Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Hereditary,’ ‘Song of the Sea,’ ‘Bad Education’

This week, Mark York and Nitish Vaidyanathan review ‘Hereditary,’ ‘Song of the Sea’ and ‘Bad Education’

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Recommend movies for us to watch using this form, which is also embedded at the bottom of our article.

Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week on Wednesdays. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times! 

Note: Apologies for the delays in getting these up; we’ve been a little busy these past few weeks and have been procrastinating a little more than is healthy. We anticipate getting back to a regular schedule soon. 

(Photo: A24)

Hereditary” (Released in 2018; watched by us on July 13, 2020)

A horror film by Ari Aster. We watched it on Amazon Prime!

Mark:

Ok! I get it! Horror movies can, in fact, scare me… can I stop watching them now? Please there were SO many ants! 

Excuse my outburst, dear reader, but even despite the fascinating and diverse menagerie of flicks we have reviewed this quarantine, this movie stands out by sheer funkiness alone. I can say that with absolute confidence. Yet, I struggle a lot more in whether or not I could call “Hereditary” a good movie. 

This horror tale follows a family after the passing of their mysterious and reclusive grandmother. Said family consists of the grieving mother Annie, the father Steve (of whom zero adjectives come to mind, no matter how long I linger on the character), the rebellious teenage son Peter and the very very frightening daughter Charlie. Soon, another tragedy suddenly occurs, and the family finds themselves haunted by some dark supernatural presence — and a deep conspiracy. 

Even with full context, I find “Hereditary” a difficult movie to talk about… but considering this movie appears to be built around a massive twist half-way in the movie, which shakes up absolutely everything, I will have to add “spoiler-free review” to my many challenges today. 

Alright, reader, let us crack this nut (and get haunted by its vengeful spirit). If this movie excels in any one thing, it does quite well in being unsettling for both the eye and the ear. The composer, despite apparently being fed the simple instruction of making things sound “evil,” manages to create an eerie, chilling soundtrack — it makes this story feel utterly transcendent at points. I find this impressive, considering there is not really a whole lot you can do with horror soundtracks. I wish I could say I knew what Colin Stetson did differently from other horror composers, but he just did it. 

I cannot deny that director Ari Aster makes this nightmare come to life with tight, efficient filmmaking. There is not a lot of style, granted; one might not be able to tell “Hereditary” apart from other horror movies at first glance. Yet, somehow too, this just works. (I am proving myself to be quite useless today.) “Hereditary” thrives with pure movie-making skill. Each shot properly conveys what the audience needs to know (an easy trapping with scarier movies, or anything that prefers to dial their lighting down low), making things make sense on top of being disturbing. Aster’s dedication to practical effects is easily the right call here too. Not only does the team utilize some impressive production tips — for instance, getting a piece of chalk to move on its own by inserting a magnet into it and controlling another magnet underneath the table — but by making as many set features and supernatural effects in the flesh, it feels a whole lot more real. When there is fire, something is actually burning… and when there is a severed head, something is actually dripping. I believe that in a world of CGI, practical effects can go further than ever in bringing the audience in. The one time I can think of when the movie clearly uses computer graphics, which is the squirming of numerous insects, feels disturbing because of its artificiality compared to the rest of the movie… it kind of works too. 

The more I reflect on “Hereditary,” the more I grow to appreciate it. Ari Aster brings to life some impressive things, while utilizing tried and true filmmaking techniques that I hope will never go away. Yet, it is not a movie I care to revisit, nor did I have any strong feelings about. Once again, I think this is a bit of a problem with the film’s storytelling — and a dash of personal taste. 

Alright, maybe it’s more of a cup of personal taste. 

I am not a fan of this genre, and though I may have to eat my words from an earlier review that “horror movies just do not scare me” (I have eaten them so much I am getting a stomach ache just thinking about it). I personally do not find value in being spooked by a movie and letting that be my primary takeaway. If I am not going to have fun with a movie, I still crave something more narratively interesting than what I have found here. “Goodnight Mommy” makes use of ambiguity, sparking legitimate questions about the plot and properly reshifting the audience perspective. “The Lighthouse” stands out as a phenomenally surreal creation, forcing its helpless viewer into its very one-of-a-kind world with sheer force of writing, acting and directing. I cannot say “Hereditary” does any of that… all I can really say is that it is scary. 

I understand, of course, that not all movies have to do this. That is why I would recommend this movie rather easily to anyone who is into these kinds of dark, twisted movies. There is some excellent horror here, I think… I don’t know the genre all that well, so I will just wait for Nitish to say the complete opposite. But if scare-factor is not your thing, “Hereditary” won’t do much to convince you otherwise.  

Nitish:

Huh. So I liked “Hereditary,” and as is my wont when I like a movie and Mark doesn’t, I sat down fully prepared to write a column blasting Mark’s systematic failures as a movie critic. But while I’m a little warmer toward this movie than Mark is, I also share his criticisms about this movie as a genre film. “Hereditary” is a good horror movie, but I don’t think it’s quite good enough to break out of the genre in the way that others do. 

I’ll start off with the praise. Aster has a pretty good eye for shots. There’s a long take near the end of the movie where a character chases another (trying to keep it spoiler free, sorry) that is fantastic. But overall, I thought it was just alright. It has that vaguely bleak and dark color palette that is popular among directors trying to establish their indie bona fides. But Aster uses it well, accentuating it at times with bright purples and reds, using the contrast between shadows and an inspired reedy lighting to add to the tension. There are some great shocking visual moments of horror, and I found myself wincing at quite a few of them. But while it’s definitely far to the north of competent, it’s still short of something genuinely groundbreaking like one of Eggers’ films. 

The script is pretty good. Toni Collette is very good as Annie Graham, the matriarch of a family with a history of mental illness. Her process of dealing with the grief of losing her mother is the engine of the movie, and it’s very interesting. This is, for the most part, that intimate brand of psychological horror where friends and family start turning on each other. My favorite moments in “Hereditary” come from the anguished and tormented mother and son (Peter Graham, played well by Alex Wolff) doing exactly this. Wolff also really impressed me with one scene in a classroom (you’ll know it when you see it), and the psychological trauma that the story inflicted on his character was etched into his expression and his screams. It’s a quickly-paced slow burn (I swear that will make sense if you watch the movie), and the viewers are pretty much constantly unsettled. 

But then Aster starts to involve elements of the supernatural. I have to be honest; this didn’t work for me a whole lot. It was surprising and unsettling, but the emotional and psychological violence that Aster used was, in my opinion, enough. The added bit of uncertainty that he managed to inject in the movie, the ‘is this a hallucination induced by trauma or a demon from hell?’ bit that is now a common horror trope, actually seemed to undermine the emotional work that Aster had been working on. 

Mark and I reviewed another movie with a similar sort of interplay between psychological and physical horror in “Goodnight Mommy,” and there are similar twists in both movies. For me, good twists recontextualize the narrative arc in a way that changes the way we relate to significant themes or characters. In “Goodnight Mommy,” I thought the twist did this excellently, totally changing the way we thought of the mother-child dyad. But here, the difference between the perceived and the real didn’t mean as much to the viewer, or at least it didn’t mean as much to me. 

And although this is probably unfair, this is ultimately my problem with the movie. It is slickly produced and directed with several good performances and very high quality writing, but it didn’t go that next step to do something special. This isn’t Aster’s fault as much as it is his contemporaries. There is so much good horror out there that also manages to go beyond the genre. “Goodnight Mommy” was a fascinating movie about a family where the twist alone managed to make it an extraordinary achievement in storytelling. Jordan Peele’s movies “Us” and “Get Out” are rich parables about race. Robert Eggers’ movies ask fascinating questions about theology. Aster’s “Hereditary,” though it is very well executed, doesn’t manage to be more than a good horror film. 

For the horror fans that read this column, that might be enough. But I also have to confess that I’m not really a huge fan of horror. As you might have guessed from my “Dangal” review, I am a huge fan of action movies. And I will happily watch “Mission Impossible: Fallout” or “John Wick 2” three times in a row because I love watching the fight choreography and the stunt-work. But while both of those movies are very well done, they are essentially genre projects. They are not “The Dark Knight,” capable of standing on its own as a film beyond its action elements. So I imagine that horror fans will feel the same way watching “Hereditary” as I do when I’m watching Tom Cruise throw himself out of a plane for the third time (or at least the horror movie equivalent of raw adrenaline). That’s not enough for everyone. And that’s ok. 

(Photo: GKIDS)

“Song of the Sea” (Released in 2014; watched by us on July 15, 2020)

An animated fantasy film by Tomm Moore. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Let us rejoice, dear reader, let us be merry. Today is a good day. Today, we watched some animation.  

We have not watched an animated movie in a long while… not since Nitish shared his egregious opinions on “Secret of NIMH.” But, that tragedy has long passed, and I am very excited to talk to you about “Song of the Sea.”

This tale follows siblings Ben and Saoirse. Their mother died giving birth to Saoirse, which has left Ben resentful towards his mute little sister. Things are not helped when their grandmother arrives to take them away from their depressed father, and their home in the lighthouse, to live normal lives in the city. But, the siblings discover a tremendous secret — Saoirse is not a human but a kelpie (a shape-shifting water spirit from Celtic lore), and only she can prevent the goddess Macha from turning all fantastical creatures into feelingless stone. 

In hindsight, this premise seems surprisingly melancholy. But let me assure you, dear reader, that this movie is not all heartbreak and grief. Made by the same studio behind “Secret of Kells” — a movie I have been meaning to see — “Song of the Sea” feels thoroughly like a fairy tale… or, what a lot of us assume fairy tales to be (not like the Brothers Grimm fare). It takes the time to highlight the quirkiness of this world’s many characters, both fantastical and seemingly mundane. There is so much beauty to its many surroundings, helped in no doubt by its beautiful hand-drawn art (an increasingly rare attribute in a digitized world). This movie, too, ultimately emphasizes the value of familial love, and, yes Nitish, can be counted as a “feel-good” flick. It works great as a family film (apologies to those who wanted little Saoirse to pack a machine gun), but there is also so much to sink your teeth into as an adult.

For instance, “Song of the Sea” makes fascinating use of parallelism. Most of its fantasy characters appear to have a real-life counterpart. The Great Seanachaí is a wise but very unusual being who stores the tales of all fey creatures in the hairs of his enormous beard (as a lover of fantasy I love this stuff). But he also resembles the captain that takes the kids and their grandmother back to the city. While the captain acts as a catalyst for the children’s mundane journey, the Great Seanachaí similarly spurs Ben into his emotional and fantastical journey.

These allegories get deeper, of course — and be warned of spoilers for this specific paragraph. We initially assume the Owl Witch Macha to be the villain, in the same way the children assume their grandmother — her real-life counterpart — to be just a cruel, vindictive woman. But Macha actually acts very differently. The grandmother is snooty and rather abrasive, while Macha is warm and soft-spoken. Through Macha, we are able to make inferences about the grandmother’s true self — her warmer, more compassionate side that she is not in the habit of revealing so casually to the children. Through these allegories, the audience is also clued in to some inherent, and dark, tragedy relating to the grandmother. Macha is motivated solely to ease the suffering of her heartbroken son, who is made to resemble the children’s father. Additionally, Macha has grown a constant habit of erasing her emotions whenever she begins to feel a negative emotion, which parallels the grandmother’s habit of taking medication in times of great stress (I assume these are anxiety pills). This suggests to the more observant, adult audience that she is going through her own struggles with mental illness — or even that she might have an over-reliance on these pills. So much is conveyed through this one narrative technique, and it absolutely blew my mind… meanwhile, the child can happily watch on, amused by the owl witch’s quirks. It is such a clever use of fantasy! 

“Song of the Sea” masterfully conveys a lot with fewer materials, and this leads to simple — but powerful — emotional moments which I was not expecting to feel. There is one visual moment that stands out to me. Towards the end of the movie, through fantastical means, Ben is reunited with an apparition of his mother… this, in and of itself, is not too unexpected for movies like this; I’ve seen this trope many times. Yet, something about the way this scene was shot has lingered. Mother and child, head to head, say their goodbye — but as the son, a normal human, cries, his tears drip downward. The mother, a kelpie, now belonging to another world, also weeps, but her tears drip upward. So much is said through this one visual… and movies like this deserve so much more appreciation than what they’ve been getting! 

“Song of the Sea” is lovely. Each frame of this film looks like its own work of art. It is, at its very core, a family film, but I firmly believe nobody can ever outgrow a movie such as this. They can still convey the very same breadth of emotion and theming as even the most classic of art-house films. They just have to be more creative about it. 

Nitish:

I totally agree with Mark’s review of “Song of the Sea.” I think it’s a neatly-woven tale with tons of deep emotion and intelligent parallels. Its tale is neatly paired with a healthy heaping of Irish folklore, and I really did enjoy it — a former teacher of mine was Irish and treated us to lots of myths, and it was nice to hear about Mac Lir again. I think that the overwhelming majority of you will like this movie, and I have no problem with recommending it wholeheartedly. Moreover, I think it’s an objectively good movie. But I have a very, very small and insignificant ax to grind with this film. I didn’t like the art. 

I’ll get to that later though. First, I have to commend the director Tomm Moore on putting together an incredibly heartfelt story, cleverly mixing the emotional beats with bits from Irish folklore in order to accentuate them. This movie is surprisingly mature for its relatively childlike trappings. A key plot point is Ben’s feelings of resentment towards his younger sister Saoirse for causing the death of their mother during childbirth. Another is the relatively emotionless way that the childrens’ grandmother has to deal with their father following the death of his wife. These issues are handled remarkably well, with able contrasts drawn to well-selected myths, and they are handled with the sensitivity necessary for a children’s film. I was extremely impressed. And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t exceptionally close to shedding a tear when Saoirse (spoiler alert) speaks her first word. What you should take away from this review, chiefly, is that this is an incredible piece of filmmaking. 

You should also walk away from this thinking that I’m a dick because I wasn’t a huge fan of the art. I feel guilty writing that. Every frame is hand-drawn to make it feel like something out of a storybook. The colors are bright when they need to be bright, dull when they need to be dull. There’s a lot to commend here! There’s a lot here that I think other people will enjoy. 

But for me personally, I thought the art was a little flat, in that it lacked mass and dimension. The story is told in circles and squares rather than in spheres and cubes. This gave “Song of the Sea” the distinct impression that I was turning pages of a storybook, but I just prefer an artstyle with a little more form to it. It was definitely a conscious artistic choice, but it was one that I didn’t appreciate at the beginning of the movie. I should make two caveats: first, this is not most peoples’ reaction to this movie. “Song of the Sea” has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, a score it richly deserves. Second, by the end of the movie I was starting to understand some of the choices they made as the more fantastical elements of the plot were drawn in. But as much as I wanted to like the art-style, I couldn’t. 

If this was a traditional movie review, I would wax poetic about “Song of the Sea”’s integration of myth with a dense emotional narrative, because my thoughts about “Song of the Sea” from a critical standpoint are overwhelmingly positive. But I’ve always thought of this enterprise as a bit more of a blog (and you already got a great review of this movie), so I don’t feel as negligent as I would normally for spending the bulk of this review talking about my failure to appreciate this film as much as I should. 

Because ultimately, while I think this is a good movie and would recommend it, most of my thoughts during the movie were about a sort of internal struggle I was having about not liking a movie because it made a valid artistic choice that I personally didn’t like. With “Hereditary,” for example, I think that there were certain artistic failings in the way that the director set up emotional stakes for the movie. But for “Song of the Sea,” I can point to no such issues with the art itself, and instead just issues with my reaction to it. I’m almost inclined to say that my problem with “Song of the Sea” is my own closed-mindedness about the animation style. But as quaint and charming as the animation style was, I personally wasn’t a fan due to the way it seemed to rob the frames of depth. 

I feel really guilty when I think about art this way. There are a few other works that I feel similarly about. For example, the movie “Bourne Ultimatum” is a classic in action film, but I honestly can’t stand it because of its fast cuts. In the realm of comic books, Mikel Janin has gorgeous art, but I again personally don’t like it because it looks a little too video-gamey to me. It’s good art, art that’s so good that I feel I should appreciate it more than I do. But I can’t manage to give a simultaneously honest and fully positive review of these works, even though I know them to be good. 

So, dear reader, although I am the apex film critic, I have no choice to conclude that the fault is with me on this one. “Song of the Sea” is a wonderful film that you should definitely watch. I’m inclined to forgive myself for my errors, because there’s no necessity that I’m a fan of every aesthetic style. But I’m curious to hear what you think. 

(Photo: HBO Films)

Bad Education” (Released in 2019; watched by us on July 17, 2020)

A dark comedy film by Cory Finley and Mike Makowsky. We watched it on HBO Go!

Mark:

If there is one thing about this movie Nitish and I can agree on, it is that “Bad Education” has a very strong following — or, at the very least, a very strong follower.     

We have received numerous suggestions for “Bad Education” by one fella in particular, making this our most requested film by a significant margin. So this, dear reader, is the review for you — and yes, this time I am referring specifically to you. 

“Bad Education” follows a charismatic sociopath: Dr. Frank Tassone, who also happens to be the superintendent of Long Island’s Roslyn School District. By day, he is a charming and inspiring leader who has been crucial to bringing the local education system to new heights. But, by night, he has taken two million dollars away from the education fund… the largest public school embezzlement scheme in American history. As the story continues, high-schooler Rachel Bhargava begins to uncover this crime, and she fights to expose it on her school paper. This is also based on a true story. Uh oh! 

On paper, one wouldn’t think this movie could work — an exploration into the deep, dirty secrets of one’s local education board does not seem like a real tantalizing topic. It could be the whole “school” aspect of it all. I swear, a car crash would be far less interesting if it was close enough to the school district office. And at first, my doubts seemed to be realized. I personally thought the first 10 or 20 minutes of “Bad Education” were rather dull, and as the movie did not do enough to stand out amid its inherently dull setting, I ended up missing a lot of important details. 

Yet, once this story gets going, it does not simply pick up; it does more than that. We reach terminal velocity. I think the universe of “Bad Education” revolves around our narcissistic lead, Frank, who even in this film’s duller moments feels consistently larger than life. As the audience, we are given enough context clues to understand his philosophy, as warped as it might be… specifically, we get to know intimately his sense of entitlement and his desire to be looked up to. This informs his darker moments, such as him throwing his friend and embezzlement partner, Pam Gluckin, under the bus to save himself — as well as his seemingly humanizing scenes — such as his seemingly sincere relationship with Kyle Contreras, who was a former student under his school district and consistently sings his praises. Frank thrives in a work environment that he, seemingly over the course of years, has meticulously engineered to feed into his ego. Predictably, this iron grip Frank gets to enjoy in the beginning of the movie falls apart, and it is absolutely satisfying. 

Things get more intense as the movie carries on, peaking at an amazing montage towards the end as we watch everyone face the consequences of their numerous decisions. There is something so cathartic about seeing horrible people in action — especially when those very same dirtbags get what’s coming to them. Karma is the magic word here. Something so simple can transform even a dull school board into a royal dynasty on the verge of upheaval. In hindsight, this may be why I like Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Goodfellas” so much. 

While I must warn you, dear reader (this time I am referring to the general reader-base… I know at least one of you has seen this movie) that this ride has a slower start, do not get off so quickly. We just need a little bit of elevation in our roller-coaster, then it’s all downhill from here. 

Nitish:

Thanks to our very dedicated reader for putting this in our recommendations week after week — my mom doesn’t read this column that regularly, so Mark and I are very grateful. And apologies for the delay in getting back to you on this. 

Anyways, HBO has been the Mecca of quality film and television for the past several years. Except for the disaster that was the eighth season of “Game of Thrones,” the folks at HBO have been pumping out must-watches by the dozens. Their offerings range from the intensely timely (and oddly timeless) “Chernobyl” and “Watchmen” to the heady sci-fis like “The Leftovers” and “Westworld.” It’s pretty much all good. And “Bad Education” is no exception. Indeed, it seems to be quintessential HBO featuring a strong central performance from Hugh Jackman, a well-chosen and charismatic supporting cast, excellent production and direction and most interestingly of all, important social commentary. 

I’ll start with the main character: Frank Tassone, played by Hugh Jackman, who is firing on all cylinders. Tassone is the superintendent of one the nation’s best performing public school districts, depositing buckets of its Long Island teens in Ivies every March like clockwork. Tassone is portrayed as the architect of this remarkable success, but he has a lot that he’s working off of. He lives in an incredibly affluent area, and the neighboring counties are contestants for the vaunted spot atop the national magazine’s rankings. There’s a reciprocal relationship between the school and the local realtors: the higher the school climbs in the rankings, the higher property values rise, and the more money there is to buy the best teachers. Mark calls Tassone a sociopath, and I think that he’s far more sympathetic than that in this movie. He remembers the name of one of his students some 19 years later. He appears genuinely interested in promoting the success of his students, taking the time to help a young child with a helicopter mother with his pronunciation. His embezzlement, surely, is not so great. But I didn’t doubt his commitment to his students for one moment. Jackman does a great job giving Tassone an easy charm, and he just nails the emotional beats during the eventual crash of the movie. 

My favorite part of the movie has to be the way it serves as a broader jumping off point for discussions about education in America. Finley ably and subtly points out some of the inequities that warp education by pointing out the endemic issues with public schools at the top. The interplay between affluence, property prices and schooling should remind you of racist practices like redlining. As someone who grew up and attended a fairly affluent school district, I remember listening to gossip in the halls about how a bunch of parents of an upper-class suburb went to a school board meeting to protest a rezoning that would have diversified the socioeconomic class of a primary school. The cast is overwhelmingly white, and while in other movies I’d think this could be a problem, here it feels like an accurate portrayal of some of the socioeconomic dynamics that circulate in the richest counties in America. 

I think this an excellent movie, and one that raises a lot of interesting questions. I’m not oblivious to the fact that I’m writing this article in The Stanford Daily. Statistically speaking, a lot of the people who might be reading this article probably came from one of the communities (and accordingly one of the schools) portrayed in “Bad Education.” The titular ‘bad’ education isn’t really portrayed in the movie — the education that students receive in Roslyn is repeatedly described as fantastic. Instead, the bad education that Finley is showing is the inverse of the image we’re shown. I would highly recommend this movie. 

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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