★★ / ★★★★
Too many movies of today are so bland, so vanilla, they are forgotten even before the credits roll. I believe the great thing about “mother!,” written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is that the viewer will not walk away from it without an opinion or, at the very least, a strong impression—even if, at the time, one is unable to put into words the blender of emotions that come with the experience. Yes, it can be maddening at times, particularly the final forty minutes, but it is also intriguing as a horror film. Polarity is interesting.
There is curiosity in the story because it appears to follow a familiar horror template of a couple (Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem) living in isolation whose peace is disturbed by strangers (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer). We observe as the elements are introduced and fall into place like clockwork until we come to a conclusion as to what might be going on underneath the niceties and sudden passive-aggressive remarks. I thought the revelation is going to be deathly similar to a certain psychological horror film from the 1960s that was written and directed by Roman Polanski. I was elated to have been proven wrong.
Although not the most digestible work, I enjoyed putting some of the pieces together and realizing eventually that these pieces can also fit together a different way, paving several other ways to interpret the message of the story. To me, it is a criticism of how our society, certainly applicable to American standards, has normalized women having a certain place and for them to defy or step over the line that has been drawn by patriarchy is considered to be horrific by those in power. An evidence of this observation is when Lawrence’s character finds herself reluctant to take action or ashamed when she feels the need to speak up and inform her guests, whom her husband has welcomed, that they need to leave. After all, we have this idea that women are supposed to bear the inconvenience of having a chaotic home and get it all under control.
But interesting messages do not necessarily make a good movie. There is craft to appreciate here, particularly in how the writer-director builds the tension behind the mystery. It is done through showing curious images like a mass of deformed tissue clogging up a toilet, a strange bloody hole on the wooden floor, a possible hidden door in the cellar. One can even study the face of the husband when his wife attempts to encourage him through his writer’s block. There is almost always a hint of annoyance and frustration there. Perhaps a part of him considers that the mothering is contributing to his state of stagnancy.
Most problematic is the final third of the project because the metaphor is so heavy and long-winded that it tests the viewers patience more than it demands to be carefully considered, to be thought about. Credit to Aronofsky for making the assumption that some viewers would be willing to look past the extreme and desultory images. However, this portion of the film comes across as self-congratulatory, perhaps even self-masturbatory, rather than something to be appreciated in silence. Sometimes subtlety and silence is the correct way to go about an allegory.
Salvation Boulevard (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
After a campus debate, Professor Blaylock (Ed Harris), an atheist, invites his opponent, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), an evangelical Christian, and Carl (Greg Kinnear), a former Grateful Dead devotee who became God’s follower, into his office to offer a proposal of co-authoring a book called “The Great Divide.” In theory, its contents would present their respective sides which could be beneficial their missions.
For Pastor Day, he hopes to bring non-believers to Christ and for Blaylock, he hopes believers can learn to see reason. However, just when the two are about to seal the deal, the pastor playfully aims an armed gun at the professor and accidentally presses the trigger. Carl and Pastor Day stare in horror at the lifeless body sprawled on the floor.
“Salvation Boulevard,” based on the screenplay by Douglas Stone and George Ratcliff, are peppered with very good ideas about the conflicting tenets of a religion by highlighting the sanctimoniousness and gullibility of its followers but it has one too many poorly executed characters which blurs its focus so consistently, its tone never quite aligns with the supposedly biting satirical jokes.
It is appropriate that Carl is almost always on camera because he serves as the questioning sheep. Kinnear does a wonderful job playing Carl as a man who is experiencing a crisis of faith; instead of going for easy histrionics to appear funny, the actor makes fresh choices and does the opposite.
In a handful of scenes, especially when Carl is forced under a spotlight by being the topic of conversation, directly or otherwise, he has a way of almost withdrawing into his invisible shell. Kinnear’s body language, even though his character is somewhat of a shy person, communicates plenty: Carl considers his history with sex and drugs as a stigma and so people in his community, even his family, cannot help but pick up on his private shame. He is a scarred man in that he has never been allowed to move on from his past. And yet although we feel for Carl, the screenplay is smart in not allowing us to pity him.
Despite a rather complex protagonist, the film is impaired by supporting characters who lack dimension. Since each of them has one goal, it is as if the writing felt obligated to follow their strands up to a certain point while not doing a very good job in staying with Carl’s story. For instance, there is a businessman named Jorge Guzman de Vaca (Yul Vazquez) clearly designed to provide a bridge between Carl—the sheep—and Pastor Day— the shepherd. While an intense character when things do not go his way, he is not utilized in such a way that he comes across crucial to the arc of the story, just a passerby who must be placed in a specific spot while looking stern when necessary and to be taken out when it is time for comedic or ironic punches.
A similar technique is executed with Honey Foster (Marisa Tomei), a security guard and former Deadhead fan. She is such an energetic character—for a lady who loves her weed—and it is awkward how she seems to just disappear right in the middle of the movie. We only hear about her again at the end when the subtitles inform us what eventually happens to her.
Based on the book by Larry Beinhart and directed by George Ratcliff, there are lines of dialogue in “Salvation Boulevard” that made me laugh hard. Even the more obvious jokes made me chuckle. When the funny does come, however, I was reminded how much sharper the material could have been if the script that removed unnecessary distractions for the sake of buying time.
Way Back, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) was suspected of being a spy against the Russian government during World War II but there was a lack of evidence against him. When his wife was captured and tortured, she felt she had no other choice but to tell lies in order to survive. As a result, Janusz was sent to a Siberian labor camp for twenty years. Inside, he met seven others (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård) who where willing to escape and traverse thousands of miles through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas. Based on the book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz, there was no denying that what the POW had been through was unimaginable, but I wasn’t convinced that the film matched the greatness of the material they had a chance to work with. It was expected that Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell’s characters were given a solid amount of screen time. We learned about where they came from and what was important to them. However, I kept wondering about the other men. Since the spotlight was rarely on them, we only knew them through surface characteristics. For instance, the tall one liked to cook and draw, the young one had night blindness, the other was a comedian. It may sound disrespectful but such is a consequence of filmmakers focusing on which celebrities ought to receive more screen time than others instead of focusing on the drive of each man. Given that it was over two hours long, there was no excuse for a lack of character development. Furthermore, as a whole, the entire journey felt depressing instead of inspiring. While not all of them made it to the very end, I believe what should have been highlighted was their bravery by standing up against a government that wrongly accused them of crimes and taking their lives to survive in the wilderness. The only time when I felt the movie had some sort of pulse was when the runaways met the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan’s acting was dynamic. The way her body language and facial expressions changed from one emotion to the next, especially while interacting with the veteran Harris, felt effortless and I quickly became enthralled and fascinated by Irena. But the picture, inevitably, had to go back to the long walk to India. I was consistently disappointed due to its lack of attention in truly immersing our senses with each environment. Instead of taking the meditative path and not merely relying on music to nudge us that what we were seeing was visually majestic, it treated the disparate environs as cheap obstacles. I might as well have been playing “Super Mario” on Wii and it would have been far more engaging. Once the obstacle had been surmounted, it was onto the next challenge and the next death. Directed by Peter Weir, the manner in which “The Way Back” unfolded felt like the its characters were walking in circles. Considering its story involved a great journey across the world, it ended up going nowhere.
Abyss, The (1989)
★★★★ / ★★★★
James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Titanic”) directed this deep sea adventure which stars Ed Harris as the leader of a team of divers hired for a rescue mission after a nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks. His ice queen of a wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who he does not get along with comes along and a lot of tension brews between them. The divers are aided by the Navy led by Michael Biehn but we later discover that he is not emotionally, psychologically, and physically equipped enough to handle the pressure (pun intended) of staying underwater for an extended period of time. This film surprised me because I did not think it would be as emotional as it was. I thought what was going to happen was the divers would find the submarine, encounter some aliens and head back home. I did not think that it was going to be a story of survival, clashing against differing positions of power, dealing with fear and paranoia, and pushing an extraterrestrial agenda. The underwater scenes were nothing short of amazing. I really felt like I was deep sea diving with the characters because all I could see were giant rocks, endless darkness, and blue light coming from their mode of transports. It reminded me of scenes from a fascinating documentary (also directed by Cameron) called “Aliens of the Deep.” I also liked the fact that the alien angle of the story was minimized up until the very end. The tension rises after each scene due to human errors and vulnerabilities so I had no trouble buying into everything that was happening. When Biehn’s character finally lost it, I was scared for all of the characters that he considered his enemy because he knew how to kill and do it efficiently. Although the film could have been shorter, in some ways it worked to its advantage because we really get to feel how it was like to be stuck underwater for almost three hours. Two stand out scenes for me were the resuscitation and the falling into the abyss scenes. I felt a whole range of emotions during those scenes and even I had to tear up a bit because I had no idea how it was all going to turn out. In many ways, it had the drama of “Titanic” and the horror of “The Thing.” There’s a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche (or some version of it) in the beginning of the film that perfectly summed up the experience. That is, “If you look into the abyss, the abyss will look into you.”
Firm, The (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a John Grisham novel, “The Firm” is about a Harvard Law School graduate named Mitch McDeere (played by Tom Cruise) who receives an offer from Bendini, Lambert & Locke with an offer that surpasses other firms’ with benefits that no man in his right mind would refuse. McDeere’s wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn), coming from a rich family, tells her husband that it’s too good to be true but McDeere ignores his wife’s concern, only to find out later on that the firm he works for are tied to organized crime like the Mob. I’m at the borderline whether or not to recommend this film because even though it managed to entertain me more than half of the time, I didn’t find any reason for it to be two hours and thirty minutes long. Though its story is shrewd, it’s not efficient in its way of telling the story. It purposely piles a stack of one complex idea after another to the point where I found myself giving up trying to find out how one thing relates to another and just observe how it would all play out. It’s a shame because this movie had powerful performances, not just from Cruise, but also from Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook and Holly Hunter. Also, I don’t know if it’s just me but I thought there were some unintentionally funny scenes during the last thirty minutes of the picture. Even though what’s being presented on screen is serious, the soundtrack suggests otherwise which was aided by Cruise’ tendency to overact. Maybe Sydney Pollack, the director, wanted to achieve something different but that lack of agreement between images and tone took me out of the experience. I feel like if it had been darker and edgier, I would enjoyed “The Firm” a lot more instead of just giving it a slight recommendation. I was very interested in the story and the way McDeere untangles himself from the trickiest situations but the execution could’ve been stronger.
★ / ★★★★
Western is my least favorite genre so I’m probably not the best person to listen to when it comes to reviewing a western film. I’m most familiar with modern westerns like “Brokeback Mountain,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “There Will Be Blood.” However, I know how to ascertain and elucidate why I like or dislike a movie. “Appaloosa” did not work for me for two main reasons: it lacked focus to be thoroughly engaging and it did not have enough material to tell an insightful story. While Ed Harris (who also wrote and directed the film) and Viggo Mortensen did a good job in their respective roles, I felt like their relationship wasn’t explored enough. Were they merely friends or are they more like brothers? Although the tone of the film is masculine, most great westerns that I’ve seen leave room for softness and vulnerability (or otherwise, “feminine” qualities). If walls are consistently up, how are the audiences supposed to identify with and understand the characters? Renée Zellweger didn’t do a bad job but she sounds like she’s from a completely different film. The story focused on her a bit too much while sacrificing potentially rousing action scenes. However, I did like the occasional comedic moments because it shows that the actors and filmmakers are not afraid to have fun with the project. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I did not like this film because I caught myself zoning out from time to time. Whatever happened to featuring vast landscapes and the poetry of brotherhood? Is Harris simply trying to offer something different to the genre or did he clearly miss the point? I have patience when it comes to certain pictures when most people do not. I’m guessing that a casual moviegoer, especially a person who is not partial to western films, will be bored out of his or her mind.