Category Archives: Film Reviews

Film Review: Mother! (2017)

Mother! is a long nightmare filled with paranoia, jealousy, anger and lovelessness. It is, as anticipated by film festival goers, a divisive film. While audiences have given it on average an F according to Cinemascore, critics have been a bit more receptive to Aronofsky’s latest cinematic experiment.

The film’s detractors speak about its overindulgence, lack of restrain and penchant for melodrama. While the film’s admirers will point to its value as a deeply metaphorical cinematic statement that commits to large and small ideas alike.

My feelings about the film, almost a week after I first watched it, are still wavering somewhat, not knowing if I fall in with those who already awash the film with praise, or those that appreciate its ambition and vision while questioning its choices.

By no means a perfect or pretty film, one thing that cannot be said about Mother! is that it is boring or unimaginative.

Like much of Aronofsky’s work before, Mother! is the kind of film that, instead of escapism, offers no respite and no time to catch our collective breath. It is a film that finds its emotional center in unrequited love, but that eventually reveals itself to be about many more things. Mother! is the kind of experimental cinema that escapes categorization. It is scary, exhilarating, melodramatic, satirical and occasionally funny. It is also Hitchcockian in the sense that it loves to manipulate and tease the audience, hinting at possible resolutions that are nothing more than cinematic instruments of deception that rely on horror lore to deceive us.

At the center of the film are Javier Bardem and the much younger Jennifer Lawrence (a detail that does not escape Aronofsky). We begin the film with a woman burning, her flesh consumed by fire. Moments later, Bardem who plays “Him” (per the film’s end credits), picks up what appears to be a crystal from the ashes. As he places it on a kind of altar, the house around him begins to set itself anew, replacing the burned wood for painted walls and beautiful woodwork. As the renewal gets to a bed, a woman, Jennifer Lawrence, rolls toward the camera and away from the sheets.

At first, we presume the sequence is nothing else that the passage of time and that the woman burning in the fire was perhaps a previous partner, but soon enough, the movie goes back to that rock, which Bardem’s “Him”, an acclaimed poet, zealously protects as he struggles to find a way out from writer’s block. While he struggles to find inspiration, his companion labors to bring the house they both share to its former glory. Lawrence’s performance for most of the film’s running time is physical, walking around the house, washing dishes, cleaning, priming and painting. When we meet them, there are only passing conversations between the two. He is too consumed by his work, while she fulfills the role of a housewife fighting to keep the relationship alive.

One of the interesting things about Mother! is that Aronofsky ultimately uses these characters to build a story that points to larger ideas. There is, for instance, something to be said about the relationship between a great artist and his muse that perhaps echoes Aronofsky’s own personal experiences (the director divorced his actress wife Rachel Weisz in 2010 after nine years of marriage). It also becomes increasingly obvious that, among other things, the film is imbued with biblical parallelisms, which is an aspect of the film that may be entirely lost on those with a limited knowledge of theology.

Beyond the metaphors tucked in between the lines, what I found most interesting was Aronofsky’s direction. It is frenetic, claustrophobic and, at times, disorienting, staying very close to its characters, following Jennifer Lawrence through nearly every bit of film. As told by Aronofsky himself in recent interviews, the script and context for Mother! poured out of him all at once, over the course of a few days at a frustrating and angry time in his life. Unsurprisingly, the anger he felt when writing, translated not only to a story that revels in paranoia and a sense of helplessness, but also to the way the film is shot. It is filmmaking of the highest caliber, adding to the story and giving it some resonance, rather than hampering it or distracting us.

As I said at the beginning, Mother! is by no means a perfect specimen. It has the feel and the quality of an cinematic experiment, rather than that of a carefully calibrated and finished product. Like the house it confines us too, it has a kind of rawness that is not bulletproof when analyzed and dissected. More than a perfectly realized story, Mother! is about the larger statement and about the feelings it manages to bring to the fore.

Did it need to make all of the weird choices it did? Maybe it did not. On the one hand, it is prone to exaggerate, always opting for larger, louder and more shocking, making it one of the least accessible films you’ll see this year. On the other, it is a deeply personal endeavor that is consistent when seen as a larger whole or as part of a larger body of work.

This is Aronofsky near his very best.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Month in review: films of August

The month of August was a bit more productive in terms of film watching than the previous 3 or 4. Life has slowed down a little, even if this seems to be more like the typical calm before the storm.

In August I watched a total of 11 films for an average score of 3 out of 5 that could have been higher had I not watched the woeful “The Circle”on the last day of the month.

Without a doubt, the best film of the month was the Korean-American film Okja, bought by Netflix and directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Other worthy watches were The Founder, a biopic on the rise of Ray Kroc, the mastermind behind the McDonald’s empire; and The Rainmaker, a modest adaptation of John Grisham’s novel directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola.

OKJA (2017) [ 4/5 ]

Okja has it all: visual splendor, a thought-provoking storyline that says more than meets the eye, a handful of entertaining action sequences, some wonderful characters and the kind of over-the-top comedic performances that keep things light even when the film gets dark.

For director Bong Joon-ho, Okja is yet another statement piece against the ills and excess of mankind. The Host (2006) was a larger statement about man’s effect on the environment. Snowpiercer (2013) offered a post-apocalyptic view of a future where mankind had all but extinguished in a planet that had reclaimed itself after so much abuse. In Okja, the director tackle the indiscriminate practices of the food industry which, the majority of us, would rather ignore.

To do so, the film creates a wonderfully loveable CGI creature named Okja which is described as a super pig that was created in a lab by the same corporation that is now preparing to sell the meat en masse after a long PR campaign.The ultimate success of the piece is that it makes you root for the relationship at its center, that between a teenage girl named Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) and her pet. In doing so, we might be tempted to advocate for better animal treatment, or turn ourselves into devout vegetarians. 

JOHN WICK 2 (2017) [ 3/5 ]

The first time Keanu Reeves’ embodied John Wick he was driven by revenge. His impetus that of a man with nothing to lose.

As far as sequels go, John Wick 2 starts with the wrong footing. No longer is there an emotional motivation for revenge beyond a mere desire to stay alive. So, from the beginning, John Wick lacks that kind of kamikaze attitude that made the original so wonderfully intense.

The film does have its share of pleasures, but most are expansions of ideas and characters that were already in place on the first installment.

As it was the case before, the fighting choreography is fantastic, even if it suffers from repetitiveness, and Keanu Reeves, channeling his brooding and hyper masculine alter ego, continues to be an effective action hero well past his Matrix days.

THE FOUNDER (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

After Spotlight and Birdman, this is now the third film in a short period of time that marks the triumphant return of Michael Keaton to the front and center of some of Hollywood’s A-list projects. This time, Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the famed businessman responsible for turning McDonald’s into a global brand. From beginning to end, this is Keaton’s film, inhabiting nearly every scene as a man so tired of failure that, when he finally encounters success, commits to stop at nothing to reach ever-greater heights. In many respects, The Founder is also the story of the modern American enterprise: a sort of modern Wild West where unimaginable riches can be attained as long as you’re willing to stomp on those whose values are at odds with unrestrained capitalism.

The Founder is a profoundly American film where money and access are the thing that dreams are made of. Keaton’s Ray Kroc is a nearly perfect representation of that ideal in an always entertaining and larger-than-life performance that effectively makes the man at its center both a villain and a hero.

ABOUT ALEX [ 3/5 ]

The moment a character walks in to his or her cheating partner is usually the moment a film runs out of ideas. Such is the case in About Alex, a film filled with half-baked storylines and half-built characters that seem to have come together, despite one’s attempted suicide, by little more than loyalty to a past spent together in college. About Alex is a film that resists its potential, taking shortcuts when the story asks for greater nuance and depth. On occasion we get moments of emotional resonance that fade away as quickly as they appeared, either by fault of the script, or by the uneven quality of the performances.

Having said that, the film does pick up towards the end, once the masks between these friends begin to fall, offering us some touching moments that get at the heart of the complicated relationships between these characters.

SILENCE (2016) [ 3/5 ]

It may come as a revelation to some that Martin Scorsese is a man of faith. In a career spanning decades that has seen the Italian American director at the helm of modern American classics like Raging Bull or Casino, there has not been much room for faith in his oeuvre beyond 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Silence is Scorsese’s longest running passion project, a film deeply rooted in Catholicism, but not as an exclamation of its goodness, but rather as an exploration about the practical and human limits of faith.

Silence, like so many other Catholic-centric films, focuses on the nearly inexplicable devotion many people have towards the Bible’s teachings. Such blind abnegation, the film argues, almost capable to withstand inexcusable persecution, violence and torture.

Thematically, Silence is rich and thought-provoking but, sadly, it is also an overlong, tedious and repetitive two and a half hour affair that is filled with suffering, death, violence and unimaginable cruelty. Fortunately, the suffering pays off at the end, not by giving us a neatly wrapped happy ending, but by giving room to the other side of the coin, offering the Buddhist perspective in awesome scenes between Liam Neeson’s father Ferreira and Andrew Garfield’s father Rodriguez.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016) [ 2.5/5 ]

The latest film set in the magical universe of J.K. Rowling follows Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist” and former Hogwarts student that finds himself in the midst of a crisis when he travels to New York City.

As apparent as its connection is to the Harry Potter franchise, the film relies too heavily on that thread, thinking it can make characters we can empathize with without giving them substance. It is a shame that Eddy Redmayne, who is supposed to be the focus of the film, ends up being the least interesting of the bunch.

It’s also remarkable that such a big-ticket Hollywood production can also “boast” special effects that are far less convincing than those found in an episode of Game of Thrones.

THE RAINMAKER (1997) [ 3.5/5 ]

A procedural courtroom drama with the rather simple story of a well-meaning and noble young lawyer fighting for justice against a rotten and corrupt system.

Based on a book by the best selling author John Grisham, this Francis Ford Coppola directed film excels in making us empathize with these characters, even if the story moves forward predictably and it is all too neatly resolved when the end credits begin to roll. A young Matt Damon, fresh off his success in Good Will Hunting delivers a nuanced performance that is both intense and soft, finding a balance between a decisive and confident adult and one that is just beginning to find his own voice.

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2014) [ 3/5 ]

There are two parallel themes at work in the film. The first is about the psychological toll that an actress endures when her youth and the spotlight have been left behind. The second is about the connection that exists, purposefully or not, between a play she is preparing to participate in and her personal life.

Of the two, the second one is, by far, the more interesting and uncomfortable to watch, even if it becomes readily apparent what the film is trying to suggest.

As it often happens, characters who are emotionally hermetic, unable to speak truth about their inner tribulations, deny us the satisfaction of cinematic release. Thus making the film feel rather stale and impenetrable. Another problem is that Clouds of Sils Maria gives little voice to characters who seem to be important to the central story, teasing with depth that remains at an arm’s length.

The saving grace is that both Kristen Stewart and Juliet Binoche both deliver interestingly ambiguous performances that are open to interpretation.

CAMP X-RAY (201X) [ 3/5 ]

There is a good and a bad Kristen Stewart. As a soldier in Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray we see some of both. At times, Kristen is irresistibly natural, an extension of our awkward and most informal selves. At other moments Kristen is frustrating in that she never ceases to be that kind of actress, even if some scenes demand something a little bit different.

As valiant an effort as Camp X-Ray can be for exploring the subject of the military’s role in human rights violations at GITMO, there is a better film hidden underneath; the one that could have dared to go a step further and give Peyman Moaadi’s detainee a violent past, and not one that hints at innocence in a case of mistaken identity.

Perhaps it would have been a step too far to explore a friendship between an American soldier and a former terrorist, but it could have given the film the kind of daring reformist statement that I believe it needed.

THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN (2014) [ 3/5 ]

For the first time in the short history of this blog, I will give a passing grade to an absolutely terrible film. A production that lacks the kind depth, consistency and finesse that is needed in any film to have some semblance of artistry.

However, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn saves itself from total mediocrity by making Robin Williams flex his acting muscles one last time in order to sell us a rather unlikeable and angry middle-aged man who must confront his own mortality and take a look at all the bad choices he has made in his recent past.

It is, by no means, one of Robin Williams most nuanced or controlled performances, like we saw, for instance, in movies like Good Will Hunting and The Fisher King. Instead, it is perhaps Williams’ most indelible and harrowing performance given his untimely death by suicide shortly after the film’s release. I couldn’t help but see Williams’ incredibly sad eyes that, despite a wide smile and a lot of anger, could not be dismissed, even during moments of quiet happiness and cheerful introspection.

I miss his genius.

THE CIRCLE (2017) [ 1.5/5 ]

Not to be outdone by The Angriest Man in Brooklyn in terms of wasting talent, The Circle is the kind of mind-numbing exploration of science and its dangers that can make even Tom Hanks seem ridiculously unfit as an actor.

The Circle doesn’t surprise despite its every attempt to do so. The script is a mess of disparate ideas that are not explored sufficiently and with enough nuance. The parallels with Apple don’t exactly help it either because it is neither a direct imitation, nor a satire; instead, The Circle is this kind of uncomfortable in-between that does nothing but distract.

Emma Watson, who is often good, is absolutely terrible here, incapable of selling us her character’s arc, never quite providing enough insight to truly understand her motivations beyond merely superficial and obvious ones.

Months in Review: May, June & July films (part 2)

This is a continuation on the previous post. For all the reviews of the films watched in May read Part 1.

JUNE FILMS

WONDER WOMAN (2017) [ 4/5 ]

A beautifully crafted big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that manages to excel at the little things. Surely some of the source material seems at odds with the more mature theme of female empowerment but, at its conclusion, the latest DC Comics venture comes off as more than the sum of its parts. It helps that Gal Gadot is an excellent choice to play Wonder Woman.

Continue reading Months in Review: May, June & July films (part 2)

Months in Review: May, June & July films (part I)

It’s been a while once again. Between family visits, test studying, work demands and a new romance in the air; life gets the best of this blog of mine.
Apart from my writing, my film watching has also decreased, but not as sharply as my visits to the blogosphere. In the last three months of  online inactivity, I managed to watch 28 films, with an average score of 3.3. There were, per usual, highlights and disappointments. On the one hand I marveled at Jordan Peele’s confident directorial debut with  Get Out and Christopher Nolan’s breathtaking Dunkirk, while on the other I watched in confusion how Luc Besson managed to waste over 150 million dollars making his latest passion project, or how Brad Pitt continued his bad streak with the ill-conceived War Machine, which he produced and starred in.
Without further ado, I share with you a list of quick reviews for all the films that were watched in the order in which they were seen. Being that it is quite a number of them for one single post, I will be splitting these up into two parts.

Continue reading Months in Review: May, June & July films (part I)

A fan reviews Alien: Covenant

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As a big fan of the Alien franchise, it has always been difficult for me to write or even think about reviews of the films and remain unbiased. As a child, I played with a six inch tall action figure (that I still have) of the Xenomorph, the frightening and brilliant monster at the center of the franchise. It was, as everyone that knew me would tell you, my favorite toy, by a long shot.

I watched the original 1979 film sometime between 1990 and 1992, when I was between 6 to 8 years old. Soon after, I also managed to watch Aliens, James Cameron’s fantastic action packed sequel, and I was forever captivated.

Continue reading A fan reviews Alien: Covenant

20th Anniversary Film Review: The Fifth Element

Author’s note: I rewatched the 4k restauration of the original 1997 film “The Fifth Element” in a local theater. This review is meant as a revision and appreciation of the film, having had the benefit of time to inform the impact and cultural significance of the piece in the cinematic landscape. 

Very few films in the history of Hollywood offer as much popcorn-friendly entertainment with as much artistic flamboyance as The Fifth Element. Written and directed by Luc Besson, the film is, per the director’s own analysis, an European interpretation of an American sci-fi blockbuster: colorful, playful, effortlessly cool, and sometimes nonsensical yet always fun to watch.

Continue reading 20th Anniversary Film Review: The Fifth Element

Months in Review: February, March & April

The tail end of winter seems to have left us and, with it, the start of a new romance in my life. For that and other professional reasons, I have, once again, neglected this blog of mine. Even so, my appetite for movies remains unchanged even if life has a way of sneaking up on the time you thought you had.
In the last three months (February, March and April) I have watched a total of 24 films. The average rating for these has been a solid 3.34 out of 5. There have been a handful of highlights courtesy of a group of films from 2016 that sit among the best reviewed of the year. Such are Fences, Edge of Seventeen, Hidden Figures and Lion. However, I have also been disappointed with cinematic efforts that I was genuinely excited to see. Such are Florence Foster Jenkins, Ghost in the Shell and, to some extent, Hacksaw Ridge.

Continue reading Months in Review: February, March & April

Preview to the Academy Awards. Best Films of 2016

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

In anticipation to the 89th Academy Awards, I have decided, unlike years prior, to post a list of my favorite films released in 2016. As it were, this is an ever-changing list which will shift and evolve as years pass, as both my tastes and my impressions on filmmaking continue to change. This is also, I presume, an incomplete list missing some highly praised bits of cinema like: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Toni Erdmann, The Salesman, 20th Century Women, Paterson, Elle, Fences, Lion, and some others. With that in mind, I’m satisfied with the collection of more than 60 films I did manage to watch that were released in the US in 2016. The list of “favorites” adds up to 15 films, which represents the amount of movies that I gave at least a 4 out of 5 rating. 
At the end of the post I will also offer some thoughts on the top categories for the Oscars, regarding who should win and who will likely be taking an statuette back home.

Continue reading Preview to the Academy Awards. Best Films of 2016

Month in Review: January films and tv

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January is a month of cold weather, new year resolutions and catching up with films released in the latter part of the bygone year. It is also the month of the much-anticipated Academy Awards nominations, and a sleuth of other award shows where Hollywood practices a yearly ritual of congratulating itself.

January was a good and productive month in every respect for me. In terms of film, I managed to watch a total of 14 (more than my usual of 10 or 11) with a very high average score of 3.61 out of 5. January was also the first time in about two years that I felt compelled to give a film a perfect score (La La Land), while a couple of others received 4 out 5. This month came my discovery of SyFy’s series “The Expanse“, which is easily the best first season to a science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica.

Without further ado, below is the compendium of short reviews for films in the order in which they were watched. At the bottom you will find my impressions on The Expanse.

Continue reading Month in Review: January films and tv

Film Review: La La Land

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La La Land reminds me of an old passage I once read: many great artists in history did not excel at being true originals, but at being exceptional in their craft. Such is the case of a film that without being groundbreaking manages to excel at every step, delivering a cinematic spectacle unlike any I have seen in years. Continue reading Film Review: La La Land