Wednesday, May 17, 2017

La Femme on....2016 Best Picture Nominees (Part 1)

I have seen five of the nine best picture nominees and so I figured it was time for a round up!  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Hidden Figures, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, and Lion. I still definitely want to catch Hidden Figures and possibly Fences but I can leave Hacksaw Ridge and probably Lion (that hair on Dev Patel though, omg).

Moonlight:  (Barry Jenkins, 2016) Barry Jenkins Moonlight is a stunning film to win Best Picture. And I don’t mean the mix up, I mean the fact that a 1.5 million dollar film with a 100% African American cast about a young boy growing up in Florida, struggling with his sexuality.   Chiron grows up with a mother descending into addiction and his only parental figure is Juan, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, the very one who sells to his mother.  His only friend is Kevin, who has more in common with Chrion than he knows.  Taking place in three parts, Chiron seems not like the three actors that portray him, but as one, seamless character which is a very hard thing to pull off.  Mahershala Ali may have won best supporting actor for his subtle take on Juan but I think that the ensemble as a whole is extremely strong and I honestly can’t pick out a favorite performance.  I love when movies show you a world that you don’t know.  Chiron’s life is tough but unlike many films showing poverty and hardship, Moonlight doesn’t wallow in misery, in fact it is hopeful.  I thought the final scenes with a grown up Chiron were stunning, particularly his reunion with Kevin.   

Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie 2016):  Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are two brothers whose mother has recently died.  Her farm is on oil but is in foreclosure to the bank because of a reverse mortgage she had taken out with a local bank.  With no way of saving the farm, the brothers decide to rob the very bank that they owe money to.  Toby does it because he wants to give his sons a better life and sees no other choice.  Tanner, an ex-con,  does it for thrills.  Jeff Bridges is the affably offensive/racist Texas Ranger trying to track them down. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has wonderful character development and a real flair for plainspoken dialogue but there are a few too many on the nose lines directly related to the financial housing crisis that made me groan  What makes Hell or High Water more than your average heist film is its sense of place, you really feel like you are in West Texas, the relationship seem genuine, even the tiny supporting rolls are pitch perfect.  Jeff Bridges is his typical gruff self and Chris Pine is more than passable as the conflicted Toby.  Ben Foster is menacing and charismatic as the off psychopathic Tanner.  The film may be predictable but the solid elements make it one enjoyable ride.

Arrival: (Denis Villenueuve, 2016)  I hate to say it but I kind of hated this movie.  I found it compelling for nearly the whole film but the last twenty minutes completely lost me.  Alien pods appear at twelve sites around the globe.  Amy Adams is Louise, a linguist, who is called in to help decipher the Heptapods (that's the aliens) language.  She meets scientist, Ian (Jeremy 
Renner, who I actually find repulsive so maybe that was part of my problem with the film, I take responsibility for that) and together they work to try and communicate with the slightly creepy aliens.  The scenes that show Louise doing her job, meeting the aliens, trying to figure out if she should she be afraid or emboldened are wonderful and eerie. The connection she makes with them is magical for most of the film. The film is beautifully shot, eerie and otherworldly by Bradford Young.  Amy Adams is affecting and determined, her competence and passion for language is wonderfully expressed.    The problem for me with arrival is a reveal in the last twenty minutes about the timeline of the film.  It was supposed to be incredibly moving and heartbreaking.  I found it manipulative and a little cheap, frankly.  I can’t reveal too much without spoiling the film, but let me just say, I find the dead child cliche to be an easy way to manipulate the audience into extreme emotions and I didn’t care for it in this film.  I am definitely in the minority here, but I just the film too sterile and honestly, a little silly.  

Next up, part two with my two favorite of the nominees, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea


Thursday, February 9, 2017

La Femme Recommends....The Unknown

A favorite topic of cinephiles is blindspots, i.e. what haven't you seen that will enrage, surprise or flummox another movie lover.  I have a lot.   Maybe the biggest, embarrassing, gaping hole in my cinematic education is my lack of knowledge (and interest?) in the silent film era.  Thanks to my dear husband, K, I have seen a handful of silent films (he is quite the connoisseur, well, also he had a goal to watch 365 feature films in a year and there comes a point where a sixty minute silent film makes reaching that goal a lot easier.).  I've seen one Buster Keaton movie (Sherlock Jr.), some Charlie Chaplin shorts and Modern Times, and that’s about it unless you count The Artist.  So let's just say that K was shocked when I recorded Todd Browning's 1927 The Unknown around Halloween.

I had become interested in The Unknown because of a fantastic podcast, You Must Remember This. What intrigued me about this film?  Well, host Karina Longworth, described the young Joan Crawford in a way that surprised me, instead of the harsh Mildred Pierce (and lets be honest Mommie Dearest) Joan I knew and loved, young Joan was in fact, an ingenue yet still a tough as nails chick.  And so I saw it on TCM and it was only sixty minutes, what did I have to lose?

Lon Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a circus freak in a traveling show who throws knives with his feet.  He is traveling with a gypsy circus and obsessed with the beautiful daughter of the circus' owner, Nanon (that's Joan, in case you didn't guess).  Nanon likes Alonzo because she is terrified of men and their "arms" that can possess her and assault her.  Although she has another suitor, the good natured Malabar (Norman Kerry, dashing AF), she rejects him time and time again because of those pesky arms.

I was hesitant about writing this next part because I was worried it was a spoiler.  But I had been thinking about the difference between a plot twist / spoiler and a reveal.  A spoiler would be a twist ending or something that if you know could ruin the surprise of the film.  A reveal is more a plot point, something that you have to know for the story to make sense. I think a reveal can also be something the characters don’t know but we as viewers do and have to know in order to understand what is happening onscreen.  Early in the film it is revealed that Alonzo the Armless isn’t so armless after all.  I went into The Unknown ignorant of the plot so I was shocked after the introduction of Alonzo, to see that he was hiding his arms because he is a murderer on the run and he has two thumbs on one hand so in order to hide himself from the authorities, he masquerades as a circus freak.  

As far as plot, I think you can guess where where this is going, but it doesn’t mean that Browning doesn’t do a marvelous job getting there.  Much like his best known film Freaks, Browning is the master of creepy atmosphere but showing the humanity of people on the outskirts of society.  Crawford is luminous and at once innocent and shrewd as Nanon.  Unlike many female characters of the silent era, Nanon is not just a passive vehicle for the desires of the male characters.  Instead, in so many ways, she uses her own agency to make her choices.  Lon Chaney is astounding as Alonzo, he is ostensibly the the villain of the film but is incredibly sympathetic.  He is terrifying but also kind, he is nothing but sweet to Nanon, never trying to harm her or intimidate her, even when she is beginning to reject him.  And the fact that neither of them speaks makes the deep character development even more amazing. 

Sometimes as a movie lover, I think our prejudices can stop us from enjoying great films. I am so glad I gave The Unknown a chance.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

July 2016 Movie Round Up

Life got in the way majorly this year and so I am very behind on my reviews.  But lets catch up with some movies I saw way back in July!

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013):  We Are the Best! is one of the most purely joyful movies about being a young teen that I have ever seen.  Klara and Bobo are best friends and wannabe punks in the Stockholm suburbs in 1982.  Bobo may have a single mother who is slightly unstable and Klara’s parents might fight too much, but ultimately they are two happy girls who decide to start a punk band mostly to spite some older boys at the community center who annoy them. There is just one problem, neither girl can play an instrument or read music.  They recruit Hedvig, a Christian girl who is something of a guitar prodigy and they begin preparing for their upcoming gig, a talent show of some kind.  

The details of the plot are unimportant, in fact there isn’t much plot other than that, We Are the Best!  just enjoys hanging out in the presence of the girls and delights in their love of punk, or what they think punk is.  The girls meet a teenage punk band of boys, Hedvig cuts her hair short and they write their one song “Hate the Sport”.  All three girls are wonderful characters and they have a natural glee that is infectious. Mira Barkhammar is particularly wonderful as Bobo, the smallest and most awkward of the three girls.  In the wrong hands Bobo could have been almost a tragic character, her aforementioned mother is a mess, she “cheats” with Klara’s “boyfriend” (by cheats, I mean goes to his house and talks with him) and is unhappy with her role as drummer.  Instead, Bobo is the movie’s heart, she is clever, sweet and endearing.  We Are the Best! is a lark of the best kind.  And you won’t stop singing “Hate the Sport” for weeks.  

Hail, Caesar! (2016, Joel and Ethan Coen): I watched this movie on a plane, and it was the perfect plane movie for a fairly bumpy flight.  I am not the worst flyer but having this ridiculous and entertaining ode to Hollywood made the anxiety of turbulence melt away.  Eddie Manix (Josh Brolin) is an executive at a movie studio in 1951, he loves his job but is contemplating taking a new, less demanding position with an aerospace company. 

In the course of a few days, we see Eddie help DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannsen) deal with an unplanned pregnancy, set up two young starlets and most of all, try to solve the mystery of the missing Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).  Alden Ehrenreich is utterly adorable and captivating as Hobie Doyle, a cowboy actor moving into an upper class romantic comedy, his fish out of water sweetness and unfailing desire to please director Laurence Laurent (Ralph Fiennes, pitch perfect) is a wonderful combination and his set up with Hispanic actress Veronica Osorio has a undeniable romantic spark.  

Anyone with familiarity with the Coen Brothers may miss some of the biting darkness of  many of their films, Hail, Caesar!, shows the seedy underbelly of Hollywood but it is just so damn charming that I was enchanted.  Channing Tatum’s dance number that becomes increasingly and ridiculously homoerotic had me giggling and I loved Tilda Swinton in duel roles as twin sister gossip columnists.  Hail, Caesar! isn’t going to go down as one of the Coen’s best films, but it is a great way to spend a couple hours.  If you can, make it a double feature with Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, its spiritual predecessor. 

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg): To be honest, 10 Cloverfield Lane kind of went exactly where I thought it would (I am a canny movie predictor) but although predictable, I enjoyed this nifty little thriller until it becomes a “Cloverfield” movie in the last ten minutes.  Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is running away from her fiancé and is involved in a car accident in the middle of nowhere.  She wakes up chained to a bed but also with her wounds tended to. Her captor is Howard (John Goodman), who claims to be her saviour, telling her he saved her from the car after she was in an accident and that the world has been taken over by some kind of catastrophic event.  She’s lucky, really, that he will let her stay there with him and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who knew about the underground shelter and begged Howard to let him in.  From there, the story goes exactly where you think it will, flipping from suspecting Howard to trusting him and back again.  The idea of taking a small story in the face of the apocalypse is clever, the tension builds appropriately and the shit hits in the fan in the end satisfyingly.  Winstead and Gallagher have good chemistry and are strong enough but Goodman is great, playing someone clearly with social problems, perhaps with much deeper ones. I wish the movie had ended about ten minutes earlier and continued as a chamber piece and character study.  

Friday, August 5, 2016

It's Noon Somewhere...Blackberry Whiskey Smash

First off, is it whisky or whiskey and what is the difference?  I never know! According to Wikipedia it is a spelling difference between Scotts (whisky) and the Irish (whiskey).  And apparently,  American whiskey also uses the “e”.  So since we use good old bourbon in this cocktail, I guess Blackberry Whiskey Smash it is!  

 Anyway, as readers may recall, I have graduated from only drinking vodka and rum to drinking the brown stuff.  But Manhattan’s aren’t exactly what I want to drink when it is a million degrees and so humid you will sweat the moment you walk outside here in Northern Virginia (I am so sorry for every time I complained about it being to hot in Seattle, I had no idea).  When K and I were in New Orleans in May, we had a drink at the gorgeous Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel and I had a delicious drink with Whiskey and blackberries.  There it was called the Southern Gentleman and it was lovely.  So when we were looking for a lighter whiskey drink we decided to recreate something similar. 

Enter the Whiskey Smash, a delicious and refreshing cocktail that does require a bit of special equipment.  While the drink only has one spirit and only simple syrup as a mixer, it is a little more complicated than I prefer for an every day drink.  It requires crushed ice, there is just no way around it.  You can either use your ice maker if you have one that crushes ice (and I hate you) or your blender or a hand crank.  Or you could probably use a ziplock bag and a meat mallet but I wouldn’t recommend that unless you are very confident. The crushed ice is integral to watering down the otherwise super strong drink, but in a pinch you could serve it on the rocks.  It may not be as light and refreshing as it would be with crushed ice, but you have been warned!  

This drink could easily be made with any spirit, vodka, gin, or rum if whiskey isn’t your thing.  Start by muddling some mint leaves (the recipe we started with said seven and so I usually use seven but that is weirdly specific), so I would say between six and eight depending on the size, half a lemon quartered, a couple blackberries and half and ounce simple syrup in a cocktail shaker.  If you didn’t have a muddler you could use the handle of a wooden spoon.    Add two ounces of whiskey and transfer to a double old fashioned glass with lots of crushed ice. We use Maker’s Mark but any bourbon would work perfectly in this cocktail.  Garnish the crap out of this baby with mint sprigs and a couple blackberries.  This is a great, light tasting cocktail, perfect for summer drinking outside.  That is unless you live in the Commonwealth of Virginia where you drink it in your air conditioned home!  

Blackberry Whiskey Smash

Handful of mint leaves
1/2 lemon, quartered
3 to 4 blackberries
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 oz whiskey

Muddle all ingredients except whiskey in a cocktail shaker.  Add whiskey and pour stirred cocktail over crushed ice.  Garnish.  Enjoy. 


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

La Femme Recommends...Queen Margot

I don't watch Game of Thrones, but through cultural osmosis I have gathered that it is filled with shocking violence, graphic, sex and copious manipulations both political and personal. And while I have definitely heard griping that it’s confusing, with all the characters and lands and dragons, no one ever says its boring, which fantasy/period pieces are often accused of.  Well, Patrice Chéreau's  film, La Reine Margot (Queen Margot) 1994’s Game of Thrones (minus the dragons).  Only instead of the Red Wedding, we have the Red Honeymoon, The St. Bartholomew Day Massacre in 1572 Paris.  This “game of thrones”  is the Catholic monarchy, led by Catherine de Medici and her slithering sons, desperately trying to maintain power and basically wipe out the Protestant Huguenots.  

Queen Margot is plot heavy, there is no way around it.  The prologue begins with a long explanation of the complex relationship between the Catholics and Huguenots and that there are dozens of characters, some of whom blend into one another. I was intimidated but found myself almost immediately engrossed.  Perhaps a better knowledge of history would make the film a tad less confusing but I think that it is compelling enough even if you barely know your French history (guilty as charged).  

Margot (Isabelle Adjani) is the sister of the King Charles IX and the daughter of the truly evil Catherine De Medici (Virna Lisi).  As the film opens, Margot is forced to marry Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), a Protestant, to broker a peace between Catholics and Protestants.  Margot does not want to marry him and makes to clear to him that they will not be spending their wedding night together, but Henri is terrified that he will be murdered by her scheming family and begs Margot to be his ally.  She kicks him out and after getting in a fight with her lover, Margot declares “I need a man tonight”.  So she and her maidservant don tiny masks and roam the streets outside the Louvre.  There, she encounters La Môle (a smoldering Vincent Perez) and, I will put this the only appropriate way, she screws him in the alley.  I told you this wasn't your mom’s period piece. 

This makes Queen Margot sound like a tale of forbidden romance or perhaps a love triangle between Margot her husband and lover, and in some ways it is, but the impact of what happens next changes Margot and her fate forever.  Days after the wedding, when all the guests are still in Paris, Catherine de Medici and her two favored sons scheme to assassinate all of the powerful Huguenots who had attended the wedding and this leads to a massacre of Huguenots across the city.  The St. Bartholomew Day Massacre sequence in this film is horrific.  When I put this movie on my Netflix, I will be honest, I just expected some great costumes and maybe a doomed romance and some bodice ripping.  The massacre is so visceral and so terrifying. It is literally happening outside of Margot’s door and she witnesses first hand men and women being brutally stabbed to death. The graphic violence shocked me but also was so necessary because the intersection of life and death is one of the main themes. How close Margot is to extreme violence and extreme ecstasy throughout the film is highlighted perfectly in this unforgettable centerpiece.  Margot finds and helps an injured La Môle by hiding him in her room and we see her lustful handmaiden gleefully rip off La Môle's clothes, yes, to help him with his wounds but also to check out his abs.  This relationship between violence and death and love and lust is brought to the forefront. 

After the massacre, we find Margot changed. She has found love with La Môle but she has lost some of her gleeful joy and innocence.  She agrees to help Henri and go against her family.  La Môle, a Huguenot is also planning revenge. The remainder of the film includes: a wild boar attacking the King, Margot and La Môle making love completely nude in a crypt, executions and a book with poisoned pages that causes its victim to sweat blood.  And that is just the beginning.     

I loved the dual relationships Margot has with the two men in her life.  Her romance with La Môle is the stuff of fantasy films, he is gorgeous and dashing and honorable.  The chemistry between Adjani and Perez is electric, but their romance while passionate is also almost the last thing on their minds. Instead, they find in one another, a respite from the horror of the political situation they find themselves in.  Margot's relationship with Henri is almost more fascinating because while it isn't romantic in the traditional sense, she takes her wedding vows very seriously and wants to protect him because she made a promise to him.  The integrity that they both have is what binds them together and when Henri has a chance to escape without Margot he doesn't take it.  When Margot saves him from an assassination attempt and they consummate their marriage, it becomes an incredibly romantic  moment, not at all the beginning of their romance but securing their bond as husband and wife.

Daniel Auteuil is wonderful as Henri of Navarre and Virna Lisi is chilling as maybe the worst mother on film ever (eat your heart out Faye Dunaway).  I also loved the performance of Jean-Hugues Anglade as the weak willed king, you can see how terrified he is of everything, so afraid of the power he has and so afraid of losing that power at any second.  The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot is like a painting, it is stunningly beautiful and the costumes by Moidele Bickel have a lived in quality but are still sumptuous and elegant.  There is a very realistic quality to the whole film, Chéreau makes the viewer feel that they are in the  beautiful but dirty and chilly palace, there is a grit to the set design and costumes that keeps the film firmly on the ground and in our reality in so many ways. 

The film is perfectly composed but its Adjani that you can’t keep your eyes off of.  To call Adjani wonderful or marvelous or mesmerizing is an understatement. Her Margot is sensual, willful and intelligent and confident. Margot is cunning enough to protect herself and the ones she loves and time and time again, we see her stand up for herself and for her allies.  Adjani is the film and she makes Margot wonderfully multifaceted; we see her brazen sexuality, her tenderness towards her brother and her steel hearted will.  Margot’s journey is painful and tragic and exciting and Adjani expresses it all on her amazing face: ecstasy, joy and pure terror.  It’s a face that I won’t ever forget.  


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

La Femme in...Las Vegas

 Las Vegas was not originally on our itinerary.  We planned to go from Palm Springs to Flagstaff, Arizona, with a stop at the Grand Canyon.  But honestly, I am not a nature girl and our dogs are definitely not nature dogs and K and I figured we would spend maybe an hour or two at the Grand Canyon before one of us would say (yes, probably me) “I’m too hot, my feet hurt” and Rufus our thirteen pound terrier would have walked about 20 minutes tops before wanting to quit.  K is a casual MMA fan and a not so casual Conor McGregor fan and when he realized that he would be fighting in Vegas during our road trip and that we could make a side trip to see him, he was thrilled. Then we looked at the tickets left and I didn’t want to sell a kidney.  But we decided to just take the side trip anyway since neither of us had ever been to Vegas and it would be much farther away from Virginia.  Plus, a city built on drinking and gambling and glitter?  Sounds right up my alley.   

So here we go, K and J’s 48 hours in Vegas with two dogs.  

First of all, don’t take your dogs to Vegas, ever.  I mean maybe if you have one or two tiny little guys it would be fine, but don’t take a dog you can’t pick up, because it is a nightmare.  K and I stayed at The Paris and I had no idea how massive it would be or how far away our car would be from the lobby and the elevators.  And how many people would look at you like a freak show when you are walking your forty pound dog who hates tile floors through the casino to go to the tiny patch of astro turf they call a dog area. And a scary guy in the parking stairwell with a gun in his holster might give you a dirty look.   Once we made it through that gauntlet the first time, it got much easier and we figured out the best times of days to take them out.  They also got an early morning walk down The Strip which they loved, but otherwise, they were pretty much stuck twenty stories up for two days.  I will admit I had my first meltdown once we got to the room, telling K, “We can’t stay, we have to leave!” He talked me down and said, “What you need is a drink and you will feel better.” 

This was after midnight, look how bright it is inside!
So with that, we ventured out to The Strip. I have been lucky to travel to major cities all over the world and I have never felt more overwhelmed than I did in those first few moments in Vegas.  The amount of people on a Saturday afternoon crossing the street from the Paris to the Bellagio was overwhelming.  The people were a colorful crew, I saw bikinis(it wasn’t very sunny), shirtless guys in camo pants wanting to charge you to take a picture and have them hug you (nope, I’m good), people with selfie sticks, classy people, trashy people, old people, young people.  There was even a guy dressed like Watler White in the biohazard suit the looked so much like Bryan Cranston I thought it was some kind of late night show stunt.  And I though, “I hate this I want to go” while looking at a fake Eiffel Tower.  I know this sounds incredibly snobby but if I can’t be honest here, where can I?  It was so artificial and crowded and hot and I was hungry and I hated everything.  Then K and I walked into the Belaggio and sat down at the cafe and ordered food, and I saw the ridiculous pool outside and I got a cocktail and he talked me down, like he always does.  Also, I might have been hangry, maybe. 

Once I was able to accept Vegas for what it was, and let loose and accept it as Disney for adults, I would have a great time.  Just like Main Street USA is a fantasy of small town America, The Paris is a fantasy of France (you know, baguettes, Eiffel Tower, Breton stripes and tiny cute buildings.  They forgot the dog poop but kept the cigarettes, but you can’t smoke inside restaurants in France anymore so even that is inauthentic! I kid the French because I love them so much)  Once I got off my high horse and took it with the nature it was intended it was awesome, I almost let my snobbery get in the way of a good time.  

K and I had dinner at Scarpetta in the Cosmopolitan overlooking The Strip that night and it was strangely beautiful.  And we leant in to the luxury of the place and ordered bottled water which K drank in about a second and didn't realize.  I paid twenty five dollars for pasta with tomato and loved it.  We saw the drummer for the Foo Fighters on our way out holding court with three women (he really does have great hair).  Then we headed to our hotel and had drinks and people watched and laughed because it is so bright in there it feels like daytime all the time.  Then I played the Britney slot machine, and I was happy.  Can we talk just for one second about the Britney Spears Slot Machine?  It is the best, its like a huge arcade console you sit at with Britney Spears songs playing and lights and sounds and videos.  If someone can figure out how to get me one at home, I would never stop playing. 

The next day, Sunday, K and I headed to the very impressive Neon Light Museum, which is a large Neon Boneyard near the older part of Vegas.  At the yard there is a huge collection of Neon signs from all of Vegas’ history.  It’s basically Instagram Paradise.  The tour guide was funny and informative about the different signs until the rain started going crazy about halfway through and we had to cut it short.  So instead, K and I headed back to the strip, walked up to Italy (a.k.a The Venetian) and relaxed with the dogs until it was time for drinks. 

The Cosmopolitan is what I imagined Vegas, or the best of Vegas to be.  Glitzy, dark, lots of sparkles (and they had a Britney slot machine too!) and K and I had drinks in the stunning Chandelier Bar before heading back to dinner at Mon Ami Gabi at our hotel.  The food we had was mostly pretty great over the two days we were in Vegas and the steak at Mon Ami Gabi was no exception.  A waiter literally broke about 25 plates though in one fell swoop and that was by far the most memorable part of our evening. 

And what of gambling?  I hate to say it but we we were not winners, we put aside a small amount and came back with about $21.00.  We tried, slots, poker and roulette but it was ultimately that Britney machine that gave us our final win.  Vegas may be silly and overstuffed and indulgent, but we can all use a little silliness sometimes.  As we rode the elevator upstairs, I smiled at K and said, “you were right.  This was fun.” 


Monday, June 6, 2016

La Femme Recommends....Mommy

I first encountered Xavier Dolan at SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) in 2009.  His first film, I Killed My Mother was playing and the blurb in the guide intrigued us. Films at SIFF are always a mixed bag, you don't know if you are going to check out a masterpiece or basically the most cliched indie you have ever seen.  In the case of I Killed my Mother we saw an audacious debut by a 17(!) year old director.  I was smitten, I loved Dolan's brash yet lush style and found the depiction of a teenager who loved his mother but also couldn't stand her realistic and moving.  Since then I have followed Dolan's career closely, and have generally enjoyed his follow up films.  But nothing has quite lived up to that debut.

That is until I finally checked out his 2014 film Mommy.  Starring Dolan regulars, Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement, Mommy tells the story of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a rebellious, possibly dangerous teenager who after nearly killing a boy at some kind of boarding school is discharged to the care of his mother, Die (Dorval).  They both befriend their neighbor, Kyla (Clement), a former teacher who has developed a condition where she is unable to speak without a debilitating stutter.  The film begins with an epigraph telling us that the film is set in a fictional Canada where if a parent is unable to care for their child they can be involuntarily committed to a state run mental hospital.  Let’s just say once those words come on screen you pretty much know where this is going.  But, wow, the journey there is more exhilarating and devastating that I even imagined.  

Mommy is operatic, charismatic and almost schizophrenic much like Steve, a live wire of unbridled emotion.  When we first meet Steve, we are terrified because of the things his mother and his counselor have said about him in the opening scene of the film.  But, when we meet him he seems just like an overgrown kid, scared, funny, charismatic.  It isn’t until later that we discover his true potential for danger.   Quickly the situation escalates with Steve nearly fighting with a black cab driver over his racist comments.  Pilot and Dorval have a natural chemistry that tows the line perfectly between loving and creepy.  At times Di seems more like a friend then a parent, desperately trying to relate to Steve but also intensely worried about him and frightened of him.  Eventually Steve and Die get into an incredibly terrifying, violent fight and Diane has to barricade herself in the basement.  After she gets the courage to emerge, she finds Steve in the garage with Kyla tending to his wounds. Kyla is reluctant to get involved with the family but once she does, she is able to bring stability and hope to Di and Steve’s home. Again, her relationship with them is ambiguous, we see the flicker of romantic feelings between Steve and her but Dolan is clever enough to never follow up on that, instead keeping the relationship caring and loving with a hint of something more.  This paradise they have found in one another is unsustainable and eventually we learn that Steve and Die can’t escape their past actions.  Fate has been barreling towards them all along, they were just too busy to notice. 

Dolan has always been an incredibly flamboyant filmmaker and Mommy is no different.  Mommy is presented in a 1:1 ratio, what that means is that for nearly all of the film, the picture is a small square in the middle..  The effect is divisive and challenging to the viewer but I quickly got used to it and found that it was able to highlight the way the characters feel trapped in their lives.  Perhaps the single most euphoric moment of the movie is when Steve, finally feeling happy and free, pushes the aspect ratio out with his arms and the glorious full screen envelops the scene. It feels like you have been holding your breath and you can finally breathe, the viewer feels the same dizzy happiness that Steve feels in that moment, quite simply it is one of the most stunning filmmaking sequences of the last decade.  Moments later, Di receives news that will alter their lives forever and begins to put in motion the inevitable fate we have been anticipating since that opening epigraph. Music also plays a huge part in the production and emotion of the film, something that Dolan has excelled at since the beginning.  From the Celine Dion dance sequence where we see Kyla beginning to open up to Oasis’  “Wonderwall” playing during the shift in aspect ratio, Dolan makes the music so inextricably linked to the scenes that you cannot separate them in your mind.  

Mommy is the kind of movie that overwhelms you with emotion, the performances are big but hold back just enough to be the best kind of melodrama,  there are fights, attempted suicide, incredible fantasy sequences and total heartbreak.  Dolan’s films are never the kind you can be ambivalent about, he wants you to be screaming and crying and laughing just like the characters.  And with Mommy, you do.  Mommy should be a dour film in so many ways, that epigraph warns us exactly what will happen and we know the film is leading to tragedy for this family.  But instead of tragedy, we see joy, instead of death, there is life, instead of the world closing in on us, it opens gloriously.