Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Babadook (15) | Film review

The Babadook, dir/wr. Jennifer Kent, st. Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman

Whilst horror films are nothing like busses, I'm keen to use the idiom here: a few weeks back I waxed lyrical about Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon, how most horror has been diluted down to nothing more than a series of Gotcha! scares. Honeymoon was a rare exception, nuanced and possessing of real substance. But although critical reception for Janiak's film might have been whispered, media outlets are currently going nuts for a film by Jennifer Kent that started life as Monster, a German Expressionism-influenced short. That nine-minute film has been gloriously upcycled into The Babadook, this time jettisoning its source-material betraying black and white cinematography for a wider, albeit muted colour palate, but more importantly, giving time and space for menace and dread to propagate. The Babadook tells the story of Amelia and her son Samuel. Six years previously, Amelia's husband died in a car accident as he was rushing her to hospital to give birth. Now, their only son has grown up deeply traumatised by the violence surrounding his entry into this world, and Amelia has to struggle with tantrums, paranoia, and neediness that borders on the inappropriate. Matters are exacerbated however when one night, Samuel pulls a book seemingly at random off his shelf for his mother to read to him as he falls asleep. The Babadook (a most masterful example of fearful prop-making) is the pop-up book Tim Burton might have written had he not had a decent upbringing. In it, a long-robed, top-hatted antiquated type of figure promises trouble now the book has been opened, and the words within, like some ancient incantation, have been uttered. Later, Amelia studies the book more closely. No publisher, author, or press details. The book just is. Noah, who has already turned to magic and illusion as an attention-seeking coping mechanism, falls for the threat of the monster hook, line and sinker, but bravely steps up to the challenge of defeating it. Or perhaps there's no monster at all, and Noah, whose birth after all represents the death of Amelia's husband, is an ever present living manifestation of Amelia's grief.

I wrote a few years ago about the wonders of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, whether the presence of the great Earth-ending planet is causing Kirsten Dunst's Justine's depression, or whether her depression is reaching out to the planet, calling it nearer through the cosmos. There's a similarity here. The film unfolds in such a disturbingly stilted way, like The Ring's Samara reverse-stop-motioning towards us, it's difficult to know whether any of it is real at all. But that's precisely why The Babadook succeeds so triumphantly. There are shocks, but there's also an insidious unease that pervades the movie. The Babadook comes at night, but the following daylight offers little joy, only the promise of another night yet to come. The film absolutely works as another tale of supernatural unrest, but it works better as a psychological drama. There's nothing scarier than a mother and child, whose bond has been held up as the most absolute of absolutes, slowly playing a part in each other's unravelling.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Lucy (15) | Film Review

Lucy, dir/wr. Luc Besson, st. Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik

Luc Besson becomes the latest director to have a stab at the old we-only-use-a-fraction-of-our-brain chestnut in this globe-trotting actioner piloted by Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. The film follows Johansson's Lucy, a gangster's moll who becomes embroiled in a Taiwanese drug trafficking ring. Only the substance being moved is CPH4, a kind of highly concentrated Red Bull in crystalline form that tickles in small doses, and alters cellular design in large. Lucy soon (accidentally) quaffs the lot and starts to access more and more of her brain with gun-toting results. There's something reassuring about sitting down to a Besson movie - something about Eric Serra's dustbin-down-a-liftshaft percussion that feels reassuring. They're like a warming bowl of movie carbonara. So why is it then that Lucy, replete with grand allusions to Kubrickian existentialism, fails to satisfy? Possibly because of that very reason; its breadth of subject matter spreads it to thin to do it justice. There's an amount of disengaging pleasure to be had, and Johansson makes for a watchable if derivative superhero, but cheering a heroine whose powers grown exponentially godlike gets tiring very quickly. This is especially distressing given the fact that this is the same man that gave us 1990's extraordinary Nikita, nominally the same movie minus ILM VFX and $32m. Nikita and Lucy are virtually identical cyphers. They are both anonymous bottom feeders whose skills and abilities are thrust upon them, responsibilities they reluctantly accept. But where as Nikita earns hers over the course of half the movie's running time, Lucy acquires her superpowers with a swift kick to the abdomen. We feel Nikita's every breath and bruise; Lucy sends foes flying with an ESPd flick of her elegant wrist. But immortals are rarely fun. Even Zach Snyder's extensively backstoried Dr. Manhattan is hardly a barrel of laughs. Another key flaw is the cutting to Freeman's Professor Norman to give us lengthy TED-style lecturings on the nature of evolution. He doesn't meet up with Lucy until the second half of the movie and I can't help but feel there was a more fruitful relationship to be explored had Norman engaged with her earlier. Besson's film then exhibits more like a frolicking network TV pilot, the kind of opening salvo that sets the scene and establishes, but promises further perceptive development down the road. As a standalone movie, it just dulls the senses. There's no concern about using your brain to capacity here.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Gone Girl (18) | Film review

Gone Girl, dir. David Fincher, scr. Gillian Flynn, based on the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, st. Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon

Timeout once perceptively summed up their review of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct with "trash, but watchable trash", and indeed there's plenty to compare with Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's 2012 novel beyond the quote. Both films thematically centre around potentially tawdry subject matter that's elevated by a director with a keen eye for both technical aesthetic and a canny knack for eliciting wholly persuasive performances from his leads. Such subject matter would surely be mere TV-movie fodder for less accomplished filmmakers, yet Fincher's skill, rather like a popular fruit-titled electronics company, resides in being able to sell us something we never knew we had an interest in - in Fincher's case, remakes, CEO biopics, Brad Pitt aging backwards.

Affleck and Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne whose story is charted from courtship to marriage to the woman in white's titular disappearance on the couple's fifth wedding anniversary. Nick, alternately hangdog and smarmy, fields the predictable media frenzy that engulfs smalltown North Carthage, gossipers natter, and television pundits sign up for their pound of flesh. To unravel any more plot would be to fundamentally undo this Rube Goldbergian tale, but once again and true to form, Fincher delights in every flourish of misdirection. But the content is only half the story as you suspect Fincher is having way too much fun dissecting pulp convention and structure; there's surely only one way to take Kim Dickins' Rhonda Boney, the detective running point, holding up one of Amy's breadcrumbs - an envelope with "Clue One" written on it - proclaiming, "Looks like we've found our first clue!" These little details stretch credulity at times, reinforcing the artifice of what you're watching, but for a narrative that indulges the imprecision of recounting, retelling and reporting, it is entirely apt. Additionally, the film rigidly sticks to the tested Three Act formula - actually more a construct of its source material than anything - and in the process, neatens and organises a potentially wild and unkempt story. Again, like Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell, Pike's Amy is all cut-glass and glaciers; stoic, shrewd, and similarly, you wouldn't imagine Affleck's hapless Nick is beyond such a sartorial blunder as Michael Douglas' shirtless V-neck. Fincher's movie also comments on, rather than obsesses over, the nature of gender representation during all the media attention; the blonde-haired, ivory-skinned "amazing" Amy seems to convict her poor husband from the revelation of her publicity image alone. But ultimately, this is a film about trust between partners. Not necessarily the overtly Machiavellian and excessively Hitchcockian deception featured here, but rather secrets and regrets we bite down on rather than share. Fincher fans will welcome the familiar greys and browns that make up longtime Fincher cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's palate, and Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor return to imbue the movie with more synth sterility, but this is as good a film as the director has ever made - smart, slick and eminently watchable.