Reviewers sometimes give away films without meaning to. In the case of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest cinematic experiment, it is hard to give away anything because it is genuinely hard to say what the film is about or what happens in it. About the only consistent explanation for this tale of Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) and the events in their home is that it is a cinematic rendering of psychosis, but to describe it as such feels reductive. It could potentially be a supernatural tale of raising unearthly powers, but the film’s avoidance of indicative horror tropes undercuts that interpretation. Or it could be a dramatisation of the creative process, the characters metaphors for parts of the mind, but that explanation also fails to work across the whole film. What I can say is what the film does, which is put its viewer through a relentless, gruelling and singularly extraordinary experience. Aronofsky eschews narrative logic but offers just enough plausibility to keep the film grounded, while the ever-escalating pace of his direction increases the tension to nerve-shredding levels. Long, travelling shots mix with 360-degree pans, abrupt cuts and subjective angles that place us uncomfortably inside the action that takes place in a (literally) disintegrating location. The performances are superb, especially Lawrence who is onscreen virtually the whole time, her increased franticness becoming more and more hysterical, which is of a piece with the film as a whole. Bardem offers a calm contrast that is more chilling than comforting, while Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) are suitably disturbing. Quite what is going on is very open to interpretation, as is the film’s genre that combines jet black comedy with relentless horror with Biblical allegory and fantastical sequences. The only thing that seems certain is mother! will have an effect on you, but it is a film that demands to be seen, partly because it’s a bold, experimental and genuinely surreal experience, and partly to find out just what your reaction is.
A dark tower at the crux of dimensions. A mysterious and malevolent Man in Black. A noble ‘Gunslinger’, last survivor of a once noble lineage. A boy troubled by dreams of all the above. By a remarkable feat, the long-gestating adaptation of Stephen King’s epic series manages to utterly waste all this great potential. A wealth of material for the building of multiple worlds is hinted at without exploration, while relationships between characters occur without development, be they quasi-father/son of the Gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba) and the boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), or the possible history between Roland and Walter, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). To make matters worse, the action sequences are inert and the horror elements sterile, the filmmakers sanitizing suspense and tension out of the film by making it family friendly. Director Nikolaj Arcel previously helmed the superb A Royal Affair as well as writing The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but here he and co-writers Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen have delivered a limp and lifeless mess. There are some smirks to be had at fish-out-of-water comedy when Roland encounters Jake’s (our) world, and the cast do their utmost, Elba wielding his usual charisma while McConaughey shows glimmers of the menace he brought to Killer Joe. But whatever strength these performers might have generated seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, the potentially handsome production design and clumsy nods to other King works (at least eight) are largely obscured by pedestrian direction and frequently poor lighting. Adaptations of beloved books face the double-edged sword of being unimaginative by sticking too close to the source material, or deviating too much and thus alienating a potential audience. This is the least of the problems with The Dark Tower, but on the plus side seeing it did make me want to read the book(s), so as to get a better idea of the potential that this stillborn turkey squanders so badly.
In the middle of David Leitch’s unashamedly achingly 80s spy thriller, there is an action sequence presented in a protracted long take. The sequence is stunning in its execution, as combatants clash in an elevator, up and down stairs, into and out of rooms, guns spit, knives and razors slash and fists, feet, elbows and all manner of available weapons collide with bodies. It is a breathless and bravura set piece that genuinely hurts and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the effects of this violence. The rest of the film hangs off this tent pole, rising to the set piece’s crescendo and then falling away from it and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Atomic Blonde never quite reaches such a height again. Despite this, Leitch still crafts an effective period spy adventure from Kurt Johnstad’s script, based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The city in question is 1989 Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a city of vice, corruption and constant surveillance. Into this seething swamp of sin comes cool as (and frequently immersed in) ice MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), sent to retrieve a list of undercover agents, which is also being hunted by the CIA, KGB, French intelligence and probably the dodgy bloke on the corner. It’s a well-worn plot imbued with regularly crunchy action and great attention to period style, as the film is blaringly 80s in its fashion, music, decor and geopolitical backdrop. Practically every scene emphasises a mise-en-scene that is garish, vivid and frequently drenched in neon; if there’s a film with more blue filters this year I’ll be very surprised. Looking back on this period with such overt nostalgia, Atomic Blonde is a fairly insubstantial 115 minutes, but it has enough kitsch charm and stylistic brio to earn its keep.
Time is a foundational element of cinema, as the medium captures and manipulates, plays and re-plays, deconstructs and reconstructs, presents and re-presents time. An eternity can be reduced to an instant and an instant extended to an eternity. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story explores time and our fluctuating perception of it, and is also a mournful and moving story. How does our perception of time change when we cannot adjust to a world changed by loss? Grief keeps us locked in the moment of loss, the famous five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – related to the moment of someone being gone, rather than the revised state of the world in which they are gone. Lowery explores these concepts with exquisite focus and restraint, using the specific possibilities of cinema to portray the experiences of grief, time and timelessness with precision, grace and humanity. We see the film’s central characters C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) experience events in their lives that are remarkable in their unremarkableness: a discussion about moving house; investigating sounds in the night; listening to a song composed by C. Following the death of C, and his haunting of their home under a white sheet with eye holes, scenes are played out with varying presentations of time. What could be days, months or years pass in seconds, while in one bravura sequence, M eats an entire pie in almost a single take. This scene is almost unbearably uncomfortable, conveying the non-time that M and the watching ghost experience, completely separate yet unable to disconnect. The long take is the film’s most used and effective device, as it not only prolongs uncomfortable sequences, but also impacts on the viewer’s expectations of cinema. Various shots continue far past the point at which we expect a cut, highlighting our engagement with cinema and with time itself. Much like the ghost, we constantly wait for things to move on, and when they do not we may be discomfited but then again we may embrace the film’s conceit of reassessing our engagement and experience of time. A Ghost Story invites such responses but never provides answers, offering only the most tantalizing questions as an experience that is both frustrating and compelling.
For most of its running time, Matt Reeves’ new entry in the remarkably durable simian franchise is that finest of blockbusters, combining a grand and at times awe-inspiring sweep with a fine eye for detail. An electrifying early sequence tracks soldiers moving through dense undergrowth, while supertext informs the viewer of the previous Rise and Dawn, before the scene erupts into furious and harrowing combat. This macro and micro scale continues throughout the film, as Reeves leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is a war both for the planet and for souls. Key to understanding these inner and outer wars is the phenomenal performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, his journey echoing that of many a war film protagonist. Serkis’ performance is enhanced by the extraordinary visual effects that suggest you could plunge your hands into the thick fur of Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar’s most trusted friend and at some points his conscience. Equally impressive without digital make-up is Woody Harrelson as the terrifying Colonel who commands the military force against the apes, a chilling combination of Apocalypse Now‘s Kilgore and Kurtz who will stop at nothing to achieve his fanatical purpose. The movie echoes Vietnam war films in other ways such as the guerrilla/gorilla tactics of both sides, shifting loyalties and the steady loss of empathy and humanity among humans and apes alike. Indeed, some sequences echo Holocaust dramas, including a seemingly direct nod to Schindler’s List. Some of the echoes are effective but others too on the nose, while the final act is overly drawn out and there is unnecessary comic relief in the character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). The film is at its finest when it is unrelentingly grim, DOP Michael Seresin presenting the horrors and suffering of war with a cold, stark beauty. While Reeves carefully elides outright gore, there is no doubt that many characters are killed and just as many suffer agonies both physical and mental, including an early moment that is quite heartbreaking. Yet WFTPOTA also offers moments of great tenderness and compassion, its most moving moments when Reeves uses a subjective camera that has characters staring directly at the audience. It may be a cliché to present eyes as the window to the soul, but nonetheless a great deal is communicated through these bright eyes that convey the soulful struggle and hard fought war for this planet.
From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.