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Mum & Dad

Mum & Dad (2008)
★ / ★★★★

Lena (Olga Fedori), a recent immigrant in the UK, works as a janitorial staff in an airport with siblings Birdie (Ainsley Howard) and Elbie (Toby Alexander). While checking out, Birdie claims to have forgotten her cell phone so she hands her personal items to Lena before running back inside. This causes Lena to miss her bus. Birdie feels bad so she invites her new friend to her house which happens to be within walking distance. She says that maybe her mom (Dido Miles) or dad (Perry Benson) can drive Lena home. When Lena enters the house, however, she is knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she finds herself in a bed, voice gone, limbs tied together, and hears screams of pain in the next room.

“Mum & Dad,” written and directed by Steven Sheil, is yet another movie that sadly and frustratingly mistakes horror for torture, but it is not without a few interesting scenes that deserve to be explored further. The family is one twisted, dysfunctional specimen and the picture does a good job in showing their perversions. For example, Mum wants a “little girl” so badly, the reason why Lena is taken against her will, and her way of showing affection is cutting off the skin as if to carve a pumpkin. The manner in which the camera stays very close, almost sickeningly intimate, to the pained reaction of our protagonist as well as the excitement and pleasure Mum feels during the ordeal is a truly horrifying image.

However, the picture seems incapable of holding back images that aren’t necessary, showing us gore for the sake of delivering shock value or generating cheap “scares.” There seems to be a lack of shame in consistently showing us body parts being mutilated. Take the aforementioned scene of the mother inflicting pain on Lena for the first time. I believe that giving us an initial image of what is about to happen and then only focusing on the characters’ reactions is just as effective as blatantly showing us a piece of cylindrical metal being slowly pressed through the fat in Lena’s stomach. What the former has that the latter lacks is the idea of torture. This rather tasteless approach is repeated for the majority of the picture’s running time up until the very end when influences of Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” becomes more pronounced.

I found the “sibling” rivalry between Lena and Birdie to be most entertaining mainly because Howard does a good job portraying a self-gratifying brat who fears she is being replaced by the new girl. I grew to dislike her character so much, when she does finally get her comeuppance, I felt a sense of relief—as if justice had been served somehow. It is a bit of a missed opportunity that the screenplay ignores the fact that Lena and Birdie are both prisoners in the house. Their relationship might have had complexity if they had been given a chance to connect as women, as victims, and as potential survivors.

On the surface level of thrill and suspense, “Mom & Dad” is ultimately deficient. Lena is not given enough chances to fight back or run away—at least not enough when we are completely convinced that she can genuinely make it out of there. With all the torture involving sharp objects, hammers, and the threat of rape, it becomes all too nauseating.


The Sum of Us

Sum of Us, The (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is Friday night and Jeff (Russell Crowe) can barely contain his excitement and nervous energy. He feels it is time to approach the person he has had his eye on, a fellow named Greg (John Polson) who frequents the same pub as him. Jeff lives with his father, Harry (Jack Thompson), who is aware and has accepted his son’s homosexuality. Harry, too, a widower, is searching for love. With the help of a dating agency, he meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), a clean and proper woman. With plans of taking their relationship further, Harry wonders if the new belle in his life could accept the truth about his only son.

Many LGBT-themed movies center around the idea of parents finding out the truth about their son or daughter, wrestling with the idea, and coming–or not coming–to terms with it, so it is most refreshing that “The Sum of Us,” based on the play and screenplay by David Stevens, is about a father and son who have gone through the coming out experience. The attention is now toward other people, who may or may not be accepting of lifestyles outside the sphere of heteronormativity, and the familiar fear of rejection.

Harry and Jeff address the audience directly about their thoughts that go unexpressed, equally effective as a comedic and dramatic tool. When one gets very annoyed from a barrage of ill-timed jokes, the other stops and turns toward the camera thereby having a chance to let go of the remaining quips. Conversely, when something is too painful or ought not be expressed to someone else at a particular moment in time, the asides force us to get closer to the sensitive situation by allowing us to absorb what a character is thinking fully. The temporary disruptions from the flow of the story is utilized with balance and control.

The most memorable portion of the screenplay involves Greg being invited by Jeff to his home. Although Harry serves as comic relief, often popping out of the blue and blabbering on about so-and-so, completely putting a halt on the romantic tempo between his son and the visitor, his presence is always welcome. I could not help but be touched by how good the father is to his son. They get on each other’s last nerves once in a while but their love for another is never doubtable. I wished more movies would show a father and his gay son or daughter interacting like a normal family. Notice that the essence of their conversations, if and when sexuality is brought up, is about feelings that are universal, not the stereotypes that conveniently fit under “gay,” “straight,” “masculine,” or “feminine.”

The flashbacks, shown in black and white, are designed to further our understanding of father and son. With Harry, most important is his first time experience going to a gay pub after he learns about his son being attracted to other men. With Jeff, he recollects spending fun times with his late grandmother (Mitch Mathews) and the implications behind Gran having a live-in partner named Mary (Julie Herbert). The common thread is curiosity and the past is used to weave a bridge to make sense of the present.

Directed by Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling, “The Sum of Us” is ultimately about the love within a family, not “gay” love or “straight” love. It avoids easy solutions to complex circumstances, but at the same time it is brave enough to make us laugh when things take a serious turn. It is a way of coping, a slight nudge to remind the good that remains.


Jesus’ Son

Jesus’ Son (1999)
★★ / ★★★★

FH (Billy Crudup), shorthand for “fuckhead” because of his tendency to bring the worst out of a situation, is hitchhiking to Mexico in hopes of finding his girlfriend, Michelle (Samantha Morton), who ran off with a man named John Smith. A family is kind enough to stop and agrees to take him where he needs to go, but the ride is short-lived when they get into a car crash. FH recalls the events in the past three years that lead up to the accident.

“Jesus’ Son,” based on the book by Denis Johnson, is a film that means so well, full of optimism and small but important life lessons, so it pains me a little bit to admit that it did not quite work for me. Although Crudup’s strong performance is a thread that unites the funny, eccentric, tragic characters, there is a lack of cohesion in the story. In retrospect, what I remember is the individual misadventures that FH gets into throughout the months and years, not his evolution from an irresolute man to someone who has developed self-awareness.

It is difficult to imagine anyone else playing FH. Crudup makes his character into a real person by using his good looks to lure us and his talent to defy our expectations. Just when we feel like we have a good grip on the character, the performer reveals another layer that is either contradictory of what we came to know about FH just a couple of scenes prior or a deeper detail like a sadness underneath FH’s comforting smiles or charming ticks. It is easy to label FH as a loser given his addiction to drugs, very laid-back attitude, and lack of prospects. Crudup gives the character a chance. Yes, the protagonist can be considered a slacker, but that is not what all there is to him.

The supporting actors are interesting, too. Morton could have played her character as a typical white trash, especially in the way Michelle is introduced, but she does a good job showing her character being drawn toward the heroine that gives her temporary ecstasy versus FH who may not be perfect but he is there and he is real. Also, Dennis Hopper makes an appearance in the latter half, a man on a wheelchair with a bullet hole on each side of his cheek. To reveal more about FH’s interaction with Hopper’s character is to take away something from the film. But what they share is tender, amusing, and honest. I wished it had been longer.

However, some performances are so alive, they threaten to derail the mood of the picture. The first is Denis Leary playing Wayne, a man who has a plan for making a quick buck. He demands our attention. The second (and more distracting) is Jack Black, FH’s eventual co-worker as orderlies in a hospital. The scene with the hunting knife is hilarious due to the situation itself, but Black’s tendency to exaggerate pushes the kind of amusement that feels right for this material into a comedy show. Still, at least Black’s character is far from boring.

Since the story is non-linear, it is most critical that the transitions among time jumps and location changes feel smooth. Otherwise, it will feel like the story is choppy–as it does here. Mix such techniques with dream sequences, it almost feels like trouble. Because of this, it gives the impression that the mood fluctuates so much that the inner turmoils that FH goes through almost become an afterthought.

Directed by Alison Maclean, “Jesus’ Son” has very good performances but its disparate techniques in storytelling do not consistently reach a synergy that is necessary for the work to be truly memorable. But at least the final scene is nicely handled when it could have been treated as a throwaway, how the protagonist is finally able to be in control after always lumbering toward the direction of pleasure for so long.


The Endless

Endless, The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s sci-fi horror picture “The Endless” offers a spellbinding experience, filled to the brim with wonderful ideas and more than a handful of them are quite well-executed to the point where certain images and situations linger in the mind. It creates subtle ways to ask us what we would do if we were placed in the same challenges as its characters. Clearly shot with a limited budget, I admired that the filmmakers are not afraid to play the ambitious story quite small, thereby amping up the believability of increasingly bizarre situations. Here is a picture that does not rely on sudden left turns to tell a good story. There just so happens to be twists and turns in this head-scratcher.

Brothers Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) receive a videotape from a UFO death cult that they escaped from nearly ten years ago. Aaron, having a spotty memory of what had occurred there, informs his elder sibling that he wishes to visit their former community. From what he remembers, the life they had was good: they had food on the table, people were friendly, and they had all the time in the world to engage their own interests. Recognizing that his baby brother is deeply unhappy with their current lives as cleaners who are constantly short on money, Justin agrees to go with him. Perhaps closure might be good for Aaron. It was agreed that would only spend one night there.

The film is highly watchable because it appears to be aware of horror conventions regarding cults and people who decide to join or infiltrate it. Expecting that we will always be on our toes, great tension is established during the former half by showing that the cult members are, in general, quite normal despite a few people having highly noticeable personality quirks. Nearly everything is so ordinary when it comes to the residents that we wonder if Camp Arcadia really is or was a UFO death cult in the first place. Naturally, what we see is a veneer of something more sinister just brewing underneath… or is it above?

To reveal more is to perform a disservice for those who are even slightly curious about seeing the film. I believe that those who find great pleasure in observing human behavior and looking for their tells will be right at home here. There is a man who always has a grin on his face—it looks so unnatural that one gets the impression the corners of his mouth have been stapled into place. There is another man who power walks and does not say a word. He seems to be on mission or that something requires his full attention. And then there is a woman who cries while everyone else is partying around the campfire. Maybe the place isn’t as happy as it appears. One looks at the night sky and sees two moons. Residents attempt to rationalize it.

The plot of “The Endless” does not point toward a cerebral experience—nor does it need to be one. It provides entertainment without the viewers being required to overanalyze every single plot point, left turn, or metaphor. It simply asks us to invest in the siblings’ strange, sometimes horrifying, journey and their need to reconnect with their past in order to get an appreciation of their present—despite the financial hardships and lack of self-fulfillment. The film works because its core is fundamentally human.



Halloween (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.

In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.

If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.

While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.

In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.

Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.

There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.


The Lodgers

Lodgers, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Gothic horror film “The Lodgers” is a massive disappointment because its look and setting is spot-on, but the screenplay is far from imaginative. It tells the story of twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) who find themselves trapped in an estate that their family has owned for two centuries. They must abide three rules: be in their bedrooms before midnight, never allow a stranger to pass through the front door, and never separate. Breaking rules would result in punishment delivered by malevolent beings that live under the floorboards. The picture has the makings of a dark fairy tale we can bite into during a stormy night, but the final product is soporifically generic.

Rachel and Edward’s place of living is beautiful despite the fact that it is in a state of dereliction. The ceilings are high and moldy, creepy paintings are bathed in shadows, uninhabited bedrooms tell a story simply by showing us the colors of bedsheets and ornaments resting on dressers. Even the unkempt grounds are interesting to look at, particularly the lake that Rachel frequents so she can have some peace to read and get lost in worlds other than her own. We realize immediately that there is something wrong with this body of water given that the girl occasionally encounters terrifying visions involving her parents who committed suicide.

Although capably performed by Vega and Millner, Rachel and Edward are not interesting together or apart. Perhaps it is because the screenplay attempts so hard to keep the secret involving their pasts that eventually it becomes glaringly obvious; we see so-called twists coming from a mile away and so tension fails to accumulate in a way that is natural or believable. It might have been more effective had such secrets been revealed early on, possibly via narration prior to the opening credits, so that we could have a chance to focus on circumstances that would allow the pair to be free of the curse instead of simply waiting for the enigma to be revealed. Here is a horror film without much suspense.

A more interesting relationship involves Rachel and Sean (Eugene Simon), a young man sent home from war because he had lost his leg. Rachel yearns for freedom so badly that we wonder whether she genuinely feels romantically interested him or whether he is simply a tool that will help her reach her endgame. Still, what they come to share is severely underdeveloped and so there is no emotional payoff during the climax: all visual effects and underwater sequences that are pretty to look at but they fail to make any sort of sense.

“The Lodgers,” written by David Turpin and directed by Brian O’Malley, offers eye-catching costumes and set decorations, but it lacks what really matters—a reason to engage the viewers emotionally and psychologically. What results is a horror film that attempts to be spooky but ending up rather vague and unsatisfying. In the middle of it, I wondered how it might have been different had the likes of Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuarón, or J.A. Bayona been at the helm. Because these three writer-directors know how to turn horror and fantasy elements into something more substantial than simply relying on big reveals.


Jeepers Creepers 3

Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017)
★ / ★★★★

It takes a special courage to allow a horror story to unfold during daylight, but “Jeepers Creepers 3,” written and directed by Victor Salva, offers nothing but one disappointment after another. Just when you think it cannot possibly get any worse, it dares to hit a new low on the very next scene, stupidity of poorly developed characters hand in hand with terrible acting that gives even the worst daytime soaps a run for their money. The worst offender, however, is the lack of craft in a genre that demands it. It reeks from a lack of imagination.

Those familiar with the series are now aware of how The Creeper (Jonathan Break) looks like and what it is capable of. And so for the sequel to be even marginally entertaining, it must introduce new dimensions to the character. It is not enough to rely on lingering shots of its monstrous face, to show its ancient wings, and to exercise its ability to wield various weapons. To the script’s credit, it introduces the idea of The Creepers hand that had fallen off twenty-three years ago (it comes out to feed every twenty-three years for twenty-three days before it goes on hibernation) having the ability to pass on its memories to those who dare to hold hands with it, but this potentially interesting avenue is not explored in any way. In fact, it is used to deliver cheap, evanescent jolts. Not once did I jump out of my seat.

The story is saddled by multiple subplots that we know must converge eventually. The problem, however, is that not one of them is interesting. The cops (Stan Shaw, Brandon Smith) yell at each other a lot—which I suppose is the actors’ attempt to establish a sense of urgency. A teenage boy (Chester Rushing) attempts to be there emotionally for his crush (Gabrielle Haugh) whose grandmother (Meg Foster) is unable to pay off their debts—which I suppose is the cute or heartwarming bit, but it is simply coma-inducing. The increasingly erratic grandmother still sees the ghost of her deceased son (Jordan Salloum) who was killed by The Creeper—which I suppose is meant to communicate the tragedy that The Creeper leaves in its wake. Every one of these is handled with a sledgehammer, leaving no room for insight or subtlety. Their deaths could not come soon enough.

Special and visual effects come across as cheap-looking. It is astounding that the effects in “Jeepers Creepers” back in 2001 are far more effective for two reasons. First, the original takes place during mid- to late afternoon till the evening and so many details are hidden in shadows. During some scenes, we are actually motivated to squint just so we can see the more grizzly details in a tunnel, an underground cavern, or an old factory. Second, first film is actually interested in building suspense. And so when stakes are high, we are invested emotionally rather than noticing whether images are practical or made using a computer. This film is plagued by unnecessarily ostentatious visual displays, like trucks being thrown around as if the material were an action film. Do not get me started on the characters’ reliance on using guns to kill the creature—which had been proven not to work time and again.

These are only some of the severe miscalculations to be found in “Jeepers Creepers 3,” a mind-numbingly bad horror picture. Not even watching it during a stormy night with all the lights off and excellent surround sound could turn this mess into anything remotely salvageable. Avoid it at all cost.


Hot Summer Nights

Hot Summer Nights (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Those looking for plot in “Hot Summer Nights,” written and directed by Elijah Bynum, are certain to find it—and, much to their dismay, it is as generic as tap water: a teenager is sent to Cape Cod for the summer and learns to sell drugs—first to fit in, then for the money, and, finally, just because he realizes he is good at it. Drugs becomes a part of who he is—at least for the time being. When the picture gets it right, it is an amusing and alluring visual experience. I admired that it is able to transport us into the early ‘90s when nearly everything—from fashion, local lingo, to family values—is in a state of transition. At the same time, however, when the material gets it wrong, it is nearly unbearable—its third act particularly painful, contrived, in its heavy-handedness of fate and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Bynum’s use of the camera is eye-catching because he knows his subjects are physically beautiful and so he is not afraid to admire them. Notice how the camera is fond of close-ups, the manner in which it lingers on the hooded eyes of Timothée Chalamet and Maika Monroe as their characters, Daniel and McKayla, attempt to figure out the depth of their seemingly effortless magnetism. The performers’ chemistry is strong despite the fact that their characters are not particularly well-written. For instance, Daniel is initially interesting because he is still mourning his father’s death but his mother decides to send him away anyway in order to push him to get over his depression. His sadness and feelings of uselessness are then rerouted when drugs enter the equation. Suddenly, he is high and feels useful for being of service.

The picture captures what summer is about when one is young and the future feels like thousands of years away. I enjoyed the little details like socially inept boys admiring popular girls from afar, rumors entertained while being in a bubble, lovebirds sharing a lollipop, the type of cars older boys with certain reputations tend to drive, milkshakes, the subdued excitement of visiting a carnival that has been in town for a while, fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is also a nice touch to include a boy’s enthusiastic narration—a figure whom we come to meet only toward the very end of the story. These beautiful and extraneous details need not be shown or highlighted and yet somehow, collectively, they elevate the experience.

But coming-of-age stories are almost always required to paint rich interior lives of its subjects. While Daniel and McKayla get plenty of screen time, it can be argued that the more interesting relationship is not a romantic one. McKayla and Hunter (Alex Roe) are estranged siblings whose connection is destroyed by drugs. The material touches upon how selling drugs can be an addiction in itself but this fascinating angle is never explored—unfortunate because it is directly tied to our protagonist, Daniel, gambling his future for immediate gratification. He gets into a business partnership with none other than Hunter, the highly protective brother who is capable of sending someone to the hospital with his bare hands.

“Hot Summer Nights” does not end strong. It is so cliché to set the climax during a Category 4 hurricane. During my boredom, I imagined an alternate timeline where Daniel’s story ends in a quiet but still melancholy way. The thing about summers—as wonderful or as horrible as they are—is that we know all of it has to come to an end eventually. And so why not choose to tell a fresher avenue to reach the final destination? Must a storm to be employed to underline the tragedy of the story? Must it end on a tragic note at all just because the story involves dealing drugs? The melodrama is unnecessary.



Feral (2017)
★ / ★★★★

“Feral” is the type of movie in which a person is attacked a few feet away from the campsite, screaming howls of pain from being bit and torn into, and yet, miraculously, no one hears a sound. In another scenario, a woman bashes in an assailant’s head with a baseball bat and yet—another miracle—no blood spatter can be found on her clothes, her face, her hair. The film is a series of nonsensical situations: instead of a horrific time, it offers a horrible time.

The would-be horror of reanimated corpses following a virus transmission is written by Mark H. Young and Adam Frazier, directed by the former, both seemingly unaware of the conventions of the sub-genre they wish to tackle or contribute toward. In fact, I felt no passion put into their work. I felt as though they created the film for the sake of making it. It is never scary, suspenseful, or thrilling. Gruesome images are simply there to take up space.

There just isn’t enough smarts or creativity. For instance, once a camper is separated from the pack, it is highly likely that he or she will be dead in a matter of seconds. The established pattern prevents viewers from connecting to the characters, and it does not help that the writing treats the subjects merely as food to be eaten by so-called Ferals. It begs the question of why we are following this particular group. What makes them special?

Notice the filmmakers’ choices from behind the camera. It has a fondness for employing annoying closeups despite the fact that the actors hired for the job are not the most subtle in expressing a multitude of emotions. When the living humans and the undead end up in the same room, the camera is placed in an awkward position—sometimes from an angle where it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the confrontation. I got the feeling that the director has played one too many bad horror video games and not seen enough classic creature-features that underline the terror of the situation despite shoddy costumes or cosmetics.

This is not to imply that the film offers a subpar look when it comes to its monsters. In fact, the makeup department has done a good job in making the Ferals look convincing. Because these creatures are inactive during daylight, I enjoyed it when the remaining survivors would lift their former friends’ eyelids and we see alligator-looking eyes. Still, despite the admirable cosmetics, a lot of work needed to be done when it came to the movement of the creatures. In one scene, they move like dogs… but in another, they move like monkeys. It is bizarre, laughable, and insulting at the same time.

Most unbearable is the fact that five of the six campers graduated from medical school and yet the first time they see an injured person or a dead body, they freak out as if they had never seen, let alone touched, someone who was bleeding or dying. Once again, our minds go back to the writing—its superficiality, its laziness, its tendency to introduce ideas but not exploring any one of them. The script should not have been brought to life when it was dead in the water. It needed major revisions, but somehow—another miracle—it got made.



Madame (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Although Amanda Sthers’ razor-sharp comedy-of-manners “Madame” unfolds within the household of a wealthy family, it is effective as a social commentary when it comes to how we see and therefore treat people in uniform who hold jobs that are typically considered as common or lowly. Some may reduce the plot to a lite Cinderella story, but it so much smarter, more efficient, certainly more savage, than mainstream comedies.

In this case, the focus is on how a maid, required by her employer to pretend as a posh friend due to a mix-up in the number of guests to attend the dinner party, is utilized as an object to be displayed when the upper-crust company arrive. She is expected to be radiant, classy, sophisticated, and quiet—traits that poor or working-class people simply do not possess, at least according the family she works for. They may not say it, but their behavior communicates exactly what and how they feel toward the person who is more or less invisible until she does something even slightly wrong.

Rossy de Palma is one of the few performers who disarms me simply by looking at her. Not considered to possess a typical beauty, she has proven in previous roles that she has mastered how to utilize her strong and unique features. In this film, she softens them in order to acquire the viewers’ empathy without necessarily feeling sorry for her. For instance, look closely during the dinner sequence. Even when she is surrounded by a crowd in the middle of conversations, all she has to do is turn to her face in profile relative to the camera and our eyes go directly toward her. When she bulges her eyes a little, we know exactly what she’s thinking. When she is eating soup and looking down, she remains in character; we feel how uncomfortable and awkward Maria feels, how ashamed she is for being at that table as her employer discharges pointed looks at her for stealing the spotlight. Note the way she handles the utensils. Clearly, the ballet is being performed by a consummate actor.

But the picture is not just about the maid. It is also about the woman who is baffled for realizing she is jealous of her own maid. Collette plays Anne as a shrew, but her portrayal inspires a certain sadness despite the character’s extremely disgusting behavior. I admired that the screenplay touches upon a few reasons why this woman feels the need to control—even those that shouldn’t be controlled. de Palma and Collette share great chemistry in which the reaction is almost always cold and unforgiving. We wonder about their history, particularly how Maria could have endured working for Anne for a decade.

I imagine many viewers are likely to be put off by the ending. For me, however, it is most appropriate because it works a barometer on how optimistic or pessimistic we are about how life tends to unfold. I enjoyed that the final few minutes turns its attention on the viewer rather than the characters. Yes, we wonder what will happen next. But how we feel about what might happen next holds more significance. We walk away with a strong impression.


Private Life

Private Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

A subtle and thematically complex comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” is the kind of picture that offers an honest look at how it might be like to face hardships of trying to get pregnant when a couple is on the verge of infertility. Deeply humanistic at its core, it is amazing how one scene can start off quite funny but readily able to turn quite sad within a beat or two, only to end up lighthearted again when, for example, someone makes an awkward remark in order to alleviate the tension of a situation. Because of its ability to draw us in emotionally, often playing with our own emotions in regards to what the couple deserves versus reality and probability, the personal story in front of us is wildly entertaining, led by performers who are able to communicate plenty without saying a word.

The central couple is Rachel and Richard, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, both in their forties, who have, for years, been on an obsessive quest to have a baby. It appears they have tried nearly everything: fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, adoption… some of them more than once. These cost a lot of money and all have led to failure thus far.

Hahn and Giamatti are at the top of their game when the couple, finally, expresses their frustrations with one another. For instance, in a more dramatic confrontation, their younger selves are brought up, how one’s career-driven mindset has allowed time to pass and overlook an aspect of life that they now consider to be important. In a more comedic moment, on the other hand, Richard’s single testicle is referenced. There is an amusing bit about soda machines and what happens when it doesn’t quite function as it should. This captures the material’s interest in showing the lighter and darker sides of the couple’s conception troubles.

I admired that the film is not afraid to show cabinets full of drugs, routine injections, how it hurts, puncture marks on skin—even its color—after repeated shots, the waiting room and the lack of joy in there, how it can be an impersonal experience when meeting with a doctor, how patients are sometimes treated like cattle. I loved that the images are not like in more commercial films where everyone is smiling or peppy during an appointment. People look tired, frustrated, like they just want to get the whole thing over with. Should one look closely enough, it is these bits of reality that set this comedy-drama apart from its contemporaries.

There are truly heartbreaking moments because the central couple is good, generally happy, and have shown, through their interactions with Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s niece who has recently dropped out of college (she claims the university has allowed her to complete her degree while in absentia—is that a thing?), that they are partners capable of raising a happy child in a happy home. They don’t deserve the misfortunes and sometimes downright cruelty of some individuals they became involved with. But then again, that’s life. Sometimes things just don’t work out. We cannot help but remain hopeful, however. It is because the screenplay welcomes us to recognize bits of ourselves in Rachel and Richard.

“Private Life” is for an empathetic audience. Here is a film that tasks us to watch closely as the couple reaches the end of their rope of trying to have kid. It is fascinating to watch unfold not because there are plenty of life-altering events but exactly because the subjects have reached a plateau. I think the writer-director wishes to communicate that there is beauty in the every day. The final scene is fitting in that it dares to measure, or simply just remind us, how we perceive life thus far.