REVIEW: “mother!”

mother poster

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.


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.


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.



REVIEW: “The Gunman”


It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear of Sean Penn making a political thriller. It may surprise them to see him make one this bad. For years Penn has been involved in a number of humanitarian causes and numerous times he has thrust himself onto the political landscape. Sometimes it has resulted in great work while other times he has looked attention-starved and self-promotional. And despite his occasional foray into the bizarre, you like to think he is a man of conviction. From a movie perspective you like to think he can still act. “The Gunman” will leave you questioning both.

To be completely honest it wasn’t Penn who drew me to this movie. It was the supporting cast featuring Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, and Ray Winstone. Three great actors – all basically wasted by a film void of all energy, originality, or substance. Even Penn’s attempt to add a political edge comes across as preachy, moral high ground posturing instead of a thought provoking and substantive critique. All we are left with is the action and Penn’s buffed up physique, neither of which are enough to save the movie.


Penn plays Terrier, a member of an assassination squad working in the Congo. A contract comes to them calling for the assassination of the Minister of Mines. Terrier is chosen to carry out the mission and then leave the Congo to go into hiding. I’m assuming this is to protect his team and his unknowing girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Tribca). The Minister’s death unleashes violence and instability throughout the region. Years pass and a remorseful Terrier returns hoping humanitarian work can help atone for his sins.

But while working he is targeted by a hit squad which pushes him back into hiding. Convinced that the incident is connected to the Minister’s assassination, Terrier sets out to find his old squad to see what they know and warn them of a potential threat. One of his old mates is Felix (Bardem), now a wealthy alcoholic who, to Terrier’s chagrin, happens to be married to Annie. This adds a new complexity to Terrier’s search for answers, but it’s nothing compared to the trouble he runs into as he gets closer to the truth.

I mentioned how the movie wastes its supporting talent. Bardem’s character is paper-thin and other than a couple of times where he’s doing some serious scenery chewing, he is given nothing to do. Idris Elba finally pops up in the final act but only gets a couple of brief scenes. Ray Winstone plays the prototypical ‘mentor’ character to Terrier. You’ve seen this character so many times before and nothing about him deviates from the blueprint.


That brings us to Penn and specifically his approach to his character. Penn plays it ultra-serious the entire way never showing an ounce of humor and other than some painful grunts you rarely see any emotion. He constantly looks sour as if he had eaten some bad food and at times he seems more interested in showing off his biceps than the movie.

With “The Gunman” you ultimately end up with a dull, emotionally inert, slog of an experience. None of its components really work – the half-baked romance, the throwaway performances, the powerless political messaging. Even the big violent finale is as preposterous as anything you would see in a Van Damme straight-to-DVD movie. Some of the shootouts look pretty good but when there is absolutely nothing behind them and when they are treated this seriously, even they fall flat. Basically “The Gunman” fires nothing but blanks.


2 Stars

REVIEW: “To the Wonder”


Terrence Malick is a filmmaker that marches to the beat of his own drum. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like the most about him. We say this often but here it unquestionably applies – you know a Terrence Malick movie when you see one. Malick has a distinct style of lyrical and visual storytelling and you either respond to it or you don’t. Personally I love it. Now sometimes his style is more impressive than his finished products, but for the most part Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, his last film “The Tree of Life” was my clear favorite film of 2011.

Malick is a director who takes his time and only makes a film when he’s ready. This is evident by the fact that he has only six movies on his directing resume. His latest, surprisingly only two years after “The Tree of Life”, is another exercise in lyrical and contemplative style. It’s one of my most anticipated films of 2013. It’s called “To the Wonder” and for me it’s another soul-stirring gem that throws the textbook on conventional moviemaking out the window. Instead Malick is making another deeply personal film, possibly his most personal movie to date. It’s also his most romantic, most spiritual, and most tragic film all at the same time.

The movie follows a young couple as they navigate the unquenchable joys and the devastating heartbreaks associated with love. We first meet Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, France. The two are madly in love and Malick expresses it through a rhythmic series of romantic and absorbing scenes in such beautiful Parisian settings such as the Luxembourg Gardens and the banks of the Seine River. There’s also a majestic sequence with the two outside of town at the gorgeous Mont Saint-Michel. Neil and Marina can’t seem to be able to control their affection for the other. There’s a strong focus on touch in these scenes whether it’s holding hands or running a hand across the shoulder blades. The romance between Neil and Marina is sublime and beautiful and I never doubted its authenticity.


Marina, a Paris native and single mother, decides to move with her daughter to the States in order to be close to Neil. They land in midwestern Oklahoma where Neil works as an environmental safety inspector. The contrast between the energetic and vibrant Paris and their sparse and sometimes empty Oklahoma community almost serves as a metaphor for their relationship. The two who were as passionate as the French city they consumed now battle creeping bouts of emptiness and an emotional wedge that we watch grow and grow. It becomes painfully obvious that their relationship is hurting but neither seems to know what to do.

Then there’s the story of Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest in Neil and Marina’s area. Quintana is a troubled man. He has a deep love for the Lord but he feels disconnected. He’s dying to have the intimacy with God that he once had. He visits the sick, the poor, and the needy. He shepherds his flock. Yet there’s still a void in his soul that he desperately wants to fill. But he’s also a lonely man bound by the shackles of the priesthood an its strict rules. Watching Bardem’s solemn face and lonely, tired eyes really drew me to this character. It did surprise me how little he had to do with what seemed like the main focus of the film but Malick shows some moving similarities between his struggles and those of Neil and Marina.

Their stories do begin to connect and we watch as everything plays out. But don’t expect a tight narrative with a fully disclosed ending. Malick is more interested in having us observe and experience than being baby fed an entire story. He wants us to feel, to sympathize, to grow angry, and to meditate. Our time is spent observing and Malick lays his canvas before us. On it he explores inner conflicts, poor and costly decisions, and revived hope. It’s presented through an artistic machine that utilizes everything including the stunning score, the beauty of nature, a graceful camera, and the natural ambiance of the world surrounding his characters.

Affleck and Kurylenko are transcendent. The film features little to no dialogue with the exception of voice-over narrations therefore the two lead actors basically perform off of each other or in scenes alone. Neither ever seem aware of the camera and both get lost in their performances. Affleck was a great surprise. He’s quiet, sincere, and a stout and strong contrast to Kurylenko’s subtle elegance and grace. And speaking of Kurylenko, I think she gives an awards worthy performance. But while the performances are key, a Terrence Malick film is usually made in the editing room. Don’t believe me? Just ask Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain. Both shot scenes for the film but all of them ended up on the cutting room floor. Regardless the editing is sensational and the film moves like a page of good music with the exceptions of a few patches of repetition in the second half of the film.


As with his other movies, Malick uses his visuals to draw us in and also tell the bulk of his story. His sensational command of his camera and his artist’s eye for capturing beautiful shots are essential to his success. His camera is constantly moving and it always seems perfectly positioned. I was absorbed in what I was seeing and his fluid and poetic transitions from shot to shot kept me that way. Even for those who don’t respond to the film as a whole, they’ll be hard pressed to not be fascinated with Malick’s visual artistry.

There will be plenty of people who can’t latch onto “To the Wonder”. It will be perceived as slow, confounding, and lifeless. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved the film and while it’s certainly not as challenging as “The Tree of Life”, it’s still a captivating piece of cinema. It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t adhere to a conventional storytelling formula. It asks the audience to think and to feel. If you’re not open to that you’re probably not going to respond well to this film.

In his final review before his unfortunate passing, the late Roger Ebert said this about “To the Wonder” : “(Many will) be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply.” I think he’s right and some early reviews have shown that to be true. But I believe Malick has given us another standout picture that takes a real (sometimes uncomfortably so) look at relationships, faith, and the quest for love in both. Yet it’s all told through an artist’s lens with entrancing metaphoric imagery and a steady grace that could only come from a Terrence Malick film. I know many are going to struggle with this movie but for me it’s the first great film of 2013.


5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls

I originally did this particular Phenomenal 5 over a year ago. Honestly, it was one of the most fun lists to put together, but hardly anyone saw it. Thankfully to you all, my blog has grown some since then and I’ve been waiting to share it again for those who have missed it. So why wait any longer? There have been so many great movie moments involving phone calls and almost every single genre has their share. Putting this list together was a lot tougher that I expected and there are some great scenes I had to leave off. But such is the nature with the Phenomenal 5, right? So as always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these movie phone calls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TAKEN” – “a very particular set of skills”

I liked “Taken” even though it kind of flew off the rails closer to the end. But it also provided one of the most memorable movie phone conversations you’ll find. Liam Neeson’s daughter and her friend are abducted while on a trip to Paris. Neeson’s character is a CIA field agent who we quickly find out has “a particular set of skills”. In a brief but incredibly intense phone chat with the abductors, Neeson presents them an offer (if they let his daughter go free) and then a stern warning (if they don’t). It’s a scene that became the signature moment in the film and one that I can’t help but love.

#4 – “DIAL M FOR MURDER” – “Hello?…Hello?…Hello?”

I still struggle with why ANYONE with an ounce of sanity would want to kill the beautiful Grace Kelly, yet that was Ray Milland’s plan in this Hitchcock classic. As his accomplice hides behind the drapes, Milland lures Kelly out of bed with a phone call from the party he’s attending. He then listens on the phone as his hired hand strangles his wife. Foolproof plan right? Of course not, this is Hitchcock, remember? This key scene turns Milland’s devious plans upside down and launches one of cinema’s best thrillers.

#3 – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?”

One of the very best scenes in the Coen brothers’ brilliant “No Country for Old Men” is the phone conversation between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss. It marks the first time the two have had any communication and the intensity is simmering. The scene’s slick dialogue and clever tone is vintage Coen brothers but it also works thanks to great deliveries from Bardem and Brolin. From the startling first ring of the phone to the slamming down of the receiver at the conversation’s end, this movie phone call nails it.

#2 – “DR. STRANGELOVE” – “I agree with you, it’s great to be fine”

How can you have a list of top movie phone calls without including the hilarious conversation between United States President Merkin Muffley and Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov from “Dr. Strangelove”. In this classic Cold War spoof, a base commander goes “a little silly in head” and orders his planes to attack the U.S.S.R. President Muffley, wonderfully played by Peter Sellers, makes a courtesy call to Premier Kisov to let him know the base commander “went and did a silly thing”. The entire scene is just Sellers and he not only plays his character but also brilliantly sells us Dimitri, who we never hear. It’s a laugh out loud funny sequence and one of several great moments from the movie.

#1 – “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” – “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Who can forget the phone call at the end of this Oscar-winning crime thriller? After finishing a gruesome and intense serial killer case, the film ends with Clarice enjoying herself at her FBI graduation party. While receiving several commendations and pats on the back, she’s told she has a phone call. At the other end of the line is Hannibal Lecter. He congratulates Clarice on her success then drops the classic yet still disturbing line “I’m having an old friend for dinner”. Anthony Hopkins, decked in a blonde wig and tilted hat, then walks off after Chilton. The film ends with Clarice simply repeating “Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter…”. It’s one of those endings that leaves you uncomfortable but it’s also an ending you won’t forget.

What are your thoughts of my 5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls? See something I overlooked? Disagree with my choices. Please take time to share you picks or opinions.


Skyfall” may be the best James Bond movie ever. Better yet, Daniel Craig may be the best James Bond ever. Now before the Bond diehards come at me with torches and pitchforks let me make something abundantly clear. I am not the biggest Bond guy. I haven’t seen even half of the Bond movies. So I certainly don’t consider myself a Bond expert. In fact I may not even qualify as a true Bond fan by some. I’m not well versed on Bond lore, the Bond girls, or the history that has surrounded this universally loved character for the last 50 years. So I don’t live under the false assumption that I’m an expert when it comes to the James Bond franchise. But I like to think that I know a good movie when I see one and “Skyfall” is a very good movie.

My Bond apathy changed in 2006 with the release of “Casino Royal”. It introduced a grittier, more grounded Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. He wasn’t as prim and polished and a sense of reality was brought to the character that I had never seen before. It was also a fantastic movie that I thoroughly enjoy. The Bond appeal grew for me in 2008 with the lesser but equally entertaining “Quantum of Solace”. And now he’s back with “Skyfall”, a 007 film that’s every bit as good as “Casino Royale” and for my money even a bit better. Sam Mendes directs the film, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Mendes tips his hat to several of the previous 007 films and has fun with many things that Bond fans should love. But he also maintains the emotional edge to Bond that has made Daniel Craig’s run so effective for me.

The film starts with a jaw-dropping opening chase sequence that uses cars, motorcycles, trains, and cranes. It moves through market streets, on rooftops, through tunnels, and finally on a huge bridge where Bond is inadvertently shot off of a speeding train by a fellow agent at M’s command. Believed dead, Bond goes off the grid and submerges himself in a life of anonymity and alcohol. Now the movie never gives a satisfying reason as to why Bond became a closed off boozer. We get a few hints of it later but it seemed pretty drastic and off-the-wall. But we wouldn’t have a Bond movie if 007 wasn’t spoiling evil plots with his well-pressed suits and assorted gadgetry. He makes his return after MI6 is devastated by terrorist attack with M seeming to be the main target. Judi Dench returns to the role that she first played in 1995’s “GoldenEye”. This time she’s not only a terrorist’s target but she’s facing heavy political pressure concerning her handling of MI6. As with each of her other performances in the series, Dench is marvelous and here we get to see a different side of her and her relationship to 007.

The big baddie this time is none other than Javier Bardem. He plays Raoul Silva, a psycho former MI6 agent with a rather large grudge against M. Bardem is deliciously villainous and once he makes his appearance the movie’s intensity amps up. Unfortunately he doesn’t show up until well into the film. Now that’s not a knock on the first part of the movie. But I wanted more of Bardem and I couldn’t help but feel that they could have built up the character and his motivations more in the early parts of the movie. Some of the movie’s best moments feature Bardem. There is a tense first meeting between Bond and Silva that you can’t take your eyes off of. There’s also a fantastic “Silence of the Lambs” styled exchange between Silva and M that sets the table for what’s to come later in the movie. It’s one of my favorite exchanges in cinema this year.

Another new addition to the cast is Ralph Fiennes. He places an ex-military man and current government intelligence official who regulates MI6. Fiennes is rock solid, as you would expect. Albert Finney also has a fun role as an old family friend of Bond’s and Ben Whishaw steals several scenes as Q, the gadget granting quartermaster. All the performances are good and this is probably the best overall cast in a Bond movie yet. They are helped by a crisp, intelligent, and perfectly paced script that pulls absolutely everything out of these characters. And the screenplay knows how to be respectful of the franchise while also having fun with it as well. There are several good laughs but for the most part this is the same serious, no-nonsense Bond that we got in the last two films and I’m thankful for that.

There are several other things that worked incredibly well that I could mention, most notably Roger Deakins brilliant camera work, the wonderful editing by Stuart and Kate Baird, and Thomas Newman’s perfect score. But not everything worked that well. The Bond girls have become almost as popular as 007 himself. But with the exception of the unconventional M, these Bond girls are bland and for the most part forgettable. Now Naomie Harris is fine as a fellow MI6 field agent who holds her own with 007. She has some really good scenes when working in the field, but she also has a couple of almost obligatory flirt scenes with Bond that didn’t work as well for me. Then you have Bérénice Marlohe who certainly looks the part but disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Also, I know Bond is a ladies man. But there are a couple of scenes featuring out-of-the-blue “romance” that are thrown in just because its expected from the character. Never mind that they clash with the tone and pacing of the story. Both are scenes that were poorly conceived and I could have done without them.

While these few flaws may keep “Skyfall” from being a perfect movie, they don’t stop it from being great movie. More importantly, the Daniel Craig era of 007 movies has won me over to the point that I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment. There has been a lot of internet buzz lately over who may be the next 007. But for my money Craig has earned the position for as long as he’s willing to take it. And as long as the studio is willing to surround him with a fine supporting cast, intelligent writers, and sharp directors, the possibilities are endless for this iconic character. One thing is for certain, I’m now officially a Bond fan and “Skyfall” only cemented that. Bring on oo7 #24!


In the movies gas stations offer much more than just a place to use the bathroom and top your tank. There have been all sorts of cool and funny movie scenes involving gas stations. So this is one of those weird Phenomenal 5 lists that looks at great movie gas station scenes. Now there were several scenes I really love that were left out just for the sake of variety. That being said, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie gas station scenes are absolutely phenomenal.


This wacky 1963 comedy is known for possibly having the biggest ensemble cast of great actors in movie history. It also has one of the greatest gas station scenes you’ll find. In this wild race to get to a load of stolen money first, a furniture mover named Lennie (Jonathan Winters) gets double-crossed by the greedy Otto (Phil Silvers). Lennie finally runs Otto down at gas station and chases him all over the property causing all sorts of damage. Otto escapes and the attendants tie Lennie up while waiting for the men in white coats to come get him. Lennie gets loose and ends up leveling (quite literally) the entire station. It’s a hilarious scene.

#4 – “ROBOCOP”

There’s a great and pivotal gas station scene in the 1987 sci-fi action romp “Robocop”. Emil, a member of the brutal gang that killed Alex Murphy which in turn caused him to become Robocop, stops at an all-night gas station. He robs the place and fills up with gas while terrorizing the attendant. Robocop notices a crime in progress and pulls up. After triggering Robocop’s memory, Emil sprays gas everywhere, throws down his cigarette, and tears off on his motorcycle. The gas station explodes with Robocop walking out of the flames. He thwarts Emil’s getaway but this scene is mostly important for putting Murphy on track to remembering who he was.


There are actually two great gas station scenes in the 1993 gritty thriller “Kalifornia”. Pre-mega star Brad Pitt gives what I believe is his best performance as Early Grayce, a psycho who, along with his wife, hitches a cross-country ride to California with David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. In the first unnerving scene, they stop for gas and a man with a wad of cash catches Early’s eye. Early follows him into the restroom, stabs him to death, and takes his money. But in an even more frightening scene, later they arrive at a different gas station as a huge electrical storm brews. It’s in this key scene that the rest of the group discovers the brutally unbalanced man that Early really is. Both scenes are intense and disturbing but also incredibly well done.

#2 – “THE BIRDS”

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic killer birds movie has several great moments but few are better than the gas station scene. As an attendant gasses up a customer’s car, two birds attack him knocking him down. As people rush to check on him, no one notices the nozzle continuing to spew gasoline. The flow of gas crosses the street into a parking area where a man steps out of his car and lights a cigar. Before he can be warned the match burns his finger then falls into the gas. BOOM! The man and several cars are gone and the flame blazes up the gas stream and the gas pumps explode. Hitchcock ends the scene with an amazing overhead shot of the horrible event. Classic!


Hands down my favorite gas station movie scene has to be from Joel and Ethan Coen’s fabulous “No Country for Old Men”. Hired killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) stops by a small isolated gas station to fill his tank and grab a package of peanuts. The elderly attendant makes the mistake of making small talk with Chirgurh which leads to one of most tense yet hilarious conversations I’ve ever scene. It ends with a coin toss with the attendant’s life on the line. I swear, I can watch this scene over and over and never get tired of it.

So there they are. What have we learned from this week’s Phenomenal 5? For one thing, it doesn’t pay to be a gas station attendant in the movies. So many good ones could have been mentioned. So what’s your favorite?