a healthy son. Trouble is, this rather one-note Henry gets a look at Anne’s sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and his feelings betray him so he decides to have her first – and she goes on to bear him a bastard son, just as the scheming Anne gets her claws into him. But when Anne continues to refuse Henry bedding rights he sodomises her and she needs Mary’s sympathy as she tries to rid him of his wife and gain the throne and when she does she will do anything to bear a healthy son … If this never reaches the powerful emotional heights it seems to be striving for, it’s a moderately gripping and quite streamlined interpretation of the power plays that went on in royal circles and proves what Diana, Princess of Wales discovered – life at court can be nasty, brutish and short. Divorced, beheaded …

The Black Book (1949)

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Also known as Reign of Terror, this is an incredibly exciting tale of the French Revolution. For those more familiar with his 50s Westerns and 60s epics, it may come as a surprise that this noir film, which is widely seen as an allegory for the HUAC blacklisting, is from director Anthony Mann. Not so much when you learn one of the writers is Philip Yordan, beefing up the original script by Aeneas Mackenzie and you realise this is no ordinary action flick. (Yordan spent the blacklist era outside the USA, churning out his own work and fronting for others for whom his home served as a refuge.) Stunningly shot by John Alton, Robert Cummings is a serviceable hero opposite villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) and Arlene Dahl was never lovelier as the seemingly duplicitous Madelon. Arnold Moss is terrifying as Fouche, the police enforcer. William Cameron Menzies constructed the sets from the leftovers of Joan of Arc (1948) and the tension in the hunt for the eponymous list of Robespierre’s enemies is palpable. Masterful filmmaking.