mother! (2017)

September 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Him. Mother. Man. Woman. When those are the identifiers of the four main characters (none have a real name), one might assume that the filmmaker is lazy. However, after watching the latest from the psycho-creative force known as Darren Aronofsky, we understand that names weren’t necessary, and even if they had been, he was probably too mentally exhausted from finding ways to torture those characters and confound the viewers.

The first half of the film is discomforting and creepy while the second half is downright crazed and deranged. You won’t find many story details in this review, as the fun is in the shock. Most of the film is through the eyes of Jennifer Lawrence, and we share her confusion and disoriented state. She is married to a famous poet played by Javier Bardem (yes, the age difference is acknowledged). While she spends her days refurbishing their stunning country home, he battles severe writer’s block. Needless to say, their domestic bliss goes wrong … but it’s not the kind of wrong we’ve ever seen before.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (both Oscar nominees) confine us in excruciatingly tight shots resulting in further disorientation and claustrophobia through most of the film. By the time we get a single wide shot of the home’s exterior, we’ve just about given up hope. And once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, we kick into full ROSEMARY’S BABY mode … only more frenetic and hyper.

It should be noted that it’s not a traditional horror film – heck, it’s hardly a traditional film at all. It’s built on confusion, and metaphors abound. Aronofsky seems intent on causing endless post-viewing discussions and debate over what it “means”. A case can be made for commentary on ego, fame, Mother Nature, deity/religion, and a sign of the times – the entitled “takers” of the world. The most obvious explanation is that the price paid for creativity is quite dear, and often causes a release from reality. There is a vicious cycle occurring here and our realization happens after the crescendo of insanity that is the film’s peak.

WTF moments are too many to count, and Ms. Lawrence pulls off what has to be the roughest on screen pregnancy we’ve seen. It’s a real treat to see Michelle Pfeiffer back in form after being out of the spotlight for four years. The score from Johan Johannsson is remarkable and there are ground-breaking visual effects (easy to miss during the audacious, frenzied second half action). Aronofsky is clearly provoking us, though it’s abundantly unclear to what end. His previous twisted, mind-benders include REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and BLACK SWAN … both of which seem like mainstream family fare in comparison. This is a love it or hate it project, and most will likely fall into the latter. But for those who embrace the deranged and audacious, the love will be everlasting.

watch the trailer:

 


JOY (2015)

December 26, 2015

joy Greetings again from the darkness. The movie is inspired by the true story of entrepreneur Joy Mangano (listed here as an Executive Producer) and her 1990 invention of the Miracle Mop. You should know that neither “Mangano” nor “Miracle Mop” is mentioned, and much of the story sprung from the mind of writer/director David O Russell. Also, if you have been a fan of Mr. Russell’s past few Oscar nominated films (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), you should be warned that even though there is a large cast of familiar supporting players, it doesn’t play like his usual ensemble piece, but rather as a true star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Joy).

This is a working class Italian-American family, and the multi-generational aspect is in full play as Joy (a single, working mom) and her two kids share the house with Mimi (Joy’s grandmother played by Diane Ladd), Joy’s mom (Virginia Madsen) who is a recluse dressed in 60’s party attire and addicted to daytime soap operas, and Joy’s dad (Robert DeNiro) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who share the basement. Tony is the rare combination of slacker-Tom Jones impersonator. Also involved are Joy’s agitating and envious step-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) and Dad’s new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). This family makes The Royal Tenenbaums look suburban stale.

Flashbacks and dreams, along with the supportive words of Mimi, convince us that Joy is a creative genius, whose once promising abilities have been stifled by the harsh realities of raising kids, and overseeing a bunch of free-loaders who mostly never miss a chance to steal a bit of Joy’s light. All of that changes one day thanks to glass shards in her palm and the close proximity of crayons and drawing paper. Poof! Just like that, Joy has invented a revolutionary new kind of mop.

Given her family history and current situation, even when things go right for Joy, they never go all the way right. Having to borrow money from Trudy and depend on those who may or may not have her best interest at heart, makes for an endless chain of obstacles and challenges. But Joy is all about perseverance and self-actualization. The story emphasizes Joy’s stick-to-it-ness, and the process of learning about the legalities and pitfalls of starting and running one’s own business. Even those who should be supportive often ridicule and voice their doubts.

The film shifts when Joy meets Neal Walker (Bradley Cooper) who runs QVC. This was the time period when TV home shopping was in its infancy. Joan Rivers (played here by her daughter Melissa) was one of the early stars, and Joy’s Miracle Mop was one of the early successes. It’s a new world to Joy, but she’s a quick study and her tough-mindedness and sense of fairness and right come in to play on multiple occasions.

The above is much more story than I would typically describe, but it helps make the point that although Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove she is something quite special as an actress, the story is a bit of a mess and the pacing of the film is clumsy – slapstick blended with ultra-serious. It’s impossible to connect with this oddball group of folks, who mostly seem to be pulled right off of various TV sitcoms. Even using the soap opera (complete with Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Laura Wright) as a parallel to Joy’s life never quite works.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance deserves to be ranked right with Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce, but the different styles of the two movies results in only one being unforgettable. Director Russell mines the fractured family/group in many of his projects, and given his immense talent, we can be sure future projects will be more in line with the level of his recent past.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

November 24, 2013

hunger1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s quite clear I am not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy or the corresponding movies that are packing in the teenagers and young adults. Still, I’ll admit to enjoying the first movie … and am even a bit more impressed by this second entry. Having a female heroine that is young, strong, smart, loyal, and emotionally grounded is not just unusual, but also quite a welcome change of pace.

Any uproar over missing/adapted elements from the source books can be chalked up to the young readers who haven’t yet come to understand that a 2 hour movie cannot possibly relay all the details and imagination held within the written page. In fact, co-hunger3screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBrauyn (aka Michael Arndt of Toy Story 3 fame) do an excellent job of balancing the numerous elements contained within the story: a fascist government, the off-kilter romances, family bonds, and the early stages of a revolution/uprising. This sequel features a new and much better suited director in Francis Lawrence, known for I Am Legend.

What really makes this material click on screen is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Her Mockingjay becomes the symbol of hope for the many districts intimidated by the iron fist rule of the President, played by the menacing Donald Sutherland. Ms. Lawrence is an absurdly talented actress and is one of the rare few who can convey a multitude of hunger2emotions through facial expressions alone. Despite Katniss’ sometimes prickly personality, the audience connects with her in a most positive manner.

In addition to Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Sutherland, returning to the fold are Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (still lacking even an ounce of screen presence), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (giving a bit more effort this time around), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother (seen recently as Abby in “Ray Donovan“), Willow Shields as Prim, Liam Hemsworth as Gale (his most exciting scene is washing his hands), and of course the instant electricity and energy provided by Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar – two of the most colorful characters this side of 1970’s era Elton John.

hunger4 New to this chapter are two of the finest actors working today: Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jeffrey Wright as “Volts” from the “nuts and volts” duo with Amanda Plummer. Jena Malone tries, but is miscast as Johanna, and Sam Claflin has a couple of worthy moments as Finnick. Two of the best additions are the frightening killer baboons and the Black Swan-style wedding dress. Both make eye-opening entries.

There is much to like about this series thus far, but of course, one must accept it for the genre it represents. And fair warning – see the two Hunger Games movies in order … or don’t bother. Regardless of your take on this franchise – may the odds be ever in your favor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you have seen and enjoyed the first one OR you want to see some angry baboons take on a group who just escaped a fog bank that would make John Carpenter jealous.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you skipped The Hunger Games.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzGXqJSDJ8

 

 


SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

November 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is exactly what you would expect from a screwball romantic comedy steeped in drama based on bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, Philadelphia Eagles fanatics, a ballroom dancing contest, adultery, Hemingway, and a lead character who jogs while wearing a trash bag. Maybe not exactly what you would expect, but likely much more.

If you were told instead that the story is based on two damaged souls who help heal each other through dancing, you would have every reason to skip this one. However, as written and directed by David O Russell (The Fighter) and based on Matthew Quick‘s novel, this story is a frenetic, emotional roller coaster ride that provides a glimmer of hope for the two damaged lead characters, while reminding that each of us may be a bit off-center in some way. Now add in the best young actress working today (Jennifer Lawrence just turned 22), a rare performance from Robert DeNiro where he seems fully engaged, a pulling back the curtain on Bradley Cooper as much more than a pretty face, and one of the best and most pointed soundtracks in recent history …and  you have one of the best films of the year.

What you notice very early on is that what could be considered a trite story line, is instead pounding you with sharp, witty dialogue that pulls no punches in directness. The many aspects of family and emotional support are given time thanks to Pat (Bradley Cooper) being released after 8 months in a mental institution. He was sent there when he snapped after finding his wife in a compromising position with another man. Perfectly understandable if you ask me, but clearly he is the explosive one despite his claims to the contrary. An uncomfortable dinner party introduces him to Tiffany (Ms. Lawrence) whose husband has recently died and her coping skills have been shared with most of those in her workplace. This odd couple spark immediately and the wild ride begins.

Pat’s wife Nikki (Brea Bee) has issued a restraining order and his strategy to win her back consists of a positive attitude and maintaining control of his emotions. His supporters include his mother (Jacki Weaver, who was so great in Animal Kingdom), his OCD father (DeNiro) who so wants to re-connect with his son, his friend (John Ortiz) whose own marriage (to icy Julia Stiles) is a messy mess, his buddy from the asylum (a funny and not over the top Chris Tucker), and of course, Tiffany. The only real problem is that each of these supporters are teetering in their own way – just like Pat.

 The brilliance of this movie is the balance struck between the near violent emotional outbursts and the sharp, exacting words spouted by each of the characters. Director Russell once again shows his flair for working class northeasterners. He understands these tough as nails people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. These people are as likely to punch you as hug you … both being acts of love.

The soundtrack deserves special mention. It is very unique and varied, with each song serving an exact purpose. Especially keen are Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”, Led Zeppelin’s “What is and What Should Be”, and “The Girl from the North Country” a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet. When the music strikes a harmony with the scene, the movie is all the stronger. Rarely do we get the perfect storm of script, direction, acting, music and relevance.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: complex relationships between characters facing life’s daily battles carries a certain artistic symmetry for you OR you just want to see acting of the highest quality led by a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, a resurgent Robert DeNiro and a surprisingly talented Bradley Cooper

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your Rom-Com’s to be lightweight and light-hearted for easy laughs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ


THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

April 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read the Young Adult novels of Suzanne Collins, my comments will be limited to the movie only and not a comparison to the books. The screenplay was a joint affair courtesy Ms. Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). Whether or not you read the books, you surely know that this has been an anticipated film version in the vein of Twilight and Harry Potter. My analysis is that it falls short of Harry and is superior to the vamps.

What this film definitely is … proof that Jennifer Lawrence is for real. She burst onto the scene in her Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone and once again, her squirrel recipes come in handy. Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough as nails and very resourceful resident of the dirt poor District 12. She provides for her little sis and their emotionally vacant mother, and does so by honing her bow and arrow skills hunting in the vast woodlands.

 Without going into too much detail, the dystopian world of Panem is divided into 12 districts and a Capitol. As a combination entertainment and price for previous rebellion, an annual lottery is held to select a boy and girl from each district … “tributes” to their community. Those drawing the proverbial short straw are entered into a brutal fight to the death, where 23 are to be killed and one left standing. In the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister. So she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids are All Right) are whisked away to the Capitol to meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a one time winner who now celebrates daily by downing as much booze as possible.

 In stark contrast to the hopeless community from which they arrive, the Capitol is a gleaming, bright-colored land of enchantment filled with wildly costumed residents seemingly bored by the atrocity of the annual event. Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) is the man in charge of staging and manipulating the event for the highest possible ratings and entertainment value. He carries out his duties while sporting a very unique satanic beard, unlike you have seen before.

After prepping from a futuristic Tom Ford named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the tributes appear in front of a futuristic Ryan Seacrest played by the flamboyant Stanley Tucci. His Caesar Flickerman is charged with interviewing so as to help the audience make a connection. Nothing like humanizing the prey.

 It takes a full hour, but the actual Hunger Games finally begin. Quickly the faceless characters disappear and the game of brutality and brains begins. Lawrence is truly a standout here since she has tremendous ability as an actress, and sells her athletic ability quite well. I can’t say I was as taken by Mr. Hutcherson, who spends most of the film looking like a wounded puppy.

While the PG-13 rating keeps it from becoming a gore fest, I found the action sequences to be quite entertaining. More interesting to me was how the story and characters are posed so that a viewer might interpret meaning in just about any manner one cares to twist. There are political views and human nature traits and commentary on the Reality TV world that are primed for claiming … regardless of one’s opinion. To me, that’s a weakness. I would rather the story take a stand and make a statement. But then I remind myself that this is the first in a trilogy of Young Adult stories. It’s not designed for deep thought. The movie succeeds in reaching the goal of producing a strong young female character in a world run amok.

The movie and story seems a mash-up of The Running Man (1987) and Japan’s Battle Royale (2000), but do deliver some other interesting characters, notably Donald Sutherland as the viscious President, Elizabeth Banks as the colorful PR expert Effie Trinket.  T Bone Burnett teams with James Newton Howard for the music, and the Tracker Jackers will definitely cross your mind the next time you have a wasp nest to deal with.  The missed opportunities with political commentary and a more in-depth love story do not harm the entertainment value here, and the box office success guarantees we will see “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” to finish out the trilogy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the books (haha … like you haven’t already seen the movie at least twice) OR you want to follow the career of Jennifer Lawrence (super star in the making)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting an incredibly intense, socio-political commentary OR a satanic looking beard could cause nightmares

watch the trailer: