mother!

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense, brutal, and graphic violence including murders of adults and a newborn, cannibalism, fire, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

Over the next few weeks, maybe over the next few years, you will see some thoughtful analyses and interpretations of “mother!” (lowercase m at the beginning, exclamation point at the end), examining the Biblical references and exploring the metaphors.  I look forward to these discussions and hope I will be persuaded.  But I was unable to find anything more in the film than pretentious, self-indulgent images with, for a movie about in some sense creativity, very little to say.

It’s a warning sign of precarious pretension when a film’s characters are not named and listed in the credits only as archetypes: mother, man, woman, him, younger brother, oldest son, good Samaritan, fool, wanderer, idler.  It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s a high bar to clear.  What might work as a horror story about a young, pure-hearted bride in a gigantic, isolated house who is confronted with various dread-inspiring elements both natural and supernatural in this case fails because it keeps telling us it wants to be more.  There’s some flashy cinematic flourish but very low octane.

Jennifer Lawrence is game and endlessly watchable as always, which is a good thing because most of the time the camera is close on her increasingly panicked face. She plays the title character, who is created out of dust as the house comes together from a wreck of ashes.  “Baby?” she asks tentatively and searchingly as she gets out of bed to look for her husband/partner, played by Javier Bardem.  He is a poet, acclaimed but currently blocked.  She is his endlessly devoted helpmeet, always working to restore the house or present him with wholesome meals or just encourage him.  

Their peaceful life is disrupted when a doctor with a bad cough (Ed Harris) arrives, later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, mesmerizing and terrifying), a couple who have some very serious boundary issues, to the point of being predatory.  Basically, they are the world’s worst and most annoying houseguests.  mother wants them to leave and cannot understand why poet would not check with her first. He seems unable to recognize how destructive they are.  He seems flattered by having them there.

Then the bad stuff begins to happen.  And then the really bad stuff begins to happen and keeps happening.  Writer/director Darren Aronofksy, who has explored themes of creativity and the line between passion and obsession in films like “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fighter,” and “Black Swan” may be trying to reach for overarching Biblical concepts here (he also made “Noah”).  But with the arrestingly staged but horribly violent last act and it’s not-to-be-revealed ending, it communicates something more like a defensive argument in favor of the right of creators to abuse those around them.  Not true, whether it’s family members or people in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, with murders of adults and a newborn infant, guns, fire, explosions, abuse, cannibalism, grisly and disturbing images, nudity, childbirth, brief very crude language, sexual references and explicit situations.

Family discussion: What does the ending signify?  Who do the couple represent?  What does the house represent?

If you like this, try: “Noah” from the same writer/director, “North Fork”

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Tribute: George Romero

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We mourn the loss of writer/director George Romero, a towering figure in the history of American film. The influence of his “Night of the Living Dead” is immeasurable. Not only did he invent an entirely new genre of zombie films, but it was a major breakthrough for independent films, and, as “Rosemary’s Baby” would do later, it was an original re-imagining of the horror genre by virtue of its setting, in this case not a spooky castle or a haunted mansion but the American countryside. Equally important, the film, released in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in American history, was utterly revolutionary in having a black man as its hero. The political overtones in his films continued in, for example, “Dawn of the Dead,” again using the setting, this time a shopping mall, to make some sharp points about mindless consumerism.

May his memory be a blessing.

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Directors Horror Tribute

The Beguiled

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: War (off-screen), injuries, murder
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: June 23, 2017
Copyright 2017 Parmount

Writer/director Sofia Coppola has taken a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie about a wounded but manipulative Civil War soldier cared for and disruptive of the staff and students of a small girls’ school and reframed it as a story about the staff and students of a small girls’ school who care for and are disrupted by a wounded Civil War soldier. It is not so much telling the story of the spider and the fly from the perspective of the fly; it is more like telling the story with the women as the spider.

From her first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” through “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Somewhere,” Sofia Coppola has been transfixed by stories of slender, ethereal young women who are a bit lost in a world created by powerful but inadequate men, and she has done her best to transfix the audience as well. Her next project, “La Traviata,” the story of a consumptive courtesan who turns out to be more noble than the man she loves, is certain to fit this pattern as well.

It is impossible to consider this latest work, a remake of a film directed by and starring two of the most testosteronic filmmakers in movie history, without that context. And that context is increasingly repetitive, with each iteration revealing not only the limits of the individual film but also the lacunae of the previous ones as well. What once seemed intriguing, mysterious, and thoughtful now appears, when the work is viewed as a whole, as superficial. It turns out that what was omitted was not because it was subtle and deep but because she had nothing more to say. While this film touches on issues of war (and warring emotions), it eliminates the slave character played in the first film by Mae Mercer, because there is really no way to do that relationship justice and any attempt to do so would throw the rest of the story off balance.

It is a pity, because she is just so good with the externals. The settings, costumes, music, and performances in her films are always superb, which makes the dispiriting emptiness even more disappointing.

Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a small boarding school for girls, a retreat precariously close to Civil War battles being fought nearby. When one of the girls is out gathering mushrooms in the woods, she discovers a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and she brings him back to the school for treatment. Miss Farnsworth is not pleased, but she cannot turn him away. She treats him and tries to keep his presence as a male and an enemy combatant from disrupting the students and her co-teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). But he is a novelty and a distraction especially for those who long, perhaps unaware how much, for male attention.

McBurney has a gift for making each female in the house feel that he is what they most want him to be, from the teenager (Elle Fanning) to the widow (Dunst). “I’m grateful to be your prisoner,” he says. At first, he is gracious, unassuming, and charming. But he becomes a more ominous presence, dividing and disrupting the women until they take drastic action.

Kidman and Dunst are outstanding, representing two very different reactions to the intruder. It is precisely presented, even beguiling, but Coppola needs to move on or go deeper.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including war (mostly offscreen), a wounded soldier, an accident, amateur surgery, mutilation, and murder, as well as sexual references and a situation, alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did McBurney assess the vulnerabilities of each of the women and girls? How does this version reflect our era in differing from the original?

If you like this, try: the original version with Clint Eastwood

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Get Out

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and very graphic and scary peril and violence with very disturbing images and sounds including surgical situations, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 7, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

Two caveats before I begin the review: First, I am not very knowlegeable about horror films and therefore do not have the context I normally bring to evaluating a film. Second and more important, this movie has complex themes about race and privilege that I do not pretend to have authority to speak to. I strongly recommend that people who are interested in understanding this film read the perspectives of critics who are African-American or people of color, and I will post links to some of the ones I especially admire at the end of this review. With those limitations in mind, here are my thoughts on “Get Out,” in my opinion a superb film on many levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, like his “Key and Peele” partner Keegan-Michael Key, is biracial, which gives them both a lifelong experience with being both part of and observer of black and white culture and a lifelong fascination with code-switching, as we saw in their film “Keanu,” written by Peele. Moving from comedy to horror, Peele continues to explore the themes, giving depth and emotional power to a genre film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who carelessly purloins historic settings as a shortcut to the audience’s emotional investment so he can get right to the gore, Peele cannily plays the conventions of the genre and the discomfort and hostility about race off of each other.

It is one of the most terrifying prospects of ordinary life: meeting the family of the significant other. This familiarly excruciating prospect can be played for comedy (“Meet the Parents”) or drama (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”), but horror is perhaps its best fit, with room for some comedy and drama as well. The fact that Rose (“Girls” star Allison Williams) has not told her parents that her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black, adds another layer of tension. She assures him it does not matter. “They would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could!”

Kaluuya gives a star-making performance with help from cinematographer Toby Oliver, who makes this that rarest of movies, one that knows how to light African-Americans, especially those with darker skin, so that we can really see what they bring to the role. Watch his face in the early scenes as Chris navigates the fatuous pleasantries of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both excellent), and then the bro-ish thuggery of Rose’s brother, and then the condescending appraisals of the friends who all seem like they are on their way to the yacht club. We see him calibrate each of these interactions, trying to be a good sport, trying to go along, trying to make his girlfriend’s family feel comfortable with him, but starting to lose his patience. One of the film’s many shrewd understandings is the way that a lifetime of having to reassure white people that he is not going to hurt them or make them uncomfortable makes him slow to pick up on or slow to doubt himself about the creepiness of Rose’s family. An early scene, where Chris and Rose get questioned by a highway patrolman after hitting a deer is subtle but sharply drawn. And before you can say “foreshadowing,” Chris is getting a tour of the house and Rose’s dad is explaining that the basement had to be sealed off because of black mold. Hmm. And did I mention the prologue when a black guy walking down a peaceful suburban street is followed and then captured? And that the only person of color beside Chris at the party (the always-great LaKeith Stanfield) is strangely subdued and doesn’t know about fist bumps?

It would be a disservice to say any more about the plot. I won’t spoil the twists. I’ll just say that Peele knows what scares us and how to scare us and make us enjoy it, and gives us a lot to think about about some comedy as well. And that it may be that the scariest thing about the movie is the reminder that it has taken far too long to shine the correct light — literally and figuratively — on stories that should be told because they are just that good.

I recommend these reviews: Travis Hopson, Aisha Harris, Jeffrey Lyles, Kevin Sampson, Stephen Thrasher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Odie Henderson and Stephen Boone. Also, this piece on conversations with interracial couples who have seen the film.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with theme of racism and exploitation, extended peril and violence including gun, choking, and bloody, graphic, and explicit medical images and sounds, characters injured and killed, suicide, references to sad loss of a parent, some strong language including racist epithets, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and smoking.

Family discussion: When does the story turn from insensitive to offensive to sinister? What makes Chris decide that he has to leave?

If you like this, try: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wicker Man” (original version) and “The Stepford Wives”

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