Wednesday 12 November 2014

Review: The Babadook

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Ben Winspea

Synopsis is here

The horror films I enjoy usually contain what I call an "Exorcist moment". This is a single disquieting scene, sequence or shot that often slips past the major scares, but stains my memories like blood on a carpet. In The Exorcist, the moment in which Father Karras envisions his recently deceased mother on the bed, rarely gets mentioned amongst the pea soup vomit and head spinning, but it is the moment that unsettles me the most. There's something about that moment of disquiet that unnerves me. Something deeply primal.

The Babadook; a debut horror feature by Jennifer Kent, is so in love with primal fears, it's no surprise that it holds its own "Exorcist moment". The film's weary protagonist; Amelia, exhausted from lack of sleep and haunted by the grief of losing her husband, notices a near impossible image during a news report. It's a Lynchian moment played out just around the tipping point of the film. Kent's film had pulled me far enough through the ringer so that when this small moment occurs, I was genuinely spooked. I gained that same sense of unease I felt with Karras' mother. When it comes to scares, for me, it's always the little things.

The Babadook plays little a forgotten gem of yesteryear. Horror now often operates by trying to bamboozle the viewer with successive BOO moments. The Babadook isn't too interested in the cheap thrill. It wants to unsettle, and does so with an impassioned love of older cinema. Its title character is one that harks back to the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and toys with similar psychological themes. Our protagonist Amelia (Davis); is a timid and haunted soul, who is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, who died in an accident while they were on their way to give birth to their son. This mixture of survivor guilt and grief grows within the character like a festering wound. Amelia works in care, but seems repelled by her son. She longs for intimacy, yet is reluctant to allow herself to let go. Suddenly an intensely troubling pop-up book appears in her son's room and then the trouble occurs.

The Babadook feels much like Ringu (1998) or Paperhouse (1988) in that there's a horrid feeling of dread that is difficult to really shake off. The tautly wound performances from its leads keep the film's anxiety levels high, while its ashy grey cinematography and constant tight close ups, not only give the film a sense of texture but a foreboding sense of claustrophobia. This is combined with a screenplay with a strong emphasis on the banality and sadness that comes with loss and economical set pieces that are far more interested in what you thought you saw than what you going to see. If other films were as invested in its humans than its monsters, I feel I'd be scared at the movies more often.





Review: Gone Girl

Year: 2014
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens

Synopsis is here

Normally when I'm sitting in my hometown's mall cinema, I'm gritting my teeth at the level of inane chatter that stems from people with their "unlimited cards". For me there's nothing more frustrating at a cinema than an audience who spend more time talking to each than the watching the movie. My screening of Gone Girl on its theatrical opening was different. Yes, there were audible mutterings, but for once this was because everyone watching was absorbed with what was on the screen. Not only was I enthralled by David Fincher's spiralling thriller, but liberated at just how tuned in everyone was for the movie and its many twists. This wasn't the annoying, idle chit chat that grates, irritatingly on the ears. No, this was the rumblings of the post credit debate which had started before the film had finished. The audience were all part of the page turner. There's not many recent films that can do that.

There's a lot of Fincher's 10th feature to spoil, so I'll do my best to tread lightly on the narrative (however, note my warning of Spoilers) Films like this is one of the reasons I usually link the synopsis as opposed to writing it into the review. Any of the film's plot points could be a spoiler filled booby trap. So let's just say that Nick Dunne's (Affleck) wife, Amy (Pike) is missing, but all is not what it seems when it comes to her disappearance.

This is Fincher is pure pulp mode. Collaborating with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth for the fourth time, Gone Girl is a film inflected with dark, noir-like imagery to match the films expose of a modern marriage which is decaying from the inside. The film's narrative is outrageous in the same way as OTT 90's thrillers such as Basic Instinct, but the films detached central couple, tap into that similar social crawl space of 'Jack' and Tyler Durden of Fincher's own Fight Club (1999), there's something eerily familiar about The Dunne's alienation. A creepy invasive feeling that connects with us in a way that we wish it didn't. The same way we wanted Tyler do blow everything sky high.

As the characters peel back each of their layers, trust suddenly becomes fluid. Each scene makes you question the last. Kirk Baxter's exquisitely timed editing gives lasts a split second less than you would have hoped. Time that would give away an awkward glance or to probe a clue for longer. Fincher's film primes us for this with its slightly too quick opening credits. We don't gain a clear image. We don't see everything, even when shown.

Working together with the novel's writer, Gillian Flynn, Fincher merrily toys with aspects of the book's structure to allow twists to occur parallel with other events. The issues of family become streamlined (ultimately lessening motives of certain characters), but the implications and scrutiny of the media is played up, made Meta and made even more tangible. Gone Girl beautifully allows Affleck to comment on his own relationship with the media as well as subconsciously taking pot shots at Robin Thicke, just because. The bolstering of the media slant is notable because it allows Fincher and the film's characters to play in a world in which image is indeed everything.

This is certainly true when we consider the so called failings of the film's gender politics. Gone Girl has been considered misogynist in certain circles and indeed for a film that explores an ugly marriage, it does seem to lean on the side of men. Yet as we move into a world in which ideas of femininity are becoming more intense, it does frustrate that so many of the think pieces that appeared after the film's release seemed to jump on the idea that the film clearly promotes rape culture as opposed to seeing a film which illustrates (many) complex women of the agency. It's understandable that we don't want to keep casting a negative eye over women in the film, but I'm also troubled by the idea that we are not allowed to have troubling women. The thriller is interesting because of its complications and dynamics between the film's women, with the film's most telling scenes displaying two women as the smartest people in the room while the males cluck around them and hold their balls.

Affleck and Pike head up a specifically cast, which highlights the best features of each member. Affleck has always been a decent self-affecting straight man (see: Changing Lanes) while Pike's mix of cool girl and ice queen has been something noted since her appearance as a Bond Girl. Without saying too much, she is dangerously effective in this role. Even the smaller roles are smartly picked. Carrie Coon is quietly tragic. Tyler Perry has a funky charm about himself while Kim Dickens has not garnered enough plaudits for her tough cookie cop role of Detective Rhonda Boney. There's also a knowing nod to How I met your Mother's Barney in the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as the wonderfully Naïve ex-boyfriend Desi.

Gone girl is not Fincher's best film, but it certainly is one of its most winking, with the film summing up the crumbling of a modern relationship in the most OTT way possible, but also doing a decent job of portraying a decimated Middle America which reanimates to an inhuman form by the pervading of the media. The Ace in the Hole style observations feel even more cutting than we give credit for as we observe a broken society that is easily forgotten while it glares mesmerised by flashing bulbs and gossipy chatter of a missing person who has the image of having it all. The film isn't perfect, with its resolution feeling slightly more obtuse than it should be. The novel also understands the headspace of these people more, while the film has a feel of punches being pulled. But there's clearly a reason why I saw Gone Girl twice. It's a delectably dark piece of entertainment.