Mother!

September 22, 2017 at 11:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I saw this film almost a week ago and I have been sitting on my review because I just wasn’t sure how I felt. Reviewers have been wildly divided; the film has a 74% on Metacritic, not because most people thought it was just okay, but because the majority either really loved it or really hated it. “Mother!” has also gotten the alt-right up in arms, screaming about sacrilege and how much they hate Jennifer Lawrence. And Britain’s The Guardian called it the most controversial movie since “The Clockwork Orange.” That’s a lot of emotion for a so-called “horror” film. But, I will admit that I left the film feeling pretty divided myself. In the end, I think this is a film that deserves multiple viewings. Darren Aronofsky (the brilliant director of “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” and “Black Swan”) has proven himself to be unafraid of complex symbolism and bizarre imagery and this film dives more deeply into both of those areas than any film he has made to date. On the surface, the film is about how the titular character’s (Jennifer Lawrence) life is disrupted when her husband (Javier Bardem) starts letting people into their home. But little in this movie makes any sense on the surface. It is clearly all an allegory, but for what? If you believe Aronofsky and Lawrence (and, I guess, why wouldn’t you?), the film is symbolic of humanity’s relationship with the Earth. Lawrence’s “Mother” is Mother Earth. Bardem’s “Him” is God. The house they live in represents the planet that Mother is continually trying to improve. But then Him let’s in “Man” (Ed Harris) and “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), followed by their two sons who fight (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). You can see where this is going. While that may be true of what Aronofsky was trying to say, it isn’t what resonated with me about the movie. In many ways, it reminded me of “Black Swan,” which is about artistic obsession. Him is a poet who needs a muse and, the more that muse suffers while still worshiping him, the more inspired he is. That seems like a very personal story. The things artists/performers do to themselves and those they love runs through much of Aronofsky’s work. So, whatever else this film is about, it is on that level that it most resonated with me. This is a long, winding and sometimes dizzying story. The camera follows Lawrence almost exclusively as she spins in circles within this huge home. The circular nature of the set was brilliant because it allowed for all of that spinning that added to the chaos and dysphoria. As everything spins so utterly out-of-control, it would be easy for the audience to get lost in the spectacle. Seeing Him and Mother as human archetypes of artist and muse (rather than larger Earth/God metaphors) grounded the film for me and made the final scenes more impactful. But, that is just my reading of a film that begs for each viewer to bring her/his own interpretation.  I encourage you to see the film and bring yours.

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It

September 10, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊

Just yesterday, a friend and I were discussing what makes a good horror movie. We both agree that we don’t expect to get scared. No movie has really scared me since I was a kid, except maybe a documentary about government corruption (“Zero Days” or “Taxi to the Dark Side,” for example). I can’t really be scared by things I don’t believe in, like ghosts and demons and zombies. However, I can be startled and creeped out by a good horror movie. My friend and I both agree that it is more the latter than the former that really makes for a fun experience. Making the audience jump is a bit of a cheap thrill that can be produced easily enough, using every cliche in the genre’s book. But giving a film a genuinely creepy vibe takes some skill. It requires the right combination of plot, character development, acting, location, and camera work. When “It” works, it works best in those moments when it achieves true creepiness. Fortunately, there are quite a few of those moments. Pennywise is a great example of the evil clown trope and he is played well by Bill Skarsgård (yes, of that Skarsgård acting family). He manages some demented, sinister facial expressions that are the epitome of creepy. Unfortunately, he is less effective when he speaks. The voice sounds cartoonish and the dialogue is usually just silly. As is often the case, he is the most terrifying when he is just briefly on screen. The longer we get to see him, the less daunting he becomes, which, given the plot, may be the point. And the plot is an interesting one. Stephen King has been a master at creating characters you care about, something that so many horror films lack. Here he does so by essentially recreating his characters from “Stand by Me.” The story upon which “Stand by Me” was based, “The Body,” was first published in 1982, four years before he published “It,” and he draws heavily from those tropes when developing the coming-of-age story of these adolescents in the late 1980s. They had the same combination of nerds and bullies, sincere and sarcastic, clean-cut and sexually preoccupied that will look so familiar to anyone who has seen “Stand by Me.” So much so, that I felt those portions of the film were retreading old ground. I did not feel drawn into the cute, sweet adolescent dramas that were supposed to give these kids depth. I want character development, just not that particular sort, which felt like it was trying too hard to be a different type of film. I came to see a horror movie and I was happiest when this film was giving me that. When it worked at its best (as in the library basement, the basement in the kid’s home, pretty much any basement, in fact), it was really entertaining. Other times, it was cute and fun and sometimes silly and even a bit boring. Overall, this wasn’t one of the truly great horror films but I would say that it is better than most.

Wind River

September 4, 2017 at 11:17 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

“Wind River” starts out promising enough. Set in Wyoming in the dead of winter, the film begins with scenes of a stark and imposing landscape. The audience gets a sense of foreboding right off. There is a murder and an outsider comes in to solve it. Sometimes this works well (as in the terrific “Insomnia”) and sometimes not so much (as in “Thunderheart,” which this movie kept reminding me of). “Wind River” lies somewhere in the middle. An FBI agent sent in from Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) to work alongside the local sheriff (Graham Greene) and a US Fish & Wildlife employee (Jeremy Renner). She’s in over her head but Renner’s character keeps her pointed in the right direction. If you have seen a film like this before, you have essentially seen this film. There are dark people doing dark things but the good guys will stop them. There are some twists and dead ends along the way, a couple of brief outbursts of violence and an ending rich in “justice” (or revenge, anyway). The scenery is visually arresting and helps to create the right mood for a film like this but mood alone can’t sustain you. Writer and director Taylor Sheridan has a great track record. This is the third film he has written. The first two were “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” both of which I loved. But this one lacks the humanity of the former and the punch of the latter. Sheridan appears very earnest in wanting to shine his light on the injustices faced by American Indian women but that goal would have been better served by a multi-layered drama, whose focus was on developing complex characters dealing with real life issues, including possibly the one that is the central focus of this film. Instead, what we get is a fairly paint-by-numbers detective thriller, in which two white people swoop in and save the day. The film appears to belie Sheridan’s intent, in that it consistently goes for cheap thrills (tension, violence, revenge catharsis) rather than for empathy or insight. Audiences will leave the theater having no more understanding nor feeling any greater concern for American Indians but they will have had a moderately successful thrill ride.

The Big Sick

August 26, 2017 at 10:38 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Sometimes the most cliché of genres can offer the sweetest surprise. It is a difficult thing to convince me to see a romantic comedy, any more. I feel like I have seen it all and disliked most of it. They are cloying, predictable and only blandly humorous. Yet, “The Big Sick” manages to be something I almost never expect from a romantic comedy; it is deeply touching. Written by real-life spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the film tells us the story of how they met. In what is definitely an unexpected twist for a romantic comedy, the main focus of the movie is on Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter & Ray Romano), rather than with her, as they struggle to deal with her unexpected illness. This vehicle allowed the audience to get to know his character outside of the standard rom com clichés. The film’s humor is fairly gentle. There are no belly laughs and it won’t have you in tears, but it did keep me genuinely chuckling throughout. At times, scenes could feel like they were veering toward stereotype (particularly where Kumail’s family was concerned) but it always felt more like a gentle ribbing than anything else. Because this was so autobiographical, the film felt very loving and respectful toward its characters. There is nothing biting here. If you are looking for a side-splitting good time, this may not be the movie for you. But you will genuinely feel good throughout. You will find it hard not to like everyone and you will find it hard not to be moved. You probably won’t shed any tears from laughing but you might still shed a tear or two or other reasons.

Logan Lucky

August 20, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊

This film could serve as a good lesson on how to use Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic in conjunction with each other. It got a sterling 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a middling 78% on Metacritic. Given that the former is a straight up-or-down vote, whereas the latter is a graded score, the takeaway is that virtually every single critic liked “Logan Lucky,” but only moderately. And guess what? I liked “Logan Lucky.” I really did. But only moderately. Steven Soderbergh has always had a penchant for odd little films (“The Limey,” “Bubble,” “The Informant!”) that he mixes in with his massive successes (“Erin Brockovich,” all the “Ocean’s” movies). Here we get a blend of the “Ocean’s” type heist film mixed with the sort of mockery of its lead characters that you saw in “The Informant!” This is a heist movie for the current era, where NASCAR-loving, blue collar workers replace the slick cultural elites of the “Ocean’s” films. But Soderbergh doesn’t quite love these characters like he loved the originals. The “Ocean’s” films were all slick gloss and romanticism. This film is asking us to laugh at these characters, rather than with them. The humor is never cruel but it is poking fun, none-the-less. The caper they set about to commit is as ridiculous and unrealistic as one might expect, but that’s okay. A heist movie requires a suspension of disbelief. Though this film does talk out of both sides of its mouth; we are expected to believe these characters are both brilliant enough to come up with their plan and dumb enough for us to laugh at. The story starts very slowly and I found the begining dragged a lot. Channing Tatum did a passable job as the lead character, though he has never been a standout actor for me. Adam Driver, who I normally like, was odd here. I could not figure out where he was trying to go with his character; some of his acting and speech choices just felt a bit confusing for me. And we had to suffer through a painfully miscast Seth MacFarlane. The film really lit up when Daniel Craig’s character arrived. Whenever he was on screen, the film had energy and direction and had moments of genuine humor. In fact, the film could be very funny in parts. At other times, the film was clearly trying so hard to make us laugh that it fell flat. Overall, this was a fun, lighthearted ride. But it felt like there could have been more there. If the characters had just been a bit more developed, there might have been a real opportunity for some understanding, instead of just parody. And, frankly, we could all use a bit more understanding these days.

Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 at 8:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” opens quietly enough, with young British soldiers strolling through an abandoned French village. But, it doesn’t stay quiet for long and, once the action begins, it does not let up for scarcely a moment of its two hour run time. Nolan pounds us unrelentingly with a sense of chaos and uncertainty. If there is anything truly brilliant about this film, it is the way in which we are made to experience it, rather than simply watch it. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is told from three perspectives: air, land and sea. In each, we start with three guys (three fighter pilots, three civilians on a boat, three boys at Dunkirk trying to find any way home). Over the film, their stories twist, diverge and come together in a kaleidoscope of ways. Nolan has deliberately told the story out of order and it remains unclear for most of the film where each story fits in the timeline with each other. This confusion for the audience gives us a sense of the confusion at Dunkirk, with nobody aware of what is going on anywhere else. We are forced to abandon a traditional narrative and just take each intense scene within the context of its moment. Nolan also plays brilliantly with the camera. Occasionally, he gives us these vast, sweeping vistas. Often, we have tight camera shots, in the dark, and tilted at strange angles (“why is the ocean running along the right side of the screen?”). We can lose our sense of up/down, day/night in much the same way the poor soldiers did. There are times we watch people scrambling to escape sinking boats and the audience is no more sure of which way is up than the drowning men are. Nolan collaborated again with his favorite composer, Hans Zimmer (“Inception,” “Interstellar”) to create a discordant, driving score that succeeds in capturing the anxiety and madness of what we see on screen. While my favorite performance was the excellent Mark Rylance as the civilian father/boat captain, this was not an actor driven film. The real star here is the story itself. Chaotic, beautiful, unrelenting and poetic. I felt more in the middle of this film than any I have seen in a long time.

A Ghost Story

August 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I’m not sure I know how to describe this film because I am not sure how I felt about it. It is hard to know what to expect from a film that appears so patently odd, even in the previews. But, I think I was expecting something more emotional and less pensive. David Lowery is most famous for directing the utterly different (and entirely banal) remake of “Pete’s Dragon.” Whatever “A Ghost Story” is, it is not banal. At times, Lowery’s directing reminded me very much of Terrence Malick, particularly in the film, “Tree of Life.” Like that one, this film was suffuse with a ponderous mood, so much so that it occasionally threatened to drag the narrative to a halt. And I use the term narrative loosely, as this was more a movie of mood than story. The central character was simply a sheet with holes. He had no facial expression, no body language and no speech. He remained blank and, in many ways, utterly disconnected from us. Yet, he also could seem painfully intimate and human at times. Very little was ever spoken. In fact, I doubt there was even 20 minutes of total speaking in the entire film. We easily went stretches of 10-15 minutes at a time without a word being said. We watched Rooney Mara silently grief-eating half of an entire apple pie in real time. She stared at the floor silently eating for almost 10 minutes as we watched her. But that also seems like where the real power of this film lies. This is a treatise on love and loss and soul-crushing heartbreak. Lowery’s brilliance is in not showing that in the big, flashy Hollywood way that we would expect. But the grief and emptiness are all over the screen, none-the-less. This is mostly a film about grief and emptiness and the pervading silence captures that emptiness; it fills the theater with a sense of that emptiness very effectively. I say “mostly” because this film also has an undercurrent of an aridly dry sense of humor. It’s so dry that it’s barely visible, but it’s there with a wink and a nod. I warn you: this movie will make you endure it. But, if you do and can sit quietly enough, intently enough, you might just hear the elegiac voice whispered through the silence. For anyone who has truly, deeply, passionately loved and lost, there is something in this film that may just haunt you.

Lady MacBeth

July 31, 2017 at 8:54 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊

Based on the 1865 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” this grim little film hews closely to the first two thirds of the original story before diverging wildly for its final scenes. This story has been made into film 5 times since 1927, though this is the first one in English. Director William Oldroyd (in his feature film debut) has set this version in rural 19th Century England. The story centers on the titular character, named Katherine in this version, and her less-than-healthy relationships with the various males in her life. This is a dark and ugly story with remnants of the class injustice and nihilism you might expect from a Russian work. Oldroyd understands that and magnifies the mood with his choice of scenery, color, and sound. The empty heaths and cold stone house lend a sense of lonely despair to the whole film. The scenery, walls, furniture and clothing are all in shades of brown, black or white, with the exception of Katherine who often wears a deep blue dress, accenting how much she doesn’t belong in this world. The musical score is sparse and large portions of the film pass in silence as people share their despair, rage, and impotence with scornful looks rather than words. The film really hinges on the powerful performance of Florence Pugh as Katherine. Pugh had only done one feature length film before but this one could help her break through. She brought a cold, steely determination to Katherine that helped root the entire film. If there is a reason to see this film, it would be her performance. But I was also left wondering if that was enough. This is a grim story that reaches its grim conclusion without much respite along the way. If you are in the mood for that sort of thing, then I think this film was fairly well done. I don’t think anyone would call it a masterpiece but it sets its teeth, bares down and does its job.

 

Endless Poetry (Poesía sin fin)

July 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

When I was a young man, half my life ago now, I read a book by Tim O’Brien called, “The Things They Carried.” In it, he had a chapter called, “How to write a true war story,” in which he explained that telling the “truth” sometimes meant making things up. That was a revelation to me, that emotional truth could sometimes only be told by abandoning one’s adherence to what actually happened. Alejandro Jodorowsky is on a journey to tell his life story in film. But not the facts of his life nearly as much as the feeling of his life. First with 2014’s “The Dance of Reality,” and now with this film, he seems to be trying to understand his own life by explaining it to us. The first film covered his early childhood. This one tells the story of his adolescence and young adulthood. Again, his troubled relationship with is father and his anxiety about death are central themes. And, again, he does not deal with any of this in a straight forward narrative. Instead, everything is metaphor. His mother only sings her lines, which represents the fact that she was a failed singer who was deeply sad about her missed opportunities, though nothing in the film will explain that to you. The movie is loaded with images just like that and you will miss the meaning behind most of them. But that really is okay because what comes through so clearly is how deeply emotionally honest this film is trying to be. As with the last one, Jodorowsky appears frequently behind the actor who plays him, commenting about the events on screen. His father in both movies is played by his eldest son and, in this film, the young adult version of Jodorowsky is played by his younger son. This is a deeply personal affair. It is at times evocative, touching and often quite beautiful. It can also be strange, uncomfortable and oddly funny. And, as with the last one, it was just a bit too long. Though how do you tell a man which bits of his life to leave off the screen? It’s clear that he plans on making at least a couple more of these, if time allows. This man is on a journey toward self-understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. I’m grateful he has invited us all along.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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½

Based on a set of French comics that ran from 1967 – 2010, the film focuses on a Flash Gordon-type hero named Valerian and his partner, Laureline. They do amazing things and save the good guys from the bad guys. That’s hardly a revolutionary story line, though it doesn’t need to be. We go to films like this for a lot of reasons but being surprised isn’t typically one of them. However, we do expect to be entertained. And, in a movie so full of spectacle and action, I am sorry to say that I was bored, almost from the first scene to the last. The backbone of any good film is an engaging plot; it draws the audience in, creates the context for everything we see, and defines what’s at stake for the protagonists. But, right from the start, it’s clear that the emphasis is on surface over substance. Whole scenes are unnecessarily convoluted just as an excuse to play with more visuals and the plot as a whole makes virtually no sense. Similarly, the dialogue and character development feel frankly adolescent. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be falling in love but the actors had no chemistry. In fact, none of them appeared to be trying particularly hard. Dane DeHaan, who played Valerian, is a terrific actor; watch him in “Kill Your Darlings.” But, here, he seemed to be channeling Keanu Reeves, as though Luc Besson thought he was making his own sort of “Matrix.” Besson, who is best known for directing “The Fifth Element,” shows all the subtlety here that he did there, though at least that film was visually arresting at times. Filmed almost entirely against a blue screen (there could not have been more than 3 or 4 actual sets in this whole film) for a whopping $180M, you would think “Valerian” would at least be fun to look at. You would be wrong. The imagery was all too much too often and without a coherent whole. Visuals were created just because they looked good and not because they served a consistent vision of this universe. The film lacked an internally compelling aesthetic. Also, because the characters all lacked depth, it did not matter that the CGI was good. None of their emotions meant anything. I kept thinking about the most recent “Planet of the Apes” and the character of Caesar. He was such a real and complex character that the CGI served to bring him to life. But CGI cannot animate the lifeless. As a tool, it can add new dimensions to film and allow the director/actors/audience to explore core truths in new and compelling ways. Or it can simply be gratuitous overload; visuals for the sake of the fact that you can create them. That’s what we have here. This film is all surface with nothing below a very thin veneer of pretty. Why bother? There are so many other better films to see. I can’t give this film a ∅. I mean, it didn’t offend me. It just felt like an 137 minute waste of time.

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