Category: Film/TV reviews

mother! (2017)

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Note: the characters in this film are purposely never referred to by name, and are listed on IMDB in the following manner. There is a reason for this, which I’ll get into later:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as mother
  • Javier Bardem as Him
  • Ed Harris as man
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as woman

Ok.

This film is very difficult to describe. There are multiple interpretations of mother! out there and it’s causing a polarizing reaction among critics and audiences alike. There WILL be some spoilers in this review. I apologize in advance; I wanted to include a completely spoiler-free review before a did a more in-depth look at mother! but found myself unable to broach the film’s subject matter without getting into the nitty-gritty aspects of it.

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Him (Javier Bardem) is a gifted poet who lives in an isolated rural house with his much younger wife, known only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). Mother works to renovate the house while Him suffers from writers’ block; they are outwardly affectionate towards each other, but have a strange relationship dynamic. Him is naturally sociable and charming, but it’s implied that he has suffered from traumatic events in his past and comes across as emotionally distant towards his wife. Meanwhile, Mother is young and timid, and while she loves Him, she struggles to reveal her true thoughts and feelings due to the demanding nature of his work. We see that Mother also occasionally has disorienting, vertigo-like episodes and that the house itself is sentient and has a personality of its own (yes, even a beating heart).

One day, the couple’s tranquil existence is disrupted by a Man (Ed Harris). Man is a doctor and researcher who has greatly admired Him’s writings, but his unannounced arrival — as well as Him’s lack of suspicion towards his mysteriousness — alarms Mother. Soon enough, Harris’s wife, Woman, (Michelle Pfeiffer) also shows up. There’s plenty of awkward interaction as Woman begins to trouble Lawrence with nosy questions and help herself to a tour of the house. Again, Mother and Him’s lack of communication with each other causes notable tension.

It’s soon revealed that Man is dying of an unknown disease. He and Woman have two sons, and a traumatic and violent incident occurs involving the two of them and their father’s will. This results in the younger son being bludgeoned. Him follows the family to the hospital, but the younger son dies regardless. As Mother cleans up the bloody crime scene, she notices a spot on the wood floor that continues to bleed, dripping down to the house’s basement.

This violent incident drives a further wedge being driven between Him and Mother. After a wake for the son in which more uninvited guests arrive, Mother eventually confronts Him about it and voices her frustrations about the lack of communication in their relationship. It’s also becoming increasingly apparent by how many people hold Him in such esteem, even to the point of harassing Mother, being rude to her, and becoming violently obsessed with Him’s work. Mother becomes angry with Him, but they eventually make up and have sex, which results in Mother’s pregnancy.

Happy for his growing family, Him finally gets new inspiration to write. He finishes the piece in record time over the next few months, and both he and Mother begin to be contented again. However, when Him’s new poem is released, he begins to get more and more obsessed fans arriving at the house, who become violent and push a pregnant Mother to the edge of her own sanity.

This film is insane. I didn’t know much about it until I saw it recently, only that it drew a sharply divided response from critics and audiences and was full of metaphor and allegory. Mother! is the brainchild of acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, who has frequently blended violence, harrowing drama, and surrealism into his previous films, most notably Black Swan, Pi, Noah, The Fountain, and Requiem for a Dream. He’s someone that I greatly respect due to his daring artistic visions and willingness to push stylistic boundaries. You never forget an Aronofsky film once you’ve seen it.

The insane part of the film is primarily due to the violent climax in the last third of the movie, but mother! builds a coherent and visceral atmosphere right off the bat. Lots of the early parts of the film follow Mother around the massive house, and you get a real sense of the scope, age, and isolation of the place. The cinematography and sound design are both outstanding, the latter of which is key, because mother! has very little in terms of a traditional musical score. Therefore, the sound of the film becomes extremely important in establishing the tone.

Alas, tone is what can sometimes make mother! a jarring and disorienting experience. I get that it’s a psychological horror film with heavy allegorical meaning, but some of the tonal shifts from scene to scene — most notably about halfway through the movie — weren’t done super well. At the same time, I feel like that the unsettling effect of the tonal shifts were kind of the point — after all, I would agree that this is a film that must be experienced, not simply watched. Nonetheless, I recognize that it’s sometimes strange to go from surreal religious symbolism to domestic drama to psychological horror and back again. This is probably one of the reasons as to why most audiences found mother! a difficult film to watch.

The acting and directing are as good as any you’ll see all year. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in particular are outstanding; Lawrence might have just given us the performance of her career, and that’s saying something.

The film has been described as a Biblical allegory by both Aronofsky and Lawrence, and this becomes very apparent as the film goes on. Bardem — as Him — is essentially playing a version of God, albeit a deity that’s not entirely consistent with one particular religion. Him is universally admired and some of his followers do, in fact, take it too far and do horrible things to please Him. Lawrence echoed some similar sentiments in a recent interview as well — that Bardem represents a deity, but not any particular religion.

(Worth mentioning: Aronofsky previously directed the Biblical epic Noah in 2014. While he admits to a spiritual side, Aronofsky has said that he has a complex relationship with religion and was raised culturally Jewish in his hometown of Brooklyn.)

Harris and Pfeiffer represent Adam and Eve, and you’ll pick up on some related symbolism along the way. The brothers fighting and one killing the other is obviously a Cain and Abel reference, Lawrence’s character is an embodiment of Mother Earth, while the house is the Garden of Eden (this is explored by Mother giving life to a literal child as well as sustaining the house through its many incarnations).

***WARNING: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD***

Speaking of Mother Earth, there were some reviewers that believed that the latter half of the film — in which Him’s obsessed fans ruin the house and drive Mother to her breaking point — as being a metaphor for environmentalism. You could certainly draw this parallel, but the religious symbolism is much stronger and more pervasive throughout the movie.

In my opinion, the symbolism of the bleeding floorboards of the house has two meanings: physical and spiritual. The house’s bleeding stops when Mother is pregnant, suggesting both the physical differences (menstruation vs. pregnancy) and how Mother is happier knowing that she’s bringing a new life into the world, as opposed to earlier, when she felt emotionally distant from Him and lacked joy in her life.

There was some controversy related to Aronofsky’s intentions with this film. The director wrote the entire script at an astonishing pace — five days, in fact — and said he wanted the movie to have a dreamlike quality to it. Some critics complained that the film’s themes and poster bore an uncanny resemblance to horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. Other people didn’t like the violence in mother! or found it too intellectually dense to comprehend, dismissing it as silly or pretentious.

I disagree; I found mother! to be extremely engaging, visually and technically spectacular, and very well-acted. Some might find it too ambitious or disturbing, and some will love the meaning of the film and draw philosophical and spiritual messages from it. Just like my favorite Aronofsky film, Requiem for a DreamMother! is harrowing and intense at times, and isn’t exactly something I’d recommend to everyone. However, I know this film has a real meaning to it and will definitely merit repeat viewings eventually.

Grade: A-

  • Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, and Ari Handel
  • Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
  • Edited by Andrew Wiesblum
  • Starring Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
  • Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.
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Silence (2016)

Two young Jesuit priests search for their missing mentor while facing danger and persecution in 17th-century Japan.

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Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does God seem hidden when we need Him the most?

Why is there suffering in the world?

What loaded questions. But these age-old philosophical queries form the basis of Martin Scorsese’s religious epic Silence.

In 17th-century Japan, there are a number of hidden Christians (known as Kakure Kirishitan) under persecution from the authorities. The story follows two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), who are stationed at St. Paul’s College, Macau.

Garupe and Rodrigues receive word that their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been rumored to have forsaken the faith while under torture. Skeptical but nonetheless troubled of this rumor, both priests journey to Japan, attempting to both find Ferreira and bring a dash of faith, hope, and love to the impoverished, persecuted Japanese Christian community.

However, along the way, both men — especially Rodrigues —  become deeply distraught at the fear and tragedy that the Japanese Catholics deal with. They live in destitution and are desperate for someone to give them encouragement and support. Many scenes in the movie are Rodrigues journaling his thoughts, serving as an inner-monologue to his struggles. It’s heartening to know that even leaders of the faith struggle with the problem of pain, but Rodrigues and Garupe will soon find themselves persecuted as well, struggling to sustain their Gospel against the Japanese shogun.

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Silence is — to put it mildly — an emotional roller-coaster of a movie. Characters grapple with their consciences. Innocent men and women are tortured for their faith. Some characters deny their faith only to tearfully ask for confessions later on.

Put it this way: I have never, ever cried while watching a movie, but in Silence, there were three occasions where that streak was nearly broken.

Silence was in the works for 25 years, with Scorsese securing the rights to Shusaku Endo’s novel back in the 90s. Scorsese’s Catholic background was a key factor in his desire to bring the story of Silence to the big screen, but he still struggled to find the emotional heart of the story. Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jay Cocks, wrote the screenplay all the way back in 1991, but were never quite able to get the project off the ground, re-writing scripts numerous times in between Scorsese’s other films, such as Shutter Island, Gangs of New York, and Hugo.

Eventually, the duo were embroiled in legal battles with studios and had to fight for many years to retain the novel’s rights. Scorsese continued to work on other films in the meantime, before finally deciding to film Silence after his 2013 blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Even at the age of 74, Scorsese is still one of the greatest directors alive, and this pet project was something that he was genuinely passionate about and fought to get made. Still controversial among Christians for his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese nonetheless does have a sincere set of beliefs, even if it’s taken him awhile to re-examine them in his later years. “All I’ve had all my life are movies and religion,” the director once said. In fact, Scorsese briefly considered entering the ministry thanks to the positive influence of a priest during his teenage years at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

Father James Martin — a real Jesuit priest — worked with both Driver and Garfield to ensure an accurate representation of the Catholic faith and traditions. Garfield — fresh off playing another faith-filled hero in Hacksaw Ridge — actually undertook the Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the role. The Exercises are a series of meditations and philosophical musings practiced by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Garfield admitted that he found them “profoundly transformative.”

Filming Silence was a grueling process, with many actors losing weight and suffering through unpredictable weather conditions while shooting in remote and rugged parts of Taiwan.

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Silence does have some incredibly powerful moments. Even for a three-hour film, it’s truly engrossing and beautifully shot, although it really can be hard to watch at times. By Scorsese’s standards, Silence is a very mild R-rated film, with only occasional bloodshed, but it’s still tragic seeing so many people suffer.

Let me be clear: Silence deals with some very deep themes and religion permeates every aspect of the film. Heck, that’s probably why the movie flopped at the box office: most Scorsese fans will not be expecting this type of film from him, and lots of moviegoers aren’t necessarily comfortable with religious epics. But even if you aren’t religious, it’s still an outstanding film and something that is more than capable of tugging at heart strings.

Scorsese explains his philosophy further:

As you get older, ideas come and go. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me….ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time can you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends? Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession. It has to be done… it’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.

The director even went on record as saying that there’s not much hope for humanity without Christianity. “I’m a believer with some doubts,” Scorsese told The Hollywood Reporter. “But the doubts push me to find a purer sense of the word ‘God.'”

In Silence‘s examination of heresy and apostasy, there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. While it is certainly a grievous sin to deny one’s faith, Silence asks us to go even deeper than that. If someone outwardly denies his faith, but still believes deeply in his heart, is it as severe of a sin? Can someone serve Christ silently, even if he doesn’t show it publicly out of fear of being harmed?

Scripture is a prime example of how people are still redeemable, even if they struggle with their faith or even have public moments of doubt. In the Old Testament, Samson fell away from God, but still destroyed His enemies (and himself). In the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy, influential man who loved Jesus, but also feared backlash from the Sanhedrin and kept his faith secret. And, most famously, Peter — the greatest coward in history — became one of the most prominent and dedicated leaders the Church has ever known.

I should clarify — Silence does sometimes pose a lot more questions than answers, and among Christians, I would only recommend it for mature believers. Again, it’s an emotional roller-coaster and is the most thought-provoking film I’ve seen in awhile. The film is also punishingly lengthy (three hours), but does reward the patient viewer. Without getting into spoilers, the emotional payoff of Silence doesn’t come until the final shot of the movie.

Here’s what Catholic scholar Caesar Montevecchio stated in his analysis of the film:

Silence is as much about the object of Christian faith as it is the experience of that faith…..The object of faith becomes a Christ who is a hero of pity, who takes up the weakness and suffering of humankind as his cross, rather than a hero of triumphant resolve. The Jesus of Silence is one of utter kenosis or self-emptying, and one who in the mercy of that kenosis radically sympathizes with the weakness and frailty of human beings.

Japanese-American theologian Fumitaka Masuoka also echoed this view, stating that the movie “pivots on the idea that the silence of God is in fact the message of God, being not the silence of nothingness, but rather the accompaniment for the forsaken and the suffering.”

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Scorsese premiered Silence at the Vatican and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome at the end of November 2016. Scorsese met Pope Francis at the premiere, who wished the film great success and was also impressed by Garfield and Driver’s unique preparations for the role. Scorsese also arranged several private screenings for groups of Jesuits, many of whom were moved to tears. (I’m sure it was a surreal experience for Scorsese to be among groups of people who might have been ready to tar and feather him following Last Temptation, but that’s beside the point.)

It’s a shame that this film didn’t connect with audiences the way it should have. Silence is a remarkable achievement and one of Scorsese’s finest films, and that’s saying something.

Grade: A

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
  • Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô
  • Produced by Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich
  • Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
  • Music by Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge
  • Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Issae Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Ciarán Hinds, Yoshi Oida
  • Rated R for some disturbing violent content.

 

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

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An Australian journalist and a British embassy officer have a romantic fling while surrounded by political instability in 1965 Indonesia.

Foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) receives his new assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country with rampant instability and high corruption. The country’s president, Sukarno, is an avowed nationalist who has been fiercely opposed by both the state communist party (the PKI) and the Muslim-majority Indonesian military.

Western journalists — including Hamilton’s own colleagues from the US, the UK, and New Zealand — struggle to gain adequate information. Hamilton feels awkward around his colleagues, as they view him as an inexperienced hotshot. Adding to Hamilton’s frustration, his predecessor left Indonesia suddenly and didn’t inform him of what to expect.

Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a Chinese-Australian photographer born with dwarfism, turns out to be an unlikely ally for Hamilton, giving him valuable insider information and arranging key interviews with prominent political figures. While smart and intuitive, Billy’s motivations don’t always remain clear to Hamilton.

Billy introduces Hamilton to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a beautiful assistant at the British embassy, and the two eventually begin a romance. However, Hamilton discovers several important bits of information that could signal a coming coup against Sukarno, including the bombshell revelation that the Indonesian communists are plotting to overthrow Sukarno by using arms from China. Despite the danger, Hamilton plans to cover the impending communist uprising, much to Jill’s chagrin. In the midst of turmoil, can Hamilton keep his career and his love life intact?

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One of the classics of Australian New Wave cinema, The Year of Living Dangerously was based upon C.J. Koch’s novel of the same name. Koch wrote the novel in 1978 and based it on some of his brother’s own experiences in Indonesia as a foreign journalist during the same time period.

Koch’s novel soon drew many suitors who wanted to adapt the political romance into a film. While there was no shortage of contenders, eventually Peter Weir bought the rights and signed on to direct. Weir was riding high following his 1981 war film Gallipoli, but The Year of Living Dangerously would prove to be a unique challenge for him.

Koch wrote an early draft of the script, but Weir didn’t like it, prompting a few re-writes from screenwriter Alan Sharp and Gallipoli collaborator David Williamson. Weir and Williamson eventually wrote the final draft, and Koch estimated that the screenplay was 45% his work, and 55% Weir and Williamson.

Funding was initially easy to come by due to Weir’s status in the Australian film community at the time, but the South Australian Film Commission was eventually forced to back out. Weir’s agent suggested that MGM, which was already involved in North American distribution, provide the final budget. The Year of Living Dangerously was green-lit with a budget of AU$6 million and was one of the first international co-productions between the US and Australia (as well as one of the most expensive Aussie films ever made at that point).

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In addition to Williamson, Weir brought in Gallipoli cinematographer Russell Boyd and hired another previous collaborator, Mel Gibson, as his lead. Gibson was already a household name in Australia due to Gallipoli and the first two Mad Max films.

For the role of dwarfish photographer Billy Kwan, Weir originally cast David Atkins, a dancer, but during rehearsals, Weir felt like the chemistry between Gibson and Atkins was lacking. A few more people auditioned, but Weir soon made the unlikely choice to cast Asian-American Linda Hunt in the role of Billy. Hunt won the role and eventually earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Filming was completed mostly in Australia and the Philippines; due to the movie’s political overtones, the Indonesian government refused to allow the production to film in Jakarta (the movie remained banned there until 1999). Both Weir and Gibson received death threats from Filipino Muslims who had been led to believe that the movie was anti-Islam; this later forced the production to move to Sydney and complete principal photography there. (Gibson brushed off the death threats in a subsequent interview, quipping, “It wasn’t really that bad…I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?”)

The Year of Living Dangerously was released in November 1982 in Australia and February 1983 in North America, grossing over $10 million in both countries combined. The film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the ’83 Cannes Film Festival.

I really enjoyed this movie — it’s got a excellent tone, pace and some really good cinematography while blending elements of suspense, romance, and drama. Gibson, Weaver, and Hunt are all outstanding. I found The Year of Living Dangerously to be about halfway between the sweeping romance of Casablanca and the harrowing, pulse-pounding nature of The Last King of Scotland. Most of these specific plot elements work really well, although there are some minor tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. Apart from that, The Year of Living Dangerously is well-made and entertaining, and I’d highly recommend it if you like political thrillers, romantic thrillers, or Gibson’s pre-Lethal Weapon filmography.

Grade: B+

  • Released 1982
  • Directed by Peter Weir
  • Produced by Jim McElroy
  • Screenplay by Peter Weir and David Williamson
  • Director of Photography — Russell Boyd
  • Music by Maurice Jarre
  • Edited by William M. Anderson
  • Starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt, Bill Kerr, Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, Bembol Roco, Paul Sonkkila
  • Rated PG

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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An ailing theatre director’s world becomes increasingly surreal as he obsessively tries to re-create a life-size version of New York City for his upcoming play.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a depressed theatre director who is increasingly distant from his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). Caden directs a well-received production of Death of a Salesman and unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, which he uses to stage an extremely complicated and elaborate production of his own making. Adele eventually leaves Caden and takes Olive with her, settling in Berlin and pursuing her art career full-time. Meanwhile, Caden begins to experience a variety of health problems, which adds to his own paranoia and hypochondria.

As Caden’s theatrical world becomes increasingly larger — both physically and metaphysically — his health begins to decline and the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly vague.

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This film’s title is based upon the concept of synecdoche, in which something represents part of a whole, or vice versa, and is also a play on words of Schenectady, New York, where most of the film takes place. Synecdoche, New York is the brainchild — and directorial debut — of Charlie Kaufman, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter of such surrealist fare as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

For what it’s worth, I had heard from various friends, cinephiles, and film industry colleagues that Synecdoche, New York was an underrated masterpiece that didn’t get enough credit when it came out. I also knew that the movie had developed a greater appreciation in recent years, particularly following the tragic death of leading man Philip Seymour Hoffman back in February 2014.

Synecdoche, New York premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and was a polarizing film, to say the least. It bombed at the box office, generating only $4.4 million on a $20 million budget. The late Roger Ebert called the film the best of the decade and claimed he knew from the get-go that it was a masterpiece. Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times also raved about Synecdoche, New York, calling it “sprawling, awe-inspiring, and heartbreaking” and “extravagantly conceptual”, respectively.

Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman stated “I gave up making heads or tails of Synecdoche, New York, but I did get one message: the compulsion to stand outside of one’s life and observe it to this degree isn’t the mechanism of art — it’s the structure of psychosis.” The Washington Times also blasted the movie, claiming that it was “inaccessible and endlessly frustrating, replete with arthouse pomposity and the type of muddled profundity one sees in an introductory philosophy seminar.” Rex Reed of The New York Observer also panned Synecdoche, New York and named it one of the worst of 2008, while Jonathan Rosenbaum claimed it was more of an illustration of a script than an actual narrative film.

Kaufman repeatedly stated in interviews that he did not want to explain anything about the film, and refused to record a director’s commentary on the DVD, believing that Synecdoche, New York should stand entirely on its own merits.

Fair play, Mr. Kaufman. Now let me explain what I thought of your film.

Synecdoche, New York is 10% an actually intriguing character study and 90% pretentious, self-indulgent drivel. Kaufman is an extremely philosophical writer, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Anyone who has seen the previous films that he’s written will know this.

The entire point(?) of Synecdoche, New York is to show a theatre director’s natural fears of death and aging, and to visualize how his world is blurring the lines of fantasy and reality. While there are some decent enough emotional beats in the film, nothing is coherent enough to care about and the characters lose their appeal pretty quickly. The film is melancholy and extremely self-serious, to its detriment, and doesn’t have enough interesting elements or characters to do anything with all of its (admittedly weighty) themes. At the end of the day, Hoffman’s character is just a lonely, increasingly frail guy with wildly ambitious visions for an otherwise-straightforward play — no more, no less.

I have nothing against arthouse cinema or post-modern drama films; in fact, I can safely say that it’s a genre that had definitely grown on me in the past few years. Some of my favorite films are surreal and abstract movies that don’t immediately make sense — such as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the majority of Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, the early films of David Lynch, etc. Some might call those types of movies pretentious or plodding, but they actually have a lot more going on than meets the eye and definitely improve upon repeat viewings. And even if said films aren’t your cup of tea, at the very least, most people can respect the details and vision of them and acknowledge what the director in question was attempting to say.

With Synecdoche, New York, however, I constantly felt like there was little to no depth in the storyline, despite my digging into the deeper meaning of the film after I watched it. I read critics’ interpretations of Synecdoche, New York and wracked my brain to no end after the credits rolled, but there was still no real point to it all. Again, the film does touch on a handful of valuable themes, but it misses the mark nine times out of 10.

I alluded to how self-serious Synecdoche, New York is earlier in this review, and that’s part of what takes the wind out of its unusually ambitious sails. This film is plodding and humorless, offering tantalizing moments of clarity and emotional weight that end up being nothing but philosophical mush in the end. So much of the surrealist moments and underlying tones of the film just doesn’t hit the audience the way it should, and even if it does hit you, you’re too busy scratching your head and trying to make heads or tails out of anything in it.

In addition, Synecdoche, New York is barely over two hours long, and it felt like four hours long when I watched it. The film’s only saving graces are A) a couple of genuine moments towards the end that were actually somewhat thought-provoking, and B) a tour-de-force performance from Hoffman, who, too often, is the only real thing giving Synecdoche, New York any forward momentum.

Grade: D

  • Released 2008
  • Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
  • Produced by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Sidney Kimmel, and Anthony Bregman
  • Director of Photography — Frederick Elmes
  • Music by Jon Brion
  • Edited by Robert Frazen
  • Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

Art from adversity: The making of the original MAD MAX

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Plenty of great films over the years have had extremely troubled productions, but have gone on to be hugely successful and influential — films such as Star WarsApocalypse Now, or Jaws. The old saying “art from adversity” is frequently cited in these cases — the idea that you have to suffer through a somewhat-crazy production in order to enjoy the high moments of a well-received film. It’s Murphy’s law of filmmaking, really: that things will inevitably go wrong, but that the payoff is all the more satisfying in the end.

The three aforementioned movies were all unique in their own ways. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were both considered young up-and-comers; they had been mentored by industry giants, but still had plenty of doubters from major studios — and it didn’t help that both Jaws and Star Wars were beset with problems from the get-go. On the other hand, Francis Ford Coppola was an Oscar winner on top of the world when he made Apocalypse Now, but the director still dealt with mercurial actors, political unrest, and inclement weather when making the Vietnam epic in the Philippines.

And then, every once in awhile, a film changes everything from the unlikeliest of places and from complete industry outsiders. Which brings us to George Miller, the Australian doctor-turned-filmmaker who created and directed the Mad Max series.

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Mad Max and its resulting sequels have become so iconic and important in action movie culture that it’s increasingly hard to look at it with fresh eyes. Basically every post-apocalyptic sci-fi or action movie since has been influenced by the Mad Max series. For many years, the original Mad Max (released in 1979) held the Guinness World Record for most profitable film on a budget-to-box-office ratio: over USD$100 million worldwide on a budget of AUD$380,000.

Miller, now age 72, was a complete neophyte when he was making the original Mad Max film in the summer of 1977. Miller was an ER doctor in residence at a hospital in Sydney and frequently treated car accident victims. He met producer Byron Kennedy, a self-taught filmmaker from Melbourne, in 1971 at a summer film course. Kennedy and Miller made a short action film shortly thereafter, which won several awards and gave them enough confidence to helm a feature on their own terms and with their own money.

Miller had wanted to make a road film within the context of a realistically bleak, post-apocalyptic Australia, where fuel and water are in short supply, violent biker gangs rule the streets, and rogue policemen are the only major line of defense. Miller — who co-wrote the script with James McCausland — claimed that he wanted Mad Max to feel like “a silent movie with sound,” meaning that the story would be inherently simple, with the visuals reigning supreme.

McCausland was also inspired by the worldwide oil crisis of the late 70s, which hit Australia well before it hit the US (in 1973).

A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank….George and I wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.

Both Miller and Kennedy were able to raise a mixture of their own funds and some small contributions from state film bodies in Australia, who thought that the film had potential. Still, this was very much a micro-budget affair; Miller estimated that the final budget was AUD$380,000.

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Casting Mad Max proved to be very difficult, as Miller was putting all options on the table in order to stay within budget and still cast the right people for each part. The director even made a brief trip to Los Angeles, but eventually decided against casting American names due to the high cost. Instead, Miller and casting director Mitch Mathews found a group of recent graduates of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), which included a 21-year-old Sydneysider named Mel Gibson.

Gibson had trained strictly as a theatre actor at NIDA and had only appeared in one feature film at that point, while his friend and classmate, Steve Bisley, was also cast in the movie. Three other cast members were Hugh Keays-Byrne, Vincent Gil, and Roger Ward, who played members of the biker gang; they had also previously appeared as bikers in a 1974 film called Stone that inspired Miller.

Due to the tiny budget, Mad Max had only ten weeks to shoot — six for first unit shots and four weeks strictly dedicated to the chase sequences and stuntwork. Much of the film was shot in country Victoria, including the outskirts of Melbourne and the towns of Little River and Clunes.

Four days into the shoot, Rose Bailey, who was originally cast as Max’s wife Jessie, got injured in an off-set accident and had to be replaced. The production was put on hold for two weeks until Joanne Samuel was hired to replace Bailey. In the end, the filming only took six weeks overall in the summer of 1977, with six more weeks on second unit footage. Some stunts had to be re-staged and more second-unit work had to be done in May 1978.

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The shoot was guerrilla filmmaking at its finest, as the crew didn’t even have permits and Miller and Kennedy had to continuously sweep down the rural roads themselves. Thankfully, the Victoria Police didn’t shut anything down and were even able to help the crew escort the many stunt vehicles to set. Costumes were simple as well due to the limited budget, with almost all of the police jackets made of vinyl leather rather than real leather.

Many of the biker extras featured were actual members of outlaw biker gangs and rode their own motorcycles in the film. Due to the prohibitive cost of flying in extra talent for short periods of filming, Miller had to ask the bikers to drive the 10-hour trip from Sydney to Melbourne for the production.

Post-production was even more of an adventure. Miller and Kennedy co-edited the majority of the footage themselves and also collaborated on the sound editing at a friend’s apartment in Melbourne. Kennedy’s father, an engineer, helped construct a home-built machine for editing purposes. “Byron would cut sound in the lounge room and I’d cut picture in the kitchen,” Miller recalled.

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Eventually, Miller and Kennedy were able to to bring in outside talent. Editor Tony Patterson helped work on Mad Max‘s post process for four months, but eventually left due to prior commitments. Miller and a friend, Cliff Hayes, worked on the editing for a few more months before completing the final cut with Kennedy. Sound engineer Roger Savage was then brought in to do the sound mixing.

Mad Max‘s musical score was composed by Brian May (not to be confused with the famous Queen guitarist), whose earlier work Miller had admired. “George was marvelous to work with,” May said in a later interview. “He had a lot of ideas about what he wanted even though he wasn’t a musician.”

Mad Max was released through Roadshow Entertainment in Australia, American International Pictures in the US, and Warner Bros. in the rest of the world. Concerned that the majority of American audiences wouldn’t understand the Aussie slang in the film’s dialogue, Mad Max was re-dubbed with American accents for its theatrical release. Because Gibson was not a star at the time, American trailers for Mad Max chose to emphasize more of the action sequences and the post-apocalyptic landscape of the movie, as opposed to focusing on a singular actor.

Dubbing aside, Mad Max didn’t do too well in the US at first and received a polarizing response from critics. However, the movie was a massive hit in its native country, grossing over AUD$5 million and receiving three Australian Film Institute Awards in 1979 (Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Musical Score).

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As we all know, the film became a cult classic and spawned two successful sequels also starring Gibson, as well as 2015’s long-awaited and acclaimed Fury Road, which starred Tom Hardy as Max. Miller, along with fellow director Peter Weir, is credited with opening up the market for Australian New Wave cinema to a worldwide audience. The Mad Max series continues to influence the look and feel of many sci-fi, action, and chase films, and helped introduce Gibson to American audiences.

And it all started because of a couple of doctors and their wild passion for filmmaking.

The Belko Experiment (2016)

 

A large group of international white-collar employees are forced into a game of kill-or-be-killed as part of a greater, twisted form of social Darwinism.

Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) works a desk job at an international company called Belko Industries with his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). The company employs numerous workers from a number of different countries and is located in a remote office building on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia. Due to the high rate of drug trafficking in the country, new employees at Belko are implanted with a type of tracking device in case they are kidnapped, and the office building is surrounded by high levels of armed security.

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Eighty employees work at the office on this particular day, and once the 80th arrives, a loud, monotone voice crackles over the intercom. The voice informs all of the employees that they have two hours to kill two of their co-workers, or else others will be killed at random. Most of the employees laugh it off as a prank, but soon, the windows and doors are shuttered with steel plates.

Suddenly, four employees are killed seemingly at random. While it first appears that they were shot, Mike soon realizes that their heads were blown apart by their tracking devices being detonated. The voice informs the group that they must kill 30 people within the next two hours, or else 60 will be killed. Mike and Leandra attempt to keep order amid chaos and flatly refuse to kill their innocent co-workers. Belko’s COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) feels that desperate times call for desperate measures, and eventually gives in to the voice’s demands. He, along with Wendell (John C. McGinley) and Terry (Owain Yeoman), attempt to take out their co-workers before the voice’s macabre deadline strikes. What ensues is a bloody free-for-all that will leave plenty of bodies in its wake.

The Belko Experiment premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, but didn’t get a theatrical release here in the States until March 2017. The film is the brainchild of acclaimed director James Gunn, who wrote the screenplay, and was directed by Greg McLean. I was very impressed by McLean’s first film, an Australian independent grindhouse feature called Wolf Creek, so I was intrigued to see The Belko Experiment when I picked it up at Redbox recently.

This film certainly has a number of strengths and weaknesses. It’s reasonably well-written and acted, and I love the way McLean builds suspense in the opening act. It’s both well-paced and has some pretty solid cinematography, despite being quite low budget ($5 million).

However, several characters aren’t very well-developed and, while the stakes are certainly high throughout, the film became a tad uneven towards the end. It’s also a premise that, while inherently entertaining, just might not be believable for certain audiences. The Belko Experiment is very gory and will certainly please fans of the psychological horror/slasher genre, but others might find it too depraved for their liking. Ultimately, the movie offered enough for me to appreciate it as a decent genre film and delivered pretty much what I expected.

Grade: B-

  • Directed by Greg McLean
  • Written by James Gunn
  • Produced by James Gunn and Peter Safran
  • Director of Photography — Luis David Sansas
  • Music by Tyler Bates
  • Edited by Julia Wong
  • Starring John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, James Earl
  • Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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Based on real-life events, Martin Scorsese’s black comedy focuses on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street mogul who operated a pump-and-dump scheme in the late 80s and was subject to FBI investigation.

Queens-born Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is young, handsome, and insanely ambitious. He comes from a modest background, but desires to get to the top as much as anyone. In 1987, he lands a stockbroker job at L.F. Rothschild, working for the charismatic Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who entices him with a win-at-all-costs attitude.

However, on Black Monday, the company suffers extreme losses and Belfort is out of a job. Discouraged and struggling to pay the bills, he catches on with a boiler room brokerage firm on Long Island that specializes in penny stocks. While a far cry from his previous job, the determined Belfort succeeds almost immediately and amasses a small fortune.

Soon enough, Belfort strikes up a professional relationship with his neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and together with several of Belfort’s friends and colleagues, they start their own business. The basic method that they use is a pump-and-dump scam, artificially inflating stock prices and scamming investors in order to make quick cash. In order to avoid possible probes into their illegal activity, Belfort gives his new company the respectable-sounding name of Stratton Oakmont.

The firm starts out very successfully, and Belfort is soon the subject line of numerous articles and newspapers columns including a non-flattering portrait and exposé in Forbes. Nonetheless, 20-somethings and recent college grads flock to Stratton Oakmont in record numbers, wanting a piece of the action.

Belfort and his colleagues became astonishingly successful, raking in millions of dollars and indulging in decadent lifestyles of cocaine, prostitutes, and expensive yachts. The SEC and the FBI begin to take an interest in Stratton Oakmont, even going so far as to interview Belfort personally, but with little concrete evidence tying him to illegal activities, they’re unable to do anything further. Together with his new wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), Belfort develops more and more ambitious schemes to stay one step ahead of the feds and remain the head of his own personal kingdom.

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I recently rewatched The Wolf of Wall Street and I’ve gotta admit, this film is still one of Martin Scorsese’s best. It is one of the most entertaining black comedies of the past decade, while still having an emotional core and working as a pretty vicious satire. It also shows Scorsese’s versatility as a director; people always associate him with his award-winning crime/mafia films, such as Goodfellas, The Departed, and Casino, but Scorsese has made some outstanding films in many different genres.

The Wolf of Wall Street also marked the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, the latter of whom also co-produced the film. DiCaprio had secured the rights to Jordan Belfort’s memoir back in 2007 and had wanted to bring Scorsese onboard for quite sometime. The movie had been in pre-production for several years, and Scorsese had worked on several script rewrites with screenwriter Terence Winter. However, Warner Bros had not given the green light for production dates, frustrating Scorsese, and he eventually moved on to other projects, including Shutter Island and Hugo. In 2010, the studio offered it to Ridley Scott to direct, with DiCaprio starring.

Scott ended up passing on the project, and Scorsese came back on board when notable independent company Red Granite Pictures became involved; this gave Scorsese free reign without fear of studio censorship. Eventually, Paramount distributed the film in the North American market.

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The Wolf of Wall Street was a massive financial success when it was released in December 2013, and to this day is Scorsese’s highest-grossing film ever ($392 million worldwide). The movie received five Oscar nominations, including for DiCaprio and Scorsese, as well as Jonah Hill’s first nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. Numerous critics praised the film as a brilliant black comedy and it appeared on many end-of-year top ten lists. While DiCaprio did not win the Best Actor Oscar, he did win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.

While a resounding commercial success, The Wolf of Wall Street received some controversy from critics and audiences alike, focusing on the apparent morally ambiguous tone of the film. I disagree with this; I feel like Scorsese and Winter handled the source material very well and didn’t make excuses for the characters’ actions, and here’s why:

While based on a real story and real person, The Wolf of Wall Street does succeed as a smart, biting satire of Wall Street indulgence. Some people may feel that presenting such irresponsible actions as comedy is setting a poor example, but I don’t really feel that way. Yes, the movie has some serious adult content that is inappropriate for young viewers, but the fact of the matter is that this film is supposed to be over-the-top, because it’s a story that wouldn’t be considered believable if it took itself too seriously.

Several real-life victims of Belfort’s schemes (or relatives of victims) also criticized the film’s portrayal of the characters, feeling that they were simply portrayed as rowdy, coke-addicted fratboys rather than career white-collar criminals, as well as refusing to focus on the ruined lives of Stratton Oakmont’s victims. Both Scorsese and DiCaprio denied these allegations, arguing that focusing too much on the victims would distract from the actual actions that directly led to the downfall of Belfort and his empire.

The bottom line is that The Wolf of Wall Street is about a guy who wanted to have it all and eventually became obsessed to the point of destroying himself, his business, and his family. DiCaprio even mentioned that, in his performance as Belfort, he was inspired by another famously decadent, power-hungry film character — Malcolm McDowell’s Emperor Caligula in the infamous 1973 film of the same name.

Some might consider the film’s serious language, sexual content, and drug use to be a deal-breaker, and I understand that. But, to me, Scorsese balanced the line between satire and drama very well, aside from a few tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. The Wolf of Wall Street is also three hours long and may be difficult to sit through for certain people, but overall, this is another intelligent, entertaining achievement from Scorsese that still deserves the acclaim it initially received.

Rating: B+

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay by Terence Winter
  • Based on the book by Jordan Belfort
  • Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff
  • Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
  • Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin, Ethan Suplee, Brian Sacca, Christine Ebersole, Kenneth Choi, P.J. Byrne, Cristin Milioti, Jake Hoffman
  • Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.