mother!

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Darren Aronofsky


Divisive doesn’t even begin to cover the reception this film has received. mother! has inspired acclaim, hatred, adoration, revulsion, amusement, confusion, horror, curiosity, contemplation, frustration, and so much more from its audience. Some have applauded in ecstasy; others have walked out in disgust. Some hail it as an epic masterpiece; others disparage it as an epic catastrophe; and others still have absolutely no idea what to make of it whatsoever. It is a difficult film to watch, that much is certain. mother! is downright alienating, oftentimes horrifying, and relentlessly inscrutable. But it is also fascinating and unique. There’s never been a film quite like this and it’s one that compellingly draws your eyes and holds your attention the way that either a magnificent painting or a calamitous car crash would. I’ll try to go into more detail about the story and what I took from it, but personally I think the viewer should go in knowing nothing and would encourage anyone who has not seen it to stop reading now and go watch it.

Seriously, nothing I can say can prepare you for what happens. Whether you end up liking it or not, the only way to understand what kind of film mother! is is to actually watch it. If, however, you’re interested in knowing more about the story and what I think it means (if it means anything at all) then read on.

The movie is set in an old house in the middle of nowhere that was previously destroyed in a fire but has since been rebuilt and its two inhabitant are Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). He is a famous writer trying to start a new novel but is unable to find the words and she is his young wife who occupies her time with remodelling her husband’s house. The two live a quiet life completely cut off from civilisation, perfectly content with no other company but their own. Later they are visited by Man (Ed Harris), a lost traveller who asks for a place to stay for the night. The next day they are joined by his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mother isn’t keen on the idea of having visitors over, fearing the damage they might do to the house or the disruption they’ll cause to their quiet, solitary life, but her husband is positively delighted to have them stay.

It would appear to be a simple enough set-up, but there’s something else going on. Within the first 10-15 minutes, it became clear to me that this movie does not take place anywhere that we would recognise as the real world. The way that we never see any trace of an outside civilisation and the way that time doesn’t seem to have any structure or meaning here suggests this. The house itself appears to have more going on beneath the surface as we see when Mother puts her hand on the wall and sees what looks and sounds like a dying heart. After the visitors start arriving, things only proceed to get more insane and surreal and Aronofsky seems adamant that the audience’s hand must not be held through any of it. Events escalate as the movie moves closer to its increasingly chaotic climax and through it all the movie remains steadfastly metaphorical. It is clear that this is a movie that has no intentions of playing by the rules and Aronofsky never makes any apologies for it.

Our protagonist is Lawrence’s Mother and she is just as confused by what’s going on as we are. Aronofsky makes a strong effort to convey a POV affect by fixing the camera tightly on Lawrence for prolonged takes and shooting other scenes from over her shoulder, drawing a clear focus to her perspective and reactions. Her character has no apparent ambitions or desires apart from living with her husband, being completely devoted to him, and becoming the titular mother that she is destined to become. Her husband is less content with their life, suffering from writer’s block and revelling in the company of others (especially when he discovers them to be admirers of his work). He continues to neglect his wife’s wants and feelings as he indulges himself in the encouragement and admiration of others and she’s left with the task of cleaning up after them. The film takes on a Rosemary’s Baby vibe as Mother starts to feel like everyone is out to get her, destroying everything she holds dear and attacking her while her husband remains oblivious to her anxieties.

Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school will start picking up on the film’s biblical connotations before long. Lawrence serves as a stand-in for nature (or Mother Earth if you want to assign a character to her) while Bardem’s Him is God. Man and Woman then would clearly be Adam and Eve and later on the film’s introduces two characters to represent Cain and Abel. This, in turn, would apparently make Mother’s eventual child a stand-in for Christ. So what is the film trying to say with that? Well, given the duress and trauma inflicted on Mother throughout the film, both physical and emotional, perhaps this film is an allegory for the way that man has mistreated nature. If that’s the angle Aronofsky is going for then it’s clear where his sympathies lie. He casts God as a vain figure craving recognition, someone who cares more about being worshipped and adulated than in caring for his wife and child. Humanity meanwhile is portrayed as being negligent, fanatical, and destructive, caring nothing for the damage they cause in their wake.

Or maybe the movie means something else entirely. It isn’t clear what kind of movie mother! is and it was made that way intentionally. This is a movie that is meant to be dissected and written about in length. Its style is a striking one that demands the viewer’s attention and its story is an ambiguous one that invites a never-ending series of questions without answers and several contradictory interpretations. It has been advertised as a horror film, and it is a horror in the sense that it creates an atmosphere of dread, carnage, and paranoia, and thrives off the terror of that which cannot be understood. But is it any good? I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you take away from it. I found mother! to be an often enthralling, often horrifying film to sit through. Since then I’ve found it to be a fascinating film to think about, read about, and talk about. I will have to re-watch it sometime, so maybe there’s something to be said for a movie that demands to be seen again despite (or maybe because) of all the unpleasantness it depicts. mother! is a well-crafted, provocative, and confounding film and, if it’s inspiring such a strong reaction from the audience, both positive and negative, it must be doing something right.

★★★★★

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Passengers

Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Jon Spaihts


Space is a great setting for making movies about isolation. It is a vast, empty void where, as Alien observed, no one can hear you scream. Small wonder then that there is a great range of superb sci-fi films depicting this very idea from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity. Passengers seeks to take the idea even further with its story of a forlorn man who is driven by his inconsolable loneliness and obsessive desperation to commit a terrible act. There is a compelling premise here that could have made for a fascinating film, sort of like a cross between The Shining and Vertigo set in space. The problem is that this film is more interested in portraying a fashionable Hollywood romance between its two attractive, likeable leads than it is in properly confronting the themes that have been set up. Thus we are instead treated to manipulated emotions, contrived storytelling and weak characterisations, all of which serve to enable Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to enjoy their dark, insane, unhealthy relationship.

The starship Avalon is undergoing a 120-year journey with its 5,000 passengers to inhabit a new planet when it suffers damage passing through an asteroid field. As a result of this accident Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years too early on a ship with no other conscious people and no way of going back to sleep. In the year that he spends alone on the ship his only companion is the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In a moment of despair Jim happens upon a pod belonging to Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is enamoured with her. After learning everything he can about her and (somewhat) struggling with his own conscience, Jim decides to wake her up so that he finally won’t be alone any more. He and Aurora (who is unaware of his action) meet and fall in love, but their love is threatened by the truth of their meeting, which will inevitably be revealed to her, as well as by the sustained damage suffered by the ship.

This is a dark, some might even say sadistic, premise for a film. The film however decides that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence must be allowed to fall in love and end up together because… well, because they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Even if there was a believable way to spin their relationship into a positive one, the chemistry they share isn’t potent or alluring enough to justify it despite both of them being charming and attractive actors. There is a sense here that we are supposed to buy into their union based on the strength of their individual personas (because, for heaven’s sake, they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence!) but the characters and dialogue they are given are just too bland and conventional for them to have any real kind of a spark. It gets worse when the inevitable revelation is made and Aurora correctly denounces Jim as a murderer because then the movie has to somehow make them get back together. The way they accomplish this is all at once cheap, forced, predictable, misguided and sexist.

I suppose there are some technically good aspects in this film that ought to be praised. Michael Sheen for instance gives a terrific performance in a role that he clearly had a great time playing. The film looks good in terms of its visual effects and production design, especially in the scene where Aurora’s swimming routine is interrupted by a malfunction in the ship’s gravity, but it isn’t exactly something to behold. The designs, such as that of the double-helix-shaped ship, are serviceable in giving the film the sci-fi look it wants but they never startle or astonish. I can also say that Tyldum’s direction is quite competent, but isn’t nearly as inspired or inventive as the films he clearly drew inspiration from (the most obvious of which were both made by Kubrick). At times the flow and composition of the film looks and feels so plain and unsurprising that I suspect the spaceship’s autopilot could probably have directed it.

D.H. Lawrence once called Jane Eyre a pornographic novel, criticising the way he felt Brontë had to manipulate her characters’ emotions and circumstances in order for them to end up together. That is basically how I feel about Passengers. There is no thought, no depth and no feeling to this film. The movie cares only about one thing and that is getting Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to lock lips and look good doing it. The grim desolation that drove Jim to commit his crime, the heavy toll that the guilt takes on his soul, the rage, devastation and probably even violation that Aurora feels upon learning the truth; all of that is secondary. So great is the crime of trying to pass off such a disturbing concept as a positive love story that it outshines the crime of bringing together these two likeable, talented stars and not using them to their full potential. This movie is not a romance, it is wish-fulfilment; plain, stupid, unintentionally disturbing wish-fulfilment.

★★

X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Oliva Munn, Lucas Till

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg


As much as I’ve enjoyed some of the movies in the X-Men franchise (First Class being my personal favourite), I don’t think the film series has been realised as fully as it could be. When watching the cartoon and reading the comics what appealed to me about the X-Men was how they worked as a collective. The best parts were always when they’d charge into a situation together as a team and would then display their diverse powers, working with and off each other. So far there hasn’t really been a movie where we’ve had the X-Men charge together into a skirmish and then just had them be the X-Men. In ­X-Men the team is pretty much just there to back up Wolverine. In X2 the characters are separated and a couple of them get knocked out. Days of Future Past was a lot of fun because we actually got to see some of the minor characters like Quicksilver, Iceman and Colossus show off their powers in new and creative ways. Therefore, with Apocalypse bringing back some familiar characters from the earlier films, it was my hope that this might be the ­X-Men movie that I’d been waiting for.

Taking place 10 years after Days of Future Past (in a universe where every mutant presumably possesses the Wolverine gene that stops them from aging) Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now the headmaster of a flourishing academy for young mutants. His newest student Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) arrives to learn how to control his heat vision and there meets the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) meanwhile is working covertly to save mutants but refuses to become the heroic symbol that the young mutants proclaim her to be. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has gone into hiding in Poland where he lives with his wife and daughter. His peaceful and contented life is tragically destroyed, leading him to seek vengeance once again. He finds his chance for revenge in Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who has recently woken up after centuries of hibernation. He recruits Magneto as one of his four horsemen in his mission to scourge the Earth of the plague that is humanity.

The biggest problem with X-Men: Apocalypse is simple: it’s more of the same. We learn about Magneto’s tragic backstory again. Professor X gets kidnapped again. The X-Men travel to Alkali Lake again. On top of that we have a generic bad guy with an apocalyptic plan backed by a vague motivation, some forced fan service and a failure to use some of these characters the way they should be used. While watching the climatic battle I found myself comparing it to the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. Those characters all had their reasons for being there that the film took the time to establish and the scene actually had some fun with their differing abilities, playing them with and against each other. Here the film sort of pushes its characters into the climatic setting and then has them use their powers in the most straightforward, routine way possible. There are some great moments in there like the Quicksilver scene and the Wolverine cameo (which isn’t the spoiler that it should be thanks to the trailer) but even they are little more than recreations of scenes we’ve already watched.

McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be excellent in their roles as Professor X and Magneto, more so than the film deserves. When Erik’s peaceful family life is inevitably taken away from him, it’s a predictable and derivative moment that we can see coming from a hundred miles away, but damned if Fassbender doesn’t sell it. Jennifer Lawrence however doesn’t bring half the life into her role that she did in First Class. Here she gives exactly the kind of performance that Hollywood stars give when they are only in the movie to fulfil their contractual obligations. Some of the new(ish) mutants that are brought into the trilogy like Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler do well enough with what they are given but others like Storm and Angel are barely given enough to justify their presence in the story. Oscar Isaac meanwhile is completely wasted as Apocalypse, one of the blandest and least memorable villains that the films have come up with.

Apocalypse isn’t exactly a bad movie, especially not when compared to The Last Stand and Wolverine. It’s just generic and formulaic. It brings very little to the table that we haven’t seen before in the previous movies. Anyone who is familiar with the comics or the cartoon knows that there is a treasure trove of potential in this concept and these characters, but it is almost entirely wasted here. Perhaps this movie was following the example of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where more of the same meant a return to basics but did so without either the inspiration or the imagination that made it a success. I do hope that, at the very least, the groundwork this film has laid for future sequels will lead to greater things, especially now that some of the original characters have returned to the universe, but the film itself doesn’t stand on its own. Although it has the same characters that we’ve enjoyed watching in the previous films, this time they’re trapped in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them.

★★

Joy

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper

Director: David O. Russell

Writer: David O. Russell


The movie opens with a dedication to “daring women everywhere”. Through the character of Joy (no surname) the film aspires to capture the voice of those women all over the world who dare to be more than others have said they can be. This film is made for the working mothers who have to work themselves to the bone every day to get by. It is for the women who possess talent, ideas and potential but have been held back by their circumstances and commitments. This film is for the women who have had to fight for their victories against the constraints placed upon them by an inequitable patriarchal system. These women have voices that demand and deserve to be heard and I admire this film for speaking out for them and for delivering a message about the value of determination and hard work. I just wish it were a better film.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced working mother of two trying to provide for herself and her entire family. This includes her reclusive mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) who spends her days watching melodramatic soap operas, her father Rudy (Robert de Niro) who has returned home following an unsuccessful third marriage, and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who still plans on making it big with his singing. Joy herself has always dreamed of applying her creativity as an inventor but had to abandon that ambition to focus on her commitments. Nevertheless her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) has always maintained that Joy has the potential to become a strong, successful woman. When Joy is inspired one day to create a self-wringing mop, she decides to follow her idea through and market her new invention. In her endeavour however she is met with numerous adversities that threaten to stop her from achieving her dream and finally realising her full potential.

In her third collaboration with David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence drives this film single-handedly as the indomitable Joy and gives what is by all means a good performance. Her character is determined, strong-willed and smart and Lawrence portrays these qualities with both humour and conviction. Over the course of this film I was definitely rooting for her and I felt for her every time one of the adversities she faced beat her down. I’m not convinced that Lawrence deserves all of the awards attention she has been getting but it is nevertheless a decent performance. The rest of the cast however were not so great. The one-dimensional characters that surround Joy seem to have been deliberately shaped into the most implausibly unlikeable people possible in order to make her situation that much worse. They include the overly-pathetic mother, the overly-contemptible father with his overly-insufferable girlfriend, and the overly-disdainful sister. I know that they’re supposed to be awful characters but it’s a wonder that Joy puts up with any of them. Bradley Cooper as well is completely wasted in his role as a television marketing executive who helps Joy gain some exposure for her creation. The only pleasant surprise for me was the ex-husband who turned out not to be the total loser that the film built him up to be.

I’ve found that there are some people who were thrown off when they realised that the dramatic crux of this movie was the selling of a mop. However if a film like Bicycle Thieves can build its drama around a bicycle then Joy can certainly do the same with a mop. I think the reason the film lost me in the end was because the concept felt a little too familiar and the story as a whole just felt pretty haphazard. The movie’s pacing was all over the place, especially in those parts where the film cut over to those segments of Terry’s ridiculous soap opera. Those scenes, while funny, just felt unnecessary. Joy’s journey as a character is fine for the most part but still feels pretty tired. It seems like Russell is trying to tell this story in a new way but for all his style and skill I think the emotional weight got lost somewhere.

I like the message that this film is trying to tell and I like that it assumes the voice of a group that doesn’t get heard often enough. The result of Russell’s efforts is a pretty decent film but lacks the fire or resolve of Joy’s character. I think perhaps because Russell stylised the film more than it needed to be, the story lost its plausibility and therefore much of my investment. I was invested enough to follow Joy to the end but I didn’t receive any sort of emotional reward from the film’s climax. I was left feeling pretty indifferent to the film’s resolution and haven’t thought much about it since. All in all the film is fine. It has a good central performance and some enjoyable moments but is all based around a story that I found to be quite unfulfilling.

★★★

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong


Although I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the Hunger Games series I still had relatively high expectations going into this film. I think that it is a decent series overall (I particularly enjoyed Catching Fire), it just hasn’t really ever captivated me in the way it has with its most ardent fans. Despite the gripes that I have with the series though, I do nevertheless think that it has done a good job of establishing its universe, it has an interesting concept with some clever twists added in and there are some good characters in there as well. When I saw Mockingjay – Part 1 last year however I started to develop one major concern. While Part 1 was a solid enough film I wasn’t readily convinced that there was enough plot in there to justify splitting the finale into two. Therefore I wanted to reserve my judgement until I saw this film. Having now seen it I found Part 2 to be a solid and enjoyable film like its predecessor but I stand by my judgement that there wasn’t enough story to warrant a two part finale.

As the rebellion against the Capitol escalates, the Mockingjay Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) tries to help the brainwashed and traumatised Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in his recovery. Enraged by the brutality of this war and frustrated with being used by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) as a poster child for the rebellion, Katniss takes matters into her own hands by undertaking a mission to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Helping her in this endeavour are such allies as Gail (Liam Hemsworth), Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and Finnick (Sam Claflin). As they make their way to the Capitol they must combat foes and obstacles reminiscent of those they faced in the Hunger Games. The closer she gets to her goal the more must Katniss question what it is she is fighting for and how much she is willing to sacrifice to end this war once and for all.

I must confess that I am quite ambivalent about this film. On one hand I can’t deny being disappointed by the film’s conclusion. Based on how the film was advertised I was expecting something much more epic like The Deathly Hallows – Parts 2. I won’t give too much away but, simply put, that’s not what happens. The final showdown ends up being something altogether different that to me initially felt underwhelming. In the weeks since I’ve watched it though I’ve thought more about the film’s resolution and must admit that it is actually a fitting end to the series. I thought more about some of the themes that the series has touched upon in its prior films: the role of propaganda in war, the idea that things are not what they seem and the balance between control and freedom. In light of these themes the ending that the film opted for (I should probably note that I haven’t read the books) does make a lot of sense and is in keeping with the ideas raised. It was certainly a bold move to opt for a more challenging ending than the more traditional epic showdown and I must applaud this series for having that kind of tenacity.

Putting the ending aside though there were still a few issues I had with the film that still bother me now. My main issue is the very fact that this film is the second part of a story that I really don’t think needed to be split. The film that I think suffered more from this split was Part 1 since its sole purpose was essentially to set up this film, resulting in a lack of action and progression. Part 2 meanwhile has plenty of both so there was much more for me to enjoy. Some of the dangers that Katniss and her team encounter are certainly thrilling to watch (I wasn’t a fan of those sewer monsters though) and the threat of danger is very present throughout. Some members of the cast, most notably Lawrence, Hutcherson and Sutherland, do shine in this film while others are woefully underused. While the film was able to convey a sense of dread and finality I did think that many of the major character deaths were lacking in emotional weight.

I suppose this film is something of a mixed bag for me but I certainly don’t think it is a bad film by any means. I think the reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as many others have is simply because I wasn’t a huge fan of the series to begin with. This isn’t to say that I disliked it but rather that I wasn’t as invested in the fate of the characters or the outcome of the rebellion as others were. Therefore, while I didn’t find myself particularly excited or moved by this film, I have no doubt that those who are fans of the series will find much to enjoy. Those who want to see how the story ends and where the characters end up will I think be satisfied. It is a good enough film in its own right and is a fitting end to the series.

★★★★