Friday, June 8, 2018

'First Reformed' and scary 'Hereditary' look to slay summer competition

Despite the big-budget "Ocean's 8" sequel and heavily advertised "Hotel Artemis" (SEE RATINGS FOR BOTH AT LEFT) opening in northeast Ohio, it's a couple of small films from a distributor named A24 that could grab today's brass ring for critical acclaim.

Hawke and Seyfried bond in "First Reformed."
In fact, the most compelling of the bunch arrives courtesy of Paul Schrader, the "Taxi Driver" screenwriter who puts some of those familiar man-in-crisis themes to work in "First Reformed," a sparkling little ditty with an awards-caliber performance from Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays a decent man of the cloth, the minister/caretaker of a historically significant Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, where more tourists generally visit than members of the congregation.

Two of the latter include a devoted wife (Amanda Seyfried) and her ecology-activist husband (Phillip Ettinger), so worried about man's inhumanity to the environment that the missus asks Hawke's Rev. Toller to start counseling him.

Well, one eye-opening session together leads to plans for another, not to mention plenty of thought-provoking words Toller can put in the daily diary he's been writing, apparently just to keep his own wits about him. Certainly there's a breakdown of sorts, maybe a couple, and the relevancy of Schrader's own dialogue and words obviously feel apropos for the world outside our windows. Heck, there's even one lovely spiritually minded scene that takes us well into the universe.

Expect no spoilers here, though. Just a strong recommendation and a big thumbs up for Schrader still having so much to say after a recent string of cinematic misfires.

Rated "R": some disturbing violent images; 1:53; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Some have been losing their heads over the scares in "Hereditary," ever since it debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival, and now everyone can see what all the fuss is about.

Collette deals with some serious concerns in "Hereditary."
Truthfully, bits of story may have been borrowed from classics such as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Shining,"  and "The Omen," but it doesn't mean that first-time writer/director Ari Aster doesn't have a parcel of creepy-crawly tricks of his own to display. He also gets a marvelously harried performance from Toni Collette, as Annie Graham, a wife and mother of two awkward teens, as well as the daughter of an apparently strange old gal whose death notice pops up on screen to start the movie.

From there comes the wake and funeral offering some clues to where we're headed; Annie's own weird penchant for noting personal events in her brilliant work of making elaborate miniature houses; and the kids attending a "school party" from which there might be no return.

Ironically, it is Annie's own worry about the ever-bizarre behavior of her 13-year-old daughter (newcomer Milly Shapiro) that inspire Mom to insist that little sis tag along with major pothead brother Peter (Alex Wolff) to the latter event. Naturally, it's really a hash bash and, when his sister has a serious allergic reaction there, Peter has to rush back home before heads may roll.

Unfortunately, one actually does. But, that still leaves time for what could be the most frightening hour at the movies this year, complete with fire, some brimstone, seances (instigated by a character played by the always swell Ann Roth), and the Graham family Dad (Gabriel Byrne) finally getting the figurative stick removed from his butt in one hellacious ending.

Rated "R": horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity; 2:07; $ $ $ $ out of $5

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