Monday, November 28, 2016

A horror film of a different kind, Nicolas Pesce's extraordinary film debut is a deeply disturbing and chillingly conceived piece of work. Set on a rural farm in Portugal, The Eyes of My Mother tells the story of a young girl named Francisca, whose mother, a successful surgeon, is murdered before her very eyes. After her father captures the killer and ties him up in their barn, Francesca decides to take care of her new friend, by becoming the surgeon her mother always dreamed she would become. As the years roll on, Francesca's victims mount, as she desperately searches for a real, human connection the only way she knows how - dissection.

Shot in eerie, evocative black and white, The Eyes of My Mother feels like a feminist twist on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the killer discovers that the "final girl" is even more of a monster than he is. There's a certain surreal quality to it all, even if there aren't any overtly surreal elements. Pesce dispenses with filmmaking basics like establishing shots to set-up locations, and cuts away from scenes at moments that feel intuitively wrong, often showing us the aftermath of important actions rather than the actions themselves.

A scene from THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet release.
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Pesce intentionally avoids the story's inherent violence, focusing instead on its consequences. He is more enamored with the ordinariness of Francisca's life around the ghastly events that have come to define it. Imagine Psycho without the murders, instead focusing on Norman's life with his mother, where the infamous are almost an afterthought. The result is jarring and somewhat disorienting, yet we never feel as though we are ever in less than capable hands. Pesce's unique choices create a certain dreamlike quality, of interconnecting scenes held together by gossamer strands of logic, veering quickly into a world of nightmares.

You'll find no jump scares here, no things that go "bump" in the night. The Eyes of My Mother is a haunting slow-burn of a film, one that eats its way under the skin with sadistic precision. Everything about it just feels off somehow, and Pesce's insistence on showing the prelude and the aftermath of the violence rather than the violence itself gives us the feeling that we're bearing witness to something we're not supposed to see. Each shot is framed like a photograph, a snapshot into the mind of someone who is deeply disturbed, but feels as if their life is completely normal. Yet underneath its otherworldly beauty is something sick and twisted, a shocking examination of madness that is unlike anything we've seen before.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER | Directed by Nicholas Pesce | Stars  Kika Magalhaes, Diana Agostini, Paul Nazak, Will Brill | Not Rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, December 2, in select cities.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Anyone who doubts that we are currently living in a new golden age of cinema need look no further than this year's Criterion Collection releases. Ignoring the films that were released as part of their partnership with IFC Films, Criterion has released five films from the 2000s on Blu-Ray in this year alone - Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), Stig Bj√∂rkman's Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015), Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and now Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005).

You'd be hard-pressed to find a comedy as unrelentingly dark as The Squid and the Whale, an acerbic look at the dissolving of a family set in New York in 1986. Clearly a deeply personal work for Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale examines the deeply toxic effects of two parents warring over divorce proceedings on the children caught in the middle. In this case, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is unflinchingly loyal to his father, Bernard (Jeff Bridges, never better), a pompous author turned college professor whose writing career never took off the way he believed it should, while young Frank (Owen Kline) is more drawn to his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), a softer spoken aspiring writer whose open nature has been just as destructive to her family as Bernard's arrogance.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The selfishness of these two parents is on full display, too concerned with scoring points against each other to notice that their children are in pain. Walt has turned his father's sense of intellectual superiority into a mask for his own feelings of inadequacy, plagiarizing a Pink Floyd song at a school talent competition and dismissing his new girlfriend's tastes to build himself up. Frank, on the other hand, takes to masturbating and smearing his semen on library books and lockers around the school, acting out in increasingly troubling ways that remain invisible to his warring parents, who continue to use the children as pawns in their own short power struggles, where "it's MY night" becomes a familiar joint-custody refrain that trumps both child's wishes.

Yet despite the acidic tone, The Squid and the Whale is a disarmingly funny film, one that offers a wealth of insight into the modern American family. Baumbach writes with often scathing wit, but it comes from a place of love for these people, for this place, for this family. He is not belittling them, he is mourning them. As they tear each other apart for their own selfish ends, they can't see past their own needs long enough to realize that deep down they really do care. Baumbach's humor here is bruising, we laugh often because we are shocked at the characters' behavior. But it all feels so painfully real that it's hard to shake. Baumbach doesn't delve into histrionics, each character feels fully formed, each a product of a life lived long before the film begins. There's an almost organic quality to it all (it was shot on purposefully grainy Super 16 film, beautifully rendered by the new Blu-Ray), like home movies we shouldn't be watching. We laugh that Bernard crashes his son's date and talks them into seeing the racy Blue Velvet instead of more family friendly Short Circuit, but there is a underlying melancholy to it all, an understanding of the great damage being wrought in the name of love. It's a powerful work, a film whose humorous exterior belies a deep understanding of family dynamics that continues to resonate today.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)

On Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on November 22.
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Robert Yeoman and director Noah Baumbach, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD 
  • Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interviews with Baumbach and actors Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, and Laura Linney 
  • New conversation about the score and other music in the film between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips Behind 
  • “The Squid and the Whale,” a 2005 documentary featuring on-set footage and cast interviews 
  • Audition footage 
  • Trailers 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 2005 interview of Baumbach by novelist Jonathan Lethem