Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Babadook (2013) Movie Thoughts

Somewhere in South Australia, single mother, Amelia Vannick(Essie Davis) has seen better years.

Working at a nursing home for the elderly , struggling to raise her hyperactive six year old son, Samuel(Noah Wiseman) has begun to reach a breaking point. The loss of the boy's father on the way to his delivery in an accident has continued to haunt them both. Now manifesting itself in little Sam's borderline aggressive clinginess and desperation to protect his mother from unseen beasts. From uncomfortable hugs to improvised weapons wreaking havoc about every other corner of their lives, Amelia's life begins to resemble a classic powder keg situation as sleep deprivation begins to take hold. And it's about to get worse, when a mysterious pop-up book seems to magically appear on Sam's bookshelf. A sinister red book starring none other than a terrifying dark specter clad in black, known only as The Babadook. A book that promises to never go away, until the unthinkable has consumed them both.

Enter Jennifer Kent's small scale, but primally chilling allegory that proves beyond all doubt, that good horror is a game of understanding the terrors of daily life. From the opening frames on, there is no doubt that what we're experiencing is something that is so familiar, frankly because it is so close to so many of us. From Amelia's daily troubles of raising a son who seems on the brink every other moment, to working surrounded by reminders of what life she has forsaken to raise him, is rife with baggage so heavy that it's no wonder horror comes knocking. It's bad enough that the boy cannot celebrate his birthday on the day, but must share parties with the daughter of Amelia's seemingly more mobile sister, Claire. And that Sam's erratic behavior has garnered some disciplinary problems at school. Matters are reaching almost oppressive levels, and this is before any hint of the supernatural even arises. We are dropped square into the worst possible single parenthood scenario's deep waters before the dreaded shark arrives. And when he does, it feels like a powerful , inescapable abyss that scares in ways that few have in decades.

Dropped so sadistically into a spiritual deep end, while cruel in some ways, is precisely where the film lives and dies. There is a muted color palette that surrounds Amelia's life, like the last remnants of brightness to her world is on the verge of a fuse burnout. Right off the bat, we are in a place that is both cold, and disquieting. One of the many potent weapons in the film's arsenal, is something far too many pieces of horror tend to forget, environmental and lighting design. We are host to a sight and sound universe that is sensitive to Amelia's plight. It only bolsters the tension as her life begins to resemble a Von Trier film, complete with endless supernatural amounts of emotional torment. (which made the revelation that Kent spent some time studying/working with the danish auteur, make grand sense) And when we find ourselves largely trapped within the chilly halls of their home, the lighting and art direction take on a quiet, painterly menace that tightens its grip throughout. It only makes the unforgiving blackness of our titular villain that much more powerful. The film understands the history of horror, and milks it largely to great effect.

 But the crowning jewels of the film are truly Davis and Wiseman, who conjure up some truly astonishing performances as a tattered family on the verge of tragedy. Davis' Amelia, is such a delicate, demanding piece of work that could co easily have gone comic in other hands, but she comes off as completely relatable as she is granted every logical stage to an almost inevitable form when her resent and grief boils over. We can grieve for her, as well as beg for her to stop, and not for a moment lose that gravity. And on that note, she could not be more blessed in having Wiseman, who's Sam, is both one of the most unnerving and one of the most frighteningly effective child performances I have ever experienced. When he is a terror, he is a terror. And when he is achingly vulnerable, it's deeply uncomfortable. The film is so diabolical in some manners, that it's a miracle of casting that any kid would be able to deliver such incredible work.

It's a most interesting marriage, taking the spirit of scary tales from the past, transposing them to something as universal as single parenthood. So easily, the film could have taken a more exploitative tack. And yet the character sensitivity here never lets us the viewers off the hook. We are every bit as complicit by playing the voyeur to what is ostensibly something that happens more commonly than we care to let in. It's also telling that the film's stylings harken to the days when such parenthood was just becoming commonplace. As a child of a single parent, I too can see how the dynamic between mother and son could reach such troublesome lows. And considering that the children of that age are now the age of Amelia, the shoe has finally exchanged feet, and it is a sobering reminder. It's no understatement. This is classic, "old school", down to the marrow horror told with a 1970s performance and editing sensibility, wrapped in something altogether too understandable. Even as The Babadook chooses to go a more traditional genre route, it is done with class and empathy. Because, as the nightmare-inducing pop-up book suggests, the horror is already here, and it's not likely to ever go away.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thematic Wanderings: Interstellar (2014)

Few major studio filmmakers require viewers to unpack with a vengeance quite like Christopher Nolan.

As far back as Following(1998), it has been imperative that those who are witnesses to the stories he shares, make a more concerted effort than usual to ruminate and discuss what they have just witnessed. And while scrutiny often poses the occasional question of logic, it's always good to remember the goal, and not so much how the shooter made it. Especially considering the narrative gymnastics that a Nolan film often requires of his audience. Even when he and brother Jonathan do their damndest to paint in broad strokes, they are often in the service of inviting others to play more complex thematic games than many are accustomed to. It isn't always successful, but it never ceases to be ambitious. And this is why I suppose I keep going back to his works. They often work like puzzles, or very dense books just shotgunned into our brains over the course of several hours, only to leave us dizzy with the hows, when our eyes should be more poised toward the why.

So when audiences found themselves a little colder than usual (for Nolan films) with his latest, it became a little more crucial for me to mine it once home video became an option. In my review, I came after the film for failing to better deliver a successful dramatic punch than it seemed to so badly want. With a film that features Matthew McCounaghey at his most earnest as a most vulnerable hero, the performance feels at times hindered by the at-times daunting balancing act between working within hard science and the surprisingly warm proposal at the heart of the film. The balance doesn't always work in its favor, especially in the last hour. And yet, there is something happening here that for me, made the finale dovetail in ways that it really shouldn't have in other hands.

In the first reel, while we are given a hard-pedaled peek into the film's worries by way of envisioning a humanity that has become so panicked by the global blight, that they frown upon our history of space travel, as well as nurturing such interests. While it is a forced sentiment, it is a potent shorthand for a world that has turned its back on risky solutions in the name of maintaining all that remains on the ground. And this is a trend that is echoed throughout the film. This is also displayed largely later in the film when Cooper's grown son refuses to leave the farm despite the impending death of another child due to ever more desperate air quality. A reminder that we are often incapable of letting go of the present, no matter how bad it may look from a macro perspective.

The film even opens with Cooper and his kids, chasing a lost Indian drone that eventually downs itself.

Upon examining the abandoned machine, this exchange occurs:


                                                  What are you going to do with it?

                                 I'm going to give it something socially responsible to do.


                                       Can't we just let it go? It's not harming anyone.


                        This thing needs to learn how to adapt, Murph. Like the rest of us.

Right from the start, the philosophical divide between Cooper and Murph becomes the prime vessel for the film's main conflict. It's always important to keep in mind that the best premises are often stand-ins for more human dilemma, and in the case of Interstellar, it is largely focused on our will to understand others in a life trajectory that has largely been that of utility. It's complicated even further when in the face of shared undertaking, everyone has their own reasons to invest in changing the course of fate. When young Murph sees the fork in the road between her and her father, naturally she sees his leaving as something of a betrayal. With the linkage of her "ghost" further ingraining these feelings, which eventually must be reconciled with as light years separate them.

Taking humanity's last chance for salvation into the hands of a select group of scientists on a secret deep space mission to find a possible new home, already offers up a glimpse into the film's bigger concerns. Revelations are established early that the now-thought defunct NASA had at one point been asked to drop bombs onto thousands of poor and starving as blight overtook much of the planet. This was an answer until the government took to heart Dr. Brand, Sr.'s alternate plan based upon the discovery of a newly placed wormhole just outside of Saturn. A clandestine journey of several scientists through the hole, only to discover several potential planets for possible human inhabitation. This follow-up to the Lazarus Mission, with its implications of a newly risen humanity, turns out to largely be a terrifying bait and switch. Simply because its authors saw the human race as largely incapable of grasping the reality that despite the proposal of two plans, B was the only viable option. (Plan B, involving fertilized human embryos encased in a "population bomb"- as what remains of the human race dies out on Earth.) Upon reaching these planets, it becomes horrifically clear that chances of our kind to find a truly hospitable home for the rest of us, seems near to impossible. Giving truth to the hidden revelation that quite often in realms of discovery, the truth of any major undertaking is often engraved with caveats to human sentiment, rather than overtures to actual faith between beings.

So what ensues between the prospective planets, is a discussion regarding our inability to trust others with harsh truths, and what the heart has longed for since the first true human connection. These diverging aims are further illustrated by way of two vital scenes around the film's midpoint, when Brand Jr. (Anne Hathaway) admits to preferring to travel to the furthest planet because of her feelings for the Lazarus scientist, Edmunds, who she admits to being in love with.  In no uncertain (and perhaps far too blunt) terms, she defends her irrational feelings of loss and worry over one person overrides a more convenient stop at the Mann planet, which is much closer on the Endurance trajectory. The other scene follows her choice being overruled, and upon meeting the long admired pioneer, Mann, who confirms the terrible truth about the mission. The mission being based largely upon a lie in order to instill a sense of hope for the people of Earth, and in turn, to convince Cooper to leave the earthly nest in hopes of saving his family. The exploitation of human sentiment being the ultimate gambit for success.

So to take in the film's view of discovery under pressure, can be a distressing one to say the least. But it does feel far more honest than films of this scale tend to display. Such lies, and action under assumption has pretty much been a fundamental part of our culture for as long as a more masculine dominator society has been a primary axiom to live by. It is also not an accident, that the film sees the women of the film (most notably Murph & Brand Jr.) as misunderstood fibers in a larger societal fabric. Perhaps something that has been neglected to the point that it has come to a near complete apocalypse as a result. Rendering much of Interstellar to be a challenge to humanity, A pivot point where not only cooperation is required to avert disaster, but to consider the possibility that human empathy is indeed something science and rigor has yet to crack. The gap of faithlessness that often permeates any culture bereft of any clear answers. It's far easier for us to disqualify that which we do not understand, rather than see another viable equation worth exploring.

And while to some, this and the film's ultimate revelation may seem trite. But there is certainly something to ruminate upon as so many discoveries of the last several decades have begun to pierce the unseen with explorations of the quantum, and an unerring quest to understand what many once saw as mere abstractions not to long ago. And while Cooper's voyage indeed brings him face to face with his own assumptions about love and discovery, there is again an overture to faith in those closest to us  and beyond to continue the voyage. To be transparent in the face of adversity. And to allow for community based upon more balanced, pluralistic principles. Which has possibly been what we were always meant to be heading toward, but neglecting for generations too many.  

And while many can continue to debate over whether or not Nolan and company were successful in their shared mission, the notions explored in this film remain worthy of discussion. It remains an ambitious, grand, and humanly flawed dive into what our current and future concerns have been. It paints a painful, yet hopeful picture of what it is we are, and what we could be, no matter the legacy we have long worn on our shoulders - and that's worth talking about.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Starry Eyes (2014) Movie Thoughts

Now that is one angry screed..

Sarah has been dreaming and working hard in hopes of making it in the business of dreams. Like so many others living in the hills around the Hollywood sign, it is a guiding light that is both a purveyor of immense joy, and often sustained pain. Day job here, sudden audition there, it becomes a lifestyle to so many here, and yet for Sarah, things have been ringing difficult. Casting calls are beginning to interfere with her day job squealing and grinning for strangers at Tater Tots. Roommate and friends dream of films and roles that never seem to materialize. And then there's always the issue of the next month's rent. It's your classic story of this area. But today, a call has come from the once well-respected and enigmatic genre studio, Astraeus Pictures - and Sarah's luck may be brightening up..

But not without price.

Having heard strong word about Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer's indie horror satire, a part of me immediately second-hand resonated with the premise. Living in LA, this is something of a common ism among the beautiful young one comes across in artistic circles. Walk along Santa Monica Boulevard, and catch glimpses of glowing faces poised for stardom while surviving on budget meals, and couch surfing. Starry Eyes, while in no way a new tale, spins an often harrowing, and mostly heartbreaking portrait of a town that seems both youthfully idyllic, yet endlessly threatening. And it is quite lovely in how it balances borderline film school techniques with a crushing knowing hidden just beneath all the familiar Los Angeles trappings. It's a common situation which often engenders gossip of corruption, perversion, and often downright Faustian among peers which inevitably become myth to so many looking for decay hiding beneath the shimmer. Sarah's story is both familiar, and yet jarring in how it is executed as a clash between post-Ti West no budget horror, and classic late 1970s era creepfests.

But the true secret weapon of this familiar narrative is Alex Essoe, who grants us a vision of a person long in the quiet suffering who finally sees a sparkle on the horizon, no matter how sinister. Right from the first scenes, it is clear that Sarah has been barely grappling with an almost mechanistic lifestyle of rejection and disappointment. From verbally overtipping her hand during auditions, to ripping out her hair in frustration in the washroom, her world has been taking a toll. So when this possible big break in the form of a starring role for a studio long thought dormant, she finds herself willing to do just about anything to get the part. She inhabits and ultimately transforms from such disparate states of being throughout the film that it transcends much if the piece's written and directorial stiffness. Almost as if she leapt straight from the intent. This is a tough,  uncomfortable role, and she delves into it with a yearning akin to Sarah herself, which also includes a physical transformation that both repels and strangely moves.

Also noteworthy are the supporting roles which feature faces familiar and new who are well worth mention. Standing out amongst this impressive troupe are Maria Olsen as the unsettling casting director,  and Pat Healy, as Sarah's hopelessly trapped day gig boss. A role that could so easily have been a butt of jokes, becomes a nuanced reminder that Hollywood dreams can be a trap beyond wishes to be a film idol. Also noteworthy in selling this theme are Noah Segan and Fabianne Therese who play a would be film producer living out of his van, and she - his would-be star as they seem to live aimlessly without a film to actually shoot. They become the very thing that the film industry tends to decry and often demonize. The choice to make each option attractive and repellant is a potent one. The dreamers are beset on every corner, often forced to compromise in terrible, spiritually crippling ways in an environment that hints at the dusty, blood-spattered legacy of the death of the 1960s counterculture. A movement of cults and beliefs that has found itself entrenched so deep into the dream factory fabric, that it functions not unlike a drug to those unsuspecting. A monolithic machine, chugging along, fueled by broken hearts and longing for illusory solace.

That's right. In the desperation soaked world of Starry Eyes, all are shackled, and there is no relief to be had. It's an at-times amateurish feeling work that gets a lot of mileage out of retaliating at a system seemingly hellbent on making every human a mark, and simple human kindness into a leper-making plague. While the final product longs for a little more grace in its movements, this is a well executed scare tale that brings to light something far too many hate to consider regarding my home town, and what it still represents to so many. The final result is something both profoundly sad, and hard to shake.

It's an idiosyncratic little nightmare with more than a dose of truth ingrained deeply into its tattered, tear-stained 8 X 10.