Category Archives: Now Showing

mother!

Producer: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin and Ari Handel
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Stephen McHattie and Kristen Wiig
Studio: Paramount Pictures

C-

Darren Aronofsky is unquestionably a virtuoso filmmaker, as even his oddest projects demonstrate. (“Noah” might have been one of the wackiest biblical movies ever made, but it had plenty of style.) Now, like Stanley Kubrick in “The Shining,” he turns his attention to the horror genre, and “mother!,” the result, is certainly striking. But whether it will strike you as a profound example of self-reflection, or a pretentious rumination on the cost of artistic creativity, or an incoherent jumble of genre tropes—or a messy combination of them all—is another matter.

Like Kubrick’s film, “mother!” is set in an isolated locale—a labyrinthine wooden mansion located deep in a forest. Living there are an unnamed poet (Javier Bardem), a brooding fellow hobbled by writer’s block, and his much younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he calls “mother.” She’s a mousy type who’s refurbishing the creaky old place—which was apparently destroyed earlier in a fire in which the poet’s first wife died (or maybe not: like Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” this movie tinkers with time)—by herself. (From this point, be aware that spoilers are coming, so cease reading if you want to avoid them.)

The couple’s privacy—sometimes loving, sometimes fraught—is invaded by a strange man (Ed Harris) claiming to be an orthopedic surgeon who was told–or so he says–the house was a B&B. To his wife’s surprise, the poet invites the fellow to stay the night, though he’s wracked with a terrible cough exacerbated by his smoking. Worse, the next day his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up and moves in as well. She’s a nosy type who belittles poor “mother,” asking impertinent questions and making borderline rude observations. Why no kids, for example? (Presumably the weird yellow liquid that mother periodically drinks is intended to help along those lines.)

The situation deteriorates further when the woman breaks a weird glass crystal the poet found in the debris of the house fire that that he reveres as the source of his inspiration (though at the moment it doesn’t seem to be working). Even that accident—if it was an accident—is topped, as the couple’s two grown sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) appear and get into a violent altercation in which one of them dies. Soon the house is filled with mourners at the poet’s invitation; he finds their presence somehow helpful to his work, though it’s difficult to see how. His wife, on the other hand, is horrified by their destructive behavior and orders everybody out.

That’s only the first half of the film. In the second, mother is pregnant and her husband is inspired by upcoming fatherhood. But when he publishes his poem, their beatific solitude is again shattered, first by a throng of press and then by an army of fans. The poet basks in all the attention and refuses to send the interlopers away, even as they invade the house. His bitchy publisher (Kristen Wiig) appears, referring to mother as her author’s muse even as mother’s delivery time comes. The baby is born as the crowd turns into a ravenous horde, dismantling the house in a search for souvenirs, and the poet insists on showing the child to them despite his wife’s insistence he not even touch the infant. The intruders have by this time morphed into a religious cult, led by a sinister minister (Stephen McHattie), worshiping the poet’s glorious verse (which, thankfully, we never get an example of), and their treatment of the baby becomes a grotesque parody of a Eucharistic celebration. Poor mother reacts with a fury, taking an ax to the place’s archaic heating system and setting the house ablaze. In the aftermath the poet finds her charred body and—not so surprisingly—that crystal he had prized, or maybe its replacement. The cycle has been completed, and perhaps repeats endlessly.

Obviously this is intended as some sort of parable about the pain and loss that are necessary components of the process of artistic creation, and the sacrifices that those close to an artist inevitably suffer. Aronofsky uses “The Shining” as his main inspiration, though one can easily see “Rosemary’s Baby” and even Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” as part of the mix as well. With a house that groans, burps and even drips blood, agitated yet claustrophobic camerawork (by Matthew Libatique) and frenzied crowd sequences, the picture creates an unsettling vibe, but it’s rarely frightening in any conventional sense. Lawrence acts against type, going soft and scared rather than strong and secure, while Bardem vacillates effectively enough between charming and boorish; of the intrusive couple, Harris is fine, but it’s Pfeiffer who dominates with her portrait of a poisonous shrew.

One has to hope that Aronofsky intends “mother!” as a satire of his own artistic pretensions and the adulation of him as an auteur from some members of the press and public. On the other hand, if it’s meant as any sort of serious commentary on how torturous the creative process is for him, or as an apology to those he might have bruised along the way, one will find it hard to muster any sympathy for his plight.

Nor is it easy to summon much enthusiasm for a movie that manages a few effective moments but winds up as less a genuinely creepy haunted house thriller than a silly, self-indulgent allegory about the torments that bedevil the artist as he strives to give birth to a masterpiece. Remember how, in the old Warner Brothers cartoons, when a character found himself in some apparently hopeless situation he was likely to emit one strangulated word: “Mother!”? You might find yourself moved to do the same as “mother!” careens down the home stretch.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN

Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler
Director: Michael Cuesta
Writer: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz
Stars: Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins, Charlotte Vega, Joseph Long, Mohammad Bakri, Tolga Safer, Khalid Laith, Sharif Dorani, Vladimir Friedman and Shahid Ahmed
Studio: CBS Films/Lionsgate

C

Had “American Assassin” been made twenty or thirty years ago, the villains would have been of different national origin, and the star would have been a beefy fellow like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone rather than a trim young dude like Dylan O’Brien, but the basic plot outline would have been the same. Despite the updating, the movie is essentially a boilerplate action flick following a template that hasn’t changed much for decades, and while efficiently made, it holds no surprises.

O’Brien, who began his career as a sidekick on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and then took on the lead in the “Maze Runner” franchise, stars as Mitch Rapp, a young American wounded by gun-wielding Libyan terrorists at a resort on Ibiza; their vicious leader Mansur (Shahid Ahmed) takes particular pleasure in killing Katrina (Charlotte Vega), the girlfriend to whom Mitch has just proposed. Single-mindedly determined to avenge her death, Rapp devotes his days to becoming a martial-arts killing machine and learning Arabic to contact Mansur’s group online and offer his services as a warrior. (His commitment is shown by the fact that he neglects to shave, winding up with a thick black beard.) He is finally successful in getting invited to the villains’ lair, but before he can take his vengeance, U.S. special forces intervene to slaughter the cell. It seems the CIA has been following Rapp’s e-mail and tracked him to the group’s hideout.

The question now is what to do with the self-trained vigilante. The Agency’s Deputy Director, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), sees him as a potential recruit for their black ops force, and despite doubts by Director Stansfield (David Suchet), she’s allowed to place him with hard-boiled field operative Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) in his remote camp. After some rather cursory training, Rapp is picked by Stan, along with fellow trainee Victor, to join him on a mission to track down a stolen shipment of plutonium and a mysterious key (the plot’s MacGuffin) that will allow it to be used as a thermonuclear device. The job will take them to Turkey, where they will join beautiful long-time operative Annika (Shiva Negar) to deal with the arms dealer planning to sell the items to some shadowy buyers, who just might be connected to a trio of Iranian officials (Mohammad Bahri, Navid Negahban and Joseph Long).

In the ensuing mayhem—which takes the team from Anatolia to Rome—Rapp proves to be a loose cannon who disobeys orders. But wouldn’t you know it, his insubordination always bears a beneficial result. As to the villains, it turns out there are good Iranians (those who support the nuclear treaty) and bad ones (those who don’t), but the ultimate bad guy is an American, once Hurley’s top protégé whom Stan left behind after a botched job and was presumed dead. “The Ghost,” as he’s called, is played by Taylor Kitsch and is mighty miffed that his mentor abandoned him.

Among the delights that “American Assassin” has in store in the later reels are double-crosses, an extended fight in a hotel suite, the near-fatal bathtub drowning of a suspected traitor, a protracted torture scene with fingernails in jeopardy, a car chase, an encounter with some vicious dogs, a one-on-one with a brute in a fancy penthouse, a fistfight aboard an out-of-control speedboat, a helicopter rescue and—just to top it all off—a nuclear explosion at sea than threatens to destroy the entire Sixth Fleet. But not to worry: the world is saved.

Michael Cuesta, whose earlier work had a much more cerebral slant (check out his debut film, the remarkable “L.I.E.,” which also featured Paul Dano in his first major role), manages the action efficiently enough—with the help, no doubt, of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, editor Conrad Buff IV, and what must have been a small army of stunt coordinators and stuntmen, as well as a substantial visual effects staff. His work with the actors, on the other hand, shows little of the sensitivity he’s exhibited in the past. But characters like Rapp, Hurley and Ghost are intended to be big, broad types, and O’Brien, Keaton and Kitsch respond accordingly. As for the other villains and red herrings, they serve their purposes in the elaborate cross-global board game that’s not challenging enough to be compared to chess. Checkers is more like it.

Come to think of it, “American Assassin” doesn’t seem like a modern equivalent of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone blockbuster from the distant past, but of their chintzier cousins—like the “American Ninja” movies with low-rent replacement Michael Dudikoff. It’s worth remembering that the movie is based on one of a series of books about Mitch Rapp by Vince Flynn, and could spawn a series of its own. Maybe we’ll be watching Dylan grow for some time in this role; if so, let’s hope the future scripts mature with him.