Friday, September 19, 2008

Families in Crisis

There have always been -- and there will always continue to be -- enough dysfunctional families so that playwrights and screenwriters never lack inspiration.  Whether one is dealing with sibling rivalries (Brothers & Sisters, Ugly Betty), an unexpected pregnancy (Juno, Knocked Up), abandonment issues (Six Feet Under, Superman), or a family struggling with substance abuse (The Subject Was Roses, Leaving Las Vegas,  Long Day's Journey Into Night), plenty of scandal and misery is waiting to be exploited on the silver screen.

Although cinematic styles and techniques may vary, certain plot lines are easily identifiable. 

Someone gets kidnapped. 

Something gets stolen.  

Someone's heart gets broken.  

Nothing particularly new in that department -- until you start comparing movies about families in crisis that were made 80 years apart.

On Friday, I had a rare opportunity to catch a screening of the only existing Chinese silent martial arts film, Red Heroine (1929), which is currently touring the nation with live music by Boston's Devil Music Ensemble.  Long before the wonder of modern films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chinese filmmakers had their heroes/heroines flying through the air.

To be honest, the evening was great, campy fun.  While Red Heroine has some really enjoyable fight scenes, one character (appropriately named "Teeth") offered the kind of dental challenge that would make Lon Chaney jealous. How can you really chase after your girlfriend when you're holding a duck in your hands and are trying to run while her blind grandmother is hanging from your neck?  And what can you say about the homeliest group of flat-chested, flat-footed concubines ever to hit the silver screen wearing costumes that look like fully-loaded Depends?

Loved the band (great percussion work)! 

Couldn't stop chuckling at all the typos and mistranslations in the film titles. 

Watch the trailer below and have yourself a good chuckle.  

A much more modern tale of family dysfunction is about to go on display when the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival offers audiences a sweet new Canadian film entitled Mommy Is At The Hairdresser's (Maman Est Chez Le Coiffeur).  Written by Isabelle Hibert and directed by Lea Pool, the film centers on a Quebecois family whose mother (Celine Bonnier) is a local news reporter and whose father (Laurent Lucas)  is a physician who would much rather spend time playing golf with his friends than pay attention to his wife.   Their oldest child, Elise (Marianne Fortier) urges her mother to listen in on one of her father's phone calls with catastrophic results.

The mother (portrayed by an actress with an uncanny resemblance to Christine Baranski) erupts in anger and asks her boss to transfer her to the London news bureau.  She leaves behind a clueless husband and three very confused and hurt children.  The middle child, Coco (Elie Dupuis) is busy trying to build a go cart with spare lawnmower parts. Their youngest son, however, is a special needs child.

Benoit (Hugo St-Onge-Paquin) is an adorable tyke who is gifted, dyslexic, has some behavioral problems and might suffer from mild mental retardation.  When his mother abandons the family, he begins to act out as chaos engulfs his previously secure and loving home life. Meanwhile, Elise finds a curious father figure in Monsieur Mouche (a deaf mute with a large port wine stain on his face), who arrives in his tiny trailer each year to camp by the river and make fishing lures.   

Over the course of the summer, Mouche teaches Elise how to fish, a prying neighbor, Madame Paradis (Paule Ducharme) is constantly scandalized,  and whenever anyone asks about Simone's whereabouts, the children reply that their mother is at the hairdresser's.  Only when the children see their mother reporting from London on the television screen does the complete failure of their family hit home.

This is not a great film, but it has a singular charm and is worth watching simply for the superb art direction by Patrice Bengle as well as Michele Hamel's period costumes.   The trailer only gives a hint of the movie's subtle appeal, which lies mostly in the questioning eyes of the angelic Benoit.

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