Most modern horror films don’t have as much patience or trust in their audience’s intelligence as The Babadook does. While most work on a surface level that mainly involve knee-jerk reactions and amped up music cues, there is a select class of films like this one that work on an intimate psychological level of dread and discomfort. For those reasons, among others, it stands out as one of the best horror movies of the past few years and certainly the most unique that I’ve seen this year.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a struggling widow and mother of a troubled seven-year-old named Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Through an early flashback, we find that Amelia’s husband Oskar, played by Benjamin Winspear, passed away the night of Samuel’s birth as he was rushing to drive Amelia to the emergency room. It’s made clear that the seven years of single parenthood haven’t been easy on either Amelia or Samuel and when a macabre pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” begins appearing around the house, it unleashes the titular supernatural force that cruelly threatens to rob them of their sanity and their lives.
While the creature is only seen briefly during its moments in the film, its ominous silhouette alone creates a lasting impression and when seen in full, the Babadook reminded me most of a twisted combination of Nosferatu and Jack the Ripper. This archaic aesthetic is fitting, as the lighting and staging in the most climatic scenes feels like a throwback to silent era films. Even the majority of the effects are practical as opposed to computer generated, which lends a more realistic and grounded approach to scenes that may have otherwise come off as cheap or lazy.
Grounded is also a good word to use when describing the storytelling as well, which does involve supernatural elements like ghosts and monsters but is rich with subtext on human issues like the persistence of grief and the hardships of single parenthood. Amelia’s feelings of resentment and exhaustion towards Samuel exist long before the Babadook arrives in their home and director Jennifer Kent does a great job at materializing these impulses in a way that feels psychologically convincing and dramatically satisfying. While some scenes may be a bit too on-the-nose when tying the allegorical elements together, it’s hard to fault a debut film that’s striving to push an entire genre into more narratively complex territory.
It’s difficult, too, to understate the importance of Essie Davis’ performance to the film’s success. She’s a marvel to watch, conveying depths of anguish and rage underneath the guise of a mother trying to put on her best face for her child. When moments of brutal honesty do arrive, Davis delivers them with a frightening amount of conviction. She, along with director Jennifer Kent, have created a very special scare-fest that I hope will haunt audiences for years to come.
The final entry in the Hunger Games series has arrived and in the tradition of the hugely successful Harry Potter and Twilight films, it has been split into two parts with the final film being released a year from now. While I haven’t read the books and can’t tell you if Part 1 creates a viable stopping point for the final film, I can say that this standalone portion of Mockingjay feels quite stretched at feature length and I have a hard time believing that this material couldn’t be skillfully condensed into one movie. Clearly this was a financial decision on the part of Lionsgate to milk their $1.5 billion (and counting) franchise as long as they can.
Mockingjay picks up right where we left off from Catching Fire, with our heroine Katniss Everdeen, played by Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, living in the bombed-out District 13 and still reeling from the outcome of the Quarter Quell. Her actions in those Games have sparked uprisings and civil unrest throughout the Districts and the President of 13 Alma Coin, played with conviction by Julianne Moore, hopes to mold Katniss into a symbol of united revolution against the Capitol. She agrees under the condition that her lost love Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, be retrieved from the clutches of the Capitol and its corrupt President Snow, reprised with grinning menace by Donald Sutherland.
The film has taken away what I always thought was one of the least interesting things about the previous entries, the Games themselves, but it hasn’t replaced them with much exciting material either. Fans of the series will likely be put off by the Katniss-less action in Part 1, in which the main character fires exactly one arrow in combat, although it does produce one of the movie’s most satisfying, trailer-ready shots. The majority of the material here is comprised of characters brooding or explaining or plotting, which may prove worthwhile for Part 2 but doesn’t leave us with much for now.
All of the characters, Katniss included, feel sidelined and underutilized, often waiting for things to happen as opposed to moving the story along themselves. If that was a conscious decision on the part of director Francis Lawrence, it comes off more as spinning its wheels rather than organically building tension. The acting here is similarly dubious; I never imagined that Josh Hutcherson would give a more convincing performance than Jennifer Lawrence in this film (or any film, really) but it’s sadly the case here.
Despite this, Mockingjay is not without its share of inspired moments. There are thankfully some beats of levity in a scene that finds Katniss botching her lines for an overproduced propaganda film that has cheeky notes of political satire embedded. I was most taken with a quietly poetic scene in which soldiers infiltrate the Capitol to retrieve previous Tributes, which frequently reminded me of the Abbottabad raid sequence in Zero Dark Thirty. Here’s hoping that the finale has more gripping scenes like this one but for now, it feels like we’re stuck with the world’s most expensive bookmark.
Taken from the name of its main character’s inflammatory radio show, Dear White People is a campus comedy that finds both black and white students coming to terms not only with how others view them but how they view themselves. While the movie and its marketing do have a prickly, sardonic exterior, the core of the film is an intelligent, even-handed look at young people choosing to conform or not conform to others’ expectations of them. First time director Justin Simien explores these layers of identity through a myriad of well-thought-out characters that don’t just serve as mouthpieces for the film’s message.
The lead character Sam, played by Tessa Thompson, is the resident rabble-rouser of the prestigious Winchester University, whose radio show lobs loaded racial one-liners such as “Dear white people: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” The show proves offensive to both white and black characters, drawing the ire of the school president’s son Kurt, played by Kyle Gallner, and the dean of Winchester, played by Dennis Haysbert. With the backing of the campus’ Black Student Union, Sam is able to claim control over the all black Armstrong/Parker house from the dean’s son Troy, played by Brandon P. Bell.
As an act of rebellion against Sam’s reign, Kurt and his humor magazine group Patische choose to celebrate their annual Halloween party by throwing an intentionally offensive “black” themed party, complete with blackface makeup and “thugged-out” apparel (the invitation states that XXL is the smallest permissible t-shirt size.) While this may feel like an overreach on Simien’s part, the film’s end credits document real life headlines of fraternities caught hosting eerily similar events. The party serves as the film’s climax, which has noticeable parallels to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
We’re obviously dealing with heavy material here but the level of honesty and humor that Dear White People brings to the conversation of race is refreshing. The acting, by a generally unknown cast, is generally stellar across the board. The screenplay is often witty and relevant, only faltering when going after easy targets like Kanye West and the Big Momma’s House series. Even without the race content, the film would work as a Robert Altman (who is name checked by one of the movie’s characters) influenced look at modern college life.
Certainly this is an ambitious film, especially for a debut, and Simien does spread himself too thin over multiple story lines that come together through one contrivance or another. I would have enjoyed the scope being narrower overall, focusing more intensely on 3-4 characters as opposed to broadly on 7-8 characters. Although tonally consistent, the film’s visual style tries to cover too much ground without ever truly establishing itself in the first place. However, the contemplative musical score does help to fill in those gaps and bring Dear White People together as a worthwhile piece of sharp social satire.
Michael Keaton soars above a star-studded cast in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the newest film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. In one of the film’s touches of art imitating life, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor of a popular superhero movie franchise attempting to revive his career through the treacherous world of New York theatre. His turbulent production of the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” makes up the majority of the movie’s narrative focus, although there are plenty of pit stops and tangents along the way.
Joining Riggan on stage are his girlfriend Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough, and Broadway newcomer Lesley, played by Naomi Watts. When one of the leads is involved in a tragic rigging accident, he is replaced by cocky method actor Mike Shiner, who is portrayed hilariously with haughty intensity by Edward Norton. Off the stage, Riggan is bolstered by his neglected daughter-turned-assistant, played by Emma Stone, and fearlessly supported by his lawyer and best friend Jake, performed with sputtering conviction by comedian Zach Galifianakis.
Iñárritu is no stranger to this type of stream of consciousness filmmaking but here he is graced by the presence of the visionary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose dazzling camerawork gives the film an unmatched level of liquidity and vibrancy. There’s an ethereal quality to this filmmaking, as if the camera is an omniscient being floating around the theater in a search for a greater truth. Many films have been credited as being “dreamlike” but thanks to Lubezki’s sublime technique, Birdman actually has the emotional urgency and attentive detail of a waking fantasy.
The lingering feel of the film is captured most prominently by the film’s extended takes, which are woven together to give the impression that it has all been filmed in (almost) one unbroken shot. While this gimmick has been attempted most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the concept here is used not to show off but rather to give the characters’ interactions an additional level of propulsive resonance. It has the dramatic effect of a great bottle episode in a television series, in which characters are confined to one location and often “bounce off” one another as a result. In addition, the free jazz-based musical score also helps provide a demanding rhythm to the storytelling.
While Birdman is technically courageous and consistently well acted, the story arc here is not nearly ambitious as it should have and could have been. Keaton fully commits himself to this role but Riggan’s tale is one that ultimately left me feeling a combination of ambivalence and puzzlement. It also doesn’t help that the rest of the characters’ story lines don’t add up to much in the end either. Despite this, the screenplay does pack in enough existential musing and witty wordplay to make it work best as a dark comedy. Iñárritu’s inventive flight of fancy is generally a surface affair but when the surface looks this good, it sure is difficult to look away.
Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne are back for the first time in twenty years and while this should be grounds for celebration, the result is a movie that can be considered a disappointment regardless of where your expectations are set. Dumb and Dumber To strips away the charm and goofiness its predecessor in favor of broader and more tasteless humor designed for increasingly cheap laughs. Though some of the jokes do land, the majority of the film feels like a desperate cash grab from the Farrelly Brothers, whose best days of comedy are clearly behind them.
For the uninitiated, Lloyd, played by Jim Carrey, and Harry, played by Jeff Daniels, are best friends and idiots who unwittingly find themselves caught up in misadventures that send them across the country. This time around, Harry and Lloyd find an old, misplaced postcard from their mutual flame Fraida Felcher (one of the many callbacks to the original film) that alleges Harry as being the father of her child. When the two meet face to face with Fraida, played by Kathleen Turner, she explains that she gave the child up for adoption years ago, which prompts Harry and Lloyd to set out and find her.
I’ll stop there because, let’s be honest: the plot is not the focus of this movie, nor was it the focus of Dumb and Dumber either. These films live or die by the punchlines and sight gags but this time around, the humor usually falls flat because the element of surprise and discovery is completely dissipated. As usual, Jim Carrey gives it all that he has here but Jeff Daniels just looks tired and embarrassed through most of Dumb and Dumber To. Even the often reliable Rob Riggle can’t manage any laughs as a hopeless chaperone forced to travel along with the two imbeciles.
Clearly there was just a lack of inspiration and creativity that went into this production. It inexplicably took six writers, including the two Farrelly Brothers, to produce a script that just does not give the actors anything to work with. It also paints Harry and Lloyd as more obnoxious and mean-spirited than we’ve seen them before, whether they’re “nerd bashing” at a TED-like conference or blatantly insulting women based on their appearance. There used to be a sweet charisma to these characters that has since been misplaced, which makes it more difficult to find a rooting interest in them.
Despite these criticisms, this film has the joke-a-minute pace of the original and I did laugh at a fair amount of material throughout. While they were mainly laughs that I felt guilty about the next day, I did sporadically enjoy being in the presence of these goofballs once again. One of the funniest scenes involves fireworks shooting off in a car and the subsequent hearing loss that renders Harry and Lloyd oblivious to an oncoming train. Unfortunately, there’s not enough here to recommend to newcomers or even the most hardcore of Dumb and Dumber aficionados.
Based on the worldwide best-selling novel, Before I Go To Sleep is a serviceable amnesiac thriller that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does enough to make it a worthwhile entry in the genre. Writer/director Rowan Joffé faithfully adapts the novel but while the movie is a brisk hour and a half, it somehow loses the propulsive, page-turning energy that the book maintains throughout. The film routinely sidesteps the slow reveals of the source material in favor of Twists with a capital “T” that can come off as more manipulative than intriguing.
Nicole Kidman plays Christine Lucas, a forty-year-old English housewife who wakes up every morning thinking she is still in her mid-twenties with no memory of her current self. She wakes up next to Ben, played by Colin Firth, who says they have been married for years and that he has been taking care of her since the accident that caused her anterograde amnesia. When Ben leaves for work, Christine gets a call from Dr. Nasch, played by Mark Strong, who says he is a neuropsychologist who has been working with her to restore her memory by maintaining a secret video diary every day.
These entries serve as the narrative backbone of the film, allowing Christine to build a foundation from the blank slate that awaits her every morning and allowing the audience to catch various clues and hints that are presented. When she asks the same question on two separate days and gets different answers, mistrust forms and she knows that she is not being told the full story of her accident and what has happened since. This setup leads to a series of developments that range from tediously melodramatic to genuinely suspenseful, the latter applying most often to the film’s final act.
Kidman is very good here, finding creative layers of despair and confusion in a role that could have easily been repetitive and monotonous. Firth and Strong do what they can but they are ultimately pawns in service of the film’s twisty plot line. The look and feel of the film is generally chilly and removed, as evidenced by the steely blue color palette that it works from. While the story that it presents is indeed sad, the film does take itself quite seriously and perhaps some humor could have been injected to give things a more human and less sterile feeling.
Seeing this movie after having recently re-read the book, I was glad to see that the movie followed so closely with the original story’s revolving plot. Even though I knew the ending going in, I was re-taken into the story and somehow still surprised at points. Still, some deviations still managed to irk me, in particular a poorly-judged scene that involved a character’s misreading of a name tag and the triggering of a flashback that felt forced and contrived. Overall, Before I Go To Sleep is an admirable, if not totally memorable, effort.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is as audacious and densely packed as any other film that the director has crafted so far in his career. Over its near three-hour run time, Nolan keeps the screen busy with truly awe-inspiring images and a narrative that constantly presses forward boldly, like the pioneering astronauts at its center. While it has clear influences from notable predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, Interstellar works hard to develop its own path and bring new ideas to the table. What it lacks in compelling character motivation, it more than makes up for with heady scientific topics and visionary action set pieces.
The film places us in a future ravaged by environmental instability and economic turmoil. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father (in case you weren’t sure this was a Christopher Nolan movie) of two and an engineer-turned-farmer who is recruited under mysterious circumstances to the nigh-defunct NASA. There he is convinced by Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine, and his daughter Amelia, played by Anne Hathaway, to embark on a journey through a recently discovered wormhole near Saturn in order to seek out life-sustaining planets and ensure the ongoing survival of the entire human race.
The details of the ensuing mission and their effects on both the earthbound and space traveling characters are aspects that are difficult to discuss without unraveling the entire plot of the film. It would suffice to say that the film tries valiantly to cover as much ground as possible and it succeeds more often than it fails. The pacing is uneven but determined and the acting, particularly by a well-cast McConaughey, is consistently grounded. The film’s best sequence has two characters reeling from an hour long journey to a planet severely affected by time dilation, who return to find that 23 years have passed in their absence.
From a technical perspective, Nolan and his crew have created another IMAX presentation that is nothing short of extraordinary. Seeing this film in 70mm IMAX was an exhilarating sensory experience, one of the most memorable that I’ve been a part of personally. I was struck not only by the grandeur of the visuals but the detail of the sound design. Scenes of a shuttle taking off or traveling through a wormhole have even more impact when played through a speaker system capable of producing low frequencies that you can literally feel in your body through the vibrations in the theater.
Another aid to the sound of Interstellar is a reverent and spellbinding musical score by Hans Zimmer that simultaneously captures the wonder and dread of space exploration. It is only detrimental during some higher action scenes where it can bury some of the characters’ dialogue, although these instances were not crucial in the long run. Ultimately, Interstellar is about as ambitious as big budget pictures are allowed to be these days and Christopher Nolan has again proven himself to be one of the most talented directors in his class.
Dan Gilroy’s dynamic directorial debut Nightcrawler finds Jake Gyllenhaal in the middle of a fascinating character study that also manages to operate as a first-rate crime thriller and a piece of well-tempered social commentary. Gyllenhaal finds one of his very best roles in Louis Bloom and he crafts a visceral and vicious performance that should merit Oscar consideration in the coming months. Bloom is, above all, an opportunist. He observes the world from a detached, objective point of view devoid of any semblance of moral or ethical code. He steals anything from copper fencing to an unattended bicycle with no remorse and the sole intention of getting ahead of the pack.
One evening, he happens upon a fiery car accident and takes intense interest in the video journalists that quickly swarm the scene. He engages one of the “nightcrawlers,” played by Bill Paxton, and soon enough, he finds himself hitting the Los Angeles streets with nothing more than a video camera and complete lack of journalistic integrity. After a series of increasingly provocative news tapes, he piques the interest of the city’s most desperate local news director, played by Rene Russo. He also takes on a struggling homeless man as his oft-berated and beleaguered assistant, played by Riz Ahmed.
Bloom’s obsessive workmanship often plays like the demented confluence of every self-help and success based audiobook played on repeat. He has every conversation as if it’s a job interview and even lectures a potential employer about promise of job loyalty from generations past not being afforded to the current job market. Clearly he has drive but it’s never made clear what he’s ultimately after. This kind of empty ambition seems like the making of a potentially dull character but Gyllenhaal somehow makes Bloom compulsively watchable throughout, much like the footage that his character films every night.
Gilroy makes it clear that we’re in antihero territory throughout this film and as that’s the case, it boasts the kind of narrative thrust and frantic unpredictability of other genre greats like Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood. We are shown these men doing, saying and thinking terrible things, but we can’t look away. We want to see them get it but we’re also still somehow rooting for them, if only for the fact that the director has taken away all other rooting interests. I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of car chase scenes but I would count the one in the film’s third act as one of the year’s most effective, mainly because I still cared about Lou’s fate throughout.
My main misgiving with Nightcrawler comes down to the music score by James Newton Howard, who is obviously an accomplished film composer but simply out of his element here. The electric guitar motif on the title track is far too hopeful and proud to represent a character like Bloom and oboe/string combination that underlies a scene between Gyllenhaal and Russo is incredibly maudlin and unnecessary. In fact, I would have preferred more scenes with less or no music to interfere with Gilroy’s well-crafted dialogue. That aside, Nightcrawler is a transfixing thriller with plenty to recommend.
Director Adam Wingard follows up his 2012 home invasion hit You’re Next with The Guest, another devilishly entertaining thriller that wears its nostalgic horror influences on its sleeve. The titular role is filled by Dan Stevens, most notable for his work on the BBC series Downton Abbey. He plays David Collins, a former soldier who visits the grieving family of his recently fallen colleague Caleb Peterson. When he unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, he tells of a promise that he made to Caleb about watching over the family and is subsequently welcomed with open arms.
During his residency, he begins to subtly influence the day-to-day affairs of Caleb’s brother and sister Luke and Anna, played by Brendan Meyer and Maika Monroe. Whether it’s teaching Luke how to deal with bullies at school or passing Anna shirtless in the hall post-shower, David cool and confident demeanor hints at something sinister under the surface. When Anna begins to probe into David’s shrouded past, David’s charismatic veneer begins to erode and he is forced to defend himself by any means necessary.
Dan Stevens is really a marvel in this movie. He somehow channels both the All-American altruism of Steve Rogers from Captain America and the looming, unwavering drive of Michael Myers from Halloween, sometimes even in the same scene. It’s a subtle performance, one where a certain smile or look in the eye can set the trajectory of a scene. The slow reveal of the nature of David’s past creates a tense atmosphere where Stevens is given unrelenting command of the screen at all times.
Beyond Stevens’ performance, The Guest is largely style over substance. A mixtape that Anna makes for David serves as the film’s musical backdrop, which features the type of synthed-out arpeggiated electro-pop that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 1980s slasher flick. Shot in New Mexico, the film also flirts with Western templates as well, especially during a parlay scene with Stevens and a nearly unrecognizable Ethan Embry. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek campiness throughout that makes it work effective as a dark comedy.
Wingard is clearly a student of Tarantino-style pastiche and is able to blend these elements cohesively. My chief complaints with the movie come down to the third act, which features two large set pieces that (forgive me) tend to overstay their welcome. Save for a memorably funny line reading at its conclusion, it’s as if The Guest forgets how to have fun once the plot wheels start to come into motion. Still, there’s more than enough here to recommend, especially during a fall movie season that’s been light on old-fashioned thrills.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are together again and it’s a beautiful thing. The Skeleton Twins reunites the Saturday Night Live alums after the success of their roles in the 2009’s Adventureland, but while that film relegates them to husband-wife comic relief, Twins aims for something richer and more meaningful. Here they play estranged siblings Milo and Maggie, who are brought back into each other’s lives by their near-simultaneous suicide attempts. During their first meeting together in 10 years, they share the type of jaded banter that you would except from long lost friends but their past bonds soon come to light when Maggie asks Milo to move in with her to recover.
We then meet Maggie’s adoring but oblivious husband Lance, played hilariously by Luke Wilson. He’s the kind of guy who uses the word “amigo” liberally and treats the world as a mountain to be climbed but Wilson finds a way of somehow grounding this character and making him believable as Maggie’s spouse. Ty Burrell is also strong as Rich, a teacher from Milo’s past with whom he tries reconnect. Those expecting Phil Dunphy-esque pratfalls may be disappointed to find a much more subdued and tortured performance.
Despite these characters, Hader and Wiig really are the reason to see this movie. The exceptional chemistry between them allows not only for one liners and dry sarcasm but also moments of real tension and poignancy. Maggie and Milo clearly have plenty of issues to work out, both in the present and the past. Like true brothers and sisters, they know just how to find each other’s triggers for humor and pain alike. The best example of this is the climatic bonding scene, which finds an upset Maggie reluctantly joining in on Milo’s grandiose lip-sync of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
Writer-director Craig Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman, does indulge indie comedy clichés from time to time but also does a commendable job of balancing black comedy with penetrating family drama. He’s wise not to over-direct his actors, especially in scenes of confrontation that really ring true. While the film goes to the well once too often with water imagery, it also has a muted visual style that suits the material nicely. The fall setting also allows for a well-timed Halloween party that contributes to the primary theme of nostalgia.
The film’s title is referenced in dialogue-free flashbacks of the twins spending time with their father as children, in particular a scene in which they’re gifted a set of matching skeleton figures. This fits in well with the Halloween theme but also hints at the theme of death that permeates the film. There’s a sense of unmitigated sorrow within both Milo and Maggie that somehow both separates and solidifies them. Despite this sadness, The Skeleton Twins is able to inject plenty of well-judged humor to create a bittersweet and memorable family affair.