BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Music: A-

Here is yet another film that isn’t quite the one you expect based on the trailer — Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t quite as good as it looks in that window dressing. On the other hand, it’s not quite as bad as the mixed reviews would suggest, either. At least, not if you can appreciate what it has to offer, and it has a lot.

It as a lot to offer those who appreciate the cinematic, and clever storytelling — if a bit overlong: this movie did not need to run 141 minutes. It sure is pretty to look at, though, each set piece a carefully laid out diorama of consciously detailed lines and colors. Bad Times at the El Royale might be worth seeing just for its production design.

Hell, it might be worth seeing just for Chris Hemsworth. He plays a very bad man indeed here, albeit one not particularly well fleshed out — although that could be said of any one of this ensemble cast, really. Character dimension in this case is kind of beside the point. They way these people’s thinly drawn stories fit together as they all converge into this one hotel might be called “Tarantino Lite.” The same could be said of the violence, which — and in a way it deserves credit for this — is shocking in consistently fun ways. More than once I jumped out of my seat, and laughed almost as quickly.

But let’s get back to Chris Hemsworth. He doesn’t even show up until maybe halfway through the film. It’s worth the wait, just for his V-cut abs. If you thought Chris Hemsworth was hot before, just wait until you see this. I don’t think there’s a single scene here where his shirt isn’t hanging open. In one scene, he dances toward the camera with his arms outstretched, and all I could think was, Holy shit. If he’s the cult leader, I might happily join. Anyway, I’m getting distracted.

To be fair, Bad Times at the El Royale Hotel is much more than the meat on display. The plot is too labyrinthine to explain adequately here, and watching it unfold is really the fun of this movie — so long as you have the patience for its measured pacing, particularly in the beginning. An early sequence in which the four main hotel patrons arrive in the lobby (played by Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, John Hamm and Dakota Johnson) lasts quite some time. It’s probably not until halfway through the sequence before the concierge (Lewis Pullman) even appears.

There’s a nice little gimmick to this hotel: it has two branches, each on either side of the state line between California and Nevada. The line runs right through the center of the fantastically designed lobby, which has a separate and distinct look on either side. The place lost its gambling license a year ago, which explains why only four people are checking in on this particular day. It’s quite the coincidence that all four show up within minutes of each other but whatever. There is also, it turns out, a corridor that runs along the back of each of these rooms, with a two-way mirror through which “management” can look on undetected. We never find out quite enough about how or why this came to be, but provides plenty of fodder for many of this movie’s fun twists.

I found myself plenty engaged in this story despite its shortcomings. Things keep happening that are impossible to see coming, even if each person not being what they appear to be is itself predictable. Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) is clearly plenty pleased with himself here, maybe a tad too much so. This movie isn’t going to work for everybody — but it works for me, even if it does have a certain potential it doesn’t quite realize. The storytelling skims close to thrilling, and then takes certain turns that seem a bit like an easy out.

But the great stuff in it — it’s really great. And not just the production design. This is not at all a musical, but since Cynthia Erivo plays a lounge singer, she spends a lot of time practicing, and we are treated to a surprising lot of songs through her spectacular voice. It’s another thing that makes this movie worth seeing. Chris Hemsworth’s abs, Cynthia Erivo’s voice. A sprinkling of deliciously dark humor. A unique tone. This movie has its flaws, but it also very much stands apart, in a host of memorable ways.

Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Overall: B

A SIMPLE FAVOR

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

“From the darker side of Paul Feig,” or so the trailer promised: this is the director who brought us Bridesmaids and The Heat. What they don’t mention is that A Simple Favor has plenty of its lighter moments as well. It’s like a thriller-comedy — a bit more of an awkward combination, it turns out, than the numerous horror comedies now out there. It seems to have slightly loftier aims of sophistication. But then Anna Kendrick comes along with her winning goofiness.

And I don’t say that derisively; the actors in A Simple Favor make up for a lot of the script contrivances. And even those, I have to admit, are entertaining, even if they are increasingly ridiculous. This is a movie that really tows that line. It creeps right up to the precipice but remains consistently just this side of outright dumb.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed “mommy vlogger” who befriends Emily (Blake Lively), the mother of her son’s friend at school. Emily invites Stephanie over for drinks as their kids have a play date, dismissing how impressed Stephanie is with her elegant house with a huge kitchen she never uses, except to make stiff martinis. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Stephanie tells her vlog viewers about how Emily has been missing for five days.

Honestly, although Stephanie is supposed to be the “normal” one here, she comes across a little crazy herself. She mentions countless times that Emily is her best friend. Did I mention she’s only known her for five days?

Well anyway, the “simple favor” Emily asks is for Stephanie to pick up her son from school — and then she never shows up to pick him up. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, except to say that although I could never have predicted what the many twists and turns were, that there would be many twists and turns was wildly predictable. You can see a mile away that no one is as they appear to be, and to a degree that includes seemingly goody-two-shoes Stephanie herself. I must say, though, that her “dark secret” isn’t so much dark as taboo, and part of a backstory inadequately fleshed out.

Those twists and turns, though: they did keep me interested, ridiculous though they were. I won’t go out of my way to tell anyone else to see it, but I did have fun at this movie.

That said, the execution of a litany of recognizable faces in small roles is a mixed bag. The group of gossipy parents in Stephanie’s son’s class includes Aparna Noncherla and Andrew Rannells, two performers who are fantastically entertaining . . . in everything but this, apparently. It’s not their fault; they simply weren’t given very entertaining parts (although Rannells does get a pretty great moment at the end). They are criminally under-utilized talents here. On the other hand, it’s delightful to see Jean Smart nailing a small but key role.

That’s the crux of it, really: under any critical scrutiny, A Simple Favor is a mixed bag at best. But even a mixed bag can average out to a fun couple of hours — nothing that makes any deep and lasting impression, but not a waste of time either.

A toast to intermittent wit that barely elevates mediocrity!

A toast to intermittent wit that barely elevates mediocrity!

Overall: B

SEARCHING

Directing: C+
Acting: B-
Writing: C-
Cinematography: C+
Editing: B+

I suppose it’s an exaggeration to say this movie blows. It’s telling, however, that although I was kind of into it as the story unfolded, once it was over, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. So perhaps this is the best advice: if you want to enjoy this movie, go ahead and watch it, and then immediately move on to some other thing that makes you forget all about it. Because Searching seriously fails at standing up to any kind of scrutiny.

This movie is, however, dumb. That is not an exaggeration. I never actively set out to solve whatever mystery might be at hand; even in otherwise relatively predictable stories, I am happy just to go along for the ride and be surprised, even if no one else isn’t. And if even I saw the “twist” coming a mile away, that tells you a lot about Searching. As in, it’s predictable enough to insult your intelligence.

And this is no poor reflection on John Cho, for the record. He’s the best thing in this movie, the reason you want to keep watching, anguish etched across his face as his David Kim searches for his missing daughter, Margot (Michelle La). And kudos to this movie, if nothing else, for making it to #4 in box office its first weekend of wide release, thus making two movies with Asian American leads in the American top 5 (along with Crazy Rich Asians at #1), surely a first. Michelle La also makes a strong debut as Margot, very believably cast as a teenager still grieving the loss of her mother to cancer.

But these two people cannot overcome Searching’s insurmountable problems. Debra Messing as an investigator, frankly, comes across as Grace Adler pretending to be an investigator. It’s unfortunate that Messing cannot break free of her iconic role from Will & Grace, but it’s still the reality. Searching would have worked better with another actor in the part.

Not that her part, or any part, is particularly well written. Because I haven’t even gotten to the gimmick in Searching, and it’s a doozy of a gimmick, one the movie leans into hard: the entire movie is shown as computer screens or mobile device screens, all the live action seen as FaceTime video feeds or home movie clips being shown on a desktop, usually without the window being maximized, so we see bits of other open programs behind it, or even parts of the desktop image. Even when Morgot’s case gets into local news segments, these clips are shown as video being watched online by David, the point of view always being the screen he’s looking at, any sight of his face only the front-facing camera showing his reverse feed when he speaks to people.

It’s not exactly subtle, by the way, that every single computing device being used is an Apple product. And while I remain an Apple loyalist and will sing its praises as a superior brand over Windows, the idea that no screen ever freezes at any time, and page downloads or file uploads always finish instantaneously, is preposterous. Okay, I get it that it’s a movie and it has to be edited this way to give the story propulsion, but it’s still an idea ripe for parody. Lots of things happen on these screens that never actually occur in the real world, such as that reverse camera activating to show David sleeping in bed while his daughter attempts to call him in the middle of the night. Hello, the camera doesn’t come on until you answer the FaceTime call! (In the Windows Version of Searching, all the video calls are done on Skype.)

It’s not always video feeds, incidentally. We get plenty of other action on these screens, showing email drafts and iMessage texts and browsing of files and so on. On the surface, it’s kind of a neat trick, this high concept that distracts the viewer from how dumb the story actually is. I suspect few of the many people who are into this movie (it’s getting a pretty positive consensus in its critical response) are thinking of how very much a snapshot of its time it is — maybe even slightly more behind the times than people realize. This is not a movie that will hold up well very far into the future. It’s going to look very dated very quickly. Like, next year. Maybe next week.

This “computer screens” framing device (literally!) also requires some pretty contrived scenarios for the presentation of key scenes. When David feels the need to confront his suddenly suspicious brother Peter (Joseph Lee), he sets up several devices around his living room and kitchen in an attempt to record “proof” of his guilt. This allows for a pivotal scene to unfold from multiple angles. It’s easy to call this clever. As a viewer, I call it distracting. Realistically, an anguished father like David would never be that successfully savvy. Peter even opens a kitchen cupboard right where one of the cameras is and never notices it.

I’ll give Searching this much credit: considering the conceit, and its presentation unlike that of any other conventional mainstream movie, I found myself pretty easily sucked into the store, in spite of all its predictable stupidity. I won’t deny that it held my attention. Does that mean the movie is good? Okay — it’s entertaining. What bugs me about it, though, is that it seems to have duped a great number of people into thinking it’s “smart.” I would fervently beg to differ on that point.

John Cho is  searching  for something in this movie to take seriously.

John Cho is searching for something in this movie to take seriously.

Overall: C+

THE LITTLE STRANGER

Directing:B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

The genre of The Little Stranger is perhaps up for debate. iMDB.com lists several genres for it: "Drama | Horror | Mystery | Thriller." I would agree with three of those, in that order. I wouldn't call it particularly thrilling.

And I knew nothing of this movie until mere hours before seeing it. I felt like going to see a movie, and did something I very, very rarely do: just looked up what was playing at the theatre I wanted to go to, and made a choice. Okay, I did look it up on the critical aggregate websites, and was satisfied to see it getting generally good reviews. I do rather like Domhnall Gleeson. I don't generally go for horror, but what few things I found online seemed to stress this movie opts more for a mood of impending dread than jump scares. I can go for that.

I did not realize until she showed up in the movie that it also stars Charlotte Rampling, as the mother living in the post-World War I British mansion in which most of it is set. Here is a woman with a bit of dipshittery in interview comments in recent years -- but a great actor. She has a knack for conveying warmth that has a tinge of something sinister just beneath the surface.

Her grown children, Caroline and Roderick (Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter), live with her, along with only one young maid (Liv Hill), in a giant house long since past its prime and now falling into disrepair. Gleeson is Faraday, the son of a former maid in the same house, now a local doctor who comes to meet the Ayres family when called upon to treat Betty the house maid.

The story is told entirely through the eyes of Faraday, who has a vivid memory of once getting inside the house as a child, and how it basically became a mythological place in his mind. As he gets to know the Ayers family, they seem in turn to be going mad. It's well into the film, maybe more than halfway, before it even becomes clear the family lost a young child many years ago, and after a terrible incident with another visiting little girl and the family dog, they become increasingly convinced the deceased daughter is haunting the house.

There is a curious way this story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and written by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) based on a novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, moves from what seems a straightforward drama tinged with mystery to something closer to mystery-horror. It's fairly gradual. No sudden plot turns. As Faraday holds onto his skepticism, however, we the viewer come to know that certainly something mysteriously horrible is going on, especially in a pivotal scene when the older Mrs. Ayers appears to be attacked by unknown forces in a empty upstairs bedroom. Things get subtly weird.

--Too subtle, arguably. I can get into slow-moving stories when a palpable sense of mood and atmosphere is conjured. The Little Stranger offers some real tension and a certain dread, but none of it as palpable as it could be. Then it ends with a shot ambiguous to the point of being baffling. I basically left the theater thinking, What's that supposed to mean? It seems I was supposed to. Ambiguity can be satisfying, but it isn't particularly here. At least the story still kept me interested the entire time.

Wait, what?

Wait, what?

Overall: B

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

It's not often a movie practically forces you to pay attention to its cinematography and editing. You Were Never Really Here does from its first moment, as writer-director Lynne Ramsay uses close-ups and carefully mixed sounds to drop us in the middle of her main character's world. Most of the story we ultimately see takes place in New York, but we meet Joe (Juaquin Phoenix) in a Cincinnati motel room. He's finished up a job that has something to do with a young girl, packs up and disposes of several small items, and we follow closely behind as he walks out the back door into a dingy alleyway. Lest we forget the violence of the world he inhabits, some random guy attempts to mug him, and Joe just head butts him into submission. Then he takes a taxi to the airport.

This doesn't sound that compelling, but You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that makes even the most mundane things compelling. Given the rattling noises constantly bombarding us from around Joe's immediate environments, we are meant to get a taste of the total lack of calm inside Joe's head. Back in New York, we learn, as he does, that his next job involves rescuing another young girl from a life of forced sex work. She is the daughter of a state senator.

Very little in this story is predictable, save for the totally expected element of things not quite going as planned. And as we see Joe, cleverly edited through the lenses of security camera footage, making his way through guards with his trusty hammer, his procurement of Nina (a steadfast Ekaterina Samsonov) seems to go as planned far longer than you might expect. This is the kind of movie in which you expect twists to happen, but then the twists only come just when you begin to think they won't.

And as much praise as I want to give this movie -- which is very well done -- I must say I was slightly disappointed with the ending. I won't spoil it, except to say that it offers a twist of its own, but in a downbeat, unexpected way. Just when you think something exciting -- or at least shocking -- is going to happen, it's a slight let down, as of the air were suddenly let out of the tires of this movie's tension, which up until that point is nearly relentless. That said, I also have a healthy respect for a subtext that only gets more depressing the more you think about it.

And You Were Never Really Here offers plenty to think about. Joaquin Phoenix has never been better, here embodying a character who has a surprisingly comforting presence given how violent and tortured he is. Ramsay even provides us with a suitably dark reason for the hammer being his weapon of choice -- again, quite effectively revealed through stark visual and sound editing. More than once I jumped during this movie, not because of deliberate jump-scares but just because of the way sound is used.

One of the oddest twists of this story is that it could have benefited from being more unsettling. Or maybe I've just watched too many disturbing movies. I mean, if you're used to family entertainment, then this probably will keep you up at night. Otherwise, Ramsay uses hyper stylization to compensate for the script being, even if only to a minor degree, its weakest element. To that end, though, she does a bang up job.

Joaquin Phoenix and his beard team up as a force to be reckoned with.

Joaquin Phoenix and his beard team up as a force to be reckoned with.

Overall: B+

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: C+
Special Effects: C

After seeing Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express, I'm rather eager to see Sidney Lumet's 1974 original. I've spent years insisting that movies should be judged on their own merits, but that's just the thing here: Branagh's apparent "update" only barely stands on its own merits. The original, at least, still has a sort of fame -- more than forty years on, it still has name recognition, anyway. And trust me on this one: no one's going to be talking about Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express in 2060.

For now, the current version has its moments, and that's about all it's got. Branagh stars as the famous Inspector Hercule (pronounced "Er-Cule," he notes several times) Poirot, complete with a mustache stretched so far across his face it could only called majestic. And I hate mustaches! Poirot's gets its own bit of humor, though, complete with a plastic covering vaguely in the same shape of it which he sleeps in. Anyway, Branagh puts himself center stage, hamming it up onscreen seemingly more than the rest of the A-list ensemble cast combined. As with the story itself, it gets a mite tedious after a while.

This most problematic element of the story is clear from the very beginning, with an extended introductory sequence not even set on the fabled train out of Istanbul. We see Poirot address a crowd of adversarial religions accusing either a priest, a rabbi or an imam of theft. Branagh is introducing us to the cleverness of this central character, here thanks to the well-timed placement of his cane into the Wailing Wall. The thing is, he takes a tad too long with it. I just found myself thinking, When the hell are we going to get on the train?

Poirot finds himself with a last-minute need to get on the train, and once he finally arrives at the station, here we are introduced to all of the first-class passengers who will later become suspects to the murder of a nasty businessman played by Johnny Depp -- who, let's face it, is phoning it in. Many of the other characters are much more fun: Judy Dench as a surly elderly princess; Josh Gad as the businessman's assistant; Willem Dafoe as a suspicious German; Penélope Cruz as a semi-comically pious woman; Michelle Pfeiffer as serial widow Caroline Hubbard continues her recent streak of being great in not-so-great movies. There's more, but in continuing the list we get right back to the aforementioned tedium. As in: some of these passengers are delightfully shady characters; others are fundamentally forgettable. Daisy Ridley is also in this movie, apparently.

I did get a good laugh a few times at this movie, which is peppered with some well-placed gags and quips. There are too many characters, however, and not enough time spent with any given one of them -- all the while far too much attention is focused on Poirot himself. This guy and his Belgian accent could have benefited from taking it down a notch.

There is an inherent appeal in the mystery of a whodunit on a train careening through Eastern Europe. It's too bad so much of the scenery is transparently done via green screen, rendering what should be majestic landscapes rather inert and static. There isn't near enough depth to the visuals in this film as there should be. And then there are the odd staging choices: sitting all the suspects along a table just inside the opening of a train tunnel, spaced out like they're staging The Last Supper. Meanwhile, Branagh as Poirot is literally sharing half the screen with the huge stream train behind him as he works out who the culprit is. Okay, we get it! There's a train!

I do wonder how many people unfamiliar with the story are able to work out who the murderer is. I suppose it's to the credit of original novelist Agatha Christie that I was genuinely surprised by the revelation at the end. Until that point, though, Poirot leads a great many conversations that overstay their welcome. That runs counter to the intrigue we're supposed to be gripped by all the while. This is one train ride that could have used a jump in pacing -- rather than literally stalling on a CGI railroad bridge in the mountains.

Kenneth Branagh's majestic mustache leads a train to nowhere.

Kenneth Branagh's majestic mustache leads a train to nowhere.

Overall: C+

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

Yorgos Lanthimos's follow-up to 2015's truly fantastic -- and weird and disturbing -- The Lobster, leans much more into the uniquely horrifying. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is similarly odd in tone, but less like an alternate reality, even though all the characters have this largely static, deadpan delivery.

This is more like a Sophie's Choice for the 21st century, repackaged as vengeance rather than spite. The thing is, young Martin (a brilliantly unsettling Barry Keoghan) thinks of it not as vengeance, but as justice. It's easy to endure the tensions of this movie and wonder what the point of it was. What masochist would put themselves through a story like this? Well, I did. And it does bring to light how thin the line between vengeance and justice can really be.

Still, it can be difficult to decide how to feel about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Martin has been hanging out with surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), who we eventually learn was the surgeon working on Martin's father when he died on the operating table. We never get any explanation of how Martin has this power -- apparently it's beside the point -- but when Steven's youngest child, Bob (Sunny Suljic), suddenly loses all feeling in his legs, Martin takes responsibility. Not only that, but he tells Steven that since he killed a member of his family, he must kill a member of his own family as well. If he does not, then one by one, his two children, as well as his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), will in turn suffer the same paralysis, then be incapable of eating, and then as soon as their eyes start bleeding, that will mean they are hours from death. The only way this can be prevented is by killing one of them outright -- hence, of course, the film's title.

And that's just the premise. The script is the weakest element here, but to its credit, over and over it moves beyond where other movies would go with its mysteries. This is not a movie where what's going on is kept secret from its characters until the very end. Surprisingly early on, Anna, Bob and teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) are all fully aware of what's going on. Like The Lobster, this film has some dark humor, although it doesn't indulge in it nearly as much. Ther's a darkly funny scene in which the siblings sadistically needle each other about which of them will be chosen to be killed.

It's difficult to describe this movie without making it seem just pointlessly weird. It has a deeply unsettling tone to it, camera shots slowly pulling out of or tightening in to images of beautiful composition. This happens whether it's near a large tree in a yard at sunset or in the corridors of a hospital. And here we have a middle-aged, married couple, grappling with the choice between choosing death for just one of them, or certain death for all of them. All except for Steven, who is assured he must live with the consequences either way.

The performances, the often oddly deadpan delivery notwithstanding, are solid all around. Nicole Kidman can convey an astonishing amount with just a sustained shot of her face with no dialogue. And Alicia Silverstone appears briefly as Martin's mother, quite literally unrecognizable: I saw her name in the credits and was taken aback: Wait, what? Where was Alicia Silverstone? She was in Martin's house, trying to seduce Steven by awkwardly sucking on his fingers.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a world much closer to our actual reality than did The Lobster, but still consistently feels vaguely otherworldly, even when characters are not getting ailments that local medical professionals are incapable of explaining. Yorgos Lanthimos has a knack for injecting just a dash of the supernatural, giving his world a sense of subtle yet disturbing wonder. He is a truly singular writer and director.

Perhaps he's singular to an excessively stark degree, for some. This is a film that will stick with you, but depending on who you are and what kind of tolerance you have for the specific, genuine psychological horrors it has to offer, it could stick with you in unwanted ways. And the end is slightly disappointing, having left me thinking, Um . . . okay? This movie left me incapable of being any more precise than that.

Martin wants to play the worst game ever.

Martin wants to play the worst game ever.

Overall: B

MOTHER!

Directing: C
Acting: B+
Writing: D+
Cinematography: C-
Editing: C-

The pretension seeping through every surface of Mother! begins with its very title. What's with that exclamation point? To me, it punctuates the contempt I feel for this movie.

From the very first frame, the reaction is What the fuck? It ends with a bit of a What now? Everything in between makes absolutely zero things about it clear. Darren Aronofsky is a truly accomplished director, but I guess in his middle age he's more interested in offering a cinematic version of a stroke. He clearly wants his audience to understand Mother! is about something. What is it about, then? Someone explain it to me. No, I take that back. I wasted two hours of my life on this movie already.

I don't even know how I could offer any spoilers. Mother! is rotten as soon as it starts. But it's a sneaky kind of rotten, like when you chew a bite of food a few times, pleasantly oblivious until you realize there are maggots in your mouth. Too disgusting for you? Well . . . spoiler alert! There's a point in Mother! where a rabid crowd of zealots eat the main character's baby. Why that happens, I couldn't tell you. Darren Aronofsky should have a chat with Cormack McCarthy. Now there's a guy who knows how to make effective use of baby eating.

I couldn't provide a logical reason behind a single one of the choices Aronofsky makes in Mother! Well, except maybe for his decision to cast Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of the countless mystifying and/or pointless supporting roles. Pfeiffer is legitimately hilarious in this movie, which is weird because of how dark and disturbing it is. For a while, anyway. Then it's just oppressively chaotic. By then, Pfeiffer has disappeared. But when she's on screen, she plays the wife of a surprise house guest (a cigarette-hacking Ed Harris) as a deliciously cold bitch. We need to see more of Michelle Pfeiffer.

The point of view is from Jennifer Lawrence's nameless protagonist. Or is it? It would sure seem so, with Matthew Libatique's cinematography incessantly following her around this gigantic house she never leaves, right behind her head. She's consistently bewildered. It's her one emotion during this story that I could relate to.

It doesn't take long to realize time isn't quite linear. Things switch around too quickly. We learn that she helped restore this entire house, a massive house with countless rooms that evidently stands in the middle of a field with no roads to it, after it burned to the ground. "I lost everything," says her husband, played by Javier Bardem. These are two excellent actors who, in this instance, occasionally don't seem so excellent thanks to some clunky or subtly bizarre dialogue. By the end, there's an endless sequence in which reality gets so distorted that I couldn't tell if this was all an echo of a literal apocalypse (a word Jennifer Lawrence actually utters at one point), or maybe her character was nuts and having hallucinations so elaboriate that at one point the house literally turns into a war zone. I'm talking graphically shot soldiers, bullets through the face.

Weirdly -- I mean, this whole movie is weird -- Mother! startled me several times, like it was trying to be a horror movie, but each of them occurs within the first half. I even jumped when the heart that appears in the toilet squirts blood. Oh, and the toad in the basement.

I'm sure film snobs will insist this movie's "deeper meaning" is clear and anyone who can't figure out what the fuck it was about or what literally any of it means is a moron. There's a strong sense of allegory, just nothing even approaching clarity.

I found the massive marketing push over the past couple of weeks to be suspect, and I was right. Someone saw this movie and said, "Let's bombard the public with so much advertising that they give in before they knew what hit them!" I, on the other hand, put my trust in a proven director. But, even the greats typically make one or two steaming piles of shit movies.

Could this have been better if it were edited differently, maybe? Surely? Did all these great actors really read this script and say, "I have to be a part of this!" Did Darren Aronofsky roofie them all? Seriously, I don't understand. I can't remember the last movie I willingly sat through that had so few genuinely redeeming qualities. We're meant to ask, Is any of this real? By the last quarter of this movie I was just thinking, Get on with it! At least give us the detail that ties this mess together. And then the so-called twist comes in the closing scene and it's simultaneously dumb, disappointing, and more confusing the more you consider everything that preceded it. All that's left is the compulsion to warn the world not to waste their time and money on this movie.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are like  whaaat  and so is everyone in the audience all day forever.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are like whaaat and so is everyone in the audience all day forever.

Overall: C-