Tag Archives: Dysfunctional Family

Movie Review: Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

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Rating: B/ Filmmaker Maya Forbes’ heart tugging, affectionate autobiographical tale stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a perennial screw-up and the manic-depressive father of two little girls, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) and Amelia ( Imogene Wolodarsky, the filmmaker’s own daughter.) When we first meet Cam, it is the winter of 1978, and he is in the midst of a manic episode, running around in the freezing cold in his skivvies and terrorizing his family, who then lock themselves in the car in fear. Later he is hospitalized and put on heavy medication that makes him shuffle, fat and complacent, around the halls of the mental hospital. Continue reading Movie Review: Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

Movie Review: Little Children (2006)

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Rating: B+/ So, is the movie called Little Children because the sex offender played by Jackie Earle Haley has a thing for little children or because all the adult characters in the movie act like little children, self-obsessed and bickering? The jury’s still out on that. While the main plotline concerning extramarital affairs and upper-class ennui in an affluent suburban neighborhood is dark and distressing enough, I found the subplot following a child abuser and exhibitionist moving into his mothers’ house after being released from prison (the superior thread by far) absolutely harrowing. Did this movie really make me feel compassion for a guy who gets his kicks flashing his weenie at little kids? What does that say about the film’s aptitude for puzzling moral ambiguity? Moreover, what does it say about me? Continue reading Movie Review: Little Children (2006)

Film Discussion: Spider (2002)

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Rating: A-/ ***Warning- This is more of a comprehensive discussion of the film Spider than a actual review. Spoilers should be expected.*** First off, I adore Ralph Fiennes. I really just love the guy. I think he’s one of the best (if not actually the best) actors of today. I just rediscovered the greatness of Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic thriller Spider, I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about why I think Spider was one of Fiennes’ best performances and one of his most daring film endeavors. I’m also going to discuss what made Spider so great and look at the layers of meaning the psychology of this film provides. Let this be my last warning; this is going to be a spoiler laden post. If you haven’t seen this film yet and want to, avoid this review like the plague. Thank you.

When we first meet Spider (Ralph Fiennes) as he gets off a train, he seems very small and vulnerable, one of society’s undisputed outcasts. Nicotine-stained fingers, raggedy old coat, stubbly, bewildered face- he looks like he wishes he cold just sink into the ground and disappear. We can also see clear as day that not all is right with him psychologically, as he continually mutters incomprehensibly to himself (turn on your subtitles!) and doesn’t seem totally cognizant of his surroundings. He’s definitely out of his element, and rightfully so- Spider has just been released from an insane asylum that he was committed to since childhood, and is being placed in the care of Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave,) a crusty old woman who owns a halfway house for the mentally disturbed.

The house could use a spruce-up and Mrs. Wilkinson could use some work on her bedside manner. She treats the patients like naughty children who constantly need to be berated and told off. Spider begins reexamining events that placed him in the care of the state by becoming an ‘observer’ of his childhood, following his boy self around the familiar streets of his youth and sitting in on conversations between people that occurred at that time, and some that didn’t. This is where the brilliance of this movie lies, for as soon as we are introduced to his parents (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne) we are immediately placed in the shoes of an unreliable narrator. While his mum is long-suffering, beautiful, and kind, his father Bill is a philandering alcoholic and all around jerk who Spider competes with for the affections of his mother.

In a series of events that young Spider couldn’t possibly have been present for, we find that Dad is screwing a local floozy named Yvonne (also played by Miranda Richardson) and that they kill Spider’s saintly mother when she catches them making it in the garden shed. These scenes, and the subsequent scenes where Yvonne takes Mrs. Cleg’s place as Spider’s new ‘mother,’ are ludicrously over-the-top and almost cartoonish in nature. Juxtaposed with the hyperrealistic scenes where Spider himself is present, these parts seem to make no sense unless you take them at face value- that Spider is making them up. That they came out of the mind of a naive, inexperienced, and mentally ill man who has spent most of his life in an institution.

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Yvonne (despite being played by the same actress who played the mother) is slutty, coarse, and rendered with make-up and costume design to be actually fairly unattractive. The infinitely well-meaning Mrs. Cleg is superior in every way to this common street whore; of this Spider is convinced. So he sets out to murder Yvonne by turning the gas stove on as she sleeps, only to find he has murdered his mother and ‘Yvonne’ as he knows her never existed. Yes, maybe he was jokingly flashed by a woman similar to his incarnation of Yvonne (in fact, ‘Flashing Yvonne’ is played a by a whole different actress than Richardson, Allison Egan) and his mind did the rest of the work. Building upon this event he created the ultimate harlot, the woman who would stand by as his dad killed his mom and insist he call her ‘mother.’

So what do I think? I think Spider’s oh-so-virtuous mother became alcoholic and bitter, creating ‘Yvonne’ in his mind and causing him to believe that his dad murdered his mom and replaced her with an uncaring, promiscuous duplicate. Spider obviously has the hots for his mom on some subconscious level, brushing her hair and watching her put on make-up adoringly and eyeing her as she tries on a slinky nightgown. She became boozy and hard due to her marital problems with her husband and his love of going to the Dog and Beggar and drinking. Someone had to be blamed, and the issue had to be put in more black-and-white terms so Spider could understand it.

There’s only one thing about this movie that confuses me, and that’s the scene where Spider’s in a restaurant looking at a picture of a green Yorkshire field. Suddenly he’s standing in a field identical to the one in the picture,  hanging out with a couple of old men who don’t particularly seem to have their mental faculties. I think that he met the men at the asylum (I believe one of these guys was the one wielding a piece of broken glass in the flashback.) He imagined them in a grassy field and used some of the dialogue he had heard from them in the scenario. I’m also very curious whether Spider realized what he had done to his mother (he does refrain from braining Mrs. Wilkinson, who he imagines as Yvonne, with a hammer) or whether the big reveal was just a tip-off to the audience and Spider is as lost as ever.

I don’t think it should be surprising to you that Ralph Fiennes is incredible in this movie. He shows a gift for portraying debilitating mental illness with a nuanced sleight of hand that is not generally present in these kinds of performances. So that’s it. I’ve explained why I think Spider is one of the more complex psychological thrillers I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve offered some explanation to the meaning of the events presented in this movie. Liked this discussion? Have any thoughts? Want me to write another like it? Stop by and tell me in the comments!

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We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

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Rating: B/  Oh, Franklin. you should have worn the damned condom!

Okay, so maybe Eva Khachaturian wasn’t meant to be a mother. But is she responsible for making her son a monster? Society seems to think so. In the wake of a horrific attack orchestrated by Kevin, a sadistic fifteen-year-old psychopath, Eva (Tilda Swinton) is heckled on the street and sometimes outright attacked by people who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.

    In a swirl of fever dream-like memories, past becomes present, and Eva remembers when her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and kids Kevin and Celie (Ezra Miller and Ashley Gerasimovich) were still with her. Eva never seemed to really want Kevin, a vile, evil, perpetually incontinent child turned killer teen who mind-fucked his mother from a very early age, but the real question is whether Eva could stop the direction her son was going.

   Franklin, a happy guy in denial of Kevin’s true nature, condemns Eva for not connecting with her little moppet, and Kevin simultaneously gaslights Eva and turns Eva and her well-meaning but dopey husband against each other. Kevin might seem like a child of Satan or some other supernatural incarnate, but really he’s like thousands of other children in the world who really don’t seem to have a conscience- and who better to blame than the boy’s own mother?

Anyone who has seen filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher knows she has a propensity for both beautiful cinematography and grueling bleakness. We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the best-selling novel by the same title by Lionel Shriver, is no exception. The film is intensely visual, with a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, especially around the beginning, and benefits from an outstanding performance by Tilda Swinton as the complex Eva.

Eva seems alternately like a bad mother and all-around ice queen and a woman trying to do best by her family, and one must wonder if her memory (and by extension, the whole movie’s narrative) is reliable as she paints a terrifying portrait of Kevin literally from babyhood to present day. The movie asks the question of whether we can always blame the parents of these children for the kids’ evil actions or if some youngsters are just bad eggs.

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The answer to this question is often ambiguous here, but ultimately we decide that no, we can’t ultimately blame Eva for how ‘widdle Kevin’ turned out. It brings up the aged-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ in a new and interesting way, and packs a hell of a wallop in the process. This movie will make you think twice about going off the pill and make you wonder if having a little ball of joy of your own is overrated.

The part near the end of the movie at the school when Kevin’s plan goes full circle makes me think of a extra I saw on my parents’ DVD of the original Halloween. Donald Pleasence, who played Sam Loomis, told the director that he could play the sequence when Myers falls out the window after getting shot and somehow escapes into thin air one of two ways; ‘Oh my God, he’s gone’ or ‘I knew this would happen.’ Ultimately they decided on the latter because the former would be, well, too much.

That’s what I think of when I see Eva’s expression as she eyes the bicycle locks Kevin previously ordered in the mail on the doors of the school auditorium. Her expression is less a look of shocked horror as it is a look of resignation. I knew this would happen. On one hand, you wonder why Eva didn’t get her son major psychological help right off the bat, but on the other, could she really of prevented Kevin’s insanity if she had? After all, when you have a blissfully ignorant husband who refuses to believe your son has a problem, how are you going to get an evaluation carried out without his blessing?

All in all, We Need to Talk About Kevin is kind of like watching a train wreck, albeit a visually striking one with a handful of outstanding shots. It makes us women, whether we plan to be mothers or not, wonder how far maternal love goes and if you can be held culpable simply for not loving your child enough. Is it possible to love a monster? I think so. People do it all the time.

But for someone like Eva who obviously didn’t want to be a mother in the first place, her failure to love her son was ultimately ammunition for her evil child to use against her. Eva’s coldness is not an excuse for Kevin’s behavior anymore than Kevin being a difficult baby is an excuse for Eva to make very little effort with her offspring. One persons’ blame does not cancel the others’ out. But that’s not enough for other parent not to convince themselves that they could do better. Given the circumstances, could you?

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Child’s Pose (2013)

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Ah, to be rich, dysfunctional, and morally bankrupt. In Child’s Pose, Cornelia (Luminita Keneres), a wealthy Romanian divorcee,  yearns to exercise control over her adult son Bardu (Bogdan Dumitrache)’s life. Ironically, it is when tragedy strikes and Bardu kills a young boy with his automobile while speeding and tailgating another car that Cornelia gets the ultimate opportunity to mommy him back into her grasp.

The child, a fourteen year old, is from a low  income neighborhood, and his enraged uncle threatens violence against Cornelia and her son, exclaiming, “They don’t care about us.” Who is he referring to? The poor, of course, those not fortunate enough to employ maids to clean their posh apartments and wear nice clothing and jewelry. And the sad thing is, he’s mostly right.

The fussy Bardu cares more about the needle he is injected with proceeding the accident than the loss of the boy’s life, while for Cornelia, it’s never been about the child. She just wants to keep her apathetic rich kid son out of a slam me in the ass prison and reassert her role as #1 woman in his life. Passing bribes around like hot potatoes should do the trick, right?

It’s not until Corneila, Bardu, and Bardu’s young wife Carmen (Ilinca Goia) really encounter the boy’s grief stricken family face to face that they really understand the damage that has been wrought, leading to a fleeting moment of redemption. Because it was really about the kid all along, not the money, not the rich family’s dignity, not Bardu going to  prison. Bardu was negligent and that negligence cost another family their oldest child.

This moment; when Cornelia faces the victim’s grieving parents, is heartbreaking without being overwrought. as the encounter causes both Cornelia and the parents of the dead kid to break down in tears and defeat. Along with the social commentary plot (the gap between the rich and poor in Romania, and everywhere,) we see  just how much the horrid yet tragic Cornelia needs validation from her son, who responds with hatred and practiced apathy.

 Child’s Pose is a film for patient audiences, audiences who are content to see a story unfurl, not burst forth with a crackle and a pop. There is no violence, no insane plot twists, no special effects. Instead we get a look at a diseased mother son relationship with a few clues as to how it came to be that way. The actors knock it out of the ballpark, Luminita Gheorghiu gives a mesmerizing lead performance as a woman desperate for love from her child for whom life is a series of draining barters and exchanges.

He speaks with her eyes, her face remaining an impassive mask until the film’s final minutes. The beauty in this film is although the leads are horrible people, the ending gives them a glimmer of redemption. The performances also lend humanity to people for whom money is love, and love cash to be bartered.

The washed out colors provide a grim visual scheme, as the camera lingers on the character’s faces, waiting for a reaction, maybe an outburst, in their dull, listless faces. Who is the child of the film’s title? The dead boy? The baby Bardu shirks having with his frustrated wife? Or maybe Bardu himself is the child, unwilling or unable to face up to his actions. Maybe too much exorbitant wealth and not enough real life experience makes children of us all.

Nothing shocking or tawdry here, just good dialogue driven drama about the price of thinking that since you have money and social status, nothing can touch you. For 3/4 of the movie, the victim is hardly mentioned, his name merely whispered and followed by talk of dollars and debts. Remember when Jesus said ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven?’ I don’t pay much credence to these things, but the same is true here. But the corrupt, tangled family unit might be closer to heaven by the end of this movie than they were 112 minutes ago.

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Housebound (2014)

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Best described as a ‘haunted house movie that’s not a haunted house movie,’ “Housebound” starts out rather unimpressively and gradually takes hold of your attention with an intriguing mystery and a surprising twist. Once I realized it wasn’t going to be a laugh-out-loud giggle fest like another recent NZ horror/comedy, “What We Do in the Shadows” (although “Housebound” as it’s chuckle-worthy moments, however modestly offered up) I settled in and enjoyed the mix of camp and cult sensibility combined with some legitimate creepiness and entertaining, if cheesy, practical effects.

Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is a world-class bitch and juvenile delinquent which a long standing bad attitude toward adults, authority figures, and the world in general. She is picked up by the police while bashing open an ATM to satisfy her methamphetamine habit and sent to live with her family on house arrest. Worse, Kylie hates her overly gregarious, soap opera-watching mom (Rima Te Wiata) and taciturn stepdad Greame (Ross Harper,) so she’s pretty much as pissed off about the arrangement as she could possibly be.

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Until the supernatural gets mixed into the arrangement, and her bratty, futile anger turns to fear. Her mom has always suggested that the house could be haunted, being a hotspot for strange and ghostly activity. The weird happenings intensify when Kylie arrives in the house, but who, besides her oddball family,will believe her? Certainly not the authorities who put her under house arrest; certainly not the cops. Or so she thinks- until the realization that her parole officer Amos (Glen-Paul Naru) is a huge paranormal enthusiast and could not be more eager to accompany her on her spooky investigation.

The beginning of this movie doesn’t bode well for the film as a whole, with too little humor and too few things of particular interest going on. Plus, Kylie isn’t exactly a likable character,  with her self-absorbed disdain for anyone who tries to stop her from doing exactly what she wants to do. At the beginning, I was tempted to pack it up and go to bed, but by the end I was glad I didn’t . This movie’s twist is creative and astonishingly well-thought-out.

“Housebound”‘s acting is halfway decent (nothing that’s going to win a Academy Award, but good in the context of the movie) and the identity of the true baddie is a shocker- in classic mystery fashion, they’re the last person you would expect! I’m not sure why this was so highly lauded by Rotten Tomatoes, but I’m glad I watched the whole thing. The movie, while not being the future horror classic some made it out to be, has it’s charms. It’s no “What We Do in the Shadows” (a movie I feel in love with immediately upon watching) but it’s got some value in the horror/comedy world of the great, the okay, and the just plain awful.

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Mommy (2014)

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“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” uttered by the titular killer Norman Bates in “Psycho,” remains one of the most iconic lines of all time. But can a boy’s best friend also be his worst enemy? Can the love between a mother and son become so tangled, so deeply dependent that their bond becomes detrimental to them both? In Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy,” loud-mouthed white-trash widow Diane Despres (Anne Dorval) becomes the sole caretaker of her mentally ill fourteen-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Oliver Pilon) when the troubled youngster is released from an institution for disturbed children.

Steve is, simply put, out of control, and we witness his whacked-out rages first-hand almost immediately. His mother glibly enables his psychotic behavior to the point of almost encouraging it, and there is an incestuous subtext between the two that several times ceases to be subtext at all (such as the scene where the lad puts on eyeliner, turns up his tunes and gropes his mother’s breasts in front of a curious onlooker.)

Steve and Diane get a new lease on life when a timid woman (Suzanne Clement) with a bit of a stuttering problem comes into their lives, bringing help and healing- if only temporarily. Things are complicated by a lawsuit based on the damaging effects of a fire the boy started in the institution. Suzanne adds some degree of stability to a home rife with dysfunction and violence- but can people this damaged be healed?

“Mommy” is elevated above an okay family-values-gone-awry/oedipal complex movie by the three outstanding lead performances. Anne Dorval is magnificent in an acting job that will enrage you into wanting to slap her smug face and then break your heart. Antoine-Oliver Pilon is terrifying as a volatile teen whose mood vacillates on the turn of a dime, and Suzanne Clement provides steady support as a character who is under reactionary and strange at best, totally underwritten at worse.

Indeed, the stammering Kyla doesn’t seem to have any reaction whatsoever to the destructive love that Steve and Diane share; she is just there to help. This lack of judgment should be inspiring but instead seems to have come directly out of the twilight zone. How long could you handle Steve’s insane antics without cracking? The only moment where Kyla hints at deeper levels of trauma is her attack on the jeering Steve; the rest of the time she’s pretty fucking caviler about a family dynamic that would leave most running for the hills.

Unfortunately, the worst thing about this movie is the 1:1 aspect ratio (a perfect square,) which is jarring and distracting and takes away attention from an effective film. The filmmaker, Dolan insisted that it was more ‘intimate’ this way, but I suspect most viewers are so used to the majority of or all the screen being filled up that this is merely distraction.

Despite a lack a likable characters, “Mommy” is compelling (mostly due to its stellar acting) and even grueling. Of course it can not portray in it’s entirety the horror of caring for a severely emotionally disturbed kid, but it provides a honest (if not exactly hopeful) look at when love is not enough to sustain parent and child. The film itself is a dark, heart wrenching ride (portraying the depths of dysfunction between a deeply damaged woman and her disturbed son,) but Anne Dorval particularly deserves all the awards she gets. Freud would be pleased.

Note- The bright-light film critic Xan Brooks referred to “Mommy” as a ‘boisterous Oedipal Comedy.’ What. the. Fuck. Did we watch the same movie? This film was grim and depressing from beginning to end. Very little ‘comedy’ to it other than bemused mortification.

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I Killed My Mother (2009)

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Yes, the mother depicted in this film is a chode. But, to be perfectly honest, so is her completely self-involved, angst-ridden son. Nature and nurture, one does not necessarily cancel out the other. Although actor/director/writer Xavier Dolan’s semi-autobiographical first feature is sometimes burdened down by largely unsympathetic characters (the son’s big-hearted, sarcastic boyfriend was the only one I can say I ‘liked,’) it does strike a chord with it’s real and darkly funny portrayal of that gray area between childhood and adulthood where your parents seem to be the worst people on earth.

The difference being, of course, that Hubert (Xavier Dolan)’s shrill mother (Anne Dorval) is a pretty awful person, not to mention a piss-poor parent. Initially I was repelled by Hubert’s cruel antics toward his cold, passive-aggressive mama but I will admit that I came to a sort of understanding of him halfway through the film. That’s not to say liked him, ‘like’ would be too strong a word and not at all accurate to what I’m feeling, but I had a moment of realization where I was like, “Yeah, she’s awful.”

A little background on the plot- Hubert is a gay high school kid who considers himself quite the intellectual, constantly filming himself jabbering about supposedly ‘deep’ subjects. Okay, some of his musings are significant, but not as witty or clever as the self-obsessed Hubert imagines them to be. Hubert is a bright kid, but he needs to realize he’s not the center of the universe. He really needs to show appreciation for his boyfriend Antoine (Francois Arnaud,) who is super supportive and cool but doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves.

The bane of Hubert’s existence is his mother, Chantale. Chantale seems quite put out that she has a kid to look after, let alone this contemptuous, heatedly angry man-boy, and Hubert in turn hates everything about her- the way she eats, the way she puts on lipstick, the way she lashes out at him with ice-cold rebuttals. Although I can relate to Hubert’s angst to some extent, having been an angry, sullen teen, I always knew deep down that my parents had done more for me than I would ever be able to realize.

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I never ‘hated’ them- more just treated the pair of them with indifferent annoyance. And I never would have gotten away with screaming obscenities at them the way Hubert does. My adolescent relationship with my parents doesn’t even skim the surface of the dysfunction portrayed here (although I do have some mental health stories that would make your toes curl) 😛 The difference is, I was never out of control hateful and disrespectful. In our house, I knew that there were things you could get away with, and there were things you couldn’t. And my parents were, and continue to be, awesome people. 🙂

I wasn’t sure what the role of the teacher (Suzanne Clement) was in this story. Initially I thought she had a ladyboner for Hubert that made in of interest for her to help him (it’s not completely unheard of- she’s young, he’s cute, and maybe it hasn’t struck her yet that (a she could go to jail and (b he’s like, totally gay.) I didn’t trust her intentions; thus, I didn’t find her a likable character. I liked the fantasy sequences strewn throughout. They flesh out Hubert’s character.

The main things that puzzled me about “I Killed My Mother” were the sudden and unexplained shifts in the character’s behavior and the abrupt ending that didn’t really resolve anything. I think if this film were a novel I might have been able to understand the motivations behind character’s behavior better.

It’s painful to to watch a teen behave in a disgustingly disrespectful way to his mother, but it is even more painful to see that the cold, distant parent has created an emotionally impotent monster. We reap what we sow I guess. What’s particularly interesting is that assuming this movie’s protagonist, Hubert, is based on Dolan as a teen, the director makes little attempt to justify his self-absorption or all-around terrible behavior.

That’s nothing if not brave. Not portraying his mother, who was obviously in many ways emotionally abusive, as a claws-out harpy, devoid of redeeming qualities, adds gravity to a story that could have been just another ‘shitty relationships in a pretty language’ miseryfest. Another thing that strikes me is the contrast between the boyfriend Antoine’s permissive, fun-loving mother, whom Antoine has an almost peer-like relationship to, and the chilly, emotionally distant Chantale.

It seems we should strike a balance if are to become parents. “I Killed My Mother” (the killing, luckily, is metaphorical; there’s no matricide to be found here) is certainly promising, occasionally infuriating, and rife with dark humor. It seems increasingly like a handbook on how not to parent, lest we continue the cycle of dysfunction that raises it’s ugly head in far too many families.

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Benny’s Video (1992)

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Benny is fourteen years old. As you can guess from the title, he loves watching videotapes. He is the kind of quiet kid of whom his friends’ parents would say, “Benny’s so polite, Benny’s so well-spoken.” He is also a glib sociopathic killer with no mercy or compassion for anyone, a state of mind that is exacerbated by his constant barrage of violent movies. When Benny does the unthinkable, his well-to-do intellectual wannabe parents (especially his dad) treat the crime as the equivalent of a C- in algebra.

Mom and Dad are willing to protect their cretin son at all costs for the sake of their all-important reputation, but Benny ensures that he will have the last laugh in this chilling psychological horror film. “Benny’s Video” is typical Haneke; if you’ve seen any of Michael Haneke’s films, you know that means disturbing violence, static shots of absolutely nothing happening, and pointed social commentary about the effects of continual media consumption with no regard for reality.

I did find this to be significantly better than “Funny Games,” it seems to me it was a little less obvious than that film, and has more of a black humor element as Benny’s parents act bewilderingly blase about Benny’s shattering act of violence. They’re rich entitled douchebags that would implode if they acknowledged Benny had a problem, let alone that he was a remorseless killer who attributed no value to human life.

The actors do an amazing job, especially Angela Winkler as Benny’s conflicted mother. Arno Frisch ratchets up the dark and twisted as a good-looking and outwardly ordinary boy without a human bone in his body. The strangest character, though, proves to be the father played by Ulrich Muhe, who initially seems to be an ineffectual nerd but inside has the heart of a killer not unlike his son’s.

“Benny’s VIdeo” is chock-full of deeply unnerving imagery and sound effects- a woman’s hysterical sobbing as her son lies calmly on the bed next to her, stripped down to his underwear, the thrashing and screams of a pig being slaughtered in a tape watched again and again for the viewer’s enjoyment, and a young girl’s ear-piercing cries as she is shot repeatedly with a bolt gun. The images are provided not to titillate, but to depict what a existence without love and remorse might be like, and the consequences of such a half-life.

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We are also provided with commentary about media violence and how children without stability or natural empathy can be sucked in and seduced by gruesome celluloid images. Benny falls asleep to such stimulus every night, and although the bloody entertainment isn’t the only thing that’s driving him bonkers, it doesn’t seem to be doing him any favors.

Haneke has an extremely unique way of shooting his scenes. Take the part where Benny murders a girl his age who was ill-advised enough to follow him into his apartment, for instance. Most of the scene is shown through a television within the film filming the act as the onlooker watches. You can see hardly anything, and the majority of the killing occurs teasingly outside the frame. But it’s ten times more disturbing than most Hollywood violent sequences that are exponentially more bloody.

Listening to the girl shriek and kick her legs while Benny mumbles almost pleadingly, “Quiet. Quiet” is horrific, while Haneke proves you don’t have to show close-up shots and zoom in eagerly on the violence taking place to provide a truly unnerving scene. In the process, he shows that showing more of a sadistic murder taking place can actually have a desensitizing effect, rather than one evoking power or emotion.

I like Haneke’s movies but I wouldn’t want to meet him in person. I think I would be intimidated by him. “Benny’s Video” is a lot better than “Funny Games” because it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being hit over the head with a message (the message of “Benny’s Video” is much more nuanced than you might expect, considering the fervent commentary on media violence and it’s adverse effects on our youth.)

You have no characters breaking the fourth wall, no villains actually rewinding the scene to change the outcome- just a bleak, unsparing look at human evil and it’s consequences. Note the scene where Benny shows his victim the video of the pig being slaughtered. Rather than be disgusted or morally offended, she states flatly, “It’s snowing.” By painting a picture of disaffected youth at their most horrifying, Haneke also casts a lingering look into depravity and the contemptuous entitlement that exists within the upper middle class.

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Boy (2010)

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“Boy” is an appealing film and an arresting look into another time and place, so it’s a shame it relies heavily on coming-of-age cliches to tell it’s story. Never fear, though- despite the feeling of been-there done-that that pervades this feature, “Boy” has charm and sweetness to spare, and is worth watching despite it’s rather standard execution.

At the center of this sentimental picture is an 11-year-old Maori lad (James Rolleston)  who calls himself ‘boy.’ Boy’s life is far from carefree- he lives in poverty, the responsibility of his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone Whitu) and his cousins often fall into his hands, he is besieged by bullies at school, and the girl (Ricky-Lee Waipuka Russell) he likes doesn’t know he exists. But he approaches his challenges with a freshness and active fantasy life that belies the direness of his situation.

Boy is surrounded by quirky and hardscrabble characters, not least of which is his shy brother, who believes he has superpowers. While Boy’s grandmother is out at a funeral and entrusting his multitude of relatives to him for a couple of weeks, Boy’s biological father Alamein (actor/director Taika Waititi) comes crashing into his life. Boy is entranced by his charming dad, despite the man’s ne’er do well ways and gang affiliations.

Anyone but Boy can see that Alamein is a worthless chode, so it just becomes a waiting game until the big reveal where Boy realizes it too. Meanwhile, Alamein and his equally useless friends start digging for a stash of money they buried years ago. Alamein seems caring and paternal on the surface (at least to a naive kid in desperate need of a father figure like Boy,) but in reality he is concerned with people only to the point that they serve his best interests.

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The child actors perform admirably (you can keenly see the pain in Boy’s eyes when his dad hauls off and slaps him,) and the crayon ‘fantasy’ sequences add a little originality to a mostly tired plot. It actually works better in terms of story that Boy is not always a boy scout even before his father comes into the picture and changes his attitude for the worse- he torments his brother and hurls rocks at the village idiot (Waihori Shortland,) but for the most part his intentions seem to be good.

Taika Waititi does an effective job as Alamein, playing the somewhat tired character of the charming rogue with big plans and no backing-up of his multitude of promises. You kind of want to like him despite the obvious signs that he’s bad business, and you could see how an inexperienced child might be sucked into his high-wire act way of life. But it’s also bitterly clear that he’s bad business for Boy. As Boy spends more and more time with Alamein, feeding off his manic energy, Boy’s brother and cousins go without the much-needed care and concern of their young caregiver. It’s just a matter of time until something gives, and with Alamein’s unreliable ways that shift will be sooner rather than later.

There are multiple Michael Jackson fantasy dance scenes (the year is 1984, and Boy is a massive fan of the Jackster,) and they fit into the narrative more than they probably should- the movie is a surprisingly cohesive mix of laughter and sadness, fantasy and harsh reality. It’s frustratingly predictable, but also solidly sweet, charming, and well-acted, with a steady combination of nostalgia and hard times.

I can definitely see the kid actors going somewhere, and “Boy” has an abundance of warm feelings that help it through it’s more so-so parts. We know that Boy will reject his dad’s false promises and that he will give up pursuing his crush to be with the girl who’s loved him all along, triggering an inevitable coming-of-age, but it’s nice to take the journey nonetheless.

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