mother! — 8/10

MOTHER! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)

Sports journalist Max Kellerman was on TV the other day making the point that Colin Kaepernick is out of the league, ironically, due to the very thing he was criticized for protesting. He sat out the National Anthem because of systemic, institutionalized racism in American culture, and it turns out the on-balance racist institution that is the NFL ownership has punished him for it. I bring this up because much of the hatred of MOTHER! that I’ve seen online is a reaction to the same criticisms Aronofsky is making of humanity at large.

There are many things this film is a parable, metaphor, or allegory of, and in ways it’s a Rorschach test for ideology — whatever you want to put on it, Aronofsky has given you fuel to do. But it’s clear (from NOAH, at the very least) that he has some arguments to make against Christianity and its poisonous effect on its fervent followers. (Even going back to REQUIEM, he’s long been wary of the lies we tell ourselves to avoid the harsh truths about the human condition). Aronofsky makes no bones about showing just how much people hate when their core ideals are challenged and how blindly they’re willing to follow that which makes them feel safe or valuable. As a work of art, MOTHER! is anything but a safe narrative with a conventional, feel-good sense of calm and seductive cajoling. It’s a bitter, mean-spirited, wide-eyed attack on the sleepy complacency that infects much of conventional cinema, and of conventional thought as well.

Not that everyone who hates this movie is objecting to its unlikable assault on expected narratives — certainly you’re welcome to despise this thing for any number of reasons. But the control it has over its manipulation of audience expectation, emotion, and reaction is pretty astounding. The pace is expert, the removal of all safeguards is well-calculated, and the conclusion is both shocking and inevitable. This thing is crazy fucked-up, and it’s pretty great for the most part.

One way it masterfully engages the audience with its protagonist is that every shot is one of Jennifer Lawrence, either close-up, following from behind, or framed center-punched so you can’t look away. If it’s not, it’s her point of view. Only until one explosive moment, minutes before the end of the movie, does it finally — and justifiably — break that dogged insistence. Through her eyes we see a story about artistic obsession, environmental collapse, jealousy, the paradox of creation and destruction, and all sorts of probably-Biblical references that I’m too ignorant to understand (I’m in the bottom 1% of all people in terms of knowledge of that book, so what do I know from Bibles). And even if you can’t groove on those themes, it’s hard to deny just how visually acute this thing is shot and edited — the descent into madness that happens in this house is a gorgeously orchestrated slippery slope, so you can hardly pinpoint what’s really so different between two housewives sharing a glass of lemonade and a literal war zone.


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Spider-Man: Homecoming — 6/10


A group of high school students is on an elevator ascending the Washington Monument in D.C. The elevator breaks and the monument begins to crack. Spider-Man races to the rescue with the help of his AI computer-suit voice “Karen” giving him directions. Meanwhile, inside the elevator the terrified teenagers are told by a tour guide: “don’t worry, you’re safe,” and immediately Karen tells Spider-Man something like “They are not safe at all.” It happens one more time for repeated comic effect — the human tells the teens one thing, then the computer reveals the opposite truth to the superhero. Science and artificial intelligence, built by billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark, are always far more accurate than the fallible, gullible blue collar humans. And that eerie realization makes this film unintentionally but deeply, deeply misanthropic.

The theme extends to the villain, too. Michael Keaton’s Vulture is a blue collar construction foreman whose career is destroyed by Stark, who just wants to keep unknown alien power stones out of the hands of people too dumb or untrustworthy. And indeed, once Keaton and his goons attain the weapons, they use them for evil. The good guys are the rich scientists; the bad guys are the poor working stiffs. Don’t rely on the goodness of mankind: rely on technology, money, and intelligence. That’s the only thing that will save us.

Luckily Watts doesn’t even really seem to realize how disturbing and capitalistic this movie is — he revels in the glee of Spider-Man being the one superhero freed from adult darkness, trafficking in typical high school shenanigans. And that’s where this movie shines. Holland is terrific; not only his American accent but his Marty McFly-like voice as he struggles with a crush (on the wrong girl, of course — Laura Harrier’s Liz is a dud compared to the sardonic appeal of Zendaya’s MJ) and with earning the respect of his idol Iron Man. Whenever the film takes place between the school walls or Aunt May’s apartment, the comedy is in high gear. But when Keaton and Downey (and third-billed Jon Favreau, for some reason) drag it down into predictable CG Marvelness, it just turns into yet another interchangeable entry in this ongoing, super-expensive television series.

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Good Time — 7/10

GOOD TIME (2017, Josh & Benny Safdie)

I was going to kick this off by saying “spoiler alert: they don’t have a very good time.” Then I realized I also started off my HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT review by pointing out that title’s irony as well. As it turns out, much of what I wrote after that could apply here — for better and for worse. On the plus side, this one is nearly as gritty and realistic, possibly even more invigorating and sweaty, and looks just as closely at the people we want to turn away from or ignore. But on the downside, it does all that without quite the same sense of verisimilitude.

Not to say the lead performance isn’t just as terrific as Holmes was — in fact, after a few sterling turns over the last several years, this is the best Pattinson has ever been. He doesn’t command the screen by chewing the scenery, he commands it by becoming the scenery. The Safdies, loosed from the long lenses needed to sneak the docudrama shots from HKW, are now able to burrow deep into the faces of their characters, which means a lot of tough, unflinching close-ups of a con man whose ability to seduce his marks makes him queasily compelling. And Pattinson sells that brilliantly. Just listen to the change in his voice and speech pattern when he tells Crystal about the connection they have, just to convince her to stay with the car. Demonic.

But we aren’t the marks here — the Safdies tell us from the jump what Connie is like: the opening scene has him breaking his brother out of a therapy session; literally tearing this young man away from a place that could help him… and later in the film, it’s exaggerated when Connie attempts to break Nick out of an actual hospital. We’re watching one guy in need of help, forever tied to someone who actively deflects said help. The biggest lie Connie tells in a film full of them is to Nick in that opening scene — in the elevator, when he says “I love you.”

And in a nicely subtle subplot of injustice, the Safdies explore just how much punishment people get for trying to be nice. Piling on that is the realization of the fates the film’s two primary black characters at the hands of the police. There’s no good news here, and not much optimism. Once again, they look where the rest of us don’t, and what they find there is a little bit of humanity and a lot of torture. This time around, there’s more of an on-track narrative and fatalistic ending, and maybe one not-so-believable performance (Necro, as Ray’s drug-dealing buddy), but this is still an effective, stinging drama about the dirt under the fingernails that scrape on society’s chalkboard.

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Logan Lucky — 8/10

LOGAN LUCKY (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

It’s all about the details. Not that Soderbergh was lacking in that department 25-30 years ago, but as a seasoned veteran, he’s learned that what sets his craft apart from greener directors is his attention to the very small things that make all the difference. In this caper-comedy, which he clearly modeled after his big box office success (a TV newswoman in the film calls the heist “Ocean’s 7-11”), the entertainment comes from what we see and when. In one shot, Riley Keough is putting nail polish on cockroaches — which makes no sense, until it does a few minutes later. The same goes for the credit card machines, the smoking janitor, the fake salt, and a dozen more specifics.

Big credit to Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner (writing under the pseudonym Rebecca Blunt) for a sharp script that never condescends to the redneck culture it inhabits. Adam Driver and Channing Tatum revel in their Southern accents and hillbilly wardrobes, but their intelligence is clear, and Soderbergh shows some adoration of the NASCAR culture by casting big-name drivers in cameo roles as security guards. He even lingers on LeeAnn Rimes’s moving rendition of “America, The Beautiful.”

Speaking of that, Soderbergh has picked up right where he left off in terms of subject matter — he’s all about the economy. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, MAGIC MIKE, and SIDE EFFECTS all came down to money, and his exploration of the American working class has been a pleasure to see. In this chapter, the security code is 12-25 (Christmas), the robbers are Robin Hoods, and there’s even a nod at universal health care with Katherine Waterston’s nurse character. But Soderbergh doesn’t preach, and he knows the engine driving this is the comedy and the cast — Daniel Craig is by far the standout, not just because his line deliveries are uproarious (“I’m bout to git… NEKKID!”) but also in stark contrast to the brooding and serious James Bond we’re so used to. Hilary Swank is also hilarious as an overly tough FBI agent; her speech patterns alone made me laugh out loud. But top to bottom, Soderbergh gets the most out of big and small roles. This is the funniest movie of 2017, and a comeback so strong it makes me want both another season of THE KNICK and two more features right away.

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Detroit — 7/10

DETROIT (2017, Kathryn Bigelow)

50 years ago, there were race riots in Detroit, Michigan. Cops used it as an opportunity to unleash their inner white supremacist and murder innocent people just because they’re black. It’s a good thing America has advanced so much since those more barbaric times two generations ago — now, we luckily don’t see any white cops killing black people, nor do we see riots and marches based on racial animosity. Whew! Progress!

Okay, so Bigelow isn’t exactly looking for sarcastic acknowledgement like that, but her point is clear and explosively told. The running time is daunting — nearly 150 minutes — but my favorite thing about this movie is how, editorially, the length of it accentuates the content. The middle hour is a punishing, drawn-out nightmare of bigotry and violence. What starts off and ends as a movie that rushes through moments and slides around in history, ticking off key moments and cascading forward, stops dead in its tracks for a solid hour, unleashing a horrifying incident with uncompromised detail and endless torture. Bigelow wants the audience to want it to end, and we do. But it doesn’t. At least not for a long time past what we expect to be comfortable. Make this film 110 minutes and it collapses. The bloat of the second act is key to its force.

Unfortunately, the third act gets very Mark Boal, which has been a problem with other Bigelow films, especially THE HURT LOCKER but somewhat with ZERO DARK THIRTY. It doesn’t know where to go after the bravura Algiers motel annex sequence, so it just gives us a perfunctory trial that doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t predict for ourselves, and then leaves character threads dangling. We also never get a good reason why the hostages, especially the white girls, didn’t just finger the dead Carl as the shooter to placate Will Poulter’s menacing Officer Krauss. But screenwriting curiosities aside, the bludgeoning effect of Bigelow’s courageous camera and violent sound design does the job — it’s mean, but it works. And if it gets audiences to reconsider just how insidious it is when institutions normalize prejudice — how it’s not only the fact that individuals are hateful bigots, but also that the government policies and procedures in place enable that racism to flourish and influence behavior, not just thoughts — well then it’s a damn good PSA.

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Dunkirk — 9/10

DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)

When you’re experiencing a trauma, time has a weird way of warping itself. A week can feel like an hour, and an hour can feel like a week. War, I imagine, is a nightmare from which you never awaken — and nightmares, too, can last a few minutes but feel like days. What a great gambit, then, that Nolan has structured his intense cinematic war poem with three timelines that converge at one moment — and each one is neatly presented at the beginning of the film with text telling us it will last either a week, a day, or an hour.

When those strands cohere, it’s not just narratively satisfying; it hits you on a visceral level as well. You catch your breath discovering which characters are where and what has happened or what will happen (in one case, we see a character appear first in the film days after the second time we see him appear; and in another, we see the same moment twice, from different perspectives, but several minutes of screen time apart, so we can follow both characters on opposite timelines).

This may seem like a bit of a mindfuck, and it is, and you’re forgiven for having a generation of History Channel Oscar bait train you to expect WWII movies to give backstories to its characters and treat exposition like a Wikipedia article. DUNKIRK does not do that. It just asks itself what is the best way cinema can capture this colossal act of terror, then wraps itself in that cape for a sleek 100 minutes. Entire sequences go by with no dialogue and no character-building: just isolated moments of visual WTF — a man drowning in the ocean with fire awaiting him if he brings his head above water; bullets from unseen guns putting holes in the side of a boat one by one; a pilot with a broken fuel gauge having to use a white grease pencil to estimate how much time he has left in flight; another pilot trying to open his jammed canopy before his plane sinks into the sea.

Each of these tiny sequences are paced flawlessly, scored acutely, and gorgeously photographed by new Nolan muse Hoyte Van Hoytema (with him since INTERSTELLAR, once Wally Pfister left to try his hand at directing). You don’t care that you either can’t understand the dialogue or there isn’t any dialogue anyway — you get the idea, and you let the sound and image whisk you into battle. This is the best war film since THE THIN RED LINE, not because it’s long and serious and full of meaning and politics — it’s because it’s a tight, contained, typically non-linear Christopher Nolan movie that happens to use the sheer horror of war as its mode. By the time the beautiful final 10 minutes arrived, I was weeping as much at the joy of admiring the form as I was at the depressing subject matter. Good luck making that Churchill speech land with that much power, Gary Oldman.

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Atomic Blonde — 4/10

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017, David Leitch)

One cool long tracking shot (well, several cool shots with hidden cuts to look like one take) in the middle of a pile of sweaty garbage. That central set piece, though, is quite a doozy. Well choreographed action, terrific physical performance from Theron throughout, and a great sense of escalating tension and pace. Too bad the rest of it is a low-rent wanna-be spy thriller overly satisfied with its own twists.

80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! PUNCHING! 80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! PUNCHING! 80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! GUNS! 80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! CARS! Does that sound fun for 15 minutes? It is. Does that sound fun for 115 minutes? Didn’t think so.

Major spoilers here, so turn away if you haven’t seen this film and still want to, with a blank slate. If you look closely (and it’s hard not to, since the camera is right up the butt), Theron’s character is smoking American Spirits in one first-act scene. Looks like a prop mistake, but it turns out it’s a subtle clue that she’s actually an American spy (working for a sleepwalking John Goodman, even more checked out than he was in THE GAMBLER) playing double agent for the Russians playing triple agent for the Brits. But even if that’s a clue, why would a supposedly British agent under cover as a British lawyer be smoking American cigarettes? Too clever for its own good.

Somehow James McAvoy undoes the good will he generated with his first ever good performance in SPLIT, here just coasting on misperceived charm and a furry jacket. Sofia Boutella thinks she’s in a drama, and maybe she should have been, but this superficial action movie doesn’t have the brains of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or SPY GAME nor does it have the diesel-fueled kick-ass of Leitch’s previous JOHN WICK. It’s just a few loud New Order songs, a great actress trying her best to elevate trashy material, and a lot of work.

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