Tag Archives: Bad Mamas

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle

Truth is truly stranger than fiction, and Jeanette Walls, the wildly talented author of The Glass Castle‘s childhood being ‘raised’ by nomadic, outrageously negligent parents, was weirder than most. The said parents (if you could call them that, since parenting or even being adults was not their perogitive), Rex and Rose Mary Walls, were an anomaly- self-taught and highly intelligent people who had no concern for their childrens’ welfare and made no effort to make those awkward adolescent and pubescent years any more tolerable. The Glass Castle reminded me of Augusten Burrough’s blackly comic account of familial insanity Running With Scissors, only less sensationalistic.

This memoir will move you, make you angry, and kick your parental instincts into overdrive. Jeanette Walls and her siblings move from place to place, on the run from the ‘FBI’ and ‘the Gestapo’ (i.e. the tax collectors and the authorities.) Jeanette’s mom is an flaky, unstable artist who wants nothing to with her children. Her dad is a big-talking B.S.-er who can weasel himself out of any tough situation, except for the disintegration of his family unit. Together- the Walls children must take care of each other, facing sexual abuse, poverty, bullying, and other hardships.

I respect Jeanette’s unconditional love for her parents, but I really had no sympathy for them, even when they ended up on the streets of New York. The author really is a born storyteller, but there were times I had my doubts that she really remembered the events she was documenting with the lucidity she claimed. Walls gave detailed descriptions of things that she recalled from childhood; sometimes I wondered if she was taking liberties with her material. This isn’t really a criticism- a lot of memoirists do add improbable details- just an observation.

Walls develops her three siblings well so that you almost feel like you knew their childhood selves. Brian was my favorite- he was a tough cookie. It doesn’t take just any seven-year-old to chase a pedophile out of their house with a hatchet. At least one kid was irreparably damaged by the events of their childhood, the rest seemed to make the best of it as well as they could.

The bizarre thing is that the author only records her father hitting her once, so calling the parents ‘abusive’ might seem like a bit of a stretch to people who haven’t read the book. But between the dad’s abuse of the mom and both parties’ total disregard for the safety of their children, in the end, it’s hard to consider the parents anything other than abusive. Some of the aspects of their childhood seem desirable- freedom, being encouraged to read great literature- but others are atrocities that stand up against the hardest childhood memoirs.

I would highly recommend this book because it is beautifully written and has a fascinating story. Some scenes might be triggering to victims of sexual abuse- I’d nearly run out of fingers if I counted how many times the Walls children are mishandled, either by neighborhood kids or family or strange adults, and their parents’ apathy is infuriating. What is best is Jeanette Walls keeps a certain distance from the material and avoids self-pity. With tenderness, wit, and deft touches of dark humor, she tells the story of a childhood that would break the hardest individuals.

 

Dead Alive (Brain-Dead) (1992)

Be forewarned, this is grade-B all the way, so if you are a no-fun fuddy-duddy like my mom or need an Oscar pedigree for every film, you watch, you will probably find this equal parts tedious and repellent. However, for those with a subversive wit and tolerance for bad taste and a ridiculous amount of blood and gore, look no further. This is your movie.

Lionel (Timothy Balme) is just your ordinary Bates-ish momma’s boy who is astonished when cute Hispanic shopkeeper Paquita (Diana Peñalver) takes an interest in him. Now this is the 1950’s, so whites and minorities were not the best of friends, but Lionel is about to face a lot more than close-mindedness when his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) gets herself bitten by a mysterious Sumatran rat-monkey and becomes a flesh-eating zombie.

Instead of killing his mother like most people would do, Lionel lets her fester, much to the misfortune of everyone around him. Meanwhile, sleazy Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) prowls around, trying to steal Lionel’s inheritance, and the body count rises.

This is early Peter Jackson, before he became a Hollywood bigwig and brought to life the Hobbits of the shire. Now I’d like to say that “Lord of the Rings” means a lot to me, and that I am a LOTR nerd who owns a life-size replica of Saramaun’s staff and can speak elvish. Okay, maybe not. But I’ll be damned if I don’t prefer “Dead Alive,” with all its bile and guts and mounds of intestines and rotten flesh.

I’ll be damned if Frodo and Sam’s touching friendship doesn’t make me fall asleep. Maybe it was all my Dad’s “Lord of the Rings” marathons (featuring the four-hour extended editions), but I think I’m just about Shired out. And now that I’ve turned in my movie fan card and revealed myself as the charlatan and the fraud that I am, I concur.

The acting is… meh. Nobody’s going to winning any academy awards, but the actors seem to be having a good time and so are we. There are many memorable scenes (the kung-fu priest being a particular favorite) and there are some creative shots. Gorehounds will find more than enough gore n’ guts to satisfy their bloodlust.

“Dead Alive” is the ORIGINAL Rom-Zom-Com, before “Shaun of the Dead,” before “Zombieland,” before “Warm Bodies,” and before the many additions of the genre to come. In 1992 it was considered by many to be the goriest film of all time, and I wonder what progressions have been made, especially in the Japanese horror genre.

People who enjoy “bad” movies that are actually good movies with a subversive sense of humor will find a lot to like in “Dead Alive,” and if you don’t like it, shame on you. Go watch “Citizen Kane” or “Gone With the Wind,” and stay off my blog, which is way too cool for you. Fin.

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Sister (2012)

Set primarily in Swiss ski resort and nominated for a foreign language Oscar, “Sister” is an emotional and mature work that is engaging from start to finish. All the actors are effective, but fifteen-year-old Kacey Mottet Klein steals the show as Simon, a youthful twelve-year-old dealing with responsibilities and problems way beyond his age level. Simon lives in a low-rent apartment with his immature older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux of “Blue is the Warmest Color.”You might remember her as one of the LaPadite sisters at the beginning of “Inglourious Basterds.)

While Simon makes money stealing equipment and luggage from a nearby ski resort and selling the philfered items, Louise shirks any kind of responsibility, mooching off the spoils of her brother’s thievery and having sex with different guys. Although Simon takes from tourists with a cold and calculated  efficiency, you can’t help but feel for the little guy as he does what he has to to survive.

There is definitely a weird incestuous subtext between Simon and Louise. You don’t feel that they are aware of this  or that they would even act on it, but their relationship is marked by an odd co-dependence and half-formed, burgeoning sexual interest on Simon’s part, and maybe even on Louise’s too. There’s a very strange scene partway through (which I love and I think speaks volumes about this pair of outcasts) where Simon pays the angry Louise over a hundred dollars to sleep next to her.

He craves human contact, but Louise is selfish and exploits his vulnerability in a weird way, and is only able to offer comfort in the most basic manner. The cinematography is great and in it’s own way, powerful, while the ending leaves you to draw your own conclusion. Scotsman Martin Compston (who caught my attention playing a sympathetic criminal in Ken Loach’s social realism drama “Sweet Sixteen) has a role as a employee at the resort who gets in on Simon’s thieving.

“Sister” is special in that it is pensive and character-based without being ever boring and it evokes deep emotions, yet is subjective and stays away from gooey sentimentality or blatant attempts at audience manipulation. There are no ‘villains,’ just despair and dead ends. Kacey Mottet Klein is just perfect as a kid who has many foils and has run into trouble trying to live a halfway normal life.

Don’t let the incestuous vibe I get from this picture deter you from watching a great foreign film. This is not a movie about pedophilia. It is a movie about secrets, responsibility, and what it means to be an adult. Léa Seydoux is practically his equal as a character you probably should hate, but you end up feeling kind of sorry for.

“Sister” proves that ‘art film’ doesn’t have to mean being bored out of your mind. If you don’t mind subtitles, you’ll surely find value in this fascinating film about a troubled girl and a little boy who is forced to take up responsibility for the two of them. I liked this almost but not quite as much as “The Intouchables,” the French submission for best foreign film of 2012. While “The Intouchables” is heartwarming and funny “Sister” is quieter, sadder, and maybe a little truer. Do. Not. Miss.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Unsettling and provocative, “The Piano Teacher” is at once a study of the lives of deeply unhappy people and a commentary on the dangers of repression. It’s not pretty or pleasant, but one can expect nothing less from controversial Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. He shines an unyielding light on his character’s perversions, prejudices, and desires.

The piano teacher of the title, Erika (impressively portrayed by Isabelle Huppert) is an aging spinster living with her crazy-domineering mother (Annie Girardot,) who still treats her like she is a girl on the cusp of puberty, who needs to be nettled and looked after constantly. They fight viciously, share the same bed, and there’s an incestuous subtext going on. Even when that subtext is confirmed, we still can scarcely believe it.

Erika is a very lonely and repressed soul, but she’s not a particularly sympathetic character. She is cruel, petty, sexually aggressive, and at one point inexplicably maims a promising student’s hand with shards of glass. However, it is impossible not to feel sorry for her at some point. She is an extremely hard character to read, and her seeming lack of emotion puzzles us deeply.

We are given virtually no backstory on Erika at all- her father is locked up in an asylum somewhere, and she and her mother have long be entangled in a sick, co-dependent relationship. That is all. When Erika meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel,) he pursues her, but neither of them know what they’re in for. They promptly head down the path of Sadomasochism and mind games.

I was surprised that this was categorized on my favorite site as ‘erotica.’ Frankly put, this is not in the least bit erotic and has some of the most unsexy sex scenes for a film containing so many. “The Piano Teacher” is not unlike “Shame” by Steve McQueen in that respect. There is no joy or virility in the ‘love’ scenes, even the consensual sex has a not only clinical but aggressive feel to it as well.

Isabelle Huppert is fabulous here, and Susanne Lothar (late, great actress and one of the only good things about Haneke’s pretentious bore-fest “Funny Games”) has a small part as the mother of one of Erika’s students whose distinct lack of warmth mirrors Erika’s mother’s own.

I wish Walter’s character had been developed a little more. He exists simply to pursue Erika’s character for one half of the movie and brutalize her emotionally and physically for the other. If his motivations had been considered more thoroughly, and his attraction to Erika better explained, the movie would have been better.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and subtext in Haneke’s films, and “The Piano Teacher” is no exception. This ambiguity is both a gift and a curse, as it is endlessly frustrating but also intriguing and may command multiple viewings. There were some thoroughly ‘What the Fuck’ moments as well, for example when Erika urinates on the ground of the drive-in theater.

“The Piano Teacher” contains some distinctly ‘Haneke’-esque annoyances like superfluous long takes but the film is startlingly adept in its power and never betrays itself with Hollywood B.S. or an inappropriately upbeat ending. Ultimately it is as as it’s as enigmatic as it’s heroine but less weirdly naive- it knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Worth watching.

Maniac (2012)

Admittedly, I have never seen the 1980 original of “Maniac,” and just recently became interested in the remake,  which, for all it’s guts and gore, turns out to be a pretty decent psychological slasher movie. Physically Elijah Wood isn’t a great stand-in for the apparently imposing, plain Joe Spinell but he still manages to turn in a good (if slightly over-acted) performance as the lead psycho. Frodo ain’t here Mrs. Torrance.

Frank Zito is a disturbed, slightly stereotypical nutjob (hmm, a sexually repressed loner with mommy issues… just dress him up in a wig and a dress and call him Norman) whose Mama liked to whore around in front of her impressionable son. This has left him with some issues with members of the fairer sex, and Frank acts out by killing and scalping attractive women. Did I mention Frank owns a mannequin shop? Creepy stuff for sure. At least Frank finds a way that all those scalps aren’t wasted.

Then the unthinkable happens. Pale creeper Frank finds a girl, Anna (Nora Arnezeder) who makes him rethink his creeper life. She’s smart, pretty, and she, y’know, GETS him- an attribute that’s in short supply if you’re a psycho killer with a fetish for scalps. She even seems to like his mannequins even more than she likes him, and this makes Frank’s heart flutter with something unexpected- love, caring, a yearning for a different way of life.

Anna muses that the mannequins are beautifully unique and seem to have distinct personalities (no, she’s not crazy.) Her soft, gentle manner draws out tentative Frank- but how long can Frank keep up his facade? And it soon becomes obvious that Frank’s mask of sanity is about to slip (to borrow a all-too-overt reference to “American Psycho.”) Will Anna be repulsed when she finds out Frank’s true self?

The movie adopts the disturbing stylistic approach of forcing us to watch the crimes from Frank’s POV. Not only does that bring up all kinds of moral and ethical questions (is our fascination with violence and serial killers cathartic, or rather voyeuristic and exploitative?), it occasionally makes the killings uncomfortably sexualized, marked by Frank’s repressed libido and misogynistic rage.

I understand what the filmmaker is trying to do, but it is disturbing to watch a woman’s breasts while she is strangled. Then again, doesn’t the fact that the strangling doesn’t bother me speak volumes on Americans over-familiarity with violence and carnage? Maybe that’s what this movie is trying to say.

Frank spends a lot of time looking in mirrors, which may portray his fracturing personality (he often argues and pleads with his ‘darker half,’ which takes over when she gets the urge to kill) or it might just be there to remind us “yep, it’s Elijah Wood playing the killer, not just a camera being toted around by the crew.”

On the surface, this film is fast-paced and exciting. The psychology behind the character of Frank is a little sketchy (somewhere between Norman Bates’ exclamation of “a boy’s best friend is his mother” and Philip Larkin’s poem that begins “They fuck you up your mum and dad…”) but the movie is mostly solid.

I actually think “Tony” by Gerard Johnson, a highly underregarded film and hell of an independent production, knocks this film on it’s ass. But “Maniac” is still a solidly acted way to pass the time. Take a date- but make sure they’re not TOO into it, or we might have of a”Maniac” on your hands. Think about it. Good afternoon, everyone, and enjoy the feature.

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011)

Is it nuts to expect more from a movie like “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)? With a premise and set-up like this, what can you expect, except for a few good scares and a whole lotta gore? But with an intriguing killer like Martin, I was actually hopeful, and disappointed by the never-ending, and I suppose inevitable, stream of torture that followed.

I guess I would have liked to have seen more Martin, less of the centipede. More scathing black humor, less of the gore? Crazy? Maybe. But my love of all things fuck-upedly psychological led me to wish for an entirely different movie.

I’ll be honest and straight-up and admit that I haven’t seen Tom Six’s controversial original (and at this point I don’t think I’ll bother.) But to those uninitiated few, I’ll describe the original premise to the best of my abilities. Sensitive readers, stop right here. It only goes downhill from here.

In the original “Human Centipede,” two pretty American tourists’ car breaks down while traveling in Germany (of course, the car), and they seek help at the home of an incredibly creepy German doctor, who proceeds to serve them a drugged drink and reveal his master plan (you’ve never seen that one before, right?)

The doctor intends to make a Siamese triplet out of the frightened girls and a third party. Okay, this is where it gets real messy. Using the magic of surgical precision, the the good doc will sew them together mouth to anus, therefore creating one entity. I guess you’re starting to understand the controversy behind these films, eh?

So. “The Human Centipede II.” Listen, now, because the premise is actually pretty creative. Martin, a short, creepy, obese security guard (Laurence R. Harvey) who lives with his abusive mother (Mommy issues- where have I heard that one before…? Okay I’ll stop now) is INSPIRED by the original “Human Centipede” and sets out to make one of his own, but suffers from poor health and limited resources.

Martin, whose father sexually abused him, and whose mother blames Martin for sending hubby to jail (I call it “Precious” syndrome. but it definitely happens), has led an agonizing life full of brutality and misery, and, as it so happens, has a sexual fetish for “The Human Centipede.” On top of that he has a psychiatrist (Bill Hutchins) who wants to have sex with him (ew.)

SO what can Martin do except to make the people around him suffer? And so he does, in a spectacularly brutal manner. And may I just say, Laurence R. Harvey is a FABULOUS actor. Not only does he cope with the fact that Martin doesn’t say a single word throughout the movie, he makes it an asset.

Harvey also makes you feel sorry for Martin, at moments, throughout the movie. And I think that’s where he really excels, making you feel sympathy for such a beastly character. Unfortunately, Laurence R. Harvey (and Martin) are stuck in a movie that doesn’t deserve them, and Vivian Bridsen (who plays Martin’s mother) is as incompetent as Harvey is adept.

The first half of this film is pretty good. It’s deliberately illogical at times (Martin hits his victims full-force with a crow bar and still manages to only knock them out), but the film has a devilish, nightmarish feel, and makes good use of black & white photography. The dialogue is often bizarre and implausible, but this only reinforces the fact that we are living in a nightmare.

After the first half, though, we are thrown into forty minutes of torture which is not only gross, it’s also boring. How do you make torture boring? For dragging it on forty minutes, that’s how. I know, I know, I’m watching “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence),” not “My Dinner With Andre.” Dialogue isn’t the film’s strong point. But is it too much to hope for a little… more of it?

If there’s one thing I got out of this movie, it was Laurence R. Harvey’s performance. I really, really hope this guy makes it. Otherwise, skip this weakly plotted torture fest. Next!