Tag Archives: Darren Aronofsky

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ellen Burstyn

PLOT: In the present day, a scientist searches for a cure for his wife’s brain tumor; two other stories are interspersed, one about a conquistador’s search for the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s and another about a tree-tending bald guru in a space bubble floating towards a nebula.

Still from The Fountain (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A spiritual allegory told in three different timelines, one of which is set almost entirely in a traveling golden space bubble, The Fountain is far out by Hollywood standards. The final ten or fifteen minutes, when Aronofsky goes all 2001-y, may push the film onto the List. I expect to see lots of readers stumping for this; it feels like a burgeoning cult movie, one whose momentum is still building.

COMMENTS: The Fountain has an extraordinarily tight script, with reflections of each of its three different stories showing up in the others. Rings, trees, and immortality are just a few of the recurring symbols. Some viewers—even a few critics who should be better equipped to parse unconventional narratives—found the story baffling. I didn’t think it was especially confusing (except, perhaps, for the very end), nor do I think that anyone who’s seen a weird movie or two will find The Fountain too challenging to follow. I won’t spoil the plot—uncoiling it is the movie’s greatest pleasure—but I’ll give a single hint if you get stuck. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all three stories are of equal weight; one of them clearly has what we might call a higher degree of reality than the other two.

As hinted, that script is tight up until the ending, where the movie stretches its weird credentials in a pan-religious finale that crashes a spaceship of Buddhist philosophy into a temple of Mayan mysticism to unlock a door to Judeo-Christian symbolism. The lotus position is assumed, conquistadors get stabbed, and trees bleed spermlike sap as a golden nebula explodes. Not bad for a trip sequence, but the visual fireworks play more like a substitute for a conclusion than as a culmination of the movie’s philosophical themes. Back on planet earth, I think a key element of allegory is missing. The movie’s message of acceptance does not seem profound enough to justify the preceding bombast, and it all leads to an abrupt, none-to-satisfying final scene.

Although the glory of the movie’s visuals can’t be denied—the fantasy scenes look like embossed gold foil is running through the projector—emotionally, The Fountain does not always achieve its aims. Weisz is too mannered and inhuman in her scenes as the Queen, and too much on the sidelines in her present day role. Her dying-of-a-tragic-disease-that-leaves-her-weak-but-still-pretty character never seems like a real, independent person; she’s just a motivation for Jackman’s obsession. We sense how amazing she is only by her effect on her husband, by the lengths to which she drives him to travel to the ends of the earth, the limits of medical knowledge, and the ends of the universe. For Jackman’s part, he certainly acts his heart out, gnashing his teeth and steeling his brow as he buckles down for another bout of uncompromising, denial-based medical research, but the performance is nothing transcendent. Emotionally, the film feels a little hollow, taking its theme of eternal love too much as a stock situation rather than something to be demonstrated onscreen. These complaints only take a little away from the beauty of the film’s construction; the movie was inches away from being a great one. I can see what The Fountain‘s partisans see in it, but I don’t feel what they feel.

Critics were about evenly divided between admiring the film for its audacity and calling it out for its pretensions. But if nothing else, Darren Aronofsky is one of the few directors working today who can actually convince a Hollywood studio to bankroll a weird movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pic’s hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepie-meets-conquistador caper starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz suffers from a turgid script and bears all the signs of edit-suite triage to produce a still-incoherent 95 minutes.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tim,” who [somewhat misleadingly, in my view] synopsized it as “about a guy [looking a lot like Kwai Chang Caine] who is floating through space in a bubble, with a tree, thinking back on his life as a Conquistador and pharmaceutical researcher.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

NOAH (2014)

When it was first announced that Paramount had given  (Black Swan) the green light to tell his version of the Noah story, many familiar with the director’s work wondered how he and frequent collaborator and scriptwriter Ari Handel were going to interpret it.

Still from Noah (2014)The mainstream audience began popping up their heads a few months ago, when all they had heard was that Hollywood had made a soon-to-be-released BIG movie about Noah in the Bible. Naturally, the Bible geeks were shivering with anticipation. The only surprise from the near hysteria which followed was that the pious made so much noise primarily after the premiere, rather than before. Naturally, true to form, there has been condemnation from some without even having seen the film, but not quite to the extent we have seen from evangelical audiences previously. Some have accused Paramount of duping Christians into seeing it with a misleading campaign. Perhaps, or perhaps the studio merely overestimated that faction of the American public.

The cries from a plethora of American Evangelical Christians that Noah is “blasphemous” is, in fact, offensive in itself, but not entirely unexpected. The Noah story does not exclusively belong to evangelical Christians, as it is not of Christian origin. Rather, that version of the universal flood is derived from ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. Even the writers of Genesis took the Noah account from preexisting narratives, such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

The art of Biblical storytelling is an oral tradition, which predates written scripture. Aronofsky continues in that spirit of oral tradition. Indeed, it is a theme which gives the film its strength and edge. Aronofsky, long obsessed with making Noah (2014), proves erudite, giving his film flourishes of a primordial world not far removed, time-wise, from Eden. It is a world with memories of its Paradise Lost hauntingly intact (i.e. a visual reference to the Edenic river). In the middle of all this is the startling protagonist Noah (Russell Crowe), whom Aronofsky gives flesh, flaws and drama, removing him from the plaster pedestal. That seems to be Aronofsky’s chief offense for the unimaginative, pious masses who wanted a film about a cardboard cutout, rosy-cheeked, bearded old white guy smiling sweetly as he loads happy sheep onto his velcro boat. The rainbow ending is, of course, up for grabs. Aronofsky’s approach is far too serious for that and he creatively reworks scripture and rabbinic writings into a challenging work of art that approaches world literature.

As with all great literature, it has elements of the reflective and the unexpected. The non-canonical “Book of Enoch” is another source he draws on. Aronofsky and Handel write in the spirit of ancient biblical writers, who had no issues mixing myth, parable, folklore, and poetry together with a sliver of historicity into one narrative. They were not bound by our ideas of hyper-realism or linear storytelling. The earliest Church fathers understood this, and did not take scripture as either exclusively literal or historical. They saw it as a collection of diverse literary forms, written by divergent, God-obsessed peoples trying to grasp divine concepts. The resulting efforts were often akin to infinite ideas described in inadequately finite language, which is why we sometimes have conflicting biblical views of God within the same paragraph. Advocates of biblical inerrancy will argue that the ancient writings are Spirit-inspired. Perhaps, but even then it had to be filtered through human hands and, therefore, the Bible is “fallible” in our contemporary understanding of the term.

Aronofsky is not a believer per se, but despite claims of those who are trying to demonize him, he does not take the “religion as the root of all evil” route. Indeed, Aronofsky, of Jewish heritage and education, clearly seeks to express an idea in an admirably classic way that is also overwhelming, confounding and vital for the viewer: God as both maternal and paternal Creator. That is an idea too sacred for the secular and too secular for the pious.

In one sense, it is refreshing that Noah is a challenging enough film to provoke and inspire debate. This makes Noah more than just a chalky Sunday School lesson. We do not have to worry about Aronofsky and Handel succumbing to the status quo (who seem forever intent on proving how little we have evolved in the past few millennium anyway).

Of course, the arrogant assumption that all Christians are evangelicals subscribing to sola scriptura is the foremost offensive reaction to the film by disgruntled audiences. This is actually more of the “either/or” mentality that far too many fundamentalists succumb to: one either approaches biblical stories as history, verbatim accounts that happened exactly as written, or one does not believe. Aronofsky’s Noah is further evidence of the evangelical reaction to anything which veers away from their expectations; reactions which are frighteningly similar to those we have seen from radical Muslims regarding certain films, art, etc. If Aronofsky  proves anything, he proves that one can respond to or be inspired by scripture without subscribing to it as monotone historicity. Aronofsky’s God reaches out to the patriarchal line—from as Methuselah to Crowe’s Noah—via visions. The “God” terminology is provocatively ambiguous, and lest we forget, we do not find God being referred to, in name, until much later in the Bible. The concept of God as YHWH (et. al.) was not yet developed at this time, and the context here would have us see this God simply as the Creator. Projecting any other names onto God would have been sloppy interpretive work on the part of Aronofsky.

Another theme is the fall of humanity and humanity’s subsequent relationship to the environment. Oddly, Aronofsky’s depiction of the Nephilim is one of those “blink and you will miss it” references found in the Hebrew Bible that the literalists actually prefer to be ignored. Perhaps its one of those references that reiterates a little too strongly fantasy elements inherent in the Bible.

Aronofsky’s film indeed is in line with much of Hebrew literature (at least where it matters) and contextually it may be one of the most bravely “accurate” film productions of the Bible to date. If unimaginative fundamentalists have hangups about it, it is, in the end, their hangup. Still, hearing some of the hackneyed protests against this film makes me wonder, what the hell is wrong with religion? Why is it so afraid of challenge and artistic interpretation?

90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

“It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.”–Vincent Cassell

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, , Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: Nina, a goody two-shoes ballerina, wants to dance the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake,” but although she’s perfect for the role of the White Swan, she lacks the seductiveness to portray the Black Swan. Lily, a sexy, irresponsible dancer newly arrived from a San Francisco troupe, becomes her primary competition for the part, but also helps her loosen up by talking her out on the town for a night of drinking and meeting guys. Nina starts physically break down and hallucinate as the stress of preparing for the role takes its toll; by opening night, she can’t distinguish reality from the story she dances of the princess trapped in the body of a swan who takes her own life.

Still from Black Swan (2010)

BACKGROUND:

  • Natalie Portman danced many of her own parts, and actually dislocated a rib while dancing during the shoot. More difficult moves were performed by professional ballerinas, and for two sequences Portman’s face was digitally superimposed on dancer Sarah Lane’s body. There was a minor controversy over how much of the dancing Portman actually did herself and how much was performed by doubles; Aronofsky estimated that the actress executed more than 80% of the dance moves that appear onscreen.
  • Portman won the 2010 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Nina. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing.
  • Aronofsky received “The Understudy,” the original script that became Black Swan, while he was making Requiem for a Dream (2000). He described the script as Dostoevsky’s “The Double” meets All About Eve. Aronofsky combined that script, which was set in an off-Broadway production, with an idea he had to shoot a movie in the New York ballet world to create Black Swan.
  • Aronofsky and Portman had discussed doing a ballet movie together 8 years prior to shooting.
  • Made on a relatively small budget of about $12 million, Black Swan has grossed more than $300 million worldwide as of this writing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nina’s “triumphant” onstage transformation into the Black Swan: as she pirouettes, feathers sprout from her arms, thickening with every swirl, until her limbs have been replaced by wings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Up until opening night, Black Swan is a backstage melodrama about backstabbing ballerinas, with an exaggerated, lurid psychopathology that’s thrust even further over-the-top by lesbian love scenes, hints of horror, and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.  When the curtain rises on the big night, we experience the performance through the subjective perspective of an overworked, paranoid, demented dancer, whose psychology has been shattered by the film’s sledgehammer symbolism.  No avant-grade choreographer could stage as disorienting a “Swan Lake” as the one she hallucinates for us through her obsessed eyes.

Promotional Music Video for Black Swan

COMMENTS: Black Swan is the weirdest movie ever to win a major Academy Award (Natalie Continue reading 90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

LIST CANDIDATE: BLACK SWAN (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: A shy up-and-coming ballet dancer lands the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”

Still from Black Swan (2010)

Obsessed with perfection and paranoid that the dual role will be taken away from her, she struggles to become both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan characters.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological horror-thriller, no doubt about it, and in many ways it sticks to the conventions of that kind of film . But at the same time, Black Swan is so eerie, so unsettling, and so strange in its hallucinatory freak-outs and loosening grip on reality—and so good overall—that it probably warrants inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: It is very difficult to write any kind of in-depth review of this movie without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, just take my word for it that Black Swan is a truly exceptional film and you should go see it.  Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid any big revelations, but will mention various plot points.

It seems the controversial Darren Aronofsky has found a way to combine the considerable and versatile talents he exhibited in his preceding films into one near-perfect thriller that’s both unsettling and emotionally gripping.  He infuses his new feature with all the depravity of Requiem for a Dream, the visceral surrealism of Pi, the visual splendor of The Fountain, and the grounded character of The Wrestler, while of course adding some beautiful dance sequences and a sapphic fantasy. His camera moves with the dancers as they bound across the stage, offering a volatile but accessible glimpse at a live art form and throwing in enough technical tricks to keep any camera geek guessing.

Nina is a quiet, innocent young woman—an obvious product of her coddling, controlling mother—and her quest for perfection in dance leads her to attempt a complete personality overhaul. To play the Black Swan role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” she must release the dark, confident, seductive force within her that’s been fighting to break out. This duality within her character is frequently hinted at throughout the film through use of mirrors, sex, and hallucination woven so seamlessly with reality that the viewer is frequently unsure what is real—as is Nina herself. The constant mind games Aronofsky plays with his audience—along with Natalie Portman’s dedicated performance—make for a captivating, tense experience. I was so engaged and so anxious during this movie I felt myself physically relax about twenty minutes after it ended, though mentally I still felt shaken.

A testament to the great struggles inherent to any artistic expression, Black Swan is an intense and passionate film. Every sound is acutely felt, every strange vision strikes a cord. At times things get as visceral as Cronenberg‘s body horrors. The horror is derived from how little we really know about anything outside of Nina’s own experience, and how unsure we are about how much worse it’s going to get. Everyone around her presumably leads a fairly normal, expected life (well, everyone except Winona Ryder’s tragic, boozy ex-dancer Beth), but we are rarely able to see outside of Nina’s self-constructed dual prison of home and studio, which is inflated in her own head. Indeed, the few times we are reminded of the outside world offer welcome comedic breaks to somewhat ease the ever-building tension.

All of Aronofsky’s stylistic flourishes and subtly terrifying images are tempered by several truly impressive performances. Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation, and exhilaration. Mila Kunis is an excellent foil, physically mirroring the shy protagonist while exuding the sexuality and abandon Nina strives for. Vincent Cassell is a superb jackass, channeling George Balanchine in his romantic, tyrannical choreographer Thomas Leroy, and Barbara Hershey is appropriately sympathetic and creepy as Nina’s obsessive mother Erica.

From the very beginning Black Swan reaches out and grabs its audience, never letting its grip slip until well after the credits roll. At times it may be hard to watch, but you’ll never want to look away, and what you see will certainly stick with you. And the combination of backstage ballet drama, pulp-thriller gore, and hallucinatory allegory actually is pretty weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

36. PI (1998)

AKA π; π: Faith in Chaos

“Very much like the universe itself, the more technologically advanced we become and as out picture of π grows larger, the more its mysteries grow.”—From “Notes on π” on the Lions Gate Pi DVD

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis

PLOT: Max, a reclusive mathematics genius, searches for a pattern that will help him predict the stock market with the assistance of a supercomputer he has built in his apartment.  He also suffers from terrible migraines which cause him to hallucinate, and believes (sometimes correctly) that people are stalking him.  As he gets closer to locating a certain 216 digit number that may have mystical predictive qualities, he finds himself caught between the machinations of a large corporation and a mystical sect, both of whom want the knowledge inside his head and will stop at nothing to get it.

Still from Pi (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pi was made for a mere $60,000, financed largely by $100 contributions from friends and family.  Each of the cast and crew worked for an identical salary and a share of the film.  Pi eventually grossed over $3 million domestically.
  • The movie was shot in high contrast black and white reversal film stock (usually used for still photography).  In his DVD commentary Sean Gullette says that Pi was the first feature length fiction film shot this way.
  • Pi won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize (losing to the now largely forgotten Slam).  It won the main prize at several smaller film festivals.
  • Aronofsky also created a graphic novel called “The Book of Ants” that presents a slightly different take on the story of Pi.
  • This was the first soundtrack scored by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, who has now become an in-demand Hollywood composer.
  • Aronofsky went on to further critical success with the bleak addiction parable Requiem for a Dream (2000); the weirdish science fiction/romance The Fountain (2006); the straightforward drama The Wrestler (2008), which earned Oscar nominations for stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei; and five more Oscar nominations (with a statuette for Natalie Portman) for Black Swan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A brain crawling with ants that shows up in the strangest places, including on a subway staircase and in a sink.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Math wiz Max’s frequent migraine induced hallucinations give Pi


Original trailer for Pi

all the weird cachet it needs, but even without them, the hermetic world created by the mix of grainy high-contrast monochrome photography, rapid-fire montage editing, a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and ideas too grandiose and metaphysical to be completely described would have created a movie seething with weirdness.  It also features a tough, streetwise gang of devout Hasidic Jews, which by itself gives it an extra weird point.

COMMENTS:  “When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun.  So Continue reading 36. PI (1998)