Mother!: Movie Review. Will have film students hard at work for years.


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Darren Aronofsky has followed up his biblical epic, Noah, with another biblical horror story starring Jennifer Lawrence (his partner in real life) and Javier Bardem.

Whilst advance publicity had suggested this might be heavily inspired by Rosemary’s Baby this is not in fact the case.  Far from it.  Rosemary’s Baby is about the birth of Satan. This is not.

I found it helpful to know in advance what the premise of this film was and there is  a brilliant deconstruction of the plot in this article in the Telegraph.  You may not want to know before you see it, but it’s a great read after the fact and confirmed most of my assumptions about the heavy allegory and metaphor used in the movie.

To make two consecutive biblical films is surprising because Aronofsky has declared his atheism but presumably the source material is such brilliant storytelling that he simply could’t resist.

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What results in mother! is a film of such epic proportions, such horror, such artistry that at times your jaw actually drops.  Aronofsky stops at nothing.  There are no sacred beliefs that he cannot explore or visualise.  What he does not do is ridicule them.  This is a representative telling of Genesis, the New Testament,  earth science theory and sustainability all wrapped in one great gothic whole.

And it’s gorgeous, sumptuous and creepy.

The performances by Bardem and Lawrence are electrifying, albeit their togetherness as man and wife seems unlikely, but as the plot unravels it’s obvious why.

The appearance of a married couple in the shape of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer (both extraordinary performances) into their lives is startling in its aloofness and cruelty.  One feels Lawrence’s panic bubbling over as the idyll she is trying to create in an island home is about to gradually unwind.

And unwind it does; in increasingly spectacular fashion.

I’m not going to go into spoiler territory (read the Telegraph article for that (after you’ve seen the movie) so I’ll stop here.

Suffice it to say that although this won’t appeal to many; for those that it does this is a truly great movie.

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Tree of Life. Terence Malick’s ultimate movie.


One of Lubezki's stunning visual captures.

Tree of Life is a sensational 90 minute movie wrapped up, to my mind, in a highly flawed 150 minute art installation.

It’s the film Malick clearly wants to become his legacy and I so wish he’d really pulled it off.  Apparently the critics at Cannes were booing and laughing at its finale and to a point I can understand why.  I’ll bet they were enraptured through the middle section.

Malick’s idea is to create a movie about a man in his 50’s looking back on the inconsequence (but to him monumental importance)  of his tiny, but in many ways typical, life set against the greatness of the universe, its creation and God’s role in all this.

So we open with an hour or so of Kubrick’s classic 2001; a space Odyssey mashed up with the Best of David Attenburgh and a tiny little bit of Jurassic Park thrown in.  It’s about the birth of the universe and the creation of man.

For some this has been the most stunning (and it is stunning visually) opening to a film ever made.  To others it’s pretentious twaddle.  I have to say I fell into the latter camp.  It’s way too long and self indulgent.  Malick describes it as a companion piece to the main movie.  If you’ve read the Life of Pi it’s structurally very reminiscent of the first 100 pages which is essentially an essay on the role of religion in life today before the boy and the Tiger set to sea in an unbelievably good yarn.

Incidentally, the Tree of Life ends with a coda recalling the opening hour.  Mercifully shorter; it doesn’t grate as much.

And so, we have a movie embedded in and drawn from, thematically at least, this “meaning of life” wrapper.

And it’s quite, quite beautiful; it very roughly follows the lives of a family in 1950’s Texas.  Middle class I suppose and pretty much the typical Western family.  Dad’s frustrated because he is not an overachiever and at times this has consequences.  But really it’s not that important because it’s not a story as such.

The man in his 50’s who we meet in the “creation sequence”, Sean Penn, is reminiscing on this time, at first dewy eyed but later more critically as he follows his childhood and adolescance that culminates in the death of one of his brothers (not a spoiler as it is revealed in the first frames).

This is Malick’s genius because in this he essentially wraps a universal childhood into 90 minutes of relatively sequential vignettes that absolutely draw the breath at times.  As a baby plays with bubbles, as a group of kids are ecstatically sprayed (innocently ) with a cloud of DDT from a passing lorry, as brothers bicker, as Mum and dad stroke their childrens’ hair and read them bedtime stories.

It’s wonderful.

And then the plot, I say plot but that’s a very loose term because this is not a plotted narrative, develops as we see that the father is actually a pretty heavy handed patriarch.  This section reveals the excellence of Brad Pitt who plays the father movingly and with sufficient restraint to avoid the part lapsing into caricature.

The mother though (a spellbinding performance by Jessica Chastain) is the real heart and soul of the movie because it is her that recites what amounts to a love poem for its first 10 minutes or so; espousing her love of her beautiful sons and her love of god.  The scene is set when she says “there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace”  she implores her boys to follow the path of grace (of God) and she maintains an air of grace throughout.

Her eldest son, Jack, later to appear as Penn is the main protagonist and also performs bewitchingly; a first movie for Hunter McCracken – it will most certainly not be his last.

What makes this film so wonderful is the way that Malick (and his cinematographer Emannuel Lubezki – phenomenal) capture the universal truths of family life without it at any time feeling like cliche.  I felt myself strongly empathising with young Jack, most powerfully as his adolescent rage boils up towards his father and the unfairness of adulthood.  “Don’t do what I do, do what I say.”  It’s visceral.

The Tree of Life is a central and recurring visual metaphor but is handled with subtlety and conviction.

So, with a far shorter art indulgence section this film would have been a 9/10.  With it, it’s a 7.

No one will ever forgive us, by The National Theatre of Scotland at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh


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Well.

Here’s a one.

I have to declare two interests from the outset.

I am a Catholic.

My cousin (Susan Vidler) is in this play.

So I’m biased.

Paul Higgins, may be the most remarkable new stage-writing talent since Gregory Burke.  It really is written brilliantly, flowing along at 100 miles an hour packed with hilarious one liners, and I believe it’s autobiographical. (Actually it’s very unfair of me to heap this comparative praise on Paul Higgins given my lack of comparative insight; but if he isn’t the best then Scottish Theatre is absolutely booming.)

I urge you to see this play before it is too late. (It was pretty much sold out on a dreich Tuesday in late November.)

It’s a fantastic smorgasbord of Scottishness. As the nation of doom we like to dwell on the dark side and this does it magnificently. I honestly have never encountered a script, in film or on stage, that leaps like Bambi on steroids, between bleak nihilism and outrageous humour, line by line, quite as well as this.

It is remarkable.

The main theme centres on belief 9or lack of it). I suppose the key character in the five person cast is the youngest son who has opted out of the seminary (or is that safe haven?) that he has studied at for seven years because he has become atheistic. Is there a God? Is there a Catholic God (OMG)? Is there a point? Why should I coexist with you? Have I a future?

But, at the gleaming, glowing, pulsating, dangerous centre of it all is the horrific patriarch, Gary Lewis. What a performance. The drunk, child-beating, wife-hating (but actually not particularly misogynistic) husband engulfs the stage with his presence.

It is massive.

The audience howled with tears and laughter and, for me, it was another triumphant National Theatre of Scotland performance. I’ve seen three this year in three different theatres.

They all demonstrated our brilliance.

Atheism


An atheist was walking along a cliff edge when he slipped and fell to his almost certain death, but fortuitously he grabbed onto a branch sticking out from the cliff face. Having gathered his wits he immediately began screaming for help.

To no avail.

In a last ditch act of desperation he looked to the heavens and shrieked…

“is there anybody out there?

A voice boomed back…

“Yes! GOD!”

“Can you help me?” whimpered the aetheist.

“Of course, put your faith in me and let go of the branch. You will then fall into my protective arms.” responded God.

A long pause ensued, broken by the aetheist who then shrieked…

“Is there anybody else out there?”

Books of the year


It was a slow year for me. I can’t have read more than a dozen books in all, but very few duffers came my way, indeed I think the Mrs may have out-read me and will no doubt post her own best-of by close of play today.

However many of the best books I read were recommended by Ian Dommett, so he goes to the top of my critics list.

In no particular order my favourite reads of the year were.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood.

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In truth this probably wins by a nose. The fact that it was written in 1985 is a strength as it shows off her perceptiveness even better than if one read it at the time of its release. Is it her best book? Hard to say as she is such a brilliant writer, but it certainly sits alongside Oryx and Crake, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and he Blind Assassin. All magnificent.

You’ll find my full review here if you are interested.

Then We came to The End by Joshua Ferris

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I predict this will be a monster in paperback. It’s been on many year end lists this year and so should get the reviews it deserves when it comes out in PB in 2008. I think it’s slated for a movie too, although the mystery that is implicit in its writing will probably be diluted on screen. I reviewed it here.

The Damned Utd byDavid Peace

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My all time favourite sports book. It’s a novel but reads like a Biography od Brian Clough in his 43 days as manager of Leeds Utd. Not a happy experience. It is frightening how out of control Cloughie was. So good was it that I asked for, and recieved, “provided you don’t Kiss me, 20 Years with Brian Clough” for my Christmas. I’m really looking forward to that. Anyway I reviewed David Peace here. Highly recommended.

An Occurance at Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce

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It’s just a short story but it’s packed with drama and a brilliant twist.  Read more here.

 The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

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I was blown away by this.  Far superior (aren’t they all) to the movie; it gets right under your skin in a very odd way.  But he’s a very odd writer.  My mother read this and his other masterpiece, Middlesex, on my recommendation and loved both of them.  More here.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

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This is an interesting but overwritten and ultimately pompous diatribe against the existence of God.  Nevertheless, until he starts getting overly political about it all it is a very interesting essay and worthy of reading for anyone who has any interest in the existence of god(s).  Read more here.

 Auchwitz by Laurence Rees

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I was gripped by this book and I also liked the BBC Drama later in the year that depicted the liberation of Auchwitz.  Not by the same writer.

It’s a detailed account of the concept behind Auchwitz and throws the net of Nazi guilt far wider than Hitler.  Well written and absorbing it is, despite its gruesome content, a compelling read. 

 On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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Great, but not his greatest.  I wrote an overly glowing review of this on completion, but, in hindsight, it’s a bit style over content.  Still beats most of the muck that gets published though.

Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre

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If this was a novel it would be rejected on grounds of ludicracy.  It is in fact, the true life account of an English Double agent who crossed sides more often than Michael Stewart.  It’s real boys own stuff and a splendid read.  What ho!

God speed? 1 mph


I love this story.

A medieval church in Heursford, Germany was to be demolished because a new coalmine was to be opened on its site. It’s obviously a lovely church and the locals must have felt very close to it.

 

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So, they though; we’re not letting a coal mine get in the way of our religion.

We’ll move it.

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So they did. They hoiked it up on the back of a lorry…

 

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And moved it down the road to the next town.

 

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God 1 – 0 Coal industry.

Bless!