Review Round-Up: mother!, Gerald’s Game, and Blade Runner 2049

Posted: October 16, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel Simpson

mother!mother

It’s easy to forget how big a hit Black Swan was. That film was one of the front-runners in the Best Picture race, won rave reviews from most critics, showered Natalie Portman with awards, and even had the gull to over $300 million worldwide. That’s pretty insane for a psychological horror film drawing heavily from The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue. That level of success seems to have granted Darren Aronofsky a fair bit of clout, and I think that clout is why Paramount decided to put $30 million into another horror project from Aronofsky and give it a wide theatrical release to boot. Make no mistake, while mother! has major stars and a trailer which makes it seem like a fairly predictable horror movie, the film is anything but.

At it’s core, mother! is very much an art house horror movie. Much of the first half is slow and meticulous, which will likely bore audiences expecting a more conventional horror film, while the second half descends into complete lunacy that completely abandons any sense of realism the film still had. A lot of audiences have left the movie baffled and angry and I can understand that reaction. This is not easy viewing and even highly literate film audiences have gone and slapped the “pretentious” label on mother! The film certainly rests heavily on metaphor and its references to the bible are quite obvious once one makes the connection. All the same I don’t think the movie should be dismissed so simply.

For one, while the bible is clearly a major point of interpretation, it certainly isn’t the only one. One first viewing, the film played more as a feminist piece for me, analyzing the ways in which women are frequently dismissed by men. We observe this again and again in the central relationship and what is especially striking is how calm Javier Bardem’s character does this. He doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of malice, he just seems a bit clueless of how condescending he is. There’s also the fact that Bardem always puts his work and ego ahead of his wife’s needs. There are other details too, like some of the ways others treat Jennifer Lawrence’s character, or the film’s similarities to other works about the abuse and degradation of women like Rosemary’s Baby and “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

Even removing any allegorical readings, mother! is still a highly rewarding film. The film begins with a married couple (Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence) living in the isolated country side. She has taken to putting the house back together while He is a writer working on a new project. Soon, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) arrives and is quickly joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). He allows the couple to stay at their home, though She is decidedly uneasy about the situation and begins to suspect this mysterious couple to be a threat. That’s an immediately engaging scenario and Aronofsky does a good job mining suspense from the situation. The core fear of having strangers in one’s home is a pretty relatable terror and that through-line carries through most of the film. Aronofsky’s tendency to have the camera follow his protagonists from behind proves effective here as it aligns the viewer with Lawrence almost immediately. The performances here are uniformly great too, with Javier Bardem and Michelle Pfeiffer in particular standing out.

Eventually, the film does abandon a sense of realism in the third act and descends into full on lunacy. For a lot of people this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but I found this section to be enthralling. For one, I was already fully invested in the characters and was able to make that leap for them. More importantly, this section does feel like an appropriate thematic leap based on what has come before and I also think Aronofsky does a great job bringing a nightmare to the screen.

mother! is not a film for everybody, and it isn’t a perfect film either. At times messy and at times obvious, this is already proving to be one of the most polarizing films of the year, generating all sorts of extreme reactions. For my part, I loved it. As something to analyze, the film has already proved highly rewarding and I suspect further viewings will offer even more in this regard. Just as an experience of horror though, mother! gripped me from the start and never let go.

A+

 

Gerald’s GameGeralds-Game-movie-poster

More than any other film I can think of recently, Gerald’s Game is a great example of how a poor ending can really bring a movie down. The film follows a couple looking to spice up their sex life by retreating to their isolated country home and getting a little kinky in the bedroom. The handcuffs are slapped on wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) by husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), but things soon take a turn for the uncomfortable for Jessie. What ensues is a struggle for Jessie’s survival, physically and mentally.

Gerald’s Game has a great premise, and early on the film takes a lot of surprising turns which bring the story to new places. The situation Jessie finds herself in is viscerally effective and the film also engages on a psychological level. I do wish the screenplay didn’t frequently point out how her current situation is a metaphor for her subordination throughout her life, but those readings are still effective. Mike Flanagan also continues to prove a capable craftsman, getting the most out of the location Jessie is confined to and only leaving it when necessary. That brief departure is for a crucial flashback which adds a lot to the character and is itself handled very well. The film’s biggest highlight though are probably the performances. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are highly reliable supporting performers, but it’s great to see the two of them at the front and center of such a character driven piece, and with meaty roles to boot.

Unfortunately there is a pretty substantial hole at the center of all of this. The movie introduces a vaguely supernatural character who from the get-go I wasn’t really on board with, but he did work as a sort of symbol and the visual was effective so I mostly put up with it. Then at film’s end, there is a terribly unnecessary coda which eventually provides a ridiculous explanation for the aforementioned supernatural character. This explanation is ridiculous and feels like it belongs in a completely different movie. The ending is so jarring in fact that it actively detracts from the psychological issues at the forefront of the story and instead shifts focus to much more bizarre and exaggerated terror. Flanagan does his best to keep the threads thematically connected, but ultimately they’re too disparate.

It’s a shame, because ending aside, Gerald’s Game is mostly certainly Flanagan’s best film yet. His craftsmanship has only improved since Oculus, he’s working with much more thoughtful and engaging material, and he’s able to get two great performances from his leads. All told, I still do like the film and do recommend it, but man would a better ending really help.

B-

 

Blade Runner 2049blade-runner-2049-poster

Though initially under-seen and semi-dismissed on release in 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has become a beloved classic and a cornerstone of science-fiction cinema. The film has become a reference point, most obviously for its presentation of a post-modern city defined by towering skyscrapers, cultural cross-over, wealth discrepancy, and neon advertisements which pierce through the rainy black sky. Furthermore, the film’s questions regarding what defines our humanity and whether an artificial intelligence can be alive have since become cliches of the genre. Of course, Blade Runner did not invent these themes or this visual style, but it is one of the texts to bring these ideas together and execute on them with such skill. Many films since have tried to emulate these aspects of Blade Runner, some quite successfully, but Scott’s film remains the gold standard and for all the imitations still feels very unique.

This is why the prospect of a sequel made many so very weary. The original Blade Runner holds the rare status as a seminal film while still being very unique, which means any attempt at a follow-up is going to have to sweat bullets to recreate aspects of the original while still bringing something new to the table. Despite so many correct choices made during the making of the film, including the return of original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, the presence of rising filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, and some very high praise, I still went into Blade Runner 2049 with a great degree of caution. Turns out such caution wasn’t necessary. While not necessarily a perfect film, Blade Runner 2049 is a spectacular movie and an amazing continuation of the 1982 classic.

Much of the writing on Blade Runner 2049 (and the original for that matter) immediately goes to the film’s technical accomplishments, and they are indeed staggering. The film’s visual effects are impeccable, blending digital effects with practical tricks seamlessly to recreate the illusion of this future L.A. Crucially however, Villeneuve and is team are not content to merely replicate the original film’s aesthetic. New elements of this world are shown and it’s also clear that technology has progressed during the thirty years which have passed in-universe. It’s still unmistakably Blade Runner, but in a new time. This attitude is also reflected in the production design and cinematography. Regarding the former, the aesthetic is generally less-cluttered and claustrophobic than the original, which speaks to a move toward more efficient technologies, while Roger Deakins’ cinematography is generally more crisp and less dirty than that of the originals (though that grime is still apparent in some key sections). All told, the film is immensely striking visually and blends various cinematic elements together to form a cohesive vision of a world.

Narratively, the film not only builds off the original film, but probably tells a better plot too. While the original film’s story is very straight-forward (at least on a surface level), Blade Runner 2049 tells a much more involved mystery with some important twists. I don’t want to go into detail on the story, but suffice it to say it builds off the original in a way which feels organic without relying on it a la The Force Awakens. Thematically, Fancher, co-screenwriter Michael Green, and Villeneuve return to the core themes of the original. While the filmmakers did revolutionize the questions of humanity and machinery that have become so ubiquitous in sci-fi storytelling, their exploration feels fresh all the same and does effectively expand on what the original started. The third act in particular really brings these films’ core themes full-circle and the results are both intellectually and emotionally poignant. Crucial to this emotional engagement is Villeneuve’s subtle hand, which always feels emotionally attuned, and the amazing performances. Ryan Gosling has a history of playing semi-stoic characters bubbling with emotion beneath the surface and this is his best performance of this type. Gosling handles every step of his arc perfectly and by the end I really felt his character’s journey. Harrison Ford, though in the film a lot less than one might expect, delivers one of his best performances in decades, maybe one of the best of his career. Ford expands Deckard’s vulnerability seen in the original film and brings a surprising amount of emotional depth to the performance. The supporting cast is also littered with great work from the likes of Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, and even from that weirdo Jared Leto. One-offs from folks like Dave Bautista and Barkhad Abdi also leave an impression and really there isn’t a weak link to be found here.

The film does have some things to pick at, including some minor plot-holes and the film’s somewhat unwieldy structure. Indeed, Blade Runner 2049 is not a “perfect” movie, but you know what, neither is the original Blade Runner. Some movies are able to surpass their flaws and achieve a certain greatness all the same. I think that’s the case here. Blade Runner 2049 is a staggering technical achievement which tells an engaging story with profound ideas about humanity and offers some really strong acting. Furthermore, for all the intellectual questions the film asks, Blade Runner 2049 is also a very moving experience. You might be surprised in fact how hard the film’s emotional beats hit. I may have a huge bias given how close the original Blade Runner is to me, but I can’t deny how strongly this movie effected me. A “perfect” film? Maybe not, but I can’t imagine a more perfect sequel to Blade Runner.

A+

Comments
  1. Mr. Bobinsky says:

    ” Some movies are able to surpass their flaws and achieve a certain greatness all the same.” – I felt exactly the same.

  2. Chris says:

    Gerald’s Game was by far the worst book I have ever read. I can’t believe Hollywood is that desperate for material.

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