Maria, Leonora, Theresa - 2014
Written by Keiko Aquino
Directed by Wenn V Deramas
I doubt I'd ever think to call myself a "foreign movie buff" because I don't feel that the preconceptions of what that means necessarily apply to me, but I do greatly enjoy experiencing other cultures through their pop culture. There's just a whole layer of textures that you can't possibly get through travel and cooking shows, no matter how well-intended. On that note, I'm happy to have added the Philippines to my United Nations of cinematic experiences with Maria, Leonora Theresa.
I was pretty nervous as the scene was being established. It seemed might bright and manic at first as it established the characters of the three young schoolgirls (see title) and the families that loved them. Then a ghost boy starts popping up, similar to a lot of Asian horror... and then the girls all die in a bus crash. It's fair to say that things get a lot darker after that.
The girls' families are all in abject mourning, each coping in their own ways, some more poorly than others. That's when a psychologist working on an experiment in loss shows up with a life-size doll of each girl, promoting the theory that these items will decrease the sense of loss. Maria and Theresa's mothers are mortified at first, but when they see how it's helped Leonora's father (he's gay and has no other family) to feel less alone, they gradually decide to give it a try. Now, this definitely takes a certain suspension of disbelief because it's obviously A HORRIBLE IDEA. Nevermind how creepy the dolls are; it's just completely terrible psychology and the absolute opposite direction from the real path to healing, but okay, just hold on to that discomfiting creep factor, because there's good cause for it.
At first, the mothers and father start to feel better; comforted and more aware of the presence of their late beloveds. But others around them are (appropriately) creeped the eff out. The dolls start popping up in areas of their houses other than where they were left and so on. It's not long before those who threaten them start turning up dead. The process of figuring out what's going on, and accepting who, or what is responsible takes a little longer than it should, and in the meantime, the psychologist who was so keen to do this "experiment" is nowhere to be seen. This all leads into the third act uncovering of the greater mystery and what it has to do with the ghost boy from the beginning.
I ended up really liking the story, balks at the psychological explanations notwithstanding. Sure, the production values are middling and the performances aren't particularly naturalistic, but that's some of that cultural texture that you pretty much have to accept at the buy-in level. Despite its senselessness, the doll conceit works to serve the story's recurring themes of managing loss. Also the creepy. SO creepy.
Maria, Leonora, Theresa combines elements that are familiar to horror with aspects unique to Philippine spiritual beliefs, thus adding some completely fresh ingredients to a favorite recipe. Yum!
Written by David Johnson & Alex Mace
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
The family in Orphan is also dealing with loss. In their case, they lost their daughter before she was born through miscarriage. Determined to share that love, they decide to adopt another daughter to bring into the fold that already includes a son and daughter.
Going into this movie, I initially expected to be offended by the taint that it would put on the concept of adoption, which I hold to be a value. Kids need loving parents, and there just don't seem to be enough to go around. Fortunately, Orphan distances itself so completely from reality with such a far-fetched club sandwich of improbabilities that anyone it might discourage from adopting probably isn't mentally cut out for it in the first place.
When John & Kate head on down to the good ol' fashioned Catholic orphanage (do they even make those anymore?), naturally they skip right past all the jolly and sociable young girls clambering for attention and head right for the "different" girl who prefers to hide up in the classroom painting. In less than five minutes they've made up their minds and begin the process of adopting the clever little girl from Russia, Esther.
Esther is intelligent and creative, displaying a facility for learning, a wisdom beyond her years and her own peculiar style preferences with include a dollish fashion sense and ubiquitous ribbons around her wrists and neck. She's really rather charming and I'd probably adopt her myself, in the early stages. But it's not long after they get her home that she starts to reveal some odd tendencies. She's a bit of a lurker, not terribly forthcoming about her past, and soon demonstrates a matchstick temper and a cold pragmatism toward life and death.
When another little girl's leg is broken in a playground incident (Esther's doing, but not provable), Kate snaps into suspicion and accusation mode rather quickly. She's given plenty of fuel for her suspicions, and Esther is rather quick to escalate matters. Things ramp up with increasing rapidity, but John is unwilling or unable to see it, and the other kids have been intimidated into silence. So just what IS Esther's deal and will Kate be able to uncover it before it's too late?
A thriller called "Orphan" really doesn't leave a lot of mystery about who the bad guy is going to be and in which direction the mysteries lay. I didn't find it terribly surprising, although there's a twist or... nah, there's just the one twist that others may not see coming. Nevertheless, the film packs considerable tension, even if it's just to find out who's going to survive it all. Isabelle Fuhrman, the girl who plays Esther is extraordinary in the role and really sells the entire premise. She's both charming and alarming, with stops in between.