Sunday, September 27, 2015

Goodnight Mommy Dearest

In this horror film from writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, a mother  (Susanne Wuest) returns home from apparent cosmetic surgery to twin boys who find her visage and behavior so alien that they are convinced she's not their real mother.  She shuts all the blinds, makes the boys stay in, and even locks them in their room.  She refuses to acknowledge one of the boys for some reason, angering the other.

I can't really tell you more without spoilers except that nothing is as it seems in this dark, creepy, brooding film.  It's beautifully composed, especially the outdoor shots of the boys playing in the surrounding woods, corn fields, train tracks, caves.  The boys, identical twins played by Lukas and Elias (also their names in the film) Schwarz, are terrific--and virtually impossible to tell apart.

After seeing the trailer, you expect this to be a traditionally scary horror film.  It's not so much scary as it is horrifying and creepy as all hell.  We see all from the boys' POV, but don't expect that POV to be reliable.

The mother's behavior is frighteningly bizarre but ultimately understandable as we get snippets of the circumstances behind her facial reconstruction.  Aside from the film's compositional beauty, also expressed in its bookend beginning and ending scenes, I was truly impressed by its subtle, elegant handling of exposition.  We learn, gradually, that there was an accident, that the mother and the father are separated.  And what we find out at the end is simply mind blowing.

There were just a couple of logic lapses for me, but on the whole the film could be regarded as a primer on the effects of trauma, particularly on how trauma affects children, who always imagine far worse than what might be the reality.

This family needed therapy big time.  It's also a lapse that it's never mentioned--it could have been a line--perhaps mother intends for them to go once she's physically healed.  Because she's one majorly depressed and traumatized person as well.

I think all of us who were in the audience were expecting a much different type of film.  This one rather traumatizes the audience as well, so that when it's over, even though the film has artistic integrity, we don't leave satisfied, not even in a wrung out way.  Goodnight Mommy doesn't offer relief or catharsis.  Just pity and fear.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sicario's Heart of Darkness

I went to the Cannes film festival for the first time last May, and when I got my invitation for the screening of Sicario, I didn't think it was something that would really interest me.  A film about the Mexican drug cartels?  

Also, I had not been of fan of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, mainly because I felt that the story and characters strained credulity.  I hadn't seen any of his previous films except Enemy, which I quite liked--but I'll go for a doppelgänger film any time.

But wow.  Did Sicario teach me not to judge a film by its alleged subject matter (imagine not seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker because it's about a bomb squad in Iraq!).

The film begins wound with tension and a bang that's horrifyingly stunning.  It had me from the first frame.  As the film went on, I kept thinking, man, this is really good and really tense.  I feared there was no way it could sustain this.  But boy, it did on all levels.  Taylor Sheridan's first produced screenplay (he's been an actor on Sons of Anarchy) is beautifully lean and spare.  The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who, my Icelandic seat mate proudly informed me, is from Iceland) is ominous, tense, throbbing (you can listen to it here).  Roger Deakins' cinematography is outstanding.  And Villeneuve proves himself completely worthy of directing the upcoming Blade Runner sequel.  (He already has another sci-fi in the can, Story of Your Life, based on a story by Ted Chiang, adapted by Eric Heisserer, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.)

Benicio Del Toro is, as usual, rivetingly and unsettlingly superb.  But the heart and soul and moral compass of the movie is the character played by Emily Blunt, Kate Macer. (It's unfathomable to me that financiers pressured both Sheridan and later Villeneuve to change her character to a male, which the filmmakers wisely refused to do.)  We experience everything through Macer's eyes, her persona.  She's the Capt. Willard character in Apocalypse Now, sent downriver to find Kurtz.  But in this case the river is a tunnel to Mexico, and Kurtz is...well, let's just say that there's more than one Kurtz in this version of Heart of Darkness.  (Villeneuve has acknowledged that he thought about the Coppola film in making this one.)

Macer, like Willard/Marlow, is recruited for a mysterious mission by a cadre headed by an excellent Josh Brolin (in fatigues and flip flops!), but she's unclear as to why they want/need her.  She and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are FBI; she thinks the others are CIA.  But Alejandro (Del Toro)? He simply seems meticulously (how he carefully folds and rolls his khaki sportcoat!) lethal, is all she and we initially know.

I saw the film again last night, and it was as sensationally muscular as I had remembered.  But I have to admit that this is a film that has its strongest impact on first viewing, when, like the heroine, you have no idea what is going to transpire.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It's relentless in the best possible way.

Like Prisoners, Sicario is also a revenge thriller.  And it's a film about family, the loss of innocence, and the kind of experience that alters your life irrevocably.  This, dear reader and moviegoer, is what Hollywood now refers to as an elevated genre film.  It's haunting.  It's stunning.  It deserves all the awards it's going to get.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

The Wolfpack: The Boys Who Can

As the brothers' father opines sadly at one point in Crystal Moselle's astonishing documentary, "Boys are gonna [break away]."  In their case, it was more like breaking out of a kind of prison in a Delancy St. public housing apartment, to which dad held the only keys. The young men, who now range from age 24 to 16, and their younger sister (who suffers from Turner Syndrome) were allowed out with their parents only a few times a year, and some years (like that of 9/11), never at all.  Nor was their mother.  In many ways, they suggest that she was even more of a prisoner--she had more "rules" from her husband, who drank a lot and would slap her around; clearly the entire family suffered from the domestic violence.

But their mother, who home-schooled them, is their hero and salvation (she has also now gained her independence).  Their father, a Hare Krishna, wanted to shelter them from the contamination of society, yet ironically and inexplicably allowed and encouraged them to watch movies, many of them R-rated, violent ones.  Among the boys' favorites were The Godfathers, Pulp Fiction (two of the brothers performed the hash bar scene at an Arclight Q & A on June 19), JFK, Reservoir Dogs, and The Dark Knight.  They would fashion elaborate costumes out of cereal boxes and yoga mats (e.g., Batman), act out the scenes, and often film them.

At the Q & A, they revealed that they've formed a production company called Wolfpack Pictures (although one teaches yoga and dances, and two others are aspiring rock musicians).  Only one, who aspires to be a cinematographer, has moved into his own apartment.  Highlights of their trip to Los Angeles were, aside from the weather, meeting Werner Herzog, David O. Russell, Billy Friedkin, and John Bailey.

Filmmaker Moselle first came upon them over five years ago in Delancy Street; the boys were out strolling dressed like the characters in Reservoir Dogs.  She hung with them for about a year before the film started taking shape.  She was able to incorporate their home movies.  She and the filmmaking process functioned as a kind of therapy for the young men, a couple of whom truly open up on camera, not surprisingly (at one point the city made them see therapists; one practitioner seems to have done little but show her patient how to use email; the other boys said they remained mum with their therapists).

That the boys had what D. W. Winnicott  referred to as "the good enough mother" was their salvation and the key to their resilience.  That they had each other appears to have been crucial to their creativity and to the lack of peer social interaction.

As for the movies, they provided, as one of the young men described it, "a window to the world" that "unites everything...all types of art."  Of course, once they all first ventured outside into that actual world, as one says in the film: "This is like 3-D, man!"

This is one of the great films of the year.  Don't miss it.  The trailer:

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