September 11, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “mother!” & “Unicorn Store”


mother! (Paramount – Sept 15):  It may come as a shock to people who have been following the marketing for Darren Aronofsky’s mother! to find out that it isn’t a horror movie at all.  It uses thriller grammar from time to time, and in the early going you might think you’re going to see a 21st-century version of Rosemary’s Baby, as a puzzled woman (none of the characters have names, but she’s played by Jennifer Lawrence) finds that her writer husband (Javier Bardem) has opened the doors wide of the house she’s worked so carefully to perfect after a disastrous fire–first to a mysterious but affable man (Ed Harris), then to his seductive wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), and ultimately to dangerous hordes.  But Aronofsky is playing a far bigger game than a mere genre piece.  In fact, mother! is the most avant-garde project any major studio has released in years, an allegory that’s far more Bunuel than Blumhouse.  Audiences might be puzzled as to what the increasingly cacophonous story is trying to convey, and that may be why Aronofsky was so forthcoming at a post-screening Q&A:  suffice it to say that the abstractions covered include planetary matters and the Bible (Old and New Testaments).  Unlike David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot, mother! actually makes coherent sense once you understand what it’s doing.  And Aronofsky, working in and around the single setting of that house (the remarkable production design is by Philip Messina), keeps the action fluid and exciting, if at times a bit dizzying, since the largely hand-held photography (by Matthew Libatique) is in almost constant shaky spin, with every shot featuring either Lawrence or her point of view.  It’s hard to rate the acting in a project like this, since there aren’t “characters” as such, but Lawrence pulls you in to her panicked perspective, and Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are as strange as they seem meant to be.  It’s hard to imagine mother! sustaining a run at the box office once audiences catch on to what it is (and isn’t), but the film certainly cements Aronofsky’s place as one of the most daring mainstream filmmakers around.

UNICORN STORE (no distrib):  Brie Larson clearly understood that her clout would never be stronger than after winning the Oscar for Room, and she cashed in her chips by taking the director’s chair for her debut feature UNICORN STORE.  It’s a super-twee version of a lot of weathered Sundance/indie tropes, especially the ones about a post-high school character Who Needs To Grow Up.  Larson plays Kit, who’s out of school but still an adolescent, making her the perfect customer for a no-it’s-not-a-metaphor actual Unicorn Store (run by Samuel L. Jackson!), which promises her a unicorn of her very own once she’s proven that she can handle one.  Needless to say, the tasks she has to undertake in order to ready herself for unicorn ownership also push her to see her life in a new way, including through meeting hardware store assistant Virgil (Mamoudou Athie).  Larson lacked either the budget or the inclination to create something truly visually stylized, so the movie looks like a typical junior indie with a whole lot of glitter and pastel colors around.  Not very much of Samantha McIntyre’s script really works, as it bounces from skit comedy (scenes with Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack as Kit’s new age parents) to fantasy (the Unicorn Store scenes) to scenes where Kit learns a lesson, to tart character work.  The latter, which includes most of the scenes between Larson and Athie, are the strongest parts of the piece.  As a directing debut, Unicorn Store can’t be called wildly promising, but Larson’s filmmaking, like her acting, is at its best when it’s being forthright and honest.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."