'mother!' review: Darren Aronofsky's daringly audacious psychological horror tale isn't for everyone
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‘mother!’ review: Darren Aronofsky’s daring psychological horror tale isn’t for everyone

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris are the rudest house guests in the world in Darren Aronofsky’s riveting, somewhat overblown psychological horror tale mother! (Paramount Pictures reminded me several times that the title needs to be spelled in all lowercase letters), a film in which the director ventures far beyond Black Swan territory and forces his unsuspecting audience into an unrelenting world filled with chaos, destruction, and some very obvious religious imagery.

“Baby?” It’s the first line we hear in Aronofsky’s wholly-unique cinematic experience, which is certainly not for everybody and will, at one point or another, get under your skin. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young, newly married wife who shares a beautiful, isolated Victorian home she is rebuilding with her much older husband, Him (Javier Bardem), a famous writer who, in order to shake a bad case of writer’s block, often wanders the house and its surrounding areas in search of inspiration for his next project while his wife quietly keeps to herself as she tries to decide which color of paint will look best on the charred living room wall.

Aside from learning that the home Mother is restoring has a literal, beating heart, that eventually begins oozing blood out of the floorboards, things seem relatively normal until Man (Harris), a doctor who suffers from uncontrollable fits of coughing due to a bad smoking habit, and Woman (Pfeiffer), his wife, show up at Mother and Him’s front door, disrupting their tranquil existence and wreaking havoc the moment they step into the home. What do they want? How did they get there? What are their true intentions? It’s hard to pinpoint when and where this rollercoaster ride of a film escapes from reality, but it does just that.

Pfeiffer delivers a dazzling, undeniably hilarious performance as Woman, who seems to enjoy making Mother uncomfortable by asking extremely invasive questions about her sex life and why she doesn’t have any children. “I know what it’s like when you’re just starting out and you think you have all the time in the world,” Woman says as she waltzes around Mother’s home with a glass of alcohol-infused lemonade in hand. “Have kids. Then you’ll be creating something together. This is all just…setting.” She was right.

Eventually, Mother becomes pregnant and Him is suddenly inspired to write, which leads to him completing and publishing his next poem, which moves his wife to tears after she reads it. After selling every single copy of the poem in a single day, Mother and Him decide to celebrate with a quiet dinner, which is soon interrupted by a group of eager fans looking to meet the writer. And then some more show up. A few more come after that. And then there are hundreds of them. You get the picture, right?

It’s in these moments when Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous, grainy 16mm photography is at its best, complete with fast camera swoops and intimate close-ups of Lawrence’s face as she delivers what is inarguably one of the most dedicated performances of her career, giving it her all as her character tries to escape what can only be described as an anxiety-ridden, violent nightmare that bears no limits, including one very gross, disturbing scene that is bound to send some moviegoers walking out of the theater. (Though, if you understand that mother! is a film working on an allegorical level, you’ll understand what exactly it is that the scene represents.)

Chaos soon erupts. The house, which was once quietly occupied by just two people, is now swept up in hundreds, if not thousands, of out of control strangers who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, including Herald (Kristen Wiig), Him’s enthusiastic publicist who can’t seem to get enough of Mother. War breaks out, fires begin to engulf the home, and Mother is suffering from terrible stomach pains, while Him is nowhere to be found in the midst of the ongoing insanity. You can interpret the events that follow however you want.

By the time the last frame of mother! vanishes from the screen and the end credits begin to roll, your mind will instantly be plagued with questions. Perhaps you were too caught up in the intensity or sheer savagery of Aronofsky’s daringly audacious story, which he says he wrote in just five days, to realize that mother! is a deeply personal, rather absurd tale about fame, relationships, and, more evidently, mother nature. Or, maybe, by that point, you just didn’t care.

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‘Midsommar’ review: Ari Aster’s disturbing cultish nightmare unfolds in broad, brilliant daylight

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Midsommar
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The setting of Midsommar, a luxuriant deep-tissue freakout from writer-director Ari Aster, is a picturesque commune in Hälsingland, Sweden, that is holding a nine-day celebration in observation of the summer solstice. Along for the trip is a young American, Dani (Florence Pugh), who has recently endured an unspeakable tragedy and seems doomed to endure another if the rules of genre and the playful, punishing sensibility of her creator are any indication.

It is no spoiler to note that the festivities begin in beauty and end in horror — and indeed, the picture’s most ingenious and intuitive stroke is to blur the boundaries between the two. Unlike Aster’s terrifying 2018 debut feature, Hereditary, a haunted-house tale bathed in nighttime shadows, Midsommar is a nightmare that unfolds in broad daylight. The spell that it casts is bright, dreamy and absorbing, but it is also in no particular hurry to come into focus, which makes its aftereffects all the harder to shake.

Aster’s admirers will recognize his shivery command of pace and tone here, as well as a few signature formal gestures: elegantly jarring transitions, eerie dream sequences, a camera that remains alert even when it stands at a remove from the action. Midsommar is as deliberate and drawn-out a picture as Hereditary, if also, ultimately, a less overtly frightening one. That may sound like a letdown, but it is also a sign of Aster’s growing confidence, his willingness to push his austere, slow-burning showmanship beyond the traditional grammar of cinematic horror.

What truly binds “Midsommar” to “Hereditary,” beyond their spasms of dark comedy and their fascination with intricate pagan subcultures, is a commitment to the subject of human grief. In each story the emotional and psychological contours of trauma, loss and abandonment are explored so ruthlessly that basic, bloodcurdling shocks seem almost a relief by comparison.

The story begins with Dani in a panic at home, as a personal emergency swiftly spirals toward its worst possible outcome. She seeks solace in the aftermath from her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and is perhaps too shaken to realize that he was on the verge of ending their four-year relationship. That he feels obliged to stay with her, at least for now, is the only shred of decency Aster is willing to grant Christian, whose handsome face and reserved demeanor conceal a selfishness that can easily be mistaken for sensitivity. (His name, too, turns out to be no coincidence.)

Christian looks like optimal boyfriend material next to his unsympathetic grad-school buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), who’s focused on writing his dissertation on ancient folklore, and Mark (Will Poulter), who seems to be pursuing a degree in advanced douchebaggery. The three of them have made plans to travel with a Swedish-born friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to his ancestral village for a midsummer festival that occurs once every 90 years — a trippy European jaunt and an academic retreat rolled into one. Christian, feeling a sense of guilt and obligation to Dani, invites her along, to Mark and Josh’s barely concealed irritation.

If you think you can guess what’s coming next — various logistical nightmares, tetchy “bros before hos” arguments that erupt into screaming matches — you are in for the first of a few carefully doled-out surprises. In Pugh’s quietly astonishing performance, the sheer intensity of Dani’s grief, even when hidden behind a reassuring “I’m fine” smile, is palpable enough to keep the others on relatively good behavior. And the tense group dynamics are suspended, at least at first, by the weird splendor of the gathering that awaits them — a spectacle that cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski captures in a succession of breathtakingly composed and choreographed images.

The midnight sun bears down on a green landscape dotted with man-made structures — a pyramid-like yellow house, a Norse fertility symbol — that are at once charming and faintly sinister. Their hosts, known as the Hårga, wear flowers and white robes embroidered with mysterious symbols, and they go about their tasks with a ritualistic devotion that feels more serene than severe. All-natural hallucinogens are consumed, long silences are observed and only after a while is there any shedding of blood, in a moment whose terror is held in check — and also strangely intensified — by an unmistakable sense of awe.

The Hårga welcome their American visitors with more politeness than warmth, allowing them to join in their celebrations but offering little warning about what each new day will bring. Their customs and artifacts are of great scholarly interest to Josh and Christian, and Aster and his production designer, Henrik Svensson, approach this fictional cult with their own anthropological obsessiveness. The visual scheme isn’t big on explanations — what’s with the bear in the cage? — but as you study the exquisite runes and paintings, the lavish feasts and maypole dances, some of them set to Bobby Krlic’s ecstatically dissonant score, you feel swept up into a world that exists outside time.

The sunlight, disorienting and ever-present, could be a metaphor for Dani’s grief, which would be unyielding even if Christian were genuinely interested in consoling her. But in a more literal and provocative sense it suggests a kind of illumination, a new way of seeing.

Dani is a creature of the modern world who suddenly finds herself lost in a pagan, pre-technological one, an unsettling change of scenery that is also, in some ways, an improvement. Life here is predicated on selflessness, and individual woes seem happily nonexistent. Sex and death, sources of so much pain and anxiety elsewhere, are here tamed into collective submission.

This stands in stark contrast to Mark’s testosterone-fueled idiocy and a peevish academic rivalry that develops between Christian and Josh, all of which amount to a withering assessment of contemporary American masculinity. These are in some ways the least interesting aspects of “Midsommar,” partly because they feel like plot triggers from a more conventional horror movie. (One point that bears closer scrutiny: Josh is pointedly one of three people of color in the story, and his willful immersion in this land of white robes and faces at times brings to mind a rural Scandinavian version of “Get Out.”) Think of these beats as easily digestible bread crumbs on the narrative trail, forging a path into the darker, more difficult heart of the material.

Aster has said that he wrote “Midsommar” years ago following a very bad breakup — an impishly sincere admission that reminded me of the Danish auteur Lars von Trier, who has credited some of his wilder movies to his own epic bouts of depression. There is a whiff of Von Trier’s “Antichrist” to this movie’s gender politics, and there are also strong echoes of Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” and especially Robin Hardy’s 1973 pagan-cult classic, “The Wicker Man.” The weight of all this self-conscious auteurism undoubtedly hangs over “Midsommar,” but crucially, it doesn’t leach the movie of its feverish intensity or its strange, searching emotional power.

Amid scenes of revelry, ritual sacrifice and very bizarre sex, what you remember most is the extraordinary commingling of terror and exultation in Dani’s eyes as she beholds the fate that awaits her and her companions. Aster’s control is startling: With diabolical suggestiveness he keeps widening the chasm between Dani and Christian, placing visual and emotional space between two people whose souls have long since drifted apart.

These spaces stretch toward eternity in “Midsommar,” and they speak powerfully to how distant we all are, how little we truly know about each other’s intimate experience — and how, in the end, the not knowing may be for the best.

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‘Midsommar’

Rated: R, for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes

Playing: Opens July 3 in general release

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‘Toy Story 4’ review: Pixar’s iconic franchise is back and it’s warped, weird, and better for it

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Toy Story 4
DISNEY-PIXAR

Let me tell you about Benson. Deep in the recesses of America, off a mysterious back highway, next to a carnival and a trailer park, there is an antique shop haunted by a doll called Benson. He marches around standing awkwardly erect, Frankenstein-style, and swivels his head 270 degrees like a demented owl. Benson performs impromptu surgeries on visitors to the antique shop. He never says a word. And there are four of him. He’s only a supporting character in Toy Story 4, but a symbol of where it’s gone: weirder, darker, more twisted. And more enjoyable for it.

First, it’s important to point out that this is a still Toy Story movie. It has a big heart beating inside, the same one that’s powered the three films before. With Andy and his sister grown, the gang of anthropomorphic toys we’ve come to know and love has been handed down to Bonnie, a shy girl who’s having trouble adjusting to kindergarten. Her newest comfort is Forky, a dirty spork with red pipe cleaner arms, popsicle stick feet, and some googly eyes. The problem is that Forky—voiced by Tony Hale, who delivers peak Tony Hale manic bewilderment—doesn’t think he’s a toy; Forky thinks he’s trash, and wants to get back to his “warm, cozy, safe” trash origins. Woody, dedicated to protecting Bonnie’s feelings, is determined to wrangle the despondent utensil, hoping to convince him that he is, in fact, a toy—and that Bonnie needs him. (Cue Randy Newman singing “I can’t let you throw yourself away.”)

As the trailer implied, Forky’s cartoonish, zero-waste life—and Toy Story 4 as a whole—is a meditation on existential purpose. Particularly, Woody’s. The aging cowboy reckons with letting go, his own obsolescence, and the tension of navigating between loyalty and personal happiness. Does Bonnie really need him, or does he just need to be needed? Does Woody deserve to run off with the love of his life, Bo Peep (Annie Potts)? Toy Story 4 doesn’t so much give an answer as some advice: listen to yourself, and you’ll know where you belong.

It’s a conventional message, delivered explicitly and often, throughout the movie. But Toy Story feels special because here, in its fourth go-round, because it gutsily wraps that motivational poster bromide in Benson-level absurdity. Besides the demented mute surgeon-toy, there’s Carl, the party boy action figure (voiced by Carl Weathers); Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil toy in the mold of Evel Knievel (Keanu Reeves); Bunny and Ducky, two carnival-prize stuffed animals attached at the hand (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key). These sideshow characters contribute sly sexual innuendos, brilliant meta jokes, elaborately violent fantasies. They espouse deep, absurd insecurities. (Try not to feel things during Keanu Reeves’—wait, Duke Caboom’s—emotional monologue about his former kid, Rajon.) As a whole, the freaky dolls and ruthless humor tug the Disney aesthetic toward Adult Swim territory, cutting through the sugar-sweetness with jolting acidity.

Which in itself feels a bit staggering. Rather than treat Toy Story as an investment portfolio that needs to be managed conservatively, Pixar heeded its own advice about what to do in moments of existential quandary, and listened to its heart. And Pixar’s heart whispered: get weirder.

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‘Men in Black: International’ review: You’ll want to erase this movie from your mind after its over

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Men in Black: International
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If Hollywood studios are content to cannibalize the vaults in search of new hits, the first thing they should remember is why the original films were hits in the first place. For all the bells and whistles that went along with the original 1997 Men in Black, with its cutting-edge alien effects, the reason it works is extremely old-fashioned, rooted in an effective cross-pollination between fish-out-of-water comedy and mismatched buddy comedy.

There were plenty of laughs in Will Smith’s knockabout reactions to a secret agency tasked with containing the alien underground, and more still in the back-and-forth between him and his crusty counterpart, played by Tommy Lee Jones. No matter how expensive films get, it’s the cheapest business that matter most.

Though the awful Men in Black: International is technically a sequel to Men in Black 3, it’s unlikely that many are immersed enough in the mythology to recall Emma Thompson’s Agent O as the thin connective tissue between them, especially without Smith or Jones in the picture. So it’s really more a stealth reboot with Tessa Thompson in the Smith role of a charismatic new recruit and Chris Hemsworth as the seasoned veteran in the Jones mold, though neither is doing an imitation. Their roles have been reimagined to where there’s hardly any sharp contrasts between them — her confidence is never buffoonish, his experience is never ornery — so the best they can manage is a little light teasing and the occasional moony glance.

Yet the true thrust of Men in Black: International is suggested by its title: What if there were MIB branches around the world? That would mean that the agents are not mere American beat officers, like the Smith/Jones duo, but globe-trotting James Bond types who get whisked from London to Paris to Marrakesh, Morocco, and back again. There’s nothing funny about the concept, but like a 007 thriller, there’s a generous assortment of fashionable outfits, souped-up luxury vehicles and the latest in alien-zapping weaponry, all managed by those cool translucent swipe-screen computers from Minority Report. More bells and whistles.

In a reversal of the Men in Black origin story, Thompson’s Agent M isn’t discovered by MIB. It is the other way around, as part of a 20-year quest to find the agency that visited her home as a child. Admiring her initiative, Agent O sends her from New York to the London branch, which is immersed in intrigue surrounding a threat called The Hive. Hemsworth’s Agent H and his former partner, High T (Liam Neeson), saved the world from this same alien species a couple of years before, and now their enemies have taken the form of Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), two shape-shifting siblings from Morocco who are on a trail of destruction. Agent H and Agent M are on the case, joined by a pocket-sized alien wiseacre named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), but they begin to suspect that MIB’s house is not in order.

There’s a lot of plotting in Men In Black: International, which makes room for a diabolical three-armed seductress (Rebecca Ferguson) and a compact weapon of planet-destroying power, but the more the story unfurls, the deeper the film sinks into quicksand. Director F. Gary Gray and his screenwriters, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, have made the crucial mistake of believing the franchise needs complex world-building instead of streamlined comedy. Even if the events in the film made any kind of sense, they were never going to matter as much as the good time Hemsworth, Neeson and the two Thompsons are supposed to be showing us. And yet that’s where the emphasis lies.

Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are a proven commodity, having teamed up briefly in Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps the funniest of all the Marvel movies, but they are too busy hustling around to expensive set pieces to spark off each other. Though Nanjiani’s super-cute alien seems like a leftover from Batteries Not Included, at least he has some room to toss around insults and witticisms, and improvise his way out of trouble. Whether the franchise can survive without Smith and Jones is an open question, but it can’t live on gadgetry and spy games and an influx of Mos Eisley cantina denizens alone. There has to be chemistry, too.

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