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The Babadook (2014)
It's quieter today.
THE BABADOOK isn't for everyone, but it's a special film, one that in its own quiet way seeks to address certain realities via tropes of the horror film. Jennifer Kent is an ambitious director who tips her hat to some of the greats in the genre, Mamoulian, Melies, Bava, Whale, Kubrick. THE BABADOOK is a bold foray into psychological horror, repressed intimacy of women,single parenting, social isolation, child abuse, in a neat little package that she probably managed to crank out for under a million dollars. The movie lags in one moment where the script falls into the trap of explaining something the viewer has had time to figure out. But that doesn't drive the momentum of the piece, which leaves the viewer lots of room to draw their own conclusions as to which reality the characters actually are functioning within. The close of the story is open ended, but not in the over-used "something's gonna go on jumping out the bushes and getting you" standard that has been beaten to death in the ghost story/horror film this last ten years. Again, I think this is a special movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Jennifer Kent does next. She is a breath of fresh air compared to many of the so-called film makers who dominate the western film industry, and particularly the horror film. THE BABADOOK is a rare treat, filled with fine pointed grace and craft.
Rose Red (2002)
Ed Wood, you are vindicated
Author Steven King has been looking to prove that writing screenplays and producing film draws on a different set of skills than authoring novels and he has demonstrated it pretty conclusively with "Rose Red". "Rose Red" is a god awful four hour television mini-series which is a send-up of Shirley Jackson's classic novel "The Haunting of Hill House". Director Robert Wise completed a time honored version of this work back in the early 1960s, and aside from a wretched remake of that work back in the late 1990s, most people have been pretty satisfied with it. "Rose Red" is Steven King's idea of an upgrade on the tale. Unfortunately for King, a little modesty would have been in order. The cast of this series is unbelievably weak, even as contemporary television goes. Leading actor Nancy Travis has some real chops that she's demonstrated in other places, but her silly ass smiling characterization is about the scariest thing to be found here. That is, it's the most terrifying thing one sees in this work unless we're talking about the catatonic shock that the great Kevin Tighe appears to be in for the duration of his time on the screen in this mess. As for the rest of the cast, it's absolutely hopeless and a crime that actors are actually put through such hoops without suggestion of where subtlety or understatement might be found. They leer,grimace, mug and carry on in a manner reminiscent of the worst melodrama villains of the 19th century stage. King himself has a cameo as a pizza delivery man(!?) which exudes an air of "Hi, I'm the world famous author Steven King and I'm in this film". Even the special effects/CGI couldn't save this thing, once again, only modesty could do that. If King was really intent upon making a location in Seattle look creepy, he could have referred to 1980's "The Changeling" to get an idea of how it can be done. After all, if there is one thing this city has no shortage of, it is dark gray days, mildew and gloomy atmosphere. The repeated use of the CGI re-creation of the cityscape was completely unnecessary and suggested nothing so much to this viewer as the Walt Disney version of London seen in "Mary Poppins". But again, modesty had nothing to do with it. All that is accomplished with "Rose Red" is celebration of Steven King's alleged brilliance as a producer, which is nowhere indicated here. In fact, this film actually makes the late and much maligned Ed Wood ("Plan 9 from Outer Space") look like a visionary. So if that was the aim, congratulations, Mr. King.
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
It isn't what it is.
Aside from a starring vehicle for Claude Rains, there's not much to be found here. Especially obnoxious is the soundtrack, which unbelievably includes a section wherein Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony actually has lyrics written for it and is performed as an opera. That's Hollywood. Oh,and there's an actor who plays Liszt in this film, who apparently is on hand as an advocate for the misunderstood Eric Claudin (The Phantom). The whole thing is pretty silly, and about the best thing that can be said for it is that this effort makes all the more clear why the 1925 version with Lon Chaney Sr. is such an important film. Universal might have been trying to revive the horror film at this point in its history, but this work is a prime example of why the horror genre very often descends into bad slapstick.
The Wolfman (2010)
The odds are that if you're reading this, you're an admirer of the 1940 original. If that's so, you're looking to see how it honors the classic. I think THE WOLFMAN succeeds admirably in that regard, plus it seems to me that most of the people who were associated with this wanted to do a little more than simply re-polish a story that they're aware most of their viewers have seen dozens of times. You know that story, Larry Talbot of the Talbot family of Lanwelly has returned to his ancestral village after the death of his older brother and finds himself overtaken by the regional curse of the werewolf. This remake has its tongue very firmly in cheek as Benicio Del Toro assumes the Lon Chaney Jr. role, but employs many of the mannerisms and the quiet threat we see in Oliver Reed in Hammer's THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Part of that film's sub story, the idea that the Talbot clan has been close kin to gypsies for generations finds its way into this film. Fans of the horror genre will see a number of Hammer pastiches in here that I think they'll enjoy.
Anthony Hopkins is along for the ride as Sir John Talbot, and his own predatory traits are something he can barely keep under his skin, as you'll see several times during the movie. Other reviewers here have commented on the demented qualities of Van Helsing that Hopkins suggested in Coppola's Dracula, and the directors have given him room to flesh out John Talbot's character in this version of the Wolfman. It's a good idea, really. People familiar with the great Claude Raine's penchant for scene hogging can't help but notice the way Raines occasionally lapses into "Look at me, I am acting" mode in the original, especially when he's reciting the old "Even a man who is pure at heart---" etc doggerel for Larry in that scene with Lon Chaney Jr. Hopkins here at least is given some room to move Talbot's character away from the single dimension Raines was allowed to explore, and the place he takes it to looks like fun.
The same can be said for Emily Blunt, who becomes more than an appendage to her father's antique shop and a decoration for the arms of Patrick Knowles and Larry Talbot in this film. Blunt's version of Gwen Conliffe is a woman who seems to have her own reasons for doing everything, so it is unsurprising she can find the strength to take care of business in the classic Universal horror style in this version.
Hugo Weaving is also in this film as Inspector Frederick Abberline, late of London and the investigation into the Whitechapel murders. How's that for a liberty from the original. And Geraldine Chaplin gets to do at least one grisly walk on and has a couple of other interesting moments in the film as Maleva, Maria Ouspenskaya's character from the original film.
There are a few "American Werewolf in London" moments in here for the fans of the lycanthrope on film, some lovely CGI imagery of the beast loping over the rooftops. Blood and gore abounds, and nowhere is this at its more over the top best then in the scenes where Talbot has been arrested and subjected to the torture of the early psychiatric practice of days gone by. All I'm going to tell you is that some folks get what they're asking for.
So all told, THE WOLFMAN is a worthy romping remake. It's not a carbon copy of the original, nor should we want it to be, and in it's own sweet twisted way is a loving tribute to the evolution of cinematic werewolfery over the last seventy years. Try it on.
It took me three years to finally spend some time with ORPHAN, which at least on the surface looked like another demon child/Bad Seed knockoff. I stumbled across it in the library a week ago, bit, and was more than pleasantly surprised. ORPHAN rates as one of the better offerings I've seen in the thriller/horror genre in quite some time, and it has a wicked little twist that keeps its viewer guessing. It's a bit of a slow starter, but give this one time. It has a very fine cast, Vera Farmiga holds the lead down beautifully as the recovering alcoholic Kate and Peter Saarsgaard is also very good as her husband John, who fills the boyfriend/husband without a clue (tradition in classic horror) quite ably. Best of all is Isabelle Fuhrman as the monstrous Esther. This is a very fine piece of work and I don't want to give anything away. Trust me when I say this is very satisfying time spent.
The Messenger (2009)
Restrained and ambitious
THE MESSENGER is by far and away one of the best works of art that addresses the deep tragedy behind the current U.S. war in the Middle East that I've seen. THE MESSENGER is an attempt by Director Oren Moverman and screen writer Alessandro Camon to place themselves between the ears of two career soldiers who serve a vital place in U.S. Army Special Services, Casualty Notification teams who inform the families of soldiers that their family member has been killed in battle. As someone who remembers full well the devastating feeling you got in your insides when you saw these teams turn up at the quarters of friends and their families when my own father was serving in Vietnam in the late 1960s, I found the film an important effort.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a Iraqi war veteran recovering from a battlefield wound who is reassigned to a State Department and United States Army Casualty Notification team, which is led by Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Montgomery is also facing an impending breakup with his girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone), who is playing him off against a wealthy, established suitor. When he is assigned to Stone's team, he is at first resentful. The military decorum which is demanded of the Casualty Notification Team is very exacting, with learned routines that come from a spit and polish military professionalism that requires a distance that is extremely difficult to attain.
What follows is a series of well connected vignettes, in which the younger soldier is asked to stride this nether world between the jaundiced, dry-drunk outlook of the seasoned bearer of bad news, Captain Stone. Stone is a bitter man with some frustrated ambitions of his own, which are revealed late in the film. Obsessed with sexual victories and teeter tottering between professional sobriety and complete emotional collapse, Stone is far from a steady colleague mentor. Encounters between he and Montgomery go into emotional roller coaster as each man learns to accept the other on his own terms while acting out an extremely trying professional military role.
In short time, Montgomery comes into contact with the widow of a soldier who sparks his interest, and becomes torn between professionalism and attraction to the young widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton). Montgomery is forced to grow into himself, despite his outward cynicism, and in short time begins to mentor his mentor, Captain Stone. The story has an open ending, with Montgomery seeking to be part of the life of widow Olivia as she is seeking to reestablish herself in New Orleans. No morals are offered, and this is the true strength of the work as a whole. There isn't much humor to be found here, but watch for the scene where a bender fried Montgomery and Stone attend the wedding reception of the woman who has broken Montgomery's heart. The lampoon of upper middle class phoniness is priceless.
The beauty of THE MESSENGER is that it does not fall into the usual pro war or antiwar camps that film making in an era like our own are usually so encumbered with. The film makers are ambitious and restrained. I have no idea whether the plot line is itself "contrived" as some here have argued, which I have to say is a rather ridiculous critique given that movies are rarely anything but "contrived", and this is particularly true of the genre we call the war film. Some who have written here seem to believe that the film discredits the "professionalism" of those who do the work of Stone and Montgomery, as though "professionalism" were itself some sort of fetish that protects one from emotional or mental illness generated by both war time trauma and the mystique of military culture. Such are the times in which we live, ideological blather is rampant.
THE MESSENGER is important because, in the words of that great Vietnam war era politician, the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson, it is art, it shows us who we are, not who we say we are, not who we think we are, but who we are as a people, and as a political culture. At various moments, it is clunky. But it is an early effort to give some true definition about what the debacle in Iraq has done to our culture, and to the people who are expected to do the dirty work of the empire's war machine. It is a rare gem in mainstream contemporary U.S. film making.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
A really nice try
WENDY AND LUCY works for me because it portrays without too much melodrama the complexity of the lives of people who become unexpectedly indigent. Wendy in the film is a young woman of about 20 who leaves her home in Indiannapolis in dreams of making some serious money in the Alaska canneries. Her traveling partner is a young mongrel named Lucy. By the time Wendy has reached southern Oregon in her used Honda, funds are running low and the car is in terminal state. What money Wendy has must be used for the ferry to SE Alaska, so she occasionally indulges in petty theft in order to make her money go further. When she is held for several hours on a shoplifting charge, her dog, tethered to the front of the store in which Wendy was apprehended, either wanders away or is picked up by a concerned bystander. Wendy is assisted by an older man in her search for Lucy, a likely retiree who now makes ends meet working a security guard job that calls for 12 hours of sentry work a day. In the end, things work out for both Wendy and Lucy in an unsatisfying sort of way if you need happy endings. But the piece works, and it has a carefully structured atmosphere.
The Oregon town Wendy is stuck in is itself depressed as a result of the closure of the local mill, and its streets are deserted and depressed. Every scene in the film speaks of isolation, and a bottomless sadness visited upon the working poor that political culture in the United States has yet to find expression for.
Is it great film making? Maybe not. But WENDY AND LUCY is intrepid and strong film making, and in just bare human terms, is a fairly accurate depiction of what it's like to be down and out in the United States. As someone who was long term homeless right around the time I was Lucy's age, or 32 years ago when life in this country was nowhere so difficult for the working poor as it is today, I genuinely appreciate the careful effort of the film makers not to indulge in mawkish portrayals, and the attempt to understand that life on the terms of the person who gets caught up in it, unexpectedly. Lucy is not always the most admirable person, her decision making skills are pretty lousy atmoments, her priorities are often skewed. In the end, she does what is maybe the right thing for what may be the wrong reasons. But the portrayal of her character is wrenchingly human and beautiful. Full marks, ladies and gentlemen.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Humid with a high chance of rain
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a challenging work, in that it is based on a novel written by author Richard Yates back in the early 1960s. It is interesting that the film version appears now. The movie is intriguing and worthy, almost a poetic exposition of some of the sociological observations of the late C. Wright Mills, so it's not an easy cruise. But it's very good, a bold piece from director Sam Mendes.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett are Frank and April Wheeler, an upper middle class Long Island couple whose marriage has gone sour as the dreams of a life in the arts or pursuit of life of mind have succumbed to the career realities of mortgage payments, children and upper class mobility. The setting is a relatively prosperous Long Island suburb during the 1950s.
Frank Wheeler is a junior level executive for a business machine company, and spends many of his lunch hours drinking and commiserating with friends. The tension between he and April leads him to dalliances with secretaries, and the audience is witness to a manipulative trist he has with a 19 year old receptionist who falls under his "charm". April spends most of her days caught in the domestic trap that all too many women knew in the mid-1950s, housework and daydreaming about days gone by. At the beginning of the film, we see her performing in a community theater play that is poorly received by the audience, and she remains frustrated by the abandonment of her theater dreams.
Bored and alienated by middle class suburbia and the quiet presumption imposed by neighbors caught in a similar bind, Frank and April decide they're going to sell the house and move their lives with their two children over to France. And, as fate would have it, this dream emerges at the exact same time that the company Frank works for decides that he's a bright new idea man, and offers him a big promotion. Frank is now caught between his undefined personal dreams and the possibilities of real material advancement. April, who knows desperately that she wants something much different then the life of a suburban housewife, but, who like most women of that era, rarely is allowed time or space to develop her ideas about who she is, clings wildly to the escape plan. Frank is a stormy individual caught in the casual lies most men from the professional classes in that era were bought into, and he frequently takes advantage of the enhanced isolation that is driving April nuts through engaging in abusive tirades.
The film becomes deep tragedy over an unwanted pregnancy before its end, but along the way, some rather penetrating commentary on the Wheeler's situation by the son of a neighbor who has been struggling with mental illness lights up the Wheeler's reality better than either of the protagonists can, burdened as they are by the deceptions of careerism, extramarital dalliances, and parenting roles that neither of them really seem to want. The atmosphere of the piece, then, is like a high summer day on Long Island, humid with a high chance of rain. The viewer knows that some sort of cloudburst is going to come, and there's not much surprise when one of life's lethal downpours arrives and reshapes the lives of the central characters. All the same, Winslett and DiCaprio and their supporting cast carry this difficult piece quite ably. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a keeper.
The Believers (1987)
useless, useless, useless
THE BELIEVERS is completely useless and fails as even a mild effort in entertainment. The work features a storyline that is loosely based upon horrors allegedly to be found within the Afro-Cuban belief system Santeria. As someone who is a friend of several houses in the tradition of Santeria, I was appalled by the bent of these film makers, which was the usual Hollywood crap. Suffice it to say that if a film this slanderous were made about the documented abuses and excesses of good old U.S. fundamentalist Christianity, those film makers would be excoriated on every talk show circuit between Honolulu and Pittsburgh. THE BELIEVERS is a stupid film, marketed towards people who already don't have any problems figuring out reasons to be afraid of the indigenous traditions of black and Latino folks in the Americas. Watch this if you must, but don't walk away from the premises of the film makers, which are embarrassingly racist.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Why not the worst?
Here's yet another overblown effort from Zach Snyder, who if he isn't the worst film maker in Hollywood today, is certainly one of the worst. DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)is total crap. It's hard to imagine another two hours so jam packed with unrivaled ugliness, humorlessness, and mean-spirited nonsense. One would think for the budget these folks had they could at least have come up with a semi-amusing plot or storyline, instead, we get every loud cliché possible piled up in the space of an hour and forty five minutes. What's it about? People getting infected with a zombie virus, or surviving same and shooting zombies in the head. The only way to kill them, you know. Car crashes, explosions, gunfire. No suspense, no surprises, no actors and those that pretend to be the same in this mess lack any sense of timing. No central characters that you learn to care a bloody thing about. The work is predictable as hell, and as for scary, as several people maintain here, I've seen more frightening lunches in elementary school cafeterias. Jimmy Carter used to ask why not the best, Zach Snyder pulled that inside out and asked why not the worst? May there never be a film made that is worse than this one. Really. But somehow or other, given the sheer energy and pretense that went into this mess and fiascos like 300, we may be sure Mr. Snyder has another abominable spectacle somewhere inside him.