Hereditary (2018)

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On the evidence of his first feature film, the unsettling don’t-try-this-at-home horrorfest Hereditary, writer/director Ari Aster has clearly studied the greats: Bergman (faith, betrayal, and insanity in equal measures), Scorsese (camera movement/in-camera trickery), Fessenden (bloody atmospherics), and the Coen Brothers (style with a capital S—a discombobulated pigeon smacking slap-dab into a classroom window, for example, mirrors Blood Simple’s newspaper delivery). Like many films by those masters, Hereditary is beautifully crafted. (OK, so Larry Fessenden’s not exactly in the same league as Ingmar, Marty, Joel, and Ethan but I thought of his creepy Wendigo more than once watching this.) And Aster’s film makes fascinating use of some sublime transitions, impactful imagery, and a solid cast hellbent on scaring the bejesus out of us, sometimes via the subtlest of touches (a nervous tic, for example, almost gave this veteran viewer a heart attack). The film’s strong supernatural undertones, which dabble in demonic possession, don’t fully manifest themselves until the confounding “King Paimon” denouement, thankfully, but by then the disturbing family dynamics have screwed their hooks in so deep that all but the most hardy won’t be looking directly at the screen anyway. The redoubtable Toni Collette plays the family matriarch Annie who, following the death of her overly-invested mother, struggles to band-aid her susceptible clan together. But she’s got her work cut out for her, as further unforeseen and horrific tragedies play out. Gabriel Byrne is nicely subdued as Annie’s husband Steve, and Alex Wolff (Peter) and Milly Shapiro (Charlie) play their besieged son and daughter—both youngsters are excellent in equally challenging roles. Hereditary is the full package though: a chilling and ominous score (by Colin Stetson), unnerving sound design, and some unexpected and outrageously-staged set pieces complement the on-point performances—this is a family we truly believe to be going through their very own private hell. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane summed things up rather nicely: “[Hereditary] has the nerve to suggest that the social unit is, by definition, self-menacing, and that the home is no longer a sanctuary but a crumbling fortress, under siege from within.” Like Aster, I’m not averse to studying the greats either.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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Who knew Danny Ocean had a klepto sister, one who just finished up a five-year stint in the county lock-up for art fraud? I sure didn’t. In a scene straight out of Raising Arizona (or Ocean’s Eleven I suppose), Debbie promises her parole officer she’ll go straight, take long walks on the beach, just breathe the air and pay her bills… something like that.
     “OK then.”
     Faster than you can scream “gender redo!” (like that Ghostbusters thing from two years ago), Gary Ross’s Ocean’s Eight has already shown us its cards. This is going to be pretty much the same film as 2001’s Ocean’s, right, only with Sandra Bullock as George Clooney, Cate Blanchett as Brad Pitt, and so on? Why they stopped at eight is anyone’s guess.
     Only this time our happy heisters aren’t going to rob three Las Vegas casinos no way no how. They’re going to snatch a $150 million necklace right off the long, lovely neck of Anne Hathaway (who plays a long, lovely actress named Daphne Kluger). Daphne’s slated to model the ice at NYC’s prestigious Met Gala—lots of Kardashians and overdressed Victoria’s Secret supermodels wander on through.
     Since this is now 2018, Debbie and her sassy septet can simply recreate Cartier’s Toussaint necklace as a zirconium knock-off using some high-end 3D printer they probably got on sale on Amazon. Now they just have to don some elaborate gowns, fake a few (more) foreign accents—the cast’s varying accents are all over the place to begin with in this one—and do the ultimate switcheroo. No impenetrable vaults to penetrate, no criss-cross laser beams to negotiate. “They’ll bring it to us.”
     Ocean’s Eight doesn’t have nearly the panache of Steven Soderbergh’s original film, which fizzed along courtesy Ted Griffin’s zippy dialogue accompanied by David Holmes’s snappy score. It also doesn’t have George Clooney and Brad Pitt—never thought I’d say that—although Elliott Gould and that Chinese acrobat each have a cameo. On paper, Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett appear to be excellent stand-ins for Clooney and Pitt but they seem strangely disinterested for the most part. Blanchett is actually even poor; who knew she was capable of such a thing? The rest of the cast try hard to inject a little something into the proceedings—Rihanna is the tech, rapper Awkwafina the hands, Helena Bonham Carter the fashion designer (!?)—but it’s only a little. For its first two thirds, Ocean’s Eight is dull as dishwater dramatically, with things not picking up until the heist proper. Clearly writer Ross, who’s only directed a handful of films in twenty odd years—Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games—is no Soderbergh.
     It wasn’t a total waste of an evening. mind you—I got frozen custard with two toppings afterwards—but I’m telling you right now we don’t need an Ocean’s Nine and we certainly don’t need an Ocean’s Ten.
     There. I just saved Warner Bros. their own cool $150 million.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Who is Arthur Chu?

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After winning almost a third of a million dollars on “Jeopardy!”—and becoming the game show’s most vilified contestant in the process—former insurance compliance analyst Arthur Chu sought to leverage his notoriety to do some good in the world. As a wrong-righting crusader on social media, Chu spoke out against the things that mattered most to him: social injustice, misogyny, and the issues central to the Gamergate controversy—sexism vs. progressivism in the video game culture (his Daily Beast article “Your Princess is in Another Castle” went viral). As told by documentarians Yu Gu and Scott Drucker, Who is Arthur Chu? examines Chu’s rise to primetime infamy and subsequent resurrection as a media blogger cum minor talk circuit celebrity. And it does so with enough pizazz to keep it interesting for 90 insightful minutes. According to host Alex Trebek, Chu’s problem on “Jeopardy!” was a combination of arrogance, attitude, and a flagrant disrespect for the unwritten “rules” (jumping all over the board to uncover the lucrative Daily Doubles, for starters). These anti-social character traits resulted in a Twitter storm of racist hate speech and death threats aimed at the 34-year-old Asian American (Trebek didn’t much care for the 11-time winner either if his brief cameo in the film is anything to go by). Who is Arthur Chu? also focuses on the outspoken trivia expert’s upbringing by strict immigrant parents and marriage to fellow nerd/Swarthmore College graduate—and fibromyalgia sufferer—Eliza Blair (a far more sympathetic character than her Twitter-obsessed husband for sure; he can’t hold a 5-minute conversation with his wife without checking his feed). But for a fairly regular guy, Arthur Chu is a passionate and compelling subject who’s not afraid to speak his mind. And by the conclusion of this engaging and observant biopic we’ve gotten a pretty good answer to its titular question.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com