Friday, September 15, 2017

Requiem for a Scream: mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is a jangled, claustrophobic freakout, a Polanski-esque picture of domestic tension refracted into close, uncomfortable, intimate horror. It’s about miscommunication, a fundamental flaw in a relationship escalating into insurmountable obstacle as the situation grows into one out of control. The couple at its center live in a dreamy house in the middle of a forest clearing, with no road or driveway or any obvious means of escape. It’s mid-renovation, courtesy of the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who spends her days refurbishing the home. The older husband (Javier Bardem) is a writer we see poised with pen at the ready, but who never seems to write a word, or at least at first. As the film moves forward, their parallel mental states diverge, he a seemingly unstoppable obsessive people-person lit up with an almost divine (or devilish, perhaps?) zeal and she an increasingly vulnerable paranoiac understandably unsettled by a loss of control driven by her husband’s paradoxically uncommunicative openness. (It put me in mind of Aronofsky’s other works – Noah married to Black Swan, I suppose.) The film sticks closely, exclusively, to the wife’s perspective, pushing in with uncomfortable close-ups as her face reflects confusion, then stress, then mental anguish, and finally a complete and total breakdown. It’s understandable every step of the way, though seems to add up to less and less the longer it goes. 

The whole thing is shot in grainy, tremulous, shaky, close angles, maneuvering with maximum discomfort. We sit right up close to the boiling chaos about to erupt in this marriage, though the context for the leads’ personalities is sketched simply, hollowly, a clangorous and multipurpose metaphor. It’s clear from the beginning something is dangerously off about the couple, she far too patient and generous for his brooding dismissiveness. How often do we see her earnestly offer plain-spoken assertions of her wants and desires only to be rebuffed by his gruff selfishness? By the time a strange man (Ed Harris) shows up in the middle of the night coughing and smoking and asking if they have a spare room, it’s a sort of darkly funny laugh of recognition – an “of course he would” – to find the husband immediately agrees without consulting his wife. When their unannounced guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, dripping with the dark comedy of a contemptible houseguest, but oddly underused) turns up at the doorstep, she’s invited in, too. Then their grown sons are ringing the bell and one thing leads to another and it’s like the Marx brothers’ classic stateroom bit ran headlong into Repulsion. Lawrence plays relatable notes of total confusion, a sense of her world spinning out of control while everyone else acts like she’s the crazy one. Why are all these people piling into her house? What’s going on here?

Flowing with shock sensation – dripping blood, heartbeats in walls, crumbling architecture – the movie gets schlockier and nuttier as it goes, to the point where the wild sustained climax – I dare not spoil its shape or scope, but, boy howdy, does it take the inevitable progression of its plot to the farthest reaches of its insanity – had me thinking to myself, “what am I watching?” Aronofsky commits to the intensity of it all, building on the foundation of one sparsely characterized couple a muddled outsized allegory. Sure, Lawrence plays pained sweet homemaker, and Bardem plays smoldering artiste, but beyond that small flimsy bit of emotional scaffolding there’s nothing by way of personality or characterization to hold onto. (It’s one of those movies where the characters are unnamed, listed in the credits as simply Man and Woman and so on.) We only have pure shapeshifting symbolism (fitting for our current Mystique) – the twisted progression linking up inevitably with thoughts of domestic violence, societal misogyny, and cycles of abuse (both intimate and environmental), as well as the chaos that can follow in the wake of a tortured artist unable to handle fame. These grand ideas float through, but Aronofsky mostly highlights rattling unease and escalating abstract terror. This movie’s stressful, eventually howling with screams and fire and death in increasingly brutal effects. Aronofsky’s a master at marshalling filmmaking techniques – precise sound design, intuitive cutting, thick filmic cinematography, intense performances – to push buttons, but here it’s at or near its most fruitless. It’s technically dazzling and utterly exhausting.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

On the Road Again: THE TRIP TO SPAIN

With Hollywood in the grip of its latest bout of late-sequel-itis, is it too much to idly wish for a My Dinner with Andre 2? (I’d settle for the action figures, at this point.) At least we have The Trips, now a trilogy of Michael Winterbottom films following Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as versions of themselves bickering, bantering, and playfully marking their showbiz territory while dining and driving through beautiful European countryside. The Trip to Spain may not have the sparkle of discovery the first one had, or the fresh melancholy fully flowering in the second (to Italy). But the filmmakers haven’t skipped a step, creating a lovely portrait of quixotic, drifting middle-aged ennui, a sort of prickly Antonioni by way of Michael Palin’s travelogues. What a deft wonder, allowing Coogan and Brydon to play up and against their individual vanities, prattling like better than the best comedian podcasters – full relaxed, erudite, anecdotal mode dotted with the expected bursts of dueling impressions. (Best is an extended bit in which Brydon drives Coogan crazy pretending Moorish architecture was created by Roger Moore. Runner-up: Coogan’s constant Philomena humblebrags.) 

One could hardly ask for funnier company, and Winterbottom (and uneven and eclectic director, but when he’s on he’s on) maintains a perfect balance of casually beautiful location shooting, drooling food close-ups, and witty chatty conversations that prattle on and on, pleasurable looping around the same pet themes. Professional contentment and resentment, literary and cultural references, and off-handed tossed-off commentary about the Way We Live Now are once again topics du jour. It’s all filtered through the recurring motifs of creative frustration, business negotiation, petty jealousies, fatherhood, and legacy. They’re soulful comedians, not quite sad clowns, but certainly on the way to wintering into wisdom if they’ll let themselves. It’s familiar, but comfortingly so, while differing slightly, and not only in the locations. The ending this time is a stinging scorpion’s tail, puncturing the good mood with a topical surprise cliffhanger (of sorts), darkly funny and tremulously unresolved. As Coogan pontificates in the picture, European films are allowed big, obvious metaphor. They just work. Here a story about aging entertainers enjoying the sights and tastes of a foreign country, trading tales of the biz with subtle power plays and literary/historical references becomes a subtle, sad portrait of two men – and maybe a culture – on the precipice, uncertain where to go but onwards, anyway.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Shake IT Off

Scares in It, the second screen adaptation (though the first for the big screen) of Stephen King’s clownish tome, are constructed so homogeneously that the whole two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes is ultimately an exercise in tedium. When you know it’s nothing more than regular intervals of a talented teenage cast’s cliched bantering punctuated by sudden appearances of a deadly supernatural clown-shaped evil and its attendant assorted monster manifestations (a knockoff Modigliani, a leper, a geyser of blood, and so on), you can almost set your watch by it. It drifts on cultural nostalgia for what is, in my frustrated experience, a thick, shambling novel long on iconography and short on thrill. There’s a reason why only Tim Curry’s marvelously funny/scary performance as Pennywise the Clown is the sole lingering element of the 1990 miniseries. This new adaptation – scripted by True Detective: Season 1 director Cary Fukunaga with co-writer Chase Palmer and revised by Annabelle’s Gary Dauberman – takes King’s narrative of childhood innocence fractured by fears and treats it so very seriously. Here the story of a town besieged by an evil in their sewers and the plucky young teens who are the only hope of stopping it grows ponderous and empty. We’ve been here before, and there’s nothing new to show for it, aside from yet another 80’s-set genre period piece. (Funny how a novel from the 80’s – a clear inspiration on Stranger Things – now feels like a copycat of its own copycat, completing a cultural circle of some sad note.) 

Director Andy Muschietti, whose Mama was a superior exploration of similar child-endangerment themes, makes a movie proficient and dull, whipping up reasonably good effects at maximum volume, but failing to string them along in any momentum of excitement or dread. (He also returns to the same small bag of tricks over and over – the slowly canting angle when something bad is about to happen; the long pause with negative space before a blast on the soundtrack; the creepy flat stare and otherworldly lilt of Bill Skarsgard’s clown villain.) The pulp jump scares – and that’s all that’s here, mild jolts of surprise with none of the under-the-skin stickiness one expects from quality horror – sit queasily next to flatly cartoonish manifestations of adult malfeasance towards children. Every grown-up is preposterous and monstrous – shot low and ominous, makeup forming mottled complexions, wobbling tottering mounds of wardrobe shrouding them in ill-fitting un-fashion – as uncaring at best, abusive at worst behavior leads one to think children getting dragged down drain pipes by Pennywise is hardly the town’s worst problem. The experience is a flat line, no modulation and only the slightest of nice grace notes – a shyly flirtatious glance, an authentically trying-too-hard raunchy one-liner from a nerdy kid – to bolster the bludgeoning familiarity and routine gloopy rhythms.
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