THE LONG BAD HIGH - My Review of INHERENT VICE (2 Stars)… MoreTHE LONG BAD HIGH - My Review of INHERENT VICE (2 Stars)
Writer-Director Paul Thomas Anderson has long been compared to the late great Robert Altman. Often employing large casts, overlapping dialogue and well-chosen music, the comparison is apt, with his incendiary BOOGIE NIGHTS feeling like NASHVILLE with 20% more orgasms. Now Anderson brings us the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, INHERENT VICE, a dense 1970-era noir, and its homage to Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE is readily apparent. Unfortunately, it's terrible, whereas Altman's film is a loopy classic.
While I appreciate the attempt, and there are some delights on the fringes of the film, this is one 2 1/2 hour long slog. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a perpetually stoned private eye who has been nursing hurt feelings in his beach bungalow, when a dewy, gorgeous ex of his (Katherine Waterston, daughter to Sam, is perfect, touching and lovely as Shasta) shows up needing his help. She's in love with a real estate magnate whose ex-wife wants him committed to a mental institution so she can make off with his millions. On paper this sounds like an adequate hook for a story which will take us through many twists and turns to reveal an insidious CHINATOWN-like sea of corruption. Sadly, the rhythms of the film feel off from the very start. Mirroring Doc's blessed out vibe yet gorgeously shot with a honey-soaked, sun-dappled sheen by the very talented Robert Elswit (he's having a great year with this and NIGHCRAWLER), Anderson honors his main character while boring the hell out of his audience. You just want to shake this film and say, "If I dump some cold water on you, will you PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE wake the f*ck up?!!"
Now don't get me wrong, the movie has its charms. Phoenix is pretty spectacular as a burned out hippie who's realizing that the Nixon era is about to wipe out the Summer of Love bliss. He ambles from scene to scene, meeting up with a huge cast of suspects and informants, shuffling along in his sandals, or worse, his dirty bare feet. Much smarter than he appears, and his appearance includes mutton chops and hair so scraggly, I'm pretty sure I saw the word, "SCRAGGLY" written in it somehow, the best parts of the film are the times where he surprises us with lucid, coherent thoughts. From Reese Witherspoon's uptight Deputy D.A. to Martin Short's insane, coke snorting dentist, this is a dream cast trapped in a dirge. Josh Brolin is the embodiment of pent-up anger and torment as the police detective known as Bigfoot. What this crew-cut Republican does with a chocolate covered banana, and Phoenix's priceless reaction to is, is almost worth the price of admission.
In fact, as I said, there are pleasures to be had. A scene in a Massage Parlor is downright hilarious as the proprietor acts out the daily special right in front of Doc. Also, there's built-in fun watching a guy who's high try to make his way out of a life-threatening situation. A sequence in which Doc and Shasta run barefoot in the rain is indelible. I even liked the overall concept, showing us how a counterculture surrendered to an oppressive administration with the one-two punch of the war in Vietnam raging and Watergate on the horizon. Still, these delights play as random asides, small pleasures, or little dashes of spice in an attempt to make the main course less of a chore to digest. Bottom line? I just didn't care what I was watching and I REALLY wanted it to end.
This is tough to write, as I have a lot of respect and admiration for Anderson. He's no cookie cutter filmmaker. Many scenes are played out where characters speak for a while off camera before being revealed. He doesn't spell everything out for you, and in this era of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator studio fare, that's not only welcome, but it's an act of true bravery. He tackles big subjects and wraps them in truly colorful surroundings. He's also rarely in a hurry to tell a story, with most of his films being leisurely, to put it kindly. If only he could go back to remembering there are people sitting in an audience watching, like he did with BOOGIE NIGHTS, then I think Anderson will achieve the Robert Altman-esque career he certainly deserves.
NETWORK DRIVE - My Review of NIGHTCRAWLER (4 Stars)
Screenwriter Dan… MoreNETWORK DRIVE - My Review of NIGHTCRAWLER (4 Stars)
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy, best known for THE BOURNE LEGACY, makes his directorial debut with NIGHTCRAWLER. It's a thrilling, disturbing, quasi-satire in the vein of the classic, NETWORK, with a dash of the excitement and retro vibe of DRIVE (no coincidence - same producers), and, most effectively, a look at the desperation many of us feel during these tough economic times.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a down-on-his-luck, violent thief and nightmarish sociopath, who stumbles upon a car accident one night and is introduced to the ambulance-chasing world of crime journalism. A quick study, he soon catches onto the tricks of the trade by shadowing another renegade cameraman (Bill Paxton), eventually capturing the attention of a news programming exec, Nina, (Rene Russo in full, blowsy Faye Dunaway in NETWORK mode) whose attention he quickly captures with his increasingly explicit footage.
Soon enough, Bloom hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed, an English actor who is a revelation playing a hugely sympathetic, downtrodden American), who he needs as an extra cameraman. Sure he occasionally shoots, but mostly he's there to navigate as Bloom tears down the LA streets trying to beat other camera crews or even the police to the next crime scene. Learning that "if it bleeds, it leads" it becomes obvious that things are going to get bloody really soon as Nina keeps encouraging Lou to bring her more graphic work.
While Russo does a great job blustering through the film (she's also Gilroy's wife), her scenes with Gyllenhaal felt overwritten and, at times, lacked credibility. Their last scene in particular felt like a parody with its too obvious sexual subtext pushed to the fore. Gilroy clearly wants to say something about the sorry state of journalism, but in this age of TMZ-dictated headlines and unverified sources getting top coverage, his points are easy targets.
As good as Gyllenhaal is, and this is a truly spine-chilling, accomplished performance, we don't get to experience any vulnerability with his character. Sure, he learns and grows, but it's seething ambition that drives him. He becomes great at the art of negotiation. But we don't see the fear of destitution beneath, which may be Gilroy's point, as Lou may be dynamic and fascinating to watch, but he IS pathological. He's not so much an anti-hero as he is an anti-human.
NIGHTCRAWLER is most successful as a straight out thriller. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA) captures the dark underbelly of Los Angeles so well, and one bravura car chase is a classic, white knuckler that can take its place alongside some of the great action scenes of all time. Additionally, scene for scene, this is one suspenseful movie. Bloom knows he has to go further than his competition, and in doing so, he crosses ethical lines over and over again, infuriating Nina's cohort (Kevin Rahm). Rahm may be the silenced moral compass of this film, but I gravitated more towards Rick, a flawed, multi-dimensional character caught up in Lou's mind tricks. Rick will break your heart as the only truly humane character in the film.
Lou, on the other hand, is the ultimate used car salesman, using "we" a lot to talk about his production company of one, or finding the right time to seize the moment with Nina. Their "terms and conditions" scene raised the hair on my arms as Gyllenhaal showed his hand. He's the frightening embodiment of what Gilroy feels is wrong with America today, all drive and no heart,
NIGHTCRAWLER isn't perfect. Like DRIVE, it seems overly obsessed with the 80s. The end credit music is heavy on the synth, and for a film set in modern times, I kept wondering where all the civilians were with their cell phones out filming every crime scene. There's something quaint and dated about these scenarios. We're also left with the no so terribly enlightening message that there are a lot of sociopaths in Los Angeles. Um, yeah....we know. WE KNOW!
These slight imperfections aren't enough to mar one of the best films of the year. NIGHTCRAWLER perfectly taps into the anxiety many Americans feel as they struggle to pay their bills. It plays right into our prurient interest in the lurid and grotesque, and it's extremely fast-paced, never dull. Gilroy's challenge seems to have been in figuring out how to engage an audience in a movie about someone who hates people. He has succeeded beautifully.
STANLEY KUBRICK NO LONGER HAS TO ROLL OVER IN HIS GRAVE - My Review of… MoreSTANLEY KUBRICK NO LONGER HAS TO ROLL OVER IN HIS GRAVE - My Review of FORCE MAJEURE (4 1/2 Stars)
The terms Kubrickian or Hitchcockian have been used (or overused) so many times to describe other filmmakers, that they've lost their meaning. One need only make a chilly or suspenseful film and the lazy comparisons are made. Imitators to Stanley Kubrick's throne typically employ perfectly composed frames, slow tracking shots and a generally clean aesthetic to earn their mentions. What's often missing is the scarily objective view of human behavior. Famous for shooting endless takes of any given scene, Kubrick wanted to find the truth in awkward silences or squirm-inducing situations, to chip away at and needle his actors until they bared a pure soul.
Ruben Ostlund is that rare writer-director who is the closest I've seen to truly understanding and earning the Kubrick comparisons with his Swedish psychodrama, FORCE MAJEURE. It's easily one of the year's best films, rightly earning its Golden Globe nomination and Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The setup is simple. A husband, wife and their two young children take a ski holiday in the French Alps. During lunch on a balcony overlooking the mountain, they witness a controlled avalanche, which unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse. Their reactions to and interpretations of the situation create a rift between husband and wife, providing the central drama for the rest of the film. Stunningly shot by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel and featuring raw, courageous performances by its two leads, Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli, FORCE MAJEURE is a sly comedy and a picture perfect lesson in how to make audiences deliciously uncomfortable.
Every frame of this film exists for a reason. There's such wonderful tension in images of our characters on ski lifts, the ominous sounds of the machinery heightening the tension. Shots around the lodge, whether static or gliding, echo THE SHINING, whereas the classical music stings reminded me of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. All of this would reek of homage, but Ostlund is after more. He wants to mine the motivations behind primal human behavior. In Kuhnke's character, he explores the male ego and the pressure men feel to be providers, often creating an illusion of safety for their loved ones while crumbling inside. In Kongsli, he has a riveting actor who slowly but surely realizes that her husband's actions were not ok. Unwilling to let things drop, she looks for opportunities in any and every situation, whether alone with her husband or in the company of friends. It makes for some splendid, searing drama.
Scene after scene offers great surprises, whether it's the intrusion of an inanimate object to ratchet up the tension, or a casual insult from strangers. Every situation drips with feelings of dread. Skiing down a slope or traversing a mountain pass in a bus are fraught with danger. At stake here is the fragility of life and how split decisions have a profound impact on it. Kongsli's character is no saint. She makes as many mistakes as her husband in this story, and yet Ostlund leaves any judgment up to us. He's kind and fair to his characters, especially in a devastating scene in which all of the pent-up emotions surface. A peculiar scene at an all-male rave seems arbitrary until one realizes that human instinct, especially among men, is being examined from as many sides as possible.
There's a climactic scene where I was hoping against hope the movie would not end. It felt too cheery and neat. Luckily Ostlund is talented and smart enough to know where he's headed. Later, when things later get more tense, more revealing, and more ambiguous, we, the audience, who hopefully will embrace this funny, dark, nuanced and brave film, are all the luckier.
YOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. MURRAY - My Review of ST. VINCENT (3 Stars)… MoreYOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. MURRAY - My Review of ST. VINCENT (3 Stars)
Writer-Director Theodore Melfi chased famously reclusive actor Bill Murray down the only way he could, via the star's 800 number. Known for not having an agent, Murray is considered one of the hardest "Yeses" in the business. The story of how he came to make ST. VINCENT could be its own movie, and probably a more interesting one than the genial, kindhearted, but too-often sitcom-bound film we have here.
Bill Murray plays Vincent, a former Vietnam War vet who has become the "Gett off my lawn" archetype we've all grown to love and hate. The only person he lets into his life is a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (a hilarious Naomi Watts) until that fateful day when new neighbors move in next door. Enter Maggie and Oliver (a nicely subdued Melissa McCarthy and a terrifically self-possessed Jaeden Lieberher). A chance occurrence leads to Vincent becoming Oliver's babysitter and...well...oh God....I think you know where this is going, and you are right.
It's by no means a bad movie, but the story of a curmudgeon whose heart, like the Grinch, grows three sizes, isn't anything new. Vincent is an alcoholic, a gambler, and a total slob, but he clearly has hidden reserves of kindness. It should come as no mystery to anyone who has ever seen a film that he becomes what seems to be a second cousin to Mother Teresa somewhere along the way. I guess the devil is in the details, and this film has charm to spare. Murray throws himself into the role and is backed up by a cast who clearly relished this opportunity.
I only wish the writing had cut deeper. Pitched oftentimes at the level of a 3 camera television half hour, Melfi's script often goes for easy punchlines at moments where you wish it would go for the truth. The jokes are pretty funny, however, so it's not exactly torture to sit through, but they seem to be masking a more real film underneath. When things eventually DO get real, they tend to go mushy. The third act has so much goodwill going for it, you hope against hope that Vincent will barrel through those moments and give it some edge. It doesn't happen.
Still, Murray commits to the role, masterfully walking that fine line between hero and villain, and Watts can steal the smallest of moments, such as when she vacuums awkwardly in her high heels or pole dances with her 3rd trimester belly on full display. McCarthy nails the pathos of her character, particularly in a scene where she breaks down in front of her son's teachers. Lieberher has a direct gaze and no-nonsense line deliveries. It's never cutesy, which is a huge strength. I felt there was a connective scene missing between him and the school bully, as one moment they're fighting and the next they seemed to be BFFs.
Regardless, ST. VINCENT will warm the smallest of hearts. Just don't expect to be wowed when being wooed is as good as it gets.
WALK THE PINE - My Review of WILD (4 Stars)
In 1984, there was a… MoreWALK THE PINE - My Review of WILD (4 Stars)
In 1984, there was a cinematic anomaly not seen since - three-count-em-three Academy Award winning actors starred in what was known as THE FARM TRILOGY or more cynically, MORTGAGE ON THE FARM. Jessica Lange in COUNTRY, Sissy Spacek in THE RIVER, and Sally Field in PLACES IN THE HEART all rolled the rural dice with Field taking home Oscar Gold. You know, when she gave that legendary speech, "I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!" Strange year, that.
Fast forward to 2014 and we have what I'm dubbing THE TRAIL MIX. Earlier, we had Mia Wasikowska in TRACKS, about a young woman who walks across the Australian desert and absolutely nothing happens. Now we have Reese Witherspoon trekking the Pacific Crest Trail in WILD. There is no 3rd film that I'm aware of, but might I suggest Angelina Jolie hoofing it from the Hollywood Hills to Culver City to unleash her minimally talented spoiled brat on Sony in I WALKED BECAUSE UBER WAS BUSY?
Ok, I'm kidding, and I truly don't want to take anything away from the moving, otherworldly accomplishments of Witherspoon, director Jean-Marc Vallee (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), and screenwriter Nick Hornby (ABOUT A BOY), who adapted Cheryl Strayed's memoir. Whereas TRACKS brought us a woman who just wanted to get out of the city, Strayed's motivations ring more true. Strayed is escaping a truly rough patch in her life with loss and addiction being at the forefront. She, unlike the heroine in TRACKS, isn't looking for a way out, much as she wants a way in. It's a beautiful, harrowing journey of a woman who walks and walks and walks to become that person forever lurking inside what had become broken.
Filled with impressionistic flashbacks, quotes from famous writers, and not so much a voiceover but a successful attempt at appropriating Strayed's inside voice, WILD opens in the middle of the story, a particularly dire time in her journey. Her feet a mess, Witherspoon makes a couple of terrible mistakes and unleashes a fierce primal scream. This is the banshee wail not heard from since her seminal performance in ELECTION, and all I can say is "Welcome back Reese!" From this moment on, it's clear we're in for something unexpected and true from Witherspoon. Always an actor with a determined jawline and boundless reserves of backbone, Witherspoon tries something completely different here, something naked, raw and brave. She allows untapped vulnerability to wash across her face, to suggest so much with a glance or what looks like years of struggle with depression. The mystery of the movie, as it unfolds, is in discovering the source. The beauty of the film is, from every episodic scene to scene, watching her peel back the onion layers to reveal the person she's been seeking.
Sure, we've seen a hundred movies about someone finding themselves. Usually they end in platitudes, sentimental claptrap or what I call Hallmark Hooey. WILD remarkably avoids these trappings by presenting us with the true essence of a person. At first woefully unprepared for her journey, with the symbolic albatross being her outrageously oversized backpack, Strayed can barely get up off the floor on day one. Witherspoon's body language is masterful in this film, communicating so much with minimal dialogue.
Vallee, along with co-editor Martin Pensa and cinematographer Yves Belanger, his team on DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, work the many flashbacks into the film to fully bring you Strayed's mindset. Some are seconds long, while others, which prominently feature a sweet Laura Dern as Strayed's mother, bring an added depth to Strayed's character and show us the joy and trauma that make up a young life. These scenes are so perfectly weaved into the present story, they end up feeling like current thoughts rather than lazy looks back.
I don't want to spoil the story, but in lesser hands, this would have felt like a meandering, pointless exercise with an Oscar Grab being its main objective. Witherspoon and company dig so deep, however, dispelling that notion to achieve a singular vision of a woman who needs to disappear in order to emerge. It's unfussy, unshowy, and in that last scene with Strayed's own well-considered words redefining the meaning of "wild" in such a profound way, it's ultimately a little gem of honest emotion and visual, visceral loveliness.
BREADTH OF A SALESMAN - My Review of BIG EYES (4 Stars)
There's… MoreBREADTH OF A SALESMAN - My Review of BIG EYES (4 Stars)
There's something about Christoph Watlz. He exudes such maniacal charisma that you can't help but smile every time he appears onscreen. Our first glimpse of him in BIG EYES, the new feature from director Tim Burton and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (ED WOOD, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT), is of his wide smile as he tries to sell one of his pedestrian Paris street paintings to a couple of unsuspecting art walk partrons. He's in full huckster mode, and that's Waltz's sweet spot as an actor.
Based on the unbelievably true story of Walter Keane (Waltz), who in the early 60s took credit for the famous paintings of young children with outsized eyes, despite the fact that his wife Margaret (Amy Adams) did all the work, BIG EYES is a film about a woman finding her voice and the man who stifled it. Pre-dating the onset of the women's liberation movement, the film is pitched as a comedic drama and is filled with sequences you'll swear were made up, but according to the writers, were not.
After many unsuccessful years spent trying to direct the film themselves, Alexander and Karaszewski brought their old collaborator Burton on board to get the project made. Strangely, opening credits and a suburban tableau of an opening shot aside, which were both clearly taken from the EDWARD SCISSORHANDS handbook, BIG EYES doesn't feel like Burton at all. Yes, there's a level of absurdity which is his hallmark, but Burton takes a backseat with his somewhat anonymous directorial style here. Some may say that it's to his detriment, but I like to think his restraint was out of respect for the material, which speaks very well for itself.
Following a very traditional structure, a key early scene goes a long way towards establishing the credibility of a single woman at the time needing a man to succeed. When Margaret applies for a job at a furniture factory, her prospective employer asks her if her husband has granted her permission to work. When she meets Walter at a street fair, they quickly fall in love and marry. Anchored by a husband who sees great potential in her as an artist, Margaret rises fairly quickly to the top of the art world with her kitschy paintings. Unfortunately, Walter takes all of the credit, as a woman would not garner any respect or sales at the time. Despite their popularity, the paintings did not exactly receive critical praise. The Keane paintings were the Britney Spears of their time.
Part of the joy of this film is in watching Adams' character find her power. Adams has mostly been a somewhat quiet, shy performer, THE FIGHTER and AMERICAN HUSTLE notwithstanding, and in BIG EYES, she's playing a hesitant woman again, but one who has heart and a wellspring of emotion. Adams does a great job of slowly ramping up Margaret's anger without ever becoming a raging caricature. But let's face it, this is Waltz's show, and it's strange, as Margaret is our main character. Due to her passivity, however, Waltz walks away with the film. He plays a great huckster, one whom the real Margaret gave a lot of credit to, as she would still be a street artists were it not for Walter's forcefulness. I loved watching him squirm out of nearly every situation, despite his villainous stature. One flaw, however, is that the script never truly gives us the man underneath the bravado. I think as a society, we're so used to Snake Oil Salesman, that we take it as a given that they exist without really needing to know why. Desperate times will always call for desperate measures. I would have liked to have seen a true moment of vulnerability from this guy, but we get only the big show instead.
But what a show it is. From their first date, a study in moving too fast, to a scary scene with matches, Waltz is electrifying. A late in the film sequence in a courtroom echoes a famous one from Woody Allen's BANANAS, but Allen has cited Keane in his films before, and the trial occurred prior to his film, so BIG EYES, as is its way, steals back their original idea from Allen. It's a good thing, because it's a glorious set piece and a true feat for Waltz. There aren't many actors who could read the phone book and hold my attention, but Waltz gets me every time. There's a reason he's won two Academy Awards. People love watching him traverse the knife's edge between comedy and terror.
Besides our two leads, Danny Huston and Jason Schwartzman has hilarious moments as bigwigs in the art world, and Krysten Ritter glides through the film with her trademark breezy energy. It's rare to see her portray the voice of reason, but it's an effective if slight turn for her.
BIG EYES will resonate with anyone who recognizes the lies and the performing people tell and do in order to make it in this world. It's not essential Tim Burton, but it's essential, timeless, and an important look at a woman with a tiny voice who finally roared in a big, big way.
UNFORGETTABLE - My Review of STILL ALICE (4 Stars)
Tremendously… MoreUNFORGETTABLE - My Review of STILL ALICE (4 Stars)
Tremendously moving, heart wrenching and credible, STILL ALICE puts you right into the head of a relatively young person struggling with early onset Alzheimer's disease. Julianne Moore, in a role certain to garner her first Academy Award, gives the performance of her career as Alice, a sharp linguistics professor who slowly but surely sees everything she has known and cherished dissolve away.
Writer-Directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (QUINCEANERA) have adapted Lisa Genova's novel, and despite its flaws, give us a bracingly methodical experience. With few signposts to indicate the passage of time, the audience rides along with Alice as memories and tasks grow blurrier. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir keeps things tight and uses shallow focus to create an unsettling glimpse into Alice's fading mind. Beginning with an almost imperceptible moment of forgetfulness, the story moves along its inevitable trajectory with a quiet sense of foreboding. Some have criticized the Lifetime treatment at play here, but I found it understated and lovely. The score by Ilan Eshkeri could have been more dynamic and edgy, yet it settles instead for the tinkly, overt themes of your standard disease-of-the-week film. It's a minor quibble in a film that brought me to tears, the sobbing, uncontrollable ones often reserved for personal family losses.
Because Alice is such a strong, intelligent woman, her decline feels that much more tragic. Her family, particularly strong work from Kristen Stewart as her challenging daughter and Alec Baldwin as a husband who tamps down his own feelings for far too long, may feel sketched in, but that's the point. This film is entirely from Alice's point of view. We have to consistently catch our bearings from scene to scene, much like our protagonist. The repetition of her exercise routines, her recordings, and her doctor visits act as markers for us, slowly chipping away at her (and our) sense of security.
An early scene, in which Alice discloses her disease to her husband, is that Oscar clip moment one would expect. Moore infuses it with unexpected rage, and it's some of the best work she has ever done. Strangely enough, she bests that in a latter scene in which she has to give a speech. Standing in front of a group of people, highlighting her prepared words with a yellow marker as she goes, so as not to skip any lines, Moore is matter-of-fact and stunning as she talks about the hell she's living. She fills the moment with surprising joy, utter simplicity, and throws down a Master Class in film acting, the likes of which I have not seen before. Speeches like this do not usually have such a profound effect on me. I typically respond to real exchanges between two people, but this memorable moment cuts so deep, gets to the strange dichotomy of being able to find joy and despair in the same breath, that the aforementioned bawling commenced from the top of the scene and carried into the next few.
As Alice's world gets stripped away bit by awful bit, her essence becomes more and more pure, and it affects everyone around her. Stewart does some of her best work in these late scenes, proving that despite the TWILIGHT saga's numbing boredom, she has considerable depth of feeling. The final scene in particular absolutely wrecked me. Stewart's commitment to the moment and Moore's utter transformation will stick with me for a long time. Sure it's a film that will be remembered for Moore's acting rather than as a masterful cinematic experience, but sometimes a beautifully realized window into someone's soul is enough.
CHILDREN SUCK - My Review of THE BABADOOK (3 Stars)
William Friedkin,… MoreCHILDREN SUCK - My Review of THE BABADOOK (3 Stars)
William Friedkin, director of THE EXORCIST, has said of THE BABADOOK , "It's in a class with the best horror films I've ever seen." My response? Has William Friedkin seen THE EXORCIST? Sure, both films explore the innate horrors of a mother losing control of their child, but THE BABADOOK, an Australian import written and directed by first-timer Jennifer Kent, lacks the unnerving scares of its predecessor.
Essie Davis (who REALLY needs to play Emily Browning's sister in a film) plays Amelia, a mother trying to raise her emotionally disturbed son Samuel (a riveting Noah Wiseman) Six years after losing her husband in an accident on the way to giving birth to Samuel, Amelia finds herself incapable of calming him down or preventing his violent outbursts. It's a recurring nightmare for parents and for anyone who has ended up next to a crying baby on a plane! You don't want to throttle the child, but you kinda do.
One of her attempts is to read him bedtime stories, a time-honored tradition, but poor Amelia makes a rookie mistake in parenting and lets her kid choose the book. Maybe she'd never noticed the title in their collection before or perhaps it was ominously placed on their shelf, but Samuel brings her The Bababdook, a creepy pop-up book about a lurking creature who will stop at nothing to insidiously terrorize your household.
Soon enough, things start to go bump in the night, but not to the point where I wanted to avoid my room for years (see the shaking bed in THE EXORCIST). The real interest at play here is in seeing the effect Samuel's behavior has on Amelia. In essence, he unleashes her inner demons.
Here's where the film parts ways with Friedkin's classic. THE EXORCIST organically blends its tale of demonic possession with that of a family coping with divorce. Layered with religious undertones and guilt, the story posits that either the devil has taken over a child or maybe she's just gone crazy because her father forgot to call her on her birthday. However you interpret the film, it's frightening to watch a sweet child go through so much.
THE BABADOOK feels slightly lacking in incident. Perhaps its story just isn't expansive enough. It is, after all, a very low budget film. The Babadook itself is scary in the shadows, but it doesn't really do much of anything. Yet, it's very well made, and chock full of visceral sound design. Kent knows that the true face of horror is sometimes your own, and yes, the performances by its two leads are quite incredible...BUT....a mother losing her shit over a screaming child just isn't half as scary as one who sees her daughter turn her head completely around after stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix. I-T J-U-S-T I-S-N-'T !!!
Now don't get me wrong. There's a LOT of talent on display here. THE BABADOOK is smart to makes its title character an allegory for the unresolved events in our lives, the stuff that lingers. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk plays well with the film's muted greys and inky blacks. The script even has the conviction to allow a scene in which another mother admits that she can't stand being around Amelia's son. It dares to say the awful things about little monsters that we often think of saying ourselves.
Perhaps Friedkin, in his admirable attempts to bring the film to a wider audience, is overhyping the scares. I get the impression he's found that rare film which organically blends its basic storyline with deep-set fears. Most horror movies anymore just want to go "Boo!" and call it a day. THE BABADOOK has more on its mind, but it could have been a true classic had its title character truly gone on a bloody rampage.
ONCE UPON A TUNE - My Review of INTO THE WOODS (4 Stars)
Many years… MoreONCE UPON A TUNE - My Review of INTO THE WOODS (4 Stars)
Many years ago, I saw the stage version of INTO THE WOODS in London. Unlike its original conception, the set was a wall of black and white squares which had little windows from which the cast would pop out to perform. Occasionally they would appear on stage, which was also the eyesore inducing and aforementioned black and white tiles. Needless to say, without the actual woods, this was an unwatchable production. Also, I didn't care much for the show itself, a deconstructed mishmash of fairy tale characters and Stephen Sondheim notes in search of a melody. Of course, his wandering sensibility is his stock in trade, and I'll admit the final two songs packed a one-two punch of beauty and clarity, but when Disney announced Rob Marshall (CHICAGO) would direct the film version from a James Lapine script, I wasn't terribly excited.
Luckily, we can all live happily ever after, as the film version is charming, fast-paced, beautifully sung and ultimately lovely. Meryl Streep is clearly having a great time as the Witch who tasks the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) with procuring several objects from classic fairy tale characters in order to lift a spell which has made Blunt's character barren. The opening number expertly introduces us to those characters, intercutting moments much like Norman Jewison did in his great adaptation of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. What felt twee and annoying on the stage, and let's face it, the title song is more earworm than ear-pleasing, feels kinetic and breezy on film.
The cast is terrific, with the best performances being those by Streep and Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince. Pine clearly understands the absurdity of the tone, and like Gaston in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, he charges into his role with outgoing humor. His duet "Agony" with Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) is a standout. The two child actors, Lila Crawford as Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack also excel, exuding confidence beyond their years and wonderful singing voices. Huttlestone already stole the film version of LES MISERABLES with his portrayal of Gavroche, and here he impresses too with his Cockney-accented, rough boy style. If there's a film version to be made of H.R. PUFNSTUF (and I can't see why not!), he should be first choice to play Jimmy. Tracey Ullman also understands the tone and has a good time as Jack's Mother. Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch, as Cinderella's Stepmother and evil Stepsisters aren't given much to do, but strike the right notes, especially when trying on the famous slipper.
I only wish Corden, Blunt and Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) had done more with their parts. They all sing really well, but their roles are somewhat dull and "leading role-ish" compared to the rest of the cast. I guess somebody had to be the "straight man", but these are three actors who know their way around a comedy but aren't given many opportunities to flex those muscles. Johnny Depp does his usual wackadoodle, drag queen performance as The Wolf, a part way too brief but fun nonetheless.
From the trailer, I was concerned that the set looked phony, but as a whole, it's perfect. Production Designer Dennis Gassner nails the look, especially the somewhat grimy Prince's castle. I also loved the legendary Colleen Atwood's costume design. Cinderella's ball gown was unexpected but fits into the deconstructed themes of the film. I wish Meryl Streep's "younger" outfit didn't scream DYNASTY, but she looks hideous and great depending on the scene!
The music, as I noted before, isn't my favorite in the Sondheim canon, but the loveliness of YOU ARE NOT ALONE and CHILDREN WILL LISTEN almost makes up for it. It's as if all of the aimlessness of some of the songs lead up to these two final, stellar tunes. I was a bit disappointed that the final song didn't allow camera time for its singer, as I think the emotions of it would have been more effective. Many will quibble with the Disneyfication of the violence as well. Offscreen deaths and pulling punches when it comes to eye-gouging felt like slight cop-outs, but I'm glad children can experience this film without the requisite trauma. Sometimes, budgetary constraints showed, as we spend a LOT of time in those damn woods, but all told, this is a truly successful adaptation. For anyone who has ever suffered loss in their lives, this kind-hearted reinvention of fairy tales is a reassuring and gentle shoulder.
THE HURT LOOKER - My Review of AMERICAN SNIPER ( 4 1/2 Stars)… MoreTHE HURT LOOKER - My Review of AMERICAN SNIPER ( 4 1/2 Stars)
Sometimes during his directorial career, Clint Eastwood has phoned in his work (see JERSEY BOYS) and other times it's clear he's extremely engaged (MILLION DOLLAR BABY, UNFORGIVEN). AMERICAN SNIPER, I'm happy to report is among the latter. Unbearably tense, sure-handed, moving, and stunningly well-acted, it's easily one of the year's best pictures. Already named Best Director by the National Board of Review, this cousin to THE HURT LOCKER can go toe-to-toe with Kathryn Bigelow.
Based on the true story and autobiography by Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper in U.S. military history, Bradley Cooper is commanding and complex as a man dedicated to protecting his fellow soldiers during 4 Tours of Duty in Iraq while dealing with his challenging family life back home in Texas. Cooper has the dead stare down pat when aiming at the enemy and faces brutal snap decisions no right-minded person would ever wish to face. Much like Jeremy Renner's character in THE HURT LOCKER, Cooper's character registers the complex emotions when back home of a man torn between wanting to nurture his home life while itching to return to support his brothers. The rest of the cast does fine work, especially Keir O'Donnell as Kyle's younger brother, who in a few short scenes nail the impact the war can have on one's psyche.
Eastwood, along with his longtime Cinematographer, Tom Stern, is in total control as he guides us through Kyle's story. Starting during a harrowing moment during his first tour and and beautifully transitioning to flashbacks of his childhood and years leading up to his becoming a NAVY SEAL, we experience a man so sure of his dedication to his country, somewhat at the expense of his personal relationships. The key one is that with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller is a revelation in the role). It took me over an hour to realize it was Miller, as she masters the accent and has explosive chemistry with Cooper. Their energy meshes so well in the film as they spend time either sparring sexually or arguing over his shifting priorities. Both performances should not be overlooked this awards season, as they're that good.
The film may seem traditionally structured, but the visceral impact cannot be overlooked. From the sound design to the well-chosen camera angles, I feel we truly get the sense of what this war felt like to those brave soldiers on the ground. From a sequence involving a frightening sandstorm to tense face-offs with an expert Iraqi sniper, the film feels like one, long indelible sequence. I don't think there's a slack moment in the entire film.
Without taking political sides, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall, have crafted a film about the consequences of our choices. Without giving away the ending, it's an oddly truncated moment in an otherwise superbly crafted film. Because Kyle's story is ongoing and because it leaves us with many questions, it feels like an 11th hour misstep. Regardless, stick with this impassioned, gut-wrenching film. It's worth it.