The Babadook – Film Review

The Babadook

Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a socially awkward young boy who is quite content playing with himself, building weapons, and living in a fantasy world. His mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to cope with looking after an eccentric young boy on her own. While she has a close sister who tries to help out Samuel’s odd behaviour means that her patience and generosity is slowly wearing thin. One night when Amelia asks Samuel to pick a book from the shelf for her to read he returns with Mister Babadook. Inside the blood-red cover is a beautifully hand drawn pop-up book about a creature called the Babadook. What starts as reading like a children’s book soon turns sinister and Amelia swiftly abandons the creepy tale.

Soon Samuel’s games involve the invisible figure of the Babadook and he continually insists that he is not imagining the creature. As Samuel’s delusions grow Amelia struggles to keep control of her son amid violence outbursts and spooky goings on. Before too long Amelia has to admit that the Babadook is not just a fictional creature residing within a children’s book but a very real force that is living in her house and one that means to do her harm. As Amelia battles against something she can hardly believe is real Samuel finds himself at risk, not just from the monsters he has long feared but from his emotionally exhausted and once-loving mother.

If it’s in a word. Or it’s in a look. You can’t get rid of… the Babadook. So what can you do?

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The modern method for producing a horror film is to make your feature a found footage horror and to rely on jump scares to get your scare quotient. If you want an audience to scream you just need a long period of quiet followed by a loud band and someone rushing towards, past, or away from the camera. Thankfully writer & director Jennifer Kent has decided to buck the contemporary trend in favour of more traditional and deep-seated frights. The Babadook is genuinely terrifying and the scares don’t always come from sudden noises but from the slow and sustained building of tension and the unrelenting anticipation of something absolutely horrendous happening.

The story of Amelia and Samuel is tough enough before the Babadook comes on the scene. Their relationship is one clearly filled with love but Samuel’s allegedly bad behaviour is clearly putting a strain on his mother who is finding solo parenting to be too much work. In the film’s opening Davis excellently plays the role of overworked mother and brilliantly portrays a woman’s descent into mania as she tries to protect the one person she cares about from a supernatural force. As the film progresses and her mental state deteriorates Davis paints a woman at her weakest, one who is susceptible to possession, and then one possibly of danger to her son. Meanwhile young Mr Wiseman puts in an impressive show as the excitable young boy who has trouble relating to other children but no problem befriending the monster who lives in his wardrobe. The two leads give the film its heart and a reason for the audience to worry. A horror is all the more scary when you care about the lives at stake.

Throughout most of The Babadook I was incredibly tense. Since he first appeared as a drawing in pop-up form I was dreading the appearance of the Babadook for real. Obviously the eventual appearance could never live up to the fear that not seeing a monster can bring but in his own unique way Mister Babadook was frightening to behold and to imagine beholding. In fact as I searched for images to put in this review, while alone at home at night, I successfully managed to give myself the creeps all over again.

The Babadook is a well crafted, lovingly designed, and properly acted horror film that will have you checking out the shadows on your way home. With Hollywood failing to bring much to the horror table it took an Australian film to remind everyone why they are scared of the dark again.

The Babadook is in UK cinemas from 24th October 2014.

The Drop – LFF Review

The Drop

Tom Hardy loves a good accent and in The Drop he wraps his mouth around Brooklyn as he tackles the role of bartender Bob. Bob works at a bar previously owned by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) straightforwardly named Cousin Marv’s. Life is mostly quiet apart from when the bar’s new owners, Chechen gangsters, stop by and use it as a money drop. One winter Bob finds life getting a little more complicated than the norm after Marv’s is held up, the Chechen’s demand their stolen money be found and the culprits brought to justice, and Bob finds himself adopting a dog found in the bins of the mysterious Nadia (Noomi Rapace) for plot advancing reasons.

Unfortunately for Bob Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, and the dog’s former owner, turns out to be an infamous tough guy and possible murderer Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). Making Bob’s life a little more complicated, and this synopsis more convoluted than I’d like, he attends the same daily mass as Detective Torres (John Ortiz) who just so happens to be investigating the bar’s robbery and various other seedy goings on.

As is typical for a thriller nobody’s motives or allegiances can be trusted. Bob is a strong-looking but sweet guy surrounded by suspicious folk. The bar he works at is run by gangsters, his cousin Marv appears to be involved in something sketchy, his new girlfriend has a dark past, a member of his church is suspicious of him, and finally Deeds is actually making unambiguous threats against Bob and his suspicious network. With all this we have a tricky plot set in motion. As various nefarious types scheme against one another it remains to be seen who will end up on top and who was really playing who.

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At the centre of The Drop is another fine performance from Tom Hardy. Despite at first glance looking like just another leading man Hardy has continuously proved himself to be one of the more diverse character actors working today. Rather than repeat a performance in multiple films Hardy prefers to change his physicality and voice to suit each role he takes on. In The Drop he has successfully mastered the Brooklyn accent, to these British ears at least, and adopted a slow and strong style of movement that reflects the gentle giant that is Bob. As cousin Marv James Gandolfini makes his final appearance on-screen. While his performance is solid we aren’t treated to anything we haven’t already seen as his swan song requires a simple Sopranos-lite presentation. Noomi Rapace meanwhile is surprisingly American and sufficiently ambiguous in her mostly thankless role of love interest turned damsel in distress.

Director Michaël R. Roskam has put together an attractive film and brought out assured interpretations from his cast but the script offers nothing too spectacular. Dennis Lehane has adapted his own short story into the screenplay and the result is a perfectly fine if unremarkable thriller. There is tension and confusion for the majority of the film followed by a twist and resolution at its conclusion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with The Drop and its classic thriller style but it offers nothing new and as such fails to stand out.

The Drop is a perfectly enjoyable crime drama set in the murkier neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. Should you choose to see it I have no doubt that you will have a good time but you are unlikely to be chatting about the film for long after leaving the cinema and a rewatch simply feels unnecessary. Good but not great, and certainly not bad.

The Drop has a UK release date of 14th November 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Men, Women & Children – LFF Review

Men, Women & Children

Jason Reitman’s directorial career was going so well. His first four films from Thank You for Smoking to Young Adult were each remarkable in their own way and it seemed that he could not put a foot wrong. And then he did. Earlier this year saw the release of Labor Day; an out of character romantic drama that showed Reitman trying something a little different and failing in the process. This year he returned to the London Film Festival with a new contemporary family drama Men, Women & Children. The question this film had to answer was, has Jason Reitman got his groove back?

In Men, Women & Children men, women, and children (I’m for the Oxford comma) find their personal relationships sabotaged by an over reliance on technology. Jennifer Garner* is a neurotic mother who monitors her daughter’s every move online, even going so far as to delete messages before they reach her. Her daughter Kaitlyn Dever feels oppressed and uses a secret Tumblr account as her only outlet while starting a sweet offline romance with Ansel Elgort. Ansel has abandoned the school football team in favour of playing online computer games after his mother abandoned him and his dad, Dean Norris, and became more a Facebook friend than a parent. When not worrying about his son Dean is flirting with Judy Greer who manages a questionable modelling website for her celebrity-in-waiting daughter, Olivia Crocicchia. Olivia meanwhile is sexting high school jock Travis Tope who is struggling to find real sex appealing having become addicted to a particular strand of porn. Travis’ parents Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are failing to connect and so are contemplating exploring online escorts and extramarital affair sites respectively. If that weren’t nearly enough we also have Elena Kampouris who visits thinspiration websites and suffers from anorexia and low self-esteem but she doesn’t fit as neatly into the chain of relationships as everyone else.

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As you can tell from the above there is a lot going on in Men, Women & Children and every storyline involves someone’s life being worse off thanks to the internet. An ensemble drama can work but only when dealt with carefully. In this case the fact that a small group of interlinked individuals are all experiencing some form of cyber woe makes the whole exercise feel inauthentic and implausible. Now might well be the prime time for a film exploring the internet’s effects on human relationships but this heavy-handed attempt at highlighting the possible dangers online is not that film. Jason Reitman wants you to reflect on how you are damaging your own relationships and he will beat you round the head with an iPad until you do. Few films are this preachy and condescending which, having now sat through this public service announcement of a film, is a great relief.

There are moments of charm and humour but they are lost in amongst the endless scenes of characters making bad choices because their modems made them do it. Men, Women & Children is not about the real world or real people. It is Reefer Madness for the internet age and is every bit as overblown and undercooked. In an attempt to add levity to proceedings Reitman has added narration courtesy of Emma Thompson in the hopes that her accent describing sex acts will be enough to soften the rough edges of this melodramatic catastrophe. Sadly even Thompson’s authoritative voice can’t distract from the mess Reitman has made.

No character is given enough screen time to become fully rounded and nearly everyone involved at some point does something so utterly stupid and unrelatable that the audience is left floundering looking for someone to relate to. The minute you think you have found your cypher to guide you through Men, Women & Children they will do something unforgivable or seemingly without motive. The film is unlikely to stop anyone from going online but may well turn people away from going to the cinema again.

Men, Women & Children is misogynist, paranoid, and pretentious. Jason Reitman can do so much better.

*There are too many characters for me to have remembered any names.

Men, Women & Children has a UK release date of 28th November 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Fury – LFF Review

Fury

It is April 1945 and allied troops are slowly making their way across Germany. The crew of one tank find themselves one man down and rookie soldier Norman (Logan Lerman) joins as assistant driver. Norman is a former office clerk and wholly unprepared for battle. Reluctantly taking on new blood into their tank Fury are Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LeBeouf), and the unpleasant duo consisting of Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) and Gordo (Michael Peña). The job of Fury and its occupants are to move in convoy from village to village evacuating Germans who surrender and killing those that fight back.

Initially Norman is not accepted by his fellow soldiers. His reluctance to kill and desire to surrender or die make him a liability but through the toughest of love his team attempt to turn Norman into a real soldier. Each soldier treats Norman with utter contempt but as they are bonded together through the horrors of war mutual respect is found. As Fury and company moves from village to village the tanks come under attack as our band of brothers is truly put to the test and Norman is given a baptism of fire.

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As war films go Fury is perfectly acceptable but little more. The action scenes are suitable bloody, muddy, and violent as heads, limbs, and other extremities are shot off and numerous soldiers set on fire. Capturing the brutality of war is Fury‘s strongpoint and it does so with gusto, loud noises, and nerve-shredding frenzy. What threatens to weaken the action is the fact that our lead cast are always inside the tank during battles; while explosions and carnage rage outside the five main characters are mostly sitting and shouting. The final battle aside the inside of Fury always felt relatively safe, particularly in comparison to the war zone in the fields outside.

Writer/director David Ayers may have done well at making war seem like a bad thing but he does less well when it comes to making the characters feel like real people. Each of the five is a different caricature and yet their personalities still struggle to maintain consistency. In what seems to be an attempt to add layers of complexity to the characters they all have occasional flashes where they change their attitude completely. This normally takes the form of an unpleasant type suddenly being nice to Norman as if keen to let the audience know that they aren’t all bad really. The dialogue is riddled with clichés, patriotism, and variations on the “war is hell” theme. Despite solid performances, even from Shia LaBeouf, the script lack enough authenticity for the actors to come across as anything but actors.

Fury certainly passes the time and provides plenty of spectacle though not on a scale we haven’t already seen before. It’s hard to know what the film is trying to say and what it has to offer that is not just treading old ground. If we can all agree that war is unpleasant then you can probably give this one a miss.

Fury has a UK release date of 22nd October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Night Bus – LFF Review

Night Bus

Welcome to the night bus: a place where tired people returning from alcohol-fuelled nights out inflict their heightened emotions on their fellow passengers. Mild Concern is no stranger to this form of London public transport and I was intrigued to see what kind of film could be spun out from it. Turns out that it’s one that is very like its inspiration: bleak, a bit uncomfortable and filled with annoying characters.

All the action occurs on a bus taking the (fictional*) N39 route towards Leytonstone late on a rainy Friday night. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of east London, the complete disregard for its geography was very distracting. The bus essentially appeared to be circling Stratford and it definitely wasn’t going south, as the driver once claimed.

The film takes the form of dropping in and out on the various passengers and their conversations, and the timeline is fractured and jumbled up. All the typical passengers are there, from arguing couples, to singing drunks, to youths playing music through their mobile phones, to those who just want-to-get-home-with-the-minimum-of-fuss-thank-you-very-much. While occasionally clunky, the dialogue is structured well enough to give a solid sense of what’s going on in so many characters’ lives. Almost all of the performances are pitch perfect – realistic in both dialogue and tone. Unfortunately, as virtually everyone you’re forced to share a real night bus is very irritating, this means so is almost every character in Night Bus.

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There is no plot to speak of, just prevailing themes, and after a while only seeing snippets of the lives of these (mostly unhappy) people feels a bit pointless and sad. There are funny moments, particularly the many ways people who don’t have the bus fare try to get a free ride, but my overriding emotion by the end was sympathy for the bus driver.

Night Bus is a very London-centric film and as such it’s hard to imagine anyone without the same experience having much patience with these characters. As a Londoner myself, it served mostly as a reminder of how good nights out can end in a dispiriting manner; while bad nights out are capped off with almost unbearable journeys. I admire how well the film has represented the reality but this is also its downfall – it’s hard to think of a reason why anyone would want to spend more time on the night bus than they have to.

*The 39 actually shuttles between Putney Bridge and Clapham Junction in the south west and it doesn’t operate a night route.

Night Bus has no UK release date yet.

BFI LFF 2014