Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

My Soul to Take


My Soul to Take

Max Theriot channels Edvard Munch

(2010) Horror (Rogue) Max Theriot, Emily Meade, Nick Lashaway, Denzel Whitaker, Shareeka Epps, Paulina Olszyinski, Raul Esparza, John Magaro, Zena Grey, Jeremy Chu, Harris Yulin, Frank Grillo, Jessica Hecht, Shannon Walsh.

The title of horror master is one bestowed on very few directors, but Wes Craven is one of them. The auteur behind the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series’ has been slowing down of late – this is the first feature he directed for five years following 2005’s taut thriller Red Eye – but that doesn’t mean he’s been lacking on the imagination side. Or does it?

Abel Plinkton (Esparza) is on the surface a deeply devoted family man. He’s hand-crafting toys for his children – a daughter and an unborn child – but he’s also a deeply disturbed individual. Well, perhaps individual isn’t a good word for it – he’s actually seven individuals and one of his multiple personalities is that of the Riverton Ripper, a serial killer terrorizing a small Massachusetts town.

His psychiatrist (Yulin) has called the police after Abel confesses to him that he is about to murder his own family. A shoot-out ensues with Abel killing police officers and finally one heroic cop takes him down. On the way to the hospital, Abel’s ambulance crashes and explodes. Abel’s body isn’t recovered and it is assumed it vaporized in the crash.

Eighteen years later it has become an annual ritual that the seven now-teenaged kids born the night that Abel’s ambulance was torched face a giant puppet that represents the now-dead Riverton Ripper. Each kid is supposed to face the puppet in turn and send it back into the river. This year, it’s Adam Hellerman’s (Theriot) turn – you can call him Adam if you like but almost everyone calls the gawky teen Bug.

Although cheered on by his best friend Alex Dunkelman (Magaro) , Bug’s attempt is an epic fail, much to his chagrin and to the delighted disgust of resident jock and bully Brandon O’Neil (Lashaway). The kids are dispersed by the cops and as one of the “Riverton Seven,” Jay Chan (Chu) crosses the bridge over the river to head home,  he is attacked by a towering figure and thrown over the bridge.

When his body washes up the next day, everyone is upset but nobody suspects that the Ripper is back – until the body count starts piling up. Bug is having strange visions of the murders, from a first person point of view. The Riverton Seven are being whittled down to the Riverton Six, then the Riverton Five, then the Riverton Three…and Bug is beginning to think that he might be the one responsible.

Craven has a very poetic sense when it comes to violence and there are a few images here that reflect that, but strangely that element is missing for the most part throughout the movie. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this is as uninspired a movie as he’s ever directed. He’s never been one to make movies that blend in with other studio fare, going back to his early gems like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. It is not a coincidence that his films have been remade more than almost any horror director in history.

The cast here is largely unknowns and unlike previous Craven casts that has performed well in their roles, they mostly seem flat and unremarkable. I have seen Theriot in other roles and have seen him do them well. That isn’t the case here.

I don’t know what happened here. Craven is a terrific director who knows how to get the most from his cast, and he’s the master of unexpected scares and innovative gore. There’s nothing here that doesn’t feel like we haven’t seen it a thousand times before and a thousand times better. Sadly, this is the kind of movie Craven poked fun of in Scream.

WHY RENT THIS: I suppose if you wanted to see every movie Wes Craven ever directed…

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very standard stalker/slasher fare that doesn’t really elevate the genre at all.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence including a goodly amount of blood and gore; there’s also a whole lot of bad language including a goodly amount of sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Held the record for the lowest wide (more than 1,500 screens) opening for a 3D film ever until Gulliver’s Travels scored lower a couple of months later.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21M on a $25M production budget; the film lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness continues!