House of Games (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite her many successes in her career, a psychiatrist named Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) felt like something was missing in her life. She had her routine at work but at the end of the day she wondered if she was even alive. A void was inside her was increasing in size and she didn’t know how to fill it up. When a patient with a gambling problem confessed to her that he’d be killed if he didn’t come up with the money the next day, she went to a bar and met Mike (Joe Mantegna), the man who supposedly would murder her patient. Being next to him, she felt instant attraction. And when she found out about his occupation, she felt excitement–something that helped to cure the emptiness inside her. The film’s greatest weapon was its script. Every time the characters would speak, I was drawn to them because they were intelligent but ultimately wounded. The camera would move with jurisdiction whenever there was a subtle change in tone so I was always curious with what was about to transpire. After many twists involving several cons, I tried to stay one step ahead of the material just as the characters eventually tried to outsmart each other. The filmmakers had fun with the material because there were times when I thought a twist would occur but it simply didn’t. There were other times when my hypotheses were correct. Furthermore, I was surprised how exciting it was even though it lacked car chases and explosions, elements that are easily found in movies like this one. Instead, the picture focused on the characters and how the dynamics between them changed drastically with a slight of hand. As much as I liked the heist scenes, I found Dr. Ford’s compulsions to be most disturbing and haunting. The way the darkness in her moved from her thoughts to her actions made me feel very uncomfortable. The scary thing is that I found a bit of myself in her. I’m a perfectionist and I love my routine. I love being around people and working with them but sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it. Like her, there are times when I feel the need to do something completely out of character because constantly trying to have everything just right had become trite and painfully boring. In other words, sometimes I feel like the law doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been a model citizen. Written and directed by David Mamet, “House of Games” was a psychological thriller that worked in multiple levels. Its subject matter directly and astutely commented on human nature and how our behavior could sometimes define us.
Home Movie (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
After moving their family to house in the middle of the woods, a minister (Adrian Pasdar) and a psychiatrist (Cady McClain) eventually realized that their children (Amber Joy Williams, Austin Williams) began acting strange. At first the children killed their pet fish and put it in a sandwich. Then they put a frog in a vise grip. And then they cruxified the house cat. The events after that became so horrific, I could hardly look at the screen. The children didn’t even speak a word until more than half-way through the movie. When they did, they did so in codes. Written and directed by Christopher Denham, “Home Movie” used the hand-held technique of “The Blair Witch Project” and “[REC].” Unfortunately, it wasn’t as effective because the execution was weak; it felt confused when it should have been confident given its daring material. I thought the picture spent too much of its time focusing on Pasdar acting goofy and putting on ridiculous costumes. The parts I enjoyed most were when Pasdar used his faith to find answers regarding what was happening with his children. The same goes for McClain–the scenes when she used her psychology background were interesting to me because I had some idea about was she was talking about and the influential names she cited (although that Rorschach test begged the question of validity and reliability). The film would have been so much stronger if it had focused on their varying parenting methods and ways to get some answers regarding their children’s condition. I didn’t mind much of the “realistic,” low quality and shaky feel of the camera because I understood what the director was trying to achieve. It’s the writing and the way that the story unfolded were the problems for me. Even though I don’t like watching movies about children hurting and killing others, I have to commend this independent film for trying to do something different. Admittedly, I was really disturbed by some of the scenes but I was glad that the filmmakers cut certain images and reactions out. If one is interested in watching something very creepy, sometimes disturbing and not mainstream by any means, “Home Movie” might be enjoyable. I must also note that this film is not for people who like movies with defined closures.
The Grudge 3 (2009)
★ / ★★★★
“The Grudge 3,” directed by Toby Wilkins, started off pretty creepy as we got to observe Jake (Matthew Knight) being committed in a mental institution under the care of a psychiatrist (Shawnee Smith). We then cut to the siblings (Gil McKinney, Johanna Brady, Jadie Hobson) who were taking care of the apartment complex where Jake and his family used to live. Just when I thought that this second sequel will be better than “The Grudge 2,” it became bogged down by the conventions of the horror genre. For instance, a character deciding to enter a dark apartment from which a strange noise could be heard, a character having a moral dilemma concerning her family, and the all-too-obvious false alarms that might have worked if the material had a superior story. The bad and downright cheesy dialogue was just too much for me so when the characters were ultimately placed in front of the malevolent ghosts, I couldn’t help but not be scared. Admittedly, the shocks such as when the ghosts would appear out of nowhere which was aided by a booming score worked for me. But the aftershock was not present, an element that I believe is crucial for horror pictures. The side stories bored me half to death. The fashion model boyfriend (Beau Mirchoff), the Japanese woman with a mysterious link to the curse and the psychiatrist hoping to find some answers slowed the story down immensely. In my opinion, “The Grudge” is not all that scary. I’m surprised a lot of people embraced the first few movies (including the Japanese originals and the American version starring Sarah Michelle Gellar). There’s something about the entire franchise that seems redundant to me. I’m not entirely sure if it’s the fact that the curse is unbeatable or if it’s just the same kind of characters making the same bad decisions. If it’s the former, it begs the question of what the point is for watching the movies. And if it’s the latter, I can’t help but blame the lazy writing; it can’t be that difficult to establish a well-rounded character who we care for and root for up until the very end… and he or she not dying in the process. If you’re not a fan of the series in the first place, there’s absolutely no reason for you to see “The Grudge 3.” But if you are a fan and you do decide to see it, expect more of the same.
Kings & Queen (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rois et reine” or “Kings and Queen” tells the story of a man and a woman who were going through their own problems in life. Initially, the two camps seemed to be unconnected because of their predominantly disparate tones–one comedic and one tragic. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who lives with her third husband-to-be, visited her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and father (Maurice Garrel). After Nora’s father confessed to her that he has been having some stomach problems, she took him to the hospital and found out that he was terminally ill. This caused a great interruption on the life she desperately wanted to believe was going great because she now had to deal with where to put her son because he and the third husband do not get along. She also had to deal with her sister who only used their father for money and what the father really thought of Nora. On the other hand, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) was sent back to the mental hospital against his will. In there, he found amusing ways to cope such as finding romance and discussing his psychology with a psychiatrist. Although this film was about a many things at once, it impressed me because in a span of about two hours and thirty minutes, it was able to balance comedy and drama throughout. What’s more impressive was Arnaud Desplechin’s, the director, ability to cut to one genre to another when things began to feel suffocating. So, in a way, it worked as two different but good films but the connections that the two had made it that much more enjoyable. Just when I thought everything was going to wrap up in a neat little package when Devos and Amalric finally had a scene together, more problems began to appear because two had a history. Many questions were then brought up such as when one’s responsibility should end when a relationship has been mutually agreed upon as over, whether the mother is doing the right thing by indirectly choosing her third husband over her only child, and the pros and cons of keeping a certain knowledge a secret when the burden is too much to bear. There was a certain organic feel in the film which made me believe that the events portrayed could have happened in real life. I thought one of the strongest scenes in the movie was its ending–the conversation between Amalric and Lelong–because it remained true to itself: with every negative comes a positive (and vice-versa). “Rois et reine” is the perfect film for those who love character studies of individuals who have many imperfections but still have certain reedeming qualities.
Halloween II (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Zombie, “Halloween II” is a complete waste of time. What I really liked with Zombie’s 2007 interpretation of the 1978 classic was that it really tried to tell a story. The 2007 film spent a third of its time explaining Michael Myers’ psychology as a child–something that other “Halloween” movies that came before did not do. With this 2009 sequel, we’re back again on the level of wait-and-kill without any sort of plot to drive the story forward. Basically, Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) wanted to hunt down Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) a year after they had a showdown in Haddonfield. Meanwhile, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s ex-psychiatrist, wrote a book about the killings and tried to wrestle with the media’s barrage of questions and his conscience (or lack thereof). In my opinion, Dr. Loomis’ storyline should totally not have gone in that direction. Instead, we should have followed Dr. Loomis’ mission (or downright obsession) to hunt down Michael and protect Laurie from him. That’s much more interesting (and relevant) than scenes of him signing books and being interviewed on some television shows. As for Michael’s rampage, although I still thought that the stalking and violent scenes were very gruesome, none of it was particularly scary. Well, except for that scene in the hospital which occured during the first twenty minutes (the only effective scene in the whole movie). I also hated the fact that Zombie decided to inject Deborah Myers’ ghost (Sheri Moon Zombie as Michael’s mother) into the storyline. Not only was such a decision poorly executed, the scenes were downright laughable. If I wanted to see a ghost story with a psychological aspect to it, I’d watch “The Others” because that one was actually chilling to the bone (not to mention clever). Slasher fans simply do not pay ten bucks or so to watch a slasher flick with ghosts roaming about and supposedly instigating the broken mind of a killer. I went into this movie with an above average expectations because the 2007 version was very enjoyable. But after watching this movie, I think Zombie should just stop. He doesn’t quite grasp the idea of the brilliance that comes with simplicity and a truly terrifying soundtrack, which defined John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween” classic.
Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story, “Sybil” is about a woman (Sally Field) who has dissociative identity disorder (DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder) and how her psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) helps her by digging up the past and confronting her inner demons. Having some sort of a background in psychology, I knew what to look for to see if what was really being portrayed on screen was DID. I have to say that it was spot-on: from when it was triggered by certain objects that reminded her of her abusive mother, to when her condition got worse to the point where it started to ruin her life, up until she finally finds some sort of a resolution (but not a cure). Field was tremendous in this film. I was so impressed whenever she would switch from one personality to the next; I completely forgot that she was just playing a character. While the acting was obviously emotionally draining, it must have been physically draining as well because of the very physical counseling sessions when she was required to move around in order to portray how conflicted Sybil was. Woodward also deserved recognition because I immediately felt like she was the kind of person that Sybil would eventually trust since she was very nurturing and accepting. There was not one moment where I thought she would give up and that was important to me because it meant that she was willing to follow through with her patient’s condition. I also liked the romantic angle between Field and the late Brad Davis. It was so sad because Davis fell for a personality (though some may argue he really did fall for Sybil) and Sybil was pretty much scared of human contact due to her traumatic past. That was scene in the subway with Davis and Field was strangely romantic even though something felt wrong about the whole thing. I mention all these people to highlight the fact that the film focused on Sybil and her relationship with others. Instead of telling a story of a mental disorder, the picture was about a person who happened to have a mental disorder in its core. And that subtelty is crucial because people find it difficult to separate the person from the disease or condition. To me, that message had a true resonance because of the sensitivity of issues that come with mental illnesses. As for the scenes regarding the abuse, even though it did not show blood and guts, I still thought it was pretty graphic, not just with the film’s consistent sinister tone, but also the tools that were shown and what the mother did to Sybil during the flashback scenes. Watching those scenes made me really angry because I was reminded that such things still do happen and the abused children will most likely have psychological problems in their futures. Ultimately, I think this is one of those films that will stick with me for a very long time because of how faithful it was with reality. It goes to show that even though the mind can be a very powerful coping mechanism, if pushed hard enough and again and again, it can break into pieces and may cause irreversible devastation toward both the owner and that person’s inner circle.
Mr. Jones (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Richard Gere stars as Mr. Jones, a manic-depressive who one day meets Lena Olin, a psychiatrist, and the two fall for each other. I wish Eric Roth, the writer, eliminated the romance aspect of this picture because he doesn’t really introduce or say anything new about doctor-patient relationships. Instead, the focus should have been on Mr. Jones’ behavior where he one minute seems to be the happiest man on earth but the next minute he feels hopeless and suicidal. The movie shines whenever it shows other people with a mental disorder; it argues that the disorder doesn’t define the person and others who do not have the disorder should be more sensitive to people who do have the disorder. Unfortunately, the stigmatization in the workplace was nicely shown in one scene but never truly explored. The first half is definitely stronger than the second half. The latter had more scenes involving Gere and Olin being sweet to each other but never going anywhere. The film’s pacing felt stuck and gradually got worse until the last scene. In the end, I felt like it didn’t have enough material to engage the audiences so it succumbed to the whole boy-meets-girl structure, which was a really bad move because I initially thought that the characters were intelligent. I wanted to learn more about the lives of people with bipolar disorder (in this case, Bipolar I Disorder) and how they cope with their every day lives. I also wanted to know more about the subtleties of how a normal person treats an individual who he or she happens to label as “crazy.” In real life, we do label people and our beliefs and actions are not always parallel to each other. This film somehow managed to turn an interesting topic of psychology into something banal. If it wasn’t for Gere and Olin’s acting, I would stay skip this movie completely. With a little more alteration in the script (especially the second half), this could’ve been much stronger.
The Wackness (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I thought I would like this film more than I did. I certainly didn’t expect to feel like I couldn’t sit through it less than the half-way mark. “The Wackness” is about a teenage drug-dealer (Josh Peck) who does it for two reasons: to keep his distance from his parents because the two adults fight like children all the time and to support himself (and eventually his family). The main character is also a loner whose only friend is a strange psychiatrist going through a midlife crisis (played by Ben Kingsley). Incidentally enough, Peck falls for Kingsley’s stepdaughter, played by the always brilliant Olivia Thirlby. And Kingsley preys on a girl Peck initially liked (Mary-Kate Olsen). That’s only some of the strange coincidences that didn’t work at all. Pretty much all of the characters are unlikeable–they have the chance to make their lives a lot better but they choose to drug themselves instead. In other words, it’s another one of those “Hey, look at me! I’m being indie!” kind of movies that I’ve grown to abhor over the years. Jonathan Levine, the director, thinks that by changing the setting into something urban (instead of suburbia) and featuring rap music (instead of indie pop), he’s doing something unique. To me, it’s not a breath of fresh air because, despite being the antithesis of most indie comedies, it still follows the same tired formula. It’s supposed to be a comedy but it’s not funny at all because the characters are beyond miserable. I want to feel sorry for them more than I want to laugh with them. Not to mention that the humor is mostly directed to early to mid-teens because of the way the younger characters speak. The only thing I could stand about this film is Thirlby and that’s because I’m a big fan of some of her past work (“Snow Angels,” “Juno”). I found no redeeming quality in this film. It will forever remain a mystery to me why it got so much praise at Sundance.
The Exorcist (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger, whenever I’d pretend to be an archeologist in the backyard, my mom would warn me about potentially digging up evil spirits. Knowing that dead people are buried in the Earth, of course I’d get scared and immediately stop digging holes in the ground and watch television or read a book instead. It recently occured to me that she referenced this film to invoke that fear of “evil spirits” (most Filipinos are superstitious). In any case, even though I don’t believe in God or the Devil (though I don’t reject the possibility of their existence; if I were to believe in a sort of “God” it wouldn’t be Jesus/Christ, it’ll be a general “higher power” in the universe), this film really got to me because it is so well-told and it is difficult for me to dispel the horrific images from my head after watching it. I’ve seen this movie about four times and it never fails to give me the creeps. I always find something new in it: whether it’s a demonic face popping up during the most intense scenes when a character would enter a dark room or something in the script that would hint that what we are watching is not a supernatural story but a hyperbole of a psychological disorder told through a medium who believes in demonic possessions.
This film has stood the test of time because science and faith (generally two opposing ideas) are fused so well, that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference because we’re so invested in the characters and our own questions of what’s really going on or what’s going to happen next. Ellen Burstyn is heartbreaking as the mother/actress who really loves her daughter (Linda Blair) but doesn’t know what to do when her daughter starts behaving strangely. One minute she’s strong and the next she’s vulnerable; some of her best scenes are her interactions with the priest/psychiatrist (Jason Miller) because she’s able to express what she’s really thinking and feeling. Linda Blair did a tremendous job as the possessed daughter. I still don’t know how she found it in herself to act like a demon. Most people say that the make-up did most of the work but if one were to look closely, it has nothing to do with the make-up. If one were to compare her early scenes where she was sweet and friendly to her later scenes where she was cussing and grimacing at other people’s misery, one should be able to conclude that she’s bringing something from within.
William Friedkin, the director, neatly (and organically) converged three stories: Burstyn’s plight to find a cure for her daughter’s illness, Miller’s relationship with his terminally ill mother, and Max von Sydow who is both a priest and an archeologist (who happens to dig up an ancient relic with the help of some locals in the first scene). The director is smart enough to highlight the duality of these characters: mother/actress, priest/psychiatrist, priest/archeologist, daughter/demon. And not just the duality in the characters but also the duality of “the” explanation: science/religion. Moreover, I have to say that this picture has the best use of lighting and use of color in any horror movie I have ever seen. I noticed that in the first third of the film, warm colors are often used like red, orange, and yellow. As the film’s subject matter got darker and more manacing (granted, the movie started off pretty dark), we get to see colder colors more often like blue and purple. As for the lighting, I love the scenes in the house when a character would be in self-denial (or lying to someone else) and how their faces, or parts of their faces, would be covered in darkness. Also, in the most intense scenes, it feels like something is always looming in the corner because of the way a certain object would project its shadows on the wall. Small things like that makes this film so special, worth discussing, and rewatching.
When people put “The Exorcist” at the top of their scariest horror films list, for me, it’s not a case of jumping on the bandwagon. It really is that scary due to its subject matter and its craft. There are a plethora of memorable scenes such as the spider walk sequence down the stairs, when the demon/Captain Howdy would try to find and take advantage of the priests’ weaknesses, Blair’s 360-degree head turns, Burstyn’s intense experiences when she enters dark rooms–all of it are effective because of both its shock value and (arguably) sense of realism. Despite one’s theology (or lack thereof), it’s difficult to dismiss this film because faith is not the only factor that drives it forward. If people are to stand back and look at the overall product, it’s really about our fears of the unknown–things of which that both religion and science combined are not enough to answer.