Editor’s Note: Below find two reviews for films showing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis: 1) Goodnight Mommy; and 2) Mississippi Grind.
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1 — Goodnight Mommy
Engineered for maximum displeasure, Goodnight Mommy will cap any masochist’s night of fun. As for the rest of us, this dispassionate, heavily symbolic horror flick should be approached like fermented shark: as a yucky, meaningless exercise to be checked off after as “Done.”
Goodnight Mommy is the latest European freak show trapped within a bourgeois home, a genuine art-house phenomenon, believe it or not, that traces back to Buñuel, Polanski and Franju, with more immediate roots in Michael Haneke’s notorious Funny Games, from 1997. Yorgos Lanthimos, with Dogtooth in 2008, and Alex van Warmerdam, with Borgman in 2013, followed Haneke’s lead, and to varying success these three filmmakers orchestrated shocks in order to critique the repression, ignorance and legacies of violence intrinsic to upper-middle class existence.
Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have little interest in any politics, it seems, though no more lucid or accommodating is the movie they directed and wrote. It follows Lukas and Elias, two prepubescent, unnervingly Aryan twins played by real-life ones of the same name (last name Schwarz). Their mother (Susanne Wuest) is holed up in her bedroom, convalescing from extensive cosmetic surgery that has left her face hidden in bandages. Since returning, she has slid from cold to terrifying, and her boys, sensing a masked imposter, decide to revolt.
Two memorable shots register before Fiala and Franz dump us with trash. The first drops right before the title, as Elias approaches a dark void that, through what looks like a dolly zoom, seems to swallow him whole. The second wields a lighter touch no less macabre, when the boys discover a local catacomb and in it, a stray cat. As one of the boys crouches to pet the old, docile kitty, the camera frames his Crocs resting on a pile of bronzed human femurs.
These compositions suggest a clever filmmaking pair capable of conjuring a thick, fairytale gloom, and how I wish I could stay so kind after watching their film to its end. Because, before long, Goodnight Mommy devotes its all to sequences of protracted, straight-faced sadism that just about obliterated any goodwill I was willing to spare.
The ease with which the boys turn to torture could lead to interesting questions regarding the origins of aggression, but Goodnight Mommy has a much baser goal. Elias and Lukas, the devils, inflict violence upon their disputed mother’s lips, gums, temple, cheek and dignity, asking calmly throughout where their real mother is. That the line between dream and reality blurs during some of the most graphic assaults (viz. one involving a box cutter) does not temper the hell the second half is to sit through.
If anything, the obfuscation and austere style (e.g. there are significant stretches of silence, without any music) feign respectability for a grindhouse premise that has none. Like Nicolas Winding Refn and his loathsome Only God Forgives, Fiala and Franz surround the bloodletting with enough handsome nonsense (DP Martin Gschlacht is a talent) to be called Artists rather than dealers in schlock. The net effect may not be much different — Goodnight Mommy is a minor word-of-mouth sensation, so sick it “must be seen to be believed” — but at least I can count on Eli Roth for his honesty.
2 — Mississippi Grind
In the “It’s fine” camp is Mississippi Grind, starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as gambling addicts. A downbeat buddy comedy by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), the film emphasizes the pathology of their exploits over the high-rolling surface, though a climactic homage to Murnau’s The Last Laugh keeps these almost-losers from bank-busting loss.
Reynolds playing flawed and kind of lame is the news here, apparently, but once again Mendelsohn (Starred Up, Place Beyond the Pines) steals it, as a closet softie who woos girls with Satie. Together, their misadventures amount to a few personal breakthroughs and one colorful car trip down the Mississippi. Movies can aim higher than what Boden and Fleck accomplish here, but why scoff at comfort food?
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