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Mom and Dad
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by Peter Sobczynski

"What's The Matter With Parents These Days?"
4 stars

Most actors have retinues of agents, managers, handlers and hangers-on who are employed specifically to ensure that screenplays like the one for “Mom and Dad” never get anywhere near them, let along end up in their hands. Nicolas Cage, as has pretty much been proven definitely over the years, is not like most actors and I suspect that if this movie had somehow been made without his participation, he might have immediately fired his entire staff for failing to put him in a project that seems to have been tailor-made for his unique talents and his decidedly peculiar taste in material. Happily, the script landed in Cage’s hands and the result is a cheerfully deranged, if somewhat uneven, freak show that takes one of the more audacious story premises of recent memory and runs with it with a kind of crazed energy that is a perfect match for the material at hand.

At first glance, the Ryans—dad Brent (Cage), mom Kendall (Selma Blair), teen daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and young son Josh (Zackary Arthur)—seem like the ideal all-American family but it doesn’t take long to see the fissures that have grown between them. Brent is an office drone who cannot fathom how he went from being a young badass with a Trans-Am (now hidden from view in the garage) into the schnook that he has become. Kendall yearns for a return to the career she gave up years ago for motherhood and flits around doing things like Zumba classes as a way of filling her days. Carly is a typical rebellious teen who especially holds her mother in contempt for her empty existence even while at the same time stealing money from her purse to buy drugs with her best friend (Olivia Crocicchia) and raises her dad’s ire by dating an African-American classmate. Josh is too young for any angst, per se, but is just the right age to dumb things like try to protect a wounded bird by hiding it in the back seat of the aforementioned Trans-Am. Despite all the homilies posted on the walls of their nice suburban house, this is a family that teetering on the edge of implosion and this is even before the arrival of a mass outbreak of violence in which parents find themselves compelled to murder their own children.

There is no concrete explanation for this but yes, mothers and fathers go around strangling, stabbing and shooting their own offspring as thought it were the most natural thing in the world. (In one of the craziest moments in a film filled with them, Kendall, who has not yet been afflicted, watches her sister give birth and watches with horror and disbelief as the maternal instinct is overridden by a much darker impulse.) After escaping from school, where hordes of parents are at the gates like the zombies in a George Romero film around snack time, and figuring out what is going on, Carly hurries home (where the housekeeper has already dispatched her own child and is cheerily cleaning up the mess) to grab Josh and make a run for it. Unfortunately for them, Brent and Kendall both come home early as well and this leads to a long and increasingly bloody standoff in which the kids have locked themselves in the basement and Mom and Dad try to get at them with everything from a gas hose to power saws.

Even if you consider that writer-director Brian Taylor’s previous credits have included such over-the-top spectacles as the “Crank” films, “Gamer” and “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” “Mom and Dad” is a film with a concept that is so far out there that the fact that it even exists fairly well boggles the mind. Oddly enough, especially considering Taylor’s reputation for pushing the boundaries of dignity and good taste, especially for a film that is as much a black comedy as it is horror, “Mom and Dad” handles its premise with—well, perhaps “delicacy” is not quite the word but I suppose it will do for the moment. The moments in which parents actually kill their kids are filmed in an oblique but effective manner that leaves no doubt as to what is happening while at the same time sparing viewers the gory details—there is a shot of a group of dads in the maternity ward staring at their newborns through the window that is creepier than any amount of bloodshed. That said, there is plenty of gore on display and that almost exclusively comes from the inspired ways in which the kids fend off attacks from their former protectors. Without spoiling any of the gags, let me say that Taylor has come up with any number of creative approaches to this particular aspect and just at the moment towards the end when it seems as if the gimmick might be wearing itself out, he throws another inspired twist into the mix that inspires some of the biggest laughs.

While Taylor has pared down the narrative to its absolute essentials—those requiring an explanation as to why the parents suddenly turn on their kids should look elsewhere—he nevertheless introduces a couple of thematic points here and there that keep it from simply turning into a gruesome cartoon. It is a ritual of each generation, I suppose, to harbor some degree of resentment towards the next for appearing to have had it much easier than they ever did and being pampered and spoiled beyond belief as a result. “Mom and Dad,” for all of its silliness, channels into that sense of resentment in the way that it quickly and deftly lays out the resentments of Brent and Kendall over how their lives have turned out and the nagging, unspoken sense that they harbor that things would have turned out so much better for them had they not become burdened with familial responsibilities. In the film’s perverse conceit, they have not only been given the freedom to correct this but go about it as if it were just another form of self-actualization aimed at people who seek to follow the latest fad rather than take a good look at themselves regarding to their disappointments in life. (Since both Brent and Kendall come to the attempted slaughter a little late in the proceedings and do not limit their violence towards their own flesh and blood, there is the creepy suggestion that they have actually not been afflicted in the manner of everyone else but are merely using the mass hysteria as an excuse to indulge in their own darkest of impulses.)

For a film like this to have a chance of coming off, it requires actors who are comfortable with jumping straight into the deep end without a single moment’s hesitation. In other words, it requires someone like Nicolas Cage, who, when duly inspired, can hit the kind of operatic heights that few actors would dare to attempt but which are a perfect fit for this material. Is there another actor working today who could play a character that one could completely believe to be capable of killing his own children while still making him both watchable and entertaining? I dunno but Cage starts his performance off at 10 and proceeds to crank it up throughout until even those who otherwise hate the film may regard his efforts with no small amount of awe. (There is one sequence—a flashback to Brent’s putatively sane days—where he destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey” that will live on in countless compilations of Cage craziness for as long as YouTube remains a thing.) And yet, while Cage’s work will no doubt get most of the attention, Selma Blair, in the most significant role she has had in a while, is just as good—she may be nibbling at the scenery instead of scarfing it down outright but she expertly nails both her quiet anger and helplessness over the emptiness of her otherwise idealized circumstances in the early scenes and the hilariously matter-of-fact approach she takes later on when, as with most moms, she is the one who has to come up with a practical plan in order to get things accomplished.

“Mom and Dad” is uneven at times—as great as the “Hokey Pokey” bit is, it comes at a somewhat awkward moment in the proceedings that threatens its relentlessly headlong pace—and it just sort of ends instead of coming to any real conclusions (though to be fair, it is hard to immediately imagine what kind of ending could have properly concluded what has gone before it. And yet, as audaciously plotted and cheerfully grotesque B-movies go, this one more or less gets the job done with equal amounts of humor, energy and inspiration. Clearly, this is not a film for all tastes but if you have made it to the point of reading these words in this review and are still curious about it, you may find yourself getting a kick out of it after all.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31990&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/20/18 02:57:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  19-Jan-2018 (R)
  DVD: 20-Feb-2018

UK
  02-Mar-2018

Australia
  19-Jan-2018
  DVD: 20-Feb-2018


Directed by
  Brian Taylor

Written by
  Brian Taylor

Cast
  Nicolas Cage
  Selma Blair
  Anne Winters
  Lance Henriksen
  Zackary Arthur



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