Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review: Mother!

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
For its sheer audacity and imagination, Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!" should currently be at the top of any serious cinephile's list of current movies to see. There's literally nothing else out there quite like this film, which is the type that people are likely to either love or hate. I'll admit to being riveted the entire way through the film, which starts as an unsettling chamber piece and culminates in a sequence that is nothing short of apocalyptic.

This movie was one of the few cases in which I believe that I benefited by knowing - at least, to an extent - how to view the picture while watching it. Suffice it to say that things are not quite what they first appear to be in "Mother!" and it helped that I knew the context in which to view the film from the beginning. Most people will likely figure out what's going on at some point while watching it, but my personal belief is that something is lost by making such a discovery later in the game since there's so much interesting stuff going on during the opening scenes that a viewer might overlook.

So, here's the deal: I find it near impossible to adequately address my thoughts on this picture without giving away some pretty significant details. In other words, if you continue to read this review, there will be some major spoilers. As I'd mentioned before, I found it to be somewhat of a bonus going into the movie knowing what I did. Others might not.

Still here? So, "Mother!" begins with a couple - one of whom is known as Him (Javier Bardem), while the other is known as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) - who live alone in a secluded house that they refer to as their "paradise." She's trying to touch up the place, while he is focused on creating - and I use that word for a purpose. He's a poet, but also much more on that. More on this in a minute.

Randomly, an intruder simply known as Man (Ed Harris) arrives and the poet's attention is diverted to him, which annoys Lawrence's character. Shortly after that, a character known as Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up - and after that, their two bickering sons, one of whom kills the other. Is this starting to sound familiar? Then, more people show up and begin wreaking havoc on the house, eventually breaking a sink that causes a flood, after which the visitors are all banned from the home.

Still not sounding familiar? There's no point in me regurgitating the entire plot, but more people arrive shortly after Mother gives birth to a baby boy. They once again begin to take over the house until, finally, Mother has had enough. A tragic incident prompts her to action and the film ends in apocalyptic destruction. Then, ingeniously, the entire process begins again with a new woman in the house. The first and last word of the film - spoken first by Lawrence and then by the other woman upon awakening in an empty bed - is "Baby?"

So, here's the deal. If you've read this far and want to walk into this experience blind, here's your last chance. If you believe that knowing more would enhance your experience, then here it goes: Bardem's character is God, Lawrence is Mother Earth, Harris is Adam, Pfeiffer is Eve, their sons are Cain and Abel, Lawrence's baby is Jesus, the people who flood the house are mankind and, most importantly, the havoc they wreak is meant to represent the horrid way that humans have treated the Earth, which is represented as the house itself.

If this sounds off the wall, that's exactly how it plays. But there's something brilliant to the whole endeavor. Aronofsky - whose previous films "Pi" and "Noah" also take a cynic's approach to religious matters in fascinating ways - takes risks that most filmmakers would go miles to avoid. The entire premise threatens to be ridiculous and there are moments when "Mother!" borders on it. The film is a bizarre home invasion thriller that represents the creation and destruction of mankind as told through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations, but it's also an eco thriller about humankind's disregard for the place we call home.

No one gets off the hook here. As portrayed by Bardem, God is an egoist who continually attempts to placate the people who are wrecking his home and disrespecting his rules because he needs for his creation to worship him. When he realizes his creation has drifted way off the path, he allows for them to be destroyed and creates a world anew. The film's opening sequence suggests that this wasn't the first time he had attempted this.

Mankind comes off even worse - self centered, destructive, violent (as the house is overtaken by more and more visitors, random acts of cruelty and bloodletting take place in nearly every corner of the home), nihilistic and egocentric. In other words, this is not a date movie. Lawrence's character is the only one meant to draw sympathy - and she, therefore, has the trickiest role since she is intended to be a cypher.

Aronofsky has long been a daring filmmaker. "Pi" was a brilliant debut that channeled the fever dreams of "Eraserhead," while "Requiem for a Dream" is one of the most harrowing movies ever made about drug abuse. "The Wrestler" was a scrappy independent movie that was surprising at the time of its release as it was so stylistically different from Aronofsky's other work and "Black Swan" was a fascinating thriller about the lengths to which artists sacrifice for their work.

"Mother!" blows the roof off, both literally and figuratively. It's over the top, provocative and sure to anger some viewers. It's also a spellbinding allegory that takes great risks. Admittedly, it's not for everyone. If you consider yourself an adventurous moviegoer, you won't want to miss it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review: It

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema
One of Stephen King's most successful elements as a writer is his ability to craft stories that are imaginative genre attractions (hotels that posses their caretakers to commit atrocities and cemeteries that enable the dead to rise again) filled with people who feel all-too human. His characters are flawed but lived-in - occasionally horrible, sometimes noble and frequently recognizable.

His 1986 opus "It," which ran well over 1,000 pages, featured two of King's most well-trod attributes - a terrifying villain and an achingly nostalgic story featuring young characters. His novella "The Body" was, in 1986, adapted into the movie "Stand by Me," which is not only one of the very best cinematic adaptations of King's work, but also one of the most wistfully thoughtful coming of age movies of that era.

Much like "Stand By Me," the novel "It" was set - during its first part - in the 1950s. Its second half took place in the 1980s. In Andy Muschietti's film adaptation, the story of "It" has been transferred to the 1980s and only covers the action from the first half of the book, while the book's second half will likely be made into a second movie that will be set in the present.

As the film opens, a young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) sails a paper boat made by his brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) down the rain-drenched streets of the fictional town of Derry, Maine. The boat sails into the gutter, where Georgie attempts to retrieve it and comes into contact with the story's demonic villain, a sinister presence that takes the form of a creepy clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Needless to say, things don't turn out well for poor Georgie.

One year later, Bill - still traumatized by his brother's disappearance - befriends a motley crew of the town's outcasts - a much slut-shamed girl with an abusive father named Beverly (Sophia Lillis); a small, asthmatic kid named Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer); a chubby, picked-upon kid with a penchant for New Kids on the Block named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); a perpetual jokester named Richie (Finn Wolfhard); the town's seemingly-only African American youth, Mike (Chosen Jacobs); and a Jewish kid named Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). The group's members refer to themselves as the Losers Club.

Each of the children have had run-ins with Pennywise, but also the town's sadistic bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and his cohorts. In the novel, Pennywise often took the form of 1950s horror movie villains - the Wolf Man, for example - that scared the various Losers, which played well for the purpose of the novel, but came off as slightly silly in the 1991 TV adaptation. In Muschietti's film, these sequences are thankfully missing - as well as the highly controversial sex scene involving the Losers Club - and replaced with scenes of the children being taunted by Pennywise as he summons up their worst fears. A painting that frightens Stanley is particularly creepy.

The film's genre elements mostly work. As I've mentioned, Skarsgard is creepy as Pennywise - especially during his first appearance in the gutter - although his ability to constantly pop up directly in front of the kids and take various shapes tilt a few scenes toward the absurd. But the film's biggest selling point is the camaraderie between the Losers, all of whom are likable and appropriately awkward as one might expect of kids at their age.

Whether the second chapter of "It" - in which the adult versions of the Losers Club returns to town to combat Pennywise once more - is successful (in the TV version of the novel, the adult section wasn't as convincing as the one involving the Losers as kids) remains to be seen, but this first chapter is a mostly successful endeavor. Although it doesn't belong in the pantheon of the best adaptations of King's work - which includes "Stand By Me" and Stanley Kubrick's iconic reimagining of "The Shining" - it's an amusing horror funhouse with more heart than you'd typically expect from the genre.

Review: The Unknown Girl

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects
The films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne frequently concern themselves with lives on the edge - persons facing economic plight, weighty decisions and, occasionally, both at the same time. Their previous works include "The Son" (featuring a boy responsible for another young man's death making a connection with the dead kid's father), "L'Enfant" (a young couple gives up a child for adoption and then tries to get the child back) and "Two Days One Night" (a woman about to lose her job attempts to get her co-workers to help retain the position).

In the Belgian brothers' latest film - "The Unknown Girl" - the protagonist, a doctor named Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel), is seemingly well-to-do, but she becomes caught up in another's tragedy. Davin takes pride in the level of care and commitment she displays to her patients and her aim is always to remain sympathetic to the plight of others. One night, she makes an uncharacteristic slip after failing to buzz in someone who rings her office's doorbell after hours.

The next day, Jenny finds out that a young woman - seemingly, the one who rang the buzzer - was discovered dead near her office. Wracked by guilt, Jenny sets out to discover the girl's identity with the intention of notifying the family of the deceased, but ends up drawing herself into a mystery that provides an element of danger.

Similar to "L'Enfant" and several of the Dardennes' other pictures, "The Unknown Girl" plays out as a humanistic drama that often feels like a thriller. The movie is intense - especially as Jenny puts herself in harm's way - due to its storyline, but also in the manner in which human emotions play on the faces of its actors. The Dardennes' films often play as parables or allegories, but "The Unknown Girl" ends on an uncharacteristically mysterious note, during which Jenny meets a young woman claiming to be the girl's sister.

While "The Unknown Girl" doesn't rank among the Dardennes' best - that would include "L'Enfant," one of two Palm d'Or winners for the brothers, and "The Son" - it is an intriguing, well acted and engrossing drama that features a sympathetic and well rounded lead character and a theme of kindness toward strangers that hits home, considering the current state of the world. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the film was noted to be a "minor" Dardennes movie - and, perhaps, it is - but it's still a good one.

Review: Twin Peaks: The Return

Image courtesy of Showtime.
When David Lynch's spellbinding "Twin Peaks: The Return" first aired on Showtime on May 21, it was the first time that a new feature-length work from the filmmaker had been released in 11 years. After having watched all 18 incredible hours of the Showtime series, one thing that jumped out at me was that the show not only appeared to wrap up the story of the titular Washington town where much of it was set - and I doubt he'll revisit it again - but also acted as a retrospective of Lynch's work, utilizing themes and visual cues from "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet" and, naturally, the original "Twin Peaks" series and film ("Fire Walk with Me") and blending them with the darker visuals, themes and Mobius strip-like setups from such later works as "Lost Highway," "Mulholland Drive" and "Inland Empire."

Naturally, I'll be greatly disappointed if Lynch never makes another TV show or movie - and it's possible he might not - but if "Twin Peaks: The Return" is his final - in the words of Kyle McLachlan's Agent Dale Cooper near the climax of the 18-hour series - "curtain call," then it is a fitting one.

But rather than regurgitate the plot of "Twin Peaks: The Return," which would be a Herculean feat in and of itself, I've decided to explore some of the concepts that particularly stuck with me while watching it - which is, arguably, the best way of going about watching the show itself.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review: Wind River

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Taylor Sheridan's "Wind River" has been labeled as a murder mystery and while that's true, the picture - which is the second outing behind the camera for the "Hell or High Water" scribe - is also an old school western - and a very good one at that. Somewhat similar to Michael Apted's 1992 thriller "Thunderheart," Sheridan's film is a mystery set on a Native American reservation.

Only, this time, the setting is the harsh, wintry wilds of Wyoming, where Jeremy Renner's hunter and tracker Cory Lambert bides his time preventing wolves and mountain lions from killing local steer and sheep. Lambert, who has a young son and an estranged wife, is - much like the western heroes of old - hiding some pain from his past that is only slowly revealed.

His scars begin to come to the surface after a young Native American woman is found raped and seemingly murdered in the snow. Lambert tries to console her grieving family with the knowledge that the girl ran six miles in freezing conditions in which most people would last only a few steps, therefore making her a fighter. But he knows from personal experience that nothing, as he points out on several occasions, can make the pain go away, other than time.

Elizabeth Olsen shows up as Jane Banner, the investigating FBI agent, whose proclivity is to not waste time with small talk and get to the point - which, to some, make her appear callous. Upon realizing that her best bet in discovering the girl's killer - or killers - is to work with Lambert, but also the local reservation sheriff (Graham Greene), she enlists both men in the investigation, for which Jane knows that she'll have no FBI backup, considering that the coroner pronounced the girl dead from frozen lungs, rather than the blows inflicted upon her.

Much like "Hell or High Water," the film soaks in the atmosphere of its setting. While that previous picture made great use of desert vistas, "Wind River" presents a frigid, harsh climate that makes one shiver by merely viewing it. During the course of the picture, the evils that men do to one another almost play second fiddle to the wrath of Mother Nature.

Sheridan's picture is an engrossing whodunit but, as I'd mentioned, it also tips its hat to the western genre - and a final showdown between a villain and Lambert's character is one that might have felt at home in an old Howard Hawks or John Ford movie. There's also a particularly tense standoff involving a whole group of characters that is shocking due to how quickly it escalates into a shootout.

"Wind River" is a genre - or genres - movie, of sorts, but it has more on its mind than this. Lambert's character is sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans among whom he lives and there's an expertly made sequence during which he questions a local bad seed - and although he roughs the guy up after he gets out of line, he can also sympathize with the conditions that have led this fellow down a dark road. Much like the best of cinema's detectives or western heroes, Lambert is a conflicted and multi-faceted character - and "Wind River" is all the better for it. It's a well made and rich - both visually and thematically - thriller.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Review: Beach Rats

Image courtesy of Neon.
Eliza Hittman's "Beach Rats" is anchored by a strong breakout performance by its lead, Harris Dickinson, and weakened - to an extent - by the story surrounding him. On the one hand, Hittman does a nice job of creating a dreamy atmosphere and capturing the unhurried aura of wayward youths with no direction. Both her previous film, "It Felt Like Love," and this new picture explore young characters in New York City who are facing some sort of sexual frustration.

And yet, "Beach Rats" doesn't really go anywhere we haven't gone before in other, better films. It's a film that I admire - for the performances and laconic vibe - without ever being completely drawn in by it. You can see where it's going from a mile away and you won't be shocked where it ends up.

As the film opens, Frankie (Dickinson) pals around with his three meathead buddies in Coney Island, where he lives, and chases after women on the boardwalk. But one can tell that he's not completely at ease with this lifestyle, especially after he takes a young woman, Simone (Madeline Weinstein) - with whom he'll have an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the course of the film - home with him and makes excuses for not sleeping with her.

When left to his own devices - and primarily in the dead of night - Frankie meets older men online and, on occasion, meets them in secluded places for hook-ups. He's not exactly gay, but his romantic relationships with women clearly take some work and self-convincing. When prompted to disclose what he wants by the men whom he meets, he frequently replies that he doesn't know what he wants - which comes as no surprise to virtually anybody - and that he doesn't "have a type."

To complicate matters, Frankie lives at home with his sister - who is just old enough to take an interest in boys, much to her brother's dismay - and mother after his father, who is seen wasting away during the film's early scenes, dies from cancer. Although Simone works a retail job, Frankie - and his friends - are seemingly unemployed and not in school. That his mother lectures him on his late-night habits and possible drug intake, but not on the fact that he has no job, is a curious touch.

The film is at its best when Frankie is juggling the make-believe persona that he puts on for his friends and Simone and who he actually is after hours. Unfortunately, "Beach Rats" takes a turn toward the obvious when Frankie suggests calling one of his hook-ups to buy weed and allows his buddies - who are completely unaware of his nighttime activities - to tag along.

Based on her two films, Hittman's subject matter of choice appears to be the challenges of discovering one's sexuality during the teenage years. Her movies remind me of a slightly kinder, gentler companion to those of Larry Clark ("Kids" and, to a lesser extent, "Bully" and "Ken Park"). Neither of her films left me completely convinced, but she does a fine job of capturing the indecisiveness of the age range that she is portraying. Dickinson's lived-in performance is the selling point of "Beach Rats," which is otherwise a mixed bag.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Patti Cake$

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Geremy Jasper's Sundance hit "Patti Cake$" manages to get by on the charismatic performance of its lead Danielle Macdonald and a certain amount of spunk, despite that the picture tells a story that has been told many times in one form or fashion and occasionally suffers from issues of credibility. In other words, you can spot where the film is going from a mile - or 8 - away, but it's the journey that mostly satisfies.

In the film, Patricia Dombrowski - who is unaffectionately called "Dumbo" by folks in her working class New Jersey neighborhood and often ridiculed about her weight - wants to be a hip hop star, but is stuck in a low paying existence in her employment with a caterer. She also has to watch over her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), an alcoholic with a set of pipes that once led her to dream of being a rock star. Now, however, Barb gets soused and performs karaoke at the local bar where Patti picks up a few shifts as a bartender and is often forced to hold her mother's hair while she pukes in the toilet.

Patti's best pal is a scrawny Indian fellow and pharmacist named Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay), who shares in her dream of hip hop stardom and acts as a back-up vocalist to Patti when she freestyles - an early sequence involving this as the two sit on the hood of a car is among the film's most awkward moments. When Patti and Jhen meet another awkward misfit named Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a hardcore metal solo artist who makes Trent Reznor seem tame by comparison, at a talent night, something clicks and the trio formed a group known as PBNJ.

Despite the film being an enjoyable rags to riches story, there are some questions of authenticity that came to mind while I watched it. For starters, there are hardly any people of color to be found anywhere - other than Jhen - during the scenes in which Patti joins in freestyle competitions with neighborhood kids on the streets and a sequence during which she attends a local hip hop performance by a jerk on whom she has a crush. In fact, the only African American to be spotted anywhere is Basterd, who is portrayed as a tortured artist and is vehemently opposed to societal norms, but he then quickly gives in to the mainstream tastes that Patti is pushing and joins her group with seemingly no second thought on the matter. Patti and Jhen record their demo in a wooded shack that Basterd inhabits and could best be described as a "lair."

There's a scene later in the picture during which Patti ends up catering the home of a hip hop mogul whom she idolizes and she sneaks him a copy of her demo. The guy - known as OZ - acts like a complete ass to Patti, but he sort of has a valid point when he accuses her of cultural appropriation, which is similar to charges faced by Iggy Azalea when she embraced the lifestyle of hip hop, but turned a blind eye to its cultural and political implications.

Patti is a more sensitive soul - certainly more so than Azalea or her mother, who tells her to "act her race" - but it seems as if she only interacts with black people when she needs to cut a record in a studio or perform at the film's talent search finale, where the audience goes from booing her - and the film seems to indicate that this occurs since she is a white girl in a fur coat - to cheering her within seconds once she starts performing.

On the other hand, Patti's ridicule at the hands of young men in her community and her bitter mother also make us want to root for her. It also helps that Macdonald's performance is such a good one - she's at once confident and vulnerable - and this helps to glide past some of the picture's less effective attributes. So, while "Patti Cake$" isn't quite the Sundance sensation as it was purported to be, it's a likable, well acted and plucky character study.