The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos, 2017)

This will be a pretty scatter-brained post. The Killing of a Sacred Deer reminds me most of Dogtooth, of all the Lanthimos films I’ve seen. The intruder scenario (one day I’ll have another/better (is there a better?) comparison than Teorema but it comes to me immediately again with this film. Maybe it’s just that Pasolini seemed so interested also in the dynamics of an enclosed society under the microscope…), the family, the clean mise-en-scène are all reminiscent.

I recently read an interview with David Fincher where he mentions the “wide angle wit” of the Coen brothers (and in reference to Soderbergh). I love this line. I think Yorgos Lanthimos has wide angle wit, but in a different way. Where I imagine that Fincher was referring to action that takes place towards and away from the camera which is emphasized in unexpected ways because of the wide angle lens, Lanthimos’ wide angle is mostly mood. It feels like surveillance at times, something I was struck by in the really early scene of Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) and Matthew (Bill Camp. I love Bill Camp!) walking together down the hospital hallway. They seem pushed so far away as the walls of the hall bulge around them. Certainly a product of the lensing, but it also felt like we were a surreptitious drone above them. I imagine that Lanthimos also likes the distancing effect. Because of the affected performances he’s after and gets I think we’re pretty off-kilter throughout his films. That lens choice keeps us further than arm’s length.

It’s hard to talk about a Lanthimos film without talking performance. Kind of like Kaurismaki, who of course I mentioned when talking about The Lobster. But I think that comparison is a little facile. Lanthimos’ characters do show real emotion. I think now I’d characterize these performances as frank and blunt. It’s not only what the characters discuss, it’s that very little seems of any more important than anything else (in terms of delivery). They discuss things like menstruation and ejaculation with the ease of talking about the weather. There’s also the pretty rapid pace of dialogue, especially from Stephen and Martin (Barry Keoghan) that feels so confident.

I love these performances. Keoghan is like a man-child. It’s pretty damn inspired casting. And Farrell just seems to get Lanthimos. It’s their second great collaboration in a row.

When watching the film I was really struck by two cuts. I need to watch it again to exactly figure out why (and to be able to describe them better). One is to Martin and Stephen’s daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) on a motorcycle. The other is just to an overhead aerial shot of a car.

Both are cuts from an interior to an exterior. The first shot I mention above is in slow-motion. I think I like it because of the irony (if I remember correctly Stephen and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) are talking about something that very much involves Martin, so the cut is timely), but also because it felt like such a candy-coated teenage romance moment. The way she hugs him. That slo-mo. The popping colors of the moment. The low angle. The wind in their hair. It was so disarming amidst a really alarming moment.

The other cut hit me because of sound. Is there any sound at this second shot? It felt like the air got sucked out of the theater. The film is fairly loud, at least the score is, so the absence (or near absence of sound landed).

I’m envious of Lanthimos’ ability to easily use really high and low angles. I feel like this is a filmmaking style that is going away. But Lanthimos is often framing at extremes and it really works. There’s an early conversation between Martin and Stephen that, I think, has three shots of coverage. A wide angle dolly that follows them. An MCU from behind, favoring Martin. And an extreme low angle from in front, favoring Stephen. That low angle should grab so much attention but it just fits naturally. It doesn’t feel like your noir-ish usage, and it doesn’t really seem to say much more than the conversation does (sure, Stephen seems to have more power here, and sure, Martin has something to hide, but later usage of these angles doesn’t track that way. I think.).

There are a lot of long L and J cuts with dialogue. Voiceover, basically. I wonder if that was written into the script. The film takes on this feeling that something is always happening somewhere else. That events are always starting to pile on top of one-another. I love that.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Here’s the big thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Why do we accept the big reveal midway, or a little earlier, through, when Martin explains to Stephen what’s happening as they sit in the hospital cafeteria? It shouldn’t work. The world hasn’t really lived up to his explanation at that point. The interesting thing to me is that Stephen doesn’t accept his explanation (Stephen’s reaction is logical), but we do. Why? Because we’re watching a movie? That feels like a dumb reason. I think if some other director made this exact same script we might not accept it.

It’s one thing to not believe a beat, or a performance, or a moment in a film, but this is the thing that the entire movie hinges on. It feels a bit out of the blue, pretty ridiculous, unbelievable, and undeserved, but we just go with it. There’s something in Lanthimos’ tense visual build-up (that wide angle lens) and the eerily hilarious way that Martin delivers the explanation that just makes sense. Sure, it’s also that what has happened to Stephen’s son, Bob (Sunny Suljic) is impossible, and that we haven’t established rules for the world yet, but most screenwriting instincts would, I think, at the very least point towards a restructure and try to force this moment 20 minutes earlier, which would kill the uneasy dynamic (raise your hand if you thought it was sexual) between Martin and Stephen to this moment. It’s a strong decision that is totally buoyed by the strangeness of the preceding audio-visual world.

If I have one complaint about Sacred Deer it’s the “metaphor” moment in Stephen’s basement. It’s right as Martin bites his own arm. It’s a painful, powerful sequence, but it’s too on-the-nose. It starts to feel really obvious that Martin is talking about the film and the aforementioned scene.

But whatever. The film is an awesome experience that sucks you in. Great, loud music; performances that are all unique, yet all cohesive (can’t forget Alicia Silverstone’s great turn); lots of tense hilarity (the scene where Stephen visits Bob and Kim’s principal…); and plenty of risk-taking (the scene where Kim sings Martin a song really shouldn’t work, but it does).

 

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The Boxer and Death (Solan, 1963)

The Boxer and Death is a hell of a film. Peter Solan directs this really tense concentration-camp set film that holds to such simple ideas of screenwriting – fast setup, high stakes, opposite protagonist and antagonist – yet excels at all of them in beautiful, novel ways.

Komínek (Stefan Kvietik) is a former boxer who, at the beginning of the film, has been caught escaping from a concentration camp. Kraft (Manfred Krug) is the commandant of the camp who is also a boxer. Holder (Gerhard Rachold) is an officer at the camp who is another embodiment of evil (though, and in one of the many ways this film is great, Holder’s overt evil serves to mask, or mitigate, Kraft’s, making the latter seem to be composed of shades of gray, though he’s not really. It’s great writing and casting).

Kvietik gives such a physical performance (you can get a good look at some of it at the end of the clip embedded below). At the start of the film he’s weak. At Kraft’s orders to build the prisoner up so he’s again a capable boxer Kvietik’s performance gradually changes. The posture and energy shift is remarkable from the first few minutes to the last.

As good as Kvietik is, he doesn’t necessarily steal the show. I really loved Krug’s performance. As noted above, he’s complex. Is he murderous Nazi officer, or sympathetic athlete thrust into a difficult position? Sometimes this feels abundantly clear, but, and particularly in some early scenes, it’s not always. Krug plays it so well – he’s cool and calm, rarely on edge. There’s a real danger in that person.

I love Solan’s imaginative directing. Here’s one moment that really struck me, probably because I was just talking about motivated camera in class:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/242912889

The opening to the scene is a great use of an extra to bring me into the scene. It’s a question off the bat: who is he shining the light at? (Since he’s shining it at the audience it feels extra uncomfortable). I love scenes that start tight and end wide because of the ways I have to put the whole together in my mind before I get to see it. This scene does that so well.

The motivation here is pretty simple. It’s that repetitious whistle that moves us from shovel to shovel. It feels like such a dance that it very nearly distracts from the utter absurdity of the prisoners shoveling from their own pile immediately onto the person to their left’s pile. It kind of has an ominous “whistle while you work,” tone.

The camera is dizzying, which adds to the stress. The hidden cut at 0:18 just keeps the rhythm going. It almost feels like these guys must be making progress until we get to the wide. I love cutting to Komínek walking away at 0:31. Cutting away from that whirling camera is jarring. It makes him feel even more separate than he is. We sort of have to recover from the spins to get our bearings and an idea of where he is.

I’m including these stills below only because it’s something else I’ve been talking about in class, and because I noticed it during the film. It’s a mistake, I think, but doesn’t detract from the film.

Kraft talks to his wife Helga (Valentina Thielová). Shestands up and walks off frame left (second image below). His eyeline matches that:

Then Solan cuts to her by the window. It’s clearly not the window we see in the last frame above. But then Kraft enters and he enters frame left (you can just see the corner of his shirt in the second image below):

It’s actually pretty confusing. Sure, there’s a world where, after Solan cuts to Helga, Kraft walks along the bed, around the camera as it were, and enters from frame left. But that’s just awkward.

Like I said, I’m really only pointing it out because these kind of fundamentals have been on my mind of late. The Boxer and Death totally and wholly outshines what is, in the end, a very small instance.

There’s plenty of great dialogue in here, too. As Komínek enters the ring for the near-climactic 10 round fight that Kraft has organized, one of the Nazi wives comments something like, “they should show him to the International Committee.” It’s such a pointed line with a lot of background to it (obviously, Komínek, now well-fed, looks good enough to present to any organization wishing to seek some form of unjust evidence regarding the camps).

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Distant Thunder (Ray, 1973) and What’s Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich, 1972)

Distant Thunder is, like so many of the best of Satyajit Ray, a sensitive look at a singular relationship set amidst changing circumstances. I think that Ray really liked the idea of the outsider (see Utpal Dutt in The Stranger, or Madhabi Mukherjee in The Big City for examples of two different, learned (or maybe we should just say “non-ignorant”) people functioning outside of the societal norms upon which they intrude). He’s got several of those characters in Distant Thunder, a really touching film about a famine in an Indian village in the early-1940s.

One of those is Gangacharan (Soumitra Chatterjee), a teacher and priest who angles for advantages, yet is not an unsympathetic character. His relationship with his wife Ananga (Bobita) really reminds of the husband-wife dynamic in The Big City, yet here the tension comes more from without than within. Gangacharan strikes me as a fairly typical Ray protagonist. He’s smart, but needs to learn about life; he has kindness in his heart, but struggles with pride.

The title refers to the war that’s never seen but frequently heard, and which, importantly, is the cause of the food shortage. Ray often lenses the landscape in wide frames-

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.35.25 AM

These are gorgeous but also add to the sense of isolation. That thunder is distant, which is good in one sense (the violence of war isn’t imminent), but also bad (the village is cut off from food access).

I imagine that Ray is often thought of as a social filmmaker first, and a visual filmmaker second. I remember hearing an interview with one of his actors years ago (I can’t remember who) and she said that his films often had so little money behind them that they’d get one take and be forced to move on, but that Ray came so prepared that the scenes still felt complete and organic.

There are a lot of sequences in Distant Thunder that give credence to this preparation, and that also paint Ray as a master visualist. One of the best is between Chutki (Sandhya Roy) and Jadu (Noni Ganguly). Jadu is the ultimate outsider in the film. He lurks on the outskirts of the village, hiding in ruins, keeping his scarred face from view.

As the famine escalates Chutki encounters Jadu while walking. Ray shoots this sequence so expressively. It’s full of longing on many fronts. Chutki wants rice. Jadu wants to sleep with Chutki. It’s a scene that another director might play as eerier, or even violent. For Ray it’s sad.

The sequence starts in this wide with a low horizon. The camera pushes in as Jadu approaches Chutki:

A transition shot of a lizard later-

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.36.30 AM

-Ray cuts to this wide of the ruins. Jadu walks into them. The camera pulls back to reveal Chutki in the foreground. Then she exits frame left and we push in to the empty structure:

Jadu emerges, and in the same long take we now track left to right with him as he finds Chutki, who has turned his back on him and walked away (but not too far away):

He approaches her from behind and holds the rice out over her shoulder. She knocks it away. I love this moment. There’s so much decision in her face. Her openness to camera feels blunt but it works. She’s doing this for the rice but slapping it from his hand is so angry and instinctive.

I’ve skipped a few shots, but the scene ends beautifully and sadly. Ray tracks left to right with Chutki as she walks away from Jadu again. The ruins are in the foreground:

We cut to a tight CU of Jadu. The camera pushes in on him a little bit:

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.39.06 AM

And then to his POV. A tragically wide shot of Chutki, nearly blending in despite her red sari:

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.39.12 AM

The scene is so haunting. It’s mostly wordless. Ray’s camera moves often and, though it does in fact move for Jadu (see the second-to-last shot above where it pushes into him) it’s mostly motivated by Chutki and her literal movement or her absence. The wide frames, the characters pushed to the fringe – there’s nothing romantic about this. It’s a desperate scene.

It’s amazing how Ray is able to make Jadu sympathetic. Though he carries hints of violence with him he’s never outwardly violent. Still, he’s far from innocent. He uses the rice as a way to manipulate Chutki. Of course, it’s partially the performance and makeup. It’s also that other characters in the film are much less sympathetic. But it’s also Ray’s desire to look at how desperate situations make people more desperate.

What’s Up, Doc?

Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? owes a big debt to Bringing Up Baby and to Blake Edwards. It’s a funny film, buoyed by some slapstick set pieces (the wrong room motel hallway wide shots are great), and Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand have good chemistry.

Maybe the best part of What’s Up, Doc? is simply reveling in the return of the screwball. Bogdanovich makes no bones about his references (can O’Neal channel Cary Grant any more?) and, true to the subgenre, just tries to up the ante from scene to scene.

The definite highlight is a plate glass gag. Who did the first one of these? It has a Buster Keaton feel to it, but I can’t think of a Keaton film that uses it. The packed cars zipping down the street reminds of Edwards’ Pink Panther films. The gag is so great because of Bogdanovich’s constant return to the extras – the guy on the ladder and the characters moving the plate glass. Their choreography is hilarious, and the conclusion of the gag is totally satisfying.

Streisand’s really good in this. I had no idea she had already won an Oscar by 1972. There’s little subtlety in her Judy Maxwell, but there doesn’t really need to be. This is a film about timing, both directorially and actorly timing, and everyone pulls it off. It’s harder timing than it looks. To get people in a long shot of a hallway to open some doors at just the right time is one thing. To play with foreground and background, body language and reactions, all in one frame (as Bogdanovich does really well in the fire/trashed hotel room scene) is another entirely.

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Hra bez pravidel (Polák, 1967) and Conflict (Bernhardt, 1945)

I was lucky enough to catch both of these at the Noir Film Festival here in Prague. Jindrich Polák’s really fun ’60s noir feels like so many different things at once. The quiet of Rififi, the fatalism of Odds Against Tomorrow, the dark comedy of Blood Simple. Málek (Svatopluk Matyás) is the former policeman who can’t quit the crime. Litera (Jirí Adamíra) and Burian (Zdenek Kryzánek: what a face!) are mixed up in it. The film is well-written, and about halfway through you sort of get the idea of everyone’s fate; the fun then is the “how” more than the “what.”

Polák’s camera is really loose in the film. It’s obviously shot on-location and there’s not much of the smooth, studio-style of the classic American noirs. This feels like realism-noir, like Prague-noir. The camera stutters and shakes a bit, the characters feel more Don Siegel and less Jean-Pierre Melville.

Wiliam Bukový’s score is amazing. It’s so jazzy and tense, and it’s everywhere. The long, quiet, stylized opening, complete with freeze frames and slow overhead zooms has hardly any diegetic sound. It’s just the ticking score pushing us forward. It really works.

One of the best parts of Hra biz pravidel (which loosely translates to A Game Without Rules) is Pepi (Vladimír Mensík).

HraBez1

He plays Litera’s assistant and, though he’s probably only in about 20% of the film, he really makes his presence felt. His face is a cross between innocent naïveté and cunning. He’s also in some of the most comedic scenes in the film (leaving Litera’s room like “What? Nothing to see here” as Málek pulls up; jumping in front of a train-christening ceremony with a stolen briefcase). It’s the ending chase scene between Málek and Pepi, shot on an otherwise deserted train yard which Polák lenses with a lot of long tracking shots and clever choreography, that is the tensest and the darkest.

Conflict

I had never seen Conflict before, and what starts as a pretty standard Humphrey Bogart vehicle really elevates to something much more. I don’t really know much of Curtis Bernhardt, but I’ve seen Possessed a long time ago. From his filmography it looks like he was a German émigré, and that makes more sense given that Robert Siodmak, someone I’m much more familiar with, co-wrote the short story on which the film is based.

Bogart is Richard Mason. He’s in love with Evelyn (Alexis Smith) who just so happens to be his wife’s sister. Sydney Greenstreet plays Mason’s friend, the psychologist Dr. Mark Hamilton, beautifully against the type I’m used to seeing from him. Maybe that’s because I just immediately associate him with The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca when Bogart’s also involved.

Performances aside, two things really elevate Conflict. The script is quite interesting for the time. It seems always on the verge of veering into psychological territory, but ends up resisting that urge, staying very different from, say, Spellbound of that same year, and hewing closer to something like a ghost story or Gaslight.

Then there’s Bernhardt’s camera. I was really struck by two fairly innocuous scenes: the opening sequence with Richard and his wife Kathryn (Rose Hobart) where Bernhardt, true to the times, keeps things often in medium shot, but has a really fluid camera that moves all around a large bedroom, sometimes in a pretty complicated fashion; and a scene only a short time later at Mark’s house. This second one seemed more unique to me in slight ways.

First, the establishing shot slowly pushes in past some rainy tree branches. That dolly in feels modern and just gives a little extra atmosphere to the scene. Bernhardt cuts to a shot outside of Mark’s dining room. The camera again pushes into the glass. Mark approaches and opens the door, stepping outside to get a rose. The camera pulls back for him. Then he goes in, leaving the door open and the camera again pushes in after him, finding the dinner party in a wide shot. It could feel like a yo-yo-ing, indecisive camera, but it’s so confident.

Bernhardt’s camera isn’t always so expressive as this, or as his German cinematic background might insinuate, but it is always confident.

Parts of Conflict really reminded me of Vertigo, especially when Richard is chasing the woman who he is convinced is his wife. I could feel Scotty on the streets of San Francisco desperately seeking Madeleine. When Richard chases the unknown woman to an apartment and follows her in, it felt so much like the same mysterious house (The McKittrick Hotel) that Scotty follows Madeleine into. It reminded me so much of it that I’m convinced Hitchcock made a nod to Conflict in his 1958 masterpiece.

Conflict is filled with great side characters. The two best are the first pawn shop worker, played by Oliver Blake, and the apartment building owner, played by Mary Servoss. Both are just a little off. They’re wide-eyed, their speech is drawled or slow. They’re so well-cast and directed given the narrative context at the time of their appearances in the film.

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Polytechnique (Villeneuve, 2009)

Polytechnique is a pretty difficult film at times (and not necessarily a great movie to watch on a plane), but it also feels much more like the Denis Villeneuve films we’re all familiar with than Maelstrom does. Elephant is the film that usually comes to mind when thinking of school shootings, but Polytechnique feels like the superior work. It’s better-acted, for one, and its more reflective ending is not only more cathartic (to be fair, I don’t think that’s what Elephant is going for), but also just feels more useful, like the filmmakers have really thought back to what happened and looked to a brighter future.

Polytechnique is shot in black and white, but its not only that decision that makes the film feel somehow gentle and shocking at once. The frames themselves are beautiful. Villeneuve gets a lot of mileage from the snow-

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And some romantic, yet tense compositions:

Out of context, and without the blood in the first shot just above, these could be pulled from a snowy ensemble drama. I think this is one of the huge successes of the film. This isn’t of course true for all of Polytechnique. Sometimes it feels like a horror film:

And when we’re with the shooter the world is warped and uncomfortable (maybe it’s just because a character is waiting in the car, but these stills below remind me of Prisoners):

The film shows Villeneuve’s great feel for pacing and movement, two of his strongest traits, I think. There’s this steadicam shot:

There’s a lot I like about this shot. One thing is what we accept in films. Like around 0:11 and 0:15 when the camera passes through adjacent doors. It’s a cheat (why are those doors being held open?) but because of how close we stay to the door frame it works.

There’s also the extras who don’t move at about 0:36. They’re sort of a wipe. Not a true wipe, but close. The operator uses them as a way to quickly accelerate and get back in front of Valérie (Karine Vanasse).

But this is also a way to get us into the maze-like school, which becomes important later in the film. The sharp corners, crowdedness, and never-ending narrow halls are all established here in real time.

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Raw (Ducournau, 2017) and Joaquim (Gomes, 2017)

It’s taken me a little while to come around to Julia Ducournau’s Raw.

Some SPOILERS here.

When watching it I couldn’t help but think of The Tribe for some obvious reasons: both are set at a school and follow a group of young adults amidst a series of violent acts. One thing that really bugged me (to an extent, as you can see in my blog about it) in The Tribe was the lack of any supervising presence. That same thing happens in Raw. The film becomes a little absurd at times. Why isn’t anyone saying anything about, say, two girls viciously biting each other in front of a huge crowd of people on campus? Or about a party that extends into the morgue and involves dead bodies? I mean, at some point this has to spill over onto some who care’s radar, right?

The thing that works though is that Julia Ducournau isn’t really going for realism. From the feverish, beautiful lighting-

Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 11.39.44 AM

-to dream-interludes that have little to do with narrative progress and everything to do with mood-

-the film oscillates between real, meaningful relationships at the school (Justine’s (Garance Marillier) with Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) is so good), straight up genre-gore moments, and something like an off-kilter unease. There’s plenty of comedy in Raw, too. Like this interaction between Justine and a random man at the hospital:

He shows her his dentures and thinks it’s hilarious. She doesn’t. The silent conversation is funny because of how funny he thinks it is. The opposite end of the color wheel hues adds to the strangeness. It’s a great sequence.

Raw also reminded me a lot of The Fits (plus, maybe, We Are What We Are). The film is clearly coming-of-age. Justine really grows up over the course of it. She loses her virginity, attempts a Brazilian wax, gets really drunk, eats meat, etc. The film gives her cannibalism backstory at the end, but it’s more about her experiencing life and becoming a woman.

Two other small things I loved about Raw. The score is great. There’s a scene where a car has crashed and the never-ending horn becomes non-diegetic music. It’s an awesome aural transition.

I think this also has one of the best drunk scenes I can remember. Justine at the party, right before her video is shared campus-wide, is perfect. Her body language and eyes-

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The handheld camera trying to keep up with her. The way she sort of totters into people. (Unrelated: I love that pop of red in the background, in the frame above). It’s so believable.

Joaquim

I knew absolutely nothing about Joaquim going into the film, but it’s really, really good. Marcelo Gomes’ period piece about Portuguese colonialism in Brazil stars Julio Machado as Joaquim José da Silva Xavier. His performance is great. It’s so lively and frantic. I don’t know that I’ve seen many films where a character eats so enthusiastically and so often in-shot. It adds to the texture and grit of the film, which is probably, for me, its defining trait. You can feel and smell the sweat in Joaquim. It’s partially the really detailed wardrobe and makeup (although I take issue with how little Joaquim’s hair grows during the course of his expedition), partially the lingering, handheld camera, and partially the too-close interactions of people.

Joaquim is about the enslaved and the slaver. It’s a pretty nuanced look at things in that way, where characters – of course, including the title character – are often not how they initially present.

One of my favorite shots of the film comes when Joaquim stands outside and listens to Zua’s (Isabél Zuaa) rape. It’s a heartbreaking moment on so many levels (we’ve just been inside for the beginning of the assault). The frame is gorgeous. The wall that Joaquim leans against is so textured. His face is so helpless. The sound is horrifying. It’s a difficult, really amazing part of a movie that relies so much on environment and individual moments over any building sense of narrative tension.

Zua’s character (and Zuaa’s performance of it) is a highlight of the movie. She’s unexpected, three-dimensional, and very compelling to watch.

The pace of the film is also really great. It starts to fragment more and more as Joaquim leaves on his gold-seeking expedition. I think there are bolder temporal ellipses starting here. I’ll have to rewatch to see how true that is, but at the least it feels that way. Yes, we skip ahead through time in the first act of the film, but in the last two we seem to do so with more urgency and more opaquely.

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Mother! (Aronofsky, 2017) and Super Dark Times (Phillips, 2017)

Mother! is probably my favorite Aronofsky film since The Wrestler. It can be frustrating, and is pretty hilarious to watch in a big multiplex (which I did, alongside a really uncomfortable, largely unhappy crowd. I guess the marketing strategy “Jennifer Lawrence horror film” and this end product don’t really jibe). It’s got something of Rosemary’s Baby and maybe Marco Ferrari in it, but it really does feel like a successor (and superior film) to Black Swan.

SPOILERS here.

Mother (Lawrence) lives in a really isolated house with her husband, the poet (Javier Bardem). One day people come to visit. There’s a man claiming he’s a doctor (Ed Harris), and eventually his wife (a truly awesome Michelle Pfeiffer) and children arrive. It’s not really a “home invasion” or typical “unwanted guests” narrative since the poet is so keen on keeping them there, but it verges on as much.

The thing that really struck me about Mother! is how funny it is. I think intentionally so, most of the time. Aronofsky kind of clues us into this mood by the title. The way the exclamation point dances in at the end of the title card seems to hint at something not just straight-laced. Some of the doctor and his wife’s reactions to things are outlandish (in a film that gets really outlandish), and much else of the comedy comes from how easily and brazenly they resist or contradict anything Lawrence’s character says.

Mother! is unbelievably staged. I mean the blocking is brilliant. A largely handheld camera that moves a lot, we’ve often got Lawrence in really tight frames. Aronofsky cuts on her turning towards us so many times in this film, keeping her not only in the foreground, but mostly open to camera. She’s got a really tight eyeline throughout, nearly looking into the lens. By contrast, almost everyone else’s dominant frame is wider, and with a wider eyeline. We’re rarely over anyone else’s shoulder looking at Lawrence, but we’re constantly over her shoulder. Even in pretty tight CU, Aronofsky and longtime DP Matthew Libatique make the background meaningful as we catch glimpses of things and interlopers.

Bardem uses his long smile really well in this film. It slowly crinkles into existence, frighteningly at times. He’s not at all a sympathetic character, but I found it curious that he gets a late line that makes him so close to sympathetic. When he speaks to a charred Lawrence about love his tone is pleading, his gestures tender. Of course all of this is in service of himself, but even Lawrence’s willing reply puts the character who has been the true villain (if this film has one) the whole time right on the line of empathy.

For me, this is really a film about the muse, told from the muse’s perspective. Lawrence is, of course, the muse, but it’s not just her. As the final shot suggests, the poet doesn’t need Lawrence’s love, he needs any love. And no love is ever enough, hence the absolute chaos that ensues in each of the two halves (this is the first 2-act film I can remember in some time): no adoration is ever enough for the celebrity that the poet desires, and therefore the world collapses under the weight of praise, leading him to try all over again.

This is also a film about the creative process (though it would be much more so were it told from the poet’s perspective), and about being a woman in a man’s world (a theme that really hits home when Pfeiffer’s character talks to Lawrence’s about what underwear she should wear).

The cyclical structure of the film, the hidden meaning of “home” (Lawrence is both at home and is literally home, at the end), the biblical references (Cain and Abel, the body of Christ, etc) all add intriguing layers to a film that is at its most energetic and beautiful when Lawrence’s character is confused and running through the labyrinthine house.

That 2-act structure is interesting. I’m guessing there’s a way to break this into three acts, but the split is so clear: each ends with the death of a son, each ends with the chaos of a party of rabid fans gone mad, each ends with some violence done to the house (and thereby to Lawrence’s character). The 50-50 division makes the film feel somehow more open-ended. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to a clearer three acts.

I quite liked Mother! Its style is something I’ll want to return to, and I’ll think back to the narrative a lot.

Super Dark Times

This is a really great debut film from Kevin Phillips. It’s coming-of-age narrative takes a strange turn to the psycho-slasher genre in the last 25 minutes that doesn’t land, but otherwise it has great mood and period set pieces.

Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan are great as Zach and Josh, two high school friends who nerd out about girls in their class and video games, and get tied up in an accidental murder.

Set in the 1990s, a lot of those temporal indicators – scrambled porn on a tube TV, PC desktop screensavers – add up to make the film something steeped in its time. It’s nostalgic, but less so than say, Stranger Things, where the mise-en-scène is sometimes a game of catch-the-reference. In Super Dark Times it just suffuses and works.

Phillips camera is so confident in here. So is the cinematography. There’s an amazing first dream/nightmare sequence that is worth rewatching, and generally just great blocking. Phillips’ slow-motion feels perfectly timed (love that carton-slicing scene) and his wide-shots are lonely and well-paced.

The opening scene is a great combination of something like montage filmmaking with the slow-build style Phillips prefers in the first 2/3: a broken window, a dear in CU, student-reaction shots. It tells us what happened but leaves it off-screen. I love when Phillips returns to the exterior of the school, showing that same window now boarded up with “Fuck you” spray painted over it. None of this is ever returned to it, it’s just great prologue, mood-setter, and transition.

The last act falls off a bit. Josh’s transformation doesn’t feel totally earned in the way it should given the dramatic and traumatic preceding events. When Zach, in quick montage over the phone, pieces together what he thinks is happening, he’s not far off. But that phone call and the visual presentation of his theory feels so comical that when that’s what basically did/does happen, it seems at odds with the great mood that’s come before.

 

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