Tag Archives: film review

Mother! (2017)

15 Sep

Move over Lars von Trier, there is a new provocateur in town.

Darren Aronofsky‘s latest film Mother makes a return to the psychological horror the director made a name of himself for with Black Swan, Piand most notably Requiem for a Dream.  Never one for subtlety, Aronofsky enters full-bore, envelope-pushing mode here and, in turn, creates one of the most ambitious and boldest films to be produced by a major studio this decade.

Playing the role of Mother and Him respectively, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are a seemingly happy couple living in a remote countryside house so he can focus on his poetry. From the film’s opening moments however, we realize that the couple isn’t quite as happy together as they ought to be. He has an empty frustration sustained from a lack of creative inspiration and Mother seems disillusioned and dissatisfied with the lack of romance in the relationship. This is where the mysterious doctor (Ed Harris, whose character is referred to simply as Man) makes an appearance and becomes the first in a series of unwelcome visitors.

The series of narrative events that follow seem to ping-pong between a haunted house mystery, domestic melodrama, psychological thriller, and allegorical horrorshow that escalates to madness as the film progresses. Aronofsky is a master at diving deep into the headspace of his characters (often with disturbingly nihilistic results) and we witness the chaotic events unfold from Mother’s point of view without missing a beat. Scenes are beautifully shot by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Matt Libatique and stitched together by editor Andrew Weisblum. The film seems to take on a time and space of its own making; events don’t necessarily flow from one to the next as much as they seem to be taking place all at once simultaneously – or perhaps not even occurring at all. It’s obvious that Aronofsky is trying to provoke the hell out of his audience, and he has a masterful knowledge of film language to do just that with tremendous effect. As with any great piece of cinema, every aspect of the frame and beyond works in conjunction with the whole of the story to accomplish a specific vision. Here, Aronofsky’s goal is to deliver a tour de force of Mother’s ever-changing perspective to the audience in a brazen, unrelinquished fashion.

Bottom Line: Mother! is an unflinching allegorical nightmare running on all cylinders and a masterful showcase for Aronofsky’s audacious and unapologetic vision.   

Rating: 10/10 

Film recipe: Dogville + Repulsion + copious amounts of chaos, nihilism, misogyny, and anxiety

 

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Person to Person (Sundance 2017)

19 Aug

New York City has been an integral part of American cinema for decades. One only has to look through the films of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch or Martin Scorsese to see how powerfully the historic and iconic city is put on display – sometimes even becoming a character within itself. In Dustin Guy Defa’s new film Person to  Person, the city provides a backdrop where a colorful bunch of characters are let loose. An impressive ensemble piece, we first are introduced to Bene (Benne Coopersmith), a music enthusiast and record collector who is tipped off to connect with someone selling a limited edition vinyl.  Then there is Wendy and Melanie (Tavi Gevinson and Olivia Luccardi respectively), a pair of high school girlfriends who talk about weather their romantic flirtations with men collide with their feminist ideals. Claire (Abbi Jacobson) and Phil (Micheal Cera) are a pair of journalists who are investigating what is either a murder or suicide, and then Ray (George Sample III) is suffering the repercussions of having just broken up with his girlfriend (the reasons being are too good to be spoiled here). There are an assortment of other characters as well who come and go, providing the narrative surprises that coalesce over a single day in the city.

Dustin Guy Defa has a real talent for dialogue, and the characters he creates all feel so fresh and genuine. Shot on stunning 16mm, Person to Person looks stunning, and paired with the groovy jazz and neo-soul soundtrack, the film feels like it was lifted straight out of 70’s television. Luckily, the film never leans too hard into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and the interconnected stories are interesting enough to keep us invested without the vintage aesthetic.

Seamlessly edited from one moment to the next, Dustin Guy Drefe creates the type of experience that seems directly aimed at anyone who has ever watched an older Woody Allen film and thought “man, they sure don’t make movies like this anymore.”  Well – now they do.

Bottom Line: Taking the form of a vintage love letter to New York City, Person to Person is a beautiful cinematic examination of the intricacies of various human relationships.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Coffee and Cigarettes + Magnolia  

Atomic Blonde (2017)

29 Jul

1989 Berlin. The wall is just a few days short of tumbling down and tensions between the East and the West halves of the city have never been higher. This is the setting we are placed in while being introduced to a British M16 spy Lorraine (Charlize Theron) who has been assigned to meet with David Percival (James McAvoy), a German operative who has sensitive information pertaining to both American, British, and Russian interests which could unravel an international conspiracy. The events of Atomic Blonde are mostly presented to us in flashback, as Lorraine is presenting her side of the story under interrogation by British and American authorities (Toby Jones, and John Goodman, respectively).  

What starts out as a simple spy thriller premise quickly unfolds into a stylish and sleek action film, filled to the brim with neon lights, martial arts, and shootouts. Unfortunately, much of the action comes at the expense of the characters, who come across as simple, two-dimensional cutouts from spy movie cliches.  The nonsensical story goes to great lengths to distract us from simple plot holes; what should have been fleshed out in the writer’s room gets covered up with the attention-grabbing, one-take fight scene or the frequent german rock song blasting out the speakers. Oh, and in case you forgot this was a German presentation, don’t worry – the film goes so far out of the way to remind us at every opportunity; most characters don’t go more than two minutes without saying the word “Berlin”. The film does have a few bright spots. Charlize Theron, our kick-ass heroine, absolutely devours every minute she is on screen. Her character delivers just enough deadpan humor to help carry us though the limp story. James McAvoy is also pretty good, doing his best Tyler Durden impersonation with a German twist.

Atomic Blonde aims to be a star-studded rock show, and in many aspects (especially on a visual level) it succeeds. But, without any substance behind what’s on screen you can’t help but think the director turned to an old trick stage producers will use when the band starts to suck: when in doubt – just turn up the volume and add some strobe lights.

Bottom Line: In a textbook example of style over substance, Atomic Blonde delivers a violent 120-minute music video at the expense of character, tension, or a sensible narrative.

Rating: 5/10

Film recipe: John Wick + Wanted + Salt 

It Comes At Night (2017)

9 Jun

Hot off the heels from his directorial debut Krisha, Trey Edward Shults again uses the camera as his psychological tool to pry open and dismantle the collective psyche of a family in chaos, this time with a horror-centric approach.

It Comes At Night is a psychological thriller set somewhere in a remote post-apocalyptic North America. A fatal disease has spread so fast that the core pillars of society have collapsed, triggering Paul (Joel Edgerton) to place his family on lockdown in a secluded cabin some 50 miles or so away from the nearest city center. It’s here they learn to be self-reliant, living day by day completely off the grid and away from any other survivors. Soon, Paul crosses paths with Will (Chris Abbott), another survivor who might be willing to trade some of his food in exchange for a truck-ride back to his family.  Paranoia abounds.

If it wasn’t already clear from the title, it becomes obvious from the first few minutes of the opening scene that things are going to get dark (both figuratively and literally).  Shults has a real talent for avoiding first act exposition and slowly revealing details about this world bit by bit.  Instead, the director focuses his energy creating tension out of the smallest moments with help from the cinematographer Drew Daniels;  a lingering slow zoom through an empty hallway becomes absolutely horrifying in the hands of these two. The entirety of the film takes place either inside Paul’s cabin or the woods directly adjacent to it, creating a claustrophobic quality that increases in tension along with the rising emotional status of our characters. It Comes At Night isn’t a film that is concerned with what anyone does or says so much as it is with what is going on in the mental spaces between the characters.  This type of film would not work if it wasn’t for the acting strength of everyone involved, and fortunately the supporting cast of Riley Keough, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. create a palatable unease within their performances.  It’s remarkable how much genuine suspense can be milked from It Comes At Night’s slim narrative; the spooks are few and far between, but the emotional payoffs this film brings to the table are the powerful kind that stick in your gut after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Confident direction and a refusal for all things explained make It Comes At Night an essential and thrilling piece of psychologically provocative cinema. 

Rating: 8/10 

Film recipe:  Prisoners + Children of Men + The Road

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

23 Feb

It’s a cruel, cruel world. Taking place in what could only be Trump’s America, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore details the day-to-day life of Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a jaded medical assistant who seems disgusted by the self-centeredness of a universe where “everyone I see is an asshole.” Ruth lives at home; her only friend is Angie, a busy housewife who has no time to listen when she nearly has an emotional breakdown after becoming a crime victim. It’s enough to push Ruth over the edge and investigate the perpetrators on her own terms, enlisting the help of her violent, short-tempered neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) who just also happens to be a skilled martial artist.

Macon Blair, a skilled actor making his directorial debut, tightly commands every moment of this pitch-black comedic thriller. The jokes are few and far between, but they are delivered in such sly fashion they have a big impact (the bar scene is awkward enough to rival any episode from The Office). Blair, who comes fresh off of acting in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed indie thrillers Green Room and Blue Ruin, is obviously a big genre fan himself, and his script here takes from a variety of influences (Martin McDonagh and the Coen brothers come to mind) while still feeling fresh and original. Lynskey gives her career-best performance as someone who is constantly weighed by the anxieties of the modern world but still someone who wants to make the altruistic change she wishes she could see in other people.

The story gets bumpy at around the halfway mark, but the few narrative issues are easily put aside when the film dives headfirst into its white-knuckle, absolutely batshit-insane third act. Here Blair’s talent shines like a beacon and he creates enormous amounts of tension in an incredibly tight timeframe. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a taut little thriller that leaves a bigger impression than it should.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey appear in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

Bottom Line: A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious. 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Fargo + In Bruges + Straw Dogs + Gran Torino 

20th Century Women (2017)

2 Feb

What exactly does it mean to please a women? This is one of many questions Jaime (Lucas Zumann) asks his mother in the sharply-detailed period drama 20th Century Women Jaime, as we first see him, is caught at a bit of a crossroads, and is trying to find his natural place in the world. Growing up solely under the care of his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in late 70’s Santa Barbara California, the world is a confusing place. Especially so during adolescence, when punk rock, feminism, drugs, and pregnancy scares become guiding forces in Jaime’s life. “He needs a strong male influence” Dorothea says, “We need another man in this house..” Enter William (Billy Crudup), a friend and occasional lover of Dorothea who works on renovating the house in exchange for free rent. Then there is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jaime’s best friend who sleeps with (but never sleeps with) him some nights and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the art school tennant who is recovering from cancer. These five characters (and the house they share together, their interactions with American culture and counterculture, and their experiences with love and sexuality) are what make up the backbone for 20th Century Women. 

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), 20th Century Women tells a breezy, patchwork narrative that feels authentically lifted straight from someone’s personal photo album of 40 years. The film is a pure snapshot of American 70’s culture, given to us through our eclectic set of characters – each with their own set of internal and external struggles. Formally, things get slightly experimental at times, fusing documentary footage from various historical events interspersed with dramatic scenes shot at higher or lower framerates or with blaring psychedelic colors. The plot jumps around from moment to moment and character to character so frequently which creates more of a specific aesthetic of time and place than any sort of dramatic tension.  At every opportunity, a different cultural beat is featured – though they are often simply given to us straight from a character’s retrospective voiceover. “We didn’t know that the Reagan era was just around the corner, or that AIDS would soon be a scary word…”  Dorothea explains near the end of the film, over a montage of B-roll news footage. All this culminates to form a nostalgic tribute to the value of shared American cultural experiences.

Bottom Line: When taken as a whole, 20th Century Women might miss the dramatic heights it was aiming for, but the many detailed, smaller moments of this film feel intensely relatable, excitingly alive, and sharply authentic. 

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Boyhood + Diary of a Teenage Girl + A touch of Dazed and Confused

Arrival (2016)

16 Nov

Arrivalthe latest from director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy), adds to a recent tradition of what has been termed “the science-conscious sci-fi film.” Following in the steps of films like Interstellar and The Martian , Arrival presents us with a problem that lands squarely on the shoulders of scientists for figuring out.

Here, we have Louise (Amy Adams) a linguists university professor who has been called in by a secret military faction led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), because of her optimal translation skills and her previous clearance with handling government-classified areas. The reason is simple: mysterious extraterrestrial ships have been found across the globe and the US government is desperate to make some sort of contact with whoever is inside these ships in an effort to get answers before public panic sets in. Of course, communication with alien beings proves to be easier said than done, and increasing tensions between world governments escalate while the probability of finding a peaceful Q&A session fades to violence.

Villeneuve is no doubt one of the most talented directors working today and he brings a singular film adapted from a short story written by Ted Chiang. As a director who prefers subtlety over boldness, Villeneuve’s take on the alien invasion drama draws tension from the moments that aren’t shown on screen rather than those that are given to us. Most of the events are presented in minimalistic fashion (a stylistic choice that hasn’t been seen in the genre since maybe Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin?) with an emphasis on the physiological versus physical conflict within the characters. A chopped-up narrative featuring flashbacks and flashforwards adds confusion early in the film but makes its place known in the narrative later on.

Supporting Amy Adams is Jeremy Renner playing Ian, a theoretical physicist who teams with Louise in an effort to reach understanding of the extra-planetary visitors. Though both are fine actors, and give much to the film individually, the pseudo love-interest stuff between the couple feels fake and forced. Standard, sure-fire dialogue is everywhere in Arrival, where many characters’ lines feel like either direct exposition or a statement of the blatantly obvious settings. But like most Villeneuve’s work, it’s the sentiments in between the lines that becomes the most compelling. Here, we have vast thematic inklings of philosophy, language, and the nature of violence sprinkled around the obvious “don’t shoot, they are peaceful” lines that place Arrival neatly into blockbuster territory. The result is a typical story wrapped in an artful, minimized, and ideologically-heavy package.

Bottom Line: Denis Villeneuve’s latest focuses more on big ideas than it does big explosions, which might be a bit trying for viewers expecting the traditional alien invasion. Though it dives into melodrama territory a bit too often, Arrival is a well-directed piece of sci-fi that feels paradoxically both intimate and ambitious. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipie: Interstellar (2014) + Solaris (2002)