Sunday, September 17, 2017
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.
Disturbing and fascinating, sometimes horrifying and unpleasant, Darren Aronofsky in MOTHER once again proves himself a master of surreal storytelling.
Bracketing the film are a succession of images: a face consumed by flames; a sparkling gem placed in a holder; a ramshackle house stirring to new life; a woman awakening and calling for her husband. . . Then a series of unfortunate events ensues, culminating in a kind of nasty home invasion of unwelcome guests. A fire engulfs everything. The cycle begins again. . . .
What is MOTHER about? Part One: It’s about newlywed Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce attempts to renovate a home for herself and her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she plasters the walls and cleans the floors, he’s sitting at his desk before a blank sheet of paper nursing a creative funk. But when a strange, sinister family comes to call (chillingly portrayed by Ed Harris and a most unpleasant Michelle Pfeiffer), he lets them in. Against her will, he allows them to take over the house. Chaos erupts and the horde of strangers trash the house. There’s a killing. Finally, the invaders leave. Reunited now with her husband, the wife discovers she is pregnant.
What is MOTHER also about? Part Two: The second half shifts focus. Her husband is a raging egomaniac. He values nothing unless it feeds his drive to write new poetry. And so, while the wife awaits the birth of the baby, the writer welcomes another home invasion. This time, it’s crowd of hero-worshipers, come to his door to celebrate his new book. Their quiet adoration turns into a candle-lit religious ceremony, then devolves into mob anarchy and violence, and soon turns the house is utter chaos. During all this, the baby arrives. The mother fiercely refuses to give it over to the husband. But he wants to show it off to the crowd. He wrests it out of her arms and bears it high above the crowd. They worship it; and then they tear it to pieces. Enraged and quite out of her head, the mother sets fire to the house. The husband cradles her burnt body, whispering that the inspiration the mother gives him can never be enough. He adds, that’s the essence of the creative urge. He must take and take from her and she must give and give—even her beating heart which he tears from her chest. He wrests it from her body and crushes it in his hands until a hard, diamond-like gem is produced. Amidst the flames engulfing her body, he carefully places it in a cup.
We’re back where we started. And, after the house comes back to life, the cycle begins anew. A strange woman awakes and calls for her husband. . .
In the first half, seldom does a film concentrate more relentlessly on a single character than MOTHER does on Jennifer Lawrence. The camera holds her in a tight closeup, following her rambles around the house, recording her every reaction to events, registering her every psychological anxiety and fear. Through her eyes, we learn that the house is a living thing, with walls that dissolve into fetus shapes, drains and holes that are like wounds that bleed, and a basement that gives birth to mysterious tunnels. In this regard, the first half of the film owes a lot to that other masterpiece of psychological disintegration, Roman Polansky’s Repulsion.
On the other hand, as the film continues into the second half, we realize that her deterioration, in a way, is the psychic consequences of feeding her husband’s writer’s block. And when the second home invasion arrives, he’s fairly reveling in their adoration and anarchic energy. It’s as if he swells and grows, his mighty ego fair to bursting. The artist as selfish monster, demon lover. And here, we may speculate that MOTHER is about the relationship between star Jennifer Lawrence and director Aronofsky. It’s no longer a secret but now open and public. Thus, we wonder if the abuse that is visited upon Lawrence’s character by her selfishly egomaniacal husband might somehow draw from the dynamic between actress and director.
Our fascination in the first half turns into repulsion in the second. While Aronofsky teases and tantalizes and dreams in the first, he batters and overwhelms us in the brutality of the second. Some of us will come away, feeling as brutalized as the character of the wife. Others might stay, wondering if there will be a third part of the ongoing cycle of fire and destruction.
Monday, September 11, 2017
It is a perfect demonstration of those occasional delights (in this case, scares) you sometimes encounter upon coming across a film with absolutely no prior knowledge of it. I was absently cruising Amazon Prime late one night when I came across this title. It was only 59 minutes, so despite the hour I impulsively gave it a look. It was billed as a documentary about a ghost hunter. Ordinarily I find things like this laughably absurd, because in spite of all the technology employed no ghosts ever have the courtesy to present themselves.
But here, although no spectral figures materialized, I was left at the end with one of the most hair-raising shocks I have ever suffered.
Since then, I’ve told many friends about this, but cautioned them: Watch the film first, and only after that check out its backstory.
At any rate, at the outset, THE BLACKWELL GHOST, seemed different from your ordinary store-bought paranormal investigation. This ghost hunter was no professional camera geek but merely a back-porch hack making a living by making clunky “zombie” video quickies. On a whim, he launched a one-man investigation into a purportedly haunted house in a Pennsylvanian suburban town. His inquiry picks up steam when he is invited by the occupant to visit the house and hear its story: It is a tale of thumps and bumps in the night, of doors and lights that click on and off, and, most intriguing, of a cellar with an underground well into which a previous occupant, one “Ruth Blackwell,” had dispatched the dismembered bodies of her victims.
Some research at the local library reveals that in 1941 a woman named Ruth Blackwell had indeed lived in that house and murdered and dismembered several victims and discarded them into the well in the cellar. A photo exists of Ruth, a decidedly sinister character about which nothing more is known.
The rest of THE BLACKWELL GHOST is an on-camera, first-person documentary that depicts our investigator and his wife spending three days and nights in the house. Armed with some makeshift cameras and microphones, they settle in. The first night is disappointingly bereft of spooks. The second night brings on a few strange sounds but little else. Determined to leave after one more night, they encounter during a thunderstorm a whole new battery of incidents that leaves them fleeing the house.
And left me shaken, baffled, and, above all, curious about what I had just seen.
Let me isolate one incident from the events depicted: One strategy our ghost hunter employs to trap any trickster ghosts is to place a soccer-ball-sized sphere on a table in the living room, an open invitation for a ghost to move it. Later, during that last, terrible night, alarmed by the noises downstairs and the appearance of veils of smoke triggering the smoke alarm, he ventures below. He discovers that every faucet in the house is on and that the power has been switched off. Down in the cellar, with only weak illumination from his light stand, he gropes for the breaker switch. No luck. But he can’t help noticing one new detail about the cellar: The sphere that had been placed on a table upstairs is now sitting atop the heavy grate covering the well opening.
Hours later he and his wife quit the house.
The film ends with no explanation or end credits. We have yet to learn the identity of our intrepid investigator.
Okay. That’s it. I must admit I swallowed this whole thing, hook, line, and cellar. All the paranormal, found-footage movies out there notwithstanding, I bought it all.
I later learned that THE BLACKWELL GHOST is, in all probability, a hoax of exceedingly clever achievement. No such house, no Ruth Blackwell, no account of the crimes exist. The clumsiness of its narrative structure, its amateurish execution, the goofy tactics of its unnamed narrator, the failure to deliver any spooks of substance—all contribute to its apparent veracity. You can go back and review it and detect all kinds of telltale evidence to the contrary—where is the camera for that scene, why are the characters not named, why are there no credits, for example. . . ? We don’t even know who the filmmaker is. Yet, the very fragmentariness of it all, as if a length of video film had been ripped off a larger reel and hastily abandoned, contributes to it strangeness. Calculation, if it is here, is superbly planned and executed in a manner that conceals its artistry.
I am left with that glimpse in the flickering light of the cellar of that blasted ball sitting on top of the well grate. What it signified, what it suggests, is with me still.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Directed by Aisling Walsh, starring Sally Hawkins as Maudie and Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis
Midway through MAUDIE, while the little lady known as Maudie bends to her paintings, she absently closes the door on her husband, who lingers outside. It’s a tiny glimpse into the shifting polarities of their relationship as wife and husband. When she had first come to his tiny little home, she had been only a humble housekeeper, paintings disdained and rejected. But as they began to sell to customers passing by, she assumed an equal role in the household as breadwinner, while he was consigned to the cleaning and cooking. Both grow into their roles.
Thus does MAUDIE track these dual trajectories with one of a series of finely observed moments. It’s a quiet film but it makes a great sound. And as widely-heralded as Sally Hawkins is in the role of this arthritically-disabled woman, with her hunched posture, downturned head, and sly grin, we should give equal time to Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of the stoic, gruff, and not very likeable husband. Hawkins has already made her distinctive mark in several Mike Leigh films, including Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky; and here she continues her chameleon-like gallery of roles. To be sure, the Ethan Hawke of HAMLET and Great Expectations has already proved his acting chops, but here, as the barely-literate Nova Scotia fisherman, he demonstrates how to say so much about his life and emotions with such finely-observed detail.
Pair MAUDIE with another portrait drawn from real life of a so-called “primitive” painter, Martin Provost’s Seraphine (2008), one of my very favorite films. In that powerhouse drama, we see another drab and emotionally-disabled domestic-cum-celebrated painter. In likewise humbling circumstances, she too attracts attention far beyond her circumstances. But in a marked departure from MAUDIE, Seraphine falls victim to exploitation in the art market. Worse, she succumbs to a mental deterioration and spends her last days in a mental institution.
Beyond their exterior likenesses, both films blossom into color with the paintings of both women. Maudie captures the stark simplicity of flowers and scenes from local life. Seraphine paints the flowers of the region and arranges them into intricate patterns. The paintings in both instances are produced through hardscrabble living conditions and with the most modest of tools. Despite their unlikely origins, the paintings provoke us with great power and poignancy.
Praise be to both films, not just portraits of two strong women who forged highly idiosyncratic images that both captured and transcended their worlds.
MAUDIE, unlike Seraphine, ends with a note of personal triumph. While Seraphine is consigned to an institution and sits alone, abandoned, at the foot of a great tree, Maudie graces her dying breath with her last words to her attentive husband, “I am loved. I am loved.” That is the triumph of both her and her husband. Like her paintings, is a starkly simple expression.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Directed by William Oldroyd and starring Florence Pugh as Katherine, Cosmo Jarvis as the groomsman, and Naomi Ackier as the maid
While the carnal lusts and vicious murders in LADY MACBETH left me disturbed, the reviews on the placard in the theater lobby left me confused and not a little irritated. “A Feminist Parable,” screamed the headlines. Really? How did this portrait of a Lady betrayed and abused turn into a Lady vengeful and murderous? And how does this constitute a feminist statement?
The “Lady” of the title is Katherine, newly married and the mistress of a rural farm house in mid-19th-century England. When first seen, her face is chastely concealed by a white bridal veil; when last seen, her prolonged stare into the camera is an implacable, if enigmatic, challenge to the viewer. Another contrast is between her appalling wedding night as a new bride ordered to undress and stand naked against the wall, while her impotent husband abuses himself offscreen; and the penultimate slaughter of said husband (and his horse, too). What transpires in between are the increasing neglect and abandonment by her husband, her torrid affair with the groomsman, and her executions of husband and father-in-law. A complication to all this is the late appearance of a woman demanding redress for the illegitimate baby fathered by Katherine’s errant husband. What is our Lady to do? Bent on removing this unwonted intrusion into her domestic bliss, if that is what it is, she methodically suffocates the child with a pillow. She does her best to cover it all up, while the local authorities grow increasingly suspicious. Terrified at all this, the hapless groomsman escapes into the forest. And Katherine sits down on her couch, glares at us, and—what?
As I said, those inclined to view this as a feminist statement wreak their own violence on this dismal portrait of isolation, sexual frustration, and destruction. It seems to me what we have here is the kind of “feminism” ascribed to the icon of the savage Lilith of the Apocrypha. Books like Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s classic The Madwoman in the Attic, Ann Jones’s Women Who Kill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” all present portraits of women who protest their repression and marginalization through lust, madness, and murder. The “Angel in the House” becomes the “Monster in the House.” Studies like this seem to verge more on pathology than feminism. Putting it another way, feminist resistance, as we have come to know it through the rhetoric over several centuries, from Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 1790s to Camille Paglia and Betty Friedan in our present day, is twisted into a lame justification for a murderous anti-male bias.
I wonder, does this not commit an injustice of its own on the ideal of the feminist drive for dignity and equality?
No question, Katherine is a Victorian Lilith. Her crimes, including the almost casual shooting of her husband’s horse and her methodical suffocation of the innocent step-son are scenes carefully and graphically staged, difficult to watch and even more difficult to justify on any terms other than her own selfishness and bloodlust. Best consider LADY MACBETH as an indictment of Victorian society and as a psycho-pathological study of a woman wronged beyond endurance, which is truly terrifying and disturbing on its own terms, rather than as a feminist statement. The latter interpretation, I submit, is more disturbing than anything in the film.
Directed by David Lowery, and starring Rooney Mara as “M” and Casey Affleck as her husband, “C”
[NOTE: I ordinarily don’t just reprint a movie review by somebody else, but I have to admit this review, posted on the Roger Ebert Reviews web site, seems very insightful. I would simply add that this film does at least two things commonly ascribed to the traditions and tropes of ghost stories, namely, (1. it teases us with the possibility of an after-life, whether we want it or not; and (2. It examines how ghosts are assigned a place, or location, from which they may not stray. This in itself may symbolize how stubbornly we cling to our mortality, reluctant to leave it behind. The sheeted figure in A GHOST STORY is a silent witness to both. Both themes are interrelated, of course. On the other hand, A GHOST STORY violates one of the most cherished aspects of ghosting, the frisson of fear and trembling. This alone may put off many viewers, lured into the theater by the title and the emblem of the sheeted figure. If the movie is enigmatic about its meanings, we are left to ponder them on our own, just as we keep starring at that sheeted figure, into the blank depth of the eye-holes, wondering as we watch, after awhile, if they change expression from scene to scene, teasing us with their “Rorschach” aspect. I would also add that the long monologue midway through concerns Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and how it has become part of our public and cultural consciousness over the centuries, and how it may, ultimately, and inevitably, suffer a mortality of its own. Finally, I have to admit I was more intrigued conceptually than involved emotionally with the story. Its longeurs, including extremely long and static takes, tend to wear you down... rather like time itself, inexorable, which claims all of us in the end.]
I rarely see a movie so original that I want to tell people to just see it without reading any reviews beforehand, including my own. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is one of those movies. So I’m urging you in the first paragraph of this review to just see it and save this review for later. If you want more information, read on. There are no spoiler warnings after this because as far as I’m concerned, everything I could say about this film would constitute a spoiler.
This tale of a man who dies young and lingers around the property where he and his wife once lived is bound to be one of the most divisive films of the year. I didn’t know anything about it going in, except that its main character was a person who dies and spends the rest of the movie walking around mute, wearing a white sheet with eyeholes cut out of it. The film is a ghost story, in the sense that there’s a ghost in it, but it’s also many other things: a love story, a science fiction-inflected story about time travel and time loops, and a story about loneliness and denial, and the ephemeral nature of the flesh, and the anxiousness that comes from contemplating the end of consciousness (provided there’s no life after death—and what if there isn’t?).
The characters are so archetypal that they don’t have names, just initials. C (played by Casey Affleck) is a musician who lives with his wife M (Rooney Mara) in a small house surrounded by undeveloped property somewhere the vast flatness of Texas. C dies in a car crash early in the story but continues to linger on as a ghost, silent observing his wife’s grief and her eventual exit from the home they once shared. He stays in the house as new tenants move in, including a single mother (Liz Franke) and her two children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Guiterrez) and some presumably young, single people who throw parties with lots of bohemian artist-types. Time keeps moving forward, and at a certain point the house gets leveled and replaced by a gigantic luxury condo-hotel type of development. C stays rooted to the spot where he died, as if he’s still stuck in the “denial” phase of the grieving process.
The movie’s two most fascinating formal traits are its decision to keep C under the sheet for much of the film’s running time, and the way it moves its story along with hard cuts instead of dissolves, fades to black or other signifiers that a lot of time has passed. The sheet denies the film’s leading man most of the tools he’d normally use to communicate emotion; he must instead approach the character as if he were onstage in a play where gestures were more important than words, and try to convey surprise, sadness or anger simply by holding his head and shoulders in a particular way, or turning quickly instead of slowly to look at something.
But this opens up a different kind of relationship between character and viewer: we’re projecting ourselves onto C as we might as children playing with dolls or stuffed animals. Simple, powerful emotions can be summoned that way, and it’s those sorts of emotions that are this movie’s specialty. There were many stretches where I was reminded of European art cinema classics like “Stalker” and “The Passenger,” which derive much of their power from asking you to commit to staring at the images the film has put in front of you, and think about what they might mean and how you feel about them. There are other times when the film is reminiscent of “Groundhog Day,” in its ability to weave guilt, karma, and fear of change into a story that might otherwise have played as a light diversion.
The hard cuts that move us through the story convey the idea that C perceives time differently than we do. In a scene that involves decay, which I won’t describe in too much detail here because it occurs in a context I didn’t expect to encounter, a body becomes a skeleton in a series of cuts that last about 30 seconds. The deeper we get into C’s story, the more Lowery teases our perceptions of time, until by the end he’s got us questioning the idea of singular, linear experience. (“A Ghost Story” would make a great double feature with Shane Carruth’s “Primer” or Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” two other Texas films about the perception and experience of time.)
“A Ghost Story” feels bracingly, at times alienatingly new. It’s a movie you can’t be quite sure how to take. There are moments where the movie seems to be handing you keys to interpretation, but I’d caution viewers against looking at such scenes for answers, because they have a rope-a-dope quality—as if they're designed to bait and trap those who would sneer at this kind of movie. In any event, this is a film that's more inclined to ask questions than answer them, much less give life advice. A long monologue by a party guest (Will Oldham) about humanity’s doomed attempts to leave traces that last, especially through art, would seem to suggest that a song C writes for M will outlast him, but we have no evidence of that. The film’s presentation of ghosthood as a purgatorial in-between state, inhabited by individuals who refuse to let go of the life they can no longer have, jibes with many Western religions’ ideas about the afterlife, but I don’t think the resolution of C’s story gives us any hope of Heaven; to me it seemed more like a warning to be at peace with the possibility that we may never know the answers to the big questions.
I should admit here that any take I can offer is provisional. I need to see the film a second time to sweep away preconceived notions that might’ve been lingering in my mind during my first viewing of “A Ghost Story.” The movie is so simple in its storytelling and its situations are observed so patiently that the result has a disarming purity, as if Lowery jammed a tap into his subconscious and recorded one of his dreams directly to film. It’s probably the closest that a lot of people are going to get to seeing a late-period silent movie on a big screen—a melodrama that deals in big ideas and obvious symbols, and that puts across fantastical concepts, such a ghost haunting the landscape over a period of decades, by putting a sheet over its leading man and having him walk around slowly and stare blankly at stuff. (Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoots the movie in the old-fashioned, square-ish “Academy” ratio, letting us see the rounded edges of the frame; this has a constricting effect, so that we seem to be spying through a keyhole at someone else’s life.)
People either seem to love “A Ghost Story” or hate it, with no in-between. It got mostly very positive notices during festival screenings, but on the eve of its commercial release I’ve found myself arguing with colleagues who think it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes and find it too precious, too sentimental, too much of a one-joke movie, or not enough of one thing or another thing. I loved everything about it, including the scenes I wasn’t sure how to take. I recommend seeing it in a theater because it’s a movie that has as much to say about our perception of time and permanence as it does about love and death. Much of the impact that it has, positive or negative, comes from having to sit there and watch it without interruptions and think about what it’s showing you, and how.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
BABY DRIVER is, quite simply, as astonishing achievement, part supercharged chase movie; part love story with a sweet center (rather like those noir classics, Gun Crazy and They Live By Night); and all things Hollywood dance musical. But for all that it stands on its own. For those like me, relatively unfamiliar with director Edgar Wright and actor Ansel Elgort, it’s a declaration of sorts. Here am I, it seems to say, where have you been???
When he’s not driving like a canny maniac, when he’s not paying off debts to a local gangster (Kevin Spacey), when he’s not falling in love with the pretty waitress (Lily James)—he’s taking care of an aging deaf and dumb black man, confined to a wheelchair. There’s a telling moment early in the film when the old man advises Baby (for that’s his name, until it’s finally revealed to be, tellingly, “Miles”) to “spread the peanut butter to all the edges of the bread.” Remember that. It’s a handy way of describing how director Edgar Wright has crafted this movie.
Indeed, BABY DRIVER spreads its events, dialogue, songs, and dance choreography right to the edges of the frame. They demand our eyes and ears pay attention, lest we miss some detail, gesture, and song lyric. In a way, it’s a live-action throwback to the great Disney cartoon shorts of the 1930s, where the entire frame—every character, every stick of furniture, every flower bud—anthropomorphically ticks and throbs to a musical beat. That tempo is the powerful engine that drives Baby Driver. Baby’s mix tapes propel his car and provide the downbeat for everything he does and everything that animates the world around him. Baby’s traversal of the city streets at the beginning—an amazing uncut take—is tightly choregraphed to the music of “Harlem Shuffle.” Two heist sequences are timed to the beats of “Bell Bottoms” and “Neat Neat Neat.” And you won’t believe how “Tequila” figures in to the action. . . . The songs denoting Baby and his girlfriend, Debora, Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” and Simon and Garfunkle’s “Baby Driver,” are leitmotifs throughout that surround and animate the lovers. Right in the middle of the action, he and the other characters will suddenly lip-synch, right on cue, a few words to a song that’s been running all along, either as a diegetic or non-dietetic event. The world is in thrall. Heck, even the windshield wipers sweep along with the beat.
The story is conventional enough: Baby is a young, preternaturally gifted wheelman who will be free of his handler if he’ll just do one more job. But the heist goes bad and the thugs turn on each other. Everyone is ultimately blasted to kingdom come, ultimately—
—except Baby. From first to last, at the wheel of the waiting getaway car in the beginning, and waiting out his last days of a prison sentence at the end—he’s the silent, rather stoic still point of the film. Ear buds attached to his ears, a mix tape at the ready, sunglasses hiding his eyes (he seems to possess an endless supply of sunglasses), he’s a Sphinx, tuned in to an auditory Other World. Except that Other World of pop songs is Our World, too. His interior acoustic universe is also our own exterior experience. The two are joined. And it’s a miracle.
THE MUMMY, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starring Tom Cruise as Nick, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wellas as Jenny, and Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll
THE MUMMY is presumably desiccated—I mean, dedicated— to all you Mummy fans out there. You’ve been loyal through numerous movie exhumations, from the Karloff classic in 1931, through serials and sagas from Hammer Films in the 60s, to the recent Brendan Fraser trilogy at the turn of the new century. Now Tom Cruise appears in the newest incarnation; and if he wears a perpetually perplexed expression at the goings-on, who can blame him? Or us?
The story is about an unearthed ancient Egyptian queen in quest of a bejeweled dagger with which she can impale Tom Cruise and transform him into her unholy partner as a “Living God.” Indeed, for some fans (most obviously Cruise himself) it’s always been a short hike from Tom Cruise Movie Star to Tom Cruise Living God.
As if those ambitions aren’t dubious enough, film makers and screenwriter David Koepp have ripped off the “Waking Dead” and zombie genres in general. Queen Amunet’s minions are shambling, murderous piles of deadly ash shambling hungrily after every human in sight. And for reasons entirely inexplicable to me, the script introduces Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll into the fray. Dr. Jekyll??? He shows up and gnashes his fangs momentarily before retiring back to his lab.
What results is one of the worst movies of this or any year. It lumbers around like Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney in those terrible “Mummy” movies of the ‘40s. Bereft of anything new to offer, it shamelessly exploits every Horror Trope known to man. It’s in tatters like the Mummy herself.
However, credit the makeup staff for providing Sofia Boutella a sexy shroud bikini in which to strut her stuff.
As for Cruise, he somehow avoids Queen What’s-Her-Name‘s clutches, only to die himself and arrive, resurrected, an Arab chieftain traversing the Burning Sands in search of—what? I’m not sure. The movie concludes with him on horseback, racing toward the Hollywood horizon.
Footnote: It’s interesting to remember that the whole “Mummy” saga was fashioned long before Hollywood, in the delicate hands of a 19th-century teenaged woman, one Jane Webb. She wrote the Grandmummy of all mummy stories in 1827, a scant decade after her Sister in Horror, Mary Shelley, reanimated her own creature in the novel, Frankenstein.