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Tag: Matthew Libatique

QuickView: Maestro (2023)

“There are many things stopping me, but fear is not one of them.”

Felicia Montealegre

A musician is again the subject of Bradley Cooper’s second directorial outing, a biopic of Leonard Bernstein, the first American conductor to receive international acclaim. Although Cooper plays the titular maestro, it is Carey Mulligan who receives first billing for her powerful performance as his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Cooper uses the couple to explore the multifaceted nature of humans, the complexity of forging an identity from disparate parts, and and the strain that can place on a single partner. In his career, Bernstein refuses to be constrained, retaining his Jewish surname and embracing musical theatre composition in additional to more respected orchestral fare. Montealegre provides Bernstein with understanding and support to explore all of himself but begins to feel isolated by his lack of discretion in relationships with men. Like Oppenheimer, it now seems in vogue for biopics to eschew chronology, and Maestro jumps around repeatedly, using black and white and varied aspect ratios as the primary indicator to the audience. This structure leaves the film feeling fractured, without particularly aiding the underlying themes. Cooper again collaborates with Matthew Libatique (also Darren Aranofsky’s preferred cinematographer), who dazzles early on with his black and white composition like a face shrouded in shadow, only an eye glinting in the light. Cooper’s Bernstein is expressive under Kazu Hiro’s impressive prosthetics, and he embodies duality of the extroverted performance of the conductor (“I love people so much that it’s hard for me to be alone”) and the isolated creativity of the composer.


QuickView: The Whale (2022)

“Who would want me to be part of their life?”


The Whale is emotionally manipulative in its presentation of a shut-in who has become morbidly obese, an effective tearjerker but less profound than Aronofky’s previous work. Charlie is presented sympathetically, using impressive prosthetics and shot predominantly in soft light that delivers an often beautiful appearance despite the comparative squalor in which he lives. Swelling music makes every movement feel like a heroic effort though the camera seems largely impassive even as Charlie gorges himself inside the single-location set that reveals The Whale’s roots as a stage play. It has been heralded as a return for Brendan Fraser but, although his sensitive portrayal of Charlie — augmented by audience knowledge of Fraser’s fallout with Hollywood — may be the lead, the straightforward blend of kindess, shame and regret is less interesting than the supporting characters who surround him. Hong Chau is particularly compelling as Charlie’s friend and nurse, tied to him by a tragedy but frustrated at his refusal to get help and left hollow by the knowledge of his likely demise. The script bears a clear grudge with religion though it is less well-developed aside from a distinction between saving someone and preaching salvation (“I don’t think I believe anyone can save anybody”). Repeated references to Moby Dick cast Charlie as both Ahab and the whale, chasing his own destruction. Sadie Sink’s most high profile performance following Stranger Things is impressive as Charlie’s estranged daughter, seeming at first mercurial and capricious until we perceive pain and purpose, her defiance competing with curiosity about her father. Yet, for all the talent at work, a late in life attempt at redemption and reconcilliation with a daughter is something Aronofsky has already produced with greater subtlety in The Wrestler.


QuickView: Don’t Worry Darling (2022)

Don't Worry Darling

“All they ask of us is to stay here. Where it’s safe.”


After the excellent Booksmart, I had high hopes for Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial outing. Sadly, despite its panache, Don’t Worry Darling proves to be a shallow and often repetitive thriller that believes itself to be smarter than it is. The setup is a suitably surreal take on 1960s American suburbia where, like The Stepford Wives, something is palpably wrong. The leads’ idyllic relationship, with excellent performances from Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, is the film’s strength, Wilde’s direction providing eroticism through touch rather than nudity. As Alice becomes increasingly unsettled, the sound mix buzzes around uncomfortably like an insect, reflecting her mental state. Reflections are also a neat visual flourish, with several occasions where mirrors act impossibly. Third act twists are dangerous as they risk alienating an audience and Don’t Worry Darling manages the double sin of being entirely obvious with half of its conceit and entirely out of leftfield with the other. The result is an unsatisfying and disjointed reveal that leaves too little time to explore its ramifications. Chris Pine’s antagonist is overtly based on Jordan Peterson, particularly his obsession with order and chaos, and natural heirarchies, yet the film is content to make this allusion without attempting to debunk or even engage with his ideas. This is the film’s ultimate failure, which is that it never delves beneath the surface in any of its ideas, from cult programming to traditional gender roles to the broader concepts like satisfaction with our reality. There is far more to be gleaned from films with lesser ambitions like The Master or Martha Marcy Mae Marlene.


Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.

QuickView: Birds of Prey (2020)

Birds of Prey quad ooster

“If you want boys to respect you, show them you’re serious. Shoot something, blow it up!”

Harley Quinn

The flippant tone of Birds of Prey is its greatest strength, a bright colour palette veering deliberately away from the dark tone of the DCEU with a story told, messily, by Harley Quinn. The script weaves a thin plot around the conceit that she is striking out on her own after years under the Joker’s sway, but for the most part it just strings together a series of acrobatic fight sequences. There is some creative choreography, with a few well-observed moments in the hands of a female director like Harley offering Black Canary a hair-tie during a fight, but it is shot predictably in chaotic quick cuts. We never see the level of audiovisual flair found in Harley’s prison breakout in the The Suicide Squad and, whilst comparing Birds of Prey to a later film may seem unfair, Gunn understood what we need to see and feel to get into the mind of one Harley Quinn, which is almost as important as Margot Robbie’s performance. Birds of Prey tries to do that through its use of voice over and colour palette, but it never quite succeeds.


QuickView: The Fountain (2006)

The Fountain poster

“Death is the road to awe.”

Lord of Xibalba

If there is a common theme to Darren Aronofsky’s films it is obsession, in this case a doctor’s desperate drive to cure his wife’s cancer before it takes her, failing to spend time with her whilst she comes to accept her mortality. Rather than focus solely upon this personal drama, Aronofsky seeks to tackle the more profound nature of death through a separate fiction that mirrors the central narrative, with the same lead actors. This serves to depersonalise the characters, along with a brief running time reducing them to sketches, so that we understand them on an intellectual level but struggle particularly to empathise with them. From the opening ten minutes, spanning multiple eras with fantastic elements and a striking black and gold palette, I feared this would be a frustratingly inscrutable experience. Instead, once its structure emerges, The Fountain‘s ideas about death turn out to be surprisingly straightforward, with far less depth than its ambition.


Requiem for a Dream (2000)

director: Darren Aronofsky
writer: Hubert Selby Jr., Darren Aronofsky
starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans
running time: 102 mins
certificate: 18

You are beautiful. You’re the most beautiful girl in the world. You are my dream.

The last quarter of an hour of Requiem for a Dream is probably the most intensely harrowing closing I have witnessed, and yet the moment the credits roll there can be no dought that this was a spectacular achievement in film. The depiction is of the depths to which four drug addicts fall, each trying to attain their dream, only to have it snatched away as they fuel their own addiction.

Sarah Golfarb [Ellen Burstyn] is a lonely old woman whose solitary existance is punctuated only by occassional visits from her son, Harry [Jared Leto], to provide cash for his drug habit. Sarah spends her day watching a self-help informercial, until she receives a phone call informing her that she is to be the contestant on a TV show. Her life gains new purpose and revolves around losing weight to appear on the show. The cycle of the addiction of both mother and son is cleverly shown through the television which he repeatedly pawns for money, and she buys back each time. The differencce between addiction to hard drugs and TV as methods of dealing with reality are not so far removed, it would seem. Harry’s own dream is make one big score with his best friend Tyrone [ Marlon Wayans ] to raise himself from a small-time dealer, but he’s already developed an addiction to his product. His girlfriend Marion [Jennifer Connelly] dreams of opening a shop to sell her fashion designs, taking hits surrounded by her sketches. After a great summer where all four are successful and happy, in each case addiction kills the dream, as Sarah finds herself addicted to the dieting pills prescribed by a doctor, Harry and Tyrone’s big score falls through, and Marion cannot cope during a heroin drought. The resulting winter is a harsh one indeed.

The key performances in this film are all of an incredible quality, especially Burstyn who portrays addiction in a different light, first to televesion, then the red dress, then true drug of her diet pills. By the end of the film her transformation is so horrifying that she is utterly unrecognisable, yet never does she seem unrealistic or excessive. The performances of all the actors are all the more impressive because of the way they truly take on the roles they play, allowing the audience to see the changes internally as well as externally. This is most true of Connelly’s change from the wide eyed young girl to the hopeless addict by the end. She, above all others, should be heralded for her bravery and integrity as an actress, in the degredation she put herself through in order to accurately depict the depths to which Marion has fallen. The controversial scene in which a four girl orgy is portrayed in a series of sharp jump-cuts is never erotic in the slightest, but shows the utter destruction and total loss of the any self esteem in a character we have come to care about. It is a truly incredible task for any actress to agree to, and an astounding performance to match Burstyn’s. Leto and Wayans play more difficult characters to understand, perhaps because of their depiction in the opening, and really it is Burstyn who offers us a way into their psyche through her depiction of an “everyday addiction”. Nonetheless, both actors are able to display a subtle innocence and insecurity in their roles which is what draws us to them.

Aronofsky’s skill at manipulating varied camera styles can seem harsh and confusing, but the dizzying array of techniques is used to display the detatchment of the characters and the altered speed of a world where the next hit is the true goal. Speed-ups, slow motion, split screen, fast cuts, montage, camera shakes and time elapse each have their own careful use in his reportoire. An especially effective romantic scene between Harry and Marion singlehandedly defines their relationship of loving dependence, a split screen showing the lovers staring at one another, then a gentle caress on one half with the reaction on the other’s face opposite. This is not to say Aronofsky has created a flawless work. As the vibrating fridge in Sarah’s drug-filled mind becomes more violent and finally opens its jaws, it is difficult to see whether his intention is for us to be scared, amused or disturbed.


As the film closes, no doubt each viewer will take away a different image that spoke to them more powerfully, but be sure that there will be a powerful image residually burned into you. The putried shot of the infected vein, the blood splattered across Harry’s face, and the thought of losing an arm; the strong Tyrone in a work facility rather than detox, drawn into a foetal position as he sleeps through a craving; Marion returning home after degrading herself so greatly, cradling the hit she has scored as a child cuddling a teddy bear for comfort – and she is actually smiling; Sarah pumped full of electricity, screaming in pain with a plastic bit between her teeth, fried and seemingly brain dead when her friends finally visit; and the haunting sound of the infomercial after we see these results, “we’ve got a winner…”


"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

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