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A family gets its proverbial ass viciously kicked in Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster’s more-than-impressive feature debut. This is a horror movie that will bruise your brain, make your blood run cold, and stay in your system well after you’ve left the theater.

Annie (an incredible Toni Collette) has just lost her controlling, creepy mother. Annie has some control issues of her own, which sometimes manifests itself in her creation of miniature models—often depicting her home life with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, doing his best work in years), son Peter (an impressive Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who will break your heart). While every member of the family seems to be earnest and decent, they are also dysfunctional—with a capital “D.”

The loss of her mom, the pressure of an upcoming show of her miniatures, and the demands of parenthood have Annie on edge, to the point where she seeks counseling. At a support group for people mourning the recent loss of loved ones, Annie meets Joan (the remarkable Ann Dowd), a surprisingly cheery woman who has recently lost her son.

When tragedy strikes, Annie finds herself leaning on Joan a little more, to the point where she accepts teachings on how to do a séance and communicate with the recently departed. Annie does a couple of rituals at her house, and it all seems innocent enough—until creepy apparitions start appearing, and malevolent spirits start messing things up for Peter, who responds by hitting the bong.

The movie is a ghost story, a demon story and a witch story rolled into one, with elements of The Witch, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and, yes, The Sixth Sense. (That vibe owes a lot to the presence of Sixth Sense star Collette.) It’s also one of the more powerful depictions of a family falling apart in years, giving this excursion into horror an extra layer of depth.

The creeping dread factor starts early in Hereditary and never lets up. Aster proves to be a master of atmospheric scares, relying less upon jolts and gore, and more upon lingering shots in dark corners where you can sort of make out a ghost staring at you. Everything works up to a frightening puzzler of a finale that might have you initially asking, “WTF?” but eventually thinking, “Oh … that’s some messed-up shit right there.”

Collette is stunning as Annie, a seemingly decent person who reveals a lot of mommy issues as things unfold. Annie isn’t an openly bad person, but as the demons start to manifest, and her mother’s crimes boil to the surface, she becomes an epically bad mom. Collette mixes a quiet, withdrawn demeanor with moments of visceral, outward nastiness. Collette makes every step of this tormented mom’s unfortunate journey mesmerizing.

Wolff, building up a great career with solid turns in Patriots Day, My Friend Dahmer and Jumanji: Welcome to Jungle, gives an incredibly raw, emotionally jarring performance as the son who doubts his mom and craves stability. The destruction of his home life coincides with his transition to manhood, and puberty supremely sucks for this guy. Wolff has moments in this movie when he seems so realistically disturbed that the movie feels like a documentary.

With Hereditary, Aster gives the horror genre the kind of film that will be around for years. It has some images (Does anything suck more than a smiling ghost?) that will haunt your dreams. It also has an enveloping darkness that will leave you perhaps a bit unsettled and on edge.

Hereditary is as unpleasant as they come—and as a horror-movie fan, I say amen to that.

Hereditary is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Based on a bizarre graphic novel by Derf Backderf (a former Independent contributor via his late, lamented syndicated comic strip The City), one of serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual classmates, My Friend Dahmer is not what you might be expecting.

Director Marc Meyers, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us a young, pre-murders Dahmer (Ross Lynch), an awkward high school student with an unfortunate chemistry obsession. Dahmer’s propensity toward spazzing out for attention gets him a little fan club, and a group of kids befriend him in an odd sort of way. While Dahmer makes it into their small ring of friends, nobody ever gets too close to him.

Meyers uses real history (Dahmer’s obsession with a local jogger, his torture of animals) to try to explore some of the messed-up factors that led Dahmer to his horrifying killing spree. The events lead up to the moment when Dahmer picks up an ill-fated hitchhiker—the first of his many victims.

Lynch makes Dahmer a real character rather than caricature; he’s a fatally flawed young man on a seemingly irreversible path of disgusting destruction. Alex Wolff is excellent as Backderf, a casual friend of Dahmer whose sketches would eventually lead to this unsettling, expertly crafted movie.

My Friend Dahmer is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The new collaboration between director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg, Patriots Day, is not only a valuable tribute to the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombings; it’s a solid, meaningful, gritty look at what it took to take down the terrorist Tsarnaev brothers.

Wahlberg plays Sgt. Tommy Saunders, one of those fictional composite characters that often show up in historical dramas. You will forgive the two Bergs for this kind of artistic license, because the goal of Patriots Day is to take you through the entire drama, from the bombing itself, through the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) inside a boat in somebody’s backyard. There wasn’t a single person who was at all of the events leading up to the ultimate capture of the final living suspect in the bombings, so it’s best to just view the Wahlberg character as a representation of the heroism and diligence that led to that arrest.

The film begins with Saunders bitching about being on street-security detail for the Boston Marathon, as he serves out a probationary period on the Boston police force. He shows up in the “clown suit,” takes some ribbing from fellow cops and detectives, and generally sports a good attitude, doing the gig with an admirable level of conviction. The marathon itself gets his spirits up a bit—and then, as runners are crossing the finish line, the bombs go off.

The film doesn’t shy away from the carnage caused by those bombs—and it shouldn’t. It earns its R rating. The movie dives into the bombing aftermath, then straight into the investigation and tense standoffs that occurred in rapid succession.

Wahlberg has done some of his best work in Berg films (Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor), and this film represents the apex of their collaborations. True, the character he’s playing isn’t totally real, but it’s an honorable deviation.

Wolff is on target as the baseball-cap-wearing douche who doesn’t know how to say no to his brother. There’s nothing sympathetic about the portrayal of this certain brand of evil in this movie. He’s a cold-hearted, ignorant villain, and Wolff captures that essence. As Dzhokhar’s older brother and bombing mastermind, Tamerlan, Themo Melikidze delivers a chilling depiction of radicalism and psychotic egotism.

Michelle Monaghan is effective as Saunders’ wife, as are John Goodman as police Commissioner Ed Davis and Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers. J.K. Simmons is hard-edged and a little bit funny as Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, who took part in the showdown that claimed the life of Tamerlan. Jimmy O. Yang is memorable as the man the brothers carjacked.

This is definitely one of 2016’s better ensemble casts. (While the film is getting a wide release now, it got a limited release last year to qualify for awards.) Berg, like Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Loving), had two good movies in 2016, with this and Deepwater Horizon. He’s no stranger to historical drama. Ever since Berg nearly derailed his promising directorial career with the abysmal Battleship, all of his big-screen films have been historical dramas: Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and now Patriots Day, all Wahlberg collaborations, are based on real life events. Much to Berg’s credit, all of those events are represented with great detail, emotional honesty and integrity. They are also very entertaining. Right now, he’s kicking Steven Spielberg’s ass in the historical-drama department.

The film is about heroes—the heroes who worked to find the perpetrators, and the selfless, persevering heroes who were standing close to explosive devices when they went off. You’ll walk away from this movie thinking that Berg, Wahlberg and co. did all of these good people justice with Patriots Day. Most importantly, it’s a moving tribute to those who lost their lives.

Some might say “too soon” for the existence of a film such as this one. I say it’s never too soon to honor the good people of Boston and their ability to recover from such a horrific day.

Patriots Day opens Friday, Jan. 13, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews