AND THEN THE ECSTASY KICKED IN, OR WHO’S MIND F*CKING THE STORE?: Movie reviews of Borgman, Coherence and The Moment by Howard Casner

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Warning: SPOILERS

borgman_bedroom__mediumThree movies have opened recently that I call WTF films. You know what I mean, cinema deliriums that after you watch it, you turn to your friend and go WHAT THE…?

Movies like The American Astronaut, Eraserhead, La Mustache, El Topo, Holy Motors, Dogtooth, Mulholland Drive…

Movies that play mind fuck games with your, well…mind.

Movies that are strange and offbeat and abnormal and peculiar and original and unique (well, I could go on, my thesaurus lists a lot of words similar to these, so I think I’ve made my point), but also movies made with a vision and passion and eschew normal rules of screenwriting and filmmaking.

And if there is one thing I like in films, it’s have my fucking mind…fucked. Or blown. Or something else that can have a sex act as its metaphor.

 

In Borgman, the new oddity from the Netherlands (it was that country’s entry in the 2014 Oscars) written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam, Borgman is a mysterious stranger who insinuates himself in an upper middle class family with a house beyond the suburbs.

 

It’s basically a variation on the 1932 Jean Renoir classic Boudu Saved From Drowning. But while Boudu… is a satiric attack on the bourgeoisie and their middle class pretentions, Borgman is about…

 

Well, hell if I know.

 

Borgman is a movie in which everybody does things that I’m not sure are remotely believable, and for reasons never clearly explained, but you buy every single one of their actions.

 

It’s a movie in which every plot development takes a Rube Goldbergian set of plans to carry it out (i.e., the characters are constantly killing fleas with elephants), but you accept every twist and turn as if it were the most logical thing in the world.

 

It’s a movie which feels as if it was made up as it goes along, with a very nebulous hold on cause and effect, yet the story seems to be a whole, complete in itself, every scene having a sure purpose, with a resolution that seems to be the destination set from the beginning.

 

The story proper begins with a group of hunters, one of whom is a pastor, hunting down three men living underground in the forest. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but the men get away, with one, Borgman, finding his way to an affluent suburb and going door to door asking if he can take a bath with all the naturalness of Avon calling.

 

After being rather understandably turned down a few times, he happens upon a home where the husband first rejects him, but when Borgman comes back later, the wife allows him to cross their threshold.

 

But once in, he just doesn’t leave, with the wife seemingly helpless to do much about it except give in to him. Next, Borgman gets rid of the family’s gardener; shears his Biblical looking beard and locks; and rings the front doorbell redux, this time with a quite unthreatening visage, and applies for the now suddenly available gardener’s job. The husband welcomes him in and hires him on the spot.

 

And then, to paraphrase a character in the comedy show The Kids in the Hall, “the ecstasy kicked in” as Borgman, as he so eloquently states it, begins to “play”.

 

I’m not sure there’s a point in trying to relate the plot, it’s one of those kinds of films. But it proceeds upon paths both bizarre and weird, growing more and more nightmarish as it goes along, while often being hysterically funny.

 

And the various actors, including Jan Bijvoet in the title role, take the whole rigamarole ruthlessly seriously, investing themselves in their parts as if everything makes perfect sense.

 

It all culminates one night in which Borgman and his helpers have redone the garden and built a stage upon which the various Borgmanians (Borgmanites?, whatever) present the family with a performance art piece.

 

This is actually one of van Warmerdam’s rare missteps in directing. Instead of letting us, the audience, see what seems to be a rather intriguing stage presentation, the filmmaker constantly cuts to lengthy takes of the family watching. This might be fine if this was Hamlet during the play within a play where important things are going on amongst the royal family, but here the faces are rather blank during this sequence and nothing happens in the audience of any apparent importance.

 

So is Borgman a fallen angel? Christ? The antichrist? A demon?

 

And what does it all mean? Are Borgman’s actions and his effect on the family a metaphor for something in particular? Or is it a metaphor for anything one wants it to be a metaphor for? Or is it more like an abstract painting which has no inherent literal meaning, but is only about the relationship of the colors and shapes?

 

I don’t know. I just know that when it was over, I went What the….

 

coherenceIn Coherence, a group of thirty/forty somethings meet for a dinner party on a night when a comet passes very close to the earth.

 

And then the ecstasy kicked in.

 

Coherence is an entry in a recent spate of small budgeted sci-fi films that tend to emphasize character, intriguing ideas, thought provoking subject matter and social commentary over movies driven by CGI, IMAX and box office, and are all the better for it.

 

These movies include such noted genre pieces as Upstream Color, Another Earth, Timecrimes, Monsters, Safety Not Guaranteed, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, It’s a Disaster…I could go on and on.

 

But what they all really have in common are their resemblance to episodes of the classic television series The Twilight Zone, which every week would have a little gem of a strange story that you frequently wouldn’t be able to shake yourself free of with things happening that often had no clear cut explanation.

 

In many ways, though, I have to say I find this just a little odd since The Twilight Zone never really seemed to influence the filmmakers during its time or the filmmakers that came soon after, from the 1960’s on. But for some do do do do, do do do do reason, it seems to have had a deep influence on a group of artists who could only have seen the show in syndication.

 

At any rate, the basic premise of Coherence is that while this group of old friends are gathered to sup, suddenly all the electricity goes off, while their phones and wi-fi lose their ability to connect to servers.   And when they look outside, they see that the whole block is the same.

 

At that point it gets a little unnerving when they can see a house a couple of blocks away that seems to have all its power.

 

And at that point it gets a little more unnerving when some of the characters go to that house and they bring back a metal box that has pictures of them inside it with numbers on the back.

 

And at the point it gets a little more unnerving when some characters go back and they look inside the house and they see…

 

Well, I’m not sure I should tell you much more than that.   Just be prepared to be blown…I mean, have your mind blown.

 

The screenplay is by James Ward Byrkit, who also directed, and Alex Manugian, who plays Amir, one of the dinner guests.   Though it’s an extremely clever and very solid piece of writing, it does have some issues.

 

The characters are not that interesting (in fact, they’re kind of annoying) and it’s a bit of a struggle to have to put up with them until the lights go out. Todd Berger did a better job with this in the film It’s a Disaster, which is also about a group of friends gathering for a meal, though in that movie Berger had the advantage of affectionately mocking the characters, while Byrkit and Manugian portray their characters with a deathly seriousness—maybe not the best decision. And, well, if truth be told, Berger did have a stronger ensemble of thespians.

 

And some of the plotting feels a bit clunky (like a homemade anti-anxiety drug and a letter someone writes to “himself”—the quotations make sense in the context of the movie—in order to blackmail “himself” into not doing something—it’s a bit of one of those killing a flea with an elephant type things which doesn’t work here as well as it does in Borgman).

 

Perhaps the most structurally unsound aspect of the script is that at the end, it suddenly becomes clear that there is actually a central character, Em (played effectively by Emily Baldoni). She is the only one of the group who is going on some sort of journey or has a character arc. But it quickly gets lost (if it was ever clearly there in the first place) as the film quickly becomes an ensemble piece and she just becomes another one of the many. As a result, when she becomes central at the end, it feels a bit awkward.

 

At the same time, in spite of the off putting characters (all of whom are solidly played by the actors), the occasionally weak plotting and the somewhat unfocused structure, the story is too riveting and intriguing (it’s one of those plots that if you try to make too much sense of it, you’ll get a headache) and just too much of a, a…mind fuck for any of that to be a serious problem.

 

As a director, Byrkit shows a sure and steady hand. His camera wanders around in one of those hand held styles that seems aimless, but is always in the right place at the right time and it seems constantly pointed at something that seems unimportant, but in doing so, gives the whole story a naturalistic, documentary feel to it that is very effective.

 

And then he’ll suddenly just stop and go to black in the middle of a conversation, starting up the story again a few minutes later.

 

My big issue with Byrkit as a director is that he’s very good, maybe too good. So good that if the movie does well, I have this nightmare vision that he’ll end up directing Godzilla II a few years from now.

 

And thus proving the old adage and Peter Principle variation that no good deed goes unpunished.

 

momentIn The Moment, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lee, a war photographer, who arrives at a remote house to pick up some of her cameras that she left there after breaking up with its inhabitant, her now ex-boyfriend. She finds no one there and the place feels as if someone had left in the middle of something, with dead goldfish, decaying food and an unmade bed.

 

She reports these oddities to the police, but no one takes it that seriously. After all, people disappear on purpose all the time.

 

And then, well, the you know what, kicked in.

 

That night, she has a nervous breakdown at a gallery opening of her photographs, walking out naked into the crowd, ending up in a psychiatric home where during her first session, she tells her therapist that she now remembers that she killed the missing person.

 

Again, no one takes her that seriously, mainly because no body has been found and Lee can’t seem to really remember exactly what happened that night, as well as details that become important later on, like why she and her boyfriend broke up. In addition, as everyone knows, she is still recovering from the trauma of being injured by a suicide bomber while taking photos in the Middle East.

 

And then things take a really off kilter turn as the patient that her doctor sees before her looks exactly like her ex-boyfriend.

 

The screenplay is by Gloria Norris (who eons ago had co-written Brian De Palma’s Home Movies; no, not his home, home movies, but his movie, Home Movies) and Jane Weinstock, who also directed.

 

The first half of The Moment is a fascinating little mind bender (you thought I was going to say mind fuck, didn’t you?, but that’s getting a little old, don’t you think) as we, along with Lee, try to figure out what the hell is going on.

 

But the writers paint themselves somewhat into a corner as the story goes on. As the movie enters film noir territory and becomes more and more a murder mystery, the authors can’t seem to decide whether this is supposed to be a who done it with Mildred Pierce overtones or more an exploration of a person’s damaged psyche, with neither one of them every fully succeeding.

 

If the story is ultimately a murder mystery, then it becomes less interesting and a bit of a letdown. But if it’s not a murder mystery, then it may be unclear what the point of the whole thing is, especially since the authors haven’t really found a satisfying way to resolve it.

 

But what it does have is Jennifer Jason Leigh as the still point in this turning world, and it’s wonderful to see her front and center in a role that is worthy of her. She gives a very empathetic performance of someone who is placed in a context that just makes no sense.

 

I have to say, though, that I never really understood what happened to Leigh’s career. She began by giving such riveting performances in films like Last Exit to Brooklyn, Miami Blues and Georgia (not to mention cult faves like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Hitcher). But her career seemed to stop going anywhere interesting for reasons unknown to me and she started showing up in unrewarding secondary roles in films like Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, Kill Your Darlings and The Spectacular Now.

 

She does get solid support from her co-workers. Alia Shawkat plays Lee’s petulant daughter, Jessie; Martin Henderson is the boyfriend/fellow patient; the beautiful voiced Marianne Jean-Baptiste is the therapist; and Meat Loaf, in a role he should consider being typecast as, is a police sergeant investigating the disappearance.


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