Men, Women, Children and Humans: Some short movie reviews

Men, Women, Children and Humans: Some short movie reviews July 14, 2015

What I’ve been watching.

Mr Skeffington: Two and a half hours of epic Bette Davis. We start in the 1910s, with Davis as a Scarlett-like belle of the ball who ends up turning down all her suitors to marry the Jewish financier Job Skeffington. She married him only in order to save her beloved wastrel brother from ruin, so although Mr. Skeffington demonstrates his patience and loyalty to her and she does try to please him and work up some fondness for him, things rapidly go downhill for the couple. We follow them through their tempestuous 1920s and then their estranged and heartbreaking 1930s. Will Mrs. Skeffington allow herself to be vulnerable and human, and embrace the man who truly loves her? Or will she let her desire for control destroy her only chance at happiness?

That’s a charitable way of putting the movie’s central problem. Mr Skeffington is so frustrating because it comes so close to greatness. The pacing is fantastic–you just roll right along, unable to look away from the screen. It’s startling how thoroughly Mr Skeffington plays the stereotypical wife’s role: He has the patience not only of his namesake, but of Griselda. He is endlessly gentle, he adores his daughter and strives to sacrifice his own happiness for the women in his life, and although he does end up reciprocating his wife’s infidelities, he makes it pretty clear that he would come home if she would let him. And although Mrs S eventually becomes looks- and youth-obsessed in a gross stereotypical way, you can definitely read that as a culturally-channeled fear that she will lose her power. (Her relationship with her daughter will ring familiar to many women, unfortunately.)

The problem is that in the second half the movie becomes, “Let’s all lecture Bette Davis.” Has the introduction of a psychiatrist, to a film not essentially about psychiatry, ever improved a 1940s or ’50s film? Here comes the doctor, the scientific man, to condescend to Mrs S and tell the audience what to think.

“Embrace your vulnerability and powerlessness” is a true piece of wisdom, something we all have to do. Similarly “You won’t find happiness until you learn to give yourself away.” But one of the most obnoxious things about this movie’s style of condescending sexism is the way it curdles those true things and makes them false, makes them excuses to punish women for selfishness.

Anyway Bette Davis is fabulous. I love how she uses her artificiality. She’s a hothouse flower in the first segment, and then a plastic flower. The ending is horrifyingly sentimental but, you know, I’m glad the Holocaust taught Bette Davis how to love.

Ils (Them): French horror flick with some excellent shots, a creepy soundtrack, and a very cool setting (French expats menaced in the home they’re renting in Romania). Did not scare me or make me think. Eden Lake without the class hatred? Just didn’t work for me, I guess.

Phone: Korean horror about a haunted cell phone. This is pretty great! A twisty plot, sympathetic characters, real sadness and scares, themes of adults betraying children and the jealousy caused by infertility. Also I’m sexually attracted to the color control in this movie. These oranges and blues, just drenching color, so hot. My only criticism is that it seemed like the pacing of the scares was slightly off. There were lots of moments when I think I would have jumped out of my skin if something had happened just a split second earlier or later.

The Host: More Korean horror. This was just an excellent film. From writer & director Joon-Ho Bong (Mother, Snowpiercer, Memories of Murder). A troubled family is caught up in social chaos following the emergence of a mutant seamonster. Gorgeous shots, real edge-of-the-seat scares and tension, incredibly sympathetic and unusual characters. Our heroes are a schoolgirl, a grandfather, a “slow” and hapless father, a lady archer, and an obstreperous drunk ex-protester. The monster is shown early and in detail, which I did not expect, but it remains scary and awful throughout the film. The plot twists enough to be surprising and wrenching, but not so much that it feels forced.

Lots of strong thematic material: the way we blame suffering people in order to feel like we have some control over a terrible situation; the way the middle generation needs to come together to protect the older and younger ones; the utterly human unwillingness to follow rules and commands, which has many good effects throughout the film, in part because so many of the film’s authorities are untrustworthy. The authority figures in this film are basically my “doctors and policemen” tag come to life.

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