Review: What’s scarier, supernatural forces or bad parenting?
Where would the horror genre be without eccentric, faraway little UK villages, governed by suspicion and cult rituals? In writer-director Ben Steiner’s “Matriarch,” a cocaine-addicted, anxiety-ridden middle-aged executive named Laura (Jemima Rooper) heads back to her hometown at the invitation of her mother Celia (Kate Dickie), with whom she’s always had a strained relationship. But back home, everything feels off: such as Celia’s persistent cheeriness, and the odd behavior of the neighbors who seemingly haven’t aged in decades, and the black goop that spontaneously oozes from various objects and orifices.
Steiner maybe takes on too much with “Matriarch,” which begins with a long look at Laura’s miserable urban professional life before finally reaching the spooky backwater where the action really starts. In the village too, there’s a lot going on, as Laura reconnects with old acquaintances and tries to figure out some of the lingering mysteries from her past — all while suffering from drug withdrawals and nightmarish hallucinations.
But like Ari Aster’s similarly slippery “Hereditary,” Steiner’s film shrewdly shifts back and forth between the real physical threat of dark supernatural forces and the more elusive harm done by a lifetime of bad parenting. Laura sometimes can’t tell whether her troubles are in her own head or whether she’s being manipulated by a mother with her own warped agenda. Steiner keeps both possibilities in play, while unsettling audiences with the grim goings-on in and around Laura’s old neighborhood, where people will smile to her face and foment dark conspiracies behind her back.
‘Matriarch.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 25 minutes. Available on Hulu
‘Raymond & Ray’
The title characters of writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s “Raymond & Ray” are half brothers: the meek middle-class bureaucrat Raymond (Ewan McGregor) and the cynical musician Ray (Ethan Hawke). They’ve been reunited by the death of their father, Ben, an unreliable womanizer who made his boys and their mothers miserable, though he was well-liked by seemingly everybody else. As a final way of messing with his son’s heads, Ben leaves behind one last request: that Raymond and Ray, together, dig his grave.
That central plot-driver may make “Raymond & Ray” sound more gimmicky than it actually is, or more like a dramedy. This movie is actually — for better or worse — more of a muted character piece, most of which consists of the brothers sitting around and talking about their pasts. Sometimes they’re sitting in a room. Sometimes they’re in a car, or at a cemetery. Sometimes they talk with each other. Sometimes they talk with women who knew and loved their dad, including his nurse, Kiera (Sophie Okonedo), and his most recent lover, Lucia (Maribel Verdú). There’s a lot of talking — and not much doing.
The cast of “Raymond & Ray” is outstanding; and there’s a strong idea at the film’s center, exploring the experience many people have of being profoundly and negatively influenced by a parent who is, ultimately, a stranger to them. But Garcia holds back too much, perhaps trying to avoid any phony epiphanies. As a result, his two main characters are too preoccupied with re-litigating old grudges to do or say anything notable.
‘Raymond & Ray.’ R, for language and some sexual material. 1 hour, 46 minutes. Available on Apple TV+
At its most basic level, “Slash/Back” is another low-budget alien invasion movie, about a group of girls who use their wits and homemade weapons to fend off creatures that can infect and inhabit humans and animals — just like the monsters in “Body Snatchers” and “The Thing.” What makes director Nyla Innuksuk’s debut feature feel fresh though is who these young ladies are, and where they live. Set in a small Inuit community on Baffin Island in Nunavut — during the summer, when the sun is always up — the film is as much about life in one of the most beautiful, remote parts of the world as it about killer ETs.
Innuksuk is working with a cast of newcomers of varying acting skill; but her story (co-written with Ryan Cavan) is simple and specific enough that these kids are allowed to bring a lot of themselves to their roles. “Slash/Back” hits its genre beats fairly well, with some nifty-looking beasties and crisp action sequences, set to a memorable ethno-tronica score by the Halluci Nation. But it’s the moments of more personal observation — about how the girls relate to each other, to their elders, and to a culture that’s a sometimes uneasy blend of Canadian and Indigenous — that gives this picture its spark of originality. There are lots of genre movies like this. None are this one.
‘Slash/Back.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 27 minutes. Available on VOD
The found-footage horror craze was just about played-out when the 2012 anthology film “V/H/S” arrived, offering a fresh approach to the genre by focusing on both the humor and the creepiness inherent in retro technology. Subsequent entries in the series have followed the original’s lead, with the latest “V/H/S/99” telling five stories set at the turn of the millennium, as media as a whole is about to change.
Typical of the anthology format, the five short films here mostly try to get by on a catchy concept and a few good scares. Still, the late ‘90s nostalgia should push a few Gen-X and Gen-Y buttons, with segments about anarchic alt-rock bands, sorority hazing gone awry, an impossible-to-win Nickelodeon-esque game show, teen boy pranksters trying to peep at a sexy neighbor, and a satanic ritual that leads to a literal hell.
Each segment runs too long; and none of them has the kind of killer ending an anthology film deserves. But they do all deliver what they promise: a 1999 look and vibe, with moments designed to make audiences squirm. And if viewers start to zone out early, they should fast-forward to the last short, “To Hell and Back,” which takes the best advantage of the lo-fi format, using crummy lighting and bad color to create a realistic vision of a demonic underworld, seen in terrifying flashes.
‘V/H/S/99.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 48 minutes. Available on Shudder
‘The School for Good and Evil’
The teen-targeted fantasy-romance “The School for Good and Evil” is an exhaustingly long, overstuffed movie that probably would’ve worked better as a TV series. Directed and co-written by Paul Feig — adapting Soman Chainani’s bestselling 2013 fantasy novel with co-writer David Magee — the film is set at a Hogwarts-like academic institution where potential fairy tale heroes and villains learn to wield their powers. Sofia Wylie and Sophia Anne Caruso play best friends who get assigned to opposite sides of the good/evil divide. Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron, Laurence Fishburne and Michelle Yeoh all work in broad strokes, playing authority figures so obsessed with enforcing the school’s longstanding rules that they risk letting real evil — not the storybook kind — loose upon the outside world. For two and a half hours, the movie crams in so many special effects-driven magical battles and tedious explanations for how fairy tales work that there’s no time for any levity. Simply put: this “School” is no fun.
‘The School for Good and Evil.’ PG-13, for violence and action, and some frightening images. 2 hours, 28 minutes. Available on Netflix
“Mama’s Boy” has been adapted by the veteran documentary filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau from a memoir by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk.” Through home movie footage and interviews, the film covers the writer’s relationship with his mother — a conservative Southern Mormon who eventually began to accept Black’s homosexuality — while suggesting that the key to bridging sociopolitical divides is to get to know the people on the other side. Available on HBO Max
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray
“E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” remains one of the most wondrous movies ever made: a thrilling, adorable, funny and heartbreaking science-fiction adventure, turning director Steven Spielberg’s own memories of childhood and divorce into pure entertainment. The new 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition includes more than four hours of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, doing justice to this Hollywood classic about a lonely suburban boy and his amazing alien pal. Universal
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