Is ‘mother!’ Aranofsky and Lawrence’s best work?

Ok, so here’s a thing. Darren Aranofsky has made another movie, and it’s one that’ll divide people, that’s for sure. I mean, let’s be honest, this should come as no surprise to us. For anyone that’s seen his past work, he hardly pulls punches when it comes to provocative imagery, challenging subject matter and intensely troubled characters. Requiem for a Dream anyone? Black Swan? Noah? The utter mind-bender that was The Fountain? Hell, even The Wrestler wasn’t a walk in the park (although it’s his most accessible work to date.)

And with mother! it’s fair to say he’s upped his game – or at least let off the shackles. I mean, I can only imagine the discussion with the studio… ‘You want to do what Darren? Er, ok. Wait, hold on. And now you want to do that? And that?! C’mon! You DO realise that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest stars in the world and you want to put her through the absolute wringer?’

Because he really does. And some people, understandably, just can’t handle it. Plus critics are split, with many having reacted strongly (both good and bad); which is probably to be expected with an auteur’s work, but you still want people to see your movie and mother!, at the moment, is just about breaking even.

We also have to remember that word of mouth is a powerful thing – and critics are probably putting some people off, which is a shame. One even said that this is the most ambitious film to come out of a major Hollywood studio since Kubrick died. Which may well be true, but it’s fuel to the fire really, as a lot of people would take that comment as bad rather than good. Moreover, this is a film that’s also now part of a very small list, having achieved Cinemascore’s famous F grade, which only gets given to a piece of work that ‘goes out of its way to artfully alienate or confuse audiences.’

And this all has me wondering… do we as moviegoers just want films that are too safe these days? With superhero fodder galore and juggernaut franchises like Fast and Furious and Transformers going from strength to strength, and mind-numbing comedies being churned out all too often, I half suspect we’ve all become excessively comfortable, safe in our cotton wool bubble of mediocre expectancy. Which means that filmmakers like Aranofsky are vital to cinema, as bubbles must be burst as often as possible. Break the wheel and be anarchic with your stories Hollywood. Confuse us and make us nervous. We need it now more than ever.

And with mother! half the reaction it’s gotten might be because of the themes Aranofsky explores: nature and the environment, religion, humanity, celebrity and so on – and the incendiary way in which he does it. I mean, his approach does err on the side of mad visionary. For example, it’s been said he wrote the screenplay in five days in a kind of fever dream, and that Lawrence threw it across the room in disgust after reading it. But then, after reflecting, called the director the next day to tell him he was a genius.

And this kind of makes sense, misunderstood in his time and all that. A type of story-teller people aren’t going to get first time, nor should they. Also, people are people. When we don’t understand something we invariably default to anger and confusion. Plus, anything to do with religion (in this case Christianity) is often a powder-keg for a lot of audiences.

So as you might expect, story wise, this kind of film is best experienced cold and with little background, so I won’t say much. Other than the basic set-up is mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live alone in a house, which she’s busy decorating. He’s a writer, but with writer’s block. Then a man unexpectedly visits (Ed Harris), and he’s quickly followed by a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer); both of whom quickly become progressively more unwelcome house guests as the story unfolds. To the point where the final third of the film descends into utter insanity.

As for our way in, we follow events from mother’s point of view – and the camera sticks with Lawrence for most of the movie. Twisting and turning through the house, akin to the cinematography in Birdman. Often with the camera up as close as you can get, right in her face, picking up every little reaction and reminding the audience that not only is she beautiful, but also a pure soul, yet in pain and increasingly confused and angry with these house guests, frustrated at Him for not acknowledging her needs.

Bardem plays his part well too, allowing a lot of his natural charm to inhabit the character. But, lest we forget, he can do menace with the best of them, and this raises its head from time to time, leaving mother more confused than ever. She just wants his love and it never seems enough. And the interplay between the two of them in these type of moments is heartbreaking. Indeed, this could be the best performance of Lawrence’s career – more raw than Silver Linings Playbook (for which she won an Oscar) and more intense than Winter’s Bone (for which she was nominated).

She’s since said that this role took a lot out of her, and she doesn’t expect she’d take a similar part for a long time. Which is more than understandable. Ultimately, this is an Aranofsky film, so if you’ve seen any of his past work you’ll have an idea of what to expect. If you haven’t, go in with an open mind and interpret from the story what you will. Just know it won’t be an easy watch.

 

 

 

Best twenty films of 2012

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
    ted
    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
    beasts
    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
    seven-psychopaths_07
    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
    21 jump street
    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.

Skyfall, Mendes, Bond and badass Bardem

Bond team assemble! Ok, I’ve slightly mixed up my franchises but seriously, hats off to Sam Mendes. Or should it be hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson? The producers behind Bond in the Brosnan and Craig eras. Maybe we should also doff our caps to Daniel Craig? Not just for his performance as Bond so far, but for his recommendation for Sam Mendes to direct. His influence is clear to see.

What he’s done is strip Bond back, not just to the visceral, gritty feel we got in Casino Royale, but on an emotional level, to a point where he’s fallible, broken, hell-bent on resurrection and proving that, whilst he may be a bit of dinosaur in the modern age of espionage, he’s still a necessary tool in MI6’s arsenal. Let’s look at the factors that make this Bond one of the best we’ve had in a long time.
james bondSam Mendes
Many of you will know him as the Director of American Beauty in 1999, however the best reference point in terms of why he got the Bond gig is probably Road to Perdition in 2002, his first film with Daniel Craig. But then, he’s always had a common theme running through his work – family roots and close ties. From American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, through to Jarhead and Skyfall, his films have first and foremost been about relationships and the bonds between certain characters.

For those that doubted his ability to handle action, Id like to point out the opening sequence in Skyfall – an exhilarating rooftop motorbike chase, culminating in a fight on top of a train and kick-starting the film’s events. The whole sequence is tense, dramatic and thoroughly exciting – pitched perfectly between realism and fantasy, which is precisely what we expect from Bond.

There’s plenty of other scenes I could use as examples of why Mendes was the man for the job. Suffice to say he balanced action, drama and classic Bond moments with quiet, tender scenes that really gave the film weight and characters depth – particularly the relationship between Bond and M, which I’ll come to later.

Roger Deakins
Simply put, the man who makes Mendes look good! Deakins was Cinematographer on this film, the person who plans and coordinates the actual shooting of the film, capturing the Director’s vision on screen. Relationships between Directors and Cinematographers vary. In this case, Deakins has worked with Mendes before and also extensively with the Coen brothers. He’s been nominated for stacks of awards, including winning a lifetime achievement award in 2011.

In terms of Skyfall, there’s a veritable plethora of beautifully shot scenes: Bond staring over the grey London skyline, coffins draped in the Union Jack, the opening chase sequence in Turkey, a yacht sailing towards an abandoned island when we first meet Bardem’s Silva, then there’s the whole of the third act in Scotland.

If you want to capture the rugged, majestic beauty of a wild landscape, Deakin should be on your speed-dial as a Director. He’s the man behind No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Jarhead, Shawshank Redemption – I could go on, check out his body of work.

bond skyfallJavier Bardem
What a villian! Bardem seemed to position him as the perfect blend of deranged, menacing, calculating and camp, or at least sexually ambiguous. His first scene is a classic and up there with Heath Ledger’s introduction as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities to be drawn between Bardem’s Silva and Ledger’s Joker. In terms of physical looks, chilling back-story and meticulously planned acts of terrorism. In Dark Knight, the Joker spends about a third of the film outwitting Batman and Gordon, similarly Silva runs rings around Bond and M from his introduction up until the closing act.

That said, I’m not suggesting Ledger’s Joker would fit in Bond’s world. Bardem’s Silva still remained very much his own creation in that sense. His motivation – a deeply felt vendetta towards Judi Dench’s M – drives his actions. You’ll have to watch the film to find out why – I’ll just say that Bardem gives Silva’s motivation for vengeance against M believability. So often in action films I’ve not got on board with the villian and his or her motivations to kill someone/take over the world. In this case Bardem makes it work, giving Silva a tortured soul and fire in his eyes.

Bond and M
When talking about Mendes and themes in his work, I mentioned relationships and bonds between characters. In this case, a key driver of the film is the dynamic between Bond and M. Whilst some might feel screen-time for stunning Bond girls has been somewhat sacrificed, you could argue Bond charging around with a beautiful girl in tow doesn’t give us anything new.
judi dench
Of course you get Bond girls here, but more time is devoted to M, arguably the ultimate Bond girl in the Broccoli/Wilson era. From her casting as the first female M in Goldeneye in 1995, through to Skyfall in 2012, she’s become progressively more influential with each film, particular in Daniel Craig’s time in the role.

There’s a scene where she’s deciding whether Bond is fit for active duty and Mallory – played by Ralph Fiennes – says to her, ‘You’re sentimental about him’. Mendes lets this relationship unfold superbly, culminating in a tender, elegant and heartfelt moment in the third act.

50 years of Bond
I’d like to finish with a musical clip below by A. Skilz and Krufty Kutz, submitted to Annie Mac’s show on BBC Radio One in the UK. They created it to celebrate 50 years of Bond. If you’ve forgotten what’s so good about the character and this franchise, remind yourself now. I guarantee you’ll be giddy with excitement at the end. Proud to be British.

Michael Fassbender: The shame of Hollywood

ridley scott cormac mccarthy

What is it with Michael Fassbender? Until a few years ago most of us had never heard of him. Now he seems to be in practically everything. Let’s get this straight, this post isn’t a rant in his general direction, I think he’s a phenomenal actor. It’s just we’re all liable to suffer Fassbender burnout if his output of films continues at the current rate.

michael fassbender in fish tankCast your minds back to 2008, his breakout came playing Bobby Sands in Steve Mcqueen’s, Hunger. This put him on the map. In 2009 he appeared in Fish Tank, a gritty drama set in an English council estate, highly recommended.

He then pretty much stole the show as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds. Whilst Tarantino does write damn good dialogue and create a seriously tense, yet darkly comic scene – it’s Fassbender that makes this truly special. Watch the flicker of his eyes when he knows his time is up, then switching from German to the King’s English. Classic stuff.

Then in 2010 he appeared in Jonah Hex and Centurion, neither particularly memorable, critically or commercially. However, this didn’t stop the mighty Fassbender. The following year he really began to get into his stride, playing lead roles in Jane Eyre, X Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Haywire and Prometheus.

Let’s just take a step back for a second. All these films in 2011 were both critical and commercial successes. He’s not exactly limited himself in the type of roles he plays either: a Lord in a period drama, a superhero who can manipulate metal with his mind, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a sex addicted ad executive, an MI6 agent who gets beaten to hell by a real life mixed martial artist, and an android.

fassbender shameHe’s clearly a highly accomplished, versatile and chameleonic actor, who can convince in a number of roles. Indeed, Director Steve McQueen compared him to Marlon Brando in an interview. High praise, yet justified.

I think he must have realised this avalanche had to stop at some point. IMDb shows us he hasn’t had any films out this year, but has some in the pipeline. He could do with a break as far as I’m concerned. That said, I’m excited to see what he does next. I recently saw Shame, talk about stripping yourself bare as an actor and I don’t mean physically, although I imagine that took a bit of bravery too. An intense performance.

What’s next?
ridley scott cormac mccarthyI must admit, I’m excited about The Counselor. Written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, it’s got a cracking cast. As well as Fassbender in the lead role, it also includes: Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and – my personal favourite – the legend that is John Leguizamo! Check out more info here. Looks promising, it’ll be good to have him back.

Who are the top 20 most intense actors of recent times?

charlie bronson

I do like an intense character and performance when I’m watching a film. Someone who literally rivets and welds you to the screen, look away at your peril. Some people probably like their films bright and breezy. I don’t mind those too, but there’s something about intensity that leaves a lasting impression. You remember those performances.

As such I thought I’d offer a couple of lists of actors and actresses that have had me mesmerised, entranced and – at times – a little frightened. I’ve most likely left off a lot of vintage performances and characters, but this is MY list so I’m allowed. Let me know your thoughts. Who would you have liked to have seen included?

In these lists I’ve put links to clips from some performances you might not have seen before, or maybe just want to revisit. Remember though, best not watch alone though, these lot are intense!

The guys

  1. charlie bronsonDaniel Day Lewis (Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting, Gangs of New York; Daniel Plainview, There will be Blood)
  2. Heath Ledger (The Joker, The Dark Knight)
  3. Tom Hardy (Charles Bronson, Bronson)
  4. Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman, American Psycho; Batman, The Batman Trilogy)
  5. Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Seven)
  6. Christopher Walken (Vicenzo Carcotti, True Romance; Frank White, King of New York)
  7. Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men)
  8. Christopher Waltz (Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds)
  9. Vincent Cassel (Jacques Mesrine, Mesrine)
  10. Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills, Taken)
  11. Jeremy Renner (Sergeant William James, The Hurt Locker; Jem Coughlin, The Town)
  12. Gary Oldman (Drexel, True Romance)

The gals

  1. helena bonham carter harry potterHelena Bonham Carter (Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland; Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter)
  2. Cate Blanchett (Galadriel, Lord of the Rings)
  3. Marion Cotillard (Mal, Inception)
  4. Angelina Jolie (Lisa Rowe, Girl, Interrupted)
  5. Melanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds)
  6. Charlize Theron (Aileen Wuornos, Monster)
  7. Famke Janssen (Xena Onotopp, Goldeneye; Jean Grey, Xmen: The Last Stand)
  8. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

So, there’s my list. You’ll notice there’s more men than women, I’m not sure why. I think, perhaps, there’s a tendency – particularly in Hollywood – for studios to shy away from films with intense, female leads. I wonder if they are more of a risk commercially? I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s more to do with a lack of decent scripts for women, ones that don’t play to stereotypes.

One thing I’ve noticed is how top actors portray intensity – for me – it’s in the eyes. I think it’s what separates great actors and actresses from the rest. If you allow yourself to be drawn into their gaze, there’s so much depth there. Depending on the character they’re playing, it can be equally exciting, captivating and terrifying. Watch Pacino in The Godfather, making the decision to kill with his eyes. A lesson in intensity.

Right, I need to go watch some comedy now to level out. It’s all got too much. I’ll finish with artwork of Marion Cotillard, not because it’s intense, but because it’s simply beautiful – and that’s all the reason you need.

Marion Cotillard artwork