mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

One of the chief thrills of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is in rooting for the film itself. mother! is wild and wildly ambitious, and veers dangerously close to self-parody many times. With a less sure hand behind it, mother! could be the most mocked movie of the year. Hell, it still might be. But its consistency and intensity amongst the chaos wipe away any complaints about such relative trivialities as logic and narrative structure. mother! is a thrillingly grand experiment, a love-it-or-hate-it experience that I firmly come down on the “love” side of.

Aronofsky purposely withheld almost all information about mother! before its release, and perhaps it is best left that way, as a puzzle to slowly piece together. In that spirit, I won’t discuss the plot, but suffice to say that a literal interpretation of the events of mother! is simply ludicrous. mother! is a metaphor wrapped inside an analogy, and while the metaphor itself could be either tacky or pretentious, its blunt presentation of it pays dividends. While the first act plays out as a chamber drama with metaphysical portents, after a spat between brothers enters the storyline, there’s no mistaking mother! for a literal story. Over the course of two hours, Aronofsky lays out his thesis on human history and human ugliness in the space of a single farmhouse, starting from social rudeness and culminating in mass chaos. The historical and environmental allegories it lays out are obvious but thrilling, while its commentary on partnerships, artistry, and sexism could take multiple viewings to fully unpack.

mother! is assuredly not for everyone. Some will find its allegorical nature obtuse, confounding, or pretentious. Many will find that it goes too far in its last act, which contains a level of violence well beyond what normally makes its way to mainstream cinemas. But as a piece of gonzo filmmaking, mother! is an absolute masterpiece, an unforgettable wackadoo journey through human nature that left me shaken and exhilarated on the way out.

A

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mother! (2017)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERY COMMENT: So, the mother! in question is most likely Mother Nature/Gaia, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, with Javier Bardem’s “Him” being God. The link between the house and our planet is pretty clear, painting humanity as uninvited houseguests who destroy the planet (in probably my favourite small moment, a guest barges into the bathroom and apologizes to Lawrence, saying “Just exploring!”). But does the metaphor fold back unto itself? If God is a inattentive partner and poet laureate, are artists also God to a extent? Is mother! arguing that fan bases destroy the personal world of the artist, with the artist themself as a willing participant in the destruction?

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mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

Lethargic Logan Lucky lacks laughs

Logan Lucky, the newest from Steven Soderbergh of the Ocean’s trilogy, tries incredibly hard to not be Ocean’s 11. Instead of flashy suits and waxed hair, the heroes here wear camo pants and trucker hats. Instead of sending a world-class gymnast through a casino vault, they send a bag of gummy bears under a NASCAR speedway. Instead of light jazz constantly in the background, Logan Lucky mostly keeps the music quiet, occasionally injecting a little bit of blues rock. Ocean’s 11 reveled in the excesses of the 1%, while Logan Lucky spends its time in the “forgotten” America. But the most important difference is that the Ocean’s movies, as disposable as they may well be, moved, whereas Logan Lucky is a weirdly muted, low-energy affair. It certainly doesn’t pander to the audience, but given that it doesn’t really succeed as a drama either, a raceway heist movie should certainly be more entertaining than this.

For a movie that at one points gives a ten-year old a spray tan, Logan Lucky is rife with weird tonal mismatches. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Riley Keough all underplay as the titular cursed Logan family, seemingly to avoid rural simpleton stereotypes, but the film also introduces the ne’er do-well Bang brothers who lean heavily into the exact same tropes, including a pretty painful (and, at the end of the day, pointless) conversation about computer skills. The third Bang brother, played by Daniel Craig, certainly gets the best scenes in the movie, but most of those are on display in the trailer. Meanwhile, Hilary Swank shows up after a while with a tone that crosses well into self-parody, and Seth MacFarlane was shockingly allowed on set and even more shockingly allowed to put on a ridiculous British accent. In the astonishly oddly paced leadup to the speedway robbery, we spend some time with MacFarlane and a driver played by Sebastian Stan who calls food “software”, all of which adds up to precisely nothing and contributes precisely zero to the mood, comedy, or energy of the film.

This is a film in search of itself at every step, as it has all the ingredients in play to actually be a good bit of fun. As a comedy, it has a couple good scenes (the aforementioned gummy bears pay off well, and a Game of Thrones-related negotiation is a deadpan work of art), but swings and misses obviously far too often. As a heist, it leaves open too many plot holes by its end, which would be forgivable if it was more fun along the way. As an ode to rural America as told through heisting, Hell or High Water explored the same ground to much greater effect last year. As a portrait of a particular family at a particular time, it betrays its chance to make a point in its last five minutes in a really feeble attempt to give the audience something to cheer for. Logan Lucky just sits there, playing itself out without really caring if we’re with it or not.

Hell, at least Joe Bang is one hell of a character name.

D+

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Logan Lucky (2016)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, and Daniel Craig
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Lethargic Logan Lucky lacks laughs

Atomic Blonde is a spy-action mishmash

How much can you recommend a movie on the basis of a single scene? At the start of the third act, Atomic Blonde presents a truly masterful action setpiece, a brutal stairway fight between super-spy Charlize Theron and a pack of communist goons, shot in a brutal and clear long take. The scene must last for about ten minutes, and it alone redeems Atomic Blonde, which is otherwise a bit of a mess. The Berlin Wall backdrop and spray-paint punk aesthetic lend themselves to an anarchist or revolutionary spirit that the main plot and action never live up to. The plot is absolute cold-war spy nonsense, a series of thing that happen to illogical ends. This would be fine if it had some colorful characters, but even though Theron gives an amazing physical performance and James McAvoy gets some good lines in the early going, none of the supporting cast really pops at all. Even the action scenes are fairly middling, outside of the aforementioned stairway brawl. They are all fluid and well choreographed, but rarely exciting in the same pulse-pounding way that John Wick, director David Leitch’s previous, was. It also relies annoyingly heavily on ’80s pop cuts to score the film, but the intended tonal whiplash in certain scenes (such as 99 Red Balloons over a skateboard beatdown) isn’t so much jarringly misanthropic as juvenile, and the choices in the action scenes never gel as well as they do in something like Guardians of the Galaxy. But there is that central scene, ten minutes of pure violent ecstasy. It’s almost worth a rental for that alone.

C-

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Atomic Blonde (2017)
Directed by David Leitch
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, and John Goodman
Rotten Tomatoes (74%)

Atomic Blonde is a spy-action mishmash

The Dark Tower is not good

Everyone who has ever loved fiction has had to deal with it at some point: their favourite fantasy world being called stupid. Those stupid little Ewoks. Those stupid trash-can aliens. That stupid little Dobby fellow. It can be infuriating to defend, because the most innovative and captivating fantasy doesn’t get there without risking being stupid. That edge between stupid and scary, or stupid and cool, or stupid and fascinating is often the richest spot for creators to work. So I’d take it with a grain of salt whenever someone dismisses a movie or game or book or what-have-you as “stupid”. In the opposite spirit, however, jesus christ is The Dark Tower ever stupid.

The Dark Tower, based on Stephen King’s seven-ish-book series, lasts the longest 95 minutes that have ever existed. That kind of run time might hint that the film cut a lot of the fat; instead, almost the whole movie is fat. The movie opens with text about how the tower protects us from evil and can be brought down by the mind of a child, then proceeds to provide seventy minutes of straight exposition without ever really elaborating on why that happens to be the case. The novels apparently play with the notion of a fictional universe, and link themselves to King’s other novels, to the point where King himself is a character. The movie, on the other hand, plays like something a thirteen-year-old put together for a particularly lazy creative writing project.

Which would be fine if it were a lick of fun, but golly is it a slog. Matthew McConaughey tries his best to chew the scenery, succeeding precisely once in what is the best scene of the movie (it involves him casually frying up some chicken), but the script can’t even give him good lines to ham up as a sadistic wizard (this really should have been a slam-dunk). The presence of a preteen lead threatens to give it a Narnia-style adventure feeling, but it never balances its moments of darkness with anything approaching wonderous. Idris Elba’s gunslinger is in concept a great character to base a pulpy movie around, and Elba is more than game, but the action scenes are shockingly unimpressive and cheap-looking.

The Dark Tower has been in some kind of development for over ten years, which has to indicate that somewhere down the line, someone loved this movie. The Dark Tower we finally got is not the product of love though. This is pure clock-punching from all involved, a soulless creation with no good reason to exist. If it were awful schlock, there’d be some fun to be had at its expense, but this is like if Microsft Excel decided to make a fantasy movie.

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F

The Dark Tower (2017)
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Starring Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, and Matthew McConaughey

Rotten Tomatoes (18%)

The Dark Tower is not good

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Despite being clearly an auteur work, a result of Netflix letting Snowpiercer‘s Bong-Joon Ho off-leash, Okja feels weirdly like reverse-engineered weirdness. The bare storyline is actually pretty dry, so a lot of showy performative flourish gets added to try to make it pop, but it rarely does. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, goes way over the top as a version of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows on even more cocaine, but even Tilda Swinton gets sucked into it, trying to add any life into a dull corporate family sideplot and only succeeding in the pretty riveting opener. At its heart, Okja is about a girl and her superpig, which makes for a decently charming opening twenty minutes, where super-pig Okja is established as a caring and smart presence. But the main creature turns into a plot device rather than a character after she’s taken to New York by a Swinton’s Monsanto stand-in, and the charm of the film goes with it. The addition of the Animal Liberation Front helps insofar as Paul Dano is a lot of fun as a ski-mask wearing freedom fighter, but the movie seems to use them to push against GMO-based superfarming without offering anything approaching a nuanced critique . I’ve got nothing against giving Monsanto bad press, but Okja‘s critiques are shallow straw-man arguments, where Swinton is bad because her attempt at sustainable farming is a lovable, delicious mutant, I suppose? Pass the salt.

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C-

Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong-Joon Ho
Starring Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Rotten Tomatoes (86%)
On Netflix

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Valerian gets distracted by itself in all the best ways

Comprehension can sometimes be disadvantageous, particularly when it comes to fantasy movies. Movies that we might have loved as kids don’t play as well as adults, since we’re aware of the cliches, the bad metaphors, the underlying problematic pieces. It’s easy to overlook how much of a creep Venkman is in Ghostbusters as a kid, but it really threatens to derail the whole thing as an adult (it’s still fun). There’s a pretty boring subplot about corporate theft and lawsuits going on in Jurassic Park that I didn’t comprehend one bit in 1996, but its absence made me enjoy the film more if anything (it’s still great). The Phantom Menace has plenty of eye candy for kids and some seriously interesting visual ideas, but doesn’t work as soon as you hit 12 or 13 and can start recognizing the stiltedness of the dialogue. It seemed that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might be more sensitive to these problems of over-comprehension than most, judging by headlines such as “Valerian Would Make a Great Silent Movie“. With a director like Luc Besson (The Fifth ElementLucy), Valerian had a pedigree suggesting an ambitious and thrilling mess lay in wait, so I decided to put this “silent movie” bit to the test.

I live in Germany, and was on vacation for the one English showing of Valerian in the town I live in, so I went to see it in German. My German is awful (bad enough that the teller warned me while I was buying the ticket), so any nuance in the dialogue was entirely lost on me. I could follow the broad strokes of the plot, but any technical details were downright incomprehensible. But it turns out you don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten.

The movie is constantly distracted by its world, bouncing from set piece to set piece that have little to nothing to do with the main plot, and its all for the better. There is an overarching plot about a lost civilization trying to reclaim its riches, which is only notable for the homeworld that it shows, a beautiful beach-laden cartoon reminiscent of the best parts of Avatar (there were good parts!). But the majority of the film sees the space-cowboy agents, Valerian and Laureline, alternating hero roles to save each other from mostly unrelated hostile aliens. The design of the alien species and the fun it has building up the city of a thousand planets is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, in that it really does try to fill every frame, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in that it revels in the cartoonishness of it all, but it makes for a lot of fun. Some of the set pieces are crazily inventive, such as an opener taking place in an quasi-virtual marketplace where Valerian’s body gets stuck between two dimensions, or a wacko comic act involving a neanderthal king, a selection of dresses, and a lemon. There are certain pieces whose plot function I couldn’t follow due to the language barrier, but when they involve a submarine pirate re-enacting the “there’s always a bigger fish” bit from The Phantom Menace while heisting a jellyfish, maybe ignorance is best.

There’s also the excellent prologue sequence, showing the first contact and building of the interspecies city set to “Space Oddity”, which really shouldn’t work but does through sheer earnestness. The earnestness maybe gets a hand from the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Develingne, who can easily pass for teenagers despite being adults portraying adults, giving it the vibe of a Last Starfighter or Narnia-style preteen adventure. That being said, they have a weird sex thing going on and shoot a fair number of things, and Ethan Hawke plays a character named “Jolly the Pimp,” so maybe it’s not quite The Neverending Story. DeHaan doesn’t exactly light up the screen (and apparently does a Keanu Reeves impression in the English version, which sounds hilarious), but Develinge is a fantasting presence and adds a lot of necessary spark (they really are co-leads, despite only Valerian’s name being in the title). The movie goes on probably twenty minutes too long, and the resolution of the main arc is a total slog, but when Valerian just lets loose and gets weird, it’s one hell of a trip.

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B+

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna

Rotten Tomatoes (51%)

Litmus test: If you like this stupid scene, you’ll find something to enjoy in Valerian. And I love this stupid scene. The eye shimmy with the sound effect at 0:44 kills me.

Valerian gets distracted by itself in all the best ways

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

I’m in love with the opening shot of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. After a pitch-black title card, we smash-cut immediately to six soldiers wandering abandoned streets in a daze, being showered by flyers that read “surrender and live”. Everything about it, from the sudden brightness to the air of desolation, is disorienting, but for a moment its oddly, eerily beautiful. Then the gunshots come, and terror with them. A lot of Dunkirk is beautifully filmed horror, but that disorientation finds its way into the narrative structure and tears it apart somewhat. It serves some purpose to the mood of the film, but does away with a most of the emotional investment and poignancy along the way.

One aspect is worth praising unreservedly right out of the gate: Hans Zimmer’s score drives this movie, and in many ways the video feels like it serves the music rather than the other way around. There are perhaps two quiet moments in the entire film, but otherwise, the score is constantly pounding, sometimes reduced to ambient drones and sometimes to a simple metronome, but always propelling the film forward.

The score is particularly important as a glue, since the film takes on a highly nonlinear structure. It’s divided into three overlaid pieces told over different timespaces; a week with a soldier trying to escape the beach, a day with a civilian ship attempting to rescue survivors, and an hour with an ace pilot defending the ships. The three stories intersect at pivotal moments, but in such a way that when the ship encounters the pilot, it’s intercut with scenes of the pilot twenty minutes into the future. This is a risky structure, and by far the most “auteur” aspect of the film. Nolan may not have made an arthouse war film a la The Thin Red Line, but its certainly more formally daring than Saving Private Ryan.

However, I don’t think the risk pays off. In the final cut, too many climactic scenes get cut up and spliced between the three narratives, and not always with a clear emotional throughline between the action. One particular scene on a shot-up vessel should be harrowing, but instead of focusing on it during the action, we’re constantly diverted to the pilot checking his fuel gauge again. It’s one thing to ask the audience to logically follow the events, but quite another to ask us to maintain emotional investment when the narrative refuses to linger. In some aspects, the structure feels like its covering the weaker elements of the film. In particular, the sea story centers in parts around a kid who tags along with the vessel, with embarassingly maudlin and mawkish results. Additionally, he pilot’s storyline has much less going on than the other two, and effectively vanishes from the film for a good chunk, as if Nolan ran out of things to do. As a standalone story, or a continuously told one, the pilot’s lonely birds-eye view could have been touching, but instead it drags. Things are a bit more steady on the beach, but it suffers a bit from the fact that all of the British soldiers look exactly the same, which made it sometimes more difficult to follow than it should have been.

But Dunkirk does have its moments. Nolan stages some beautiful shots; my favourite is perhaps a sinking ship filmed in the ship’s frame of reference, with its mast still straight while walls of water come at it from the side. And even with the excessive cutting, there are some incredibly tense scenes here, notably three which make drowning feel real and deeply terrifying. When it reaches those moments, Dunkirk is as good as the best war movies ever made. For the most part, its just kind of a mess.

C

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Dunkirk (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Note: In the theater I saw it in, one of the speakers started acting up a bit towards the end. I cannot stress enough how much of Dunkirk relies on sound, so this definitely affected my viewing experience. If you can’t see it in a big theater, at least make sure to see it somewhere with one heck of a subwoofer.

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess