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Hereditary (2018)

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The Grahams know no peace. After Annie's mother dies, she fills the vacuum of conflict and emotional pain by sniping at her husband Steve, son Peter, and daughter Charlie.  As Annie's wounds fester in the handcrafted details of her miniature art she begins the cycle of trauma once more for the next generation.  Ari Aster wrote the screenplay for and directs Hereditary, which stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd.

Toni Collette, and - to a lesser extent - Gabriel Byrne, sensed a tremendous horror film inside Hereditary.  Both function as stars and Executive Producers working in front of and behind the camera of writer / director Ari Aster's debut film.  That's a mighty twosome, and when Hereditary centers specifically on Annie (Collette) it conjures an unpredictable edge that rivals similar traumatized home horror film The Babadook.

The rest of Hereditary could use some of the unpredictable energy Collette brings to her role.  It's rigorously composed with the steady sway of the camera attempting to lure the audience hypnotically into the Graham family's tense and empty home.  Hereditary always looks excellent, but the aesthetic served to keep me at a distance from the open nerve of trauma.  Right up until the end, the traumatized Grahams function mostly as gruesome puppets in a sterile home with the artifice of the former unfortunately highlighted by the cautious framing in the latter with the threads of horror's past wafting into view.But when Collette is left on her own to wrestle against Annie's demons the too large home feels ill-equipped to handle the weight of her torment.  Her wail is a fearsome thing, and Aster is wise to give Collette space at Annie's lowest as her pain transcends time when her screams bounce against the walls then into open air.  Even before further tragedy hits the Graham family Collette does such an effective job keeping the other performers on edge that I was dreading the moment one of them would push her too far.  As Annie's reaches her emotional limits Aster's script hits its most powerful notes.

Most of the dialogue in Hereditary consists of passive-aggressive sniping between the family members.  They don't speak in tart wit or wasp-y affectation.  Each one knows the hurt they can inflict on the next with Annie's children, the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and haunted Peter (Alex Wolff), taking the vast share of their mother's pain.  Aster's scenario has each talking as though the specter of emotional trauma is sitting in plain sight while everyone is too scared to comment on it while too restless to let it be still. Shapiro is astonishingly good at balancing her performance between those two worlds, looking with wet eyes out at the ghosts her mother refuses to see and loosing each syllable to the air as a desperate gasp to be heard. Along with Millicent Simmonds of A Quiet Place and Sophia Lillis of It, Shaprio uses horror to make good on her clearly tremendous potential.

Then there's the matter of Peter and where Hereditary starts to lose its effectiveness.  Wolff, to his credit, has the physical chops to make the psychic scars manifest in panicked and sometimes grotesque contortions of his body.  Vocally he strays between soul crushing weight and cartoonish hysterics.  The problem is, so does the plot and feel of Hereditary.  Once the emotional demon is let loose Aster's tone suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, not quite settling on some of its campier elements nor the careful buildup in Hereditary's first forty or so minutes.Ann Dowd, no stranger to metaphysically murky stories weighed down by trauma, arrives as a one-note ray of sunshine that is an odd fit for this world and the point where Hereditary starts to lose its power. She's the clearest link to Hereditary's roots in Rosemary's Baby-esque domestic horror without the payoff - and when there is a payoff it's a mannequin of grotesque parts that owe a nod to Lucky McKee's 2002 film May.  Aster strides forward so confidently up through to her arrival that the disparate hodgepodge of homages to other horror films comes as a big disappointment.  He shows a great grasp of the physical and mental strain of trauma then largely abandons that focus to chase different tonal threads.

Hereditary never quite pulls itself back together.  I continued to marvel at Collette's performance which exists in its own tortured sphere away from Byrne, Wolff, and Shapiro.  Byrne - to his credit - nails his unique brand of credulous skepticism and musters enough mystery around Steve's loyalties that his final scenes are as quietly unpredictable as Annie's are volatile.  But all that meticulous buildup whiffs in the end, leaving Hereditary with shocking moments that curdle the mind and little else to speak or.

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Hereditary (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Ari Aster.
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd.


How It Ends (2018)

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Disaster strikes on the west coast and is felt throughout the United States.  Will and Tom must put aside their hostility for one another to traverse the American landscape to save Will's girlfriend, and Tom's daughter, Sam.  David M. Rosenthal directs How It Ends from the screenplay written by Brooks McLaren which stars Theo James and Forest Whitaker.

After I finished watching How It Ends, I went searching for the poster and - once discovered - let out a big laugh.  The poster shows Will (Theo James) looking like an action hero with a bit of flare from the sun in the foreground and a transparent Tom (Forest Whitaker) looking somber in the background.  Its visual message is muddled and even after finishing How It Ends I have to wonder what the poster's creators were trying to communicate.  Is Tom an evil haunting Will, the man overseeing Will, some compatriot, or the one Will is trying to rescue?

Brook McLaren's screenplay answers, "All of the above," and David M. Rosenthal's direction responds, "Why not?"

Thus, How It Ends comes into existence with little clue about its identity as it strives to be multiple films at once and not succeeding at a blessed one of them.  Some of that has to do with how thinly stretched the apocalyptic content is if you have the barest knowledge of American weather patterns.  More of that has to do with James' lead performance that isn't exciting enough to call bland.  Then there's Whitaker, a professional and master of his field no matter where he shows up, throwing himself full speed into whatever emotional tone is required of him at the moment.


Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom (2018)

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If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

There are exactly two moments in Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom (just Revenant Kingdom moving forward) that I felt a bit of magic moving through me.  The first was when the deposed Prince Evan and new bodyguard / advisor / interdimensional time traveling President Roland (more on that in a moment) escaped Ding Dong Dell to enter the world at large.  Tiny chibi representations of the two and Evan's adorable jump animation were so precious I uttered, "That's darling," to myself.  The second occurred in Goldpaw - a gambling-based kingdom run by a dog - that enchants an annoying bird to follow around people who owe the kingdom money screeching, "U O ME U O ME".

Latter bit there might be an annoyance to some players, but it was the right amount of silly to make me think there would be some surprises in Revenant Kingdom.  I was wrong. Okay, not entirely wrong as the airship Freud would have had quite the time analyzing makes for a jarring midgame sight.  But that's not magical, or much fun, it's just a bit of grotesquerie that broke up the otherwise clean artistry of Revenant Kingdom that rarely challenged my skills or sparked my imagination.


Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (2018)

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If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

When Pillars of Eternity came out in 2015 it was like a period of darkness broke with the slightest sliver of hope that the golden days of isometric RPGs à la Baldur's Gate and Fallout might return.  I devoured PoE lustily, getting caught up in its unique take on souls and religion alongside its complicated characters such as the bigoted, sexist, altogether repugnant Durance.  Playing PoE again in preparation for PoE 2: Deadfire (just Deadfire moving forward) served as a cold shower to my early excitement.

PoE scratched an itch that had developed into a sore and any isometric ointment would do.  Revisiting PoE was a chore, the dour plot and plodding combat proving counter-intuitive to my investment in its world.  Deadfire advertised itself as a more swashbuckling adventure that serves as a direct continuation of my choices in PoE while updating the combat and class system to the more successful Tyranny (still the best of this latest glut of isometric RPGs).


Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (2018)

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Adol Christin, frozen in time with his striking red hair and piety toward sword-based justice, is an enduring figure who has anchored the Ys series for a shade over three decades now.  He doesn't have the cultural cache of Mario or Kirby nor the creative restlessness of those two figures.  Ys has instead endured through sparse tinkering and consistency.  Whether it's through the destruction derby battle system of Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished or the rapid party switching break fights of Ys: Memories of Celceta if I saw Adol's red hair on the box I knew I'd be in for a good seven to ten hours of tightly focused combat.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (just Lacrimosa of Dana moving forward) is a relatively big departure for the Ys franchise.  Lacrimosa of Dana leans less into fine-tuning the battle system and more in providing the kind of sprawling story that Memories of Celceta provided.  It's a self-conscious stab at maturity for the long-running series, and one that reminds me that just because something is more mature doesn't make it better or more enjoyable.  In the case of Lacrimosa of Dana, that maturity comes with a massive slog of flat storytelling punctuated by a few moments of silent power.