Blind Spot Review: “My Night at Maud’s”

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“My Night at Maud’s” is technically the third installment in Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series even though it was the fourth film made. Due to a required Christmas time shoot and prior commitments, lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant wasn’t available until the following year. That little nugget aside, the film became Rohmer’s first big critical and commercial success both in France and in the United States.

Rohmer was the oldest of the French New Wave pioneers, nearly ten years the senior of his contemporaries. He was also known for being stylistically reserved compared to Godard, Truffaut and the like. But that doesn’t mean his films weren’t bucking trends. Quite the opposite. Just watch a Rohmer film and you can’t help but see the La Nouvelle Vague sensibility.

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His Six Moral Tales basically follow the same narrative framework. They feature individuals who find their own moral code challenged in one way or another. More specifically, they are men who are in love with a woman but find themselves tempted by another. A big part of the focus is on how each of their personal moral codes lead them through their crisis.

In “My Night at Maud’s” we have a devout Catholic named Jean-Louis (Trintignant). He is firm in his beliefs and in the practice of his faith. He’s fallen for a young blonde parishioner (Marie-Christine Barrault) from a church he attends even though he has never spoken with her. But it’s not for lack of trying. He follows her out of church or down the tight city streets only to lose her around a corner.

One evening Jean-Louis bumps into an old childhood friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a brash opinionated fellow who rather enjoys the chance to needle and poke. Vidal convinces Jean-Louis to accompany him on a late night visit to a recently divorced friend named Maud (played by the captivating Françoise Fabian). The three share an evening of conversations about love, marriage, Christianity, and the writings of Blaise Pascal. After Vidal leaves Maud encourages Jean-Louis to stay. What follows is a seductive game of cat-and-mouse versus a deeply-held set of moral convictions.

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Rohmer’s audacious middle act is filled with long talky takes mostly between Jean-Louis and Maud and that’s not a knock on it. Just the opposite. The natural flow of the dialogue and the subtle movements of Néstor Almendros’ camera completely sells it and keeps us locked onto these two characters. We also get a good sense of Jean-Louis and Maud’s fascinations with each other and their differing perspectives on practically everything. Plus seeds are planted throughout the conversations that surface in the last act.

Over the years the chatty middle act is what “My Night at Maud’s” has become known for. The title itself contributes to that perception. But there is more to Rohmer’s film than that both before and after the signature scene. As with all French New Wave films, this one still feels fresh and unique. Nearly fifty years after its release you still see it bucking trends and plowing new ground. That alone is a remarkable accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “mother!”

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Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” opens with Javier Bardem sifting through the ashes of a burnt out farmhouse and finding a large jewel. He places it on a mantle and within seconds the house is restored. The charred remains give way to a house of color and life. But what does it all mean? Suffice it to say it’s the first of many bits of imagery that makes this more than a routine thriller.

Seemingly divisive by design, “mother!” is unquestionably an Aronofsky movie. I usually find that to be a cause for hesitation, but “mother!” managed to get its hooks in me unlike any of his past films. And it may not be the smoothest ride from start to finish but it does offer plenty to sink your teeth into and ponder afterwards.

It doesn’t take long to notice that “mother!” places symbolism and allegory ahead of plot and character. It quickly becomes an exercise in interpreting Aronofsky’s code instead of following a particular story. For Aronofsky it was an idea birthed from personal rage and his movie allows him to explore it through biblical and environmental metaphors galore. When the pieces fit it makes for some clever yet not always effective messaging.

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Bardem’s character, listed only as ‘Him’ in the credits, is a poet with a severe case of writer’s block while Jennifer Lawrence plays ‘Mother’, his wife and muse. From the moment Lawrence’s Mother gets out of bed in the opening moments the camera never leaves her side. It follows her around the house using close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, or shooting her point of view. And other than a couple of brief stops on the front porch, the entire film takes place within their remote Victorian country house.

The film starts with an illusion of normalcy but it slowly unravels beginning with the appearance of Ed Harris. He plays a sickly orthopedic surgeon new to the area. His wife pops up shortly after. She’s played by a wonderfully toxic-tongued Michelle Pfeiffer. The once brooding poet who spent his days staring at a blank page is reinvigorated by their attention and invites the couple to stay. Mother is frustrated by the intrusion and equally upset at her husband’s apathy towards her wishes.

From there things go bananas as the movie gives itself completely to its allegories. It all culminates in a psychotic fever dream of a final act that sees Aronofsky unleashing every ounce of his tortuous fury on Lawrence and her character. In what plays like a relentless symbolic montage of worldly horror and human suffering, the camera still never leaves Mother’s side. It’s an intensely demanding performance and a heavy load Lawrence is asked to carry. And she received a Razzie nomination for it? Give me a break.

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Production designer Phil Messina is tasked with visualizing another of the film’s key characters – the house. Like Lawrence, the large country farmhouse is represented in every shot and had to be designed with that in mind. The narratively essential home was constructed in Montreal, Canada, partially on a set in a field and the rest on a stage. It was meticulously crafted with mood and movement in mind and was shot by Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique.

You’ll find clever little touches with symbolic meaning everywhere in the movie. For instance there are several surreal moments where Mother places her hands on the walls checking the heartbeat of the home. Also, mysterious wounds begin to appear around the house. Not all of it makes sense (what is that urine colored Alka-Seltzer she drinks from time to time?) and the final 20 minutes dances dangerously close to unbearable. But that’s kind of the point.

Once movies leave their creators’ hands they often become their own thing. “mother!” benefits from that truth. While Aronofsky has a pointed personal meaning behind it, what you bring to the film will help define it for you. That is its coolest strength and it’s what kept me glued to the screen. Sure, it’s a bit self-indulgent and esoteric to a fault. But it’s also a rare slice of Aronofsky that I found surprisingly satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Molly’s Game”

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Jessica Chastain already had one knockout 2017 performance under her belt with the World War 2 drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Now you can make it two with her latest film, the biographical crime drama “Molly’s Game”. It’s an adaptation of the 2014 memoir of Molly Bloom, once an Olympic hopeful in freestyle skiing but later the runner of exclusive underground poker games.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom and is given an incredibly meaty role by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This also marks Sorkin’s feature film directorial debut. Much like his Oscar-winning script for “The Social Network”, “Molly’s Game” slickly weaves together a current day legal drama with flashbacks that tell of Molly’s rise and decade-long run as the “poker princess” which eventually leads to her arrest by the FBI.

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Sorkin’s signature dense, fast-paced dialogue zips us through the backstory with the help of Molly’s narration. It comes in spurts and covers a lot of ground – her time at home with her hard-nosed father/coach (another fine supporting turn by Kevin Costner), her move to Los Angeles after a horrible skiing accident, and her high-stakes poker games that start in LA and end in New York.

Throughout these flashbacks we meet an interesting lot of characters. Take Michael Cera who plays a movie star simply known as Player X. In Molly’s memoir she named several A-listers who frequented her games – movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, rapper Nelly, and baseball star Alex Rodriguez to name a few. Many believe Cera’s smarmy Player X is an amalgam of these big named celebrities who helped draw billionaires to Molly’s games. But it seems Player X represents one particular movie star who the book paints as particularly reprehensible – Tobey Maquire.

The dialogue also shines in the current day scenes with Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey. He’s played by Idris Elba, so perfect in tone and intensity. Delivering Sorkin’s words can’t be easy. It demands a quick tongue and even quicker wit. Elba’s delivery is smooth as silk and he shares a well tuned chemistry with Chastain. At times there is a fierce energy between the two but there are also quieter moments which offer a unexpected amount of warmth and levity.

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All of it is kept in sync through Sorkin’s impressive direction. He deftly manages his mile-a-minute language and structural hopscotch while giving his performers plenty of space to work. The film also packs a surprising visual punch that matches the spirit and vigor of the dialogue. It’s nothing eye-popping but it’s as sharp and snappy as it’s lead character. And most importantly Sorkin keeps himself out of the way, trusting his material and his actors.

Aaron Sorkin has shown a fascination in self-made success stories as evident by his last four movies. “The Social Network”, “Moneyball”, “Steve Jobs”, and now “Molly’s Game” all tell of individuals who bucked systems and against all probability propelled themselves to success. “Molly’s Game” may be the best of the bunch. It’s one part invigorating character study and one part stunning expose. It features a trifecta of top-notch performances from Elba, Costner, and especially Chastain. It does feel long at 140 minutes yet it’s never dull nor does it run out of gas. Sorkin has too much to say to ever allow that to happen.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Maudie”

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The heart-wrenching yet inspirational true story of folk artist Maud Lewis seems tailor-made for the movie biopic treatment. At the same time it’s a type of story that demands a sensitive and sure-handed approach. There are several examples of films that lost themselves in sentimentality and showiness when attempting to work with similar material.

Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie” falls for none of those trappings. The Irish director’s deftly handled portrait resembles one of Maud’s paintings in that it keeps things simple. At the same time Walsh never compromises the genuine emotion inextricably linked to Maud’s life and she utilizes two phenomenal performances to fill in the details.

Sherry White’s patient, poignant script features a clear-eyed focus on Maud’s unique relationship with a local fish peddler named Everett Lewis . White and Walsh want us in the role of observer, not so much on any extensive plotting, but on these two characters and their fascinating relationship which emotionally ranges from heart-crushing to uplifting.

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Sally Hawkins takes on the title role and gives a performance that should light up the eyes of Academy voters. Hawkins vanishes into her character and fearlessly tackles the challenges of portraying Maud’s frail body, soft voice, and irrepressible positive spirit. Hawkins captures both the debilitating nature of Maud’s rheumatoid arthritis and well as the her wide-eyed optimism and ability to see the good in the harsh world surrounding her.

We first see Maud cast off by her brother to live with her curmudgeon of an aunt in 1930s small town Nova Scotia. She sees a means of escape when Everett Lewis, a local fish peddler and jack of all trades, places a “Help Wanted” advertisement for a housekeeper. He’s played with a wheelbarrow load of grumbling temperamental snarl by Ethan Hawke. It’s another great performance from Hawke who continues to extend himself as an actor.

He eventually hires Maud as the live-in maid for his tiny one-room shack (minus the tinier loft upstairs). Everett is a tough nut to crack – a socially dysfuctional recluse who is terrified at the very idea of loving. This leads to some moments of uncomfortable cruelty often spawned from his “King of my Castle” mentality (In one particularly cruel scene Everett berates Maud letting her know she falls below his dogs and chickens in the house pecking order). But it also comes from Everett’s own awkwardness and osctracism – a bond he shares with Maud.

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As their unconventional relationship takes a new form Maud begins to express herself through painting – on postcards, on wood planks, even on the walls of their shack. After an art-loving New Yorker (Kari Matchett) takes a liking to her paintings word quickly spreads and soon people from all over are travelling to see the little house and Maud’s artwork.

Regardless of how it may sound, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story. In fact, despite making money from her paintings, Maud and Everett lived for in their “Little House” for over 30 years. It now sits on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Instead this is a quirky but uplifting love story ripe with inspiring life lessons – that beauty lies in the simplest of things; that genuine contentment can often lead to genuine happiness; that true love can be found in the most unexpected places – just to name a few.

Simply put “Maudie” is a delight. It is a life-affirming movie that feels both tragic and beautiful. Guy Godfree’s cinematography is superb framing shot after shot as if they were settled on a canvas. The Michael Timmins score is simple, fitting, and never manipulative. And of course White’s script and Walsh’s direction. But it all comes back to the two lead performers particularly Sally Hawkins. She brings this lovely soul to life with such heart and vivid detail. It’s a performance certain to leave an impression on any viewer and I can guarantee that by the end you will want to know more about Maud Lewis.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Macbeth”

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Easily one of William Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, “Macbeth” is believed to have been first performed 1606. Since then it has been adapted to nearly every form of media. The tragedy deals with several themes but at its core it examines unbridled ambition and the destruction it brings if unchecked.

Director Justin Kurzel along with a trio of screenwriters and a fantastic supporting cast begin their telling with a couple of notable deviations from the Bard’s classic text. The first is the opening scene – a haunting overhead shot of a deceased young child in a straw bassinet laying upon a funeral pyre. The infant is surrounded by loved ones shrouded in black including the child’s grieving parents Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard).

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Shakespeare alludes to the Macbeth’s loss of a child, but Kurzel focuses on it as an entry point to their story. It’s significant in that it adds another layer (a far more penetrating one) to the couple aside from the lust for power that eventually consumes them. Here we see the sorrow of such a loss emphasized and for the Macbeth’s the wounds never fully heal. It’s an effective focus for the story.

Another deviation is that Kurzel shows the final battle sequence spoken of by Shakespeare. Still mourning the death of his young son, we see Macbeth on the battlefield preparing his ragtag group for what’s ahead. Among his soldiers is a young boy, undoubtedly a reminder of his own. Macbeth leads his band to victory but there are heavy casualties. During this sequence we see Macbeth as a mighty soldier but war has clearly taken its toll. Fassbender’s eyes do wonders in revealing the fragility hidden underneath the rugged exterior. This is another key defining point to what lies ahead.

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While still on the battlefield Macbeth and his chief ally Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches (possibly five depending on your interpretation) wandering and observing through the post-battle haze. The witches prophesy that Macbeth with soon be Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. Banquo is told he will be a “father of Kings”. Later the sitting ruler King Duncan (David Thewlis) arrives and determines the Thane of Cawdor to be a traitor. Due to his success in battle Macbeth is given the position seemingly verifying the witches’ prophesy.

Upon hearing this Lady Macbeth begins feeding her husband’s hunger for power. Cotillard has a magnificent presence both as a manipulative and devious conniver and as a grief-stricken mother. Again, the film’s opening scene adds this welcomed bit of nuance and it is something that haunts her character throughout the movie.

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The ascension to power and subsequent spiral into madness is skillfully handled. Macbeth soaks in paranoia and blood. Lady Macbeth is torn by guilt and shame. Through it all Fassbender and Cottilard shine. They both are so keenly in tune with their characters and the unique period dialogue they are given. Visually, stylish flairs are found all through the film. They drive the mood and superbly capture a cold, muddy medieval Scotland.

The true tragedy of this story doesn’t simply lie with the Macbeths. The greater tragedy is how the consequences of their actions shake the entirety of Scotland to its core. Kurzel keenly explores the classic tale while offering a few of his own original twists. Literary purists may be put off by this, but it kept me mesmerized from its heart-shattering opening scene, through a couple of slow patches, and right up to its slightly nihilistic ending. I say nihilistic but like much of the film, I guess it’s all in the interpretation.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Mummy” (2017)

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One of the most popular (and priciest) trends in today’s movie culture is the shared cinematic universe. Easily the biggest belongs to Marvel Studios. DC Films is following behind them. And then outside of the superhero genre you have 2014’s “Godzilla” and this year’s  “Kong: Skull Island”, the first two films in Legendary’s MonsterVerse.

The more recent entry into this craze comes from Universal Pictures. It’s called the Dark Universe and it’s meant to be a shared-world revitalization of the classic Universal monsters. Some couldn’t care less. As a fan of those great oldies I was anxious to see what they would come up with.

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“The Mummy” is the first film to get the reboot treatment and serves as the launching point for the Dark Universe. It’s essentially an origin story but one that doesn’t resemble either the Boris Karloff classic or the more fun-loving Brendan Fraser films. It’s definitely its own thing but defining it beyond that isn’t that easy. Is it an action movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it a Tom Cruise vehicle? Yes to each but especially the third.

Cruise is clearly the centerpiece which works for and against the film. I still like him as an actor and he brings an unquestionable star power to the movie. On the other hand maintaining that star power sometimes outshines everything else. His character resembles roles he has played variations of in other films and he is intent to stick with that type. So much so that when this particular character flirts with some interesting new directions he never goes all the way.

After an obligatory prologue the film introduces us to Cruise’s character Nick. He’s a sergeant with the U.S. military who has a side gig as a soldier of fortune. He and his stereotypical sidekick (played by Jake Johnson) nab artifacts and sell them on the black market. While in Iraq the two stumble across the ancient tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who sold her soul to Set, the God of Death (see the aforementioned obligatory prologue). They extract the sarcophagus with the help of Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) a spirited archeologist and Cruise love interest.

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As you can guess they manage to release Ahmanet (aka the Mummy) and computer-generated death and destruction follow. Nick becomes her conduit, Russell Crowe pops up as Dr. Henry Jekyll, Cruise gets a running scene, and a not-so-likely sequel is set up. Here’s the thing, in between that titillating synopsis are moments of good ol’ corny fun. And there are a couple of action sequences that are pretty exciting. But there is just as much that doesn’t work – the goofy humor, a bad ‘return from the dead’ angle inspired by “An American Werewolf in London”, and any attempt at romantic tension.

In the end “The Mummy” is a generic middle-of-the-road movie. I don’t think it’s as bad as many critics say and it’s certainly not as good as a studio would want. It simply has no true identity. It’s all over the map in terms of tone and quality. With big names already signed up for Dark Universe installments – Javier Bardem’s Frankenstein, Johnny Depp’s The Invisible Man, Angelina Jolie’s (rumored) Bride of Frankenstein – it’s clear Universal has big plans. You would think the franchise launching point would be given a little more attention.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars