Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” earns its exclamation point

Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is an allegory so undisguised that it barely qualifies as one. It’s more like a cinematic smoothie: blend one (1) King James Bible, the Big Bang / Big Crunch Wikipedia article, a heavy splash of Lars Von Trier-esque literal-as-metaphorical torture of a beautiful woman, season to taste with climate change studies, and suffer through it.

A male filmmaker portraying a male artist as god, simultaneously elevating and exploiting the woman that supports him is, in a word, problematic. When I couldn’t willfully look past those misogynistic aspects, it brought to mind the risible Lady in the Water. At least the circumstances aren’t so grim that there’s room for a little comedy, as in portraying Adam and Eve (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) as the worst houseguests ever.

But… but… but. Wow. Just, wow. I fully respect and understand many of the negative reviews, but I have to admit I found its punk rock spirit flat-out astonishing. What audacity to make something so deliberately confrontational, rude even. I quite literally watched most of the film with my jaw hanging open. If nothing else, you can’t deny “mother!” earned its exclamation point.

Two other random thoughts:
1. I’ve previously been ambivalent about Jennifer Lawrence as an actor, but she is superb here.
2. Anyone else catch a whiff of Lindsay Anderson’s “if…”, another over-the-top allegorical phantasmagoria? But admittedly I am probably by distracted by the punctation.

four out of five stars

Winnie-the-Pooh is a labor reformer in Disney’s Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin

Given its sluggish pace, depressive tone, and dramatization of the origin of Paid Time Off for postwar UK laborers, whom exactly was the intended audience for this movie? Kids with premature midlife crises and uncommonly long attention spans? Adults with low vocabularies and an acceptance of brain-bending metaphysics? Think about it too hard, and it’s the stuff of nightmares as Christopher Robin’s acid-flashbacks to his childhood fantasias come to life, not just for him but for the entire world.

There are no better models for the all-ages family film than Paddington and Paddington 2, full stop. It is possible to illuminate kids about immigration and judicial reform AND yet still indulge in tasty pastries and runaway trains.

Why can’t Star Trek always be as good as The Undiscovered Country?

“Please let me know if there’s another way we can screw up tonight.”

Not only is Nicholas Meyer’s The Undiscovered Country my personal favorite Star Trek movie, I may go far as to argue that it is the best. It truly ticks every box of what makes Star Trek Star Trek, and comes the closest to getting everything just right.

Watching it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor is especially informative. Director William Shatner’s The Final Frontier is not quite the unmitigated fiasco its reputation would have it, but the biggest and most tragic of its many flaws is its deep lack of dignity. There was no escaping the increasing ages of its beloved cast, but it’s just plain preposterous to open with Kirk free-climbing a mountainside, and then end with him embarrassingly huffing and puffing up a tiny hill. And poor Uhura is treated even worse, in what must be one of the most sexist scenes in Trek’s entire history.

Classic Star Trek was in the process of being eclipsed by the Next Generation TV series, midway through its 1987-1994 run at the time, just hitting its stride in quality and popularity. It would have been heartbreaking for the low point of The Final Frontier to have been the last adventure for the classic Enterprise crew. Thing could have gone so wrong. Thankfully, The Undiscovered Country reclaims everything that The Final Frontier squandered, and allows the full original cast to go out on a high note.

Far from ignoring the cast’s age, The Undiscovered Country instead embraces it. Our former space cowboy heroes have all aged into diplomatic and strategic roles in Starfleet, and their frontier mindsets chafe at the transition. We’re no longer asked to believe William Shatner is possessed of ageless physical prowess. Kirk wins a fight largely through a lucky sucker punch, and when he’s smooched by the much younger Iman, the moment is immediately undercut… twice.

The stakes are high enough to be serious, but not so low that the movie resembles a feature-length television episode, the excuse often made by fandom to apologize for the too-frequent mediocrity of the feature films. The previously thinly-drawn foes the Klingons are here reimagined as canny equals, on the opposing side of an interstellar cold war. Christopher Plummer is superb as a canny political operator — today, we would recognize his paper-thin charm and propensity for brazen assassinations as very Putin-like. The metaphor for US/Russian relations may be unsubtle but it packs a punch, particularly as Kirk struggles to overcome a lifetime of prejudice.

Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn’s screenplay is a thing of beauty, with an airtight plot, crackling dialog, and just the right balance of humor and gravitas; it’s somehow the funniest and the most serious Trek movie. The at-the-time cutting edge CGI special effects are used efficiently and for story purposes instead of mere flash and sizzle (globules of alien blood floating in zero-gravity not only looks neat, but is a significant plot detail). The entire cast is on point, and everyone gets a moment to shine. As if to make up for The Final Frontier, Nichelle Nichols has several standout scenes (including my favorite among many classic Trek facepalms).

It begs the question: why can’t Star Trek always be this good?

four out of five stars

Love is having someone to embrace at the end, on Miracle Mile

The buzz is true; the under-the-radar cult gem Miracle Mile is surprisingly great. Harry (Anthony Edwards) and Julie’s (Mare Winningham) hellacious night on Los Angeles’ titular Miracle Mile suggests Before Sunrise crossed with Children of Men crossed with After Hours, but without the reprieve of a hopeful ending. Unless you consider life on a geologic scale, in which everything we are becomes oil and diamonds.

Director Steve de Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile is simultaneously an emotionally affecting love story and a gripping thriller, but its most extraordinary achievement is its patience to allow grand events to slowly unfold, from the personal (boy accidentally sleeps through date with girl) to the cataclysmic (the literal end of the world).

The frenzied breakdown of society over little more than a rumor seems inevitable when everyone has spent a lifetime under the chronic anxiety of nuclear meltdown and/or war — all the while externally carrying on with everyday small business: playing trombone in the park, catcalling in diners, stealing stereos, cheating on diets, and flirting in museums. The best anyone can hope for is to have someone to embrace at the end.

Four out of five stars

Further reading:

Miracle Mile: A Romance for the Doom-Burdened by Andrew Todd for Birth Movies Death, encouraged me to check this incredible movie out.

The treasures of FilmStruck include the Trainspotting commentary track

Trainspotting is a lifelong personal favorite film. Essential.

FilmStruck subscribers should be sure to catch it one more time before before WarnerMedia and AT&T cruelly shut it down on November 29. FilmStruck is full of more invaluable treasures than anyone could watch in two weeks, but I must single out Trainspotting as a particular treat, as the commentary track, deleted scenes, and more from the 1996 Criterion Collection laserdisc are included.

One of many interesting details to be gleaned: Director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald declined a higher budget in order to have the artistic freedom to depict the death of an infant. Yes, it is almost unbearable to watch, but it would have been a lesser movie without it.

Screenwriter John Hodge notes that novelist Irving Welsh regretted his dominant focus on the male characters, and made a point of highlighting female characters in subsequent novels. Great, but this only highlights the biggest shortcoming of its belated sequel T2 Trainspotting (2017), which made exactly the same mistake. It’s a cinematic crime to have Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson in your movie but give them little to no material. Perhaps not on a par with WarnerMedia and AT&T’s philistine, craven axing of FilmStruck, but still pretty bad.

Further reading:

The spirit of FilmStruck will live on in The Criterion Collection’s own Criterion Channel streaming service, to launch in Spring 2019. According to the press release, some or all of its programming will also be available on a separate WarnerMedia streaming service, but as history has shown that such partnerships have not lasted, I will personally be subscribing directly from Criterion.

The 1996 Trainspotting commentary audio file is also available from The Director’s Commentary blog.

Trading Places: The prince’s nurture vs. the pauper’s nature

John Landis’ Trading Places is remarkably unafraid to take a cold hard look at racism, privilege, and inequality. It still retains the power to incite gasps and raise eyebrows, decades after release.

With two major caveats, Trading Places is one of my personal favorite comedies. Caveat one: for a movie with guts enough to deal so directly with such heated issues, it is oblivious to its own sexism. The only real female character is a sorely underwritten hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype (poor Jamie Lee Curtis). Caveat two: Dan Aykroyd’s blackface bit is excruciatingly cringeworthy, and nearly upends the film’s entire context of interrogating racism. For shame, everyone involved.

With these reservations out of the way: wow! Trading Places is as scathingly relevant now as in 1983. Rapacious investor siblings Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) disagree over whether their elevated social status is due to nature or nurture. They stage a Mark Twain-esque scenario, pitting their Prince (golden boy Aykroyd) against a Pauper (small-time con artist Eddie Murphy). Needless to say, their little social experiment is just as rooted in race as it is in class. The Duke’ sole concession to equality is that they view both pawns with contempt.

The Duke brothers represent the worst of American capitalism: the breed of parasitic short-term opportunists leeching off the economy that Tom Wolfe would satirize as self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” in his decade-defining novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Terrifyingly, Landis could count on contemporary audiences automatically intuiting them as villains, but the same isn’t true today. In 2016 and 2018, enough Americans voted for a new batch of overtly racist predatory capitalists to grant them the power of the White House and Senate.

Trading Places is indebted to the films of Preston Sturges, but it also brings to mind Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. It has its own problematic aspects that haven’t aged well (such as dim-witted female characters with the sole aim of finding wealthy husbands), but is surprisingly progressive with its ambivalent attitudes on gender and sexuality. More obviously, Trading Places shares with Some Like it Hot a propensity to break the fourth wall. Eddie Murphy’s classic spit-take to the “bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich” line is, for my money, one of the funniest moments in movie history.

four out of five stars

Songs That Broke My Heart: U2’s Running to Stand Still

Moreso than most of their peers, U2 is so strongly associated with its hometown that “U2” and “Dublin” are rarely not mentioned in the same breath, often Bono’s own. He and Larry Mullen Jr. were born and raised in Dublin, Adam Clayton and The Edge grew up there, and most importantly, it’s where the four undertook the hard work of establishing the band.

Decades of fame, wealth, philanthropy, activism, and regularly circumnavigating the globe have long since transformed U2 from local success into world citizens, but they never ceased tying their self-identity to their Dublin roots. Perhaps in the rarified world of the world’s top celebrities, it’s psychologically necessary to cling to a point on the map to call home.

Their hometown pride never precluded them from addressing Dublin’s seedier side. Its persistent heroin epidemic in particular directly inspired the songs “Wire”, “Bad”, and “Running to Stand Still”. The latter originally appeared on the 1987 album The Joshua Tree, a period during which the band’s unusual combination of heart-on-sleeve earnestness, political consciousness, and overt Christian faith landed them on the cover of Time Magazine. It includes some of Bono’s most impressionistic lyrics, evoking spikes piercing bloodstreams under surging storm clouds. The lines “I see seven towers / but I only see one way out” allude directly to the desolate Ballymun residential tower blocks in Dublin, close to where Bono grew up.

Nevertheless, like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (particularly in its heart-rending rendition by Johnny Cash), Bono’s lyrics are oblique enough to be interpreted in less literal terms than a mere drugs-will-ruin-you message. Remember, this was the “just say no” 1980s, before pop culture began to increasingly treat addiction with sympathy, complexity, and even ambivalence — a more complex picture than moralistic outright condemnation. This was years before the scandalous impact of the novel and film Trainspotting (set in neighboring Scotland), which, while unsparing in its portrayal of the cataclysmically ill effects of drug addiction, also dared to bluntly state a reason many addicts start doing drugs in the first place: because it feels good.

For a musician with such Christian, leftist, and activist leanings to have achieved mass popularity, Bono had long ago figured out how to speak to audiences on multiple levels. “Running to Stand Still” evidences his signature hat trick: come for the rock anthems, stay for the message of compassion. The lyrics are subtle enough that many relate to it for its universal expression of an individual feeling trapped, and needn’t necessarily be conscious of the poverty and societal decay Bono saw in his childhood neighborhood.

The fairly subdued studio version was arranged in live performances to punch up the scat-sung “ha la la la de day” coda into a rousing audience singalong. Here’s U2 performing the song in the 1988 concert film Rattle and Hum:

The coda further evolved on later tours into a “hallelujah” mantra, adding an element of hope to the grim scenario. This 1993 performance from the ZooTV/Zooropa tour includes especially dramatic staging and lighting:

U2 hand-picked the English band Elbow to cover it for the War Child charity compilation album Heroes in 2009. Here’s lead singer Guy Garvey on the honor:

When the band first met each other aged 17, Mark and Craig’s father Gareth would lend us his Volvo to get our gear around. It seemed that for a year and a half all that we listened to in that car was Rattle and Hum. I remember the excitement every time a U2 album was released, we just loved them. The first song we ever covered together before we had enough of our own songs to do a performance was “Running To Stand Still”. For Heroes we’ve changed the order of things but kept every musical theme in the song. We wrote it with the members of U2 in mind.
Guy Garvey, ExploreMusic

While no one would ever accuse Bono of pulling an emotional punch, Elbow’s rendition cranks the intensity knob up to 11. Anchored by a muted pulse, it suddenly explodes with an audaciously loud guitar line, as if the guitar slider on the mixing board was pushed all the way to the top. As idiosyncratic as their arrangement is, it does eschew U2’s later “hallelujah” code for the original “ha la la la de day”, and echoes the original’s guitar/harmonica interplay. Elbow pulls these various threads together into a dramatic climax, in a way that cuts right to my core.

For me, it’s one of the rare cases where a cover version has an edge over its original.


You’re reading an entry in our ongoing blog mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right into the whole pool of sorrow. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg champions intelligence and equality in the documentary ‘RBG’

One of the greatest living Americans. If anyone deserves to be lionized in a feature-length hagiography, it’s The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

In these dark times, it’s heartening to see this unapologetic celebration of one woman’s lifelong championship of American values like fairness, justice, and equality. Glimpses of her personal life prove she also lived by these values, especially in how she plowed a pioneering course through formerly male-only spaces like Harvard law school, and how she and husband Marty modeled a successful marriage of equals.

But an obvious but unspoken dark subcurrent runs through Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary: Ginsberg is not getting any younger, and it’s unbearably terrifying to contemplate American life without her. She was instrumental in many of the anti-discrimination rulings that protect Americans today, against the powerful so-called “conservative” forces that expressly believe that Americans are not equal, that women should be paid less than men and excluded from male spaces, and that non-white people should not vote. The film makes the point that she was not long ago considered a moderate, but the rise of far-right forces have recast her relatively straightforward moderation as leftism.

After West and Cohen’s film rests its case, the dissenting opinion is delivered by Professor Helen Alvaré of the Scalia Law School. Try not to puke as you sit through the staggering hypocrisy of someone associated with one of the most notorious right-wing ideologues in recent American history, voice the surface-level, rational-sounding criticism that a Supreme Court Justice should not voice personal political opinions.

In ordinary times, with ordinary politicians, I might agree that justices ought to tread lightly in the public forum. But these are not ordinary times, and Trump is not an ordinary politician. Alvaré’s argument boils down to: liberals should not enjoy the same freedom of speech as the rich and powerful. Today, with predatory nationalists and criminals sullying the White House and dominating Congress, I counterargue: anyone who does not have open antipathy for the Trump Administration is either ignorant or somehow profiting.

In a national climate that elevates uninformed opinion over knowledge and expertise, we need this celebration of raw, burning intelligence. The serious, reserved Ginsberg is now endearingly pleased to find herself a pop-culture icon and inspiration to young people, but especially to young women. More like her, please.

four out of five stars (four for the film, five million for Ginsberg)

Teenagers shall inherit the world in Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure

While definitely not in the target audience, and without expressly setting out to do so, I’ve still somehow managed to see all three Maze Runners. Their easy availability on streaming services is just too tempting for my chronic addiction to escapist sci-fi.

It’s interesting to see how young adult fiction contrives such scenarios where adults are absent, subservient, or villains. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, the Maze Runner movies are constructed upon the trope of there being one single girl or boy born with the inherent destiny of rescuing a world that the older generation has squandered. I’m sure kids are not blind to how the genre panders to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cathartic for them to imagine themselves bearing cataclysmic responsibilities in life-or-death, world-ending situations.

While none of the Maze Runner films are very good, I did appreciate the first’s relatively straightforward Lord of the Flies pastiche (with the caveat that the premise allowed for only one female character — inexcusable in this day and age). As the original title helpfully elucidated, the hero’s journey was to simply escape a maze, which of course came equipped with a minotaur. But the original quest is accomplished, the title becomes essentially meaningless in later installments. To be fair, their subtitles “Scorch Trials” and “Death Cure” are also silly, so I guess cool-sounding nonsense is part of the whole package.

Wes Ball’s The Death Cure is a bloodless PG-13 zombie war movie for kids, and almost preposterously long at almost 2 1/2 hours. But it does boast some exciting action sequences, however wildly illogical and coincidence-dependent. The opening rescue of captives from a caravan is an effective emulation of Mad Max for kiddos, and the aerial ensnare of an entire bus near the end is impressive.

The young cast is… fine, if a little bland except for an impassioned Thomas Brodie-Sangster (doomed to be known as him from Love Actually). Like Kate Winslet in Divergence, Ashley Judd in The Hunger Games, and every grownup in Harry Potter, a handful of respected respected veteran indie actors take up the slack: Patricia Clarkson and Aiden Gillen as baddies-with-actually-rather-complex-motivations, and the Giancarlo Esposito Drinking Game (take a swig every time he says “hermano”, and you’ll be on the floor long before the end).

Massive Attack to reissue Mezzanine as DNA-infused spray paint, and Banksy is certainly not in the band why would you even ask

Our dystopian Black Mirror future is here, too soon. Should we be concerned that, not only is it now possible to encode digital files in DNA, but that it is also already so trivial that it can be commodified by the music industry as a deluxe collectible tchotchke? I’m calling this 2021 Pitchfork headline now: “Streaming revenues decline, as CRISPR releases soar”

Massive Attack’s 1998 Trip hop masterpiece Mezzanine is an astonishing 20 years old this year. Dark, dense, and paranoid, it was not only a defining statement by the band but also arguably captured the international mood at the time. It’s one of those rare albums that still sounds ageless, and not for nothing are its tracks still to this day used in TV and movie soundtracks (in everything from The Matrix to House). Pitchfork lauded it with a 9.3/10 and explicated its significance well in this short documentary:

As is typical for landmark twentysomething albums beloved by aging music fans with more cash-at-hand than they had in the 90s, it is to be remastered and reissued as a luxe $100-ish triple-LP and art book edition, and slightly downmarket but still very cool double black CD. Because, you know, it’s dark. But there’s a twist:

In collaboration with Dr. Robert Grass of ETH Zurich / Turbobeads, a compressed MP3 version of the audio has been converted to DNA. No doubt audiophiles will be upset that this meticulously produced audio is presented in this lossy format, but hey, it’s only 2018, give the scientific community a little time before we can inject music straight into our brains.

But even this technical feat pales in comparison to the next plot twist: the DNA version of the album has been infused with paint, and will be sold in limited edition aerosol spray paint cans, each reportedly containing millions of copies. Here’s a fun glimpse of the dirty technical details:

Each of the ten vials contained between 11.8 and 21.8 micrograms of DNA (80 µl). 1 µl was taken from each vial, and diluted 1:10 with water. A first qPCR test was performed for each vial to test the amplifiability of the DNA. For this 1µl of the diluted DNA was mixed with 7 µl water, appropriate DNA primers (1 µl, 10 µM each), and 10 µl qPCR master-mix. Due to the slight differences in initial DNA concentrations, and amplification yield of the individual tubes, a second qPCR experiment was performed, in which varying amounts of DNA of every tube (0.5 µl – 2 µl) were individually amplified with the same primers and master mix, yielding a CT cycle of 10.1 +- 0.62.

Each individual canister will reportedly contain millions of copies of the album, which will cause headaches for the number crunchers responsible for the Billboard’s Digital Music Chart. But what if the digital info actually decodes as a low-kbps MP3 of a Massive Attack remix of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”? Let there now be no doubt that Robert “3D” Del Naja is definitely Banksy, as collaborator Goldie may have let slip last year. Or, perhaps, one of the collective that is Banksy.

via The A.V. Club

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