Tag Archives: Boarding School

Phenomena (1985)

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There is one great moment in Phenomena, Dario Argento’s frustratingly Schizophrenic fright flick. In this sequence, which stands head and shoulders above the rest in an otherwise incomprehensible movie, a pet chimpanzee named Inga rushes to warn her human daddy John (Donald Pleasence) that a killer has broke into his house. Alas, John is paraplegic, and as he slides down the stairs on his device built for wheelchairs to let the poor simian in, the killer, cloaked in shadow, pushes the button on the control panel to trap  him on the staircase.

It’s a tense moment, punctuated by the screams of the frightened ape. But the rest of the movie is a shoddy mess, with jarring metal music and terrible acting. This is my first Dario Argento horror film. Maybe I should have started with something else? There are times that Phenomena is so bizarrely put together, like a pastiche of hellish themes and images, that is almost becomes so bad it’s good. Almost. Argento had an amazing idea, but it’s ultimately all for naught. Could this be a classic horror movie actually in need for a remake? Purists would shudder to think of this film being refurbished, but I think it is actually a distinct possibility.

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Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly, in a very poor performance) is a teenaged schoolgirl neglected by her wealthy actor father. She is sent to boarding school at the beginning, and while she might seem like your everyday debutante with too much money on her hands and not enough to do with it, she is anything but ordinary. Firstly, she is much more down-to-earth than the other girls in the academy, but that is not what sets her apart. Jennifer can communicate telepathically with insects, and this might come in handy with a serial killer on the loose. With girls dropping like flies (no pun intended), Jennifer befriends John (Pleasence,) an entomologist studying the part bugs play in the decomposition of corpses. Not creepy at all, right? He also has a pet monkey, who’s kind of important, as she turns out to be much more deserving of the title ‘hero’ than Connelly is.

Phenomena has an abundance of imaginative images and ideas, but ultimately it comes off as an unintentional comedy. Part of this is the acting; while Pleasence is competent at his craft as always Connelly can barely deliver her lines in a convincing manner and the rest of the cast is  just terrible. Heavy metal songs by artists such as Iron Maiden and Motorhead cut into the action at the most unsuitable times, and the film has a definite MTV vibe to it. You practically expect Beavis and Butthead to be commentating in the background. Yeah, Jennifer Connelly is… hot. Motorhead is… cool. Uh-huh-huh. In fact, America’s two favorite idiots would be easier to take seriously than this movie. Forget how powerful Connelly was in Requiem for a Dream. Watching her here is positively painful. It’s like seeing the ass-to-ass scene from Requiem a billion times back-to back. You just want to cry for her. And not because of her aptitude for the craft, either.

The last twenty minutes are almost worth watching just for the crazy turns the plot takes, but they’re not enough to sit through a hole-filled, badly acted, and yes, boring story. Why is this school open when girls are constantly dropping dead? Why does John send Jennifer to find the killer all by herself? Why does the killer kill? No seriously, did someone just happen to overlook the villain’s motivation? Why can Jennifer talk to insects but not larvae? Why does the little boy look like that? The reason for all of these, of course, is because. Because that’s the loony-ass direction the plot takes. Terrible actors, dated music video-style sequences, characters we don’t give a damn about; Phenomena is a muddled mess. It’s high point is that it should provide some unintentional comedy for undiscerning viewers. No wonder the ape was the only one I liked.

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Au revoir les enfants (1987)

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A single look can change everything.

Louis Malle’s heartbreaking autobiographical film is set in 1944 at Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France, and chronicles a naive preteen’s wrenching coming-of-age. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse,) a well-to-do adolescent mama’s boy, thinks he knows everything there is to know about the real world, but things are about to get a whole lot realer, and life a lot more harrowing, during a seemingly uneventful stint in boarding school.

A pixyish, somewhat androgynous child already contending with impending puberty, a harrowing experience in it’s own right, Julien is first seen bawling out his doting mother (Francine Racette) at the train station, where she prepares to send him on the train to school. “I don’t give a damn about dad, and I hate you,” he sniffles, caught in the throes of typical adolescent self-absorption and angst.

But Julien finds unexpected pleasure and enjoyment at the academy, where he roughhouses and plays with the other boys in his age group, sells black market jam to the crippled kitchen hand and school outcast Joseph (François Négret,) and strikes up a tentative friendship with a low-key, musically gifted boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö.)

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The nosy Julien does some prying and discovers that his new friend is actually a Jew, named Jean Kippelstein, and smuggled into the school by the altruistic and rebellious Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud.) A hell of a priest and a hell of a good guy, Father Jean quietly defies the Nazi Occupation and does what he thinks is right regardless of what society expects of him.

You might think that 20th-century upper-class French kids are somehow less rambunctious than the modern American preteen, but this movie will inform you otherwise. The boys in this movie, are rowdy, wild, combative, and often rude and mean. They just don’t have an Xbox to lull them into complacency. Most of them are more or less completely unaware that their country is in discord, preferring to roughhouse, haze the new guy, and read each other the dirtiest book they know (The Arabian Nights, the veritable Fifty Shades of Grey of their time.)

Filmmaker Louis Malle chooses wisely not to make the boy characters too worldly or introspective, instead deciding to stick to a more realistic approach to adolescence. And the movie is not without it’s humor- when Jean and Julien wander off during a treasure hunt and get lost in the woods, they run into a scared wild boar and are charitably wrapped in a blanket in the back of a German military vehicle and returned to school.

When they return home to their peers, however, Julien elevates the story to legendary heights- now there was not one, but one hundred mad boars and the soldiers shot at them as they ran through the woods. Why, they barely escaped with their lives. This provides some comic relief, but it also has a lot of truth to it- stories all seem to get bigger in the minds of young boys.

Au revoir les enfants is tender, true-to-life, and achingly sad. The children behave as children will, ignorant of the impending storm, and the adults talk worriedly among themselves. The matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a series of decisions and choices, and morality doesn’t always triumph over doing the cowardly and ultimately shitty thing.

There is at least one main character who does a terrible thing (not Julien, whose ultimate act is comprised of folly. not malice) This person screws the others over and is presumably rewarded for it. The movie teaches a sad but true lesson- Happily ever After can occur for the most undeserving people. The righteous man is not always the one who gets a good outcome. And doing the right thing should be because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded for it.

The child actors do an admirable job in a foreign film that almost everyone with a taste for a rich narrative should find accessible. At the end of the movie, Julien says he’ll remember that last morning in January til the day he dies. You should remember this movie as such;  not because it is traumatic, but because it is moving and beautiful, without a hint of bitterness for a carefree childhood torn asunder by life’s cruel ironies.

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Afterschool (2008)

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Best described as a ‘Haneke film that is not by Haneke,’ “Afterschool’ is just good enough to make you respect the filmmaker while wishing he would adopt a style of his own. Mostly though, it makes you think that director Antonio Campos has seen “Cache” and Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” way too many times, and has tried to copy their approach with middling results (although “Afterschool” is less boring and better acted than Van Sant’s supposed classic, he doesn’t hold a candle to Haneke at his best.)

In a world of prep school jerks and uncaring adults, disaffected Robert (Ezra Miller) is just trying to stay afloat while dealing with violent tendencies and teen libido- we first meet him wanking to a particularly exploitive porn video. It’s hard to feel partial to him after that. His mom is overly preoccupied with him being ‘okay’ (not applicable for medication or an extra minute of her time) and not in the least concerned with him being happy. In his fancy-schmancy boarding school, he simply floats through life- barely regarded by his group of friends, engaging in schoolwork he could care less about- he is dulled. deadened, and perhaps worst of all, bored.

Robert has a preference (I hesitate to say ‘passion’) for videos of all kinds- from laughing babies and jokester cats to videotaped schoolyard fights and amateur pornography. He is a symbol of our short attention-spanned, gratified-at-the-click-of-a-button society. Seeing these clips, the footage of giggling children seems equally as ‘wrong’ and voyeuristic as the more hardcore videos. They are rendered eerie and uncanny by the context of the movie. When two young girls (Mary and Carly Michelson) OD while Robert films, he is sucked into a fallout among the students and staff- but with how much is Robert complicit?

You won’t necessarily find the answer within this film, but “Afterschool” does prove to be an interesting (if well-worn by more established directors) experiment. Known for his roles in films such as “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of being a Wallflower, then- barely pubescent Ezra Miller is eerily apathetic and effective here. While I’d argue that the last shot was a example of breaking the fourth wall (Robert is ‘filmed’ by the complacent audience,) there’s enough of a mystery element to the conclusion to keep the viewer thinking if they wish.

However, “Afterschool”‘s preoccupation with being deliberately obtuse makes it quite a frustrating experience, and the social commentary is a little obvious for this kind of film. It’s  showy in the way of “Funny Games” (Haneke’s weakest film)- they’re pushing the bumbling incompetence of adults, the apathy of our kids, and the brokenness of our society in our faces. In the end I didn’t care too much whether Robert killed the girls or whether his friend Dave (Jeremy Allen White) was to blame- I didn’t long for it to be over, but I wasn’t exactly sucked in by it either.

Ultimately, while Campos’ cold, calculating cinematic method and long, still shots of nothing happening at all might appeal to Haneke fanboys, I found it to be too derivative of that filmmaker to be anything of consequence. It’s okay- but movie like this (art, not entertainment) can’t be just okay- it really has to pull you in, making its world yours. If anything, this movie will just make you develop a further distaste for entitled rich kids and the preppy mischief they make.

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Little Red Flowers (2006)

A well-made story set against the backdrop of post-revolutionary China that, despite it’s strengths, often comes off as boring and exploitative. I have no problem with child nudity in, say, “Let the Right One In,” but the movie’s obsession with the four-year-old’s protagonist’s genitals is  not only creepy, but just plain wrong. I’ve seen less nudity in a Lars Von Trier flick.

Fang Qiangqiang (Bowen Dong) is a rebellious tyke who is dropped off at a grim boarding school by his father, than left to sink or swim, so to speak. What follows is a kind of brainwashing sicker than anything you’ll see in “The Human Centipede” or “Audition.”

The kids are teased with the superfluous exercise of receiving little red paper flowers for good behavior. All Qiang wants is the flowers, but his habitual bed-wetting and daily transgressions make the others immediately dislike him. Hence- no flowers. The boarding school is barren and cold, except for a few toys that don’t look like they couldn’t make the cut for the Goodwill donation box.

Immediately, it is established that all independent thought is squelched at this academy. The children are taught to eat, drink, poop, and sleep as one. These kids are being taught to be compliant, much to the horror of this free-thinking viewer. Meanwhile, Qiang stirs up trouble like a tiny Randall P. McMurphy, inciting rebellion when he convinces the impressionable children that strict Mrs. Li (Zhao Rui) is a tyke-eating monster.

This movie actually has a lot to say about values both Chinese and American. The scene where Mrs. Li goes ballistic about Qiang getting a female classmate to lift up her skirt so he can give her an ‘injection’ is particularly telling, as it is an unhealthy reaction to a natural exchange between children. Not only does she reprimand Qiang fiercely, she also resorts to name-calling to the girl for ‘letting a boy take off her pants.’

However, I will say that the nudity bothered me, and before you say “That’s your problem,” let me ask you this- would you let your little boy, your brother, your nephew get undressed for a camera at this developmental age? And before you say “it’s his rights,” children of this age have no rights when it comes to ‘choosing’ to flaunt their body in front of the camera.

It would be different, of course, if the nudity were crucial to this plot. It isn’t. Also, I’m almost certain they terrified the living s**t out of these children to get a performance. The tears of these toddlers are so incredibly real that the movie has almost a documentary feel. A good thing? Maybe, unless you take into account that no child this age can give a performance of this caliber. Either they’re the best child actors ever. Or… there’s something else going on here.

The film mirrors the totalitarian regime of the era, so that’s food for thought, if you like that sort of thing. The children are adorable, if only they were fully clothed more often. Yeah, I’ve decided for sure. I’m rounding the rating off to a 2.5.