Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Boston Common: “Stronger” is a Powerful Tale of a Flawed, Reluctant Hero

“Stronger” isn't so much about the Boston Marathon bombing as much as what it's like for a normal person to experience a terrible tragedy. David Gordon Green the director behind silly stoner comedies “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express” and the upcoming “Halloween” reboot seems like the last person to be telling this story but his roots in independent dramas set the stage for a harrowing drama about a person who reluctantly became a “hero” in a time of tragedy. He's a flawed person and the film doesn't shy away from it. “Stronger” transcends your standard issue “based on a true story” drama by refusing to wallow in sentimentality and cliches and instead presents us with a serious character study about post-traumatic stress that is all the more powerful because the actors give complete, and moving performances.

Jeff Bauman was a regular guy when he showed up at the finish line of the Boston marathon to cheer on his his on and off again girlfriend. Then a bomb went off right next to him and his life changed forever. He lost his legs. And he was able to help identify the bomber. Very quickly, a photograph of him after the bombing became front page news. He became the face of the bombing. He was a hero because he survived. He was not only a victim of the bombing, but he was a victim of being thrust into the spotlight. He suffered for quite some time after the bombing only only having to deal with the loss of his legs but having to deal with constantly being thought of as a hero. It messed with his mind. And in “Stronger” Jake Gyllenhaal gives an outstanding performance as Jeff.

Through the magic of modern technology Jake's legs are wiped away onscreen and it's extremely convincing. There's even a joke at one point about how he's like Lt. Dan from “Forrest Gump.” His girlfriend Erin is played by Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany and she also gives a fierce performance. It might be easy to dismiss Erin's characters as “reactive” since most of her scenes involve watching the hell that Jeff is going through. But the onscreen chemistry between Jake and Tatiana is palatable. They feel like regular people. The stand out supporting player certainly is Miranda Richardson as Jeff's working-class mom Patty. She's eccentric in that Bostonian way and reminds me a lot of what Melissa Leo was doing in “The Fighter.” In fact, maybe it's just the accents, but the film sort of reminded me of “The Fighter.” That film's wasn't so much about boxing as it was about a family. In that way “Stronger” isn't so much about the tragic marathon bombings. John Pollono's script is about one man's experience in the aftermath of it and how it affects him and his immediate family and friends.

I imagine it would be a lot of pressure to be the symbol of “Boston Strong.” Being thrust into the public eye when you never asked for it is a lot to deal with. Add having to learn to walk again without legs is something most people couldn't even fathom. Green's film is small and intimate. In a lot of ways it's the complete opposite of last year's Boston bombing film “Patriots Day” which functioned as a thriller. “Stronger” is more interested in getting into the mind of a reluctant hero than making any political statements. It's a wise move in a movie that surprisingly refuses to play it safe. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a good Boston-set film.  GRADE: B+

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jennifer’s Body: “mother!” is One of the Weirdest Movies Ever; I Can’t Stop Thinking About It

“Mother!” is that crazy movie that your artsy film professor loves, made you watch in class, and no one gets. Think Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” or Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.” Except it stars people you've heard of. If you haven’t even heard of these movies, it’s probably best that you skip “mother!” I’m sure most people are expecting to see a creepy home invasion thriller starring their favorite movie star it-girl Jennifer Lawrence. Wait, are audiences are turned off by the fact that there’s little exposition and weird stuff happens (like beating organs appearing when Lawrence touches the walls of her house)? If you haven’t walked out by this point you must be game for one of the strangest and far-out studio films I’ve ever witnessed in a multiplex. “mother!” will frustrate your mind, mess with your mind, confuse it and then challenge it. It’s a film that will hardly make a lick of sense as you’re watching it but just might come together if you discuss what the hell you just saw with those around you. And the internet, thank God for the internet.

Literally “mother!” is about a couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem who live in an isolated farm house. Jennifer is fixing up the place and Javier is a poet with a severe case of writer’s block. Their idyllic life is complicated by the appearance of a strange man (Ed Harris). Javier wants to be hospitable and Jennifer begrudgingly obliges. But then the man’s weird wife (Michele Pfeiffer) shows up and causes more chaos. At this point audience members should be screaming at the screen for Jennifer to kick these annoying house guests/strangers out of their freaking house. But can anything that is happening in this movie really be taken literally? Soon something tragic happens and Jennifer is STILL just trying to be accommodating. But everyone around her, including the eventual mob of people who show up at one point are just plain rude and refuse to listen to her.

And then Jennifer becomes a mother, literally. Like overnight. How can you NOT real this as an allegory, fable, metaphor for fill-in-the-blank.  (Like I would spoil it for you). Even if you “get” what’s going on, and most people, myself included, don’t really right away, many have labeled the film pretentious rubbish. That’s a fair criticism. However, this is the type of movie that makes zero sense while watching it but makes me want to learn as much about it afterwards. Think “Under the Skin” with Scarlett Johansson. Or “Enemy” with Jake Gyllenhaal. Those are fun movies to discuss and analyze, but aren’t exactly the most fun to actually watch. Nothing in these films are supposed to be taken literally but in that way a majority of this nonsense actually makes plenty of sense. If you’re willing to put forth the effort. I'll help: environment and religion.

This all comes from the twisted mind of Darren Aronofsky of course. Who traumatized art house audiences with his big breakthrough “Requiem for a Dream.” He’s sort of a shock artist. He knows that. He wants to get under your skin and show you something you probably haven’t seen before. He’s an assured director and makes very specific choices. The cinematography in “mother!” might even annoy you. So many tight shots. Jennifer Lawrence going up the stairs, coming down the stairs. Claustrophobia. There’s also no music score. The sound is the score. The film is a triumph of production design. The third act is an orgy of visuals and captivating choreography. It’s fascinating filmmaking, even if it seems to make no sense. But every decision is purposeful.

Do I recommend you see “mother!”? I found it captivating and frustrating. Your mileage may vary. There are some shocking images in here that most viewers aren’t used to seeing. Some will find it appalling. Some will find it disgusting. Some will just complain that it’s boring and makes no sense. I was never bored. But I was always confused. Maybe there’s one too many metaphors in there sure. I’m surprised mainstream audiences haven’t stormed the projection booth with pitchforks and tiki torches. But I have a question. Without giving too much away, if religion is still so darned popular today how come more people aren’t praising “mother!” as the second coming of Christ? You’ll know why if you take a chance.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Fears of a Clown: Moviegoers Will Never Forget the Truly Fantastic “It”

In the 80s the Stephen King adaptation was practically its own genre. There were over a dozen Stephen King films stuffed into one decade ranging from diverse titles like “The Shining” and “Christine” to “Stand by Me” and “Pet Sematary.” And I’m not even including all those TV movies like 1990’s “It.” But like all fads they eventually fade. There have been some here and there like the utterly miscalculated “Dreamcatcher” and some bright spots like “The Mist” and “1408.” And now we have the extremely popular “It;” its first time being adapted for the big screen. With the popularity of nostalgic successes like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and a surprise recent surge in quality studio horror films, the new big screen “It” improves immensely on the well-respected but sluggish 90s TV mini-series. The filmmakers aren’t clowning around; it’s an intense flick and features appealing characters brought to life by charming kid actors, imaginative direction, and an amusingly wicked performance at its center.

Clowns. They're terrifying. Or at least a certain segment of the population thinks so. That's probably why so many people remember the 1990 TV adaption of Stephen King's popular novel “It” as being particularly frightening. Let's all admit the truth. The film is somewhat of a slog and most people probably just remember the 20 or so creepy minutes Tim Curry appears on screen as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, finally, director Andy Muschietti has brought Pennywise to the big screen where he deserves to be. And what a fun roller coaster ride the film is.

This epic horror flick follows a group of prepubescent friends as they deal with typical teenage things like bullies and an evil being that takes the form of their worst fears, which is mostly a creepy clown. It is Pennywise and here he's played with charming, horrific glee by Bill Skarsgård. The story centers around young Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) after his younger brother Georgie goes missing. Apparently the small town of Derry, Maine has a terrible history of tragedy and death, which includes lots of missing children. All of Bill's friends have been seeing a creepy clown and other frightening manifestations. There's Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard as the smart-mouthed Richie, portly new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), home-schooled outcast Mike (Chosen Jacobs), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the Jewish kid Wyatt (Stanley Uris), and the girl of the group Beverly (Sophia Lillis).

Every one of these young actors bring their fully formed characters to life. Truly outstanding performances all around. You're instantly are on their side and are easy to identify with. Focusing solely on the kids' traumatic experiences dealing with this scary monster sort of makes the film feel like a creepy (and profane) version of “The Goonies.” The film's witty script (from True Detective's Cary Fukunaga, Annabelle's Gary Dauberman, and Chase Palmer) focuses just as much on humor and heart as it does on frights. Humor and fear has always gone together hand and hand and Muschietti finds a surprisingly successful balance. The film goes to some truly dark places, but you'll laugh just as much as you'll jump. The frights are brought to the screen with fantastic effects and some truly creepy imagery. The R-rated film also has enough tense moments to give the most seasoned horror fans a jolt (my favorite being the tense Nightmare on Elm Street-like sequence involving hair, a sink drain, and lots of blood). It helps that you really like these kids and watching them in peril is a stressful experience.

You wouldn't know it from the clever marketing (or even opening titles) but “It” is actually technically “It: Chapter One;” which appears onscreen during the film's closing credits. I'm sure producers were waiting to see how this film turned out. I'm happy to report that Chapter Two (which would most likely focus on these characters as adults) can't be far away. And rightfully so; “It” is a sheer delight from beginning to end. It's not often that a horror film is described as a delight but there you go. It's funny, it's scary, it's nostalgic without going overboard. The film feels like a strange mix of “Stand By Me” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” It hits all the right emotional buttons, I was hooked instantly and you're practically guaranteed to see a bit of yourself in these kids. “It” is sure to frighten a whole new generation of kids who are probably too young to be seeing it and piss off anyone who makes a living as a circus clown. If films this good only came around every 27 years it'd certainly be worth the wait.  GRADE: A