Tag Archives: Hollywood

324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”–attributed to W.C. Fields

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edward F. Cline

FEATURING: , Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, , Susan Miller, Leon Errol

PLOT: W.C. Fields (playing himself) is pitching a new screenplay to Esoteric Pictures, while serving as temporary guardian to his niece, an up-and-coming actress. He describes his story—which begins with him falling out of an airplane and landing in a secluded mountaintop garden where he finds a beautiful virgin and her wealthy mother, and just gets stranger—to an increasingly skeptical producer. After the producer passes on the script, Fields and his niece leave the business, and he ends up rushing a woman to a maternity hospital.

Still from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was W.C. Fields’ final featured role. Both his health and his performances were suffering due to his alcoholism. In addition, Fields had long argued with Universal Studio executives, seeking more creative control over his projects. They finally granted his wishes in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Just like the producer within the film, they hated the result. Universal gave Sucker little promotion and decided not to renew Fields’ contract. He made a handful of smaller appearances in movies until 1944, then died on Christmas day in 1946 at the age of 66.
  • Fields didn’t write the screenplay, but is credited for the “original story” under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis.
  • The title is taken from a line of dialogue from Fields’ play (later movie) Poppy, where he played a con man. Universal rejected his proposed title for the movie, The Great Man. Fields is listed as “the Great Man” in the credits.
  • The Hays office rejected Fields’ original script, objecting to  “jocular references to drinking and liquor,” the word “pansy,” scenes of Fields ogling women, and suggestive shots of bananas. A scene in a saloon was absurdly revised to take place in an ice cream parlor, which gave Fields an opportunity to make a jokes at the censors’ expense.
  • Despite promising Fields creative control, Universal reportedly re-cut the film and even reshot scenes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fields’ free-fall when he jumps off the airplane’s open observation deck (!) after accidentally knocking over his bottle of whiskey.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plummeting drunkard; fanged dog; pet mountain gorilla

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Considered in isolation, the middle section of Sucker—Fields’ fevered film-within-the-film—is as strange a comedy short as was ever greenlit by Hollywood in the studio system era. Interference from censors, both in the Hayes office and Universal boardrooms, resulted in the already stream-of-consciousness script being further chopped up into something that approached incoherence. Sucker was Fields’ “screw you” to the suits, a poison pill of bitter satire dissolved in a pint of gin, served on the rocks with a twist of absurdity. By a man in a gorilla suit.


Fan-made trailer for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

COMMENTS: In the early days of Hollywood, comedians established a persona and stuck to it, essentially playing the same character in movie after movie. While most comics adopted sympathetic Continue reading 324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

323. CATCH-22 (1970)

“You’re a very weird person, Yossarian.”–General Dreedle, Catch-22

“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mike Nichols

FEATURING: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, , , , Bob Newhart, , Paula Prentiss, , Richard Benjamin, , Charles Grodin, , Gina Rovere, Olimpia Carlisi

PLOT: The story is told out of sequence, but begins with Capt. Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier at a Mediterranean air base, being stabbed in the back by what appears to be a fellow soldier. This leads directly into the first of a recurring sequence of flashbacks where Yossarian tends to a young wounded airman in the belly of his bomber. Further flashbacks reveal a protagonist of questionable sanity in the company of equally insane flyboys, including a quartermaster who schemes with the Group commanders to create a black market syndicate that morphs into a fascist regime.

Catch-22 (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Joseph Heller published the absurdist comic novel “Catch-22” in 1961, based on his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II.
  • Orson Welles had attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the novel, a fact Mike Nichols was not aware of when he cast him as General Dreedle.
  • Catch-22 was Nichols’ followup to his smash hit The Graduate. He once again worked with screenwriter Buck Henry (who also played Colonel Korn here). The screenplay took two years to produce.
  • Filming (in Rome and Mexico) took more than six months to complete. Cinematographer David Watkins would only shoot the exterior scenes between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, so that the lighting would be exactly the same. This meant the cast and crew were sitting around for long periods of time with nothing to do, which led to resentment on the set.
  • Catch-22 is credited as the first American film to show a person sitting on a toilet, and the first modern Hollywood film to feature full-frontal nudity.
  • Second Unit director John Jordan plummeted to his death when he fell out of the camera plane while daring to film a flight scene without being strapped into a harness.
  • Although the film did not bomb at the box office, it was overshadowed by ‘s similar (but lighter and more realistic) M*A*S*H*.
  • George Clooney is producing a new adaptation of the novel as a six-part miniseries scheduled to air on Hulu.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gruesome death of Hungry Joe, who’s cut in half by an airplane propeller while standing on a platform in the beautiful blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine I.V.; offscreen portrait switching; friendly fire for hire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Catch-22 was a novel of paradoxical, circular logic and inverted moral geometries. The certifiably insane Yossarian is saner than his schizoid comrades and commanders—but only because he is the only one who realizes he is crazy. The movie doesn’t soar to the heights of the book, but it creates its own weird all-star universe of moral decay and dystopian reasoning. There aren’t twenty-one other catches. One catch serves as a catchall. Catch-22. It’s the best there is.


Original trailer for Catch-22

COMMENTS: Adapting Catch-22, a novel whose building blocks are Continue reading 323. CATCH-22 (1970)

CAPSULE: THE SHAPE OF WATER

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sally Hawkins, , , Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer,

PLOT: Against a Cold War backdrop, a mute cleaning woman forms a relationship with an aquatic creature she finds imprisoned in a military facility.

Still from The Shape of Water (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Water gets points for its bizarre premise—which is just enough to get it onto our radar screen—the execution is almost unfailingly conventional. It does feature 2017’s weirdest musical number outside of The Lure, however.

COMMENTS: Give Guillermo del Toro great actors and cinematographer Dan Laustsen, and all he needs is the right script to assure magic. After an over-extended stay in Hobbiton and some near-misses (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak) the pop-fabulist is back on track with a unique vision that draws on the auteur’s twin loves of classic horror and fairy tales (the high-concept tagline is “Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Beauty and the Beast“).

It’s a nice role, done nicely, for Sally Hawkins, who conquers the challenge of playing dowdy, mute cleaning woman Elisa while showing moments of passion and even sexiness—all while acting across from a guy in a fish suit. Michael Shannon doesn’t stretch in his role as a sadistic army colonel and vivisectionist, but his innate unhingedness is well-suited to villainy. Richard Jenkins, as Hawkins’ closeted next door neighbor, has his own solid subplot, while Octavia Spencer rounds out the main cast with a bit of light comic relief. Del Toro perhaps humanizes his amphibious monster a bit too much in order to make the inter-species relationship palatable to general audiences, although he does play up the ick (or “ich”) factor every now and then with girl talk discussions of the gill-man’s genital quirks. The Cold War setting adds a tension and texture that would be missing if the story were set in the present day.

Water may not be terribly deep—it’s little more than an ode to unconventionality, and maybe a disguised metaphor for the love that dare not speak it’s name—but it’s delivered with elegance and panache. It’s isn’t weird, except perhaps by Academy Award nominee standards. Its thirteen nominations virtually assure it will nab something, with Original Score and Production Design seeming the most likely to this observer. Among the major categories, only a Best Director award seems likely for Del Toro, as a reflection the general level of excellence spread across the film—although there are a surprising number of pundits who consider this bestiality-themed fantasy the “safe, if a little boring” choice. A last-minute, low-merit plagiarism lawsuit may effect Best Picture/Original Screenplay voters, consciously or unconsciously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…with someone as strange and singular as del Toro, each film is something to anticipate and savor like a four-star feast. The good news is, The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint. It’s both weird and wonderful.”–Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

 

READER RECOMMENDATION: SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)

Reader Review by John Klingle

DIRECTED BY: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Two plumbers from Brooklyn are unwittingly warped into an alternate dimension populated by human-dinosaur hybrids, and  discover a plot to invade the Earth that only they can prevent.

Still from Super Mario Bros. (1993)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The fugitive Princess Daisy discovers her long lost father, the King: a sentient mass of yellow fungus drooping from the ceiling above his old throne.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Combining slapstick humor and trite wordplay with a penchant for grotesque visuals and fascist imagery completely disconnected from its beloved source material, Super Mario Bros. seems determined to shock and disturb its supposed target audience.

COMMENTS: The original sin of video game-to-movie adaptations, Super Mario Bros. is widely regarded as a transgression against its beloved source material and a discordant mish-mash of half-baked, poorly-executed ideas. But while it’s true that the film is unforgivable as an adaptation, looking at Super Mario Bros. for its own merits reveals a unique Gothic fantasy filled with psychedelic imagery.

Rather than making any real effort to replicate the experience of playing Shigeru Miyamoto’s foundational game series, Super Mario Bros. instead takes the bare skeleton of the Mario games and builds its own dystopian adventure around it. The elements the film plucks from the games are well-chosen ingredients for a cult film, too: it borrows the game series’ central fish-out-of-water fantasy world conceit (The Wizard of Oz), its recurring theme of bodily transformation (Videodrome), and its visual obsession with ducts and pipes (Brazil ) and, of course, mushrooms (“,” take your pick). The filmmakers (“Max Headroom” creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton) unfortunately don’t manage to create any sense of cohesion among these various elements, but this doesn’t prevent each of them from being deeply memorable on its own.

Mixed in liberally with these ingredients from the games are the film’s own inventions, whose connection to the Mario universe is much more tenuous. The most notable of these is the corporate fascist imagery. The movie adaptation re-imagines the games’ draconic King Koopa as a Donald Trump-like plutocrat who runs a mechanized police state under the guise of democracy. This conceit is perhaps the film’s most powerful source of tonal dissonance: the bumbling, Stooges-like antics of Koopa’s minions do little to detract from the horror of seeing a street busker forcibly converted into a devolved monster as punishment for political dissidence.

Much like Labyrinth, Super Mario Bros.’ commitment, however lackluster, to being a commercial children’s film prevents it from pursuing its darker themes to any satisfying conclusion. In some ways, this makes it all the more disturbing; the film consistently dips its toes into dystopian or psychosexual territory only to retreat back into John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins’ yukking and shucking, depriving the viewer of any catharsis. Super Mario Bros. is a movie that doesn’t leave you, its most bizarre moments sticking like burrs to the minds of the children who saw it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre, replete in often stunning special effects and verrrry strange from the outset, Super Mario Bros is curiously entertaining, even though it often makes little sense.” – Roger Hurlburt, South Florida Sun Sentinel (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CRIMEWAVE (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reed Birney, Sheree Wilson, , Brion James,

PLOT: Minutes from his execution, an innocent security-systems installer attempts to dissuade his guards from prematurely ending his life, telling a tale of mistaken identity, love, psychotic exterminators, and bad pick-up lines.

Still from Crimewave (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the prospect of an early cooperative effort between Sam Raimi and the made me hopeful, and while the creative does outweigh the crummy, Crimewave falls awkwardly on the “just a little too good” side of the weird movie equation. As it happens, it would have taken just a smidgen more amateurism (or a whole lot more inspiration) to have this be a Certified The-Man-Who-Wasn’t-There-meets-“Looney-Tunes” kind of a thing.

COMMENTSCrimewave was originally titled Relentless. On the DVD release it bears the title The X, Y, Z Murders. The distributors obviously weren’t sure how to handle it and, to an extent, neither am I. Made at the beginning of both Sam Raimi’s and the Coen brothers’ careers, you can see that they aren’t yet sure of themselves. All their trademarks are there—fast and novel pacing (Raimi), cleverly obtuse dialogue (Coens)—but they are still finding their feet artistically. Both the director and the screenwriters would, thankfully, move on to bigger and better, but with Crimewave we are left with an intermittently charming mess of a movie.

The action begins in Hudsucker Penitentiary, where a frantic Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) urgently rambles to his guards shortly before his scheduled execution at midnight. The tale he tells would sound familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Coen brothers’ more playful films. Victor claims he did not kill his two bosses (along with some bystanders), but that they were instead offed by the unhinged exterminators Faron Crush (Paul Smith) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James): two sleazebags I referred to as “Rat-Rat” and “Fat-Rat” in my notes. Mayhem ensues inside an apartment building that conveniently houses all the protagonists, with a couple of key scenes taking place in a nearby upscale restaurant where Victor awkwardly attempts to woo femme fatale Nancy (Sheree Wilson), a woman of the world who is in the clutches of the ultimate heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell). Hopefully, the car full of nuns will arrive in time to save our hero.

While the first half consists of oddball dialogue and strange zingers, the second half goes a bit off the rails with Warner Brothers-style violence. Crimewave‘s greatest fault is that it seems it knows what to do; it just doesn’t do it terribly well. Perhaps Sam Raimi felt too tethered being under the watchful eye of corporate Hollywood for the first time, and the combined effects of a constrained Raimi and novice Coens makes for something much more “odd” than “weird.” While the overall effect of the collaboration makes for a breathlessly tedious experience, Raimi’s frenetic pacing does occasionally complement the Coen brothers’ rudimentarily clever dialogue. While laboring through the second half (with the psychos, the car chase, and all that), it was as if I were with a boring guest at a party whom I just wanted to abandon, only to have him suddenly turn charming as I was about to leave.

All told, and despite the preceding paragraphs, I feel somewhat at a loss for words. It’s always great to see Bruce Campbell as a scumbag, and a lot of the other characters populating the small city block would evolve into the lovable idiots that would be the backbone of the Coen brothers’ classic comedies to come. However, the shining moments served more immediately as a reminder that the surrounding movie was a rushed, troubled, slapdash affair. Now that  both Raimi and the Coens have become great filmmakers, I would be interested in seeing them remake this (fairly justifiably) forgotten romp. As it stands now, though, while I cannot recommend it to anyone, I would recommend having had seen it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange but not funny spoof of hitmen that disappoints because the comedy is too simplistic and there’s no dramatic impact.”–Dennis Schwartz, Orzus’ World Movie Reviews

312. MOTHER! (2017)

“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”–Revelations 11:18

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

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

PLOT: A writer and his wife live alone, rebuilding a house where the man used to live before it burned down. One day, a stranger shows up at their door and the husband invites him to stay, against the woman’s wishes. More uninvited guests arrive, first the family of the original man, and then hordes of the writer’s adoring fans, sowing complete chaos in the home just as the woman gives birth.

Still from mother! (2017)

BACKGROUND:

  • Darren Aronofsky says he wrote the first draft in “a fever dream” in just five days.
  • Per Aronofsky, 66 of the film’s 115 minutes are closeups of Jennifer Lawrence.
  • 20th Century Fox passed on distributing the film due to a controversial scene.
  • The movie received a rare “F” rating on CinemaScore (which measures audience reactions). Fewer than 20 movies have ever received such a low score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t mention the scene that makes the most impact for fear of spoiling your reaction. (You’ll know it when you see it). That leaves us looking for a second place image to fill this space; we’ll go with the vagina-shaped wound that develops out of a bloodstain on the house’s hardwood floor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine-Seltzer; toilet heart; crowd-surfing baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Writer/director Aronofsky lets this movie go all to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene in particular that sent ’em packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood offering with an outsider’s beashness, transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Outraged moviegoers who came to see megastar Jennifer Lawrence’s horror film got a puzzling, punishing allegory instead. mother! was an all-too-rare “event movie” in the weird genre.


Original trailer for mother!

COMMENTS: The first act, with uninvited house guests arriving in Continue reading 312. MOTHER! (2017)

310. TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

“…after I saw Twin Peaks—Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him.”–Quentin Tarantino

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING, , Moira Kelly, Chris Isaak, Keifer Sutherland,

PLOT: The first thirty minutes cover the FBI investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks (an event referred to in the first season of “Twin Peaks”). The action then moves to the town of Twin Peaks, focusing on high school senior Laura Palmer, the beautiful homecoming queen who has a secret life as a cocaine addict and upscale prostitute. As her father begins acting strange and tensions inside her home grow, Laura goes to a “party” at a cabin in the woods, where tragedy strikes.

Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • ” is a massive franchise, covering two original televised seasons, this feature film, a revival series broadcast twenty-five years after cancellation, and even two novels by co-writer Mark Frost and a book version of “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” (credited to David Lynch’s daughter ). Our coverage is similarly scattered: read about the pilot here, the original series here, and the 2017 series here.
  • Lynch had originally planned for Laura Palmer’s murder to never be solved, so the television network’s decision to force the writers to reveal the killer or face cancellation in the second season was an outside force that changed the direction of the overall story.
  • Some of the actors in the TV series’ large cast either refused or were unable to reprise their roles for the feature film, the most significant of whom was (who played Laura’s best friend Donna). Boyle was replaced by Moira Kelly. Series co-creator Mark Frost also disagreed on the direction Lynch was taking the “Twin Peaks” story, and declined to participate in the movie.
  • Over 90 minutes of additional footage was shot, including appearances by characters from the series who didn’t make it into the final product.
  • Lynch originally hoped to make two sequels which would pick up where the television series ended, but Fire Walk With Me‘s disappointing box office ended those plans.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The angel in the Red Room (although the curtains suddenly turn purple for this scene). It’s one of those tender moments Lynch likes to put in to remind his viewers that, no matter how much evil and perversion he throws onto the screen, he still unironically believes in the ultimate power of goodness, love, and salvation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The blue rose; Southern Bowie on security cam; garmonbozia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “Twin Peaks” is an uneven franchise, ranging over a landscape that covers everything from soap opera to surrealism and quirky comedy to rustic perversion, and so it may be appropriate that Fire Walk With Me is an uneven movie. The feature film continuation of the story is packed with dream sequences, unexpected cameos, mystical characters, and bizarre symbolism (an Arm eating creamed corn?). It was a financial and critical flop whose unremittingly dark and obscuritan tone turned off both casual series fans and mainstream critics, but for better or worse, David Lynch defiantly tears his own way through the universe he dearly loves.


Original trailer for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

COMMENTS: Early on in Fire Walk with Me, a woman in a red fright Continue reading 310. TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

CINEMATIC CONTROVERSIES: THE CONQUEROR (1956)

Weirder (and ultimately more lethal) casting than as a frogman doing a yoga number with the Bride of Frankenstein is casting as… Genghis Khan!

Not only is The Conqueror (1956) one of the most embarrassing moments in Wayne’s career (right up there with the1952 pro-Joseph McCarthy film Big Jim McLain, the Duke in a Roman toga at the foot of Jesus’ cross in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the 1968 pro-Vietnam war film Green Berets) but this notorious Howard Hughes production literally (and ironically) killed the reigning star of Americana, along with its director , co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia, and Pedro Armendariz. Shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, which had been previously used for atomic bomb testing, over half of the cast and production team (approximately ninety people) paid the price for unleashing this bomb with cancer: fifty, fatally. Over half the residents of the nearby St. George also were exposed to high levels of radiation and died of cancer, as did an undocumented number of the film’s Native American extras. Production photographs later surfaced of Wayne operating a Geiger counter on location. Apparently, it eventually dawned on cast and crew to be a tad concerned about being exposed to nuclear fallout.  Critics referred to the film as “An RKO Radioactive Picture,” and one of the scientists overseeing the atomic testing was later quoted (in a “People” interview) as saying, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

Hughes certainly blamed himself. Already having fallen down the rabbit hole of mental illness, he was reportedly wracked with guilt, buying out all existing prints of the movie (to the tune of over ten million). He refused to let it be seen for years, and watched it repeatedly, nude, in a darkened room as he made frantic calls to politicians, trying desperately to exert his influence and stop the practice of atomic testing.

Wayne, already a cancer risk from heavy smoking, had a lung removed in 1964, but was one of the later Conqueror casualties, coming down with stomach cancer in 1978[1].

Still from The Conqueror (1956)Wayne initially (and incomprehensibly) defended what was clearly a casting disaster by claiming that the story of Genghis Kahn was merely transplanted western. Of course, as good an actor as Wayne was (and he was a damned fine actor, ungenerously underrated by far too many critics), that is the problem with his performance here: playing Genghis Kahn as a cowboy renders the character laughable. Casting aside, the barbarian dialogue (delivered in Wayne’s home-on-the-range drawl) is made more execrable with Wayne lusting after Hayward’s (redheaded) Bortai: “This Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her,” he announces anemically, followed by “you’re beautiful in your wrath” after she tries to stab her would-be rapist. The sight of the western icon adorned in a furry wife beater, Asiatic eye makeup, and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache is only surpassed by hearing lines like “I regret that I’m without sufficient spittle to salute you,” “you didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars,” “she is much woman,” and “you will love me of your own will before the sun rises.”

Hayward, equally miscast, seems to imagine herself as Salome, in a cleavage-bearing veiled dance that conjures up chintzy Vegas acts as opposed to the Orient or Bible. Wayne, rarely comfortable as a sex symbol (the only two leading ladies he seemed natural with in that department were Maureen O’Hara and Gail Russell) disastrously fails to convince as an Asian . Later in life, Wayne admitted his humiliation and wrote making an ass of himself in a role not suited for him off as a professional lesson.

Powell was as ill-fitting in his directing assignment as the actors were in their roles, and the result is a dull epic (not even campy enough to be entertaining) and a box office failure, credited for being the final nail in the coffin of its studio as well as its cast and crew.

  1. Contrary to popular belief, the actor did not have cancer when making The Shootist in 1976, although he was in poor health. []

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

mother! has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please read the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

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)

CAPSULE: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Cara Delevingne, , Rihanna

PLOT: A pair of hotshot space cops flirt with each other as they stumble upon a conspiracy surrounding a lost race that threatens the survival of the massive spaceport that serves as the hub of galactic peace and commerce.

Still from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Valerian is an optical feast, presenting settings and creatures that push the edge of the imagination. However, that same imagination has hung these visual treats upon a story that is strictly by-the-numbers, with characters who are stock at their best and unfathomably shallow at their worst, rendering the film all frosting, no cake.

COMMENTS: The audience was quiet. Respectful. No laughing. No chitchat. Definitely no cheering. A candidate for blockbuster of the summer unspooled before us, and we could have easily been transplanted to a golf tournament without causing a disturbance. We sat in silence, staring at the screen like we were on a field trip to the art museum.

Actually, Valerian wouldn’t be out of place in a museum; it’s a lovely piece of pop art. Luc Besson has crafted a green-screen wonderland, ranging from the impressionist beauty of an alien beach world to a mind-bending cross-dimensional duty-free bazaar. Sometimes he is unable to restrain himself and piles the settings on top of each other; one chase scene barrels through a half-dozen environments in the space of a couple minutes. From start to finish, the film is a visual stunner.

Which is why the audience’s silence, while not necessarily reflecting quality, is so devastating. Valerian is a lot to look at, but is ultimately an uninvolving experience. The action set-pieces have no kick, the story feels boilerplate, and the leads are dangerously lacking in chemistry. People like spectacular visuals, but they’re not inclined to cheer for them alone.

At times, it feels like Besson has extracted the spine of the story from his earlier sci-fi venture, The Fifth Element, and grafted new visuals on top of it. Dane DeHaan’s hero’s journey from callow to committed is clearly intended to mirror that of . The overstuffed metropoli, aliens both corpulent and sinewy, the overwhelming power of *love*…they’re all straight out of Element’s playbook. Valerian even stops, like its older cousin, for a musical number. This one features Rihanna dancing (but not singing) and acting (but not, um, acting). What he hasn’t carried over includes any sort of stakes, much of a sense of humor, or charismatic characters. We’re supposed to take all those on faith.

Not that he only borrows from himself. The trio of duck-billed creatures who fence information feel like escapees from Labyrinth. A benevolent blue-hued race seems to have stepped directly out of Avatar (and brought some of their environmental and cultural issues with them). And overall, the film is surprisingly reminiscent of The Adventures of Tintin, another adaptation of a beloved French comic book that sacrificed character and story in favor of wondrous CGI visuals and a breakneck pace. Of course, Tintin is entirely animated, so perhaps our expectations for rich character development there are diminished. But Valerian has real actors, and this is where the trouble truly begins.

Design, as noted, is impressive, and there’s enough logic to the plot to earn a pass (ignoring, of course, the scene where a computer explains that the massive space station has traveled 700 million miles from Earth over the decades, which would put it somewhere just shy of Saturn). However, character is the gaping void of the center of the film, and the two leads bring absolutely nothing to the table. DeHaan is a black hole, delivering lines that are intended to mark him as a hard-bitten mercenary, but doing so in a voice cribbed from and bearing a look that suggests “bored 8th grader.” Cara Delevingne is marginally better, having the advantages of (a) being very pretty and (b) having only one emotion to play: cold irritation. The two are laden with banter, written to demonstrate their wit and cool under pressure, as well as to place them in the pantheon of great wisecracking romantic couples of the cinema. But DeHaan and Delevingne are nowhere near pulling it off. Their dialogue feels utterly false in their mouths, and because Besson puts their will-they-won’t-they dynamic at the forefront from the moment we meet them, the thud of their relationship is more than the film can overcome.

Besson’s instincts bend toward the weird. (Why else would you cast jazz legend Herbie Hancock as a futuristic bureaucrat?) But while his vision is undeniably heterodox , here he seems utterly unable to apply it. Perhaps the best indication of his failure of imagination comes in the very opening sequence, a montage chronicling the origin and growth of the City of a Thousand Planets. To accompany the growing alliance of humans and a variety of unusual extraterrestrials, he summons the ultimate alien: . But what song from the catalog does Besson choose? “Space Oddity.” Gifted with the limitless power of creation, he settles for the cliché; the most obvious, expected choice. And no one cheers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Little splashes of a weirder, kinkier, much better movie kept popping up throughout Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and even though they tended to vanish as quickly as they appeared, I still found myself missing them. They’re like phantasms making quick cameos from the nether, a brief flicker of a more adventurous, less compromised movie that perhaps could have been…” – Will Leitch, Paste Magazine (contemporaneous)