Posts tagged ‘films’

September 15, 2017

#133) Movie review: “mother!”

“mother!”, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem and directed by Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), opening in wide release today, is a horror film that is not a sequel, remake, reboot or origin story. That’s the good news. Whether or not there is bad news depends on the expectations of the viewer.

Lawrence and Bardem live in a Gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere. Lawrence, who is known to the viewer simply as “mother”, is renovating the place while Bardem’s character, “Him”, is a writer who is searching for inspiration in the peace and quiet of the countryside. Of course, in the horror canon, peace and quiet usually portend approaching peril and the early scenes of the film are filled with awkward silence. We are waiting for disaster, but when the couple receives a visitor who turns out to be a sickly doctor (Ed Harris) who mistakenly thought their house was a bed and breakfast, we think, surely this can’t be the villain, can he?

The plot thickens the next morning when the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. She is an overbearing harpy who makes Larry David look charming. But she’s too awkward and unlikable to be the villain – after all the scariest villains are the ones who know how to get in our good graces. So who, exactly, is the villain and who is the victim?

“mother!” is a battle between plot and style. The suspense is there: most of the information is withheld and the little pieces we get only beg more questions. We sense that not everything is right with the marriage but that feeling comes less from the few tense exchanges between them than it does from long, uncomfortable close-ups of Lawrence’s placid eyes and Bardem’s brooding face and from seemingly mundane dialogue that is mixed to sound as if it is echoing from far away.

Where the movie may lose some viewers however is when it becomes excessive. Yes, Aronofsky has set the stage for horror and he must deliver, but the supernatural elements seem more like an exercise, disconnected from the characters and their circumstances. One is left asking, “What’s the point?” No, not all horror films have to have a point, but by its climax, “mother!” has become more about showing off its own weird universe than providing thrills and chills or provoking thought. We could analyze possible interpretations – but we just don’t care enough.

Ultimately, “mother!” is like a buffet at a high end casino: it offers a variety of delicacies that will keep you engaged, but when you’re done it’s not very satisfying or memorable.

 

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July 13, 2017

#131) Movie review: “Don’t Think Twice”

“Don’t Think Twice” takes its name both from one of the rules of improv comedy and from the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Just as Dylan’s success caused feelings of both happiness and resentment among his contemporaries in the New York City folk music scene, “Don’t Think Twice” explores the changes of dynamics, both on and off the stage, when one of the members of a closely knit improv comedy troupe hits the big time.

The six members of “The Commune” – Miles (Mike Birbiglia, who also directed); Allison (Kate Micucci), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Jack’s girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Bill (Chris Gethard) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) plod through their jobs by day and perform improv comedy at night. Though the theater is on its last legs financially, it is still frequented by talent scouts from a Saturday Night Live-style show and each of the six actors hopes that they will be discovered. Miles was “inches away” from having made the show back in 2003 but is still stuck teaching beginning improv classes as he waits for his big break. Meanwhile Jack, an alumnus of one of Miles’ classes and who has a reputation as a showboat, launches into an Obama impersonation that is spot-on but doesn’t fit in with the sketch that is being performed. His grandstanding pays off, however, as he is given an audition. He gets the call from the studio heads right after Bill finds out his father has been in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Upon returning to the rest of the group to find them quiet and somber after absorbing the news about Bill’s father, Jack tells them about his audition anyways.

Like “Funny People”, the Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen movie of a few years back, “Don’t Think Twice” is a drama about comedy, but it doesn’t try too hard for hand wringing or laughs. It avoids the “all comics are miserable off stage” trope, showing us that the members of the Commune are less than thrilled with their day jobs but not belaboring the point. The film also doesn’t rely on one-liners (though there are a few good ones), instead drawing on the subtle and not so subtle jabs among people who still like (maybe even love) each other but have been stuck together for too long. It comes off like an extended episode of a high quality TV show that feels complete without having to wrap everything up nice and neatly a la Hollywood. The story lines don’t resolve the way they’re “supposed” to.

“Don’t Think Twice” may be about comedians, but it also is about anyone who has chased a dream and about anyone who has been part of a tight social circle that gradually starts drifting apart. The film’s not perfect – side plots about Miles’ high school girlfriend showing up in New York and Allison’s interest in graphic novels don’t add to the story and indeed Allison’s character isn’t developed much beyond her thousand yard stare while watching Jack on TV – but “Don’t Think Twice” still shows how far believable performances and dialogue can stretch a $3 million budget.

 

 

 

 

 

June 4, 2014

#78) Film review: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

The problem with “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, the new film from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane isn’t, as many have suggested, the fact that he cast himself in the lead role.  It’s that he didn’t.  Despite a few inspired moments, the lead actor in “Million Ways” shows precious little of the off-color comedic genius that MacFarlane’s fans know and love.

MacFarlane stars as Albert, a sheep-farmer in 1882 Arizona.  He hates living on the frontier and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has just left him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a proprietor of a mustache accessory shop.  Albert confides in his friends he’s about to leave for San Francisco when he meets Anna (Charlzie Theron), who happens to be married to the territory’s most notorious gangster, Clinch (Liam Neeson).  Though he’s still in love with Louise, Albert slowly starts warming up to Anna.  When he discovers the truth about her however, things take a turn for the worse.

Just as MacFarlane’s character is timid and negative, the film itself seems to be afraid of its own comedic potential. “Family Guy” often makes viewers cringe, but it makes them laugh harder, whether it’s showing a barbershop quartet singing to a patient that he has AIDS, speculating that Mike Brady’s first marriage ended when he beat his wife to death because she brought him a warm beer or building an episode around a brand-new roller coaster called the Holocaust (“It’s got local Jews up in arms…as they go over the first hill.”)  “Family Guy” may or may not be your thing, but generally it delivers what it’s supposed to.

“Million Ways”, however, doesn’t.  Yes, we get to see N.P.H. defecate into a hat and get up-close views of sheep genitalia, but much of the movie seems as if MacFarlane is just trying to use fifteen years of curse words that he can’t say on “Family Guy”, without being particularly memorable.  Just as he doesn’t live up to his own potential, MacFarlane doesn’t give his talented cast much to work with.  Sarah Silverman – branded the “Westward Ho” in the film’s advertisements – can match MacFarlane’s offensive humor punch for punch, but her part is ultimately little more than the same basic sex jokes recycled.  Liam Neeson is particularly disappointing as the villain Clinch.  Dedicated “Family Guy” fans might remember the cutaway bit describing a situation as being as “hopeless as Liam Neeson playing an American cowboy”; having Neeson actually in the film seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop that joke.  Unfortunately, Neeson’s part is played straight, denying the potential for a great gag while failing to intimidate as a villain.

Another common criticism of this film simply the fact that it is a western, a genre widely believed to be dead.  The movie could have worked as a send-up of westerns, but with sweeping panoramic landscapes, a grandiose musical score and a run time of almost two hours, it seems as if MacFarlane was going for the real thing.  It’s visually impressive and the music fits the aesthetic, but this is a film being sold as a comedy; people don’t watch “Blazing Saddles” for its cinematography.  If MacFarlane was trying to make a real western, he didn’t make it exciting, tense or engaging enough; if he was going for a comedy, the laughs are too sparse.

MacFarlane’s body of work and fan base is likely strong enough that one misfire won’t sink him.  Hopefully he’ll learn from what didn’t work in this film and get back on track the next time around.