Down Terrace (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Bill (Robert Hill) and Karl (Robin Hill), father and son, had recently been released from jail. Bill was convinced that the reason why they were sent to jail was because there was an informant in their midst. It was a matter of finding out the informant’s identity and putting him in the ground. Meanwhile, Karl’s girlfriend (Kerry Peacock) revealed that she was pregnant and about to have the baby in a few weeks. Despite the big surprise, Bill and Maggie (Julia Deakin), his wife, were unmoved and did not look forward to becoming grandparents. They thought she was impregnated by another man. There was something wonderfully devilish about “Down Terrace.” It had my type of dark humor: a tablespoon of family dysfunction, a pinch of a character beginning to question his place and true value within a group, and a gallon of strange coincidences coming together in which the characters were led to believe they were smart and had a firm handle with what was going on but, in reality, they were as lost as ants without scent trails. While the film was also about finding a mole within their crime circle, I was far more fascinated with watching the way the dynamics within the family unfolded. I thought the material was highly amusing because the family had only one way of communicating their personal problems. They yelled at each other to the top of their lungs which didn’t help their situation because each of them was like fortress. They knew how to voice out their wild opinions but they didn’t know how to listen. They saw questioning and changing themselves as a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of. Another source of great comedy was the pregnancy and the naming of the baby. I couldn’t help but laugh when Bill, with enthusiasm to spare, would go from talking about experimenting with all sorts of drugs in order to gain enlightenment to brainstorming names for his future grandchild. He was an intimidating figure but a fun person, given the right temperament, in family gatherings. But what didn’t work for me was in finding the identity of the mole. It was important because it was one of the two elements that drove the story forward. In the end, I was somewhat confused whether there really was an informant and why some of characters had to be killed. To me, it felt like a convenient way to generate cheaper laughs. From that angle, I wish it didn’t try so hard to impress. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Down Terrace” had, without a doubt, something different to offer in terms of crime families. From the looks of it, the budget may have been relatively low but its dark humor were like punches that came hard and fast. I just wished the murder scenes made more sense and were as intense as the increasingly suffocating and crumbling family.
Peep World (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
It was Henry Meyerwitz’ (Ron Rifkin) 70th birthday and his children were less than happy to celebrate over dinner. Nathan (Ben Schwartz), the youngest of the clan, wrote a book called “Peep World,” an extremely accurate portrayal of his dysfunctional family. Cheri (Sarah Silverman), his only sister, hated him for exposing her idiosyncrasies and self-loathing. On the other hand, Jack (Michael C. Hall), the eldest, was the responsible one. His architectural business was about to collapse because he was easy with money. When Joel (Rainn Wilson), the least ambitious sibling, called to ask for help in terms of pecuniary matters, Jack was always willing to lend a hand. Written by Peter Himmelstein, “Peep World” had the ingredients to construct a truly scathing film about family members who just did not mesh well. Unfortunately, the writing was limited. I noticed that it consistently went for easy laughs when it didn’t need to. For instance, Nathan, concerned about his tendency to prematurely ejaculate, turned to a dubious-looking doctor for a solution. Naturally, the drug didn’t work and it left his penis erect for several hours. There was a painful scene in which Nathan had to deliver a public reading and he desperately tried to hide the bulge in his pants. As the scene unfolded, I couldn’t help but think that the material was better than it was. Why lean on slapstick instead of further observing the seething rage within the family? All of Henry’s children were messed up in some way and they blamed him for how they turned out. But I found it odd that there was not a single scene of Henry prior to the uncomfortable, to say the least, dinner sequence. When Henry was on that table ready to celebrate his birthday and ecstatic to see his children, I just felt sorry for him because no one was really there to celebrate the father’s life. Perhaps we weren’t supposed to take Henry’s side despite not knowing much about him, but when he went around that table and pointed out to his children what he had done for them, I just saw the four as ungrateful brats. None of them would have gotten away with so much in my family. I do have to single out Taraji P. Henson as Joel’s supportive girlfriend. Out of everyone, her character was the one I identified with the most. She was a strong and honest person without having to be cruel, so unlike everyone else in the film. I wanted to know more about her. Henson was fantastic; when she shared a shot with all the other actors as they screamed at each other’s faces, I found my eyes being drawn to her. Since I related to her most, I wanted to see her facial expressions and how she processed the many spilled secrets of the broken family she was about to be a part of. Directed by Barry W. Blaustein, “Peep World” was occasionally brilliant yet filled with critical missteps which significantly weighed down the project. Although capable, the material didn’t soar.
Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970)
★ / ★★★★
A well-to-do British family without a father figure immersed themselves in childhood games. They picked men off the streets–men who would not be missed such as hippies and homeless folks–and if the men tried to escape the mansion or expressed that they no longer wanted to play games, they were killed in a ritualistic manner. Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor), and Girly (Vanessa Howard) were the demented predators and their most recent prey was named New Friend (Michael Bryant) who took an intense liking for Girly even though she was at least twenty years younger than him. I thought the premise of the picture was fascinating but I’m afraid the screenplay was stuck in one concept and it grew more stale as it went on. I understood the psychoanalytical message. The film was all about commenting on the suffocation of constantly having the need to remain loyal with traditions. Since the father was not there to lead the family, the movie made an argument that the family would most likely rot from the inside. Since the father was believed to have a key role in the maturity of children, the teenagers became fixated in acting like six-year-olds. Since there was no father to take care of the mother, the mother and the nanny developed an unusually close bond. They even slept in the same room. Anyone with a basic understanding of psychology would be able to pinpoint such obvious messages, so I was hoping that the director, Freddie Francis, allowed the picture to evolve. While the acting was tolerable most of the time, at times I felt like the actors were rehearsing a play. Since the subject was already so bold, the actors’ decision to portray their roles as caricatures was like hammering the audiences over the head with mallet. Its cartoonish tone was very distracting so the horror did not work. As a dark comedy, it was arguably effective but I was not convinced that the filmmakers wanted it to be more amusing than horrific. In a nutshell, its arguable success was accidental. It should have paid more attention in generating tension because there were far too few rewards in between the sinister kills. At the time of its release, the film’s subject matter was very controversial. While I do enjoy movies that are different, the anti-formula to the formula has to have intelligence and an energy that does not leave me so frustrated after the experience. Unfortunately, “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” wasted its potential to be something great.
Death at a Funeral (2010)
★ / ★★★★
A dysfunctional family dispersed all over the country came together for a funeral. Secrets were revealed, drugs were accidentally taken, old flames encountered each other, a nude man decided to hang out on the roof and threaten suicide–but none of it was particularly funny because the movie was confined in going for the obvious laughs. Even worse, the picture was directed by Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men,” “The Shape of Things”), so I expected a certain level of wit, intelligence and insight in terms of what it meant to mourn and how one’s opinion of somebody else would change when a critical piece of information was revealed. Instead, the movie focused on the surfaces of problems aided by weak acting by otherwise good actors. I did enjoy James Marsden as Zoe Saldana’s high-as-a-kite boyfriend who took some “vicodin” but I wish I could have known him more. I wanted to know how it was for him to constantly be rejected by her father because the father thought the boyfriend was not good enough for his daughter. Of course, there was the race issue which the film constantly brought up but it never tackled the subject with elegance or even an ounce of respect. Being a person of color, even I thought some of the things that were said or the way certain scenes were executed were borderline racist. It made me feel uneasy but I highly doubted it was on purpose as a LaBute project (more commonly) would like its audiences to feel. Chris Rock, as one of the deceased’s sons and arguably where the heart of the film should have been, played a blabbering fool and I did not feel any ounce of sadness because his father died. He let his rivalry with his successful brother (Martin Lawrence) get in the way of spending final moments with his father. In the end, I grew to dislike both of them because they so self-centered. If I had been in that funeral with them, I would have showed them a piece of my mind. I’m not saying that the film needed to be sad because we were at a funeral. My point is that it should have had a sense of balance between sensitivity and willingness to push the envelope. The characters were all the same when they should have been different from one another. Not everybody had to run around screaming or yelling. What about the silent man in the corner? “Death at a Funeral” is a remake but I’m not going to bother comparing this to the original because, as I’ve always said, each work has to stand on its own. This movie failed on multiple levels because it wasn’t willing to look inside itself. It had no idea between having a twisted sense of humor (which I love) and featuring idiocy from one scene to the next until the credits.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Happiness,” wrriten and directed by Todd Solondz, is one of the snarkiest dark comedies I’ve seen about a very dysfunctional family and several people connected to them. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) thought she had a perfect life but was completely unaware that her husband (Dylan Baker) was lusting over little boys, Helen (Lara Fylnn Boyle) was a successful author yet she could not find contentment within herself and had to turn to a creepy caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with serious sexual dysfunctions in order to feel better, and Joy (Jane Adams) was a struggling musician/saleswoman/teacher who decided to sleep with one of her foreign students in hopes of finding true love. Meanwhile, their parents (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser) decided to separate. This film reminded me of a darker version of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” in terms of the amount of characters it had to put under the spotlight. However, I had more fun with this movie because, while it was not as elegant and subtle in establishing themes, it was quicker and sharper in pointing its fingers at both the audiences and the characters. “Happiness” puts life-in-suburbia movies like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” to shame because it is far less pretentious but funnier because it actively argues that all of the self-denial, sickening realizations, self-hatred were a part of human nature. While it does make fun of those attributes, there were sensitive moments when the characters felt real pain, such as when the father finally admitted to his eleven-year-old son that he molested other children, between the black comedy punchlines. I thought the movie was daring because it was not afraid to push the audiences into watching uncomfortable scenes, slapping us around a bit with tricky verbal masturbation, and making us look and endure through the characters’ decisions–the very same decisions we probably would have chosen ourselves if we were just as desperate and suffocated. Fans of over-the-top social satires will most likely find “Happiness” delectable although I am not quite certain they will be craving for more after two-and-half hours of misery, isolation, and even exploitation. Generally, I have a positive outlook of the world but I love movies that ooze of negative emotions and self-deprecating characters. I’m not sure if most people who share similar outlook will fully enjoy the movie because it is at times difficult to sit through given its many taboo subject matters (there’s also a twisted murder mystery which I wish the picture explored further). However, it cannot be denied that Solondz’ “Happiness” pushed the envelope beyond the laughs and hopelessness.