Sunday, April 1, 2018

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Isle of Dogs

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Released: 2018
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, everyone else who’s ever been in another Wes Anderson movie

You probably already know if you want to see Isle of Dogs or not. It’s a Wes Anderson movie, which are known for being immediately appealing or off-putting depending on the viewer. It’s a stop-motion animated movie, a type of animation that has a particular cult-like following among animation fans (including yours truly). It might be a movie about dogs, but unlike many movies about dogs which shoot for mainstream family audience approval, this one is definitely made with a specific audience in mind: nerdy Fandersons who respect the craft of stop-mo. For that audience, it’s definitely a dream come true—a gorgeous, beautifully animated and delightfully quirky film. As far as ranking it in the annals of Anderson’s films, I’d probably put it below the last three. Those last three are all perfect 10s, though, so take from that what you will. In any case, Isle of Dogs might not be my favorite Wes Anderson film (Moonrise Kingdom still holds that honor), but it certainly continues the director’s hot streak.

First, as a disclaimer: I would like to dispel the notion that this movie is in any way intended for children. Since it’s animated and Anderson’s last animated film was pretty appropriate for children, it would be easy to get that impression; since this movie has a PG-13 rating, it should go without saying that it’s not quite the case here. There’s a bit of foul language, a decent amount of violence, some implied sexual content in dialogue, and a humorous kidney transplant performed in full view for the audience. Aside from all of that content that would make it an iffy choice for the under-11 set, it’s closer in tone and content with Anderson’s other, more adult-oriented films that I can’t really imagine children will be interested in it. I would highly suggest renting Fantastic Mr. Fox instead of this; if your kiddo is over 11 and liked Fantastic Mr. Fox a lot, I would say it’s probably still a strong maybe. I wish I didn’t have to give the whole “be careful about taking your kids to a particular animated movie” spiel, but there you go. This one’s for artists and maybe nerdy teens, people.

As any longtime viewer of Anderson’s work will immediately tell you, one of the main draws of his movies is the artfully crafted look that each one has. Here, it’s even more immediate. A lot of modern stop-motion animation is made to resemble computer animation, all of the tell-tale jerkiness and quirkiness of it masked by supplemental CGI. Here, that’s not the case Comparing this film to the work of Laika, especially their latest Kubo and the Two Strings, there’s a huge difference. Anderson’s work looks crafted; the fight scenes are done in cartoony fight-clouds of smoke made obviously of synthetic stuffing like you’d find in a doll. When characters speak or move, there’s little attempt to hide that the movements aren’t quite perfect. As a result, it’s somehow even more artistically appealing than if it were seamless. Of course, the art design and cinematography are as perfect to the last detail as they are in every other Anderson film. There are dozens of scenes that I would love to take a screenshot of and hang on my wall. This movie took four years to put together, and it shows; not a single element of it, from the mix of traditional animation in some scenes to the way select dialogue is translated, feels less than considered. Even the character design is immaculate and absurdly detailed. (I was especially fond of Tracy’s design; must be the poof of blonde hair or the long, awkward legs.) Anyone who wants to go into stop-mo should watch this movie just for the sheer level of craft in it; it’s awe-inspiring.

The story (or stories) wrapped in this beautiful artistry aren’t quite up to the same fabulous standards, but they work. The first story, of the dogs on the island helping Atari Kobayashi find the dog that was taken from him and a dog who was once a stray coming to love a human again, is the one that will resonate most with pet owners. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s done without artifice. The way Atari connects with Spots in flashback for the first time, and Chief’s reaction to getting a dog treat and a bath for the first time are scenes that will tug at the heartstrings of all but the most hardened moviegoers, completely without sap. The subplot of corruption in Megasaki City, from suppression of the cure for dog flu to murder, distortion of truth, and anti-dog propaganda, is a little less engaging, but it has a lot to say about timely and relevant topics in the world so I can’t say that it’s unnecessary. It’s also somewhat farcical, which works substantially better in animation than it would in live action—Anderson uses the strangeness of the medium to maximize humor and poke fun at conspiracy thrillers in ways that he couldn’t do if he were making this any other way.

Something that’s been making chatter in some corners of the Internet is whether or not this movie is culturally insensitive. Not being Japanese, I can’t testify to whether that’s the case or not. The only thing that stood out to me is that Tracy Walker, foreign exchange student and reporter for her high school newspaper, could play into the White Savior narrative—having the white American girl be the one obsessively uncovering all the lies and secrets seems a little lazier than I’d expect from a smart director. But taking into consideration that socially conscious American teenagers are loud and like having their opinions known, it makes sense—and Tracy certainly isn’t the only one who saves the day in the end, as both Atari and some of the others on the pro-dog team are working as much, if not more, than she is. That is the most pressing issue for me in terms of how culture is handled—Japanese-American response to it has been mixed but fairly positive—and as one of the co-writers of the movie is Japanese, I feel like it’s at least in slightly good hands. Again, I’m no authority on this and I suggest finding those who can speak about it more eloquently than I, but compared to something like Doctor Strange, my alarm bells aren’t quite going off. Then again, I missed all of the controversial content in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri this past fall, so...

What kept me from loving Isle of Dogs like I wanted to is that, at times, the movie is too busy. Wes Anderson loves his big casts, and this is one of his biggest yet, but it’s hard to keep everything straight throughout the movie. Sometimes there was so much going on and so many roles to keep track of that my head spun. I feel as if trimming the cast of characters just a little might have made it a slightly stronger film, not that it isn’t a strong one already. The stories told here are very entertaining and could have been brought into even tighter focus.

Then again, Wes Anderson has always done things his way, and it always makes trips to see one of his movies a memorable experience. If Isle of Dogs isn’t as sweet and resonant as Moonrise Kingdom, as accomplished and entertaining as The Grand Budapest Hotel, or as fun and magical as Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s still another wholly unique entry in a filmography that will be treasured by film buffs and oddballs long after Wes Anderson stops making movies. I wouldn’t suggest it as an entry point, but if you’re a Fanderson, you’ll probably like this.

Score: **** out of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Love, Simon

Movie Review: Love, Simon
Released: 2018
Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Starring: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp

Love, Simon might not seem like as big of a deal as it is. It's a teen movie released in mid-March. At the same time, it's also the first mainstream teen comedy with a gay main character released by a major studio in wide release. It sucks that it took us until 2018 to get here, but seeing as how there are still people who want to get rid of gay marriage, it isn't really surprising. It's also sad that this is one of a precious few major gay-themed movies that don't focus on suffering and don't feature rampant homophobia or violence against queer people. In short, it's a regular major studio coming-of-age movie, except in this case it's about a gay boy coming out, too.

So all of that's neat. But is the movie good? Yes. It's a very funny, very sweet movie about being true to yourself that should resonate with anyone who isn't a bigot, regardless of sexuality. (Though it will undoubtedly resonate more with queer teens, of course.

The first thing that struck me about this movie is how genuinely funny it is. Most teen comedies operate on a level close to what they think real teens would like; in short, they’re a lot like the principal in this movie who tries to be hip and likable but comes off as obnoxious. Thankfully, the screenplay here is fast-paced, snappy, and not populated by pop culture references that will be dated in a few years. (Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have demonstrated a pretty long shelf life, and a dog named Bieber isn't a particularly egregious offense.) It's mostly funny in ways that won't really bug audiences—Martin’s obnoxiousness leading to cringe humor being a possible exception—and doesn't rely on sex jokes and/or scatological humor.

Another thing I liked about it, that I find pretty rare in teen comedies, is that doesn't mock its characters (save for Martin, who usually deserves it). I was less than satisfied, though, with how it uses an effeminate gay boy as comedic fodder for the majority of its runtime. Not for his gayness, but the way he presents it, which I thought was at odds with the movie’s acceptance message. The director is gay, and there's a conversation to be had about the treatment of femme gay men in queer communities, but I'm not the person to lead it. It just seemed a little off, you know? Regardless of how his femininity is played, he's still treated like a person when it comes down to it, and that’s a lot better than what we usually see on screen.

Nick Robinson, best known to me for a great job carrying The Kings of Summer, has yet another great teen role here. Simon isn't much like Joe from that movie—he has a happy family, he's gay, he doesn't fend for himself in the woods—but Robinson is given a more charismatic character and nails it. He's supported by a uniformly excellent cast of young up-and-comers and older pros, but once again he carries most of the film. And, again, he's frequent scene partners with a scene stealer. In this case, we have Logan Miller as Martin, an entertainingly awkward loser who you almost feel bad for until you realize he's a blackmailer who seems to view girls as commodities. He's no Biaggio, but he's still fun to watch.

What might surprise audiences most, after years of movies about queer suffering and gay angst, is that this coming out story is as pain-free and genuinely sweet as it is. There's barely any sexual content depicted, which some may be disappointed by as it's basically mandatory in hetero teen comedies, but here? No. It adds to the overall gentle feel. There are characters who are homophobic but they are shot down and otherwise reprimanded. Simon angsts about his identity, and it's a huge amount of the plot, but it never leads to his ostracization. His fear is his only obstacle and his flaw, not so much the world around him or the truth of his sexuality. He does regrettable things because he's scared to be who he is. That's something a lot of teens, regardless of differentiating factors, can relate to.

A few critics have said that Blue’s identity is revealed too abruptly (though it's strongly hinted at in a quick joke), or that the blackmailing device is just there for drama. These are perfectly fine criticisms, I guess, but they didn't affect my enjoyment of the movie. As far as cliché narrative devices in teen movies go, they're implemented pretty well—and having more than passing familiarity with the book this is based on thanks to my involvement in YA fiction, I already knew Blue’s identity. These are minor problems, if you even consider them problems.

What I liked best about Love, Simon is that, in the end, this is a movie about decent people (mostly), and that the conflict doesn't come from hatred or homophobia but from people making mistakes. We have parents who make insensitive jokes but who apologize and aim to do better. We have teens who hurt their friends but still do everything they can to right their wrongs in ways big or small. And we have a boy coming out and finding a guy to love and the widespread acceptance of those around him. It's a happy story that a lot of queer kids don't get to see in their own lives and that audiences in general don't get to see on screen. Hopefully, that's changing. This is a movie that, as thoroughly enjoyable as it is, I hope becomes dated quickly. It couldn't have existed as is in 2008 because we weren't there yet. It may be as dated as Brokeback Mountain is now by the time 2028 rolls around.

Whatever the case, there are plenty of people who will cherish this movie. It may save lives. And it's a joy to watch.

Score: **** out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Shape of Water

Movie Review: The Shape of Water
Released: 2017
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins

I'm not posting a full review (yet again), not because I don't have much to say about this one that hasn't been said better but because I can hardly imagine that I'll have less to say about this movie as time goes on. Right now I don't really have the words or the time to do justice to every thought I have on this as a disabled person, as a fan of its director, as a lover of weird things. So here's the gist of it.

The Shape of Water was my most anticipated movie of the year by a colossal margin, and even though it's already been said that the basic plot hasn’t broken any new ground, I'm happy to report it met every one of my expectations. It's a beautiful (visually and otherwise) movie about love and hope and how outcasts find happiness when they look out for one another because the rest of the world sure doesn't have their back. Because it's a movie by Guillermo del Toro, however, it also has gore, sex, and fish monsters. It's brutal and kind in equal measure. Somehow it manages to be the most inspiring movie of the year, a genuine “fairytale for adults” when that term has almost lost its meaning due to overuse. I could watch this one again and again, and I probably will. It's without a doubt del Toro’s finest achievement since Pan’s Labyrinth—one of the first movies that shook me to my core, when I was 13—and like that movie, there is so much to say about it that it deserves more than a quick little blog post.

Score: ***** out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Get Out

Movie Review: Get Out
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Released: 2017
Starting: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford

In lieu of posting a full, in-depth take on Get Out, I'm deferring to three takes on the film that not only praise it for what I liked about it but also tackle it from a perspective that almost definitely matters more than mine. This movie came out in February and everything has already been said about it by much smarter, more qualified people.

In short, my thoughts on Get Out are as follows: it's easily the best horror film to come out of Hollywood in the past decade. It's creepy, smart, subtle, given just the right amount of comic relief (and the comic relief is hilarious). But even taking all of this into consideration, what really makes it an exceptional first horror film is how it uses the genre as social commentary—many directors with more film experience than this aren't able to do that as well. I might have had criticisms of a few things in the third act, and maybe it felt the tiniest bit too slick, but what major horror film released lately doesn't have similar problems? Jordan Peele is a horror director the genre needs right now, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Released: 2017
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

My first instinct when talking about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (aside from shortening the title by three words) is to call it a very funny movie about people in absolutely devastating circumstances. This feels reductive. It’s billed in part as a black comedy, sure, and it has more moments of actual hilarity than the vast majority of comedies released this year. But stripping this movie down to just the funny moments and memorable quotes found in the (admittedly excellent) trailer doesn’t convey how genuinely powerful—in so many senses—the whole movie is. It’s also part crime drama, part western (a little bit), and a whole lot of small town drama. It recalls several great movies released in the past few years, but ultimately is wholly unique and genuinely refreshing in its complexity. Get ready to hear a lot more about this one over the next few months.

If you’re a reasonable and rational human being, you’re probably wondering how the hell a movie about a woman pissed about her daughter’s rape and murder going unsolved could ever be hilarious. The answer: by not even trying to joke about that. The main reason why I’m hesitant to call this a black comedy is because it doesn’t play taboo subjects for laughs. Most of what’s funny here is the idiocy of the local racist buffoon cop Dixon, or Mildred’s to-hell-with-everything-else attitude toward the people in Ebbing. A lot of it’s in the dialogue. Even more of it’s in the performances. Honestly, I think it’s necessary for the film to work. People in bad circumstances tend to joke to get themselves through it, and the same is true for the finest movies about horrific tragedy and loss. It’s impossible to imagine this movie as a straight-up drama. Just try to get through the scene where the local priest comes to Mildred’s house and tell me this movie didn’t need to be funny. Even in the third act, where things get heavier and the painful truths of these characters’ hearts aren’t quite as humorous as they once were, there’s still a joke thrown in every so often to keep things from being a wallow. Somehow, it lands every time and never cheapens the drama and heartache, of which there’s plenty to go around.

I really don’t want to mince words here: the performances are so good it’s unreal. Frances McDormand, never bad but never better than this, is an absolute force of nature as Mildred. This is a woman who’s been hurt a lot by life and who bites back when she feels provoked or wronged. It’s often awesome, like when she defends herself against a disgruntled dentist, but occasionally straddling the line between awesome and embarrassing, like when she takes a knee to the groins of egg-throwing teenagers. The woman who starts off as a badass hero turns out to be a bit less badass than she probably hopes to come off, oblivious to everything but her own grief. McDormand’s performance turns this woman, who could’ve otherwise been a character in a Lifetime movie or a caricature of angry Southern women, into a flesh-and-blood human being. The scene that says it all to me is when Mildred sits in Angela’s room, flashes back to their argument the day before her murder, and then cuts back to Mildred sitting there in barely composed silence. No histrionics; the argument was average mother-daughter stuff and the “present” of the film is just stunned, numb grief. It would be so easy to overplay this, but there isn’t a single misstep. Given even more of a challenging role is Sam Rockwell, object of my well-documented adolescent affections and one of the most perennially underrated actors currently working. He’s tremendous at playing characters who are complete screw-ups—see his phenomenal work in Snow Angels and strong work in The Way Way Back if you really needed proof of that—but Dixon is a character who requires a careful performance. Focus too much on his impulsiveness and he’s just an idiot. Emphasize his bigotry and he’s loathsome. Sure, every actor wants to play an awful guy who redeems himself, but Rockwell finds the humanity in a character most actors wouldn’t really want to find the humanity in. Dixon isn’t a showy sort of awful character; he’s the sort of guy who’s too much of a doofus to be the Bad Cop and really shouldn’t be in law enforcement anyway. Through this performance, he’s never unbearable even if he’s not exactly likable, and you actually want to see this human trainwreck of a man get his act together. Like McDormand, Rockwell is perfect for the role and genuinely deserves an Oscar for his work here. He’s long overdue for the attention.

The rest of the cast is mostly good too. Woody Harrelson, second-billed in the cast, conveys just what kind of decent-but-maybe-not-perfect guy the local police chief is and why people would be so quick to jump to his defense. You kind of wish Mildred would back off him, kind of wish he’d get the damn point and get to work already, and still hate hearing that he’s gravely ill. (It’s not really a spoiler—it’s told within the first half hour.) He conveys a lot in a small amount of screen time, adding another memorable performance to the cast. Also strong is another favorite of mine, John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone fame, as Mildred’s awful ex-husband. I wish he’d had more screen time, but hated the character so much thanks to his quietly chilling performance that I’m kind of glad he didn’t. I was less fond of Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife—was it just me or did her accent kind of go all over the place?—and Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son was fine but nowhere near as good as he was in Manchester by the Sea. These two performances are just blips, though, and easy to overlook when the three top-billed performers are so strong.

When it comes down to it, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t about justice. We never find out for sure who killed Angela, and in some ways the characters are worse off than they were before. Like any good Southern Gothic story, like the one Red is seen reading in the beginning of the movie, life isn’t fair here and the characters know it. If anything, it’s about the futility of anger and the cost of impulsive decisions. Whether it’s Mildred acting out because she feels like nobody wants to solve her daughter’s murder or Dixon getting angry because people think he’s a joke and he and the police force are useless, anger and wrath make everything worse. Yet in moments where characters who used to hate each other show each other the faintest bit of kindness, it refutes the sort of nihilism that you might think would come from a story like this. The ending might seem unsatisfactory compared to what we really want to know, but it truly ends at the only point that could be wholly satisfactory after everything that came before.

The kind of movie that screams for awards without actually screaming for awards attention, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the richest experiences you can have at the movies right now. I could say it’s maybe five minutes too long, but it’s easy to forgive that when so much of it is expertly written and performed. Much like The Florida Project, my other favorite film of the year so far, it’s a movie that beautifully encapsulates human experience, and while this one might be mostly about the lows while that one’s mostly the highs, I still see it as hopeful—these characters are going to find a way to go on, no matter how crazy and awful the world can be.

Score: ***** out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Florida Project

Movie Review: The Florida Project
Directed by: Sean Baker
Released: 2017
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite

There really is no way to quick-pitch The Florida Project without making it sound horrendous to people who won’t find it to be Their Thing. How do you sell someone on two hours of a poor six-year-old’s cinema verite adventures in a motel outside of Disney World as the adults around her try to help the best they can? Yeah, I’m on board with that, but how do you convince everyone else that it’s worth watching? You can’t, unless the movie is basically magic. I’m reluctant to use that word to describe a movie—especially one that’s as thoroughly realist as this one—but if any movie released in 2017 deserves to be called magic, it’s The Florida Project. This is probably ironic, since the movie takes place in an area that is definitely nothing like Disney World and is probably one of the most resolutely un-Disney things you’ll catch on a big screen this year.

This movie is probably not the movie to watch if you hate kids. I’m not talking about the precocious little moppets usually seen on screen, but actual kids. Annoying, gross, messy, destructive, chatty, mouthy, kindergarten-aged kids are a rarity on the movie screen, though not without good reason, and it’s even rarer still to see their world depicted on screen with anything resembling respect or truth. (One example is The Spirit of the Beehive, a very different film from this one.) Throughout the entire movie, I was stricken with how real the children on screen were, how their behavior and dialogue never felt scripted even once. The kids aren’t always likable—Moonee, the girl whom most of the film follows, frequently behaves in ways that might appall audiences the way it appalls the “decent” characters in the movie—but they’re always lovable because of how real they are. Moonee and her friends are little balls of energy because it’s summer and they’re all six, and they have no idea what the world around them is really like.

This is where the movie gets into the realistic territory that keeps it from being just a parade of kids doing kid stuff: These are poor folks living in a motel we’re talking about here. Moonee’s mother, Halley, is barely into her twenties, and she is a difficult (putting it mildly) person who would test the patience of a saint. She’s just shy of a complete jackass to the manager of the motel she lives in. She’s petty and argumentative. She’s not particularly equipped to be a mother, and you’d be hard pressed to say she’s a good one, but it’s plain to see that she loves Moonee and is determined to do anything she can to make sure her kid has a happy life. As the reality of the situation this family is living in encroaches on the film—so subtly at first that the ending sneaks up on you—most viewers will be of two compartmentalized minds on Halley: she is absolutely not fit to take care of Moonee, and at the same time she is the only person you would ever want to take care of Moonee. After all, the kid’s POV is so easy to agree with after a while.

All of this would be fine theoretical content but lacking if the performances here weren’t uniformly stellar. Most of the Oscar buzz is going to Willem Dafoe for his role as Bobby, the gruff but unquestionably kind manager. He probably won’t win, but he deserves a nomination; I had to remind myself numerous times that this was the same guy who played the Green Goblin. Bobby’s the practical heart of the movie, never a pushover but so much more caring about the people in his motel than anyone else in the world seems to be.

I mention him first because he’s the only real name in the cast and responsible for several of the movie’s finest moments, but the two breakout stars deserve the same plaudits. Brooklynn Prince is the heart of the movie and has an almost supernatural amount of talent for a kid in the single digits. I often had to remind myself that this kid was an actor, who was acting, and not just a random little kid they found on the street and started filming. I’d argue that she deserves to be one of the youngest Best Actress nominees, and if she continues getting good roles there’s no telling what she can do in the future. And Instagram star Bria Vinaite is also astoundingly good, a young woman driven to all sorts of crushing lows to provide for a kid she shouldn’t really have at her age but would do anything for. She allows Halley to be unlikable and truly annoying without trying to soften her edges more than what we’d see with Moonee; it’s a hell of a first role, but she proves to be as gifted as her co-stars. The supporting cast is excellent as well; nobody’s acting is ever showy or anything other than convincing.

The Florida Project is, for the most part, not a movie with giant emotional moments or showy displays of acting. As a largely episodic story that eventually builds to one of the most powerful endings of the year, its strengths are almost entirely in its tiny moments. A few of my favorites: Three kids having too much fun washing a car as their guardians bicker. The same three kids passing a bunch of stores on their way to beg for ice cream. A boy giving away all of his toys as he and his father head to another state. Bobby chasing off a creeper at the playground (complete with a shoutout to my hometown). Bobby and his son(?) moving a broken ice machine into and out of an elevator. Two children hiding the truth from their moms after a disastrous prank. Moonee and Halley having breakfast. Twice. None of these scenes are remotely exciting on paper, but on screen is a different matter entirely.

In 2017 t’s tempting to ascribe an overt political agenda to The Florida Project, which is about “invisible homeless” people struggling and being cast aside by society. There are certainly some people out there who will hate the movie for daring to show poor people—poor children—as human beings who maybe deserve better than what they have. In the end, though, this isn’t a movie that’s out to make a statement. Much like last year’s incredible Manchester by the Sea or my beloved Short Term 12, all it’s trying to do is show the life of a few flawed but decent human beings just trying to live their lives and mostly be good to one another, even if they aren’t always up to the task and the world is stacked against them. There are no great triumphs or profound inspirational moments that you’d find in a Poverty Porn movie. All there is is a stubborn refusal to give into despair even as your world starts to cave in. When everything's said and done, this persistence of humanity makes it more inspiring and devastating than anything I’ve seen in ages.

I thought they didn’t make movies like this any more. It turns out they still do, and they might be better now than ever.

Score: ***** out of 5 stars.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: mother!

Movie Review: Mother!
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Released: 2017
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem

The way mother! has been received by the moviegoing public does not remotely surprise me. Very little of that has to do with the manufactured outrage from certain disreputable outrage machines. Most of it comes from the indisputable fact that expecting a normal movie from the guy who made Pi is a bad idea, and Paramount’s marketing sure didn’t help there. Sure, the movie’s content was bound to upset those looking for a fight about anything even slightly critical of religion, but this is not a movie that was ever going to hit it big with many people. It’s self-consciously artsy and obscure and its narrative is one of the most baffling in recent memory. mother! is the Marmite of 2017 film, loved or loathed with little in-between, because it’s so different from most of what’s out right now. It's because of all of that that I was surprised I not only liked it, but liked it a lot. At the same time, I completely understand why many other people hate it. It is a confounding movie in so many ways, and I enjoy it while basically feeling as if I don't know who to recommend it to.

First, a quiz: Do you want to see a good old-fashioned throwback horror film, or do you want to spend two hours frantically mapping characters in your head and analyzing every interaction to figure out what’s supposed to be going on? If you said the first answer, you almost certainly will want to go see It instead. This is not a movie to half-watch, unless you really enjoy being confused (in that case, please watch it that way). That’s not to say it won’t be tempting to doze off, considering this particular movie has the pacing of a glacier made of snails, but patience and attention is pretty much a requirement to get anything out of this beyond incredulous chuckles. Taken at face value, it’s just a parade of barely logical and later flat-out absurd events tormenting a confused woman and her worryingly welcoming husband. Taken at anything other than face value and it’s a million other things.

Another tip: If you’re the type of person who loathes symbolism, who responds to test questions about an author’s choice to make blue curtains blue by saying “he just meant the curtains were blue,” stay far away from this movie. There are more symbolic elements here than there are actual symbols. This was made for those college classes all about analyzing meaning in a given piece of media, and the only thing stopping my analytical self from buckling down and writing out a thesis on it (aside from that taking forever) is that there are so many interpretations that the film supports. The biblical allegories are the most widely discussed, and definitely the most contested, of course, and some of those are so blunt as to smack you upside the head and irritate you if you have a particularly religious background (oh, two brothers, son of the first man and woman seen in the film, fighting with each other? Wonder what that means…). But if the biblical symbolism isn’t your particular cup o’ tea, you could easily take this movie as an allegory for the way certain sects of our society treat and neglect women. If that doesn’t work, mother! might be a metaphor for mother nature’s war with humanity and overpopulation. If you’re of a particular strain, you might see it as a criticism of the male artistic ego and how male writers of literary fiction take women as their “muse,” whether or not the woman involved is willing. Or maybe just power dynamics in relationships? Essentially, this movie is so abstract in its symbolism that an argument could be made about it being about damn near anything, which is why I’m looking forward to how opinion on it changes over time. I have a feeling particularly geeky film students will have a ball with it, if my reaction to the richness of the symbolism is any indication.

Jennifer Lawrence is the main draw of the movie for most people, and she does the role plenty of justice, but it’s almost entirely a reactive role. Fortunately, she’s pretty good at reacting, and Aronofsky wisely keeps the camera on her for almost the entire movie. Every ounce of her confusion, her anger, her sadness, can be felt. It’s far from her finest performance (see Winter’s Bone for that one), but she was definitely the right pick for the role. The real draw, though, is Javier Bardem, playing this enigmatic man whose moods are fickle, whose kindness is a door to chaos, and who claims to love his wife but never really acts like he does. He’s compelling enough to make you forget that there isn’t much consistency or humanity to the character, and becomes this towering, menacing buffoon by the end (which, of course, Means Something). Of all the people who show up in the weird little house in the movie, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the most present and the most compelling; the former is a strange mixture of scary and sympathetic, the latter beautifully obnoxious and a fountain of symbolism in her own right for the way she treats Lawrence.

If you still don’t have a concrete idea of what the actual movie is about, beyond a lot of highly symbolic events, based on this review, there’s a reason for that. mother!’s biggest failing, and why it won’t have appeal to others besides symbolism junkies, is that the story taken at face value is more or less a failure. Darren Aronofsky can talk all he wants in interviews about absurdist comedies and cite Bunuel all he likes, but by the third act the movie throws out the pretenses of a proper story (which even absurdist comedies tend to have) and decides to fling symbols and genuinely gruesome imagery at the screen. By this point the religious imagery is all but unavoidable and definitely not comforting. In this sense it most recalls the controversial, hallucinatory films of the late Ken Russell, another filmmaker who depicted religion in ways little-loved by the religious (though this film is quite a bit more vague about that). But it doesn’t have same sort of dramatic payoff most surrealist films have, and mostly only comes together once you try to figure out what it’s all talking about. This is a little disappointing; even most David Lynch movies work on a basic storytelling level.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that I want to hold mother!’s weakness in the narrative department against it too much. It works so well as an allegory that I can’t honestly say Aronofsky failed at what he set out to do, even if what he set out to do was alienate a good 80% of moviegoers. (Yeah, he definitely succeeded there…) I have a feeling that in a decade, away from its opaque marketing and the fans who went because its star was Hollywood royalty, mother! will be seen more for what it is rather than what made it fail at the box office. Of course, whatever it is is highly dependent on the viewer. In any case, I thought it was one of the more fascinating films in recent memory, the sort of movie I can’t believe actually got made and released by a big-name studio. That in itself is worthy of praise.

Score: ***½ out of 5 stars.