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Posts Tagged ‘Darren Aronofsky’

As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

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There are, I suppose, weirder choices of film projects than blockbuster fantasy versions of tales from the depths of the Old Testament, but not many. I suspect that the fact Paramount have embarked upon such an adventure, in the form of Noah, is not based upon the studio’s confident belief in the bankability of this kind of film, but the past acclaim and success of director Darren Aronofsky and the box office clout of leading man Russell Crowe.

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I suspect you know the story to this one already, more or less at least. The script is by Aronofsky and Ari Handel (based on an idea by some 6th century Judaean priests) and is rather coy about the exact setting of the film – you can treat it as proper history if you really want to, but the fantasy quotient is also comfortably high. Ten generations after the creation of the world, humanity has split into two factions along ideological lines – with those who see the Earth as something to be relentlessly exploited very much in the ascendant, and those desiring to live in harmony with nature living in fear of their lives.

Noah (Crowe) and his family are pretty much all that is left of the latter group, eking out a fairly miserable existence in the wasteland the mechanistic civilisation has reduced the world to. But then Noah has a vision: and, not to put too fine a point on it, it looks like rain…

Not quite sure what to make of this, Noah and his nearest and dearest trek off to the remote hermitage of his grandad Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who fills him in on the finer points of what’s in the offing. With the help of a gang of fallen angels who look rather like cobbled Ents, Noah sets about measuring his cubits and gathering the gopher wood.

Inevitably, as the time of the inundation draws closer, others take an interest in Noah’s little project, particularly Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of one of the destructive human nations. Tubal-Cain is quite keen to get a berth on the Ark for himself, and isn’t above attempting to suborn Noah’s kids to do so. Noah himself has other problems, not least the issue of finding wives for all his sons. Sometimes it never rains, but it pours…

There has been some media coverage of Russell Crowe’s industrious efforts to secure a celebrity endorsement for Noah by showing it to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly (one suspects) because of the sheer size of the potential Christian audience this could help the film tap into. The slightly quirky decision not to use the word ‘God’ once in the entire movie aside, it seems to me that there’s very little here to frighten the Biblical-literalist horses, in the sense that the movie takes the Book of Genesis at face value – for all that it embellishes the story in some fairly eye-opening ways (battles with giant stone angels and so on), there’s nothing here that directly contradicts the scriptural account.

There is something compellingly bizarre about the way in which the film works very hard to treat such an extravagant story so seriously. Tranquility on the Ark, for instance, is secured by doping all the animals aboard it into suspended animation for the duration of the voyage (this also explains why it doesn’t fill up with dung before the end of the film). Noah himself is treated with an unexpected level of psychological realism, but then in these particular circumstances this makes a certain degree of sense. All in all, watching Noah I had a strange sense that this was a blockbuster fantasy film of which the Christian right might well approve.

I’m not sure I was very comfortable with that, and it did make me wary of the environmental message which is central to the story: the subtext of the film is ‘live green or die’, which ordinarily I’d agree with, but not when it’s presented as some kind of religious fundamentalist dogma. (On the other hand, another major theme is whether the planet wouldn’t be better off without the human race, a suggestion which I can’t imagine many religions getting behind.) The earnestness of the film in this and other departments is a bit of a problem, too: Anthony Hopkins does his usual formerly-Welsh twinkliness, but apart from this Noah is an extremely po-faced film, presumably in order to avoid charges from its target audience of irreverence towards scripture.

This doesn’t stop the film being very, very strange for most of its running time. It looks good, as you’d expect from Aronofsky, with the antediluvian world looking pretty post-apocalyptic anyway, and some decent special effects. Jennifer Connelly honestly doesn’t get much to do as Mrs Noah – Emma Watson as the daughter-in-law gets more decent material – but Crowe, Winstone, and Hopkins all bring their customary commitment and presence, as well as a slight tendency to chew on the scenery (in light of which it’s a bit unfortunate that various scenes depict characters wandering about shouting ‘Ham! Ham!’).

On its own peculiar terms the film remains interesting and pacy for its first two acts, but I did find the final third to be rather tough going, to the point of actually being slightly twisted. The stuff with everyone on the Ark, post-flood, does go on a bit, and wanders off into some distinctly unexpected areas (there’s some hand-to-hand combat, for instance, plus Noah threatening to turn into a swivel-eyed murderous headcase). I was looking forward to the bit where Noah says ‘At my command, unleash doves,’ but this doesn’t happen. Genesis 9:23 does make it into the movie though, just another example of the permeating weirdness of the project.

Going in to see Noah I was fairly certain that this was the proverbial win-win scenario: either Aronofsky was going to make an interestingly original and visually sumptuous film, or just a hilariously bad one, either of which I would happily watch. In the end, though, I think Noah is somewhere in between: the conception of the film is deeply, deeply odd, unless you genuinely believe the Flood to have been an actual historical event, in which case you may well take exception to some of the film’s more idiosyncratic embellishments on the traditional story (wondering what happened to the unicorns? Looks like Ray Winstone ate them both). But set against all this, it is a beautifully designed and photographed film with moments of real vision and power. I don’t foresee a full-scale revival of the Biblical Epic as a major genre (though, hey, I’m the guy who predicted that Strictly Come Dancing would be a famous disaster, so what do I know?), nor even a massive box office return for this particular film. But I’ve never seen another film quite like it, and I’ve always found it hard to dismiss originality. Even so, Noah is engrossingly strange more than anything else.

 

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If you are the kind of parent who is constantly harangued by a daughter declaring her desire to become the world’s greatest ballet dancer, and how this makes it your duty to fulfil their dream no matter the personal inconvenience or expense, then on one level you could do a lot worse than to stick them in front of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. This should cure almost anyone of wanting to get into ballet. On the other hand, it’s probably also capable of massively traumatising the average child (and possibly some adults), so if you do go down this route don’t come back to me complaining if it all goes horribly wrong.
 

Anyway. Aronofsky’s multiply-award-nominated movie is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a neurotically-perfectionist ballerina with a company in New York. Opportunity comes a-knocking when she is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake, despite the doubts of her director (Vincent Cassel) that she has the necessary emotional range for the part. Nina’s struggle with the role is complicated by her relationships with her clinging, obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), and an ambitious, hedonistic rival (Mila Kunis). To succeed she finds she must summon dark forces from within herself, forces that refuse to stay under her control…

If you attempt to make a film about ballet then, whether you like it or not, you’re going to wind up getting compared to The Red Shoes, the big mama of all ballet films. It’s a rule, what can I say? Being a painstaking sort of person I dug out my DVD of Red Shoes (not a particular favourite of mine, I have to say, but it came in a boxed set) prior to watching Black Swan just to see how the two compared.

Well, obviously, on one level the two films are the products of utterly different sensibilities – even without rewatching it, I think I would have recalled that the Powell and Pressburger film did not feature quite such striking levels of profanity, vomit, self-harm, drug abuse, masturbation, and lesbian oral sex (hang on, though, it’s not quite as good as I’m probably making it sound). But what the two films share is the theme of the price of making great art, partly embodied through the figure of the director of the company – Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) in the old movie, Thomas (Cassel) in the new one, though the characters are quite different in other ways.

While The Red Shoes is a fairly traditional narrative for the most part, Black Swan is a much more internal movie, about the psychological burden placed on Nina, who’s at the centre of virtually every scene (and the camera’s very seldom more than about three feet from Natalie Portman’s head). Even so, the performances in this movie are uniformly strong – though I suppose in theory you could argue that this movie is actually slightly misogynistic, given that every major female character either has somewhat loose morals or is a borderline wacko. Barbara Hershey (possibly the only character actress in the world to have a regular character in Judge Dredd named after her) is particularly good as Nina’s creepy mum, while Winona Ryder is literally unrecognisable as an aging, fading prima ballerina.

Gentlemen readers: you may want to wind your DVDs on about seven minutes from this scene.

It’s Portman’s movie, really, though. She hasn’t always realised the extraordinary promise that was there right from her debut in Leon, and indeed for a while a few years ago she even struggled to bring out all the subtlety and nuance in George Lucas’s Star Wars scripts (I forgot to mention that this review may contain irony), but here she’s utterly magnetic from beginning to end, even if she does spend most of the movie wearing a face like a rictus mask of anguish. With consummate skill she manages a pitfall-strewn path, beginning the movie as someone with definite issues. As it progresses, of course, she goes completely and convincingly bonkers.

As, to be honest, does the rest of the movie. This starts off as a fairly realistic and low-key drama, one that doesn’t (for example) shy away from showing the punishing demands ballet dancers make on their bodies. But slowly and gradually there are little eruptions of weirdness into the film, which becomes increasingly intense and claustrophobic. By the closing sequences, it’s become almost phantasmagorical, with drama, melodrama, fantasy and horror bleeding into one another. The final impression is almost overwhelming, as acting, direction, cinematography and CGI come together in an extraordinary crescendo.

The Oscar nominations came out this week and I get the sense that Black Swan is sort of in the second rank of movies, chasing The Social Network and The King’s Speech for the big prizes. Not that I really think the Oscars, or any other awards, actually mean anything, but I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that, overall: but Aronofsky’s direction and Portman’s performance are both unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the cinema in a long time. Parts of Black Swan will remain burned into my brain for a long time (and not just the bit you’re probably thinking of) – it’s a remarkable, memorable movie, even if it’s not always the easiest one to watch.

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