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-

300 (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Battle Sequences Throughout, Some Sexuality and Nudity

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Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon

(based on the graphic novel 300 by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Stephen McHattie

Sparta was a city-state in ancient Greece and had an unrelenting way of life. Men were bred to fight from birth. The way of thinking was “Come back with your shield or come back on it.” There was no retreat, no surrender, and to die in the battlefield was the greatest glory a Spartan soldier could achieve. In 480 BC, King Leonidas of Sparta marched 300 of his finest soldiers out to a narrow passageway known as the Hot Gates. This battle waged for three days and became known as the Battle of Thermopylae. This history makes great material for a cinematic treatment. Sure enough, 300 is a hyper-violent, ultra-stylized, historical-accuracy-be-damned experience based on a popular graphic novel. Like SIN CITY (also penned by Frank Miller), 300 manages to literally capture the spirit of the source material frame-by-frame and it looks absolutely stunning. This was a revolutionary cinematic achievement and many films that have come since owe a lot to the way in which it was shot. 300 is pure spectacle and taken as such, it’s absolutely awesome!

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Trained from a young age to fight and kill if necessary, Leonidas is the great king of Sparta. When a Persian messenger arrives at the city gates demanding that the Spartans bow before Xerxes, a Persian king fancying himself a God, it spurns Leonidas to seek the advice of the Oracle. His request to go to war is denied, but in spite of this, Leonidas takes his 300 finest soldiers out to the Hot Gates. This is a place where numbers count for nothing. Leonidas and his brave 300 hold off the massive Persian army for as long as they can. A three-day long battle ensues, whilst Queen Gorgo tries to rally her countrymen for her husband’s cause!

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300 is absolutely one of the best action movies of the new millennium. It mixes the formula of a war epic with outrageous style. The entire film is executed with a stunning visuals that keep the color schemes beautiful, the blood plentiful, and makes every scene downright cool! It’s not so much a film for those wanting a historically accurate depiction of the battle. Quite a few fantasy elements are thrown in. It is a movie for those wanting to kick back and watch a kick-ass ride with amazing visuals. That’s who this film is made for and it delivers!

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Seeing as the story mostly follows men bred for war from day one, the film does a great job of getting you to care for those of the 300 we do see. This includes Leonidas himself, his best friends, a captain and his son, along with some others. A couple of familiar faces who have since gone on to bigger things appear too. Michael Fassbender plays Stelios (though names of the soldiers really aren’t too important in this film) and has some of the best lines in the film. Gerard Butler displays the best performance as Leonidas and wins over the viewer with his view of combat. Xerxes says “I would kill any one of my men without a second’s notice” and Leonidas replies “And I would gladly die for any one of mine.” That’s all we needed to get us to care about this man and his army. Performances are solid from everybody, but the dialogue is great as well. Some lines are nothing short of brilliant. One of my favorite scenes is a meeting between Leonidas and Xerxes which takes plenty of jabs taken at this supposed God-king’s expense.

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As far as complaints go, the battle sequences and scenes with the Spartan warriors talking amongst themselves are way more interesting than any of the politics Gorgo goes through in the city. Luckily, Zack Snyder knew this and let’s the battle take up the majority of screen time, instead of Gorgo’s rallying of her countrymen. Otherwise, I don’t have a bad thing to say about 300. It’s definitely made for a certain audience and is a visual feast, not a war movie that provides thought-provoking looks at the horrific violence brought on by it.

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300 is pure spectacle. That’s what it is and it was never meant to be anything more. Taken as such, this film is absolutely amazing! The visual style has gone on to be replicated in other films (most noticeably, IMMORTALS, a take on Greek mythology from the same producers). It’s packed full of crazy action scenes and filled to the brim with stylized violence. This is pure bloody entertainment and should entrance generations for years to come!

Grade: A