Archive for September 2017

mother!

September 23, 2017

mother2“Words cannot describe,” said a man loudly in the theater, “what we just saw.” What we’d just seen was mother!, the audience-infuriating new whatsit from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). As it happens, Aronofsky has many words to describe it, and he’s been unwisely sharing them in the film press. Luckily, I kept my eyes and ears virginal before sitting down to mother!, so I didn’t know — and you shouldn’t either — his allegorical explanation. Some will interpret it another way, as a male artist’s unconscious apologia for what the pursuit of his art can do to the one he loves. Others still may take the movie’s events literally, which the movie doesn’t discourage for about its first half, at which point it saunters casually for the exit in the house of logic, clears its throat, and takes a Nestea plunge into apocalyptic surrealism.

If that sounds like your cup of art, I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you from catching mother! while you still can on the big screen (and with big speakers — the sound mix is brutal), or eventually on home video, probably sooner than its studio, Paramount, would prefer. If, on the other hand, you are spiritual kin to the middle-aged ladies who sat near me commenting at frequent intervals about how stupid the movie was, I would advise you to stay the fuck home. I came out rattled, relieved that it was done with me, and somewhat exhilarated. mother! is art, for sure, sincere and emotionally loud and taking place entirely in the landscape of a bent imagination; it is also unafraid to speak the language of schlock, and it amuses me that the climax that appalls so many viewers is actually the ending of so much bland Hollywood fare — blood and fire and bullets and explosions.

I am actively avoiding the story. I can safely reveal this much. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a house that she’s fixing up. The house was once his until fire consumed it. While she plasters the walls, he sits around trying to write (he’s a poet). One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) visits, soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The doctor is a fan of the poet’s work, and he and his wife stay the night. Some stuff happens. Exit doctor and wife. Later, the poet impregnates his wife and starts his greatest work within the same 24 hours. His book comes out and is a major success. He gains a horde of new fans. Meanwhile, his wife is about ready to pop out the baby. She does so, amidst a cataclysm of hellfire and cannibalism and a gun-wielding Kristen Wiig. There’s more.

No doubt about it, mother! is the most audacious folly a major studio has allowed an American filmmaker to pursue since Southland Tales, which also collapsed into ecstasies of fireworks incongruously involving veterans of Saturday Night Live. The tension ratchets up deftly; the 24-frames-per-second representational recording of a movie keeps us locked into interpreting it literally from moment to moment, until it vehemently parts company with reality. The trope of the guests who won’t leave, wreaking chaos in one’s home, is robust enough to get our anxiety pumping. As the movie got crazier, I responded gratefully to the visual and aural hyperbole. But the burn leading up to the light show is slow and uncomfortable … and a little irritating.

Art has a right — an obligation — to irritate occasionally. I’m glad I saw mother! and glad it was made, but I don’t want to see it again (a reaction I also had to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another pure horror movie that trafficked in the Biblical). Aside from Aronofsky’s deafening virtuosity, there is pleasure in the performances, especially Ed Harris’ portrait of a man in decline. I wouldn’t say mother! offers no entertainment value, but it rises to a level of unpleasantness, even as allegory, that feels punitive. I’ve respected Aronofsky’s films even when I didn’t like them. You don’t always have to like art. I didn’t like mother!, but I think I might love it, or some of it, anyway. Twice in a row now, Darren Aronofsky has made batty, antagonistic, gobsmacking swings for the fence, about what he considers the biggest problem facing humanity. In a culture that increasingly values only childish power fantasies, movies like this are to be protected and highly regarded. Just not liked.

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Leatherface

September 17, 2017

leatherface-teaser-750Fans of Mary Harron’s 1996 biopic I Shot Andy Warhol might want to know about Leatherface, the umpty-umpth chapter in the seemingly deathless Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. In the earlier film, Lili Taylor played Valerie Solanas, the disturbed woman who committed the titular act, and Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol “superstar” who took Valerie under her wing for a while. I imagined Taylor and Dorff — once possibly the queen and king of ‘90s indie cinema — laughing it up together between takes on Leatherface, in which they reunite as two people on severely opposite sides of the law. Here, Taylor is Verna, matriarch of the cannibalistic Sawyer family, and Dorff is Hartman, a Texas Ranger driven around the bend when his daughter suffers a cruel death at the hands of the Sawyer boys.

The thought of Taylor ribbing Dorff on set about how good his ass looked in a dress twenty years ago is funnier, and more entertaining, than anything in Leatherface. Which is a shame, because for the first time, possibly, since Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there are actual accomplished directors at the wheel and not schlock non-entities. The French duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo are known to international horror fans for their debut, the gore-drenched thriller Inside. Their next two features played at a couple festivals over here but didn’t otherwise make much of an impact, and they contributed a segment to The ABCs of Death 2. Oddly, all of those projects featured the fearsome actress Béatrice Dalle, but alas, the diastematic diva doesn’t figure in Leatherface, perhaps because the movie would then have to explain what a French woman is doing in Texas backwoods. (Or actually Bulgaria standing in for Texas.)

Inside had a relentlessness, a hungry gaze into the abyss, that made me hopeful for Leatherface. But the Gallic duo are strictured by the movie’s R rating; the body count is high, and blood becomes buoyant, but the movie cuts away from a clear look at the carnage almost spitefully, as if the directors resented having to stay within MPAA bounds. Instead of going goreless, like Tobe Hooper’s original masterpiece, Leatherface teases us with how bloody it could be but isn’t allowed to be. Still, these filmmakers have an eye, and much of the movie looks like some foul dark fairy tale with flesh-eating goblins and homicidal woodsmen. Set mostly in 1965, the film plays with 20th-century archetypes — the killer romantic pair, the kindly nurse, the sensitive boy in a dysfunctional family. The young man who will become the inarticulate, flesh-mask-wearing chainsaw killer Leatherface escapes from a corrupt mental institution along with aforementioned nurse (Vanessa Grasse) and sicko lovebirds (James Bloor, Jessica Madsen).

The psychos-in-love are so far out there they work a rotting corpse into their carnal routine. The nurse is as pure and blameless as you could ask for. That leaves the relatively good-hearted (though violent if necessary) inmates Jackson and Bud, the former stoic and smart, the latter hulking and inarticulate. I think which one ends up becoming Leatherface is supposed to be a surprise, so I won’t spoil it. At times, mostly in the dynamic between these damaged boys and the nurse, there is the slightest whiff of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, but just the stale aroma of a blown opportunity. Why not — Leatherface pays homage to everything else, never becoming its own movie.

The recently excused Tobe Hooper is credited as an executive producer on Leatherface, a probably-honorary credit. Hooper’s Chainsaw is often imitated, never duplicated (or bested, say I), a sui generis sweatbox odyssey that seems to owe nothing to any other film before it. Leatherface feels properly respectful, made by filmmakers who idolize the original, and that’s also its weakness: it’s a jumped-up fan film, and because it’s meant to be a prequel to Hooper’s movie it’s locked into whatever happens in that movie. It can’t deviate from what we know, and can’t truly surprise us, though I will say that Drayton Sawyer sure ages a hell of a lot between 1965 and 1974, and that we’ve now seen a Mama Sawyer but still haven’t seen a Papa. And two decades after co-starring in one of the defining mid-‘90s indie films, Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff ended up in Bulgaria yelling at each other and getting covered in sticky Karo syrup and having more fun, I hope, than I did.

Beatriz at Dinner

September 10, 2017

beatrizatdinnerI’m not sure whether Beatriz at Dinner is, as advertised, “the first great film of the Trump era” (Get Out might beg to differ), but that’s a reductive tag anyway. Its concerns go deeper (and it was finished months before Election Day 2016), so don’t let that description scare you away or foster unrealistic expectations. The movie is not the savage jugular-punch to the current administration that some will want and others will wearily and warily expect. It’s accidentally topical — it could just as easily have been made in the mid-2000s, on the heels of the two other films by Beatriz’ makers, Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). But director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White speak to today’s preoccupations precisely by not tying themselves to the present.

The movie is archetypal, not satirically specific. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist and general holistic healer, and also an immigrant. Her opposite number here is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a real-estate magnate who seems to represent the values that validate Trump without actually being much like Trump. Mike White allows Doug some wit and self-awareness (he’s way too well-spoken to be a Trump parody), and Lithgow makes him quick and shrewd, but with an understanding that Doug’s self-opinion is deeply divided. Doug is reflective, even existentially aware of his place in the world. In his way, Doug is the most honest person in the movie. He’s joshingly cruel but he never pretends to be anything other than what he is.

Beatriz is brought into Doug’s sphere when she’s stuck at a client’s house by car trouble. Her client is Kathy (Connie Britton), the sort of conscientious rich white woman, blind to her own privilege, who thinks of her massage therapist Beatriz as a friend because having a woman like Beatriz as a friend makes a woman like Kathy feel warm and gracious. (She commiserates tastefully when a saddened Beatriz says her neighbor killed her goat.) Beatriz knows they’re not really friends, though she once treated and helped Kathy’s (offscreen) daughter through her chemotherapy. She knows how easily a rich white person’s affection is given, and withdrawn. Beatriz doesn’t say much until some wine loosens her tongue, but the great actress Hayek writes an entire novel wordlessly, with stares of despair or outrage.

Beatriz at Dinner has also been described as a comedy, but it isn’t really — the level of camp is awfully low (it spikes a bit in some of Beatriz’ flights of fantasy), and the few laughs are uncomfortable. There is one top-notch twisted joke: these rich people love passing grotesque photos around on their phones; it happens twice, and both times Beatriz is horrified, and finally livid. Beatriz is more or less marooned at the California mansion of Kathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) as an important business dinner, involving Doug Strutt, looms later in the evening. Amusingly, except for Doug, the men seem indistinct; the women come off snappy and precise. They’re intelligent and know the right things to say to continue presenting as compassionate people, but some part of their soul is gone, scabbed over. They enable their men to kill the world.

Sometimes Hayek’s Beatriz is powerful Earth Mother, other times just a slumped, small-statured woman trying to get through the day. She is the conscience of the earth, but hardly its consciousness. She feels others’ pain, even a dying octopus, and may be too intense an empath to function in a harsh world created by the rich and white. She seems to understand Doug, or would like to think so (she keeps saying she knows him from somewhere), but Doug has her number the moment he lays eyes on her. His final words to her reverberate far past the end credits. Beatriz at Dinner is being sold as some sort of Greenaway-esque satire of manners, but it’s a good deal more troubling than that. It bothers us long after it’s over, bringing us back to Beatriz’ death-haunted eyes, looking for the man who killed her goat.

England Is Mine

September 3, 2017

england-is-mine-2017-jack-lowdenEngland Is Mine is a somewhat interesting drama about depression and about women as lifelines, and a much less interesting biopic about Morrissey. The erstwhile Smiths frontman is only vaguely to be seen in this portrait of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s teenage years in Manchester in the ‘70s, enduring banal jobs and idiots all around him and constant rain and the loneliness that comes with being a self-proclaimed genius. This is a Morrissey — if such a thing is possible — even more insufferable than he was after he got famous. And I say that as a huge fan of the Smiths and Morrissey. The man is a pompous ass and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately the younger pompous ass in the film never quite strikes us as Morrissey, but as a generically mopey teenager rolling his eyes in disdain at everything. There’s little of the self-aware wit of the genuine Morrissey. Jack Bowden gets the thankless task of inhabiting Morrissey, and in the lad’s shaggy-haired period, Bowden looks more like a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Then he cuts his hair and suddenly more closely resembles Jim Parsons. Toward the end of the film, Bowden shows up in Morrissey’s signature quiff and almost gets there. Looks aren’t everything, of course, but Bowden also lacks Morrissey’s fiery miserable core, the inner passion. And we can’t seek solace in at least hearing the grand Morrissey voice, either, I assume because the film couldn’t afford the music rights.

So really the only way we know we’re watching a film about Morrissey is that the film tells us. He could be just any sensitive Mancunian goof who goes on to bigger and better things — after the film ends, which is to say the film ends before it becomes entertaining. But when the movie focuses on Morrissey’s relationship with various women in his life — his sympathetic mother, female friends who boot his ass a rung or two up the ladder — it becomes a different and more emotionally sound film. Girls like Anji Hardie (Katherine Pearce) and Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) take young Steven by the scruff and more or less forcibly get him connections, a band. (I have learned that Morrissey and Linder are friends to this day; he’d better take her out for dinner regularly.)

I would’ve loved The Steven and Linder Story, but the film keeps remembering it’s a biopic of a musician, so we get tepid scenes like the one in which Steven first sees the Sex Pistols in their legendary Manchester gig, except they’re blurred out and the fake-Pistols music is mixed down so it sounds like generic punk. That one night could support its own movie, but here it’s just perfunctory and dull. Steven’s tastes are fully formed (girl-group melodrama, kitchen-sink British films) yet only vaguely alluded to; someone already versed in Morrissey could sit there and check off the influences, but someone who goes in knowing nothing about the man will see only the surface, the occasional photo or song snippet. Towards the end, the mighty guitarist Johnny Marr enters the picture (played by Laurie Kynaston as a warm if inarticulate presence) and points the way to the genesis of the Smiths, and that’s a film I might have liked, too.