Wednesday, 20 September 2017

mother!



Wow! 

Wow!

It’s not surprising that my first Wow! film in almost six months should come from writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who has made a number of Wow! films, including Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, though his last film (Noah) was, for me, a dud. More surprising is that a double-wow film should come out of Hollywood (Paramount), indicating that some studios are not afraid to take a major gamble for the sake of cinematic art. 

Because make no mistake: mother! is not typical studio fare. Indeed, mother! is so beloved by the masses that it gets an average of “F” (on a scale from A+ to F) on CinemaScore (one of only a handful of films ever to sink to such glorious depths), which surveys audiences when they leave the theatre. One prominent reviewer calls mother! “the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios”. In The Observer, Rex Reed, giving mother! zero stars, writes: “With so much crap around to clog the drain, I hesitate to label it the 'Worst movie of the year' when 'Worst movie of the century' fits it even better.” Reed dismisses positive reviews as "equally pretentious" and "even nuttier than the film itself.” In the National Review, we read that “pregnant women, those with nervous constitutions or heart conditions, and anyone who happens to be burdened with good taste should stay far away from mother!

If that isn’t enough to get you rushing out to your local arthouse cinema, I don’t know what else I can say to entice you. Oh, yeah, well, I guess I can encourage you to run, not walk. Away, that is! Run away!!  You do NOT want to watch this film! Trust me on this. No one wants to watch this film. I really need to see it again to catch what I missed the first time, but the idea of doing so fills me with dread. Of course, the thought of watching Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan (both of which I consider cinematic masterpieces) again evokes a similar response.

What to do with this Aronofsky fellow, whom I can only describe as a mad genius? Are his films pretentious misguided attempts at a new cinematic art form or are they indeed unparalleled works of cinematic art? I don’t feel qualified to answer that, but anyone who consistently makes films so mesmerizing from start to finish that they leave me in a daze long afterwards must be doing something right. Mesmerizing is the word that sums up mother! for me. The performances, especially by Jennifer Lawrence as our protagonist (mother) and Michelle Pfeiffer as the uninvited guest from hell who intrudes on the younger woman’s carefully structured and beautifully maintained space, are all mesmerizing, as is the stunning cinematography.

You may have noticed that I have said little about what mother! is about. Actually, I’ve probably said too much already, because this is one of those films where the less you know, the better (though since I’ve told you to run away, what does it matter, right?). But I will flesh out the film’s opening a little more: ‘Mother’ and her husband, the poet (played by Javier Bardem), live in a gorgeous mansion in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly a man (Ed Harris) appears at the door, followed soon after by his wife (Pfeiffer). They make themselves at home, so to speak. Then their sons show up (played by real-life brothers, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) and all hell breaks loose (to be fair, ‘all hell breaks loose’ is rather an understatement here). 

I had heard mother! described as a psychological thriller, but let me assure you that it can safely be called a horror film. That is misleading, however, because mother! actually belongs to a genre that I dare not mention at this point (I promise to write an updated review in a month to allow the less wary among you time to watch mother! without preconceived ideas about what you’re getting into). I will only say that there are various ways of understanding the horror that is mother!

I have no doubt that mother! will tank at the box office and disappear in record time for a studio film. Perhaps Paramount will logically decide never to take such risks again (for Hollywood it’s usually all about the money). But it’s a shame, because Aronofsky represents the cutting edge of American filmmaking. My jaw was in my lap for about six hours and I can only reward such experiences with ****. My mug is up, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Sense of Wonder



The only way that I can beat Vic to seeing a movie these days is when I watch a French film. Last week I watched Le Goût des Merveilles, (translated in a way that loses the play on words - merveilles referring not just to "wonders" but to a simple fried-dough pastry popular in southern France that Louise, the protagonist, sells in a market along with her pears).

The film is a warm dramedy, starring Virginie Efira and Benjamin Lavernhe, and centres on a widowed mother of two trying to make a pear orchard work. But she's up against a changing economy, a corrupt co-op, and a tempting compromise. Into her life pops Pierre, a bright and sincere young man with Aspergers. The movie explores whether this is a complication or a solution.

While the film is more warm and light than seriously eye-opening, it seems to me that it does a good job of finding a balance in Pierre's role as a main character who is not neurotypical. There is some mystery and some unpredictability. It doesn't overplay sensitivities. It's just a respectful story of a type that we don't see too often - relatively realistic given the comedy genre and a few oversimplifications that might come from that.

The film is also beautifully filmed and finely acted. If you're up for subtitles, I'd check this one out. My mug is up and I give it ***+

Friday, 8 September 2017

Wind River



Wind River could have been a classic, even a Wow!, but in the end it lost its way.

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the amazing Sicario and the brilliant Hell or High Water, Wind River is full of amazing and brilliant scenes of its own. Unfortunately, just one not-so-brilliant scene was enough to knock off a half-star and keep Wind River out of my top ten of the year. The same thing happened with Hell or High Water, though I did give it four stars anyway. Sicario actually shared similar flaws, but the nature of that story allowed me to overlook them in a way I can’t do this time. Bottom line: I think Sheridan and I need to have a long chat. 

Wind River stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a wildlife officer/game tracker in Wyoming who stumbles across the body of his close friend’s teenage daughter lying in the snow in the middle of nowhere (there’s lots of nowhere in Wyoming) on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It looks like foul play, so the FBI is called in, but they send only one agent: the young Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who has no idea what she’s getting into (or how to dress for the weather). Ben (Graham Greene), the world-weary local sheriff, is more than a little worried about Jane’s abilities, but she starts her investigation on the right foot by asking Cory to assist her. Cory, Jane and Ben work together to track down (literally) the crime and the criminals. Along the way, Jane learns a few things about Indigenous culture from people like Cory’s friend, Martin (Gil Birmingham) and the parents of Cory’s ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones): Dan and Alice Crowheart (Apesanahkwat and Tantoo Cardinal). 

The acting by all those mentioned above is natural and terrific, with a special nod to Olsen and Renner (it may his best role). The characters are well-written and largely well-developed (I would have liked to know a lot more about Ben’s story), though Cory, like too many other Sheridan characters, was much too hard (too macho?) for my liking (especially as he is the protagonist). 

The writing as a whole is exceptional, with lots of Sheridan’s brilliant dialogue (especially evident in scenes involving Indigenous people). I particularly appreciated the fact that the story, inspired by true events, was written to attract attention to the issue of North America’s many missing and murdered Indigenous women. Very few films depict the  difficult life of Indigenous people today as well as Wind River does. The grief involved is very well presented in Wind River. But the denouement, which felt more than a little anticlimactic, included the scene I mentioned above, one that was so violent and over-the-top (reminding me of Tarantino), and ended with such a bad line, that I could only shake my head with disappointment, imagining what could have been. A great ending (like the ending of Sicario) could have made Wind River my favourite film of the year. 

Given the setting for the film, the cinematography could hardly go wrong and it didn’t disappoint, with lots of mountains and snow. As an offbeat modern Western thriller, maybe the violence is not out of place. And I know that Sheridan’s heart is in the right place. But for now I must stick with my initial reaction and give Wind River only a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Lady Macbeth



The very young Florence Pugh, an actor to watch for in the years ahead, plays Katherine, a woman living in rural north England in 1865 who is forced to marry Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age, to pay off a debt. The marriage does not seem to involve either love or sex and it does not take long for Katherine to get understandably frustrated and lonely. Her thoughts turn to Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of her husband’s workers, and a passionate affair ensues, with predictably negative consequences (as the title of the film suggests). Two members of Katherine’s household who play major roles in the story are Anna (Naomi Ackie), the maid, and the nasty Boris (Christopher Fairbank), Alexander’s father. None of these five unique and interesting characters is particularly sympathetic, though some are definitely more sympathetic than others.

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a gorgeous film to watch, with a terrific haunting atmosphere and with excellent performances by a largely unknown cast. As a study of racism, classicism and sexism that continues to be relevant in our time, Lady Macbeth is brilliant. It should, perhaps, be recommended just for that. The only problem here (and it’s a huge one) is that I didn’t really like/enjoy this film.

Not that it was a chore to sit through, and I’m glad I watched it on the big screen, but it’s rare for me to enjoy a film, and be fully engaged with its story, if there aren’t any sympathetic characters. Lady Macbeth not only lacks such characters, it is so cold and dark (again, this is suggested by the title) that it often made me cringe. So, in the end, Lady Macbeth is a well-made film that deserves at least a solid ***+ but gets only *** from me, for purely subjective reasons. My mug is up, but I won’t recommend this to most readers. 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Ghost Story



This small super-low-budget indie arthouse flick lasted only a week in Winnipeg and I doubt if it was watched by more than 100 people in total. I saw it on what is usually the busiest day in that cinema (half-price day) and there were at most fifteen people in the theatre with me. Five of those walked out after the first half hour of the film, murmuring short phrases to convey their overwhelming disappointment with the time they had just wasted. At that point in the film, the five had just spent almost five minutes watching a woman eat a pie, with no camera movement and no sound (other than that of the woman chewing). This was one of the film’s biggest action scenes, so I can’t imagine why they chose that moment to leave (sarcasm). Sadly, they just missed seeing the woman dash to the bathroom to relieve herself of the just-eaten pie.

But seriously, David Lowery's A Ghost Story is one of my favourite films of the year so far. The almost complete lack of action, dialogue and camera movement did not concern me in the least. Neither did the fact that this ‘horror’ film (yes, it does qualify) has almost no scares disappoint me. With its slow-moving poetic and (of course) haunting scenes, this simple horror film could have been made by Terrence Malick. 

A Ghost Story is, as the title suggests, the story of a ghost, only this time it’s told from the perspective of the ghost. The ghost in question is that of C (played by Casey Affleck), a young musician who was deeply in love with his wife, M (Rooney Mara) before a car accident claimed his life. Bu C doesn’t want to let M go, even after his death. Unfortunately for him, his white-sheeted figure is confined to the house in which he was living just prior to his death. Here he can only stand (or walk around) and watch. Sometimes, like the aforementioned eating scene, time seems to drag on for C. Other times, we see him zipping through days, weeks, even years. 

What’s most amazing about A Ghost Story is how this unimaginatively dressed figure manages to convey complex emotions as he watches the various scenes. On rare occasions, those emotions even lead to the taking of action. It’s profoundly moving and thought-provoking. While the theme of the film might be death, it is also very much about the meaning of life. Ideally, watching this film would be followed by a long discussion over a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, you’ll be lucky to see it at all let alone find someone who would be willing to watch it with you. 

A quick note to say that I loved the cinematography and the score (the score was minimal, but it was beautiful and well-used). The acting was solid throughout but nothing outstanding. A Ghost Story gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



Luc Besson’s new sci-fi adventure film is a big gorgeous mess. I say this with a lot of appreciation and frustration - for what might have been. 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a series of French graphic novels called Valerian and Laureline. The film begins with the destruction of a beautiful planet called Mül which is inhabited by a peaceful and simple humanoid race. While a small group of survivors escapes the destruction, one of those who didn’t make it is able, before she dies, to send a part of herself (soul?) to the sleeping Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan), a young human police officer in a giant city in space called Alpha. When Valerian awakes from the dream, in which he sees the destruction of Mül, he learns that his new mission is to recover the last Mül converter from a black market dealer. The Mül converter is actually a small creature that can produces dozens more of whatever it is fed. With his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), with whom he is in love, Valerian is able to complete the mission, but this has consequences he and Laureline could never have imagined, with conspiracies to combat and  the genocide of an entire species on the line.

Along the way, we meet such characters as The President of the World State Federation (Rutger Hauer), Valerian’s commanding officer, Arün Filit (Clive Owen), a shapeshifting entertainer named Bubble (Rihanna), Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) and the galaxy’s most wanted criminal, voiced by John Goodman. Most of these are barely more than cameos, but they’re all fun to watch. Unfortunately, they may be more fun to watch than our two protagonists, whose acting is only barely adequate (DeHaan in particular is a questionable casting choice). 

But then again, there is so much insane action in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and so little character development, that perhaps it would be impossible to do a convincing portrayal of the protagonists. The action is the film’s biggest handicap, filling so much time with pointless chases and stupid violence (which would have required an R rating if it hadn’t been for the alien blood) that the intriguing story at the film’s core is all but lost. As a result, the film’s first half hour and last half hour are actually very entertaining and even profound, while the 75 minutes in between is almost a complete waste of time (and so boring for me).

That intriguing story concerns the survivors from Mül (add another l and you have the German word for ‘garbage’, which may be something to think about). To me, this story seemed like an obvious allegory about colonialism, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and even capitalism. Unfortunately, this story is overwhelmed by all the craziness Valerian and Laureline get involved in before they meet the Mül. So sad. 

So in spite of the absolutely gorgeous CGI cinematography, the great cameos and the powerful story at its core, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets only ***. My mug is up, but the stuff inside could have been so much more delicious. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Atomic Blonde



Atomic Blonde is a dark and violent indie spy film directed by David Leitch and starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Early on, the fact that the film is based on a graphic novel series (called The Coldest City) is obvious, but it becomes less obvious as the film goes on (for good or ill). Unlike Dunkirk, this action film has a complex cleverly-written story, full of twists and turns that I almost (but not quite) figured out (just the way I like it). Unfortunately, too much of the film was filler that had little to do with the story (but it’s an action film, so what can you expect?). 

Theron plays British super-spy Lorraine Broughton, who, like James Bond, works for MI6. Broughton is assigned to Berlin just before the wall comes down in November, 1989. Her predecessor has been killed by a KGB assassin after acquiring a list of agents from an informant named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). The list, contained in a watch, is now in the hands of the assassin. Broughton’s mission is twofold: retrieve the list and identify (and eliminate) a double agent codenamed Satchel.

As one would expect, things start to go wrong for Broughton the moment she lands in Berlin (the same thing happened to Bond more than once). Can she handle it (rhetorical question)? But things continue to go wrong after she meets up with her partner, David Percival (McAvoy), who is based in Berlin and has made contact with Spyglass. Things go even more wrong after Broughton makes contact with a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). And then they go wronger yet. As the threats against Broughton’s life intensify, the violence becomes more graphic and fatal. Of course, we know from the outset that Broughton will survive, because she’s narrating the story to her MI6 bosses (played by Toby Jones and James Faulkner) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), who was also involved in the Berlin mission. We know Broughton will survive but we also know that something went very wrong with Broughton’s mission.

Theron, who has always been a favourite, is absolutely terrific as Broughton, making as good a female Bond as any actor could. McAvoy is excellent as well, and Goodman is always a joy to watch. The setting and atmosphere of Atomic Blonde, in terms of date in history, location, and the film noir feel, add a great deal to the story (I love spy stories set in Berlin) and the cinematography and score are both very good. The ending is more than satisfying despite some decisions that made me cringe.

Not all is perfect, however. I am not a fan of hand-to-hand combat, no matter how well it is done. If it gets graphic and nasty, all the worse. There is far too much of this kind of action in the film (and action in general, of course, but it is an action film, so it’s hard to complain too much). Because this is a dark R-rated spy film, I can also handle a fair amount of violence without too much complaint, but the violent action was still a bit too much for me.

What confuses me most about Atomic Blonde (and Dunkirk) is the critical response to these films. The biggest complaint about Atomic Blonde (which gets an average of only **+ from major critics) is either that the story is poorly written or that there just isn’t enough of it (personally, based on their reviews, I think a number of critics couldn’t follow the plot). The latter complaint resonates a little, but how then to justify the four stars for Dunkirk, which has little or no real story at all (other than the rescue of 330,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk). 

In the end, I found Atomic Blonde much more entertaining than Dunkirk and I’m giving it a solid ***+. My mug is up.