MOM AND DAD (2017)

Movie Review by LL Soares

It’s not always easy being a Nicolas Cage fan. The man has made a lot of movies, and while his early career showed so much promise, with memorable roles in such films as WILD AT HEART (1990), KISS OF DEATH (1995), LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1996), and the Coen Brothers’ RAISING ARIZONA (1987), his output since has been a mutli-colored quilt of varying quality. That said, I will watch this man in just about anything. Some of his worst films are actually some of his most entertaining, because, frankly, you don’t go to a Nic Cage movie to be dazzled by acting perfection. Whether at his most serious (and best) or most manic (and just plain bonkers) Cage just rivets your eyes to the screen, and keeps them there. There aren’t many actors like that. And don’t forget, since 2000 he’s still been in some good ones, including ADAPTATION (2002), BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009), KICK-ASS (2010), and DRIVE ANGRY (2011).

Lately, for some reason, the quality of the movies he’s been starring in has gone up. Sure, there was a decade or more where they all seemed to be dogs of different types, and he was clearly in it just for the money (the rumor being he had humungous debts to pay off). But now, he’s getting better scripts. It might have to do with the fact that, while he seems willing to be in just about anything, more talented people are gravitating toward him.

I am really looking forward to two recent films of his to get buzz at film festivals, MANDY and LOOKING GLASS (both 2018), but until they’re available to the rest of us, I thought I’d check out Brian Taylor’s horror/comedy MOM AND DAD (2017).

Taylor, by the way, wrote and directed the wackadoodle CRANK (2006) and CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE (2009), as well as writing and directing several episodes of the equally demented TV series HAPPY! (2017 – Present). So, right away, you know you’re in for a thrill-ride. This guy’s good.

In MOM AND DAD, Cage plays dad Brent Ryan, a dude going through a mid-life crisis. He’s married to stay-at-home wife, Kendall (Selma Blair), who spends her days going to yoga classes and gossiping with her friends. They have two kids, high schooler Carly (Anne Winters, also in the TV series 13 REASONS WHY, 2018, and ZAC AND MIA, 2017 -2018) and the younger Josh (Zackary Arthur).

The action starts early on, when a bunch of angry parents attack the school where their kids are learning. Turning on the news, you’ll see that there’s some kind of crazy behavior going viral, where parents have the uncontrollable urge to kill their children. We don’t fully know why this is happening, but it’s suspected that it’s some kind of chemical agent leaked into the air by evil-doers of some kind.

As the parents start to riot outside, rushing the gates intent on murder, the kids flee.

Carly flees with her BFF Riley (Olivia Crocicchia) until they eventually meet up with Riley’s mom, then Carly finds her boyfriend, Damon (Robert T. Cunningham). The two, figuring out what’s going on, decide to go back to Carly’s house and get Josh, before their parents come home. When they get there, they find out that the family’s maid has already done something awful to the daughter she often brought to work with her.

Of course, before the kids can get Josh out of the house, Mom and Dad come home early. Dad Brent already seems a little off before all this begins; he’s got major anger issues. In flashbacks, the kids (especially Josh) remember incidents where dear old dad would be smiling and friendly one minute, then a serious and angry the next. But there’s no hint of abuse. The abuse is reserved for inanimate objects, like a pool table that Brent gets for the cellar, puts together from a package, and then smashes to bits with a sledgehammer when Kendall starts berating him for spending the money. He’s also fixated on a vintage Thunderbird that he’s had since he was a kid. The car plays a more prominent role later.

Kendall is going through a rough patch herself, with a teenage daughter who mostly won’t talk to her, and an existence she finds unfulfilling, Mom is just as dissatisfied with her lot in life. So here we have two people who feel a bit lost, who suddenly have a shared, and focused sense of purpose. Even if that purpose is the slaughter of their children.

Carly, Josh and Damon (who Dad doesn’t approve of, it’s implied, because he’s black), try to stay alive as our titular psychotic parents try to do whatever it takes to kill their offspring, including running a hose into the cellar where they’re hiding and pumping gas down there (later of course, someone lights a match, and I thought the whole house would blow up, but just one spot does. I’m not sure how believable that is).

This is the kind of role Nic Cage could do in his sleep, and there’s enough very dark humor to make the characters a joy to watch. Selma Blair is very good, too, as Mom.

Later on, when Brent’s senior citizen parents show up (played by Lance Henriksen and Marilyn Dodds Frank), we find out that this virus has no age limit, and that old people running around trying to kill their grown son gives us more chances for gallows humor. You gotta love a movie where both Nicolas Cage and Lance Henriksen go on murderous rampages!

I enjoyed the hell out of this one. My only complaint is that is seemed too short. When the ending came it was unexpected (the movie’s over already!?!). But, while we’re on the ride, it’s a lot of fun in a violent, psychotic kind of way.

I give this one ~ three knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

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HEREDITARY (2018)

Movie Review by LL Soares

I’m always thrilled to hear that a movie is going to be scary. As a long-time horror fan, I know that truly scary movies don’t come around very often. A movie hasn’t genuinely scared me since I was a kid, but I’d relish the chance to experience that feeling again. So when HEREDITARY came off a very buzz-worthy screening at the Sundance Film Festival, and went on to get headlines like: “Welcome to the Scariest Movie of 2018” (Rolling Stone), “HEREDITARY is the most traumatically terrifying movie in ages” (AV Club), “HEREDITARY’ hype is real: It’s insanely scary and tough to shake off) (USA Today), and “HEREDITARY is going to scare the bejesus out of everyone” (The Boston Globe), I was no doubt excited about seeing it. Finally, a movie that had genuine scares! And what a cast, featuring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd.

Which brings me to my issue with the movie. I sat there, waiting for the big visceral scare that everyone keeps alluding to. And waiting. And waiting. And it never came. There’s a scene where something heartbreaking happens to one of the main characters, but it’s not scary, just tragic. And I kept waiting for the big ending—thinking that was where the scares had to come—and found myself…underwhelmed.

So, let’s get something out of the way right away. HEREDITARY is not the scariest movie in years.

Which is not to say it isn’t a great movie. It’s just not as damn scary as everyone wants us to believe it is.

Aside from those headlines I quote above, I went into this one as blind as I could. I didn’t want to know much about the story. I definitely didn’t want to know what was so scary about it, or what to expect. I wanted to be surprised. Because nothing emphasizes the joy of a real scare as much as it being a surprise scare. And I’m glad I avoided any real details about the film. It made it that much enjoyable.

Annie (Toni Collette) and her family are getting ready for a funeral. Annie’s mother has died. It sounds like she had a long, drawn-out death and after years of not speaking to each other, Annie took her mother into her house for the last years. Despite this, Annie wasn’t very close to her mother, who was clearly a difficult person to live with, which complicates the grieving process. How do you process the grief you feel for someone you loved but didn’t necessarily like? When they get home, Annie even asks her psychologist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) “Should I be sadder?” I thought this was an original and affecting way to start the movie off.

It’s also interesting what Annie does for a living, creating tiny dioramas—dollhouse-level furniture, people and scenes—that are incredibly detailed. This is a unique profession for someone in a horror film (or any kind of film), and provides a literal microcosm of the bigger world. Especially when traumatic incidents occur and Annie creates tiny versions of them in order to cope.

Like most families, the one at the heart of HEREDITARY is dysfunctional, with a lot of resentments and guilt simmering just below the surface. If the death of Annie’s mother doesn’t make it all bubble over—because she wasn’t a very nice person, presumably—a second death occurs that is much closer to home, and much more tragic. This second incident, in fact, threatens to destroy the family with grief. And the trauma it causes seems to multiply as the movie goes on.

It’s then that this atmospheric, emotionally-draining film gets to its more horrific elements. Unfortunately, we’ve seen most of these elements before, and a strange, unique film begins to seem more familiar.

I won’t go into too much detail, but there are some bits and pieces reminiscent of classic films like ROSEMARY’S BABY (1967) and THE OMEN (1976) here, as well more recent (and lesser) films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), and OUIJA (2014), as denizens of the afterlife seem to invade the real world. The fact that these elements aren’t necessarily new (including the much-vaunted ending), means the movie utlimately feels an old car with a fresh coat of vivid paint.

But, despite some familiar tropes, there’s a lot to love about HEREDITARY. To begin with, the acting is superlative. Toni Collette—don’t forget, she was also the mom in the classic THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999, as well as being in television series UNITED STATES OF TARA, 2009 – 2011, and movies like FRIGHT NIGHT, 2011, HITCHCOCK, 2012, and KRAMPUS, 2015—a totally underrated actress, is terrific as Annie, the heart of this film. While not always about her point of view, HEREDITARY is mostly her story, as she comes to grips with grief in many forms, and possible mental illness. Which takes us through the well-trodden “is it real, or is it happening in an unbalanced mind” theme, and yet, the movie doesn’t belabor this. You eventually realize that yes, Annie is unstable, but she’s also dealing with very real dangers.

Gabriel Byrne is the “normal” one in the family, the rational, compassionate adult who tries to steer his family through these emotional storms, but because he’s so normal, he’s not very affective when things get really weird.

Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are pretty damn great as their kids, Peter and Charlie. Charlie is a clearly odd 13-year-old who mostly keeps to herself and channels her alienation through creativity. She draws a lot and creates strange dolls out of unusual household items. When she snips the head off a dead bird for one of her dolls, it all seems especially creepy, and yet she’s a sympathetic character. Wolff’s Peter is a troubled adolescent who has clearly gone through a lot, and while he doesn’t stand out at first among the family members, he is the one who is fated to endure a lot of the most awful stuff the movie has to hurl at them. His performance is often understated, but powerful. After the harrowing incident that occurs half-way through, Peter goes into a pit of shock, becoming powerless in his fear and grief, that is both surprising and utterly believable.

Ann Dowd—so ubiquitous these days, appearing in everything from Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE to such other above-average TV shows as TNT’s GOOD BEHAVIOR and HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS—also shows up as Joan, who meets Annie at a grief-counseling support group, but slowly reveals she’s more intimately involved in all this than we thought.

Ari Aster, who wrote and directed the film, does an amazing job with his feature debut here, after making several short films, including THE STRANGE THING ABOUT THE JOHNSONS (2011), that got a big response online. HEREDITARY is a terrific start, and Aster is a filmmaker to watch.

I also enjoyed the cinematography by Pawel Pogotzelski. And the music by Colin Stetson at first felt a little overstated and intentionally sinister to me, to the point of being intrusive, but eventually it faded into the background and seemed quite effective.

My early statement that I didn’t find the movie scary is not in any way meant to diminish that it’s an exceptional film that’s worth your time. My point is simply that it is being hyped in a way that I found disingenuous. It’s not the scariest film in ages, but it does have unsettling moments, and a visceral tragedy inside it.

It’s still a great little film. Just don’t expect to lose much sleep over it.

I give HEREDITARY a rating of three and a half knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares