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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.
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 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 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 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 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.
Six upper middle class jerks attempt to meet for dinner on a number of
occasions and find themselves caught up in many a farce. In "The
Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie", the everyday becomes entangled with
dream at every turn. The reality of the drug running foreign ambassador
comes into direct conflict with the guerrilla forces his domestic
policies engender, the gardener monseigneur of the church ends up
taking confession from his parents' murderer while the culprit is on
his deathbed, the cocktail party hosted by a general breaks down into a
small battle in his dining room, a sexually frustrated couple are
forced to elude their company and couple out in the garden, an
afternoon luncheon is turned into an audit of fratricidal confession
from a young army lieutenant. At every crossroads, the pretentious
"civility" of professional society finds itself disrupted by the casual
violence and mayhem that underscores their class privilege. Bunuel's
use of the nightmare tells the audience what the bourgeoisie knows very
well: they know what a bunch of casual gangsters they actually are, and
sleep will not let them hide from themselves. And none of the charm of
the bourgeoisie will be enough to break them away from their ongoing
isolation from themselves and nature, expressed very cleanly by
Bunuel's repeated image of the six professionals, in semi-formal dress,
walking down a country road in the middle of nowhere. And it's all very
funny, in an unfunny sort of way.
Bunuel's masterpiece holds up well, almost forty years after its release. Here's a farce that demonstrates just how far a "satirist" like Sasha Baron Cohen ("Borat") really has to go before he has anything substantial to say with farce or film.
"The Gray Man" is an important addition to the horror genre. Director
Scott Flynn chose to tell the story of Albert Fish, a serial murderer
who is believed to have murdered and cannibalized several young
children in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the environs of New York
City. Fish worked as a handyman and painter in most of the
neighborhoods he lived in, and was seen for the most part as a
relatively inoffensive and grandfatherly individual by many people. In
reality, he is said to have possessed a raging sociopathic pattern that
knew its roots in the harsh treatment he received in state orphanages
run by religious fanatics in the upper boroughs of the city. Flynn's
film gives the viewer a slight background of Fish's character so that
even the most offended audience member can understand Fish's
motivation. The man remains genuinely creepy in depiction, however,
simply due to the deep horror of life that true degeneracy, or "evil",
if you must, rarely has a loud "telegraph". Albert Fish is scary
because he looks like the earnest, hard working sort of character who
you'd hire to repair your furnace.
"The Gray Man" is also a significant work in horror, because it puts to rest the idea that a grisly tale must rely upon grisly depiction in order to unsettle the viewer. Director Flynn has wisely chosen not to graphically re-create the murders, and does not bother with lurid presentations of children being dissected or disposed of as meat. It might seem ridiculous that I would even have to point this out, but anyone who knows contemporary horror understands how little credit all too many Gothic film makers lend the imagination of their public anymore. I don't want to belabor the point, suffice it to say that "The Gray Man" puts films like "Saw" and "Hostel" to shame. Very few things in this life are as terrifying as a child murderer, Flynn and his cast put this true story across without much reliance on the sensational. Why, they even rely on a few little tricks like "atmosphere" here. Imagine that.
Leading the cast is veteran actor Patrick Bauchau, who brings the character of Albert Fish himself a terrifying but not entirely unlikeable quality. His work in this film is a delicately balanced affair that is more effective than that of Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs". Hopkin's performance in that work is outstanding, of course, but it is relatively melodramatic and over- the- top compared to the craft and restraint Bauchau offers here.. Following Bauchau up as the intrepid Missing Persons investigator Will King is Jack Conley, whose world weary demeanor I found very welcome in this age of celluloid depictions of lantern jawed law enforcement officials who always know what to do. Conley's King is a man unsure in his surety, a gumshoe who's likable for the same reasons we like Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" and Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon". He's sort of an anti-bureaucratic bureaucrat.
The other supporting cast members are quite good, most notably the perpetually bemused children of Albert Fish, Gertrude and Albert Jr., who know him alternately as both solid family man and abusive personality. The roles are handled by Mollie Milligan and Silas Mitchell. Jillian Armaneni is powerful as the mother of Grace Budd, the victim of Fish whose disappearance finally put investigators on his trail, and Lexi Ainsworth is very fine as Grace herself. Ben Hall holds his own as Grace's brother Albert, and character actor Bill Flynn has an appearance as the notorious Dr. Frederick Wertham (yes, he of the controversial 1950s anti- comic book crusade) who was a defense witness at the Fish trial as Fish and his crew pleaded insanity.
As for accuracy, who knows? So much has been written about the case that, now, seventy five years after the events themselves, it's even more difficult to separate the folklore from the reality of the moment. Albert Fish has entered that realm of real-life bogeymen with a distinction known by few, so the scuttlebutt will continue to blossom. Be that as it may, "The Gray Man" is a finely crafted, ambitious and riveting horror film, one of the few in the contemporary samples from the genre that is worthy of the time it takes to view it.
"The Watchmen" is a cover of Alan Moore's graphic novel from the 1980s.
The story is set against an alternative time line in the United States
where Richard Nixon is perennially re-elected, the United States wins
the war in Vietnam, and the presence of super-heroes generates public
controversy. The characters of the now long-forgotten Charlton Comics
universe like the Blue Beetle (Night Owl) and the Question (Rorshach)
among many others, are given new names and some extended play in Alan
The Watchmen's world is threatened by the nuclear terrors of the Cold War, and the main defense the United States has left is in the hands of super gladiators like the psychotic soldier of fortune, the Comedian, and the formerly human but now wholly reconstituted Dr. Manhattan, whose self-recreation through Hydrogen fusion makes him near God-like in essence. The streets of New York are guarded by a skeezy street executioner named Rorshach, who defies federal injunctions against vigilantes, and who is one of the more engaging characters in the story. The premise of the novel is pretty silly, and Alan Moore himself calls the work one of his early efforts to write the "last super hero story".
Zach Snyder is an ambitious young man, but ambition of the sort that makes movies out of graphic novels like "Watchmen" isn't necessarily the same as genius, which is about what it would take to put something as convoluted as "Watchmen" on the screen. The sub-narrative of the piece, the comic book within the comic book "Tales from the Black Freighter" is essential to "Watchmen", and without it, the storyline loses much of its satirical edge.
Worse yet, Snyder lacks all sense of the actual history and the bankruptcy of most mass culture that Moore satirizes so effectively in so much of his work. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ridiculous montage of establishing shots which Snyder created at the beginning of the film which are backed by an extended version of Bob Dylan's "The Times, they are a'changin'". As a film maker, Snyder seems obsessed and mystified by the violent excess in U.S. history, which is always a sign of someone who essentially has nothing new to say. Snyder attempts to make up for this shortcoming in his understanding by graphically depicting scenes of violence which are only alluded to in the storyline of Moore's novel itself. And it doesn't help, because, as Malcolm X once said, you can put kittens in the oven but that isn't going to turn them into biscuits.
Hence, what we've got here is three and a half hours of mediocre acting, people most of whom I'm sure are quite gifted in other settings leaping around in spandex costumes and delivering dialogue in a manner that makes the late Jack Webb look like Kenneth Branagh. Hell, as little as half an hour of this sort of thing can be exhausting, but it's funny if you know how, and William Dozier and Adam West proved that pretty conclusively 40 years ago with their farce "Batman". Unfortunately, the oh-so-serious Mr. Snyder chose to play it ultra-straight, and in that way lies disaster. Some comic books are better off staying comic books. In the words of Carlos Castaneda's fictional Yaqui Brujo Don Juan, why should a crow be anything but a crow?
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