★★ / ★★★★
“Les égarés” was set in World War II as Germans began to occupy France in 1940. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clémence Meyer) were caravanning across the provinces when they were targeted by German planes. Pressing forward would most likely lead to death so, along with a seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), the four darted into the forest and found refuge in an abandoned home. “Strayed” was a simple film driven by questions. Should we trust Yvan despite the fact that he was a compulsive liar? Since he was so good at lying, how much did he really care about the family of three? Was it possible that Odile suspected that there was something not quite right about him to the point where she found the need to grab the first opportunity to hide the stranger’s gun and grenades? Was she scared of him losing control more than the Germans finding them? There were a plethora of questions and most of them were answered by the end. But the main problem with the film was if the viewers failed to look beyond the obvious and ask questions, they would feel as though the movie was pointless. The majority of the running time followed the characters catching animals for food, having lunch or dinner, discussing what they should do the next day, and reflecting about the lives they left behind. There was sexual friction between Odile and Yvan. The latter wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. After all why would he when he was a teenager filled with raging hormones? There was no doubt that Odile, highly attractive for her age, was interested in Yvan but she felt like being with him was wrong because he was essentially still a child. Even Yvan admitted that he was more about taking action than taking the time to think things through. His transitory age was a template for his childish and child-like tendencies to collide, reflective of the Freudian id–“If it feels good, do it.” Another interesting part was Odile’s children. There was a strange scene when Cathy, still around seven or eight years old, decided to climb onto Yvan’s bed, who was naked under the covers, and claimed that she wanted to get pregnant. How did she know of such a concept? Less obvious implications consisted of Philippe constantly wanting to gain Yvan’s acceptance. Did Philippe see him as a brother, a father, or something else? Perhaps Odile’s overprotective parenting was successful at keeping the children alive, but the more important question was will they be able to function after the war was over? Again, it was up to us to ask the questions and, in some ways, answer them as well. Based on a novel by Gilles Perrault and directed by André Téchiné, “Les égarés” had a rather simple premise but it was challenging in the most unexpected ways. That challenge could appeal to some while others could be repelled.
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.
★★ / ★★★★
Half-brothers Clay (Dennis Haysbert) and Vincent (Michael Harris) met for the first time. Everyone in the film, including the two, thought they looked alike. However, the audience knew better because they were obviously nothing alike in terms of physicality: Clay was an African-American who looked like a linebacker and Vincent was a Caucasian who looked frail but with a mind full of devious intentions. Vincent wanted to get away with murder so he tried to fake his death by using Clay’s body in a car explosion. However, Clay lived without any memory of who he was. It was up to Dr. Descartes (Mel Harris) to reconstruct Clay’s face and Dr. Shinoda (Sab Shimono) to reconstruct Clay’s memories. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “Suture” had a fascinating, almost Hitchcock-ian premise but it ultimately failed to deliver because Clay’s journey to eventually realizing what happened to him lacked tension. Instead of keeping his relationship with Dr. Descartes strictly professional, they got involved in a romantic relationship. In a way, that romance was a distraction instead of really exploring interesting questions involving living a life that was not meant to be. As a person of science, I also had questions about Dr. Shinoda’s techniques in the attempt to recover Clay’s memory. I’m not quite sure if the film was aiming for accuracy but I believe Freudian methods are far from the most effective ways in treating amnesia (at least from what I’ve been taught). The movie only regained its footing near end when Vincent finally decided to finish off what he had started. It was a nailbiting scene because the characters moved ever so slowly and so quietly to the point where the audiences were keen on potential mistakes that could cost a character his life. I loved that the movie was gorgeously shot in black and white but at the same time it was disappointing because the filmmakers did not play with shadows. It would have been a perfect because the characters, especially Vincent, had something to hide and he was often in the dark in terms of what he was thinking and his true motivations. Furthermore, it would have been more interesting if Vincent had become a more sympathetic figure over time instead of remaining to be a one-dimensional cold-blooded killer. The same goes for Clay: it would have been much more fun to watch the film if his desperation had led him to make decisions that we did not necessarily agree with. In the end, I wanted to see the malleability, fluidity and complexity of identity. Instead of taking a step beyond the switching identity storyline, it stayed within the conventions and it failed to leave a lasting memory.
★★★ / ★★★★
Two biochemists, Clive and Elsa, (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who worked for a pharmaceutical company (led by Simona Maicanescu) decided to make an animal/human hybrid because they felt that they should push the boundaries of science in order to ultimately free humanity from unsolved genetic diseases. As well-meaning as they were on the outside, I loved the fact that as the film went on, I began to feel detached from the characters instead of feeling attached to them like in most other movies. As astute and gifted as they were, I felt that they were selfish, arrogant, rash and they deserved what was about to happen to them. The special and visual effects kept me glued to the screen. I wasn’t sure how much of the creature (played by Delphine Chanéac) was computer-engineered but I couldn’t take my eyes off her due to fascination and complete horror. From the trailers, I thought “Splice” was going to be a standard sci-fi/horror picture but I was glad it turned out differently. Instead of going for the easy scares (although there were three or four), it took its time to establish the characters and place them (and us) in moral conundrums to see how they would respond to the challenges that faced them. Since the two biochemists were in a romantic relationship prior to the genetically engineered creature, there was something amusing about the way they eventually took on the role of being a parent for the creature including the usual tensions that arise during motherhood and fatherhood. There were even some Freudian implications that became very obvious as the movie unfolded. Having said all that, I felt that the film stalled somewhere in the middle. The movie hinted Elsa’s dark past which should have explained why she treated Dren (the creature) the way she did. But the whole thing was so vague, I felt like I was constantly reaching for something in the dark that may not even be there. As the picture reached its somewhat typical and predictable climax of characters running in the woods and fighting for survival, I waited for some answers about Elsa’s past but I didn’t get any. Instead, there was a completely gratuitous scene that just made me feel uncomfortable and rotten. The last time I felt that badly in a movie theater was when I saw 2009’s “The Last House on the Left.” I know about Vincenzo Natali’s reputation as a director who likes to inject something different in his projects but I strongly believe that the scene in question could have been altered in such a way that it didn’t degrade women. Nevertheless, I’m recommending “Splice” because it exhibited intelligence, its ability to surprise and it worked as a cautionary tale.
Momma’s Man (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Have you ever seen a movie where fifteen minutes into it you have a feeling it’s going to be a disaster but you decide to sit through it, hoping that it will get better or maybe even redeem itself but ultimately doesn’t? “Momma’s Man,” written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, is that kind of movie. It tells the story of a man (Matt Boren) who initially visits his parents (Ken Jacobs and Flo Jacobs–the director’s real-life parents) for a few days but then decides he wants to say for a longer period of time as he totally abandons wife and child. He comes up with so many ways to stay such as lying to people about the health of his mother, lying to his parents about his wife cheating on him and even deliberately falling down the stairs hoping to break his bones. It’s supposed to be funny but I didn’t find anything amusing about it because I seriously thought that this man had a psychological disorder. And to me, people with psychological disorders are not to be poked fun of unless it’s done in a bona fide manner like in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In here, the character is so unlikeable because he fails to see how his actions cause a ripple effect to the lives around him. His parents are very worried about his mental state and his wife has no idea why he refuses to come back. I didn’t like the parents either. I felt like they have no real authority over their son: the mother is an enabler, the father is emotionally distant. No wonder their son wants to relive his childhood–he wasn’t brought up in a healthy way. I don’t want to delve into Freudian mechanics but the main character is literally fixated on everything about his younger years. As for the film’s tone, I found it to be really annoying. I couldn’t believe I was made to sit through bad song lyrics written by the main character back when he was a teenager or even watch him put shaving cream on his face for five minutes. I’m very familiar with independent filmmaking and I love smaller films. However, this one is just weak all across the board. The acting was painful for me to sit through, especially the mother’s, because her tone of delivery is so consistently flat. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about this picture (which is a rarity because I usually find something positive about most movies) and I urge everyone else to stay as far away as possible from this wreck. It was a waste of a hundred minutes.