Love It or Hate It, mother! (2017) is the Most Important Major Studio Release of the Year

Darren Aronofsky’s latest go-for-broke provocation, mother!, has already been in wide release for two full weekends, an eternity in the context of internet time. Its already slight box office returns are dwindling; the hot takes have cooled; film culture is desperate to move onto discussing the next big budget comic book adaptation or (I’m not kidding) half-a-year-early rounds of Oscar predictions, already framing mother! discussions in the rearview. It’s been a fun couple of weeks of wildly varied reactions to this aggressively divided work, though. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during the film’s violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. Even the Swampflix crew is harshly divided on mother!‘s merits as a feature film. It’s one of my favorite new releases I’ve seen all year, but Boomer was much less impressed when he reviewed it last week, writing “It aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars; it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.” However, the important part of that divide is not whether we were individually positive on the film’s handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across. The important thing is recognizing the significance of that “aim for the moon” ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape. mother! may ultimately make more enemies than it does dollars during its theatrical run, but it’s the most important Major Studio release of 2017 for its ambition alone.

As Boomer wrote, “Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come.” That kind of stick-with-you effect is invaluable in our disposable media landscape, which is essentially dominated by Superhero of the Week action spectacle & streaming platform “content” binging. Personally, I was much more unambiguously positive on my experience with mother! than Boomer, but just as mentally preoccupied with how it lingered with me after I left the theater. I spent most of my day after watching the film reading over every scrap of impassioned analysis I could find, positive & negative, and was happy to discover that most of the ways I had engaged with the film were already represented in the cultural conversation. I’m of the firm opinion that subtlety is highly overvalued in modern criticism, so I’m tickled that the film is fully committed to its crash course on the entirety of the Bible and (intended or not) Aronofsky’s self-flagellation over the Artist-Muse power dynamics of his own romantic partnerships, a pitch black act of self-analysis that paints the Artist type as much more of a monster than the divine role of the Biblical analogy. I’m also a huge sucker for what I call the “Party Out of Bounds” narrative, where house guests & partygoers are supernaturally compelled to remain in an obviously toxic social environment when it’s clear from frame one that they should leave immediately. On top of his indulgence in religious, environmental, and uncomfortably personal allegories, Aronofsky also uses mother! to experiment with traditional stage play surrealism. Recalling the artificial environments & darkly funny social horrors of surrealist masters like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Luis Buñuel, mother! is on a very basic level a surreally menacing comedy about the horror of having guests over who will not leave, a sentiment I identify with more than I likely should admit. The exciting thing is that all of these tactics & influences have been constantly picked at like scabs over the last two weeks of cultural conversation, along with feminist readings of how its narrative mirrors classic texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and real life horrors like the public’s gendered abuse of Jennifer Lawrence when her nude photos leaked without her consent in 2014. The only person out there limiting the endless possible discussions of mother!’s themes & means is the one person no one should have ever asked: Darren Aronofsky.

For some ungodly reason, several interviewers have asked Aronofsky to explain the (aggressively unsubtle, already blatant) Biblical & environmentalist allegories that drive the film’s lyrical sense of narrative. It was idiotic for him to oblige. I can see how after a week of befuddled theater walkouts & wildly mixed reviews, he’d be tempted to explain himself for those confused or angered by the film, but mother! works so much better as conversation starter without the guiding hand of its creator. Following a summer where many films have (supposedly) financially died by the hands of low scores from critical aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, movie studios have been very itchy over negative criticism. Low percentages on the dreaded Tomatometer have been a hot topic for studios desperate to explain why “sure thing” releases like Baywatch & The Dark Tower died on the vine (despite, you know, the fact that they looked awful before they were ever reviewed), but what hasn’t been fully dealt with yet is how a high Tomatometer score isn’t necessarily a sign of quality or substance either. Safe, crowdpleasing films from the MCU, Star Wars, and their Disney-adjacent ilk are much likelier to secure a high Tomatometer score than an ambitious, divisive film that splits critics. We need to put more of an emphasis on celebrating aggressive artistic visions that divide opinion and spark contentious conversation. mother!‘s 61% on the Tomatometer means so much more to me than a 90+% approval for safer bet releases like The Big Sick or Spider-Man: Homecoming (both of which we also reviewed positively, mind you). Just because 98% of critics had some degree of a positive reaction to Kumail Nanjiani’s heartfelt, post-Apatow romcom doesn’t mean the film has lingered in their minds the way mother!’s “aim for the moon” ambitions will. Aronofsky would benefit greatly from abstaining from damage control interviews on that critical divisiveness, encouraging people to remain split on his thematic intent & aggressive filmmaking craft. mother!‘s middling Tomatometer score should be a badge of honor for the director, even more so than its already infamous F CinemaScore (which it shares with similarly genius works like The Box & Bug).

mother!‘s thematic complexity, critical divisiveness, and conversation-sparking ambition make it an exciting work to engage with, but they aren’t the reason why the film is culturally important. There were plenty of films released domestically this year I would categorize as just as ambitious & thematically rich as Aronofsky’s work: We Are the Flesh, The Lure, Your Name., Good Time, Get OutRawKuso, etc. What makes Aronofsky’s film important in the context of these admirable go-for-broke works is that it was released & supported by a Major Hollywood Studio. In fact, Paramount Pictures has been infinitely better than Aronofsky himself in handling the negative press over the anger & confusion his film has inspired. In addition to prominently quoting the negative reviews in its advertising, they’ve issued the following statement: “This movie is very audacious and brave. You are talking about a director at the top of his game and an actress at the top of her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. […] We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.” Fuck yeah. In the current cinematic climate, there aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this. Young, promising directors are being snatched up for movie-by-committee superhero pictures before they’re even given a chance to find their own voice (a fate Aronofsky narrowly escaped himself). The most invincibly successful film franchise in the world, Star Wars, is afraid to take risks with directors like Phil Lord & Chris Miller, replacing them with well-behaved, personality-free workmen like Ron Howard at the last possible minute (when that’s who they should have hired in the first place if they just wanted more of the same). Nearly every major release feels like it’s tied to a pre-existing property with a built-in audience, banking on familiarity to coast by as a mild delight. Paramount’s defiant embrace of mother!‘s critical & financial doom is a huge deal. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, Kubrick films like The Shining & 2001: A Space Odyssey (which were heatedly divisive in their time as well) being released in our current don’t-rock-the-boat climate where every movie has to sell billions worldwide & please 90% of its audience to be considered a success. Paramount daring to release mother! in its current, artistically unmitigated form to such a wide audience and then standing by that decision in the face of critical backlash is a modern movie industry miracle.

Last year, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise similarly applied Buñuelian sentiments to a “Party Out of Bounds” story turned apocalyptically violent in a blatant allegory about the evils of modern consumerism. It’s a great film and just as worthy of a descendant of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as mother!, but it barely played in theaters before being quietly dumped on Netflix & promptly forgotten. By contrast, mother! is a tonally, visually, and thematically challenging work domestically released almost as wide as a typical by-the-books romcom or superhero action flick (which, again, we generally enjoy as well). That’s an increasingly rare occurrence in the 2010s. Whether you’re as enraptured with its audacity as I am or as conflicted over its allegorical buffoonery as Boomer was, you have to recognize mother!‘s value as a Major Studio risk. I sadly doubt it will change the industry in any significant way, but it’s still a damn important agenda statement from a Major Studio system player, who somehow handled this false crisis of critical division even better than the artist they were supporting.

-Brandon Ledet

mother! (2017)

In the words of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor: “That was a weird one!”

For years, I woke up every morning (and the occasional afternoon), rolled over, and put my feet firmly on the floor in front of a poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain was not a movie that I liked when I first saw it, nor was Black Swan. Over time, however, I came to love The Fountain in spite (or perhaps because) of its bizarre but ultimately human melding of pretentious universalism and cloying sentimentality. Even in my first viewing in the theater, I still loved the visuals of the film, especially the depictions of space as a vast sea of colors and reactions, which were actually taken from microphotography. And I guess I’ve come around some on Black Swan as well, although I doubt I’ll ever come to love it. All of this is to say that opinions can and do change. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe I gave Tenebrae anything less than a perfect 5 Stars. And 4 Stars for last year’s Ghostbusters? What was I smoking? In order to be fair, despite the fact that I walked out of the theater after seeing mother! and immediately wanted to pen my review, I decided to ruminate on it for a few days to see if my feelings about the movie changed at all.

And, hey, they did! The more time that passes, the less I like it. I better get this down on paper while I still have some positivity. And maybe while I still have some negativity as well. Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come, and I get the feeling it’s going to go up and down.

On my Fountain poster, there was a pull-quote from film critic Glenn Kenny: “As deeply felt as it is imagined.” This is essentially true of all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen (of his recent work, I’ve only missed Noah and The Wrestler): they are all films with a great depth of imagination and arresting visuals, paired with emotional gravitas that varies wildly but usually works because of strong performances by powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Ellen Burstyn, and, for all that people love to mock her, Natalie Portman. It doesn’t really apply in the case of mother!, however. This is a cast full of powerful performers, from Javier Bardem to Jennifer Lawrence to Ed Harris and (my ride or die) Michelle Pfeiffer, but even their presence makes for a film that lacks the emotional resonance that it’s shooting for; it aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars, it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.

Although I went into this film as blind as I possibly could, avoiding all pre-release interviews and clickbait, I don’t foresee being able to fully discuss this film without going into the major plot elements and my interpretation of the events of the narrative. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, so abandon ship now all ye who wish to view the film with fresh eyes and clear hearts. This plot summary may not vary far from others you may have already seen, but I intend to only note things I plan to discuss. Ok? Let’s go.

The film opens on Javier Bardem’s character “Him” placing a crystal with a fiery center in a podium, which causes a burned home to regenerate, including the appearance of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, “mother.” She is working on restoring a glorious octagonal Victorian house to its former glory after a fire: plastering walls, repainting, and generally doing all of the heavy lifting while Bardem’s writer character, whom we later learn is a poet, sits in his study (which contains the crystal from the opening scene) and struggles with his writer’s block. One day “the man” (Harris) appears, supposedly after having been told that their home was a bed and breakfast. The poet welcomes him into the house over Lawrence’s character’s protests, and the two men spend the night drinking and carousing. The next morning, mother awakens to find herself alone before stumbling upon her husband helping the man, now with a wound where his back ribs are, to vomit in a commode. This prompts the appearance of “the woman” (Pfeiffer), the man’s wife, who slinks about making innuendo and asking invasive questions about how often the (ostensibly) younger couple have sex, do they love each other, and, of course, when is Lawrence’s character just going to have a baby already?

They reveal that they are actually fans of the poet’s work, and Pfeffer’s character finally manages to find her way into his inner sanctum, accidentally breaking the crystal and driving the poet into a rage; he boards up his study. As the homeowners prepare to kick the interlopers out of their house, the latter’s two sons (Domnhall Gleeson as the elder and Brian Gleeson as the younger) arrive and bicker about their inheritance, leading to a physical altercation that results in the younger son’s death. This leads into an influx of a seemingly endless multitude of mourners into the house, who invade and act out, from childishly mocking Lawrence’s character for trying to preserve the sanctity of her bedroom to aggressively trying to sleep with her and using misogynistic slurs to ultimately breaking a sink and flooding the room. This finally prompts her to drive all of the uninvited guests out. Afterwards, she and the poet make love. She awakes the next morning and declares that she is pregnant. This delights her husband and breaks through the wall of his creative block, and he writes something new, something truly beautiful and transcendent (not that the audience gets to read it; we only see how people react). That’s when shit truly hits the fan.

Near the end of her pregnancy, the new work is published, to Lawrence’s character’s surprise, and their home is immediately descended upon by fans, who begin to besiege the house in the form of a mob. In a matter of minutes, they make their way into the house and begin to destroy it, repeating the poet’s declaration that all that lies within is to be shared. Violence erupts, as well as various rituals and rites that smack of religiosity and sectarianism, until their home becomes a war zone, complete with women being imprisoned, the poet’s publisher (Kristen Wiig) performing violent executions, refugees hiding in barracks, and explosions in every direction. The mother and her husband make their way to his boarded-up study, where she gives birth but refuses to let the poet take the baby out into the rest of the house; when she finally falls asleep, she awakes in a panic and rushes from the room to find that Bardem’s character is presenting their child to the assembled throng of his fans, who steal the baby.

Then they kill it. Then they eat it. (Then hundreds of people in dozens of cinemas in America stood up and left the theater. To address the elephant in the room, it was pretty gruesomely laid open, and I’m not shocked that middle America revolted at this… revolting display. I’m sure that they would say that I am too desensitized to this kind of thing based on my previous viewing habits–including La terza madre, which features a similar scene of infant cannibalism–but really it’s that I’m an adult who knows when a prop is just a prop. The disturbing shit is happening out there in the streets in the real world right now, and if you happen to be one of those people who found this beyond reprehensible but don’t have a thing to say in defense of the victim when children like Trayvon Martin are getting murdered in the real world, then you’re the one whose brain is fucked up. Get your priorities and your house in order. But I digress.)

This (baby eating) drives Lawrence’s character around the bend. She attacks some followers and is badly beaten by them in retaliation. She ultimately makes her way to the basement, where she succeeds in setting the house ablaze and killing everyone inside, save for the poet. He finds her burned body and asks her to make one last sacrifice on his behalf: she allows him to remove her heart, which he cracks like a nut or an egg to reveal another crystal identical to the one at the start of the film. He again places the crystal in its place, and the house begins to rejuvenate once more….

I’m embarrassed to say that the primary and most obvious metaphor of the film did not reveal itself to me during my first watch. As someone well versed with the Western Canon, the reinterpretation and revisitation of Biblical sources is as familiar to me as the smell of my childhood home or the shape of the tree outside my bedroom window. I was careful (and lucky) to avoid promotional materials, which meant that Aronofsky’s public declarations about the films allegorical intent were unknown to me until after the fact. Still, in retrospect it should have been obvious to me that the poet was meant to be God, that Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters were Adam and Eve, that their sons were Cain and Abel, that the broken sink was the great deluge, that Lawrence’s character’s child was Jesus, especially as the mass of fanatics ate of his flesh and experienced a kind of religious ecstasy. Aronofsky has also stated that the considered the title character to be representative of the earth, which is taken for granted by mankind, a group which in turn tears the world apart in the name of warring faiths and factionalism, until the earth turns on its guests and burns everything down. Also, I’m pretty sure Wiig is supposed to be the Catholic Church in this paradigm. But Roland Barthes and I are over here in the corner and we want you to know: the Author is dead, baby, dead, and you’re not beholden to what he has to say.

I read the film not as a mostly one-to-one allegorical fable about the rise and fall of mankind, but as being instead about the God Complex of the author, the artist who is so self-absorbed with their personal vision that they allow themselves to reach the point of total narcissism and personal deification, an apotheosis of the self. To me, this read true in the scenes in which we see Bardem’s character repeatedly surrender his privacy, the sanctity of his personal relationships, and even his own child to appease the reader and the audience. It made me think of the way that so many writers, myself included, stripmine their lives for story material, consciously and unconsciously. I wasn’t expecting Adam and Eve so I didn’t notice them when they arrived, and was more fascinated with wondering whether or not Aronofsky knew how unbearable the author (and thus he himself) seemed to be, based on the lens of my reading.

As chaos descends in the final act, I found myself looking for other ways to interpret the material, and thought that we were headed for a kind of H.P. Lovecraft’s Rosemary’s Baby scenario. There’s certainly enough textual evidence for the idea that the house is in reality an eldritch horror show under all the floorboards and the plaster, with the image of a beating, fleshy thing behind the walls and a Cronenbergian bladder/ulcer/boil/appendage (?) sticking out of the plumbing. There’s also a very Lovecraftian element to the way that the interior of the house descends into a Gilliamesque war zone that’s evocative of the indecipherable and incomprehensible chaos of films like Jacob’s Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness. I was rooting for this potential turn right up until the child was born and it was totally normal-looking (other than being ten months old like most movie “newborns”). My hopes that the film was going to transcend into something truly bizarre were dashed.

But if we instead take Aronofsky at his word, then everything is so obviously (and clumsily) literal that we’re left struggling to grasp the meaning of the more obtuse symbols that appear in the film? Take, for instance, the importance of Harris’s character’s lighter. This “Adam” smokes, much to “mother’s” chagrin; if she is Mother Earth, is she upset by the pollution of her perfect home, caused by self-destructiveness, and this is the reason for her ill temperament? If we accept this premise for the sake of argument, what are we to make of the fact that she deliberately loses the lighter–is this the earth hiding man’s self-destruction from him, and is the fact that Harris’s character later lights a cigarette on the stove despite having no lighter a metaphor for how mankind will continues to be self-destructive regardless of nature’s attempts to course correct? If we grant that these precepts are sine qua non of the thesis that man/Adam/mankind abuses the hospitality/household/habitability of mother/earth/Mother-Earth and that this is what ultimately leads to the destruction of the house/planet, we are still left with questions. Why does the lighter have a Nordic rune on it (it’s called a Wendehorn; you can also see it on the woman’s luggage clasps)? When the metaphorical first man arrives bearing fire, are we really supposed to draw no connection to the myth of Prometheus? Given that Promethean fire most often metaphorically stands for technology, is it mankind’s technical aptitude that mother despises, and if so, what does the fact that she uses this fire/technology/self-destruction to burn down the house mean? Is it that polluting the earth causes climate change and thus the ultimate death-by-heat of humanity?

Is it really just that one layer? Is it really so obvious and dumb? Or is it a matryoshka, with multiple obfuscated layers of meaning but also somehow just as dumb?

And what of “Cain” and “Abel”? Primogeniture, inheritance, and birthright are common narrative devices of the Judaic biblical canon, ranging from Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael to Joseph and his brothers, but those aren’t elements of the story of Adam and Eve’s eldest sons, whose altercation was the result of Cain making the wrong kind of pre-Messianic sacrifice in comparison to Abel’s proper profferation of his prettiest sheep (no, seriously, look it up). Fraternal jealousy is a hallmark of this tradition, but Cain and Abel competed for the affections of their creator, not their father. As such, one would think that there would be some interaction between either of the brothers and the poet before the slaying, but if there was it was too fast or subtle to be perceptible. Again, there’s so much (one could say too much) effort put into creating a one-to-one correlation between events in the film and Judaic myth that when that synchronization falls out of step, it highlights the shoddiness of the overall metaphor.

Which is to say: I think there may be a great movie in mother!, despite its flaws being as deeply felt as they are imagined. It just needed two or three more drafts before it could reach that potential. And if this film has taught us anything, it’s that writers who think they are gods, as well as gods who envision themselves as writers, don’t spend nearly enough time working out the kinks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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twostar

I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was  little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.

The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.

Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.

With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.

That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.

I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack?  Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.

At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.

-Brandon Ledet

Joy (2015)

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fourstar

Has the David O. Russell hype train already crashed & burned? It wasn’t until 2012’s commercially-palatable mental health rom-com/drama Silver Linings Playbook that the director started to get his dues as a weirdo auteur, despite putting out quality work as far back as 1994’s uncomfortable black comedy Spanking the Monkey. Two Jennifer Lawrence collaborations later & critical consensus already feels like it’s turning on him, aiming to brush him off as a hack. It’s a total shame too. I understand, to a point, the complaints that Russell’s American Hustle resembled Scorsese’s Goodfellas a little too closely, but if you’re going to pay homage to something, why not make it one of the greatest films ever made? The complaints about his more-recent film, Joy, are a little more confounding to me. In some ways Russell is merely keeping the Goodfellas vibes rolling into the next picture & continuing his somewhat easy collaborations with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro in a film that might be a little too Hallmarkish for the hard-to-please, but if that’s all you see going on in Joy, you’re missing out on the much stranger big picture. It feels like Russell is really working out some half-formed new ideas here & watching him reach for that new, unexplored territory is fascinating stuff, making for the best film I think he’s made in years.

Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”. Personally, I love Huckabees. It’s my favorite thing thing Russell’s ever done. Joy is certainly not as eccentric or as deliberately off-putting as Huckabees can be, but it does establish a delirious rhythm & nearly all-white visual palette that hits on the same anything-can-happen tone Huckabees delivered. By the time Joy delves into immersive soap opera & QVC imagery, the film has already established a dream-like sense of self-logic that makes the whole thing feel natural, despite television’s sterilized otherworldliness. Also like Huckabees, Joy plays its humor completely straight, with only the slightest hint of quirk prompting you to treat it like a comedy. The soap opera camp & Isabella Rossellini’s over-the-top performance in Joy were some of the funniest moments I had witnessed in the theater in all of 2015, but for some reason the audience I was with met them with more exasperated “That’s just ridiculous” comments instead of genuine laughter.

I, for one, welcome David O. Russell’s return to not-for-everyone cinema. The problem is that Joy might not have gone far enough in its Huckabees-esque absurdity. There is an admitted Hallmark/Lifetime-esque quality to the film that compels it to hammer every point home, to tie a bow on every resolved conflict. The dialogue indulges in some wholesome cheese in lines like “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary”, [from a young Joy playing happily-ever-after-type games] “I don’t need a prince”, and [from an adult Joy to her young daughter] “Don’t take any guff from anybody.” Worse yet is a completely unnecessary narrator who constantly reminds us that Joy is a “matriarch” or that she & her ex-husband are “the best married couple in America.” That aspect of Joy seems to be at war with the film’s strangest impulses, such as introducing a soap opera character who “came back as a ghost with even greater power”, including an extended cameo in which Melissa Rivers (all-too convincingly) portrays her recently-departed mother, and saddling its protagonist with a family so unbearably awful that you could easily forgive her for burning the house down with them all locked inside.

I would like to say with confidence that this contrast between the absurd & the maudlin was entirely intentional, that Russell was merely trying to reflect the mundane trashiness of his subject’s QVC/Miracle Mop subject. The truth is, though, that I have no idea. Joy is an odd compromise of things I loved & things I could’ve done without. The dream-like quality of the rhythm is fascinating, but the narration knocks its ambition down a peg. It’s Russell’s most experimental film in a decade, but it borrows heavily from not only Scorsese, but also from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in one particular scene, I could swear that Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” would play at any second). Isabella Rossellini’s monologue about “The 4 Questions of Financial Worthiness” was one of 2015’s funniest moments to me, but the humor is played so dryly it doesn’t seem to register with half its audience. If nothing else, what’s clear when you consider all of these self-contradicting qualities as a whole is that David O. Russell has made something oddly idiosyncratic here that can be a joy to watch if you can get on its dual arty & maudlin wavelengths. That’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts I & II (2014, 2015)

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fourstar

I’ve enjoyed following the Hunger Games saga, both as a series of YA novels & and as a series of dystopian sci-fi film. It’s a pretty grim franchise for something a lot of people consider “kids’ stuff”, one that takes its forcing-to-children-to-fight-to-the-death-for-entertainment premise very seriously. Its haves-vs-have-nots dystopian world-building is nothing particularly new and can especially be seen telegraphed in properties like Battle Royale & The Running Man, but I think it’s a pretty great sci-fi intro for teens, especially refreshing for its strong female protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the films, duh) & in the way its potentially-corrosive love triangle conflict is handled. One strange aspect for me has been how the film versions of the Hunger Games trilogy have resisted the law of diminishing returns. I felt that Suzanne Collins’ novels started at their strongest point, doing a great job of establishing an in-the-moment intensity in its abysmal future-world by dragging the audience along closely with Katniss’ experience navigating the Hunger Games. The quality dropped off a bit for me in the sequels, though, as the pacing seemed to get away from Collins and large swaths of summarizing overtook the focused intimacy of early scenes. The first movie was pretty great as well, doing a good job of capturing Katniss’ in-the-moment POV, but the film series subsequently seemed to improve from there, knowing exactly what to show & what to ignore in Collins’ sprawling narrative for maximum effect.

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Mockingjay – Part I might just be the pinnacle of the Hunger Games movies for me. General consensus has the franchise peaking with the second film, Catching Fire, but I’d say it’s at the very least a close call. the film’s themes of PTSD, regret, powerlessness, and the pressures of being the face of a revolution all hit me pretty hard. I’ve heard friends & family describe the film as boring, saying nothing happened, which is pretty surprising for a film with such a high bodycount & grandscale warfare, but I had a genuinely emotional reaction to its horrors, getting teary-eyed at the film’s hospital bombings, mass graves, and three-fingered solutes. Its murderers’ row of talented actors certainly didn’t hurt: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, and Donald Sutehrland are all at the top of their game here, which is really saying something. I also appreciated scenes of Jennifer Lawrence, who is an incredibly gifted actor, pretending to be an incredibly inept actor as Katniss fails miserably to produce convincing propaganda clips to rally support for a revolution. Mockingjay – Part I‘s riots, uprisings, strikes, and rescue missions were all a lot more satisfying to me than expected & Lawrence deserves a lot of credit for anchoring the film’s emotional resonance.

Mockingjay – Part II unfortunately didn’t hold up quite as well for me. I think the issue is that Collins’ summarizing had gotten out of control by the final book, so that the film version struggles to make individual scenes count for much as it chases an exponential momentum of a plot trying to wrap up a widespread political revolution, a small family’s struggle to remain a unit, and a strained, increasingly bitter love triangle in just two hours time. There were a few small moments to enjoy in the chaos — my favorite was when Katniss is called out for the “tacky romance drama” & cliché  “the one” specialness of her mythology at a wedding — but for the most part the films struggles to let its Big Moments properly breathe. Mocking Jay – Part II‘s killer C.H.U.D.s & third act Major Character Death both failed to land with full impact thanks to the runaway momentum of Collins’ plot & pacing. And because director Francis Lawrence did such a great job with Catching Fire & Mockingjay – Part I, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt & suppose that the rushed nature of Mockingjay – Part II was far from his fault. Considering all of the ground that the novel covers (I’m struggling not to go long here just touching on it), Francis Lawrence  could’ve stretched Mockingjay into its own separate trilogy & given each underserved scene its own proper moment to shine.

I can’t imagine impatient fans, who groused about splitting the finale into two parts in the first place, would’ve been receptive to a Mockingjay – Part III,  though. If you consider that Francis Lawrence had no choice but to split the finale into two parts, I think he did a great job of adapting a difficult work of fiction for the screen. Mockingjay – Part I carries the emotional weight the film series as earned over the last few years & Mockingjay – Part II does the necessary work of bringing the whole thing to a close. The two halves function well together as a single, four-hour feature. One picks up exactly where the other leaves off & together they do a satisfactory job of carrying a work that’s spread pretty thin to a convincing conclusion. Although I’d contend that Part I is the far superior picture, they average out to something pretty great in the end, which fairly unusual for the third film in a sci-fi trilogy.

Bonus points: I’d like to take this opportunity to give kudos to the Hunger Games series for being the only action franchise I can think of where fashion as an artform plays a deeply integral part to the films’ central themes. I particularly liked a moment in Mockingjay where Katniss is told she’ll be “the best dressed rebel in history” & it’s a sentiment that actually means something significant. It’s a cool, distinguishing detail, if nothing else.

– Brandon Ledet

Serena (2015)

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onehalfstar

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Serena is a masterclass in piss-poor editing. On paper, it’s baffling that a prestige costume drama featuring two of Hollywood’s currently best-selling acts, Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper, would skip a wide theatrical release and go straight to VOD. On film, it’s entirely understandable. Drowning under an endless flood of inept editing choices is the raw material for a potentially great movie that’s gasping for air, but never allowed to surface. Alternately, Serena is also just a few cuts away from being a brilliantly funny camp classic, but it’s not even allowed to be enjoyable as a terrible film. It’s downright fascinating how frustrating this movie can be. It’s rare that a Hollywood film is released this unpolished and . . . off, but that doesn’t help the fact that it’s not even entertaining as a total disaster.

On the side of the film’s fight for legitimacy there’s an oddly old-fashioned big studio classic feel to the whole affair. Having two of Hollywood’s biggest stars struggle to negotiate their romantic & professional dynamic in an ancient, treacherous locale feels like the exact kind of movie that would’ve been made by every major studio 50 to 80 years ago and it’s charming to return to that familiar Old Hollywood vibe. This is a world where brassy women assert their power with lines like “I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint,” in traditionally male arenas occupied by lumberjack types with perma-stubble & prison tattoos. Cooper & Lawrence aren’t gruff enough to believably sell the dangerous frontiersman developer and his half-feral wife routine, but their natural charisma and the effortlessly pleasant nature of costume dramas in general makes me want to root for the movie to turn out well. If the pacing had the good sense to slow down and let any of these elements breathe it really could’ve been something. That is not what happened.

There is so much more arguing for the movie to go in the camp classic direction. We’re introduced to Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Serena as she’s galloping on a horse in slow motion, a horrendously tender acoustic guitar plucking away in the background. The music doesn’t improve from there, with its slow, sappy, meaningless musings poisoning nearly every moment. The emptily symbolic animal imagery doesn’t stop there either. Bradley Cooper’s character spends the entire film on a laughably maudlin, metaphorical panther hunt and Lawrence finds empty metaphors of her own in the repetitive scenes where she trains an eagle to hunt the snakes that have been biting Cooper’s workers. The animal imagery, like nearly everything else in play, is almost always followed by blunt interjections of Cooper & Lawrence fucking, as if the film were edited by a half-awake Russ Meyer on cough syrup. Immediately after we meet Serena on the horse she’s squirming under the sheets and she comes out of an abrupt montage a married woman. The same The Room-esque sex interruptions occur after her eagle kills its first snake and after she hits on her husband’s investors at a ball in yet another scene that goes nowhere (except back to the bedroom). The images in these montages all feel like placeholders for longer scenes to be added later, a task that no one ever got around to. Oddly enough, the one image afforded the most room to breathe is the most disturbing one of all, a vigorous bathtub fingering that I’m likely to never forget thanks to Cooper’s intense, empty stare. In time, that bathtub moment might be the only image from this film I remember all, both because it’s so uncomfortable and because the other contenders are way too brief to make a lasting impression.

The scale really is tipped for Serena to reach a camp classic status, but it just never gets there. Besides the sex & animals, there’s also an evil, jealous, homosexual henchmen and a mystic, murderous woodsman who has “visions” that both feel like odd caricatures out of a different, thankfully bygone era. Also, any credibility Serena’s struggle to assert herself professionally adds to the plot is severely undercut by her gradual transformation from a confident woman to a murderous Lifetime Movie sociopath in the wild, like a knife-wielding Nell. I promise that sounds so much more fun than the film allows it to be and just as the characters are prone to fast, flat mumbling, so is the film’s editing. Each scene in Serena bleeds into the next in a way that makes no particular moment feel any more or less significant than the one preceding it. A hand being chopped off feels just as important as miscarriage or a blood transfusion or a town hall meeting. It’s all fast, flat mumbling here.

I truly believe someone could recut Serena‘s raw footage into something worthwhile, (starting by pulling brief images out of the endless montages to allow them room to breathe and scrapping the entire awful soundtrack wholesale) and come out the other end with a polished finished project that would have audiences counterintuitively rooting for Cooper & Lawrence to chop down thousands of trees as well as impregnate & murder their employees. It’s entirely possible. It’d be even easier to cut it into an over-the-top melodrama ripe with Lawrence going full, feral Mommy Dearest on the frontier folk. It’s almost there. In Serena’s fight for either legitimacy or camp, it was decidedly much closer to camp, but thoroughly disappointing as either. If nothing else, if someone wanted to learn how not to edit a film’s separate parts together into a cohesive whole, this would be a great place to start.

-Brandon Ledet