mother! Breaks the Hollywood Mold and It’s Terrifying! – Film Review

large_qmi2dsuoyzZdJ0WFZYQazbX8ILjmother! defies description! For those who took the leap or were led there unwittingly by a friend or spouse, you found yourself peering into the abyss. Writer, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was written in five days. It may take me five months to be satisfied enough about the whats and whys to let it go. Not since Martin Scorsese’s Silence last year has a picture stuck with me this long.

One cannot categorize mother! into one of those tidy film genres. But let’s give it a go. Definitely a horror film. It’s also an allegory (not a standard movie category). But first and foremost it’s a product of the filmmaker’s deep passion and a desire to make something very different. To take the necessary path. To be true to the idea. Attend to every detail. To the art of it. That demonstrates courage. To stop at nothing to collect all the artifacts required to make the film. To have the confidence in the larger team to pull it off.

There was considerable secrecy during production. People didn’t really know what it was about which could have contributed to some of the negative reaction it received once released. “Hey, it has Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. That’s going to be fun.” Not even close.

The final product has been controversial to say the least. I must admit that there were times during my viewing when I felt uneasy, but the craft of the picture along with the amazing performances caused me to lean in. To pay close attention. I found myself dissecting mother! on a granular level. There is so much to unpack and discover.

Many of the films now made in the U.S. look and sound the same. Shot on digital. Packed with CGI. Story retreads. Everybody is a Super Hero. Repetitive music. Explosions. Have you noticed a certain deep sound that comes standard in almost all previews you see before your feature begins? The bass drop sound effect (called “Bwah” by insiders) is standard in almost every trailer.

Hollywood has always been a bit of a copycat business. Studios now prefer to latch onto a franchise that allows them to turn out multiple films which is much safer for them financially. But studios now have a lot of new competition from Netflix and even Amazon. I’m glad Paramount took this chance and did it right.

Does mother! go too far? Was this shot choice or those words written necessary?…

Picture opens on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), engulfed in flames. Bruises and blood dots cover her scuffed face. A tear begins to fall from her right eye. Cut to Him (Javier Bardem), placing a large crystal on a pedestal. His hands are dirty, as if they have been digging in the earth. A sly smile appears on his face.

mother! Earth

In a heartbeat we learn we are entirely on our own. There will be no Cliffs Notes version. Nothing clearly spelled out. No narrator or helpful on-screen hints (“Three years later…”). Even though we are thrown into the fire from the first frame there are hundreds of clues sprinkled throughout. Those clues and their connections add texture and stick in your brain for days.

No character in this film has been given a name and there is no music soundtrack.

Mother awakes in an empty bed. She is the restorer of this house that suffered an intense fire. She is the project manager and has done all the physical work “wall to wall” while Him, the great writer, broods and waits for inspiration.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mother

One evening while they are in the drawing room there’s a knock at the door. Man (Ed Harris) enters and immediately captures Him’s attention. Regaling him with stories and offering praise for Him’s work as a writer. He is also called the poet. Numerous aliases. Man fires up a cigarette using a lighter adorned with an odd symbol. Mother informs him that there’s no smoking, but he is indifferent to her request. Soon Him shows Man to his study and points out the beautiful crystal we saw at the beginning of the film. Man is captivated by its beauty. He constantly coughs and drinks too much, so Him invites Man to stay the night without consulting Mother.

The next day Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Man’s wife, shows up standing on the front porch, roller bag in tow as if she just got off the plane and is arriving for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon they talk about family and Man shares photos of their two sons. Mother is unsettled that Him invites them to stay as long as they like. And just like that the Jeannie is out of the bottle and Mother is powerless to stop it.

After an awkward exchange between Mother and Woman, Mother uncovers a suspicious item in their luggage. While discussing this with her husband, Man and Woman steal away to the third floor study. They want to see the crystal. Suddenly we hear breaking glass. The crystal hits the floor and shatters, setting off a fit of anger in Him.

He boards up the study and in a fit of spontaneous rage, snaps off the door knob with a swift barehanded blow. It tumbles off the stairs to the floor below. Mother picks it up and places it on the breakfront in the foyer.

The sons of Man and Woman suddenly enter the house. They are loud and rude. A fight breaks out between the brothers over a trust document their father (dying of a disease) has written. As the scuffle escalates, the oldest son finds the abandoned door knob on the breakfront and strikes his brother resulting in a grave injury. Him accompanies the family to the hospital.

Brothers fighting
Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), Ed Harris (Man), Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson (Sons)

Mother has a deep emotional relationship with the sprawling house which is located in a vast green meadow in the middle of nowhere. “This is home.” She always goes barefoot, caresses the walls and occasionally goes in close to hear its heartbeat. While in the basement, she comes across some, well, shall we say odd things. An exploding light bulb. Blood running down the foundation walls. Mother is curious as a cat but we don’t know how many lives she has already used. Scratching at the wall with a pair of channel lock pliers she opens up a hidden space packed with massive steel tanks and a hopping frog.

Magic Elixir Bottle
Mother’s crystalline elixir

She experiences episodes of stomach pain and chases it away by mixing mysterious, but effective golden crystals with water. It soothes her and allows her to return to what has now become an ongoing nightmare. Her elixir is kept in a brown, antique glass bottle with a well-worn label making it difficult to read. The only words I could make out were “remedy, pharmacy and Buffalo, N.Y.” There are a series of numbers at the top of the label “096” followed by a symbol that seems to match the one on Man’s lighter. Some have identified it as the Wendehorn symbol.

Shortly after Him returns from the hospital, Man and Woman also appear, closely followed by a number of friends. The group was invited by Him to mourn the loss of the younger brother, but they lack manners and Mother is more and more becoming a steeping pot, and not the good kind. People continue to arrive swarming the three level structure and eventually collapsing a sink that has not been properly braced in the remodel. Water pipes burst, flooding the kitchen. Mother snaps and her roar drives out the unwanted guests, leaving her and Him to have a brief, private exchange.

Script Snags CombinedThey consummate their marriage; something we can believe has never take place. Mother awakes. Her face bathed in beaming sunlight. She is absolutely radiant and dead certain she is with child. Suddenly he finds lighting in a bottle and begins to write. He produces his opus.

The Poet’s book sells out on the first day. To celebrate, Mother prepares a feast fit for a god and sets the table for an intimate dinner for two.

Him 3
Javier Bardem as Him

Her carefully planned celebration is interrupted by a large group of people descending on their house, which is now a vessel adrift in the ocean of the darkness of humanity. They want to see the Poet. He has written an algorithm for human salvation and purpose. His desire to be loved by everyone has come true and the ultimate sacrifice is now inevitable.

Him’s publisher Herald (Kristen Wig) arrives with the second printing and a book signing takes shape. Later we see that Herald has a much more serious role than a simple messenger.

The crowd moves slowly at first. Then more aggressively through measured small annoyances; people helping themselves to food or the bathroom. Soon things get out of hand and all out chaos takes over. Worship of the Poet is the unspoken excuse. Him has given them permission to make his home theirs. “Share, like the Poet said. Share.” They move from wanting to see him, to getting his autograph, to touching him, to stealing something he owns. There will be more desires to satisfy. Him adores it. He cannot create without a mess. Others must sacrifice.

What could go wrong?

The house is transformed into Dante’s inferno with each floor becoming another gate of hell. People are tied-up, put in cages, shot at point blank range. Soldiers burst in, molotov cocktails are thrown. Mother is nine months pregnant and finds herself crawling over dead bodies covered in ash throughout the house. Contractions are coming faster now. She wants desparately to get out of the house, “The door! The door!” Him finds her, but Instead of leaving he takes her to the third floor study.

Mother gives birth to their son. Him wants to hold the child but she will not have it.

The final scenes are difficult to watch as they involve the infant and some brutal treatment of Mother by the followers. The door knob Him snapped off the study and used by Man’s son to kill his younger brother is now in the hand of the Zealot (Stephen McHattie). He wields it and brings Mother to the floor.

With nothing left to lose, Mother takes matters into her own hands. She has found Man’s lighter and sets off a fury that completely transforms the situation. All has changed. Him and Mother have one last exchange, but Him still needs more.

Mother Final Carry
Him carries Mother home

“…Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was… I need one last thing.”


Mr. Aronofsky was inspired by his work with The Sierra Club and concerns about climate change. Humans are destroying mother earth. There are obvious Biblical references that are woven into the complex message. Or perhaps it’s a strong commentary on society today.

One of the promotion posters used by mother! was obviously modeled after the ionic image Roman Polanski chose for his breakthrough film Rosemary’s Baby. Both stories center around a pregnant wife, an artistic husband struggling to find his way and religious beliefs that humans twist into a cult. Controversy surrounded each picture.

About halfway through mother! I recalled Luis Buñel’s brilliant, surreal masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel. In the film, a group of high-society friends are invited to a mansion for dinner and find themselves inexplicably unable to leave. Power and helplessness are enduring themes.

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was made into the movie event of 1973 by William Friedkin. Audience reactions to it visceral. Again, religious motifs. But The Exorcist was a bestseller and the story widely known well ahead of the film’s release. mother! had no such pre-launch.

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  is packed with symbolism. Base commander and Brigadier General Jack Ripper’s gone mad. His word game; “purity of essence, peace on earth,” and the mythical CRM 114 Discriminator are carefully planted elements that weave the fabric of the film at the edges and slowly tighten it around the story.

mother! with all it’s careful production and staging is wonderfully balanced between a film and a play. The stage, an amazing eight-sided, three floor mansion is the perfect venue for this story. There are no dead ends in the house, just more passageways to mystery.

Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fantastic performance as Mother. It was obviously a challenge physically, but mentally this must have pushed her into a new space.

Javier Bardem is essentially a chameleon, delivering new versions of himself in each outing.

The eye-popping film is due largely to Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Pi) 16mm handheld photography. His camera constantly whips through the house and encircles the characters. Three basic shots are all that are used to tell the story. His camera is a personal diary of the story.

The sound design is truly astounding. The endless tight shots are paired with sounds and dialogue coming at you from all angles, giving the experience more depth. Andrew Weisblum’s editing (Black Swan, The Wrestler), which took 53 weeks, really is a miracle given the framing limitations and complexity of the shot list.

Although it is difficult to give this a whole-hearted recommendation. If you are a serious film-goer and appreciate high-level craftwork then this is a must see. mother! is a rare find these days.

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures. Thank you.


Skyfall – Film Review

Bond 1As someone who has seen probably 90% of the Bond films in the theater, I’ve had a front row seat at the evolution of the character and series. I do not engage in the “Who’s the best Bond” discussions or even which is the “Best Bond film.” This franchise has been running almost continuously for 41 years. Cultures, generations passing and the ever evolving world of filmmaking make comparisons pointless.

For quite some time now I’ve been focused on each film as primarily “stand alone.” There is no way one can’t allow their mind to drift back to other installments, but when that occurs I try to confine my thoughts to either themes that continue to present themselves or aspects that signal change.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, checks most of the Bond boxes for a devoted audience. Action, women, explosions, smug humor and a wonderfully evil villain. The film provides the credits for three writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan. When I see more than two writers I try and pick out which writer wrote which scenes or dialogue. I must admit they stumped me. I couldn’t do it reliably. So let’s just say each one got 47 minutes worth of screen time, leading to another unusually long running time of 2 hours 23 minutes. More on long movies and why I like them can be found on my Podcast stream here.

Picture begins with a supercharged chase scene. First in cars, then on motorcycles atop a market and concluding on the roof of a moving train. Yes there are tunnels involved. Bond is trying to recover a hard drive that contains the identities of friendly operatives operating undercover against terrorists. Another reason we should not use excel.

The hard drive was delivered to Silva, played by Javier Bardem. It’s easy to spot Bardem as a bad guy because he always has a weird, psychopathic hair style. Yes I’m referring to his portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. This time his hair is long, straight, slicked-back and blonde. He is a former MI6 agent that was left to fend for himself in the field and harbors quite a grudge. He’s brilliant in a scary way and it turns out he is a meticulous planner.

Bond 2

This installment examines an aging Bond. Physically he is not what he used to be which impacts his performance as well as mental state. He suddenly finds himself in a younger man’s game and the opening scene gives him a solid out, which he doesn’t take. So we have our mental model of Bond, never aging, always winning and the on-screen Bond who is been rung out after years of stress and near misses. Craig handles the transition wonderfully with wit, experience, and the call of duty as the MI6 headquarters is bombed.

M (Judi Dench) is also on the verge of the third stage of life. An in the moment call to an agent with a rifle raises questions about her fitness for duty. She has lost a step or two in the mind of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). He hands M her walking papers but she refuses. Bond rakes her over the coals for not trusting him. Still she moves on.

The film’s climax takes place at Bond’s boyhood home in the middle of nowhere and with Albert Finney no less, as Kincade the groundskeeper, still in residence. Bond has baited the hook with M to finish the mission. In the meantime Silva assembles a small army and swarms the mini-castle with maximum firepower. These final scenes attempt to bring closure to too many issues to track. This is the one major flaw but it is forgiven because we have affection for the characters.

The technical aspects of the film are outstanding. Sound design and camera are executed in stellar fashion and the atmosphere created by the filmmakers is impressive and immersive. Thomas Newman provides a professional but entirely expected soundtrack. I will say he provides more variety than most. He had to fill those 143 minutes somehow and was up to it. Adele was tasked with the signature song and nailed it.

The Skyfall official web site is standard fare. Recommended for the film’s action, nostalgia value and to spur thought about what might be next.

Photo Credits: MGM, Columbia Pictures

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Film Review

Woody Allen has officially expanded beyond New York City. With a sun-drenched Spain, primarily Barcelona, as his setting, Mr. Allen provides us with another treatise in his exploration of love, relationships and human chemistry.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johanson) are friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, and as such, is engaged to marry an upper crust east coast steady. Cristina is more adventurous and is on a constant search for romance with thrills. Pic opens as they arrive in Barcelona to stay the summer at one of Vicky’s parents friends who now live there. The friends are very well off and socially connected, which gets the young women in on the Barcelona scene.

Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson
Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson

While having a late night dinner the women are approached by a local artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who they saw at a gallery opening earlier that day. He is famous for having had an extremely messy divorce, which included his wife trying to kill him. He offers to whisk the women off to a small village for the weekend, where they will all make love. His boldness intrigues Cristina, but Vicky is of course uninterested.

We are guided by a narrator throughout the film who keeps the talk simple, but insightful, telling only what’s necessary. Mr. Allen packs a lot into this relatively short film, with sharp dialog and comedic touches as only he can. It’s a short leap of the imagination to hear Woody’s voice in the narration.

We discover that Juan’s ex wife is Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) and she re-enters his life through an attempted suicide. By this time Juan is living with Cristina and so the three of them occupy Juan’s house. Juan and Maria are made for each other. They make wonderful love, inspire each other’s artistic endeavors, but they always end up in a huge blow out. Since Christina has entered their lives they are getting on famously. Perhaps she was the missing ingredient.

Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena
Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena

This is the theme of the film. Finding the glue that holds your relationships together during the trying times. Some things work, others don’t mesh when you are in a relationship. Most people accept the misses and focus on the hits, but Vicky, Cristina, Juan and Maria want it all. They know what doesn’t work and what they don’t want, but can’t quite piece it all together.

Javier Bardem with Rebecca Hall
Javier Bardem with Rebecca Hall

The acting is excellent all around. Penelope Cruz nails the hot tempered artistic type who is insane and keeps the film from falling into table (or bed) talk. Javier Bardem, fresh from his Oscar winning performance in No Country for Old Men, plays it completely different. He is very effective as the smooth artist, borderline womanizer, who has great comedic timing. Rebecca Hall’s performance as Vicky, was the biggest surprise for me. She played the straight and narrow with perfect pitch, but when it’s her turn to be the linchpin, she does it exceedingly well. Ms. Johansson plays Cristina smart but with a touch of vulnerability. She ends up doubting her ability to live on Juan’s level and her decision late in the film is the catalyst for the stories’ climax.

Regardless of what you think about Woody Allen, I would highly recommend this film for it’s interesting treatment of love and life, without taking itself too seriously. Visit the official Vicky Cristina Barcelona web site here.

No Country For Old Men – You Can’t Stop What’s Coming

A brief forewarning.

Some people may find this post to be a little on the dark side. Just remember, I’m writing about the movies. None of these things really happened.

On screen killings are nothing new. How many times have you seen someone get rubbed out in a movie? Probably too many to count. The methods employed to dispense with characters are vast and varied. There are many masters of the celluloid capital crime; Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick and Lynch to name a few. Is there any major filmmaker that hasn’t staged a killing in one of their films? If you know one who hasn’t, please post it. Also, if anyone out there knows what movie was first to show a murder on screen, post that as well.

My study film these days is No Country for Old Men. Academy Award Winner for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor. Fantastic. Pure Coen brothers. Murders are a staple in the film world of the Coens. These guys are top notch. Not only do they deliver on body count, but add twists to each one.

Ethan and Joel Coen on the set – Released by Miramax

The choices are carefully crafted and painstakingly staged to keep the viewer off balance, which more effectively builds the trademark Coen suspense. Nothing is ever certain, except that Anton Chigruh is a certifiable psychopathic killer. Anton is driven. He has to do these things. We get the sense he’s been programmed; think Terminator. He sees the obvious and acts.

In No Country characters can vanish without regard to their importance or standing in the story. No one is safe. We’re all rooting for Llewelyn to get away cleanly. And even though he was a main player, his death takes place off screen, and in an unexpected manner. It wasn’t even Anton that pulled the trigger.

Naturally there are always nagging questions. Was it the flirting woman’s body floating face down in the Desert Sands pool? Did Llewelyn consider her offer for beer and get distracted? Did Anton really kill Carla Jean? Of course he did. But in those final moments with her we see a tiny crack in Anton’s method, connecting with his victims (potential victims). The gas station owner, Carson, Llewelyn… Carla Jean. The psychology is complex. But by stopping to explain his twisted mission of fate to Carla Jean, Anton takes himself out of the “the flow.” If he skips the lengthy talk with Carla Jean, there is no car crash. Her attempt to reason with him extracts a small bit of revenge.

No Country for Old Men has six main kill categories. I have compiled a list of the causalities and plotted them in their appropriate category (excluding animals). You are probably asking, why is he writing about this? Why take this time? The Coens put so much thought and care in their craft, one has to study it on every level to fully appreciate. Oh yeah, and it’s fun.

Impressive body count wouldn’t you say? And the winner is… Anton Chigruh with 14 kills. If you include the driver of the car that ran the red light and crashed into him, it goes to 15. After all it was Anton’s fault, a variation on the coin toss game of fate. Read my review of No Country for Old Men in a previous post.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigruh

What’s next for the Coens?

The Mike Zoss Production Company has a number of projects in various stages of planning and production. The next film to be released is most likely a comedy/drama (go figure) called Burn After Reading. From Working Title Films and Mark Zoss Productions, to be distributed by Focus Features. Picture is currently in post production, and stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand. Plot synopsis: A disk containing the memoirs of CIA agent Ozzie Cox (Malkovich) ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it. McDormand plays Cox’s philandering wife and Clooney an assassin. Hopefully it will be released in fall of 2008.

Other projects include, Suburbicon, Hail Caesar and Gambit. Pipeline is good. Get out your body count matrix and sharpen your pencils!