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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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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Watch Like Doc: Doc Reviews “The Revenant”

cdJust got back from a fascinating moving picture called “The Revenant” with a fella named Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of other folks play-acting in a real fancy manner.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a sort of scout-trapper with a party of other trappers in what is described as the uncharted American wilderness of the early 1800s. Along with Glass is his son, Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, half-Glass (see what I just did there?), himself appearing to be in his late teens. The basic plot will appear to contain spoilers, but I’m not letting you in on anything that’s not already in the trailer, so stop breathing that way. Glass and his kid (wish they’d named him Tumbler) are out hunting for vittles when they are met by a couple of bear cubs; Glass is pretty smart, and recognizes that, unless things are really out of control, there’s probably a mother bear nearby. There is; she gets to whaling on Glass, and before mama bear is killed, she has a pretty good opportunity to get some severe chewing and tearing action on Hugh. He’s all but dead, and the rest of the trappers do their level best to stitch him up – but it’s obvious that his tap-dancing days are mostly done, at least for the foreseeable future.

The trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry (played splendidly by British thespian Domhnall Gleason, who apparently took the role because it has two first names, neither of which is as confusing a monicker as Domhnall), are being chased by a band of angry Native Americans looking for one of their women folk, and they feel the need to get away kinda pronto. Only thing is, Glass. He’s a bundle strapped to a couple of sticks (a makeshift stretcher), and when it comes to getting him up snowy cliffs, it’s just not happening. He’s left in the care of his son, along with a couple of other Brit actors – Will Poulter and Tom Hardy, who both can act the flies off a carcass; they’re good… The character played by Hardy (who is an actor, and not the author who died over a hundred years ago) sees that snuffing Glass is pretty much the only way he’s getting out of his situation. He and Poulter’s character leave Glass for dead after convincing Glass’s son to stop breathing.

This is a long movie, but the time goes by…well, pretty slowly. Thank goodness for the cinematographer (who deserves an Academy Award) and the scenery (ditto); the tracking shots are Tarkovsky-slow and hypnotizing. Doc’s wife averted her eyes during the more gruesome scenes (there’s an easy handful) by admiring the beautiful trees, snow, mountains, and whatnot. The soundtrack is understated but perfect, capturing the mood of the wilderness both surrounding the characters and within their hearts; it was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose work I first admired with the arrival of “Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence” (featuring a magical bit of acting by David Bowie). It’s stunning.

Doc was particularly struck by the American accents these British fellas pulled off. Gleason’s Captain Henry was, as the most educated of the men, fairly Midwestern and sounded like the real deal. Poulter did a remarkable job as well, but most of his dialogue was amidst no small amount of sobbing and whining (sorry, Will, you’re still okay in Doc’s book). But Tom freaking Hardy knocked it out of the park (that’s an American idiom, Tom, you can look it up if’n you’re reading this) with his very southern drawl. It’s easy enough to pull off the exaggerated hillbilly cetwang without too much effort, even if you’re Lithuanian, but what Hardy does with his uneducated mountain man from the south, not quite hillbilly but not quite Jay Gatsby, is amazing. I’d think this came after months of training, but who knows? I do know that I had no idea that was Tom Hardy until more than halfway through the picture. Start carving his name on that Best Supporting Actor statuette, ladies.

Doc could go on and on about the computer graphics (which Doc understands to be high-falutin’ ultra-realistic fancy cartoon work), but I’ll just offer this – sometimes the uncanny valley extends beyond trying to capture human faces and movement; that was the case with the bear during the attack on Glass. It wasn’t laughably obvious, just sorta not right. There’s some bodacious bow-and-arrow work that the CGI folks got just right, but that’s real fast and out of your sight almost immediately after the strike.

cdSpeaking of the bow-and-arrow scenes. Let me tell you, it must have been terrific fun to choreograph; there’s CGI to pull all the bits of the scene together, and make the seams smooth and invisible, but there’s about a 90 second scene towards the beginning of the opening fight scene where the camera plays “pass the parcel” with the characters – it will track character A’s action up until character A throws a knife at character B, who is struck immediately after releasing an arrow at character C, who falls into the water and is almost kicked by character D, who jumps on a horse to knock character E to the ground. It’s dizzying, and it’s almost like ballet, but with a ton more blood than you’d expect to see from anything Twyla Tharp ever put on the stage.

A great movie from start to finish. DiCaprio’s been the subject of a lot of Oscar talk; not sure he doesn’t deserve it, but then again, there’s not a bad acting job in the whole flick. Take the time to see it on the big screen, if you get the chance. Doc and the missus had a blast. My only complaint was that not a single person in Hollywood had the good sense to include a scene where the trappers are arguing over Hugh Glass’s prostrate form after the bear attack, trying to decide if he’s more dead or alive. Coulda been a sweet opportunity to have one side over the other arguing whether Glass is half-empty or half-full.

On a scale of A through F, with A being awesome and F being shabbier than an Adam Sandler drama, Doc gives this one a solid 92.