Watch Like Doc: “Mommy” (2014)

Doc recently had the opportunity to take in the film “Mommy,” a Belgian picture starring a whole bunch of Canadians.  How’s that even happen?

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Mommy‘ is, on the surface, a disarmingly simple study of a family’s mortifying dysfunction, mostly through the 15-year-old son’s ADHD and explosively violent behavior, blanketed with the mother’s efforts to show her brand of love while holding out hope for something better.  Anne Dorval is mostly very good in her portrayal of Diane Després, 40-something widow and mother to Steve, played with menacing-then-charming perfection by Antoine-Olivier Pilon.  The movie begins with Steve’s return home after being deinstitutionalized – after he had set fire to the cafeteria at the facility he was receiving care in (and injuring another patient there), Steve’s mom was given the choice to have him shipped off to the highly restrictive juvenile detention center (“That’s the beginning of the end…”) or bring him home to live with her again.  It is obvious from the start that Diane and Steve together are two highly flammable ingredients to an explosive cocktail, playing off each other’s emotions, each goading the other until the crescendo results in rather disturbing threats or actual acts of violence.  It is after one such outburst that the third main character, the odd next-door neighbor Kyla, played by the brilliant Suzanne Clément, is introduced to the pair, and rounds out the main troika that gallops through the film.

The bizarre chemistry between Kyla and Steve, and between Kyla and Diane, is more than simply captivating – it tends to draw the audience in.  Kyla, herself an audience member, has her own set of quirks – she has a prolonged stammer that entertains the asocial Steve, and is a recent arrival from Quebec where she used to teach high school but, for some unexplained (presumably dark) reason, quit her job and moved away with her husband and daughter.  At one point, we spy a framed photograph of what must be her young son, but who does not live in Kyla’s house.  As the film progresses, Kyla’s stammer becomes far less pronounced, but only when she is with Steve and Diane – and she finds herself with them often, apparently able to relax amidst (and in spite of) the tense atmosphere that the Després household often holds; in addition, since Steve’s home-schooling is beyond Diane’s ken, Kyla is asked to step in and provide her service as his teacher.

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The film demands a great deal from the audience.  The anger that lies beneath Steve’s every step is nearly tangible, to the point that we look for clues as to how he will react to any given stimulus at any particular point in the film.  That’s as much a tip of the hat to Pilon’s acting as to the film’s direction by Xavier Dolan.  Another demand is made right from the start, also by Dolan – the aspect of the film is reported to be at 1:1 – essentially a square or, if you will, a box in which each of the characters simmers or smiles.  The affect can be quite claustrophobic, and when close-ups are shot during scenes of violence, downright unsettling.  Finally, the audience is expected to sit tight and (presumably) try not to judge Diane, who obviously has been doing the best she can, given the hand that she’s been dealt – but almost all of her moves seem to be a display of rather terrible parenting.  She uses the word love in describing her feelings for Steve, but compassion and nurturing appear to be non-existent.  Trying to will a character to do the right thing when you can see things going downhill fast can take its toll on a movie-goer.  Twice or three times in a film?  No problem; it’s hard to have a plot without conflict.  But twenty to thrity?  Good lord.

ccIt can be argued that almost all of Steve’s problems in the story are either directly or indirectly linked to his mother’s actions.  We see it on the screen, when Steve is hectored into accompanying Diane with a male neighbor to a karaoke bar, where Steve is to be on his best behavior while Mommy and the neighbor wolf down drink after drink, discussing a pending lawsuit resulting from the cafeteria fire.  We see him trying, but we know it will end horribly.  The ensuing confrontations that night, as well as over the coming days, are heartbreaking.  We get the feeling that there is an unnecessary membrane of hopelessness covering Diane and Steve – Kyla can clearly see it, and we believe that she recognizes it doesn’t have to be that way.  The last straw comes in the final reel, when Steve is unwittingly brought to the juvenile detention facility by Diane in a display of surrender that she will not acknowledge.  That goes over exactly as we, the audience, felt it would, but by this time we are far too fatigued to shout at the screen.

When the credits begin to roll, we are left with so many questions.  For me, the main questions revolved around Kyla.  What happened to her son?  Why does she stammer?  What happened in school to make her have to quit her job (or was she fired?) and leave Quebec?  What makes her husband seemingly so aloof?  What attracts her to the drama-filled Després family?  Her character was enigmatic, the only character at first blush that seemed pure and unflawed, and yet we somehow know she isn’t.

Ultimately, this is a bleak and cheerless film.  I find that it fits right into Dolan’s film-writing and directing oeuvre.  While his wunderkind reputation was further solidified with the release of ‘Mommy,’ met with a nine-minute standing ovation at Cannes, I confess that I find him pretentious, and that he lives up to his image as an ‘untrustworthy’ story-teller.  Needless to say, he has his fair share of admirers and critics alike.

I suspect Doc simply don’t understand Dolan’s message with this film, and because of that, I cannot fully appreciate what he’s presenting me with.  I appreciated the filmmaking itself, and believe the acting was some of the best I’d seen all year, but because it is ultimately a painful and frustrating film to watch, it is one I would not quickly recommend.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s gonna give this one a solid C-.  Great acting, miserable story.

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Doc Reviews “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

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This review is 98% spoiler-free!
Doc finished reading this snappy read about an hour ago. I haven’t really read any reviews of it, other than some of taglines like “So many twists!” There are no more twists to this story than any other Potter story. Perhaps the cruelest twist, then, is in expecting readers who have never read a play to hope it reaches them as emotionally as the first seven stories did.
Without the narrative and inner voice to accompany what is little more than dialogue and stage direction, the authors are forced into weaving slight contrivances into the dialogue to help shepherd the reader into understanding the motivation behind any given character in any given scene. In the end, it works, but I wonder how many readers get that far without becoming frustrated.
ccThe story centers around Albus Severus Potter – remember reading that name in ‘Deathly Hallows’ and almost being moved to tears at the significance behind it?  It seems that Albus isn’t all that interested in what made mom and dad name him that; in fact, his priority appears to be in coming to grips with being the son of Harry Potter.  Another of the main characters is a kid named Scorpius Malfoy – who also seems to be having issues living up to his own father’s best wishes.  Through a series of encounters, and early on in the story, we learn that Albus and Scorpius, who somehow have found themselves to be kindred spirits, are contriving to step back into the past with a Time Turner to right a wrong and make the world a better place.  It wouldn’t be much of a story if they succeeded in doing just that, so there’s all sorts of misunderstood actions and missteps along the way.  You don’t have to read too many books on time travel to know that sometimes things can really go wrong with the slightest of actions.  A temporal butterfly effect.
In true Rowling fashion, things get off to a bang, and there’s loss of life at stake (on a massive scale) depending on whether or not the Potter and Malfoy progeny can undo what’s been done.  Of course they can’t, not on their own.  And even then…
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There are some minor complaints about the writing – at times, it seems as though this is a story wrapped up in a Trivial Pursuit game; many names from the past are re-introduced, as can be expected in any series that has run this long, but often we are met with obscure names that may have been mentioned once in an early chapter of an even earlier story in the set – and that’s the only mention. Are the authors offering a nod to the true Potter geek? I didn’t consider these moments as roadblocks, but they were certainly distracting and seemed to be shoe-horned into the text in as unwieldy a manner as could be expected.
The story was very good, everything a true Potter fan could have hoped for. Among the best-written parts in the play are the redemption and acknowledgment of past courageous acts for a number of well-known characters; this seemed to also be a nod to true devotees who may have felt certain characters’ sacrifices, both known and assumed, went unappreciated for too long. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to whom I’m writing about. Regardless, these passages could have been written in a ridiculously syrupy manner, and perhaps if this were a traditional novel, that would have been the case, but the stage is too swollen with action for characters or audience to dwell too much on them. The authors are, to paraphrase one exchange, planting acorns for the ride home and for the weeks to come.
One thing that stands out to the even mildly observant reader is that trying to stage this play as written would be a courageous endeavour. There are seemingly hundreds of scenes scattered through the acts, and the magic is deeply ingrained throughout – how certain actions could be translated to the stage are beyond me, but that’s happily not my job. It does make me want to see the play in person, however.
What would be even more interesting would be to see how it could be brought to the cinema screen. It would be interesting to see it happen, but it would have to occur with at least one major change in the cast – Alan Rickman’s passing would demand someone that could handle Snape’s lines – not much of a spoiler, since it’s already been revealed that the play involves a good deal of time travel.
So anyway, a good read, almost a must-read for the true Potter fans, with a gentle warning to approach with caution – remember it’s not a novel, there is a good deal of reading between the lines required in order to follow along without getting too frustrated.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s giving this one a solid A-.  Worth the purchase if you’ve already got the other books.  I hope this puts a nice final ribbon on the series.
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Watch Like Doc: “Life Itself” (2014)

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Doc tried to start writing this review about twelve times over the past four days.  It’s hard to know where to begin, because it’s a moving picture that reached me on so many personal levels; as a lover of films, a proponent of independent cinema, I feel …  No, that’s not how I’ll start this.

Life Itself is a documentary about the life and final days of Roger Ebert, celebrated film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and erstwhile bon vivant.  Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), it shares its title with Ebert’s 2011 memoir, and while it covers a lot of the same ground as the book, the film also picks up where Ebert left off – dealing with, among other things, the ravages of the countless surgeries Ebert endured in order to bring the jigsaw puzzle of his face back to what it looked like on the box.

The film starts out with a nice in-depth look at the chubby cub reporter and altar boy who grew up wanting so badly to be a newsman that, as a young teen, he started his own newspaper, which he also delivered to the neighbors.  From there, he wrote for his college (University of Illinois at Urbana) newspaper.  He found himself buried in his doctoral work at the University of Chicago and the job he had taken as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times to help pay for his doctorate, and decided to put his doctorate on hold in order to devote more attention to his work as a movie critic.

cbThroughout the documentary, we are shown Ebert in many versions throughout the ensuing years – partier, two-fisted drinker, pugnacious adversary, recovering alcoholic, sparring partner for Gene Siskel, husband, step-father, and finally cancer patient.  All of these pictures of Ebert are fleshed out through anecdotes and reminiscences from former colleagues, friends, family, and most notably, his wife Chaz.

Roger’s own reminiscences are provided through excerpts from his memoir.  One excellent device the director adopts is using Roger’s robotic synthesized voice during the real-time events of the movie, and employing “voicematch actor” Stephen Stanton for the narration.  Stanton was a brilliant find – a man capable of mimicking Ebert’s Midwest voice and cadence so perfectly, I initially wondered how the hell Ebert’s vocal chords were restored for these pieces of the film.

Ebert’s battles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and the subsequent loss of his lower jaw (and, consequently, his ability to speak, eat, or drink) have already been fairly well-documented, but Ebert allows director James to force us to look at the startling exterior.  Seeing the 2013 version of Ebert’s face filling the screen for the first time in the theater left many of us reflexively gasping or unintentionally whispering a soft “oh my God” into our popcorn.  We are shown a brutally long shot of Roger’s throat being suctioned clean after a feeding, which appears to be agonizing for the patient.  After the technician has finished the procedure, which Ebert obviously must endure many times a day, we try to settle back into our seats, having found ourselves somehow clenching our entire bodies into fists.  Ebert looks through the camera at James, indicating that he is proud to have had a part in committing that torture to film.  Roger’s good friend Bill Nack noted that “Roger was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director.”

caSeeing Ebert in this way, victim of the constant indignity of his boneless lower jaw lying agape, at times looking all the world like a startled puppet: it’s a good starting point for trying to allow the audience to more fully comprehend how much Ebert had suffered over the 12 years since his cancer was detected, and how, in spite of that, he was able to dedicate his time and efforts to mentoring young directors and young writers, all the while maintaining his wit and charm and love for his wife Chaz, and for life itself.

It’s a solid two hours, none of it wasted on fluff.  Because the time flies so quickly during the viewing, this viewer was hoping for more – there were still missing elements unfilled, Ebert’s relationship with Siskel’s “replacement” Roeper (who inexplicably never appears in the film) for just one example.  When it was over, I felt happy to hear many other pieces I never knew, and although I felt I had lost an old friend all over again, I felt I had enjoyed a celebration rather than a two-hour eulogy.  It’s a movie that I would highly recommend to any lover of cinema, and I would suggest that a perfect gift for a film lover would be the DVD of this documentary, packaged with the memoir.

On a scale of A to F, Doc has no option but to give this talkie two thumbs up.

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