Archive for the ‘aronofsky’ category

π

June 24, 2018

pi-2Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut π, which observes its 20th anniversary on July 10, follows in the tradition of other artsy first films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. It’s short — mercifully short, we might say, while acknowledging its ornery brilliance — visually harsh, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white that eventually rubs sandpaper-like against the eye. And it is entirely devoted to its own vision, its own interiorized world. It’s probably not coincidental that anguish and mutilation are on the menu in all four of these movies; you have to be a certain kind of viewer to want to watch them very frequently. Of the four, though, π seems the most interested in the world outside itself, even if only fleetingly and fearfully.

An exacting artist, Aronofsky has made only six films since this one — Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014), and mother! (2017). Many have been polarizing, and I was probably in the minority when I declared the frantic fable mother! the great American film of its year. Aronofsky’s art does not always work for me — I found Requiem and Black Swan pompous and conceived in bad faith — but he consistently takes such chances, swings so hard for the fence, that I can absorb and even respect the two out of seven films that didn’t land for me. π is a workout, no question, and not for everyone, but it has intellectual and spiritual fervor, and even when it stops dead for some mystical exposition, at least it assumes our intelligence (though also our patience).

The movie follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who thinks numbers are everything — are in everything, explain everything. He lives in a crappy, ant-infested apartment with a rickety computer he calls Euclid, which he uses to try to game the stock market. Instead, it spits out a 216-digit number, which Max disregards; then various folks ranging from Hasidic Jews to Wall Street agents descend on him. They all want what he knows; he doesn’t even know what he knows. This aspect of π is sort of a wry indie rewrite of the standard detective story, where the scruffy gumshoe is menaced by people wanting the MacGuffin or the dingus or whatever. Max is a gumshoe of number theory, and the MacGuffin is in his head. Then again, so are paranoia and migraines and, in the notorious but abbreviated climax, a drill bit.

The soul of π, though, isn’t in its thriller tropes (there’s a hectically-staged chase scene that’s as boring as any other chase scene) but in the scenes with Max and his old friend Sol (Mark Margolis), a math warhorse who got a little too close to the flame of numerical truth and had a debilitating stroke. Margolis is 78 now and has always looked 78, even 20 years ago in this film, and we believe him as an exhausted old man who has forsaken math obsession; we also appreciate seeing him as something other than a cold-blooded mobster. The two men sit and talk quietly in Sol’s equally rumpled apartment while they play Go or Sol feeds his fish. It’s top-drawer stuff, and proved that Aronofsky wasn’t just some hip hotshot but an artist engaged with his characters’ emotional readings. (Margolis has gone on to appear in almost every Aronofsky film since, like a lucky charm, except for mother!)

Max is surrounded by people, benevolent or very much otherwise, who want something from him; aside from Sol, the only person he has time for is a little Chinese girl who loves to throw calculations at him. She reminds him, I guess, of a time when his particular strange acumen might have been fun. Enjoyment, relaxation, a rare computer chip — people keep offering Max things to pull him away from his own obsessions, his own head. But he can’t, and won’t, be distracted. He is the damaged loner as outlaw artist, a theme Aronofsky has returned to again and again, or has at any rate lived in his own life. Coming back to π after his subsequent pieces puts them all into perspective — even the hornéd beast mother!, which I would gladly recommend on a double bill with π if it wouldn’t make you come after me with a drill.

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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.

Noah

March 31, 2014

20140331-163415.jpgDavid Lynch’s Dune. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ang Lee’s Hulk. David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Francis Coppola’s Dracula. Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. These are all big-budget movies, based on popular material, directed by artists who made them a lot stranger and wilder and more idiosyncratic than they actually needed to be. These directors could have delivered bland, lowest-common-denominator adaptations — except that they couldn’t have, because the artist demon inside wouldn’t let them. To this short list we might now add Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a genuinely odd and sometimes off-putting work of art, folly, and often both at once.

Aronofsky takes the Biblical story of Noah (Russell Crowe) absolutely seriously, though by all accounts he’s not a Christian. He may not believe in it literally, but he believes in it as a story, a parable. A few years back, the legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb published his word-for-word illustration of the Book of Genesis, and while it was an immaculate work of craft, it had very little of Crumb in it. He seemed to take it on entirely as an exercise. Aronofsky does the exact opposite with Noah, though the craft is still impeccable; he fleshes it out as a psychological war between man and his Creator, which is really a war between man and his own poor understanding of the Creator, who cannot be understood.

Noah receives dread-ridden visions of the catastrophe to come: the Creator is going to wipe the slate clean, leaving only two of each animal to survive and multiply, because they, unlike warlike and greedy man, “still live as they lived in the Garden.” The Creator is wrathful on the highest level: Man, created in His own image, has turned out to be His greatest and most destructive failure. Noah, charged with the preservation of the animals, becomes the conduit for the Creator’s loathing of humanity as Noah understands it. Noah comes from the blameless (and lesser-known) bloodline of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, but he still bears the weight of original sin. Rather than making all this into a bloodless psychological study of a deluded man, Aronofsky does something more difficult — he literalizes the miracles and madness, so that Noah, like Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, comes across as a flawed human tormented by what he thinks the Creator wants from him.

Aided by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky gives Noah’s world a harsh, savage beauty. The Watchers, fallen angels who help Noah build his ark and defend him against the army of the corrupt Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), are truly bizarre monstrous creations, covered in rock and mud as punishment for defying the Creator by helping Cain. Noah is a frequently dotty mash-up of fantasy, scripture, environmental activism, and dreamlike cinematic technique. As such, it’s the most fully alive and exciting film out there right now, and quite possibly the year’s first great American movie, or at least one with greatness in it. It feels utterly uncompromised, a pure shot from the source.

Crowe anchors the whole unwieldy thing with a calmness that comes to seem a bit frightening. He almost never even raises his voice; he doesn’t need to. By the time Noah is contemplating murdering his own newborn granddaughters to adhere to what he interprets as the Creator’s plan, he’s essentially lost us, but Crowe hasn’t. The movie is full of moral wrestling like this, as well as king-hell battle scenes and the genuinely horrifying disaster of the great flood itself, which sweeps away the innocent and sinful alike — though who’s innocent and who’s sinful? The society we see that’s judged worthy of extinction isn’t much different from ours — we’re actually worse. Noah might look at what’s become of creation and stab the hell out of those babies. The movie doesn’t quite reconcile Noah’s convictions with the future of mankind, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a work full of life, splendor, terror, awe, and foolishness — the kind of stubborn art-epic we get once in a blue moon, the sort that makes me feel protective of it, grateful for it.

Black Swan

November 28, 2010

In Black Swan, the new psychodrama directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Natalie Portman looks harrowed and anguished even when she’s happy — maybe especially when she’s happy. As Nina Sayers, a young ballerina whose heart is set on dancing the White Swan/Black Swan in an artsy production of Swan Lake, Portman puts on quite an Oscar-baiting show — sobbing, suffering physically and mentally, picking pieces of flesh off of herself. She has the physique for the role, but she doesn’t move like a ballerina; she’s graceful, but even in character as an uptight young woman who has the technique cold but can’t surrender herself to the dance, Portman just seems like a very conscientious actress going through tormented motions. And that’s true of her performance offstage, too.

Black Swan is a high-pitched affair that sometimes risks silliness and sometimes achieves it. The risk is important — the movie is nothing if not impassioned — but overall the film is too rigidly schematic to be truly wild. Underneath the twisted eroticism that slowly gathers, Aronofsky and his writers (Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, John McLaughlin) find nothing much but an old, tired theme of duality — more tired yet, the Madonna/whore duality. Nina meets a fellow member of the company, Lilly (Mila Kunis), a looser dancer and a looser person in general. Under Lilly’s tutelage, Nina finds it in herself to relax into pleasures of the flesh — the flesh Nina is otherwise too busy neglecting or punishing. For me, Mila Kunis, a heretofore amusing minor actress, took center stage; her Lilly, alive to everything and not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, is a relief from Nina’s wallowing in despair, her issues with her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) and on-the-make director (Vincent Cassel). Kunis became what I looked forward to.

But mostly we’re stuck with Nina as she unravels. At times, when Nina starts hallucinating about various self-mutilations and freakish transformations, Aronofsky ventures a few steps too far into David Cronenberg territory. But Cronenberg, the director of such body-conscious horror-dramas as The Fly and Dead Ringers, would have brought a frosty intellectual beauty to Nina’s mad visions; here, it’s just ugly, borderline schlocky. Aronofsky has a fine cinematographer (Matthew Libatique), but most of the movie is drab hand-held business, when it might’ve benefited from a locked-down, classical style. In a handful of scenes, Winona Ryder, as a viciously miserable star ballerina pushed into retirement, throws off enough Joan Crawford camp and legitimately felt pain to shake the movie up. Her scenes opposite Portman have a juicily catty subtext: There was a time when your role — your movie — would have been mine, you bitch. (For all I know, Ryder was warmly supportive of Portman on set and brought her cupcakes every afternoon; but where’s the fun in that?)

A ballerina’s life is no picnic, and the art may draw more than its share of driven, neurotic young women, but past a certain point the central conflict — whether poor little Nina will get her head squared away and rise to greatness — seems kind of remote and rarified. It certainly doesn’t intersect with very many concerns the rest of us have, and it doesn’t have the style or story to pick up the slack. For all its freaky-deaky identity games and weird gore and panting lesbian action, what Black Swan resembles more than anything is one of those tepid movies of the ’70s in which nice white girls, oblivious to common worries of money and life, spent the whole picture moping before finding themselves. It’s a very first-world-problem movie, in which sheltered Nina has the luxury of wigging out and enjoying both the misery of being hated and, at last, the doomed ecstasy of being loved.

The Wrestler

December 17, 2008

Mickey Rourke is a beast in The Wrestler, though, of course, one with heart and soul. His character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, used to be huge on the wrestling circuit in the ‘80s. Now, after countless mistakes and the body slams of time itself, Randy lives in a trailer (when not forced to sleep in his van when he can’t make the rent) and pops painkillers to get through the day. He works part-time at a supermarket, lugging boxes back and forth. He still wrestles; the ring and the milieu itself (the locker room, the flea-bitten conventions where he sells memorabilia) are the only places he gets any respect.

The Wrestler, written (by Robert Siegel) as an above-average washed-up-palooka tale and sensitively directed by Darren Aronofsky, will work best for you if you have any residual affection left for Mickey Rourke, who, like Randy, seemed poised to own the ‘80s but then threw it all away. On one level, the movie is an art-house Rocky Balboa, in which Rourke, like Sylvester Stallone, stages a comeback parallel to his character’s. We feel for and root for Randy (as we felt for and rooted for the elderly Rocky) for reasons that go well beyond the screenplay. Rourke napalmed his own career through arrogance, and now he returns, hungry and humble, wanting only to do the work.

Randy shambles through snowy New Jersey, finding no solace in life outside the ring. He tries to get something going with a kindly stripper (Marisa Tomei), but she doesn’t quite know what to make of him — is he into her because she’s a stripper, or what? For a while, reconciliation seems possible between Randy and his daughter, not because the script sells it so well but because Rourke brings a tender desperation to his scenes with Evan Rachel Wood, and she’d have to be made of stone not to respond. The movie gets a little on-the-nose when Randy has a heart attack in the second act, but Rourke and Aronofsky ignore the easy symbolism; there’s a fine scene when Randy takes a shower, trying to protect the cellophane-wrapped gash in his chest as if it were a new tattoo.

I’m always eager to learn from a movie, especially about what people do for a living, and The Wrestler offers some insight (which feels authentic) into the inner workings of wrestling: the pre-match meetings between “foes” to determine which moves they’re going to use on each other; the razor blade hidden in the wrist wrap to draw one’s own blood for effect. The punishment gets nasty at times (the staple-gun bit has already become infamous), but we see that for Randy, it’s just a part of the gig, though he doesn’t bounce back from the damage as quickly as he used to. Real life is infinitely more painful for him — sitting alone in his trailer, drinking himself to sleep, clinging to whatever brief contact he can get (the scene in which he and a neighborhood kid play a Nintendo game featuring a pixellated Randy “the Ram” is both funny and sad).

With the exception of his underrated death fantasia The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky has always been drawn to the grit and despair of the down and out, starting with his debut Pi and continuing with Requiem for a Dream. This movie completes the trilogy, I guess; it’s atypical in Aronfsky’s portfolio in that there’s nothing visually flashy about it whatsoever — the only pumping-up comes from ‘80s hair-metal songs, Randy’s preferred personal soundtrack (the scene where Rourke does a barroom dance for Marisa Tomei to Ratt’s “Round and Round” deserves to go on a greatest-hits montage of his screen work). Aronofsky keeps his camera steadily on his star, knowing that Rourke brings everything the movie needs — himself, and his intimate knowledge of failure. It’s one of the decade’s great performances.

The Fountain

November 22, 2006

Izzi (Rachel Weisz) wants her husband Tom (Hugh Jackman) to walk with her in the first snowfall of the year, as they’ve always done. He would like to, but he can’t: he’s busy trying to find a cure for the brain tumor that’s killing her. The Fountain, a visually enthralling and emotionally overpowering fantasia by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (π, Requiem for a Dream), seems to have baffled many impatient critics and left many audiences cold. At this point, a lone reviewer’s quest to save the movie is almost as challenging as Tom’s quest to rescue Izzi. But I will try, and I will state it plainly: If you have ever taken my advice to see a movie and found yourself grateful you’d seen it, please go see The Fountain before it leaves theaters. I don’t do this often, but there may not be much time left.

Aronofsky has fashioned a spiritual triptych out of the story’s main conflict, a doctor’s drive to discover a remedy for his dying wife. Izzi is writing a book, called The Fountain, about a conquistador (Jackman) whose queen (Weisz) sends him to find the Tree of Life, whose sap gives eternal life. There is also the tale of a futuristic man (Jackman) speeding across the cosmos in a bubble that also contains the Tree. Yet underneath all the symbolic trappings is a very simple parable about how love can transcend death because it gives life meaning. That’s what Tom, throwing himself into research and missing his chance to spend time with Izzi in her final days, must learn.

I admired Aronofsky’s 1998 debut π, but his 2000 Requiem for a Dream seemed trendy and shallow, not honestly felt. The Fountain is Aronofsky’s triumph, an intoxicating blend of luscious cinematography (by Matthew Libatique) and brooding score (by Clint Mansell). Every frame hums with passion; like 2001 and Solaris (both versions), this is an art film in sci-fi dress, speaking eternal truths in the language of light shows. The actors shoulder the three-story burden effortlessly. By now we know Rachel Weisz can be winsome and enchanting, but here she brings a brittle kind of bliss to a woman who has come to terms with her own passing. The real revelation is Hugh Jackman, who jumps without fear into the sort of role that could’ve turned him into a laughingstock — he brings emotional urgency and transparency to the saga.

The Fountain is a fragile egg, easily cracked in cynical times. It’s sure to be misread as a soft-headed, muddled New Age treatise, but what it actually has to say is a good deal more tough-minded: that you had better love honestly and well in this life, because you don’t get a do-over. Death can be transcended but not conquered or denied. In all three incarnations, Tom is in perpetual motion, running away from his loved one towards something he believes will guarantee eternal life with her. Even his future-self — having lived centuries thanks to his medical breakthrough — turns away from the spirit of Izzi to hurtle through space towards Xibalba, the dying nebula wherein, he believes, he will be reunited with Izzi. But really the future Tom exists only in Tom’s mind — a cautionary tale of a literal bubble boy, sealed off from life and fixated on an impossible dream — just as the conquistador Tomas lives only in Izzi’s imagination. As in The Fisher King, the characters construct fantasy to process painful reality. The results may strike some as pretentious and others, like me, as adventurous and desperately moving.

Approach The Fountain as a love story informed by a grab bag of philosophies — Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Mayan, take your pick — with sumptuous images to match, and you’ll have the key to its eternal life. It’s really nothing more complicated than the story of a couple, one of whom embraces life and so embraces death as a part of life, the other of whom tries to control life and death and is ill-equipped to deal with either. It’s a simple story told with Zen directness, its fingers deep in the age-old questions, its eyes and ears wide open to the sensual potential of cinema. For my money, The Fountain is the best that American film has to offer this year. If more movies equally daring and powerful are to be made, this one needs your support.

Requiem for a Dream

November 3, 2000

Movie critics have little or no power, but they like to feel they do; one way they get their power fix is to anoint a director the Chosen One every couple of years. The last Chosen One was Paul Thomas Anderson, who made the gripping little debut Hard Eight and then followed it with the critics’ darling Boogie Nights. This year’s Chosen One is Darren Aronofsky, who made the gripping little debut π and has now followed it with the critics’ darling Requiem for a Dream. Both, I must report, are overrated cases of sophomore slump and been-there-rented-that.

Requiem for a Dream is based on a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., whose work has been translated to the screen once before, in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Having seen both films, I suspect Selby has a thing for drab, dribbling narratives about grungy, desperate losers; he also has a thing for women being sexually humiliated before an appreciative audience of horndogs, since both films end with such a scene. It could be that Selby’s style, in print, has mitigating wit and flavor that keep the material from tottering into modish masochism. On film, what we see is human wreckage marching to the grim beat of their own predetermined ruin. Whether the director is Last Exit‘s gloomy, hyperserious Uli Edel or the gloomy, hyperactive Aronofsky, Selby’s material needs humor — something it lacks onscreen, as yet.

The script, credited to Selby and Aronofsky, focuses on four cases of despair and burnout: lonely widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), whose devotion to a garish TV infomercial seems her only connection to life; her son Harry (Jared Leto), a young heroin addict; Harry’s friend and drug partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans); and Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), whose parents, of course, gave her lots of money but no love. That’s more than enough misery for one movie, and Aronofsky, fracturing the narrative with clever tricks, does everything but run the film backwards and upside down to dislocate us, play with us, and keep our interest.

Unfortunately, he fails on the last count. Aronofsky strains to get an impressionistic drug experience — the highs, the lows, the anxiety over scoring the next fix — onto the screen. We may sit and think “That’s an innovative way to suggest inner chaos,” but we don’t feel it. And, frankly, a movie about a guy freaking out on a math equation (π) is more interesting than a movie about people freaking out on drugs, because we’ve seen Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name just two recent drug films, and many others in the past. If anything, Aronofsky’s doomy, freaky, humorless style defeats his own purpose: It re-animates the dark romance of dissolution — it makes addiction look cool.

Ellen Burstyn almost rescues the movie. Sara, trying to lose weight in time to appear on her beloved TV show, gets hooked on uppers and downers prescribed by a rather inattentive doctor; she loses pounds, all right, and also her mind. Her story arc is tragic and moving, a sharply painful odyssey whose artistry and compassion mostly earn the pain it causes us (I could’ve done without her drug trip involving a killer fridge, though). Burstyn keeps us completely with her all the way through Sara’s bottoming-out; it’s a ferocious and courageous performance from an actress who’s never much cared about glamour (she doesn’t make addiction look cool).

By contrast, the other three actors are glamorous — and hollow. Marlon Wayans keeps his energy level up as Tyrone, but he’s bouncing off the blank wall known as Jared Leto, the most inexpressive pretty boy to slouch through movies since Christopher Lambert. Leto is pretty much a dud, and since the film centers on his character, it suffers badly as a result. And the male critics waiting for Jennifer Connelly to wake up and give the performance that will justify their laughable drooling over her (she is easy on the eyes, but so is a screensaver) will have to keep waiting, probably forever; Connelly is a dud, too. Requiem for a Dream is worth seeing for Ellen Burstyn and her unflinching descent into hell, but try not to think about how much better she is than the rest of the cast — or the movie she’s in.