MOTHER! (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violent Content, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo & Stephen McHattie

Darren Aronofsky is known for artsy psychological headtrips and experimenting with narrative structure. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM put him on the map for moviegoers, whilst THE FOUNTAIN served as an ambitious anthology that split folks down the middle, and BLACK SWAN was a beautiful descent into madness. Also, NOAH saw Aronofsky putting his own fantastical spin on a Bible epic with polarizing reactions as a result. I’ve pretty much loved every Aronofsky film that I’ve seen thus far, so know that’s where I stand when I say that MOTHER! is a brilliant, ballsy piece of cinema that completely blew me away. This is easily one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen in years and is guaranteed to make a lot of people hate it. Those who dig MOTHER! though, will likely love it and not be able to stop thinking about it.

Without giving any spoilers away in my plot synopsis, I’ll say that MOTHER! is about the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s character has renovated her husband’s formerly burned down house from scratch and the end result is beautiful to behold, but Javier’s character still can’t get over a troubling bit of writer’s block. When a mysterious couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up uninvited and make their way into Lawrence’s and Bardem’s home, tensions begin to flare as Lawrence strongly dislikes their imposing presence and Bardem revels in their company. More guests soon arrive and things quickly spiral into morbid metaphorical madness!

MOTHER! is a film that’s bound to polarize viewers. First of all, this is very much an arthouse horror flick. The narrative constantly uses nightmare logic and plot points/characters are clearly meant to represent things outside of this story. Symbolism is strong in this film. Those who don’t enjoy slow burns and artsy flicks will most likely despise this movie from its strange beginning until the deeply disturbing conclusion. Then there’s the actual message (or messages, depending on your interpretation of events) which may turn certain viewers off. Aronofsky isn’t exactly subtle in certain areas, and there’s enough head-fuckery to guarantee multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything in this detailed piece of art.

Jennifer Lawrence deviates from her mainstream dramedies and teeny-bopper roles to play her ballsiest role yet as this film’s titular protagonist. As Lawrence’s character is put through the emotional gauntlet, the viewer is also pushed through the wringer. I felt that her growing frustration, bafflement and devastation were all completely believable as I felt the same emotions whilst experiencing this film (in the best way possible). Javier Bardem has already proven himself to be a phenomenal performer time and time again. I don’t want to say too much about his character here, but he leaves an unforgettable impression and tackles his difficult-to-understand character with bravado.

In a supporting role, Ed Harris is half likable and half creepy as the first unexpected guest. Michelle Pfeiffer is positively hateable as his wife and will make you want to slap her in the face. She’s so good at being bad in this film. Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie also pop in for supporting roles and make the most of the screen time they receive. The other supporting actors, a bunch of random faces, also will gradually piss you off as much as they do Jennifer Lawrence’s character. This film does a fantastic job of making you irritated and uncomfortable towards people simply being assholes. I don’t want to dive deeper into these characters’ actions…because there would definitely be spoilers in those details.

As far as cinematography goes, this movie is incredibly atmospheric and there’s a growing dread that digs inside you as the running time moves forward. Even though this is a slow burn, these two hours rushed by for me and I know that I’ll be rewatching this film many times in the future. It also seems fair to describe MOTHER! as the most unusual home invasion horror flick that you’ll ever see. The film also contains truly disturbing scenes and becomes all-out insanity during its final third. There are genuinely horrific images that you won’t be able to forget after you’ve seen this film and Aronofsky’s demented script puts brilliant spin on centuries-old themes.

If you don’t want to read minor spoilers, skip to the last paragraph. Aronofsky really ticked people off by treating NOAH as a fantasy and though that film wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This taken into consideration, MOTHER! seems to be the exact swtich-up of that formula. Here, Aronofsky is retelling Bible stories in the most fucked up, disturbing way possible and it winds up being one of the ballsiest films that I’ve seen in the 2010s. Though there’s an argument to made about the interpretations of artistry and failing relationships, I totally bought this on the not-so-subtle Biblical ideas and characters’ names seem to really hammer that home for me. I adored this film, but can totally understand why someone wouldn’t be into this sort of thing and not care for it at all.

MOTHER! feels like something that Lynch, Cronenberg, or Kubrick would have directed in their heyday. It’s one of the strangest home invasion horror films you’ll ever see, while also serving as a brilliant slice of metaphorical madness for those who really love this film’s sheer darkness and overall message. This is a strange, rough, and fucked up film…and I loved every single second of it. A movie hasn’t left me pondering over it this much in a long time and I can’t wait to revisit MOTHER! many times in the future. This is not only the best horror film that I’ve seen in years and one of the best films of 2017 (so far), I’d argue that this will go down as one of the best films of the 2010s for me!

Grade: A+

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: Josh Olson

(based on the graphic novel A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by John Wagner & Vince Locke)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill & Stephen McHattie

David Cronenberg made waves with his unique brand of body-horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME) and a number of dark psychological thrillers (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, SPIDER). This filmmaker seems most comfortable when he’s making difficult films that are sure to be a hit on the art-house circuit, but won’t likely connect with the general public. However, Cronenberg has also crafted a handful of mainstream hits. Next to his remake of THE FLY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE just might be his most accessible movie. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, VIOLENCE isn’t a bloody shoot-em-up from start to finish as its name implies, but rather a dark drama with spurts of graphic bloodshed. Those expecting a simple action thriller will find themselves disappointed, while those hoping for something deeper will be rewarded.

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Tom Stall has made a good life for himself in a small peaceful Indiana town. He is a loving husband, a devoted father to his two children, and runs a little restaurant. One night, everything changes when two convicts attempt to violently rob Tom’s diner. With quick reflexes and a steady trigger finger, he kills both men. This has him lauded as a local hero by the townsfolk and news, but Tom is the quiet type and neither wants credit, nor the attention. There might be a reason for Tom’s reserved manner about the incident as some shady people, including a dead-eyed man, show up claiming that Tom is actually someone named “Joey.” As the Stall family’s encounters with these threatening men begin to reach a frightening peak, it’s clear that Tom might not actually be who he says he is.

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HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is definitely a story with pulp conventions. As a result, there are some clichés (e.g. a kid being used as collateral), bits of cheesy dialogue, and the plot doesn’t exactly head in areas that we couldn’t correctly guess from miles away. However, the way that David Cronenberg treats this familiar material makes all the difference. More an examination of violence rather than just another action-oriented gangster tale with gun fights and explosions, there’s a dark emotional honest core at the center of VIOLENCE. The film takes its time to examine not just the restaurant incident’s effect of Tom (who’s slowly becoming a more confrontational individual), but also how his teenage son’s escalating conflict with a bully as well as Edie, Tom’s wife, watching her picture-perfect life crumbling around her.

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As Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen transforms into a small town guy with a dark secret. Once his character’s shadowy past comes to light, Mortensen does a brilliant job in showcasing Tom’s (or is it Joey’s?) darker side in a natural way that doesn’t feel out-of-place in the context of the story. Maria Bello is excellent as Tom’s wife and not simply a damsel in distress, but a woman faced with a life-changing revelation and must make difficult decisions as a result of that. In the villains department, the movie showcases great talent. Stephen McHattie (the smallest of the bad guys) has a memorable three-scene role as the thug who holds up Tom’s diner. Ed Harris is downright frightening as the dead-eyed man who’s stalking the Stall family. William Hurt doesn’t reveal himself until the final third of the film, but more than makes up for that with a sinister performance.

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Though it’s far more restrained than those expecting a blood-soaked action flick might hope, Cronenberg delivers graphic gory visuals in his real-world approach to the pulpy material. When someone gets a bullet through their skull, we get a brief shot of their face blown halfway to hell and them choking on their blood. In another instance, someone’s nose is beaten to a gory crater. These scenes definitely don’t make up a majority of the story, which is all about build-up and the effect that these violent incidents are having on the lives of the Stall family, but they exist. The only moment that really felt exaggerated and silly to me was an unrealistic sex scene that comes right the hell out of nowhere during the second half. Otherwise, Cronenberg executes this somewhat clichéd material with a steady hand, heavy atmosphere, and careful attention to detail.

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A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE might disappoint some people in not being a violent action-packed tale from start to finish, but instead being a dark slow-burn drama with shocking bursts of bloodshed. Cronenberg might not have made a straight-up genre picture or psychological head-trip this time around, but he told a story that seems all too frightening and relevant in our current times. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE examines just how thin the barrier between a calm simple day and bloody chaos really is, as well as the life-shattering effects that violence can have on both victims and perpetrators.

Grade: A-

RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language including Sexual References, and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Starring: Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Ed Harris, Common, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D’Onofrio & Boyd Holbrook

Another year, another Liam Neeson action movie. Most people will point out that this aged action hero has become type cast as a badass who beats people up for taking something. These films include: the TAKEN trilogy, UNKNOWN (his identity is taken), A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (the life of someone else’s wife is taken), and NON-STOP (his plane is taken). RUN ALL NIGHT is the latest in a long line of Neeson action flicks, but stands as a damned solid effort. Packed full of tension, great scenes and good characters who are actually worth caring about, RUN ALL NIGHT is probably going to surprise a lot of people.

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Jimmy Conlon is a former hitman turned alcoholic bum. Jimmy’s day-to-day existence is about drinking his life away and occasionally borrowing money from Shawn Maguire, Jimmy’s former boss and childhood friend. Mike is Jimmy’s estranged son and wants nothing to do with his former gun-for-hire father. This all changes in the space of one night. Jimmy is forced to kill Shawn’s son in order to save Mike and this launches a city-wide manhunt for the father and son. Jimmy and Mike find themselves trying to outrun the mob, corrupt cops, and a seemingly unstoppable hitman. If they can survive the night, everything will be okay. That’s easier said than done.

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Though Neeson has played many action heroes in the past, he’s never played anybody to the degree of Jimmy. Jimmy’s a loser, plain and simple. You feel sorry for him and also totally understand why his son wants nothing to do with him. Neeson doesn’t simply dispatch of bad guys here. He’s playing a washed-up hitman against a bunch of thugs who are far stronger than him in many ways, which means that he actually has to outwit them as well as kill them. Ed Harris is fantastic as the likable, but vicious, Shawn. You can understand his plight and see his point-of-view, which makes him probably the most fleshed-out villain that Neeson has dealt with in any of his action films thus far. Joel Kinnaman and Boyd Holbrook respectively play the good and evil sons, but play second fiddle to the veteran actors. Vincent D’Onofrio makes the most of his scenes as one of the few good cops in the city, while Common plays the unstoppable hitman as a clichéd and familiar bad guy.

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There are elements that make RUN ALL NIGHT stick out from the crowd of Neeson’s recent output. One of these is the gritty New York atmosphere. This story also happens to be taking place around Christmas and various colored lights can be glimpsed all through the city. The film gets unabashedly bloody with its R-rating, including a stellar confrontation in a bar. Besides typical action scenes that you might expect, RUN ALL NIGHT has one of the best car chases in recent memory as well as a chaotic sequence through an apartment building that’s loaded with set-pieces.

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As fun and exciting as this film is, it is not without problems. Shaky camera work ruins a couple of action scenes. The film also drags in places with unneeded moments. There’s a flashback that has no place within the context of the film as well as a far-fetched hospital scene. The final 10 minutes could have easily been cut out altogether. Common’s hitman character is about as one-dimensional as villains come. There was a clear point where the film could have ended with a quiet somber nature, but went full-blown into clichéd territory that reminded me that I was watching another Liam Neeson action flick.

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RUN ALL NIGHT definitely isn’t perfect, but is a lot of fun. The performances from Neeson and Harris alone make this film worth watching. Once you throw in some stellar action scenes and a gritty R-rated tone, this movie stands as one of the higher points in Neeson’s career as an action star. Though it’s too long in areas (especially the ending), there’s enough entertainment value and adrenaline-pumping goodness to make RUN ALL NIGHT well worth a look.

Grade: B

SNOWPIERCER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Kelly Masterson

(based on the graphic novel SNOWPIERCER by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette)

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Go Ah-Sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris & Alison Pill

Though it’s the adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, most people will compare SNOWPIERCER to the recent Sci-Fi blockbuster ELYSIUM. The film is just as subtle in its social commentary of class warfare taken to a violent extreme and is also set in an post-apocalyptic wasteland where the rich are large and in charge. I described ELYSIUM as a film that could easily have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday, but the same cannot be said of SNOWPIERCER. This is a more confident, far more developed, infinitely more creative and an all around better film on every conceivable level. Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut is not without some noticeable flaws, but this is one Science Fiction story that will linger in my mind for some time to come and practically demands repeat viewings from the entertainment value alone.

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Eighteen years in the future, a second ice age has set in and life on Earth is extinct. That is except for the lucky passengers of the “rattling ark.” An engineering genius named Wilford constructed a massive train, powered by an eternal engine, that travels across the entire world. The train is a self-contained ecosystem that sustains human life with no expiration date. Of course, with all of these people crammed aboard from various walks of life, a natural class system is adopted. The rich live in the front cars and enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. The poor are crowded together in the tail of train, living in horrible conditions, and dying young. A few small revolutions have already taken place and failed. Curtis is a man stuck at the back of the train with a plan for a successful rebellion against the powerful dictating the train. Everything is intricately set into motion for this new revolution to take place. Of course, the elite will fight against these lower class in order to keep their wealthy status intact. Needless to say that conflicts ensue and a group of “tail hicks” traveling to the engine room at the front of the train is no easy task.

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SNOWPIERCER is helmed by visionary Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (his other work including such films as monster movie THE HOST and the critically acclaimed mystery MOTHER). Some problems can be seen early on in the frozen landscape setting looking a bit iffy in a crucial moment and one action scene indulging in incoherent shaky camera work. Luckily, these problems don’t rear their ugly heads again. The production design on every set is very well done and sucks you into the dire world that these characters inhabit. Every car is set apart from the previous one and I felt like I was on board making my way across the entire train as lives were lost with each step of the way. This is an intense film to say the least.

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Occasionally, there are a few missteps later on. Some attempts at humor feel forced and there is a minor nagging detail that was far-fetched (even given the world this movie takes place in). The villains also come off as ridiculously evil. It’s almost cartoonish how wicked they get and it worked in the favor of me hating them, because I was rooting for certain antagonists to die in the most painful way imaginable. Every actor delivers a strong performance with the exception of Tilda Swinton. She plays one of the more notable villains and I hated her with every fiber of my being, but she was going far over-the-top. Even Jodie Foster’s character in the aforementioned ELYSIUM with all of her scenery-chewing was subtle compared to Swinton’s ridiculous portrayal of an already despicable character.

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Given those notable faults, there are certain scenes in SNOWPIERCER that are nothing short of brilliant. One monologue that Chris Evans gives reminded me of the same emotional weight that Quint’s speech had in JAWS. Another scene within a classroom contained a lot of dark humor that worked wonders. One extended fight/chase/fight sequence spanning several train cars between a calm baddie and the group was awesome. With every silly moment that doesn’t quite work, there are five more well executed scenes that make up for it. It’s not that the viewer won’t notice a few nitpicky things, but everything else is so gripping you probably won’t be too bothered by it. Some plot revelations near the end are ingenious and to say anything more on them would be criminal.

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SNOWPIERCER is far from a masterpiece or a new classic, but it’s bursting with tension and awesome level of well-realized creativity. The pacing never lags and I have no clue as to why the Weinsteins wanted to trim 20 minutes out of the final cut. Director Joon-Ho doesn’t go overly crazy in the bloodshed department, but doesn’t shy way from graphic violence that is essential to the story being told. The social commentary is as subtle as ELYSIUM, but the story and execution could not be more different. There are a few minor bumps, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride of a movie!

Grade: B+

THE HUMAN STAIN (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Benton

Written by: Nicholas Meyer

(based on the novel THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Wentworth Miller

Some stories work better on the pages of a book. THE HUMAN STAIN might be one of these stories. The quiet understated tragedy has been kept mostly in tact for this film adaptation, with certain aspects focused on more than others. The performances from the notable cast members make the entire thing worth viewing, but the herky-jerky narrative detract from the overall quality. The performances may be good and the tone is true to Roth’s novel, but other aspects leaves a negative impact on THE HUMAN STAIN.

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Coleman Silk is the well-known Dean and a renowned professor at the local college. He’s carved out a name for himself and shaped his future from scratch. When he’s accused of racism from a misinterpreted comment in his classroom, his life hits a downward spiral with a sadness that he conveys wherever he goes. Spurred by the idiocy of false political correctness costing him his happiness and his job, Coleman makes friends with a writer (who also serves as the narrator to bookends of this story and the novel itself) and falls in love with a struggling young woman, name Faunia. Not everything is as it seems though and each character has their own tragic past event or secret. Coleman Silk’s hidden truth is one that he’s kept under wraps for his entire life.

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THE HUMAN STAIN is a depressing movie, much like the book is an absolute downer. The story itself is very interesting and rings true about the destruction that mankind bring upon each other in the bogus idea of appearance being everything. As Coleman Silk, Anthony Hopkins is riveting. Hopkins man played crazy cannibals, among other intelligent psychopaths, but he can fully embrace himself in roles that garner empathy from the viewer. I was rooting for Coleman Silk the whole time and knowing where the story was heading (having read the book) put everything into a deeper perspective. Gary Sinise plays Nathan serving as the narrator and Coleman’s best friend (occasionally brought in when it’s convenient for the script). Nicole Kidman plays Coleman’s love interest with a tragic past and Ed Harris plays her unhinged ex-husband. A young Wentworth Miller (best known for his role in PRISON BREAK and screenwriter of STOKER) plays a young Coleman Silk with varying degrees of success (during some scenes, he feels wooden).

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The plot itself could make for a great film, if it were executed with a top-notch script and director. Sadly, this is where THE HUMAN STAIN has some faults. One of these being Nicholas Meyer’s script. Scenes that are essential to the novel have been incorporated in certain ways. However, the transitioning between each flashback and cut to present day felt sloppy. There were almost no skillfully done transitions. It was just present day, past, cut to further in the past, cut back to present. It’s about as jarring as it sounds. Some stretches of the movie go far too long without integral characters appearing until it’s convenient to move things along. The quality of the entire film also feels like a TV soap opera version of Roth’s work. This might have been right at home with “Days Of Our Lives” or an original movie for Lifetime.

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The real kicker is that the performers all knock their roles out of the park, despite the quality of the overall project just being so-so. The heart was in the right place with this film, but the execution doesn’t feel nearly as coherent, powerful, and emotional as it should have been. I felt defeated and close to tears after I finished the novel. With this adaptation, I just felt like shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, the actors did a good job.” Having read the source material, I may sound a tad biased, but the truth is that I don’t think I would have grasped this film without reading the novel first. Outsiders to Roth’s work might find themselves completely bored and think of the whole movie as a melodramatic piece of junk.

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With a better script, THE HUMAN STAIN might have been an Oscar contender. The pacing of the film is jumbled as some parts drag and others seem far too rushed. It’s almost as if director Robert Benton put the scenes on shuffle, because they play out in a nearly random order. The performances are the only aspect that save this movie and make it worth a casual viewing. Fans of Roth’s novel (I am one), will be interested in seeing this story brought to the screen with big name actors. Those who haven’t read Roth’s work don’t need to make an effort to see THE HUMAN STAIN.

Grade: C+