mother! (2017) Review – Surrealist, Nightmarish Horror

mother! (2017) Review - Surrealist, Nightmarish Horror

So here’s the thing about Darren Aronofsky’s latest cinematic provocation: it’s amazing that this movie exists. That’s not to say that no other filmmaker would be capable of making a surrealist nightmare horror movie like mother!, but who else could get it made by a major Hollywood studio with big name stars and a general release? Matter of fact, it’s unlikely that Aronofsky himself will ever pull this off again. For now, we can all marvel. In malls and suburbs across North America people are going to sit down for what looks like a spooky Jennifer Lawrence horror yarn and leave feeling as scared and confused as they are scared. That’s a good thing by the way. It’s nice to know that it’s possible for Aronofsky to not only make his strangest film since Pi but deliver it on this scale.

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Jennifer Lawrence (left) and Javier Bardem (right) in mother! (2017) – images via Paramount.

Plot descriptions for this movie can’t help but feel misleading or confusing, but let’s try anyways. Jennifer Lawrence plays a character known only as Mother. Javier Bardem plays her husband (credited as Him). He’s a poet with writer’s block, she’s a housewife struggling to pull together their isolated home that is in constant disrepair—the symbolism is loud and clear. Into their crumbling home wanders an unexpected guest in Ed Harris. He’s a big fan of Bardem. Next thing you know his wife shows up (Michelle Pfeiffer). They both refuse to leave and seem to be consumed with making Lawrence as uncomfortable as possible. Then their kids show up. There’s a murder. The blood spills on the floor and the stain turns into an open wound. This is when things start getting weird. Well, weirder than before anyways. Nightmarish even.

If Black Swan was Aronofsky’s stab at surrealism as a subjective nightmare from a woman with fragile sanity, then mother! is a movie that starts in a mind plagued by psychosis and slowly spirals out of control until the audience is questioning their own sanity. It starts with heightened visions of awkward intrusion and then the next thing you know the house is filled with people committing almost every conceivable form of human atrocity. Unsurprisingly, it happens once Lawrence gets pregnant. There are Rosemary’s Baby vibes aplenty, but conventional psychological horror isn’t nearly enough for this movie. This operates on nightmare logic. Reality is but a thread that pulls us along and terror seems to spring out of every unknowable corner.

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Jennifer Lawrence in mother! (2017) – images via Paramount.

Despite a concept rife with opportunities to show off with big sweeping visuals, Aronofsky mostly keeps things tight. With a few stunning exceptions, he primarily uses the handheld prying visual style of The Wrestler and Black Swan to trap viewers with Lawrence’s character, unable to control or understand the madness exploding around her. Performances are all stylized, from Lawrence’s constant rising panic to Bardem’s creepy calm and especially Harris and Pfeiffer’s darkly comedic sycophants. There’s a layer of dark humour undercutting all the nastiness and nuttiness throughout, keeping Aronofsky from getting too pretentious. That’s a good thing because this is a bonafide art horror film somehow granted a mainstream release. There are layers of symbols and meanings. It could all be a horrific metaphor for motherhood or artistic creation or some sort of twisted religious parable. It’s hard to say and there’s a chance that not even the filmmakers are certain. That’s not the point.

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mother! (2017) – images via Paramount.

Sure, mother! is most certainly a movie that is much too much. It has some profoundly unsettling imagery. It’s somehow both willfully obtuse and loudly overstated. The film is designed to frustrate and discomfort viewers, not always in positive ways. It ain’t perfect, but dammit it’s an undeniably intense cinematic experience and a remarkable Hollywood experiment. mother! is exactly the sort of director-driven head-trip that the studio system should stomp out. Yet here it is, and even better, it’s a searing and scarring experience that impossible to forget or shake off regardless of whether or not you understand or even like what Aronofsky accomplished. This is not his best movie or his worst, but It is certainly his most daring and terrifying. Not to be missed by viewers who enjoy the entertainment strange and morbid—especially on a screen so large that you can’t possibly escape.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Movie) Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Movie) Review

Well, it took an extra movie, but The Hunger Games has finally come to a close. Yep, the saddest and dourest of all YA franchises wraps up in particularly sad n’ dour fashion. The series certainly deserves big points for providing the YA blockbuster genre with some welcomed intelligence and social commentary. It’s just a shame that despite starring the most charismatic and energetic actress on the planet, this series proved to be so depressingly dull. Granted, The Hunger Games is a far better watch than any of the similarly dystopian teen sagas to hit screens in its wake (Insurgent, Maze Runner, et all), but the final chapter doesn’t offer much of the satisfaction and smiles that typically accompany a final entry in an ongoing series. Instead, it might be the most depressing film of the franchise. And considering the fact that we’re talking about a story founded in televised kid-killing, that’s really saying something.

Things pick up seconds after the end of the last movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is getting sick and tired of being used as a propaganda figure by the leader of the resistance (Julianne Moore). She wants to fight and she will. But first she has to deal with the fact that her sort-of boyfriend (Josh Hutcherson) was brainwashed by the enemy. It’s sad, but at least she’s got her other sort-of boyfriend (Liam Hemsworth) to console her. Eventually, the whole love triangle (and all of the other regular Hunger Games young folk from the past few movies) get shipped off to the front lines. They’re supposed to simply film propaganda videos to rally the troops, but Lawrence has other plans. She wants to personally assassinate the president (Donald Sutherland) and end this revolution/war/franchise forever. Let the fun begin!

mockingjay2insert1The biggest problem with the movie is the same problem with the last one: this is only half of a story. It’s become depressingly common practice to split the last book in a popular film-adaptation series into two movies and this one has been particularly unnecessary. There’s simply wasn’t enough story to fill four hours of screen time and neither one has a satisfying structure. In theory, Mockingjay Part 2 should be a feature length climax, but that would have lasted an hour tops. So it’s been padded out with scene after scene of characters staring off-screen looking vaguely sad. The film features some of the best action of the entire series to date (including a spectacular oil spill, an underground monster chase, and a tragic finale), and could have been a roller coaster second half of a film. Instead, in between every round of excitement, we have to sit through endless scenes of characters looking sad, talking about looking sad, or discussing that irritating love triangle and how sad it makes them.

On the plus side, the story does wrap up well. Rather than stampeding towards a glorious, revolution victory, Suzanne Collins and the filmmakers complicate the tale’s pointed politics further. It’s not exactly a jaw-dropping twist/revelation for those who have been paying attention, but it is a clever inversion of expectations that adds to the complex morality tale. That’s the thing with The Hunger Games: as easy as it is to poke fun at the excesses, the needless love triangle, and the Battle Royale plagiarism, the film does play with interesting ideas and serves up a complicated message for a teen audience that usually doesn’t get those things. The acting is top notch as always, especially from the pouty perfect Lawrence, the raging Hutcherson, and the supporting cast of middle aged character actors. The elder statesman is sadly mostly on the sidelines this time, but Moore’s ice queen, Sutherland’s cackling, evil leader, and a posthumous Philip Seymour Hoffman have rarely been better in this series.

So, The Hunger Games franchise ends on more of a whimper than a big bang. It’s not one of the best movies in the series (though it could have been, had the last two movies been combined into one), but it is a satisfyingly downbeat ending to a gently dark tale that had to end that way. This has certainly been an uncommonly intelligent and dark teenybopper franchise that’s better than most. However, there’s also a sense of relief in the air when the credits finally roll (and not just because it has one of those Return Of The King endless stream of endings). These movies might have been well made and sincerely conceived, but they became less fun as they went on. All of the satire that enlivened the early movies gradually disappeared and the tale transformed into a depressing drag, even if it was an intelligent one. While The Hunger Games currently stands proud as a clever, brooding teen phenomenon, it’s hard to imagine that success will endure. These just aren’t movies made for lazy weekend marathons like other big franchises, nor are they great timeless art. Nope, these were clever and effective movies of the moment that are wrapping up just in time to disappear from the zeitgeist. Ho-hum.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Movie) Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Movie) Review

When the folks behind the Harry Potter franchise decided to split the final book into two films, it set an unfortunate president. In that particular case, it was actually an appropriate choice. JK Rowling’s book had a logical end point in the middle and both halves could still work as standalone movies when split in half. That’s not true of every franchise capping novel, but it’s now the formula that any adaptation of such a series must now follow. It makes sense financially, allowing studios to double their profits before sending a cash cow out to pasture. However, in the case of a film like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the problems in that approach are all too obvious. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never read the book, so perhaps it is too big to be contained by a single film. I can’t comment on that. However, I can comment on the fact that there definitely isn’t enough material within Mockingjay Part 1 to feel like a complete film. This is still an interesting piece of work like both of the Hunger Games movies, it’s just a shame that studio politics forced the filmmakers to stretch the set up to a franchise climax out to a tedious two hours that grinds the whole series to a sullen halt.

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After the last Hunger Games flick, the franchise shifted focus and this follow up continues course. The Battle Royale kid-killing games are now gone and in their place the series has become a tale of political rebellion. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is now hiding out with a rebel army in an underground shelter. Led by a cool n’ calculated Julianne Moore the society-topping rebels have a thinly veiled communist sheen. The bright colors and ridiculous excess of the ruling class are contrasted by the grays and minimalism of the underground rebel army. Along with former games master Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moore is hoping that Karniss will assume the role of the Mockingjay to symbolically lead the rebellion (they’ve also brought her love interest Liam Hemsworth and her family along to sweeten the deal). After seeing some of the carnage that the government has doled out following the events of the last movie, Katniss agrees and shoots a few strange propaganda shorts. At the other end of the spectrum, Donald Sutherland’s evil leader of the totalitarian government is struggling to retain control and has kidnapped and possibly brainwashed Katniss’ Hunger Games buddy/love interest Josh Hutcherson into filming his own propaganda videos pleading for peace amongst the plebes. It’s all very sad, political, and symbolic, building up to a final battle over the fate of this society that obviously won’t be wrapped up anytime soon in a film that has “Part 1” in the title.

The good news first, The Hunger Games remains one of the smartest, darkest and most compelling of the YA blockbuster adaptations on the market. While shifting gears into this rebellion themed finale, the thematic weight of the series has only increased. It’s nice to know that one of the massive Hollywood franchises for teens offers such a dark anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian message with a strong female hero. On top of that, it’s also nice that this franchise has offered the same big paycheck haven for American indie actors as Harry Potter did for British thespians with the likes of Moore, the late great Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and even Lawrence getting a chance to work their indie movie magic on a project with such a grand scale. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) might not be a master, but he has a strong visual sense and knows how to stage action that hurts, making this one of the few tent pole franchises that deglamorizes violence. There’s a lot to like about what the Hunger Games franchise represents here, so it’s real a shame that the movie feels so incomplete.

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The bottom line is that despite all of the resonant themes and reoccurring characters to grace the screening in Mocking Jay Part 1, there’s just not enough material for a movie. There’s only one major on screen action scene for this spectacle driven franchise and even though another big one occurs in the climax, it’s frustratingly kept off screen. There is about an hour worth of actual story and character development in the film, but it’s been doubled in length through endless scenes of Katniss staring sullen-faced into the distance and characters repeating the same concepts and plot points ad nauseum. The movie might be quite pointed and harsh for a teen blockbuster, yet it’s also oddly devoid of any of the surface pleasures blockbuster filmmaking. That’s a major problem since what made the franchise so effective until now was that mix of content and spectacle that is now totally out of balance. Chances are that all of these problems could have disappeared if the final book had been condensed to a single movie. Even if the next chapter plays as a two hour climax, it’s hard to say whether or not it was worth sacrificing this movie to get there. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a slog to sit through and that’s one word that should never be used to describe a blockbuster. It might be a compelling and well-made slog, but it’s a slog nonetheless. Despite everything that is done well, it’s hard not to feel duped by this half-a-movie when the credits roll. The filmmakers had better make up for this in the delayed finale.

 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Movie) Review

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Movie) Review

Starvation, ridiculous fancy dress, competitive murder, teeny-bopper love triangles, rebellion, despair, archery, and action, yep it’s Hunger Games time again folks. Susanne Collins’ successful series of young adults (YA) novels proved to be a massive cinematic hit when the first chapter hit screens a year and a half ago and so it was inevitable that a supped up sequel would arrive lickety split. There was a changing of the guard in the director’s chair as well as an influx of budget, scale, and star supporting actors. Yet, as much as things have changed in Hunger Games: Round 2, the quality has remained more-or-less the same. The sequel is bigger and less meandering than the original, but at the cost of a bit of depth. Thankfully, the story also grew into its own and left the Battle Royale plagiarism claims behind. In the end, it all broke even. This is about as good as the original film. No more, no less. Thankfully, the last flick proved that this series did have a bit more in the brains department than most YA fantasy epics, so it’s at least a satisfying adventure with a little thematic heft. These films ain’t masterpieces, but they are smarter, darker, and spunkier than most examples of the genre. So you take what you can get.

“Thankfully, the story grew into its own in the sequel and left the Battle Royale plagiarism claims behind.”

As with any ongoing fantasy franchise, there’s no catch-up offered for newcomers when the movie kicks off. You either know the story or you don’t and it’s always nice when filmmakers give the audience the respect of assuming that they’ve done their homework. It’s a year after the last Hunger Games. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) now has a nice house for winning, but has to tour around the ghetto districts with her co-winner (Josh Hutcherson) to appease the overbearing government that runs the games. Katniss is of course in love with a pretty boy farmer (Liam “don’t call me Chris” Hemsworth) and not Hutcherson, despite their televised love story. So it pains her to have to fake it for the camera and the public. Plus, as they tour around the poor districts, everything seems to have gotten a little darker and a little more destitute. The poor folks of this world are tired of sacrificing their lives for the rich and whispers of rebellion are in the air along with an influx of violence against the lower classes from the government. Katniss has become an unwitting hero for the rebellion as well and so in an attempt to silence her symbol, the evil lord of the land (Donald Sutherland) announces that a special 75th anniversary Hunger Games will be played between past winners. That means that Katniss has to fight for her life again and this year’s games will be filled with superstar killing machines, poison gas, and killer baboons (yep, killer baboons). And with that, let The Hunger Games begin!

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The biggest change between this sequel and the original film is the switch from writer/director Gary Ross (Big, Pleasantville) to director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend). Ross was a wonderful choice to adapt the first book since he’s an intelligent fantasist who retained all of the dark n’ thoughtful themes from the novel. Plus he’s a wonderful actor’s director who cast brilliantly and carefully nurtured each character/performance. Those were key decisions to establish The Hunger Games world. The bad news was that Ross wasn’t much of an action director and resorted to tiresome shaky-cam techniques to both cover his ass and conceal the graphic violence from the ratings board. Francis Lawrence on the other hand is a straightforward action director with a hint of darkness. He dives into the entry and paces it like a runaway train. The film flows like a blockbuster in the way the first movie didn’t, carefully raising stakes and delivering on the action with a steady hand (well, apart from the CGI baboons, but at the same time adding evil baboons to a movie is never a bad thing). With a pair of Oscar-winning writers on script duty (Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt and Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy) all the clever subtexts remain, with Lawrence merely providing the slick visuals and pulsing drive necessary for the movie to feel like a blockbuster. The film is far more exciting than it’s predecessor; however, it’s also less eccentric and intelligent. That’s probably a fault of the source as much as anything else. Rather than repeating the formula from last time, this chapter represents the first step in the series transforming into a have-nots vs. haves rebellion, while also being that dark and evolving second chapter that all good trilogies need. It’s all quite foreboding and harsh and expansive, it just does all that in a manner that feels a bit more like a paint-by-numbers blockbuster than the original. Granted it’s still a clever and effective paint-by-numbers blockbuster, just not quite as striking a film as last time.

“The Hunger Games flicks are definitely worth seeing, but let’s hope this journey is all building towards a conclusion that makes the whole series worth the hype.”

One element that has in no way dipped in the transition from part one to part two is the acting. Ross collected a pretty stellar line-up of character actors looking for a big payday (without selling out to Michael Bay) last time and they’ve all returned along with a few nice new additions. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks once again play hysterical satires of upper class excess without sacrificing depth for comedy. Donald Southerland delivers the baritone, bearded, and bureaucratic evil required for his dark leader with ease. Woody Harrelson is a good drunk. Lenny Kravitz is surprisingly non-distracting. Even newcomers like Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and a suspiciously calm Philip Seymour Hoffman fit into the franchises gently comic, yet harsh vibe well. Of course at the center of it all is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from her Oscar win. Katniss is a wonderful strong n’ stoic female role model/hero that Lawrence was ideally cast into before and expands on strongly now. It’s a more demanding for Lawrence this time, filled with emotional breakdowns and physical anguish. Fortunately, the actress carries it all and the film with ease from start to finish. The franchise simply wouldn’t have worked without her (as the ho-hum work from a few of the other young actors proves) and everyone involved in The Hunger Games flicks are lucky that they nabbed her before she became a star.

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So The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a clever, exciting, and well-produced blockbuster with only minor annoyances and blunders. It’s not everyday that a billion dollar kiddie franchise comes along that provides potent commentary on relevant contemporary themes like teen exploitation, media manipulation, and economic disparity. And yet, somehow, the movies don’t feel as vital or exciting as they should. Part of it is because this type of filmmaking is so familiar these days. Plus, in the case of this particular sequel, it’s also brought down by the fact that it’s very much the second act of a larger story lacking a strong starting point or satisfying conclusion (amusingly, the final image even recalls the last frustrating shot of The Matrix Reloaded, though there’s no way it’s anything other than a coincidence).  There is certainly much to recommend about the film. It’s far from a failure and quite well done on a variety of levels. Yet, it’s oddly never as rich or satisfying as a whole as it’s impressive parts promise. Maybe that won’t happen until the series is complete (which will take two films despite there only being one novel left, since that’s how the final chapters of these franchises get adapted for some reason). Maybe it will never happen. Still, even if The Hunger Games movies are only very good as opposed to great, at least that means we all get one more very good fantasy blockbuster before the books close on 2013. The Hunger Games flicks are definitely worth seeing, but let’s hope this journey is all building towards a conclusion that makes the whole series worth the hype.

The Hunger Games (Movie) Review

The Hunger Games (Movie) Review

With Harry Potter a thing of the past and the Twilight series mercifully coming to a close, the time has come for Hollywood to gobble up a new YA novel series for mucho dollaros. So, now we’re treated to the first chapter in Suzanne Collins ludicrously successful trilogy The Hunger Games. If like me, you started to worried about what the kids were reading these days after all that ridiculous Twilight nonsense, then prepare to breath a sigh of relief.

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