Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The February 2018 Follow-Up Post

For the uninitiated, my "follow-up" posts are semi-regular installments where I write about recent developments related to topics I've blogged about in the past, but which I didn't think needed a whole new write-up to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience. It's been a while since I've done one of these, so there's some ground to cover.

Late Night Under the Trump Administration - The ratings situation has mostly remained unchanged, with Colbert still inching up in the ratings, and Jimmy Fallon seeing his diminish. However, there's a new wrinkle in the sudden and very public transformation of former "Man Show" host Jimmy Kimmel into the "nation's moral conscience." Watching Kimmel go through the traumatic health crisis of his very cute infant son, and him using that to talk about the sorry state of American health care has been amazing to witness. He managed to help direct the conversation about the ACA and AHCA last year at a very important point in time, and the "Jimmy Kimmel test" became a talking point. The late night discourse is now proving more important than ever - to the point that obsessing over the ratings feels like missing the point.

What Happens After Weinstein? - It's only been a few weeks since I posted, but since then the list of bad actors has swelled considerably, and the stories just keep getting more heartbreaking. Salma Hayek's account of the behind-the-scenes drama during the making of "Frida" was especially hard to read. And I find myself getting more depressed at every new scandal, and every newly uncovered creep. Charlie Rose? John Lasseter? Really? However, we've also hit the point where we're seeing much more conflicted responses to some of these allegations. Al Franken and Louis C.K., for instance, responded well and took responsibility for their actions in a way that I found very sincere. Losing Franken in the Senate was a hard blow. Still, consequences had to be faced, and this thing's clearly not over yet. Some of these men will be forgiven in time, but we're a long way from that point right now.

China's Search For Crossover Hit - The success of "Wolf Warrior 2" made it abundantly clear that China really doesn't need a crossover hit. However, there looks to be a good chance for one emerging from the incoming crop of Chinese science-fiction films due next year. The Hollywood Reporter recently talked up the trend, which includes projects like "The Wandering Earth," based on a Hugo-winning short story, and Jackie Chan movie "Bleeding Steel." Chinese science-fiction has been making great strides in recent years, and it's about time that this was reflected on the silver screen too. The genre hasn't been too successful with Chinese moviegoers, but maybe homegrown films will help buck the trend. And with so many Western visions of the future looking so Eastern, isn't it about time we actually saw one from the Eastern point of view?

An Eulogy for the IMDB Message Boards - Well, apparently removing the message boards was just the first step. Character biographies disappeared a few months ago. Now some information such as box-office data have gone behind the IMDbPro paywall and several functions related to sorting and filtering the user-submitted reviews have gone kaput. Individually, none of these changes would be cause for concern, and most of them can be explained away by site redesign and cleanup efforts. However, it does highlight the difficulty in trying to monetize a site that has been so heavily dependent on user contributions over its history. And remember, most of the information on IMDb can now be found on other, much more user-friendly sites.

Goodbye Summer Blockbuster Hype - It's early yet, but 2018 is looking like a much more interesting movie summer than last year - though to its credit, there were some perfectly good summer movies in 2017 including "Dunkirk," "Baby Driver," "Wonder Woman," and the latest "Spider-man." This year, In addition to "Avengers: Infinity War" and "The Incredibles 2," I'm looking forward to "Oceans 8" "Deadpool 2," and "Mission: Impossible 6." And I'm more morbidly curious about the "Solo" spinoff than I am actually excited for it, because of all the production drama, but the anticipation is real.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

"Preacher," Year Two

Mild spoilers ahead

This season of "Preacher" started off so well, with two fantastic, violent, hilarious episodes following the trio of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy on their road trip to find God.  Then they decide to stop in New Orleans to crash with Cassidy's "friend" Denis (Ronald Guttman) for the other eleven episodes of the season, and the momentum quickly goes to hell.  There is also a significant chunk of time that we spend in the literal Hell with Eugene, who befriends a surprisingly sympathetic Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).  We also get a new villain in Herr Starr (Pip Torrens), one of the top brass of a secret organization called The Grail, which has taken an interest in Jesse.  His operatives Featherstone (Julie Ann Emery) and Hoover (Malcolm Barrett) do most of the heavy lifting, keeping an eye on our heroic trio in New Orleans.

"Preacher" likely would have had a much better year if they could have cut the episode order down to ten, or even eight episodes.  At thirteen, what started out as a roller-coaster ride ends up a slog.  There's plenty of fun stuff for Jesse to do, tangling with The Grail and the Saint of Killers.  However, by the second half of the show, both Tulip and Cassidy are stuck churning through very dull subplots that were entirely invented for the series.  Clearly, the creators of "Preacher" discovered that it was unfeasible to have the entire season be a road trip, which is how the story originally played out in the comics.  So, as with the first season, the main characters wind up planted in a single location for most of their screen time, and given invented reasons to have them stick around for much longer than they should.

And it's aggravating, because it's such a waste of the talent involved.  Joe Gilgun manages to salvage what he can of Cassidy's arc with Denis, but Ruth Negga is left adrift with Tulip fighting an  unfortunate bout of PTSD.  And though their stories this year have fewer of these issues, Jesse and Eugene's arcs still feel undeniably stretched out.  All of this goes against what makes the best of "Preacher" so much fun - the anarchic, wildly off-the-wall, frequently shocking tone and content.  There are certain episodes and sequences that absolutely nail this, and are an absolute joy to watch.  However, every time the show slows down, it turns into a bore.

There's still lots for "Preacher" fans to enjoy here.  Herr Starr is a vast improvement on Odin Quincannon and the small town folk of Annville in every way.  Pip Torrens does a fantastic job of keeping a straight face as the extent of Starr's perversions and the insanity of the Grail are revealed bit by bit.  He may be the best comic villain currently on television.  I was also impressed that the series went ahead and brought some of the more outrageous parts of the comic to the screen, including a very troubling Messiah figure.  They even invented a sacrilegious new chapter of Jesus Christ's love life, and made Adolf Hitler pretty close to likeable.  

The series is actually very good at coming up with additional material in the same twisted vein as the comics, from Fiore the angel participating in a gleefully gory magic act, to the search for God leading Jesse to a furry fetishist.  The local business of buying and selling souls having been taken over by a Japanese outfit is a highlight.  However, as quickly as all these fun new ideas are deployed, they're also abandoned.  Tulip's newly revealed backstory, for instance, would have been a lot more interesting to see her deal with in an ongoing fashion.  Instead, several big developments are hastily dealt with in a single episode, and a promising character disappears from the story.  
    
So all in all, the series is another wildly inconsistent mixed bag.  I would count the first two episodes among the best things I've seen on television this year, with the rest about on par with the previous season.  I'm looking forward to the next run of episodes, because the show is going to be tackling one of my favorite storylines from the comics.  However, this time I'm tempering expectations.  

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Rank 'Em: The 2017 Best Picture Nominees

Well, I did manage to watch all the Best Picture nominees in time, but there's no way I'm going to be able to post all the reviews in time.  So, we'll just have to settle for a "Rank 'Em" post.  Frankly, this year has been a puzzler, and I have no idea how the frontrunners have turned out to be two of the weaker contenders.  But, more on that below.

Get Out - Once in a while, exactly the right film comes along at exactly the right time.  Jordan Peele's horror comedy, about the hidden dangers faced by a black man in America, does a fantastic job of being scary, funny, and insightful.  But more than that, it challenges and plays on the audience's expectations in such a way that demands self-examination.  This is also the most purely entertaining film of the nominees, with the kind of punch-the-air finale that I haven't seen executed so well in ages.   

Lady Bird - All the usual tropes of a coming-of age movie are present and accounted for, but "Lady Bird" isn't just about its title character, or her coming-of-age.  There are so many little details and so many little stories crammed in here, building this wonderful portrait of Sacramento and the socio-economic anxieties of the past decade.  It's also the rare examination of a mother-daughter relationship that captures all simultaneous affection and aggravation of two people on the verge of having to let go.

Phantom Thread - A truly wonderful surprise as its hidden layers reveal themselves.  Paul Thomas Anderson's period melodrama initially seems to be throwback to older domestic pictures, but there's nothing old fashioned about our heroine, Alma, or her relationship with a difficult, set-in-his-ways dressmaker.  Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis are fantastic together, playing scenes of incredible tension and emotional conflict.  If this must be the swan song for Anderson, it's a satisfying one.

Dunkirk - The best piece of cinema spectacle of the year.  Christopher Nolan and his collaborators beautifully execute grand scale epic filmmaking in their recreation of the Dunkirk evacuation.  The film's structure with the different time scales is a gimmick, but one that is made to work to the film's advantage.  There are inevitable weaknesses to this approach to the material, namely that it's difficult to connect to any of the characters.  However, as a purely visceral experience, "Dunkirk" delivers.

Call Me By Your Name - A tender first love plays out over the course of a lazy Italian summer in this atmospheric, nostalgic romance.  The combination of Luca Gugadino's sensual direction and a delicate James Ivory script is a winner.  However, it's really the ensemble that makes the movie, with special kudos to Timothee Chalamet as Elio, and Michael Stuhlbarg stealing the picture as his father.  Alas, the sheer length of the movie wore on me, and many of its charms simply weren't to my tastes.   

Darkest Hour - I'm generally a fan of Joe Wright's showy directorial flourishes, and there are certainly plenty of them here.  However, they don't overshadow the Gary Oldman performance that is central to the picture.  Some of the liberties taken with the historical record are entirely too precious, and Winston Churchill surely doesn't need so much breathless lionizing.  But overall, the film is a very effective piece of patriotic prestige drama and makes for a decent counterpart to "Dunkirk" as well.  

The Shape of Water - I adore so many of the pieces of this film and the sentiments behind them.  However, the execution is another matter.  The scripting is just dire in some places, and far too much time is spent on secondary characters to the detriment of the central romance.  There are enough good performances, lovely ideas, and fascinating images here that I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  It could have been a far, far better one, though, if Guillermo Del Toro had been a little more focused.  

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh's usual pet peeves and bad habits are all over this movie.  He did do one big thing right, however, which is the character of Mildred.  And it's mostly Frances McDormand's performance that makes this Midwestern parable about the dangers of misdirected anger worth watching.  This isn't a bad feature by any measure, with its timely messages and severely imperfect protagonists.  At the same time, I'm not sure it's any good either.  

The Post - These polished Steven Spielberg history lessons have gotten so predictable, they're more impressive to hear described than to actually watch.  So while it's hard to find fault with anything specific, and there are lots of little pleasures to be found, so much of "The Post" felt like a laborious exercise in historical re-enactment and homage to better films.  Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" is evoked several times, but alas none of that feature's grit and gumption rubbed off on this one.   

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My Favorite François Truffaut Movie


For a long time, I couldn't understand why François Truffaut was considered one of the greats. His films didn't seem to me to be all that technically accomplished. They had no particularly distinct style aside from being recognizably part of the French New Wave. Thematically, Truffaut was all over the place, making several films about love and romance, crime pictures, dramas, and an uneven adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." I dutifully watched over a dozen of his movies, and I enjoyed some and was cool on others. And recently, I went and rewatched several of the most famous titles, and I finally figured it out.

There's a special emotional realism to François Truffaut characters. This is clear from his very first film, "The 400 Blows," which charts the difficult life of a Parisian boy named Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Antoine is frequently truant at school, or misbehaves and commits petty thefts. The teacher doesn't like him and his self-involved parents misunderstand him, fueling Antoine's delinquency. After multiple misadventures and disciplinary problems, including running away from home, he's arrested and packed off to reform school. Despite Antoine never expressing remorse or changing his ways, our sympathies remain with him throughout.

Truffaut would revisit Antoine again and again over two decades, resulting in a series of four films and a short segment for a compilation feature. Each of these episodes have different conflicts, but at their root, they are about Antoine's struggles to reconcile his own rebellious nature with the uncomfortable restrictions of life and society. Punishment for bad behavior is often the result of bad luck. Earnest efforts to be good often backfire, like when he tries to express his appreciation for Balzac, or returns stolen property. Nearly all the boys at Antoine's school share the same propensity for mischief. Many of the classroom scenes recall Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct," which Truffaut was a professed admirer of. Or there's the classic sequence where the teacher leads his charges on an outing through the city, and the line of boys keeps getting shorter and shorter as they devise ways to run off.

Young Jean-Pierre Léaud delivers a performance that is instrumental to the film's success. He was only thirteen at the time he was cast, yet already had such a strong onscreen presence that it's no wonder that he went on to a long and storied film career. In "The 400 Blows," he has a rough, precocious charm when interacting with his clueless parents or deceiving his schoolmasters, but also displays an aching vulnerability when his life begins to fall apart. The famous final shot of the film, with Antoine at the seaside, zooms in on his enigmatic expression. Are we meant to see him as triumphant or victimized? Some claim that he's breaking the fourth wall, implicating the audience in his misdeeds. One thing is clear - he is not to be sentimentalized, something that Truffaut had railed against when critiquing similar films featuring troubled children.

One of the defining features of the French New Wave is filmmaking as “cinema in the first person singular.” So while "The 400 Blows" doesn't have many of the stylistic features that other New Wave films have, it is considered emblematic of the movement because it is such a deeply personal film. Antoine's circumstances and many of the events depicted were based directly on Truffaut's early life as a disaffected child and youth. It comes across as such an honest portrayal of childhood because it views the world subjectively from a child's point of view without ever imposing the moral judgments of an adult.

You can see a similar attitude in the treatment of the characters in many of Truffaut's other films - the unconventional youth of "Jules and Jim," the feral boy in "The Wild Child," and of course the further adventures of Antoine Doinel trying to navigate romantic relationships in "Stolen Kisses" and "Bed and Board." However, the legacy of "The 400 Blows" is more acutely felt in so many of the screen portrayals of children from that point on, everything from "Kes" to "Harry Potter." The remarkable thing about Antoine Doinel was that he was allowed to act like a real child, and exist on the screen on his own terms.

What I've Seen - François Truffaut

The 400 Blows (1959)
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Jules and Jim (1962)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
The Bride Wore Black (1968)
Stolen Kisses (1968)
The Wild Child (1970)
Bed and Board (1970)
Two English Girls (1971)
Day for Night (1973)
The Story of Adele H. (1975)
The Green Room (1978)
Love on the Run (1979)
The Last Metro (1980)
The Woman Next Door (1981)

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Back to the Beginning With "Mindhunter"


Like much of the American public, I've watched an awful lot of media about serial killers, from "Silence of the Lambs" to the early seasons of "Criminal Minds." And from them, I've learned about the techniques and terminology that go with the investigations of these killers, along with the predictable storytelling formulas that have developed around them over the years. As a fan of crime dramas, though, they usually still work for me, and I have few complaints.

Still, it was nice to discover that Netflix's "Mindhunter" series, created by Joe Penhall, found a way to upend the formulas and approach the material from a new angle. The series is set in the 1970s, back in the days when Charles Manson and David Berkowitz signalled the emergence of a new kind of criminal, and the FBI was just beginning to grapple with the science of criminal psychology. A pair of agents, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) start interviewing known "sequence killers," compiling data that will eventually lead to the development of what we know today as criminal profiling. A psychology professor, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) eventually joins them, as their information starts being put to use in solving real murder cases.

The first episode, which sets up Holden as a young upstart agent who asks too many questions, and pairs him with a bohemian post-grad girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross), is awfully creaky. However, in the second episode, when Holden interviews his first subject, Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), things get very interesting in a hurry. While all the FBI characters are composites based on various people, the killers like Kemper and Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) are all real, and the interviews are often adapted from real transcripts as well. "Mindhunter" carefully avoids showing any violence onscreen, and even most of the aftermath is only glimpsed via photos and news clippings. However, simply having the characters discuss violence in very frank terms proves to be riveting stuff. Cameron Britton's performance as Ed Kemper in particular is fantastic, walking a very fine line between jovial and terrifying.

It's a shame that the rest of the series isn't up to the same level. The interactions among the three leads, and the FBI office politics yield some good things. However, the personal lives of the agents are fairly rote and uninteresting, and the writers aren't particularly successful at getting us invested in any of their other relationships. Holden and Debbie's scenes, for instance, have generated nothing but complaints from viewers impatient to get back to the interview room. Even some of the active cases we see play out feel like filler. I think part of the problem is that the show's structure is so fast and loose, it often feels like a different kind of series from episode to episode. One installment feels like an investigation-centric police mystery, and the next feels like a "Mad Men" style period drama. There are also a series of oddly placed scenes featuring an unnamed character who we'll probably learn is an active serial killer next season.

One thing that is consistently strong is the style, which is bleak and desaturated and very reminiscent of the 2007 serial killer film "Zodiac." And no wonder, since David Fincher is an executive producer of "Mindhunter" and directed four of the ten episodes. With gloomy lighting, stark art direction, and some excellent casting of minor characters, he does a great job of creating a version of the 1970s that is both nostalgic and grimly unpleasant. There's often a sense of these small, cozy towns being invaded by a new breed of violence wrought by criminals who don't follow the old rules of behavior. And while the visuals are rarely flashy, occasionally you'll get an eye-catching sequence like the montage in the second episode, detailing the wearing nature of too much interstate travel.

So there are lots of good pieces that have been set up in "Mindhunter" that I'm hopeful can be better deployed in a smoother, and more effective second season. The first is good enough that I'd recommend a watch, but there's potential for something much better there that I hope the show's creators can figure out how to take better advantage of.
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Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Detroit" and "Dunkirk"


I knew nothing about the 1967 Detroit riots going into "Detroit," and even less about the Algiers Motel killings. So I was grateful that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal provided some context for the events, including a short history lesson on American race relations told through a crude animated prologue. However, this push to establish the importance of the events of "Detroit" in American history are also what ultimately end up undermining it badly.

When the film is in the thick of the action, recreating the notorious police raid on the Algiers Motel, it's excellent. The tension is visceral, and the performances are great. There's a good balance between the POVs of the police officers and their victims. The highlights of the ensemble cast include Will Poulter's wonderfully hateable Phillip Krauss, the main instigator of the abuses, while Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore play Motown singer Larry Reed and his friend Fred Temple respectively, two of the detained black suspects. Unfortunately, "Detroit" also decides to dramatize the court case that resulted in the aftermath of the event, which means the film switches gears to a different type of narrative completely. Ultimately the whole thing feels overlong and ungainly, trying to include too much material and serve too many interests. The film clearly wants to be respectful of all the cultural issues involved, and emphasize the systemic flaws that resulted in the tragedy, but it's not particularly successful at this.

I found that the oddest decision was giving only Larry Reed's character a fully fleshed out character arc. The other characters get spotlighted, but most feel truncated or badly planned out. John Boyega, for instance, plays Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who is a major witness at the Algiers. The film certainly gives him the narrative space and attention to be a major character, but he just comes off as a passive bystander. The script gives him very little to actually do, and we never get any semblance of a full emotional arc for him. Similarly, there are also some good moments with characters played by Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, and Jack Reynor, but we don't spend enough time with them for their appearances to actually have much impact on the larger narrative. As impressive as all the historical recreations are and as infuriating as the injustice is to witness, there's a fundamental lack of the kind of emotionally connective pieces that would really help this all hit home.

Now, this is not a problem with Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," which is altogether a much slicker and more entertaining feature, heavily dependent on epic spectacle and the kind of grandiose Hollywood gilding of momentous events that can easily result in mindless pabulum. Nolan largely manages to avoid being overly sentimental by constructing the film as yet another of his exercises in nonlinear storytelling, and spending the bulk of his efforts on making all the pieces fit together as a coherent narrative, heavy on the action scenes.

Dunkirk consists of three different stories. In one storyline, the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk await evacuation, which takes place over the course of a week. Our POV character is an English private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who eventually joins other soldiers, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), as they seek a way home. In the second, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), owner of a small private vessel, sails with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan), to aid the rescue efforts. Their story takes place over the course of one day. Finally, fighter pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) engage with German air forces over Dunkirk, over the course of one hour. The three storylines occasionally intersect, but it isn't until the ending that they all properly converge.

Technically, the film is a marvel, full of expansive shots of the sea and sky, multiple aerial dogfights, sinking and burning ships shot from every angle imaginable, and the teeming masses of soldiers constantly in peril. WWII locations and military hardware are recreated in exhaustive detail. However, what I found really impressive was the leanness of the scripting and the efficiency of the filmmaking. "Dunkirk" runs only 106 minutes, one of Nolan's shortest features, and there's hardly a wasted second. He manages to make each of the stories compelling individually, yet completely distinct from each other in style, and then slowly ratchets up the tension simultaneously across all three of them as we reach the last act. Compounding thrills are expertly deployed to a Hans Zimmer score that pumps up the tension with ticking beats and uneasy strings.

The characters are thinly drawn by necessity, and yet there's still room here for Mark Rylance's reassuringly steadfast Mr. Dawson, and Kenneth Branagh's unflappable Commander Bolton. Like "Detroit," there were plenty of others that could have used more fleshing out, but the difference here is that Christopher Nolan had a much better handle on showing us what was unfolding at Dunkirk on a broader scale and using his characters to reflect specific experiences and themes more cleanly. And the storytelling is tighter, smarter, and far more impactful. So when we come to the moments of patriotism and pride at the finale, accompanied by the gorgeous hero shots and exultant music, they feel earned.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

In the Mire of "Mudbound"


It's getting harder and harder to dismiss Netflix distributed films, as they keep acquiring or funding films that demand attention. Because of the deluge of end-of-the-year prestige films, I've decided not to write about Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories" or Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father," though I liked both. There was one title, however, that I had to put down some thoughts on.

The Mississippi delta is the setting for an uneasy period piece about two families, one black and one white. The black Jackson family are tenant farmers, working the land in the hopes of one day buying land and escaping their extreme poverty. Hap (Rob Morgan) is married to Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their plans are complicated when Hap becomes injured and unable to work. The white McAllan family has fallen on hard times, and are inexperienced as new landowners. Henry (Jason Clarke) brings his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their children, and his disagreeable father (Jonathan Banks) out to Mississippi, and they all have difficulty adjusting. Both families send a young man to WWII, the Jacksons' oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and their returns spark deepening tensions and dangerous resentments.

What immediately sets "Mudbound" apart from other films about the racial divide is its unusual intimacy. We learn about the inner lives of the six main characters through extensive voice over, each providing different perspectives on the situation, and humanizing each player. Laura is particularly interesting, a woman in a loveless marriage trapped in a place that she hates, but who unwittingly becomes part of the system of oppression that further harms Hap and Florence. She's very sympathetic, but also infuriating because she's so deeply ignorant about the consequences of her actions. The two characters who have the most perspective on the situation are Ronsel and Jamie, who have been overseas and recognize that the status quo in Mississippi is unjust. And the friendship that develops between them becomes a welcome respite from all the misery that the rest of the film portrays.

"Mudbound" is the third film from director Dee Rees, who doesn't shy away from showing us just how awful life was for everyone in this community. She and cinematographer Rachel Morrison present a flat, empty, bleak world that compounds the hostility and racism permeating everything. The visuals are dingy and brown, full of sweat and mud. The first half of "Mudbound" takes some effort to get through because it's fairly slow going and often uncomfortable to watch, as all the characters' are introduced and their lives converge in unhappy ways. However, once the film focuses more on Ronsel and Jamie, the two characters who seem to have real prospects for better things, it becomes more engrossing. And even though very ugly things happen, the film is ultimately far more hopeful and elevating than I expected.

The assembled cast is very strong, with Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige as the stand-outs. Blige is almost unrecognizable as Florence, who is at the bottom of the social order, but sharply perceptive and the backbone of her family. However, Ronsel has by far the strongest and most compelling narrative, wrestling with his loyalty to his family and his anger at the racist systems they suffer under. Mitchell is able to project a constant air of quiet strength and competence, which serves him in both his quieter bonding scenes with Hedlund, and the more explosive, violent confrontations at the film's climax. I also like Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund, but next to the Jacksons, their material feels overly familiar and underdeveloped.

"Mudbound" is not entirely successful, but it gives a different voice and a different perspective on the black struggle through a fairly unique lens. It manages to combine WWII and post-Civil War stories, very personal portraits with broader epic visions, and glimpses of the depths of human depravity with the heights of spiritual triumph. So I'll happily overlook the obvious shortfalls in the budget, the unsatisfying or too-convenient fates of some of the characters, pacing troubles, and all the cultural baggage of trying to parse yet another uncomfortable piece of art about race in America. This is a difficult but worthwhile film, and one that I'm very glad that I was able to see.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Resurrections of "Blade Runner"


Returning to the world of Ridley Scott's 1982 science-fiction noir "Blade Runner" was a tall order, not only because the film is so highly regarded by its fans, but because it remains such a niche classic, only really beloved by the cinema geeks. Denis Villeneuve not only had to live up to the lofty technical and aesthetic triumphs of the original, but to make it accessible to a wider audience. The "TRON" sequel from a few years back was faced with a similar challenge and stumbled. "Blade Runner 2049" fares better, but only up to a point.

Decades after the events of the original "Blade Runner," the bioengineered humans called "replicants" are still being made, but have been redesigned to be more compliant. Still, a few of the older models are still being chased down by a "blade runner," a replicant named K (Ryan Gosling), who works with the LAPD. After one assignment, K discovers the remains of a replicant who has given birth, something which should be impossible. He is charged by his superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), with finding and destroying the child. Meanwhile, sinister replicant creator Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) sends out his own replicant agent, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to locate the child for his own purposes.

Most of the major characters in the story aren't human beings, and tend to behave terribly stoically, though there are indications that they have wants and hopes similar to humans. Perhaps the most expressive character is Joi (Ana de Armas), K's hologram girlfriend, who is eager to provide all types of affection despite not having a physical form. However, we spend the bulk of our time with K on his investigation, slowly exploring the fascinating dystopia where "Blade Runner" takes place. Though Ryan Gosling is very good in the role, K is simply not a particularly charismatic character, and the narrative is so slow-paced, that it takes a long while to set up the stakes and build up any real momentum.

The main pleasures of the film, then, are in observing the film's worldbuilding. With cinematography by Roger Deakins, "Blade Runner 2049" is full of absolutely astounding visuals. The visions of the murky, urban Los Angeles futurescape are reimagined and expanded on, and we get to visit drastically changed versions of San Diego as a vast garbage dump and Las Vegas as a desert wasteland too. There are also several beautifully conceived and executed set-pieces that show off the film's effects work. One involves a woman whose job it is to design replicant memories. Another involves a love scene with holographic Joi superimposed on top of a flesh and blood woman. Yet another involves a fight scene that takes place in the midst of a malfunctioning holographic stage show.

The film's best trick, however, is resurrecting a character from the 1982 "Blade Runner" in a manner that "TRON Legacy" attempted, but didn't quite get right. It's a feat that viewers of the original film will best appreciate, though, which I suspect may hold true for nearly everything about "Blade Runner 2049." Denis Villeneuve has done a marvelous job of bringing the "Blade Runner" universe back to life, and tackling many of the same themes and ideas from the first film in new and interesting ways. However, I'm not so convinced that it stands on its own as a separate entity. Narratively, it feels like a connector piece, at its best when it's either directly evoking the past or hinting at possible sequels. I never thought I'd be comparing the structure to "Inherent Vice," or all things, but in the end, so much is similarly left unresolved, unanswered, and unremarked upon.

And yet, I really do love many things in the film - Ryan Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks' performances, the design of Wallace's offices, and the impossible, unforgettable landscape shots of a crumbling future civilization. There's nothing here to equal Roy Batty in the rain, but there's no shortage of memorable ideas and surprising risks taken. The respect and admiration that the filmmakers clearly had for the original film is apparent in every single frame. I was skeptical about a "Blade Runner" sequel, but while I have my reservations, this is a far, far better result than I was expecting.


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Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Thelma" Goes to Dark Places

After watching so many superhero films and shows recently about young people with supernatural powers, I'd gotten used to the portrayal of them in very lighthearted, positive terms. So I was caught off guard completely by the Norwegian horror thriller "Thelma," which spins the darkest, most chilling story about a telekinetic girl that I've ever seen.

Eili Harboe plays Thelma, newly off to college and having some trouble making friends. Her strict religious parents, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are very controlling, and Thelma is reluctant to tell them when she starts experiencing unexplained seizures and strange visions. Objects move and lights are affected by her presence in this state. She also doesn't mention that she's falling in love with a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), whose attentions seem to trigger Thelma's attacks.

Initially I was going to pair up this review with Julia Ducournau's "Raw," which is also about exploring the maturation of a young woman at college through the lens of genre cinema. However, "Raw" didn't get under my skin the way that "Thelma" did, or leave me genuinely conflicted about what had transpired. And though I liked "Raw," it's not nearly as strong a piece of cinema as "Thelma." It doesn't have the same psychological gulfs or absorbing visuals. Director Joachim Trier made a trio of very intimate contemporary dramas before this, films that I appreciated, but didn't really connect with. Here, he's trying his hand at more stylized imagery, including quite a bit of CGI-aided special effects work. And it's stunning to look at, full of deep shadows, ominously flickering lights, and frozen winter landscapes.

Likewise, the performances are excellent. Eili Harboe is wonderful as Thelma, particularly in the scenes where she's in turmoil, struggling for control. She has the ability to be vulnerable and likable one moment, and then utterly frightening the next while hardly changing her expression. Some of her best scenes are the phone conversations, where you can see Thelma weighing how much to tell her parents, and not quite being able to hide her real emotions. I also enjoyed Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen, especially as their characters reveal more dimensions as the film goes on. Rafaelson remains so subtly menacing throughout the whole film, even when he's at his most paternal. At the same time, it's clear why Thelma loves and trusts him, up until the point where they inevitably must clash.

"Thelma" has been described in some of the marketing as a lesbian love story, and this isn't inaccurate. There are some fantastic early scenes built around Thelma and Anja's relationship, particularly a trip to the theater that literally almost brings down the house. However, it is also a film about faith and morality and terror, both immediate and existential. I found Thelma's complex interactions with her parents far more compelling than any of her fairly run-of-the-mill sexual awakening encounters with Anja. It's Trond and Unni who have to grapple with Thelma's powers and afflictions in the most painful terms. There are significant sections of the film where they are positioned as the protagonists, and it's left ambiguous as to whether Thelma or her parents are ultimately more deserving of our sympathies.

I'll caution that the film goes into territory that I wasn't expecting, and gets very dark very quickly. We move from Thelma slowly starting to break the rules and flex her independence at school, which is fun and amusing, to the anxiety of the exam table as she tries to uncover the cause of her seizures, to some of the most deeply upsetting and traumatic things I've seen on film, lurking in Thelma's past and subconscious (and I watched Aronofsky's "mother!" this year). I'll also caution that "Thelma" has deep roots in arthouse film, much like Robert Eggers' "The Witch," and is full of coded symbolism and unanswered questions.

So approach with care. However, the film had its intended effect, and I found "Thelma" to be the best version of the female coming-of-age through supernatural crisis films I've ever seen. It's not as iconic as "Carrie," but I haven't been able to get its nightmare visions out of my head, or shake the chill that it's left in my bones.
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Friday, February 9, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1991

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Barton Fink - The Coen brothers' dramatic pictures and their comedies are usually easy to tell apart, but I'm not so certain about which universe "Barton Fink" inhabits. If it is a comedy, it is the darkest of dark comedies about a playwright too distracted and self-involved to realize he's careening toward his own destruction. If it is a drama, it's a gloriously weird one, full of heightened emotions, strange characters, and mystifying events. John Turturro and John Goodman give career best performances, and as for the Coen brothers, I can only hope that they get writer's block more often.

Beauty and the Beast - The height of the Disney animation Renaissance produced a charming musical version of the classic "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. The lively music and the painstaking animation are sublime, but I found that the film has remained unusually resonant because of its startlingly complex characters. The Beast in particular is a masterpiece of visual design, inhabited by a guilt-wracked, rage-prone soul yearning for redemption. Even after decades of technological advancements, here are still few animated creations that can match him for sheer onscreen presence.

La Belle Noiseuse - There's something mesmerizing about seeing a work of art being created, so while Jacques Rivette's tale of a painter reinvigorated by a new muse runs nearly four hours in length, I found it a very easy watch. Large chunks of time are spent simply letting the audience see a painting being painted by abstract artist Bernard Dufour. And then there's the fascinating relationship between the painter and the model, a prickly, difficult thing. I've often found Rivette's work challenging, but here his musings on creativity, inspiration, and the artistic process hit very close to home.

Life, and Nothing More - Abbas Kiarostami revisits a previous film, "Where is the Friend's Home," with a meta narrative where he tries to find old filming locations and is reunited with some of the actors. This allows him to explore the aftermath of a recent disaster and his own relationship to his work. This is the second film of Kiarostami's Koker trilogy, where each film builds on the one before, blurring the lines between fiction and fact, documentary and dramatization. Full of little incidents and discoveries, there's no better example of Kiarostami's ability to find compelling stories in unusual places.

The Double Life of Véronique - My favorite of Krzysztof Kieślowski's features is a lovely, lyrical meditation on connected lives and inner worlds. Irene Jacobs plays both versions of the title character as they live out their ordinary, but haunting lives. Kieślowski's images have never been more stunning, his depiction of intangible spiritual forces never more powerful. "Véronique" was a stylistic turning point for the director, where he started to embrace more abstracted imagery and more sensual forms. It remains one of his most beautiful films, and one of his most haunting.

Raise the Red Lantern - I love Zhang Yimou films for their beauty and for their passion. Here, he constructs a gorgeous universe of luxury in a rich man's household, full of symbols and secrets. And it take our headstrong main character, played by Gong Li of course, far too long to realize that it's full of dangers too. It's fascinating to watch the various manipulations and machinations of the characters unfold in the tightly controlled hierarchy of the family. However, it's all the ways that Zhang finds to mirror this through his dazzling art direction that make this so memorable.

The Silence of the Lambs - Anthony Hopkins' disturbing turn as Hannibal Lecter is one of the great screen performances of the 1990s. He's an unspeakable monster, but such a charming one that it's easy to be drawn into his way of looking at the world, fantastically depicted by director Jonathan Demme. The mental battles between Lecter and Jodie Foster's Agent Starling are only a small part of a much larger story, but they're so electrifying that it's difficult to focus on anything else. It's no wonder that the film would go on to influence every depiction of serial killers that came after it.

Slacker - It's a gimmick film, but a gimmick that proves to be versatile, effective, and full of surprises. Instead of one film, it feels more appropriate to call "Slacker" a collection of nineteen short films all following the same template. Some of the actors are more engaging than others, and some of the monologues are definitely more interesting than others, but the film never compromises and it never slows down. And considered as a whole, the film paints a fantastic picture of a particular time and place and culture. So we shouldn't be surprised that it's also gotten awfully nostalgic with age.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day - I can think of few Hollywood blockbusters that still have the same impact as they did when they premiered, but thanks to magnificent effects work and an iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger role, "Judgment Day" has never lost a step. Sure, the CGI was revolutionary then, and still looks amazing today, but what was more important was that the underlying filmmaking fundamentals were rock-solid. James Cameron knows his way around an action scene like few others, and thus understood how to best deploy all the spectacle at his disposal for maximum enjoyment.

Thelma and Louise - After all this time, the adventures of two victimized women who go on the lam together still strikes a nerve. There's a giddy exhilaration in seeing the pair throw off societal expectations and fight back against all the forces of misogyny, even though we know it's all going to end badly. To date, it remains Ridley Scott's one great comedic film, and it works as a buddy road movie, a chick flick weepie, and as a bombastic revenge picture too. And while Susan Sarandon is excellent here, I don't think that Geena Davis ever gave a better performance - or had a better part.

Honorable Mentions

A Brighter Summer Day
Boyz n the Hood
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
Defending Your Life
Delicatessen
Point Break
Solo con tu Pareja
The Quince Tree Sun
Roujin Z
Van Gogh

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"Columbus" and "Lady Macbeth"

Time to roll up the sleeves and get into some serious cinema.

"Columbus" is the feature debut of Kogonada, who up until now has been better known as an editor of video essays dissecting the works of other filmmakers. And his analytical eye is evident in every frame of his film, which is one of the most visually distinctive, aesthetically beautiful American indies I've seen in ages. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho) are an unlikely pair whose paths cross in the city of Columbus, Indiana, which has a reputation for being something of a Mecca for architects. She has stalled college plans to take care of an ailing mother, and is now reluctant to face the future. He has a father in a coma, and is having trouble deciding a course of action.

The two become friends, of course, and spend most of the film wandering around Columbus and talking - mostly about architecture. It's a slow film, full of conversations but few plot points. This gives the audience time to really get to know the characters, and to take in all the gorgeous scenery and architecture that they explore. And it really is refreshing to find a film that has such a strong visual sense, and one that is so appreciative of the work of other artists. There's a lovely deliberateness and thoughtfulness to the way that the shots are composed, how the featured buildings and sculptures are presented and utilized.

The performances are also a treat. I'd heard "Columbus" described as a mood piece, so I was prepared for its stillness and long stretches of silence, but I found it was also an excellent character study of its central duo. Haley Lu Richardson continues to impress here as Casey, revealing more and more sides to her character with each new scene and conversation. However, I really love that "Columbus" gives John Cho the opportunity to sink his teeth into something substantial. He's been a terribly underutilized actor, and it's good to see him as a lead in a drama. And Jin is a rare Asian-American lead role that actually pings as a genuine, well-rounded Asian-American character too.

Now on to "Lady Macbeth," which is not a Shakespeare adaptation, but instead a reworking of a Russian novel about a spiritually similar character. The film stars Florence Pugh as Katherine, a young woman in Victorian England who has been recently married off to the much older, unpleasant Alexander Lester (Paul HIlton). Forced to live a highly restricted life in the remote countryside, under the thumb of her husband and father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank), Katherine quietly endures. However, Alexander unexpectedly goes away on business and a new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) joins the household, creating new outlets for Katherine's frustrations and dissatisfaction.

This is the feature debut of William Oldroyd, who handles the material with a welcome even-handedness. He portrays Katherine as both a victim and a villain, as subjugated by the male members of the Lester family, but also as quite willing to abuse her own position over Sebastian and her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), the lone black face in the cast. She remains humanized and sympathetic throughout, even as her actions become more and more distressing. There are suggestions that her cruelty may be learned, but also that it may be something innate to Katherine, perhaps a survival mechanism triggered by the situation that she has found herself in. The moral ambivalence of the storytelling allows for some wonderfully unexpected tonal shifts and moments of dark humor.

Like "Columbus," "Lady Macbeth" is full of eye-catching visual compositions, most of them very cold and very stark. Katherine is often the the focal point. She's usually the most colorful object on the screen, dressed in the brightest hues or occasionally nothing at all, with many shots resembling classical paintings in the way that they're lit and staged. Likewise, the film is built around Florence Pugh's fantastic performance, which makes every moment of Katherine's gradual empowerment and corruption fascinating to watch. Pugh is able to get across so much tension and emotion by doing very little, and I especially enjoy her ability to be so menacing while simultaneously exulting in her girlish rebellion. I can't wait to see what she does next.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

"The Good Place," Year Two

Moderate spoilers for the first three episodes of the season ahead.

I'm not sure that the people behind "The Good Place" understand that they're making a network sitcom, or if they do then they don't particularly care. I see no other explanation for the show having chosen to devote so much time to discussing ethics and morality in completely serious, non-ironic terms. Or that it's barrelled through ten other sitcoms worth of story and plotting in a scant thirteen episodes. Heck, it's prone to such wild deviations from anything that looks like a formula that it's impossible to predict where each episode is going to take us. And that's fantastic.

I seriously underestimated what the writers were capable of, expecting that we were going to be spending a good chunk of the season following Eleanor as she tries to find Chidi in Michael's second version of The Good Place. Instead, it takes everyone two episodes flat to end up right back where we were at the end of the first season. And this leads right into the third episode, my absolute favorite episode of any sitcom this year, where Michael runs through hundreds of different variations of The Good Place, eventually coming to the conclusion that he's going to have to change tactics and try something else.

Oh sure, "The Good Place" still relies a lot on sitcom logic, like a horribly evil character becoming a good guy after only an episode or two, and the power of friendship trumping good sense on a regular basis. However, there is nothing else on television right now that consistently delivers the unexpected. And that's true of both of the big picture stuff like Michael abusing the reboot button and little details like the now-legendary food puns that accompany every new iteration of the Good Place's ever-changing eateries. The biggest laugh I got this year was from a throwaway visual gag - Jason's wide-eyed delight when Janet gives him a Pikachu balloon. Which he then immediately pops.

And now I'm going to gush about the cast, because "The Good Place" has one of the best comedic ensembles on television. Most improved performer status goes to Manny Jacinto, who has made Jason into the most endearing idiot manchild character on any sitcom I've ever seen. A close second is D'Arcy Carden as Janet, walking that fine line between inhuman gag machine and loveable gal-pal. Ted Danson remains the show's MVP, way more fun playing an evil demon in conflict than he ever was as a flustered goodie-goodie in the first season. I also continue to be impressed by Kristen Bell's comedic chops every time I see her. She sells such ridiculous material with such ease.

And the cast is a big reason why the show keeps getting away with things that I don't think a lot of other shows could. Each big existential dilemma that comes up fundamentally alters the show's premise, and everyone rolls with it without missing a beat. But more importantly, the series has revealed itself to be about four (or really six) schlubs learning to be good people in unlikely circumstances, and has proved over and over again to be fully committed to this. The characters get to have these meaningful debates about heady, philosophical ideas, and it's funny and entertaining and sometimes even touching.

I also appreciate how tremendously silly the show is. Jason's devotion to Blake Bortles, Tahani's endless name-dropping, Chidi's epic indecision, and Eleanor's inability to be profane are running jokes that have just gotten better with time. And I love everything about Janet's weird emotional evolution, Michael's casual put downs, the continuing boredom of Mindy St. Clair, and the extravagant descriptions of the tortures in the Bad Place. The show also makes good use of its guest stars this year, including Marc Evan Jackson, Jason Mantzoukas, and Maya Rudolph.

Halfway through the season, I was worried that Mike Schur and the rest of the show's creators couldn't possibly keep up the level of quality for the rest of the season, let alone multiple seasons. We'd already explored so much of the show's universe, where else was there to go? And of course, there turned out to be plenty left to explore in year two. And now, after the finale, I fully trust that "The Good Place" could go for a dozen seasons if they wanted to. I certainly want it to.

And good grief, it's way too long until September.

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

About that Evil Killer Clown Movie


Stephen King's "It" isn't exactly one of my nostalgic favorites, though I read the book and watched the Tim Curry '90s miniseries and enjoyed both. I went into the new adaptation directed by Andy Muschietti mildly optimistic, and came out of it mildly entertained.

The "It" novel was originally structured as two intertwined stories about a group of friends battling a psychic shapeshifting monster at two different points in time, one when they're kids in the 1950s, and one when they're adults in the 1980s. The 2017 version moves the material with the kids up to the 1980s, and leaves off all the material involving them as adults for an inevitable sequel film. Our seven kid heroes include guilt-ridden Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), tomboy Bev (Sophia Lillis), new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), foul-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), rabbi's son Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the lone black kid. The villain of the piece, who has been murdering and consuming children in the small town of Derry, Maine, likes to manifest as the nightmarish Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgaard).

With its R-rating, the movie version of "It" lets the kids be more realistically crude and violent, and also shows Bill's little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) being horribly mauled by Pennywise in the opening act. Wisely, Muschietti doesn't lean too hard on the shocks, spending more time resurrecting the '80s and fleshing out the main trio of Bill, Bev, and Ben. The biggest trouble is that there are seven kids we're following, and a two-hour film isn't enough to give all of them the attention that the filmmakers clearly want to. "It" makes sure that each kid each gets their own encounter with Pennywise and their own specific fear to overcome, but this just ends up making the film feel overly busy and episodic. Mike, Stan, and Richie constantly feel like afterthoughts, caricatures of certain types rather than fully developed characters. Mike is especially aggravating because the film keeps treating him like he has a bigger part than he actually does. I suspect some of his scenes were cut for time.

This is a shame, because the depiction of the kids is easily the best part of "It." I've tried to avoid drawing parallels to Netflix's "Stranger Things," but they're unavoidable. "It" is another in the quickly emerging genre of nostalgic '80s throwbacks centered around adventurous kids on bikes. Watching them simultaneously contend with supernatural and real-world monsters together is way more engaging than the parade of CGI funhouse scares that the movie deploys. Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Jack Dylan Grazer are the young actors I'd single out as MVPs, but I wouldn't be surprised if in twenty years we looked back at "It" as a film where half a dozen young stars broke out. And it's a good reminder that there aren't nearly as many films with good roles for kids this age as there used to be.

As a horror film, "It" is serviceable, but not really to my tastes. The visuals struck me as too flashy to be properly scary. Some of these scare sequences are very impressive, like Pennywise revealing himself in a series of still photos, but the clown loses a lot of his effectiveness with so much repetition. Individual moments and bits of Skarsgaard's performance were unnerving, but not consistently. I also found that I was admiring the stylized fantasy atmosphere of some of the scare sequences or their neat little technical tricks more than I was actually being scared. The simpler stuff like the kids being bullied, or Bev being menaced by a family member created far more tension. Also, despite that R-rating, I found a lot of the content was toned way, way down from the book, to the point that a lot of the most memorable sequences didn't come off nearly as well as I'd hoped. The opening shocker with Georgie is as good as it gets.

Still, I enjoyed the movie enough that I'm very curious about what the sequel with the adult characters is going to look like. The consensus is that the material is weaker, but that doesn't mean the adaptation has to be. And though there are definitely flaws, the filmmakers have created a pretty solid foundation to build the next film on.
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Thursday, February 1, 2018

allegory! With Aronofsky


"mother!" is a far more enjoyable film to take apart and analyze than it is to watch. To a degree, the same can be said of all Darren Aronofsky films, since he's very fond of bombarding his audience with extremely intense, uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing images and sounds. I can't say that there are any Aronofsky films I've enjoyed watching, though his facility at creating these very tactile, visceral nightmare worlds has always been impressive. So I can certainly appreciate the hell out of his work, even if the thought of revisiting most of his films makes me automatically cringe.

And so it is with "mother!" which is presented as a story where nothing is really real from the start, but it's told with enough skill that many important aspects of it still ping as genuine. Jennifer Lawrence plays an young woman who is in a relationship with an older man played by Javier Bardem. The man is writer, suffering a creative block, and the couple has retreated to a beautiful, isolated house that the woman has poured her energies into restoring. Everything is lovely, until uninvited guests come to call, sparking violence, destruction, and ruin. None of the characters in the film have names, though the credits provide some interesting descriptors, and their universe operates by largely by dream logic.

The experiences of the couple are obviously meant to represent other events, and specific characters are stand-ins for more amorphous figures, ideas, and concepts. Aronofsky has already acknowledged the most obvious readings that connect "mother!" to various mythological, literary, and historical narratives. However, it's also fun to speculate that the story might be a meta-commentary on Aronofsky's own relationships and dealings with fame, or to read it as a feminist or environmentalist statement. "mother!" clearly wants its audience to actively interpret it, constantly pointing out the unreality of its universe and including obvious symbolism and wildly exaggerated behavior. There's no subtlety here whatsoever.

But does the film itself work as a narrative? Mostly, yes. I've heard some complaints that the marketing erroneously tried to sell this as a horror film instead of the art film it is, but I thought "mother!" functioned very much like a thriller in many respects. It may be one of the toughest Aronofsky films to watch, and considering the rest of his filmography, that's saying something. We start off with a little social anxiety and some microaggressions to set your teeth on edge, and things escalate from there to very uncomfortable extremes. Some images in the movie are among the most disturbing things that I've ever seen in a mainstream picture. Jennifer Lawrence's character is put through vile, traumatic ordeals more commonly found in Lars von Trier's oeuvre.

And it's largely thanks to Lawrence and Javier Bardem that "mother!" maintains enough of an emotional core to keep us invested in what's going on. Their characters may not be real, but their relationship feels genuine. Lawrence is playing against type as a soft-spoken, introverted young woman, trying to maintain some control over her house and her increasingly troubled relationship. It's easy to sympathize with her as she struggles to voice her concerns to a distracted partner, or to deflect prying questions from a rude guest. The vast majority of the movie is either showing us her POV, or keeps the camera very close to Lawrence's face so that we can see her expressions and reactions in detail. So as the emotional devastation compounds, the audience gets no relief from her distress.

Compared to Aronofsky's other films, "mother!" strikes me as one of the more self-indulgent pictures, but also one of the most daring and well-executed. I can't think of many other modern films that have been so blatant about wanting to shock and disturb an unsuspecting audience, and none that have used an actress as high profile as Jennifer Lawrence to do it. It's also unapologetically a weird art film, contains unusually graphic content, and manages to talk about all kinds of thorny subjects like religion and gender relations without actually talking about any of those things directly. There's some technically astounding stuff in the last act too.

So as much as I think some of its twists might be in bad taste, or that some of the metaphors are a little too on the nose, I came away from "mother!" just giddily impressed that Aronofsky had the audacity to make the film. A few moments of black humor and the performances aside, this is not a film I especially enjoyed watching. However, I absolutely recommend it to anyone with a strong stomach, because there's nothing else I've seen this year that remotely resembles "mother!" or displays the same kind of wonderfully mad, uncompromised ambition.

And I really do enjoy trying to figure out what it all means. From a distance.

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