The Babadook (2014)

Written and directed by: Jennifer Kent 

the-babadook-posterDespite liking what I’ve seen of “highbrow-horror” so far, I only recently got the chance to see one of the “new” “genre’s” defining films: The Babadook.  Through the bizarre workings of the internet, The Babadook remained in the spotlight well beyond its release date: its titular monster having been declared a gay icon, a development that has little to nothing to do with its portrayal in the film.

 

So what is the Babadook if not the second coming of Doctor Frankenfurter? In a way it is still a somewhat eccentric horror entity: a fairly harmless looking character from a black-and-white, pop up children’s book. When I first saw the character I grew excited, eagerly wondering how it would be brought to life? For a second I thought I was watching a more serious rendition of the Spongebob Squarepants episode “Frankendoodle.”

 

Unfortunately, The Babadook is not quite that innovative. Like other films in the highbrow-horror genre, rather, it is a film that derives its horror from the relationship between its human protagonists, between them and the Babadook’s invisible, ominous presence. This is also the approach exhibited in It Comes at Night.

 

I enjoyed The Babadook, but a tad less than It Comes at Night. My dissatisfaction was subtle. I found the film engaging and was compelled by the struggles of its protagonists Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman) with a society that is horribly callous in its inability to handle an imaginative and/or disturbed young child. Nonetheless, while watching The Babadook, I also felt a degree of the dissatisfaction I felt while watching Hereditary. In my experience, good horror films take an idea and run with it. The monster/horror will have an innate characteristic that follows the protagonists from start to resolution.  The Babadook, by contrast seems to simply throw a number of horrors at its heroes, without a unifying logic. The film’s monster does not seem to have any meaningful identity: it certainly wasn’t as the top-hat wearing, fuzzy creature it is initially presented as.

 

 I came to realize my disappointment with the film largely stems from the fact that I expected it to be about a monster. Like It Comes at Night it wasn’t, well not really. Why did this fairly common twist make sense to me in It Comes at Night but not The Babadook. I suppose its because The Babadook was about suppressed human monstrosity. It Comes at Night, may be more about human monstosity than a literal monster, but the human monstrosity in that case was too overt for it to feel like a cruel twist when brought to light.  To re-iterate my point using an entirely different example: I couldn’t stand that Home Alone ends with Kevin feeling he has to apologize to a family that blatantly ignores/mistreats him. In a similar vein, it irritates me that the end of The Babadook subtly validates the obnoxious behavior of Samuel’s Aunt (I can’t explain what I mean unfortunately without spoiling the movie).

 

The Babadook holds up as a strong representative of contemporary horror film-making. I’m not sure how universal my issues with it will prove to be, but they are small ones. So just don’t go into it expecting a gay-cult-thriller or a remake of Frankentoon . Horror fan or not, you should enjoy yourself.

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Love & Mercy (2014)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad Written by: Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman

love_&_mercy_(poster)I recently had the chance to re-watch one of the film’s that ignited my current passion in going to the cinema: 2014/15 release Love & Mercy. The film tells the story of Beach Boys bassist, falsetto singer, pianist and songwriter Brian Wilson, and played a key role in my coming to understand the band’s music . Going into the film, the Beach Boys held a weird dualistic place in my musical consciousness. On the one hand I saw them as the American equivalent of the Beatles in that they were an iconic band from rock-and-roll’s second generation. On the other hand, it was hard to make the Beatles comparison too strongly given that John, Paul, George and Ringo were experimental and whimsical, whereas the Beach Boys just seemed to churn out a plethora of tunes about surfboards and cars.
Whenever a biopic comes out I’m instantly hit with a mixed reaction. I both feel an instant skepticism about its quality and potential to entertain: and also a strong desire to see it (sorry critics, you can’t deter me from seeing Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell play Cheney and Bush). Nonetheless, Love and Mercy has held up as one of my favorite films. A big reason for this is that it really feels like it teaches a history lesson. Do you feel that the Beach Boys legacy is limited by the fact that they wrote about surfing too much? Guess who agrees? The musically-experimental, non-surfer, Brian Wilson.
Seeing Love &Mercy opened my mind to the brilliance of Pet Sounds as an album, highlighting its thematic distinctness from the band’s earlier catalogue and showing just how much musical vision had to go into constructing its sounds. That the Beach Boys put out musically innovative work, however, is not the full extent of Love & Mercy’s message. One of the film’s interesting choices was casting two Brian Wilsons. Paul Dano plays him in his heyday, while John Cusack plays him as a middle-aged man struggling with mental illness. While some have been quick to criticize Cusack’s non-resemblance to  Dano or Wilson, I find the use of the two actors has a very satisfying effect. The boyish Dano captures Wilson the legend. Cusack’s distinct appearance represents how far the legend has drifted. Perhaps you are familiar with a Simpson’s episode in which the family meets a bulky, white man who claims to be Michael Jackson and charms the family into wanting to believe him, absurd as the claim is. Cucack’s Wilson captures the appeal of this Simpson’s episode and transposes it into a sombre context. Car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) is shocked that the friendly but peculiar man she’s dealing with is really rock and roll legend Brian Wilson, but unlike the Simpson’s character, he most definitely is.
The film’s portrayal of Wilson also emphasizes another of The Beach Boys’ innate contradictions: the man who’s name is most synonymous with the band (he was even the primary writer on the band’s 2012 reunion album That’s Why God Made the Radio) is the one who drifted away from his Beach Boy identity and felt most alienated from the group all along.
Not everyone whose face looks good on a movie poster is necessarily good source material for making a movie. Brian Wilson’s story, however, is unknown, tragic and fascinating. Love & Mercy shares it and captivates with both its visuals and storytelling. It may not tell all of Wilson’s tale, but its portrayal of the individual story of innovation and struggle that underlined the output of an iconic band is an undeniable service to popular music history.

The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)

Directed by: Arthur Lubin Written by: Jameson Brewer, John C. Rose and Joe DiMona

Based on a Novel by: Theodore Pratt                

TIML_poster               As my fascination with The Room has led me to appreciate, the categorization of films as “bad but enjoyable” is not sufficiently sophisticated. Some films (The Room) do things that are conventionally considered bad, but somehow end up amazing. Others (Christian-conservative cinema) have content so horrible they don’t deserve praise yet can be appreciated in a masochistic way. The Fantastic Mr. Limpet is yet another film that belongs in this conversation, and it too denies neat categorization.

Henry Limpet works as a bookkeeper in the world war II era. He has been declared unfit to serve due to, amongst other things, his poor eye sight, in the US military, an uncomfortable truth given that his best friend George (Jack Weston) is serving and his wife Bessie (Carole Cook) is “very patriotic.” We later discover that Limpet and Bessie’s marriage does not appear to be a particularly happy one. He is obsessed with his goldfish, a hobby that for some reason irritates his wife to no end.

Anyway some stuff happens and Mr. Limpet turns into an animated fish. He meets another fish and a moustachioed Hermit Crab named Krusty (move over Sebastian!) (Paul Frees). He also discovers he can emit powerful sonar waves, for some reason. The film combines Disney-esque animation, military scenes and a few of songs with titles like “I Wish I Were a Fish.” This corny animals-and-militarism plot, when first introduced, appears to have potential to at very least to put The Incredible Mr. Limpet in The Room territory.

Unfortunately, once Henry Limpet turns into a fish, the film substitutes its quirky energy for slow-moving predictability. The film’s songs aren’t memorable as they are sung by a vintage choir rather than by individual, charismatic characters. The other fish character, “Ladyfish” (Elizabeth MacRae), is only entertaining in so far as she introduces a surprise love triangle into the plot, and while Krusty is a slightly more dynamic character, the numerous animated sidekicks that have succeeded him render him relatively forgettable as well. In short The Incredible Mr. Limpet goes from an opening that makes it bad but amazing, to a middle and end that makes me ask “who was this aimed at?” While the beginning of the film can give one hope that its writers were aware their premise was a tad silly, the second half makes it seem as if they can genuinely picture a demographic who wants to unironcally watch uncharismatic marine characters help with world war II and undergo romantic dilemmas.

I suppose it’s hard to know how my mind would have worked in the 60s. Surely, even in a world that predates Finding Nemo, Spongebob Squarepants and The Little Mermaid this wasn’t the best that could be done with anthropomorphic sea creatures. Nonetheless, liking film means being able to see beauty in all sorts of media, and while I can’t say I love it, The Incredible Mr. Limpet still left the cinephile left me awestruck and happy about its existence.

Wiener-Dog (2016)

Written and directed by: Todd Solondz

Wiener-Dog_film_poster                If you’re curious, go on Youtube and look up a trailer for Todd Solondz’s Wiener Dog. You’ll notice a lot of angry commenters lambasting it for being a terrible movie. I’m not sure whether to be frustrated or amused by such comments. Much like those who ensured Darren Aronofsky’s mother! got a series of Razzie nominations, it seems like a lot of youtube commenters don’t know how to distinguish their not enjoying a style of filmmaking from a film actually being bad.

Now don’t get me wrong. I won’t turn on Wiener-Dog and fondly rewatch it when I’m in need of cheering up, but that’s the point of Solondz’s cinema. He explores the uglier sides of human existence by having his characters speak and sometimes act in appalling ways. This dynamic is perhaps best expressed in the film’s first story (the film has four parts each of which cover the relationship between different people and a dachshund). This vignette centres around Remi, a 7-year old cancer survivor, who’s given a pet dachshund, which he plainly names “Wiener-Dog.” This name shows a great deal of love: he doesn’t need to give her a special name for her to matter to him: she’s the only wiener-dog in the world as far as he’s concerned. Unfortunately for Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke ) , his mother Dina (Julie Delpy, in a role loosely connected to a few of her lines in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy) is not a fan of his having a dog, and his father (Tracy Letts ) is fickle on the matter as well. It seems every conversation Remi and his mother have is a serious one, and at times she can be quite blunt. In some conversations she comes across horribly. In others, she comes across as more normal, yet nonetheless her contrast with Remi allows his “naïve” higher sense of moral urgency to shine through.

Wiener-Dog charms through its use of different aesthetics (the intermission is no doubt one of the film’s highlights) and personas. Greta Gerwig plays a classic indie protagonist (Dawn Wiener of Solondz’s Take Me to the Doll House), Danny Devito plays a curmudgeony film school professor, Zosia Mamet plays a Girls-like (though not necessarily her Girls character) figure, and Ellen Burstyn plays a misanthropic grandmother. Therefore, even while Wiener Dog peaks early, its continued innovations make it a solid film from start to finish.

While I bemoan those who lack the nuance to understand Solondz’ shock based approach, I can’t help but have questions myself about exactly how it should have been applied. In one of her conversations with Remi, Dina makes an implicitly racist remark about a dog named Mohamed, and because this interaction is with her 7-year old son there’s no one present to call out this dog-whistle remark. Given the film’s overall presentation one can only assume that Solondz trusts his audience to be critical of the character’s comment. Nonetheless, the scene does raise some moral questions of what directors need to do to distance themselves from the views of their charters (I’m not saying I have the answer).

Similarly, there’s another scene in which Dawn and her travel companion Brandon (Kieran Culkin) make comments implying Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown) shouldn’t have kids because they have down syndrome. While the very fact that Solondz included three-dimensional portrayals of people with down syndrome in his screenplay is a good sign that he does not share in his characters bigoted views, he does nothing in the script to particularly challenge them. This is perhaps more problematic than the “Mohamed scene” since this form of ableism is not an every-day cable issue, and as such may not seem as shocking to viewers (it doesn’t help that Dawn is a more likeable character than Dina).

For all its strengths and potential weaknesses, Wiener-Dog is a film that should be watched with careful inquisitiveness. Perhaps, as the Youtube comments suggest, the way it’s made already filters out many of those who aren’t prepared to watch it as such. In all, Wiener-Dog is one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen in a while. You just have to accept that it’s the kind of thing that will impress you and make you uncomfortable in equal proportions.

Best F(r)iends: Volume I

Directed by: Justin MacGregor Written by: Greg Sestero

BestF(r)iends                 In making his screenwriting debut, Greg Sestero had big shoes to fill. It’s hard to say what exactly those shoes are. Best F(r)iends essentially marks the return to the screen for Sestero and Tommy Wiseau since the pair acted in the latter’s self-written-directed cult hit The Room. The Room is often described as the greatest (most enjoyable) bad movie of all time. So what was Sestero obliged to accomplish with his debut? Was he to create his own bad-masterpiece, or was he to show he and Wiseau could create conventionally good cinema?

Sestero seemed aware of the contradictory standards he had to meet. As such he created an homage to The Room that is nonetheless different enough from the original that it doesn’t risk being dismissed as a less good sequel.

Best F(r)iends starts in a compelling, “indie” fashion. We meet Jon, (Sestero) a bearded homeless man covered in blood who experiments with using different signs to assist in his begging. Jon’s fortunes change when he meets Harvey (Wiseau) a mortician working in a not exactly luxurious funeral home. Harvey offers Jon a way out of poverty, but unable to believe his luck Jon becomes torn between pursuing his employment opportunity with Harvey and engaging in illicit activity.

The first part of Best F(r)iends thus has an undeniable eccentricity to it, while also maintaining an intertextual relationship with The Room. A small example of this is a scene in which Jon and Harvey play basketball, a reference to The Room’s football trope. This scene becomes more than mere homage, however, as it gives way to a beautiful aerial shot.

Best F(r)iends also has an intertextual relationship with The Disaster Artist, a book by Sestero that inspired a 2016 movie (disclaimer: my knowledge at this point is entirely based on the movie). One of the ideas that comes out in that film is Wiseau’s insistance that he can  be a hero, while casting agents say his only hope in Hollywood is to be cast as a villain. Best F(r)iends in a way feels like The Room/The Disaster Artist from Sestero’s unique perspective. It sympathetically presents Wiseau as the fatherly philanthropist he sees himself as, while nonetheless casting him in a role more in line with his conventional Hollywood potential.

The film’s third major character, Traci (Kristen StephensonPino) makes reference to both The Room’s Lisa and The Disaster Artist’s Amber. Like the latter character, the Greg Sestero/Jon meets her while she’s working at a bar and they quickly form a relationship. This relationship, also echoing The Disaster Artist, becomes at odds with Sestero/Jon’s relationship with Wiseau/Harvey. Like other characters before her, Traci quotes The Room echoing Lisa’s line of “let’s ditch the creep,” though in a context quite distinct from the original line.

Just as Harvey is both very much like and markedly different from Johnny, Traci’s relationship to Lisa is also ambivalent. Lisa is The Room’s undeniable villain, yet the extent of her evil plot is cheating in order to avoid a loving but overbearingly traditionalist partner (leaving room for some to interpret The Room as a cryptically feminist film in which Lisa, not Johnny is to be understood as the hero). In writing Best F(r)iends Greg Sestero juggled, and perhaps was indecisive on whether he was paying homage to or improving upon Wiseau’s work. Thus in some ways Best F(r)iends duplicates the boys-club dynamic of The Room , but there are also times when it seems more aware of this problematic tone. Traci’s complexity as a character develops toward the end of the film in a way that intentionally subverts her original presentation.

Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero are both fans of vintage Hollywood cinema, with brief references to James Dean appearing in The Room and The Disaster Artist alike. While The Room channels Shakespeare and A Streetcar Named Desire through its passionate acting, Best F(r)iends appears to have been influenced by Double Indemnity, at least in so far as it’s a story that blurs the line between antagonists and protagonists. Unfortunately the film’s quality runs into one major roadblock. Its first act is a creative reimagining of the Tommy/Johnny—Greg/Mark relationship: whereas its second act focuses more on its crime-thriller element. The flow between these two kinds of stories isn’t quite natural: in fact it relies on a surprisingly forgiving decision by Harvey midway through the movie.

Maybe this will all make more sense when I see Volume II, or maybe the problem is that the film is broken into two volumes to begin with. Volume I ended up a tad over-extended and thus watered down. Regardless, Best F(r)iends is a must watch for The Room fans, and while no work will ever equal Wiseau’s unconventional masterpiece, the differences between the films renders the comparison unnecessary (and makes the similarities all the more enjoyable). Even non-fans of The Room can find a lot to enjoy here. Sestero is clearly a creative screenwriter, and I can only hope that he continues to work on content both related to and entirely separate from The Room.

The Visit (2015)

Written and directed by: M Night Shyamalan 

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterSomething quickly charmed me about The Visit. The film is told from the perspective of two kids visiting their grandparents for the first time: “rapper” Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and “filmmaker” Becca (Olivia DeJong). The Visit is supposedly Becca’s documentary, a point regularly alluded to, as she lectures Tyler on her art. There is something that’s just-right about Becca’s filmmaker identity. She is too amateur for the film to be read as a clichéd homage to “the artist,” yet she knows too much of what she’s talking about for her documentary to be dismissed as a joke. One thing to take from this is that she has a very specific and thus believable identity. Another, is that as a gifted, but still vulnerable amateur documentarian, her presence adds to the film’s affect: it feels as if she is masterfully documenting her own doom.

The Visit starts with an intriguing if somewhat unlikely premise: these kids have never seen their grandparents, due to a dispute between the grandparents and the mom. For a while, it seems Shyamalan has created a uniquely realistic horror film. His protagonists find themselves in an unusual situation and they’re creeped out by it: that’s all there is too it. Becca’s grandmother may ask her to crawl all the way into the oven, but this only bears aesthetic resemblance to Hansel and Gretel, it is not actually a fatal act.

Great as the premise I described sounds, it’s hard to imagine where it could be taken: how can you end a movie that’s ultimately anti-climatic. So Shyamalan ultimately does make his a horror film. The horror-moment is set up subtlely, though its odd how late in the film the setup is put in place.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s non-commitment keeps this film from being as strong in its narrative as it is in its aesthetic. It never builds up its horror quite enough to be scary, while also not finding a bold way to work from start-to-finish with its early realist-not-actually-horror approach. The Visit is nonetheless a strong enough film that it can be enjoyed along with Shyamalan’s other acclaimed works, as part of a strong aesthetic portfolio. If you’re interested in getting to know him as a director or if you simply want to try a less-intense horror flick, it’s absolutely worth the watch.

A Star is Born (1937)

Directed by: William A. Wellman

Written by: Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell 

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with the 2018 remake of the film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

A_Star_Is_Born_1937_poster

While the fourth iteration of A Star is Born takes its turn on the big screen, I figured I should see the original picture. The 1937 piece has a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, but it is undoubtedly an old movie. It opens in a somewhat over the top fairy tale fashion (think The Wizard of Oz without the magic), and doesn’t do much beyond telling its story along the way. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable work and a telling historical document.

It would be a bit of a truism to call A Star is Born dated, so I say it, not to imply a limit, but simply to note one of the film’s interesting qualities. The titular star is a woman: Esther Blodgett aka Vicky Lester (Janet Gaynor), and from a distance it’s hard to say if the film’s gender politics are subversive or not. One of the film’s central themes is emasculation, as Lester’s star rises above that of established Hollywood icon Norman Maine (Frederic March). Whether audiences at the time were more likely to read this plot as an endorsement of women’s equality, or a tragic tale of a man losing his place (or none of the above) is unclear from the way the plot resolves itself. And perhaps this ambiguity is a good thing, adding tonal richness to a simple plot line.

While the film may be dated in its depiction of gendered relations, perhaps the more interesting way in which it’s dated is in its depiction of celebrity. When Vicky and Norman star alongside each other in the same picture, audiences leave praising Lester and laughing off Maine’s forgettable performances. One of the notable qualities of this scene (and of A Star is Born as a whole) is its expository dialogue: the characters tell you with painful bluntness what they think of Maine. The more important point, however, is the very fact that the audience obsesses with Maine’s perceived inferiority to Lester. While we still live in a world where actors are praised or critiqued for their craft, the weight of that critique is far less substantial than A Star is Born makes it out to be. Adam Sander hasn’t lost his stardom just because most of his roles don’t share the prestige of Punch Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories. And Sandler isn’t even a great comparison here. As far we are lead to believe, Maine’s acting isn’t particularly bad: the audience has simply, with shocking unanimity, declared him Lester’s inferior.

A Star is Born is a satisfying Hollywood story with a pair of replicable and adaptable themes. As such it doesn’t surprise me that it has spawned three re-makes. Are the remakes justified? For now I’ll have to plead ignorance. Part of me wonders, however, whether contemporary stories can match the odd, yet somehow historically believeable melodrama contained in this simple 1930s tale.