Hare Krishna!


The swami and the snow storm.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Srila Prabhupada, Allen Ginsberg, Armarendra Das, Edwin Bryant, Yogesvara Das, Rukmini Dasi, Larry Shinn, Shaunaka Rishi Das, George Harrison, Hari Sauri Das, Yamuni Dasi, Sumati Morarjee, Radhanaath Das, Sally Agarwal, Boy George, Mikunda Goswami, Thomas J. Hopkins, Ramesvara Das, Niranjana Swami, Gurudas. Directed by John Griesser and Jean Griesser

 

Most of those reading this probably are too young to remember what was a common sight in airports around the United States and indeed around the world; people in yellow robes and shaved heads, dancing and chanting/singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Krishna Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Hare, Rama Rama” and asking for donations – sometimes in a very pushy manner.

They are less a ubiquitous sight now than they once were but most people are aware of the Hare Krishna movement even if it is just through the iconic George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” (Harrison had a deep abiding interest in Eastern religions and was extremely supportive of the movement). Few however are aware of how it started.

Srila Prabhupada a.k.a. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to New York City in 1965 at the behest of his guru to spread the word of Krishna consciousness to the West. He had no money, no contacts and a few translated copies of ancient sacred texts to help him. He was an educated businessman with a wife and son who had set all that aside to follow his spiritual quest.

Had he come to New York City in 2017 it would have been unlikely that he’d have made any headway but in 1965 the hippies were beginning to come into their own and they were looking for alternatives to the lifestyles and spirituality that they’d grown up with. The hippies turned out to be extremely receptive to Prabhupada’s rejection of the material and embrace of Krishna consciousness – a devotion to Krishna, an aspect of the Hindu godhead.

 

At first the movement was an ember, a dozen or so devotees living in a converted gift shop in the Village somewhat fortuitously named Matchless Gifts. After a gathering of chanting Hare Krishnas in a local park caught the notice of the New York Times, the ember became a spark. When the nascent movement caught the attention of the Beatles, he spark became a flame that spread around the world, even to the USSR where religion was forbidden and promulgating it a capital offense.

The movie is the work of insiders of the movement – although Griesser uses his birth name for the film, having adopted the name Yadubara Dāsa as a member of the religion – and as such we get some interesting insights. For example, did you know they adopted the yellow garments in order to stand out among the colorful fashions that were all the rage in London at the time? I didn’t and that’s the kind of thing that makes history a joy to me.

But it’s also a double edged sword. Critics have used the term “hagiography” – an uncritical biography that ignores the less savory aspects of the subject – in conjunction with this film and in all honesty the term fits here. The movie shows the Hare Krishnas to be essentially harmless Hippies in search of spiritual enlightenment despite the fact that the movement grew to the point that it had a bankroll of millions of dollars. There is no mention of the transgressions of self-styled Swamis like Keith Ham who created little hegemonies under the aegis of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sort of ruling body for the religion today) or the troubling anti-Semitic and racist remarks penned by Prabhupada himself. The movie would have benefited from a little bit more perspective as nearly everyone interviewed is a devotee with the exception of a few academics. As the song goes, never is heard a discouraging word.

Incidentally the full title of the documentary is Hare Krishna! The Mantra, The Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. I’ve chosen not to use the full title because it is unwieldy and takes up too much space as a title. I have to admit that I’m growing annoyed with the current need for documentaries to follow the lead of nonfiction books and possess secondary titles that are overly long and unnecessary – does anyone think the secondary title here is going to attract any more viewers than just titling the film Hare Krishna!?

The subject matter is an interesting one and I would have appreciated a more scholarly approach to it. This comes off more as a commercial for Krishna Consciousness and in that aspect I’m sure there are people who could benefit from the teachings of the late Prabhupada who passed away in 1977. However, this is a commercial that masquerades as a documentary and those expecting a balanced and impartial look at the Hare Krishna movement will not find it here.

REASONS TO GO: The historical footage is fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lack of any sort of perspective other than that of the Hare Krishnas themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scattered drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Griesser began documenting the Hare Krishna movement as a photojournalist in 1970.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wolfpack
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dean

The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

Midnight Special


Abracadabra!

Abracadabra!

(2016) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, Sean Bridgers, Lucy Paust, James Moses Black, Yvonne Landry, Maureen Brennan, Ann Mahoney, Garrett Hines, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Jeff Nichols

It goes without saying that a father will do just about anything to protect his son. But what if protecting your son means the world dies? Would you trade your son’s life to save the world?

In a dingy Texas hotel room, a news broadcast tersely announces an amber alert for a young boy named Alton (Lieberher). Watching intently are Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Edgerton) – and Alton. In the dead of night, the two men grimly leave, taking their young charge with them.

A Texas ranch is raided by the FBI and the leader of the cult that lives there, Calvin Meyer (Shepard) reiterates that Alton, the boy kidnapped from their ranch, isn’t just some ordinary kid. The vision he has may be the key to Armageddon – and saving those who listen from being destroyed in the fire of the end of days.

As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s dad and he took him away from the cult, which has sent a couple of true believers to bring Alton back. Also on Roy’s tail is the NSA in the person of Sevier (Driver) who has more than a passing interest in the case – apparently the lists of numbers that Alton has been having visions about contain sensitive NSA data.

But where Roy, Lucas and Alton are headed is to see Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst). You see, they know that what Alton’s visions are telling him is that he has to be at a certain place by a certain time. And it’s literally a matter of life and death – the death of everyone on the planet.

Jeff Nichols has only four films to his credit (a fifth, Loving, is in the can and should be out in late 2016 or early 2017) but they have all received heaps of critical praise and as you can see by the scores in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so has this one. Nichols, who also co-wrote the film, makes subtly thoughtful films, movies that on the surface look pretty straightforward but the more you think about them, the more there is to think about.

He’s also a very visual director and some of the visuals here are thrilling, from the flaming wreckage coming down from the sky like meteorites to the expansive denouement which is largely computer generated. The big graphics seem a bit out of his style, but then Nichols has largely worked indie films – this is his first studio-made film. And it’s a good one.

Shannon has appeared in three of his four films, and he is his usual intense self. I have become a big Michael Shannon film in recent years and for the life of me I can’t recall a truly unsatisfactory performance that he’s given in a long, long time. He’s as versatile as they come and here, he plays the desperate loving dad with the same force of will as he plays, say, the psychotic dirty cop, or the amoral collection agency owner. Every role he takes on he makes his own and the amazing thing about Shannon is that no two characters that he portrays ever feel alike.

A lot of this movie is spent riding around in cars. There are some car chases in it (a good one during the climactic scenes) but mostly the main characters are just trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t mind some travelling scenes but I found the movie could have used fewer of those in this case. Also, the climax includes some very striking visuals but in a sense they almost felt like they come from a different movie.

There is a bit of a Spielberg vibe here, particularly in the relationship between father and son. But in a lot of ways, Nichols is the anti-Spielberg; he’s not dealing with kids in suburban homes but in kids from rural environments. Like Spielberg, growing up is a central theme in his movies but while adults can be more white noise in his movies, the adults in Nichols’ movies are often flawed and a central part of the story.

There are a lot of good elements here; I actually like it more than the rating I’m giving it, but I think most moviegoers will find this less rewarding than I did. More discerning movie buffs however might find much more here to offer than just a road movie with science fiction overtones in a family atmosphere. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts in that aspect.

REASONS TO GO: An intense yet subtle performance by Shannon. Thought-provoking material.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a little bit over the top. A little too much riding around in cars.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a modicum of violence and sci-fi action, as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adam Driver found out that he had been cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the first day of filming for this project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Everybody Wants Some!!

Silent Hill: Revelation


Videogame or bondage fantasy?

Videogame or bondage fantasy?

(2012) Horror (Open Road) Adelaide Clemens, Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sean Bean, Radha Mitchell, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Donovan, Deborah Cara Unger, Roberto Campanella, Erin Pitt, Peter Outerbridge, Jefferson Brown, Milton Barnes, Heather Marks, Rachel Sellan, Michel C. Foucault, Arlene Duncan, Jason Best, Jacky Lai. Directed by Michael J. Bassett

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Videogame adaptations have a history of being lousy movies. There have been some exceptions to be sure, but for the most part they have been awful cinematic experiences. Many gamers say that it is impossible for videogames – a truly interactive medium – to translate to movies which is a fully passive medium. Occasionally they are proven wrong, like in the case of the Silent Hill movie. Would the sequel be as good?

Heather Mason (Clemens) has, along with her father Harry (Bean) been on the run for as long as she can remember from dark forces that she doesn’t fully understand. Her mother Rose (Mitchell) is gone, taken in a car accident. As Heather approaches her 18th birthday, she is plagued by terrible, horrific visions. When Harry disappears, she discovers that nothing she knows is as she believes it to be.

The truth is that she is being chased by the Order of Valtiel, a cult that inhabits the damned town of Silent Hill which burns eternally. Years ago, a young girl named Alessa Gillespie (Pitt) was burned alive by the Order and its leader Claudia Wolf (Moss). The reason they are chasing them is that Heather, whose real name is Sharon Da Silva and who was once part of Alessa whose agony caused her to create the shifting dimensions that plagues Silent Hill.

Assisted by her boyfriend Vincent (Harrington), Heather decides to go to Silent Hill to find her father. Tormented by hideous, disturbing monsters that appear as dimensions shift in the blasted town which burns endlessly. There, she will confront the monsters of her past, present and future as she discovers betrayals that will rock her to the core and secrets that will change everything.

Christophe Gans directed the first Silent Hill but was unable to direct its sequel. Bassett, who directed Solomon Kane was instead hired and in all fairness to Bassett he was given a terribly convoluted script to work with. The problem is, he wrote it. There is a ton of exposition here and even that isn’t enough to really adequately explain what’s going on. The movie careens from scene to scene and often even with all the exposition it is incredibly confusing to the audience. The characters don’t have much going in the way of personality, particularly Vincent – and Heather, Harry and the rest aren’t much better.

The movie gets much better when it shows the monsters that are kind of a combination of Clive Barker bondage demons and H.R. Giger’s nightmares. Some, like the Red Pyramid or the cleaver-wheeling Nurses, are likely to haunt more than a few dreams. The blasted landscapes of Silent Hill and the other dimensions therein are also compelling.

The main problem though is not just that the movie is difficult to follow; the gravest sin the film commits is of being bland. There are plenty of flames but no fire; lots of shadows but no depth. Silent Hill: Revelation may have been originally filmed in 3D but the movie is flat as a pancake. The monsters, demons and landscapes are cool without a doubt but the movie left me actually bored and if there is one cardinal offense that a movie can commit it’s that.

I don’t know that gamers are correct in saying that their medium can’t be translated to one that is less interactive; after all, books and films are completely different mediums and there have been some great movies based on books. I think the problem lies in that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames or gamers and doesn’t understand the mindset; they basically throw videogame-based movies together without much regard to building a universe in the same way that they have for comic books. Videogames are inherently cinematic; there is absolutely no reason that they can’t translate to the multiplex. The fact is that a crap movie is a crap movie regardless of its source.

And Silent Hill: Revelation is far from being a crap movie. The videogame franchise has a rich background and is a good looking movie. Yes, it is terribly flawed – something tells me that Bassett didn’t really get the franchise or maybe he didn’t care to. This could have been a much better movie but it is at its core deeply unsettling and atmospheric. I would have liked a less convoluted story but from a simply visual point of view could admire the film on that basis alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome demonic creatures. Bleak landscapes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland characters and performances. Lacks force or fire.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and foul language, disturbing images and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bean and Harington played father and son in Game of Thrones; Harrington went on to work with Moss again in Pompeii.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $52.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resident Evil
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

As Good As Dead


As Good As Dead

Cary Elwes tries not to make a crack to Andie MacDowell about using a stronger brand of sun lotion.

(2010) Thriller (First Look) Cary Elwes, Andie MacDowell, Frank Whaley, Matt Dallas, Jess Weixler, Nicole Ansari, Brian Cox, Clark Middleton, Emma Kantor, Juliette Bennett, Nasry Malak, Crispian Belfrage, Claudine Oriol, Mario D’Leon, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Jonathan Mossek

 

Vengeance is a dish best served cold or so they say. Ten years after is plenty of time for the dish to cool down I’d say.

Ethan Belfrage (Elwes) is a left-leaning photojournalist in New York  who has a family, a nice loft in midtown and a fairly successful career. He walks the dog, is friendly with the neighbors and is in general an upstanding citizen.

When a pair of thugs break into his apartment and tie him up to a chair, he is at first alarmed but not too surprised – apartment break-ins are not entirely unknown in the Big Apple. When a hideously scared woman calling herself Helen Kalahan (MacDowell) strides in, Ethan becomes a little bit concerned. When it turns out that one of the thugs, Jake (Dallas) is her son, Ethan begins to get a bit suspicious. When he notices that the other one, Aaron (Whaley) has an SS tattoo on his neck and seems more than a little bit bloodthirsty and unhinged, Ethan begins to sweat.

It turns out that Helen believes that Ethan had something to do with the murder of her husband (Cox), the hate-spewing preacher of a kind of skinhead survivalist fundamentalist Christian cult. She means to extract a confession from him, even though Ethan denies it. In fact, he denies it under torture, which doesn’t seem to impress Aaron all that much. When Ethan denies it after Aaron intentionally injects an overdose into a neighbor woman, well, one begins to wonder if maybe he is innocent after all. Still, you get the nagging feeling that Ethan knows a hell of a lot more than he’s telling.

This has a Hitchcockian element to it that’s quite pleasant; there are bad men involved and you’re not sure if the lead character might not be worse than the lot of them – and you have the nagging suspicion that he’s getting his just deserts. Then again the murdered pastor is so heinous that you can’t help feeling that justice was served on that end as well.

MacDowell, long one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, spends the entire movie in make-up depicting terrible scars, walking with a limp and generally spewing hateful things. One of the true Southern belles in the business, it’s kind of shocking to see the twisted reverse of that institution – it’s frightening and fascinating at the same time. This is truly one of her best roles in the last few years.

The movie is for the most part well-scripted although it bogs down occasionally. There is a sense that there is cruelty and violence mostly for its own sake; it loses its shock value early on and I think the film might have benefitted with more psychological aspects – as when the neighbor is slowly dying and Ethan is helpless (or is he?) to save her.

I think if they’d tightened up the writing a bit and cut some of the filler this might have been quite a taut little thriller. A little more flashback showing off the “good” pastor might have added a bit to some of the backstory, particularly to Jake who seems a tad conflicted here. There are enough elements to give this a slight recommendation, but not really enough that I feel motivated to urge anyone to go out of their way to find it either.

WHY RENT THIS: Tense when it needs to be and rather than revealing the twist all at once, does it in stages which is in itself a nice twist. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turgid and muddled in places. Uses violence more gratuitously than necessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it brutal), a bit of drug content and a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacDowell is originally from Gaffney, South Carolina and rose to fame as a model, with Yves St. Laurent, The Gap, Vogue and Calvin Klein.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55,618 on an unreported production budget; I wouldn’t bet on profitability here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Hulk

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen contemplate a world without the Oprah show.

(2011) Thriller (Fox Searchlight)  Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbett, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson, Adam Thompson, Allen McCullough, Gregg Burton, Diana Masi. Directed by Sean Durkin

The mind is a terribly fragile and easily manipulated thing. If you tell it something with enough conviction and enough reputation, it will largely believe anything. Someone with enough will and skill can turn a group of people into their own personal marionettes.

Lucy (Paulson) gets a phone call one afternoon from her sister Martha (Olsen) who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. Martha seems a bit skittish and somewhat confused; Lucy offers to pick her up, a three hour drive each way. She brings her sister home to a beautiful, sleek lake cottage (and I use the term “cottage” advisedly; it could easily sleep ten) where her husband Ted (Dancy) waits to meet Martha for the first time. Martha’s behavior is a bit odd, but nothing too out of the ordinary at first.

The weird things begin to happen. While Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha crawls into bed with them, seemingly oblivious to their need for privacy and intimacy. Martha seems to place no value whatsoever on possessions and has developed skills in cleaning and gardening that she never had before. She also has the look and feel of a puppy who’s been kicked by her owner too many times.

What we know that Lucy doesn’t is that Martha has been in a cult for the last two years. Introduced into it by her friend Zoe (Krause), the cult looks more like a commune at first, a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York where all possessions are shared as is the workload. It is presided over by Patrick (Hawkes), a mild guitar-playing sort. Patrick takes one look at Martha and proclaims her name is Marcy May from then on out and that’s what everyone calls her. Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She is intrigued by Patrick’s philosophy of being self-sufficient.

Except they’re not. The farm is in desperate need of things they aren’t yet able to provide for themselves, so it becomes part of the routine for members of the cult to go to neighboring homes and steal things. This leads to an unexpected and brutal conclusion after which Marcy May makes the decision to flee and return to being Martha again.

At home, Martha is still haunted by her experiences. Little things – a pebble skittering across the driveway, the splash from jumping into the lake – bring her right back into memories of the cult. She becomes paranoid, certain that the cult is after her and is out to bring her back to the farm. How much of her paranoia is real, and how much is the result of a traumatized mind?

Part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene (the Marlene is a reference to the name all of the cult’s women adopt when answering the phone) work is the chilling realism of it. Patrick takes control of the women by changing their names just slightly enough that it doesn’t seem like a bad thing and slowly but surely strips them of their own will. Of course, sex is a big part of that.

In a chilling scene, we are made to realize that Patrick himself “initiates” the women into the family by drugging them and raping them. Afterwards, the women are convinced by their “sisters” that not only was it not rape, that it was not just consensual, but it was a purification that they desperately needed and wanted. So indoctrinated is Martha/Marcy May that she assists in preparing and drugging a new member for Patrick.

Women are not allowed to eat until the men have finished; when a hungry Martha absently pops something into her mouth while preparing a meal, she is smacked upside the head and not gently. Even away from the cult, Martha is seen to be mouthing the platitudes that Patrick repeated to her. It truly is chilling.

At opposite ends of the spectrum we have Olsen – yes, sister to the Olsen twins – who plays Martha like a wounded bird; hopelessly naive in some ways, worldly in others and just barely holding it together. It is a performance that if it doesn’t merit Oscar consideration, should at least be leading to some bigger, more visible roles for Olsen who proves herself  to be a fearless actress.

Hawkes, so impressive in Winter’s Bone last year, proves that his Oscar nomination for that film was no fluke. His Patrick is mesmerizing; never overtly evil except in a couple of places, menacing without appearing to be. He’s the kind of guy that inspires trust and only too late do you find that you are ensnared in his web.

Paulson and Dancy play a very self-absorbed couple who fail to see all the warning signs that Martha’s trauma and seek out professional help for the girl. Dancy’s Ted in particular is more worried about his own comforts than he is about the well-being of his sister-in-law. They are both shallow and materialistic and are thrown into a complete quandary by the arrival of someone who is neither.

The tension here sneaks up on you. It’s evident from the beginning that something bad is going on, and it just gets worse and worse while you wait for the other shoe to drop. By the time it does, you haven’t noticed just how much the level of tension has been wound up on you. That’s good filmmaking. What doesn’t work as well is the switching of timelines between Marcy May and Martha, which is I think meant to convey the confusion going on in her mind but winds up confusing the audience as well. That could have been handled better and is the main reason I didn’t give the movie a higher rating; I still suspect I undervalued it a bit.

The movie does build towards a climax which is deliberately ambiguous. I left the theater with a creepy feeling that was unsettling, like you’d looked into the home movies of someone involved in a tragedy and the movie doesn’t make it plain what the fate of Martha and her sister were although it suggests that it doesn’t end well. While this doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Winter’s Bone, it leaves you with a good ration of something to think about. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer after watching it and quite frankly, not everyone wants to go through that at the movies. Those not looking for mindless entertainment would be well-advised to seek this out.

REASONS TO GO: Durkin establishes a tense mood from the get-go and only ratchets it up throughout, slowly and subtly until you’re a nervous wreck as a viewer. Some intense performances, particularly from Olsen.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to follow at times and an ending that is disturbing as it is ambiguous.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes of sudden violence, rape and sex. There are a few bad words and some nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Martha was the only one that the filmmakers auditioned. Durkin wanted an unknown actress for the role and after Olsen auditioned twice, she was cast two weeks before filming started.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see at home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Piranha 3D

Bless the Child


Bless the Child

I'd look worried too if I had the lead in this movie.

(2000) Horror (Paramount) Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Holliston Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Angela Bettis, Christina Ricci, Michael Gaston, Lumi Cavazos, Ian Holm, Eugene Lipinski, Leeza Gibbons, Dimitra Arlys, Anne Betancourt, Helen Stenborg. Directed by Chuck Russell

When you’re a Roman Catholic, you can go to an occult-oriented movie with a certain degree of smugness. After all, nobody knows the Devil like us Catholics. We’ve got the exorcisms to prove it.

Hollywood knows this. Therefore, a whole lot of their devil flicks are liberally steeped in what I call the Catholic experience. Lots of statues, paintings of Christ’s agony, aging priests (often with deformities or disabilities) and a whole lot of gobbledygook about how the world will end. I, being Catholic born and Catholic bred, love every minute of it, although I can’t possibly imagine my old high school guidance counselor Father Campanella taking on Satan mano a mano. It’s just too much of a stretch.

In this one, Maggie O’Connor (Basinger) is minding her own business one night when her junkie sister (Bettis) shows up on her doorstep, newborn baby in hand. And before you can say “Whaaaasssssuppppppp?” she’s gone, leaving Maggie with the baby. Of course, everyone who’s ever seen an occult flick before knows that this is Not An Ordinary Child.

Years later, the NAOC (Coleman) is displaying signs of autism (although for an autistic child she’s awfully expressive). But she’s also showing her NAOC-ness by causing objects to move about of their own accord, and bringing the occasional critter back to life. This brings her to the attention of Eric Stark (Sewell), a self-help guru and a rather nasty cult leader in his spare time.

Turns out that he’s been searching for a specific child who, in the future, will lead people to God. Turns out he’s been murdering innocent children in a ritualistic fashion to find the specific NAOC he is looking for. Turns out he’s married the junkie sister just to get to the NAOC. Turns out that the nasty cult leader is a bit cozier to Beelzebub than he is to the Almighty. Turns out the FBI Investigator (Smits) who was called in to investigate the child murders is in way over his head, as is O’Connor (remember her?). That’s a whole lot of coinkydinks, don’t you think?

I think. Part of what makes this movie an epic fail is that it relies too much on serendipity. There’s no organic flow to the plot; characters exist just to explain something that is going to be meaningful three scenes later, or three scenes previously. The script lacks clarity and subtlety.

You’d never guess that Basinger won an Oscar just three short years earlier. She sleepwalks her way through the part, although to be fair it ain’t much of a part. Maggie is a strong-willed, independent woman which the filmmakers took to mean “ignorant, stubborn hothead” and she often quite incomprehensibly gets herself into situations no sane person would even consider without calling in the National Guard first. Frankly, if my kid were kidnapped by a whacked-out Satanist, I’d be calling the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, cops, Guardian Angels and Johnny Cochran before I’d go into the lion’s den by myself. What would horror movies do without stupid people acting stupidly?

Of course, the ludicrous scale doesn’t really factor in to horror movies — common sense is supposed to take a back seat to a good scare. And that’s what this movie really lacks. I’ll admit, Da Queen jumped once, but I think she was more frightened by the teen-age girls sitting two rows behind us more than anything. In fact, if you REALLY want a good scare, try reading the political coverage in the local papers. Despite valiant efforts by Smits and Sewell, and a couple of good supporting role turns by Christina Ricci and Ian Holm, Bless the Child is more of a snooze than a scare.

WHY RENT THIS: There are  few decent performances here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A horror movie that isn’t particularly scary. Basinger sleepwalks through a role that is plainly beneath her. Too many coincidences.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s quite a bit of violence, some drug use and a few foul words here and there. There is also some scenes of children in jeopardy and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The line “the devil’s greatest trick was convincing mankind he doesn’t exist” is a reference to a similar line penned by the French poet Charles Baudelaire “La plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40M on  $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Hancock