Goodnight Mommy – Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (2015)

The original German title of Goodnight Mommy is Ich seh, Ich seh, the meaning of which you might be able to deduce even if you don’t know German. That title, while cloying, also serves as a key to the film, and so is more fitting than the rather generic renaming; all the same, if you can decode the punny reference the German title is making, you can pretty much skip seeing the movie, as you’ll already know the outcome. Yes, Goodnight Mommy is about as derivative as they get. What’s more, like in an M. Knight Shyamalan film (but without any of the bumptious stabs at poetry to make up for its faults), the meaning of Goodnight Mommy hinges on a “twist” ending, a revelation that is supposed to answer questions, but instead only leaves us questioning the point of the whole enterprise. Like last year’s The Babadook, this is “psychological” horror, which effectively means that the scares are going to tickle your cerebrum and not twitch your death nerve. At least in that film, ham handedly managed though it was, the director tried for a level of allegorical content which vainly attempted to pull the tale from the grip of irrelevance. Sadly, the makers of Goodnight Mommy have no such desires – they tell their little (oft-told) tale straight, with no chasers of emotion or humanity. The style is Haneke, but it is like a Xerox of that master’s austere playbook. Since there is no point to seeing the film at all if you already know the ending (except, as the New York Times seriously suggested, to fact check the story’s logic), I will spare a spoiler. Here is the thusly reduced synopsis: two young twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live in a modernist house in semi-rural Austria. Our story begins with the return of Mom (Susanne Wuest), wrapped in bandages as she has just had plastic surgery. The kids seem leery of Mom, and think she is an impostor, or changed by her surgery. And she seems unbalanced; often cold and angry, she treats one of the twins with rough, grudging love, and ignores the other one completely – she won’t address him, won’t feed him. Mom seems to get more and more extreme as time goes on as the boys (or rather, the favored twin) question her more strenuously on what her problem is. We do see pics of Mom from earlier in her life, and she does not look much changed by the surgery, but we must agree she does act weird. But weird enough for the boys, feeling threatened, to whittle some wooden arrows for their “toy” crossbow? As you might expect, eventually the boys feel threatened and alienated enough by Mom that they tie her to her bed, and get to the bottom of things. Sorry Mom.

If you are familiar with The Other, Robert Mulligan’s sadly little known film of 1972, you know this film, and how it goes. The Other was true psychological horror, as it made us inhabit and identify with the protagonist to a degree that when the horror of his mind is understood, we feel it, and can both sympathize and shudder – our identification works like a mirror, and we cannot turn away, as to do so would be to deny ourselves. Goodnight Mommy is like a twist film procedural – it takes the alienated portrayals of early Haneke, adds a “creepy” gotcha, and, like an experiment, examines what the resulting aesthetic is like. For if there is enjoyment within this film, it is within the aesthetic. What we watch unfold is seen as if from outer space, or underwater – it might fascinate us, but it is too distant to move us. I can see that the Times might have a point, though, as perhaps watching the film knowing the outcome in advance would humanize Mom and make her fate more affecting, or make the twins creepier. At the same time, there are only so many hours left in my life, and an inversely proportional amount of movies in the world. Save yourself $14.75 (Angelika is a harsh mistress) and watch The Other instead.

One and a half stars out of five

Trainwreck – Judd Apatow (2015)

It would be far too easy to pan Trainwreck by claiming that the film lives up to its title, in the same way many of the film’s raves have run the opposite, and equally lame and easy rhetorical gambit (as in “Trainwreck is anything but.” Good night, Philadelphia). It is a very disappointing failure, however, and a spectacular loss of nerve on the part of Amy Schumer (although not so much for Mr. Apatow). If you admire the Amy Schumer who courts discomfort in the service of exploring the ambivalences of the modern female subject position, the Amy we are all familiar with from her Comedy Central show and her stand-up routines, prepare yourself. Trainwreck does feature a facsimile of that Amy Schumer, but it does so, sadly, only to destroy and bury her under the twisted, piled-up wreckage of the contemporary romantic comedy. (Okay, I went there). The film betrays its audience not simply by being conventional, but by being downright conservative, in the sense that it proposes a set of problems that it is only interested in resolving with fake-outs and lies. Trainwreck is a selling out of Ms. Schumer’s previous worldview, and talents, on a spectacular level. I am not the biggest Amy Schumer fan by any means, so please don’t mistake my upset as a disappointment with a personal dimension. Or even a political one. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to laugh at a comedy. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to see a narrative unfold that takes itself seriously. Yes, the film provides more comedy than something like Spy, and yes, there is some truth to the proceedings, and to the portrayal of this self-proclaimed “broken” woman. So the stakes are higher, as at least this viewer expects a comedy about an unhappy, alcoholic prisoner of fear to be honest, and hopefully acidly funny as well – because otherwise, why bother? Instead, we are subjected to non-stop cynicism and subsequent cleansing bromides passed off as truth. By avoiding honestly exploring and resolving, if not solving, the problems raised, the film reveals itself as deeply disparaging of reality. By flinching, Ms. Schumer makes a joke not just of herself, but of the real people who suffer as her character does, in a similarly relentless and cynical reality, and have not the magical ability to write their own happy ending.

The Amy of our film is a combination of the brutally honest and self-deprecating Amy we know from stand-up, combined with the satirical and mocking “Amy” of her Comedy Central show, who is often used as a device to reveal the stupidity, sexism, and embedded misogyny of our culture. She is a hard drinking career woman who works for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff (a parody of FHM and its brethren) and spends her free time having meaningless sex with as many men as she can. We know, or come to understand, that behind this facade lies a deeply unhappy sad sack with low self-esteem and no expectations, who hides her true reality behind her outrageous “humor.” Where do the problems come from? From a broken home, and from Dad (Colin Quinn, doing a horrible job of playing 70), who we see at the beginning of the movie lecturing his daughters on the foolishness of monogamy by way of breaking the news of divorce. Amy’s younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) somehow escapes the nightmare, growing up to live a conventional life as a seemingly contented and loving housewife and step-mother (a relationship that Amy openly mocks). When she’s not having one-night stands, Amy is dating Steven (John Cena), a lovable and loyal, if somewhat dim jock who, upon realizing Amy’s polyamorous ways, breaks it off, calls her mean, and exits for good, obviously hurt. This breakup does apparently give Amy some pause, and so when she is assigned an interview with prominent sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) by her Kim Gordon-meets-a-pumpkin editor/boss (Tilda Swinton, the film’s finest hour), she is primed to find within him a possible long-term partner, even if she at first treats him like one of her one and dones. The rest of the narrative is comprised of a battle between the better angels of Amy’s nature (her sister, her intended, LeBron James) and the worse ones (herself, her Dad, her boss) as she vacillates between trying to shoehorn Aaron into the category of “not meant to be” and believing that indeed she does want to stop identifying as a whore, find Mr. Right, and hopefully a happy ending, after all. When she proves too much for even God’s gift to self-actualization to handle, she breaks. After quickly dumping the booze and drugs, tidying up her apartment so it resembles a Hallmark movie bedroom Della Reese would not be ashamed to inhabit, she rushes to Madison Square Garden (although there is no crisis, and hence no tension to the climax) and regales Aaron in a cheerleader outfit, dancing along with those other “community builders” her previously self-hating small mind had rejected as sexist mascots of male fantasy. The film ends with our couple in full missionary under the backboard, Amy apparently cured of her self-hatred, alcoholism, and funnybone by her loving man.

Based on that synopsis, I guess it probably seems like there is not much cause for alarm, or consternation, as what we have is simply an unambitious romantic comedy that happens to star Amy Schumer. The problem is less in the grand scheme than in the details, however. Much of the proceedings come off as Schumer wanting to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have an edge, but also be nice. She wants to explore the psychological reality of her self-destructive character, while also keeping things Golightly light and leaving room for wish fulfillment. So we get plenty of awkward turns, such as playing Kim’s family for laughs as a bunch of lumpy, un-hip, unattractive fools, who dare to be nice and have feelings for each other, then later in the film making us feel guilty for laughing at them earlier (which we didn’t anyway) as it is really Amy who is the fool for being afraid of the conventional and for judging others. Likewise, we are supposed to laugh at the stupid homophobic stories promulgated by S’Nuff (as, duh, this is satire), while finding Kim’s coffee klatch friends’ mild homophobia worthy of eye-rolling and condescension (as we are now taking a moment to impart a serious message). As the film swings back and forth between purported edginess and dullness, or self-hatred and therapy, or comedy and drama, or reality and fantasy (pick your dialectic), we begin to feel the laughs are on us, either for finding the offensive funny, or for taking the real stuff seriously, and we begin to understand that a resolution will not come through synthesis or catharsis, but will be bestowed by authorial fiat. And this is where the real problem lies. Amy Schumer wants her comedy to mean something, to tell some sort of truth – and that is fine. But truth often hurts, and real problems cannot be solved by recourse to 30 seconds of resolve followed by becoming exactly what you spent the previous half-hour mocking. Think about the potential of this comedy if it allowed itself to be truly black, and tackled such a self-destructive character with honesty; it might actually say something about our society, and about the forces that construct such pain and misery, forces which undermine people in real ways. Schumer has not the nerve for reality, though, and for me this is the most unforgivable sin. For a while, in the third quarter of the movie, there exists an uneasy tension, as Schumer’s drinking is no longer funny, or relateable, but indeed “real” in that it is a problem, and ugly. We begin to sense someone might suggest she is an alcoholic, or that one of the other characters might have a real talk with her about why she drinks (and smokes pot) to such an extent. When was the last time you saw the issue of how alcohol functions in our society portrayed in such a personal, realistic way on the big screen (comedy or not)? So it was very disheartening to see her behaviors (perhaps not quite addictions) dealt with in less than a minute. She simply takes the booze, and the drugs, and boxes them up, giving them to some more deserving soul (the homeless man who lives outside her building, ha ha). She lights a Glade candle, contemplates her new resolve, and then bounds off to the arena, to suit up and impress her man. It is not that she seeks to be conventional that offends, as the movie does not err in proposing that being conventional is the way to be “happy.” But what is such happiness? It is herein pitched purely as winning the battle with internal demons, plague of the weak-willed, which pull us out of conventional ways because we are too afraid to fail, or be rejected, rather than as also being a social phenomena that provides a safe role to play while allowing us to be this way or that for the benefit of others (that is, the film refuses to see convention as also a mechanism of external control). And along the way, the ending sells out the reality that informs Amy’s character – it sells out all of us who cannot muster such easy solutions, and willpower, and for whom Mr. Right is not the answer (because perhaps he never appears, or does not exist). It sells out those who truly struggle with alcohol, and drugs, and by way of succor gives a completely disingenuous (never mind, for many, equally unappealing) “solution.” “Find a true love. Build community. Love yourself. And do it dressed as a cheerleader!” Does no one else find this crass? Pathetic to the point of tears?

One and a half stars out of five

P.S. The half star is for Tilda Swinton, who is indeed amazing, and for an unexpected appearance by Norman Lloyd – yes, Norman Lloyd, who worked with Welles, and Hitchcock, and Ed Begley Jr. At 100, I’d expect this, sadly, to be his final film, but I hope he proves me wrong.

Heaven Knows What – Ben and Joshua Safdie (2015)

There is a school of art that celebrates the “poetry of the streets,” a mode which seeks to portray life lived at its most bare, contingent, and unmediated level. A lot of actual poetry falls into this genre, including much work by the Beats, who found inspiration in the low and, melding the lives and language of the down and out with the improvisatory ways of jazz, did indeed transform seeming dross into gold. Hubert Selby Jr. did similarly with his novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, a masterpiece of point of view and compassion that at the same time pulls no punches (and indeed still has the power to shock). Yes, there are many high points in this mostly 20th century school of art, but, I would aver, fewer cinematic than literary ones. The key here is transformation, and cinema can be very lazy in this department. Further, capturing the grit, grime, and vérité reality of life on the bum can become an end in itself, as if a lack of filter equals truth, and truth equals poetics. As the ability to make movies has increased, due to the video revolution, this genre has multiplied. The godfather of the contemporary arm of this subject is one Harmony Korine, whose Gummo almost single-handedly melded trailer trash stylings with pretentious wanna-be fine art. His films since then, for better or worse, have trafficked in meaningful meaninglessness (and suffered in proportion to their intended “beauty.” That is, Julien Donkey-Boy is awful, while Trash Humpers is actually pretty interesting). From his root stock, we can trace a line to Troma’s Giuseppe Andrews, whose massive filmography, including titles such as Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town, in which he also stars, documents the denizens of a trailer park in which Andrews also lives. Like the films of John Waters, who similarly celebrated “trash” living, such works bend the line between acting and life, and the films often make use of “real people” as actors, stock companies who live the art they create together. Whereas the films of Waters, although verging into camp (I would actually call them parodies of camp), create a full and verdant universe of expression by way of parody and appropriation, these newer films take up his mantle of outrageousness but wear it with “high art” style. Their master is actually Cassavetes, who tried to create a mirror of reality through improvisation and hand-held camerawork (itself drawing from the direct cinema documentary and avant-garde traditions of the earlier 1960s), and their approach to actors and acting is influenced by Herzog. Which is to say that, somewhere in the space, vast or small though it may be (as you judge it), between Harmony Korine and Troma, lies the film before us.

The story, such as it is, can be quickly summarized. The main character is Harley (Arielle Holmes), a pretty young homeless woman who happens to be in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a freckled seeming-psychotic asshole her own age. Both are drug addicts, and it appears Harley sometimes prostitutes herself to obtain her fix. As the film begins, Harley and Ilya have just had a falling out over something – most likely her having recently sold herself, but it’s hard to tell, as we never get a firm sense if Ilya has a right to his outrageous attitude, or if he’s just mental. At any rate, Harley, to prove her love, offers to slit her wrists and kill herself. Ilya eggs her on, calling her bluff again and again, until she finally does it. “Thankfully,” she lives, and after getting out of the hospital, takes up with a friend (and nemesis of Ilya?) Mike (Buddy Duress), he of the glazed, dead eyes, slack expression, and limited vocabulary. Most of the film consists of them bumming around, trying to get a fix, meeting this or that person, screaming and yelling profanities, falling in and out of favor with each other, and so forth. Eventually Harley mends fences with Ilya, they have a brief rekindling of the mad loving, and decide to head to Florida together (why we never learn). Ilya bugs out on the bus, and demands to disembark in the middle of nowhere while Harley is sleeping. He returns to his freak cave, builds a fire, fixes, passes out, and then burns alive (his face melting, intentionally or not, like Toht’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Harley, after waking up on the bus, also throws a fit and is let off, only to return to Mike and his cohort in the night cafe, at which point our story closes.

Does anything set this film apart? Its most obvious distinctive aspect is the score. The movie “features” music by space music pioneer Isao Tomita, and has an original score composed by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink (who also has a bit part mixing it up at the band shell). The music purposefully overpowers the image, and is very heavy and intense when used. In fact, the best part of the film in my regard is the credit sequence. It takes place in the psychiatric ward, after Harley has attempted suicide, and contains no dialogue; the lengthy sequence plays out as a dumb show with thundering electronics, and shows how the filmmakers, if they truly wanted to provoke and innovate, could have constructed something like a grunge electro-opera. Dialogue is unnecessary in this film anyway. The title sequence shows we can fully understand what is happening without it, and the mostly angry shouted profanities kill whatever interest and mood the casting and photography create. (Note that I am not against profanity; if you want to see the baroque masterpiece of this little genre, check out Steve Ballot’s insane The Bride of Frank, from 1996. The profanity in that film is very creative, and transports the viewer). The second distinctive aspect of the film is the cinematography by Sean Price Williams, the inventive force that made Listen Up Philip more than half of what it was (he has shot all of Alex Ross Perry’s features, as well as the early mumblecore Frownland). The photography is lovely – unfortunately, what this film needs is not loveliness, but style and a point of view. While one may dislike the filmic sensibilities of a Giuseppe Andrews, one must also admit that his weakness is also his strength, and that, no matter how aesthetically yucky or off-putting the results, the director has a style and vision that make the films memorable, and what they are. The Safdie’s, though, don’t have a style – aside from a muted, wintry saturation level that gives the film a cold, brittle feel, and the aforementioned electronic portensions. They simply want to make a serious low budget film that recalls the ’70s. While one may find Korine pretentious, and infuriating, he at least provokes a reaction; Heaven Knows What merely provokes boredom. Scene after scene of junkies yelling at each other, acting shitty, looking truculent, or nodding off, with nothing to express beyond the angry ur-screams of their profanity. The script is adapted from a novel written by Holmes, titled Mad Love in New York City (or something similar). Darling, if this is a portrait of mad love, then A&E and LMN have produced more surrealism than the 1930s ever did. Mad love demands enough intelligence, brute though it may be, to understand the conventions that one is discarding. The main characters of this film exhibit almost no self-awareness. The approach feels juvenile, and the overall impression is one of true pretension; it is art because it is “tough,” “real,” or “raw.” In truth, it is unformed, and the reality portrayed is not transformed by a vision that can elevate us, or transport us, to a more profound understanding. Much sound and fury, signifying… that it’s time to yell further improvised swears before nodding off.

One and a half stars out of five

 

Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik (2012)

I happened across this one on Netflix, and decided to take a chance – mostly because I’m a Jim Thompson obsessive, and have not yet had the time to dip into the work of George V. Higgins, who is often mentioned in the same breath. Perhaps this would be a shortcut to figuring out if his stuff was worth reading. Well, the film started out very promisingly, with a great title sequence and strong audio/visual interplay. The two main characters (for the first half hour or so) are also appealing – scruffy, real, very scummy, but somehow charismatic. The plot is nothing special, the usual crime film boilerplate. Our two seeming protagonists, Frankie and Russell, are contracted by Johnny Amato (who might as well be Johnny Sack in the witness protection program) to knock over an illegitimate poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie has already robbed his own game once, and barely got away with it, so Johnny figures if it happens again, suspicion will fall on Markie. That’s pretty much it. The robbery goes down, and then some unknown conglomerate of semi-legit higher-ups, fronted by Richard Jenkins, brings in hit men to take out our low-life friends. Well, it would be hit-men, but one of them, Dylan, played in a super-fleeting appearance by Sam Shepard, is too sick to handle the work, so it falls to Brad Pitt. He’s the real protagonist of the film, if we can say there is one, as after the initial robbery, our friendly scumbags fall by the wayside and the movie becomes a roundelay of criminals speaking bland dialogue, punctuated by over the top digital bloodshed.

There’s a lot wrong with this film. It’s like a retirement home for fake gangsters. There’s Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, the aforementioned Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), and I swear I saw a fat, nonspeaking Anthony LaPaglia in the robbery sequence (IMDB did not bear this out, however). It’s also a home for gangster movie cliches that should have been retired long ago. There’s the requisite slow motion violence. There’s the linking of action and violence to pop music. There’s the worn out theme of the gangster as the more honest reflection of American values, especially in comparison to legitimate businessmen. It feels like sub-par Goodfellas, especially in the slow motion sequences of violence, executed herein with the help of much digital augmentation, which sadly works to drop the impact to near zero. (Poor Ray Liotta’s death has him put through the grinder to the point that a crash test dummy would blush – or laugh, as I did). The musical pairings are all over the place temporally, from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the choices are so obvious they cause one to wince. Furthermore, the director decided to highlight the overarching theme of “gangsterism reflecting the realities of life in America” by setting the film during the 2008 election, and using long sections of political rhetoric as ambiance for the soundtrack. Yes, every hood in this universe listens to NPR and frequents bars with Hank Paulson on CNN. The last sequence even has Mr. Pitt spouting direct commentary on an Obama speech. Puhleeze. We got the point by the end of the title sequence, in which it was done best (formally speaking). The acting in the smaller roles is good, and Brad Pitt is pretty good too, but the rest of the cast is tired. Richard Jenkins, representing a weak sauce crime conglomerate, is annoying (although I suppose his character is supposed to be), as is James Gandolfini, who is retreading Tony Soprano and made me wish, as I did with Tony, that somebody would just shoot him already. Yes, it’s a rogues gallery of the weaselly, the whiny, and the lame. Perhaps worth viewing for the gritty setting, and for a little dark humor, but after the first half hour it gets dull fast.

One and a half stars out of five

The Babadook – Jennifer Kent (2014)

The Babadook has to qualify as the most over-rated film of the year. I really don’t understand the hype around this one. Horror film? No. Psychological thriller? Barely. It’s pretty much a straight allegory of the grieving process, and a damned literally minded one at that. If Freud’s Dora had a kid, this would be her song (as writ by screenwriter Freud of course). The film is so bloody straightforward there are no cracks for interpretation to slip in, and certainly no room for scares. The “horror” aspects of the movie are so cliché and banal I can’t believe critics are eating them up (bugs coming out of the wall, lights flickering, creepy voices, skittering J-horror style monster, etc etc etc). More offensive is that the director seems pretty high on her own supply, acting as if she’s reinvented the horror film by putting it on “serious” footing – in interviews, she compares it favorably against big studio horror sequel dreck, and acts like she has just invented psychological horror. What, we’ve never seen a film before concerning a mother ambivalent about her own child? We’ve never seen a horror film with “symbolism?” Perhaps such things are less frequent in American cinema of late, but certainly there is a rich history in Europe of psychological horror, and maybe she’s heard of our Canadian friend Mr. Cronenberg? It is well made, for sure, but I found it pretty boring and on the whole pretentious – a few dark humor chuckles here and there, but no scares, and no need to think about the film after the fact, as it is so… damned… literal.

One and a half stars out of five

I don’t like pooing on a female director, so in compensation I’d direct interested viewers to Netflix to see Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, an exceptional and comparatively quiet drama about struggling through the passages of life, trying to define yourself before the clock runs out. Psychologically astute, nuanced, and unlike Mr. Babadook, the implications and resonances grow in proportion to the viewer’s observational perspicacity. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. The performances are great too. All three of her features are streaming, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing the other two (Archipelago and Exhibition). Check ’em.