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Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: The Babadook

Chris Sabga and Matt Wintz Review This Sinister Australian Story

By Chris Sabga and Matt Wintz

To celebrate Silver Screen Halloween, Chris Sabga and Matt Wintz have teamed up to review "The Babadook." One of us liked it more. Who it was might surprise you.

Remember Its Name – Babadook, Baba dook, BAAABA DOOOOK!

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 28, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, 
Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, 
Barbara West 

A movie about an evil children's book could've gone so wrong in so many ways, but the Australian import "The Babadook" is genuinely creepy and unsettling in a way that most horror isn't anymore. Much of that should be credited to the film's almost singular focus on the characters themselves and their perpetually stunned reactions: Amelia (Essie Davis) is the tired mum at the heart of this spooky story, and Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is her six-year-old son, who looks lost and terrified throughout.

The little boy throws tantrums almost nonstop in the first half, but he thankfully quieted down just as I was about to reach my breaking point with his behavior. (Matt Wintz had far less patience, as you'll read below.) As irritating as it was to watch at times, it perfectly sets up the frightening frustration that follows.

The scares from the Babadook itself are mostly delivered in the form of quick shadows, sudden movements, and – most effectively – through rapid-fire clips of scary, silent, sometimes black and white TV programs that mirror the characters' mindset. A stark sense of unease and dread permeates the entire film. There is almost no relief.

Essie Davis is a striking beauty in that classical way you rarely see in today's movies. It's easy to picture her in the 1940s or '50s attending a gala ball adorned in a sparkling evening gown. Her uncomplicated good looks – she comes across as the mum next door – stand in shocking contrast to what happens in "The Babadook."

It's an incredible performance.

More than once, I wondered why Davis was shut out of consideration for an Oscar nomination. The answer, most likely, is because this is a horror movie – and in the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield, those "don't get no respect."

"The Babadook" should be respected – and feared. It's one of the most disturbing cinematic experiences I've endured in years.

Pop-Up Book Children's Chiller

By Matt Wintz

The newest venture into the dark of the Mortuary was brought on by a request, and both Chris and I decided to tackle "The Babadook." Brought to our attention due to my love for horror, this film had been sitting in my Netflix queue for the better part of a month, I just hadn't gotten a chance to sit down and watch it. The film had been getting good reviews from horror magazines and websites, and the limited imagery of the creature in question had piqued my interest, so it didn't take much for me to hit "play" on Netflix when I had a moment where the kids weren't around.

I'm going to keep it light on plot details and spoilers, but the movie deals with a widowed mother named Amelia and her son Sam who have been dealing with the death of Amelia's wife for six years now that occurred as he drove them to the hospital to give birth to Sam. Sam asks his mother to read him a story entitled "Mr. Babadook," a book she had no knowledge of him having, and the scary pop-up book ends up putting the child into hysterics. As time goes on, the kid continues mentioning that he sees The Babadook, and while at first the mom brushes it off, soon there's a little bit more to things that she can just brush off.

The movie drips with atmosphere and there is always a sense of dread and underlying horror as things develop. There isn't a reliance on jumpscares, instead very quick glimpses of the title creature. It develops more of the horror felt by mother and son in losing and dealing with the father, and there is a sense that "The Babadook" almost feels like a horror personification of grief than some demonic entity just out for kicks. It was nice, after having sat through another found footage film (a review that will come later) to have a movie that didn't feel the need for in-your-face horror. If there is one thing I will complain about from a vast number of modern horror films it is the need for the full camera jumpscare, which does nothing but elicit a momentary shock and not an overall sense of horror.

While I can appreciate the atmosphere, there are a few pieces to this Australian/Canadian horror film I wasn't too fond of. One of which was the son. Not that the acting was bad, but the kid was a straight up terror. I say this as a dad, but some of what this kid did just grated on my nerves. The biggest thing was how he seemed to have a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn about half-way through the movie. When the mother didn't believe in The Babadook, the kid was screaming and going through the motions seen in every other "I see something but mom and dad don't believe me" story in the history of horror cinema however once mom then began to seemingly take notice of The Babadook, he seemed to calm down and try to become this "I'll stop it at all costs" kid. While I can appreciate character change, this seemed so quick that it seemed implausible. The kid didn't seem to show much fear altogether that it seemed to dumb down the terror and threat The Babadook was. There were also moments that seemed slow. Now, I understand that movies do need to create their sense of atmosphere and dread, but again, this should not be a sacrifice of pacing either. While not all throughout, there did seem to be some parts of the movie that just seemed to drag. This criticism should not however negate the overall fact the film's atmosphere is fantastic.

The movie is definitely worth the time to check out, but people watching it need to keep in mind this isn't just a jumpscare movie or a movie content at throwing the monster at you any chance they can. The movie uses Babadook sparingly but effectively, and he does have a presence that when I would see him I would get a little unnerved. He is a fantastic looking creature, even if it's in a movie that doesn't necessarily explain everything about him or his intentions. And when done right, where it is here, that helps bad to both the uneasiness and terror being brought on the screen.

"The Babadook" is on home video release and streaming on Netflix, and catch Chris' review of the movie as well (above). A special thanks to Silver Screen Surprises reader Bill Zero for mentioning the movie, and I'm more than willing to take requests for future reviews. Until then, the Mortuary is closed, but always looking for another tenant.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Trick 'r Treat

A Halloween Cult Classic You Don't Want to Miss!

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 6, 2009 (DVD) – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 82 minutes
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Michael Dougherty
Cast: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, 
Brian Cox, Quinn Lord, Tahmoh Penikett, 
Leslie Bibb, Brett Kelly, Rochelle Aytes, 
Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, 
Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, 
Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, 
Connor Christopher Levins

Such is the sterling reputation "Trick 'r Treat" has amassed over the years that I was flabbergasted to find out it never received a theatrical release. Instead, it was dumped directly to DVD in 2009 – two years after filming was completed. The cover proudly boasts the following blurb: "The best Halloween film of the last 30 years." That may not be far off from the truth. Yes, "Trick 'r Treat" is that good.

It tells several separate stories that connect in small, big, and surprising ways:

  • A bickering couple (Leslie Bibb and "Dollhouse's" Tahmoh Penikett) argue over Halloween decorations.
  • A skewed school principal (Dylan Baker, who has perfected these types of unsettling roles) catches a trick-or-treater stealing too much candy (Brett Kelly, the big kid from "Bad Santa").
  • A 22-year-old virgin (Anna Paquin) is pressured by her friends that tonight should be the night she finally experiences her "first time."
  • A group of brats lure a "savant" girl out of the house and tell her a scary story about a group of captive kids drowning in a school bus. This is a story within a story.
  • A drunken recluse (Brian Cox) opens the door to the wrong trick-or-treater.

All of those sound like fairly conventional horror tropes on the surface, but "Trick 'r Treat" never fails to surprise or delight with its tiny twists and turns. The brisk pace – only 82 minutes – means there are no wasted moments in this movie and never any time to get bored.

There is a "villain" of sorts – Sam, who looks like a homemade Halloween costume – but "Trick 'r Treat" smartly focuses instead on its characters, stories, and stellar cast of actors.

I usually detest films that are split into different sections. I can't stand even some of the "best" examples of this sub-genre – sorry, "Short Cuts" and "Love, Actually" – because most of them feature one or two good sets of characters and stories along with a bunch of others that don't hold my interest or irritate me in some way. But "Trick 'r Treat" is one of the rare exceptions because it's so compelling, entertaining, and just plain done well – everything is great here.

There is so much more I could say about "Trick 'r Treat" but that would only spoil the fun. It's a special movie that you really should experience for yourself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: The Intern

You're Never Too Old to Live Life, Make a Difference, and Contribute Something of Value to the People You Love

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 25, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 121 minutes
Director: Nancy Meyers
Writer: Nancy Meyers
Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, 
Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, 
Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, 
Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, 
Christina Scherer  

Every once in a while, it can be particularly satisfying to watch something that's nice for nice's sake. "The Intern" is a nice movie. That it stars Robert De Niro, who has made a career out of playing heavies and menacing characters, makes it all the nicer.

Ben (De Niro) is 70 years old and going back to work It's part of a senior internship program for an online fashion e-tailer, run by a successful young entrepreneur, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Except, Ostin barely recollects the conversation she had with one of her assistants, Cameron (Andrew Rannells), who pitched the idea to her in the middle of her chaotic busy schedule. It is suggested to Ostin that she work with one of the interns – to set a good example – but she balks and panics because she's not comfortable around older people. That's because of her mother (voiced by Mary Kay Place in phone conversations), whose response to "I love you" is usually something along the lines of "yeah" or "okay." You mean, that's not the proper way to address affection? I'll have to make a note of that.

The setup for all of this is great fun: watching another senior citizen teach Ben about .avi and .mov files, uploads, and other technological jargon that must seem like a foreign language to the uninitiated; De Niro's character interacting with the other young interns; and an interview asking the 70-year-old where he sees himself in ten years. (Look for a cameo by Nat Wolff in one of these scenes.)

Of course, Jules doesn't have much for Ben to do at first. Of course, she's frigid and hard to reach in the beginning. Of course, everyone else loves him. And of course, Ben and Jules eventually are forced to get to know each other better. That the movie relies on these obvious tropes doesn't make the story or characters any less endearing. Predictability isn't always a bad thing. In this case, it gives the viewer something to look forward to and root for.

There are various subplots: Jules's challenging marriage to a stay-at-home dad (Anders Holm), who handles all of the traditional "mommy" activities with their daughter (JoJo Kushner); pressure to bring in a more experienced CEO to run the company instead of her, similar to what happened with Steve Jobs and Apple early in its history; and a relationship between Ben and the company masseuse (Rene Russo). But the main focus here is – as it should be – on the hilarious and delightful interactions between the young boss and her much older intern.

At one point, Ben wonders if he's still hip enough to live in Brooklyn. In its own quiet way, the film is a love letter to the city – as it was then and as it is now. Along similar lines, De Niro's character – with his pressed suits, pocket handkerchief, and sensible outlook on life – represents a sort of nostalgia for when "men used to be men." That concept is verbalized later in the movie during a passionate speech by Jules.

There is one particularly silly segment – involving Ben and his much younger co-workers (Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, and Jason Orley), a mistakenly-sent e-mail, and "Affleck's brother" – that's not even remotely realistic or believable. But what the hell, it works anyway. It's funny – and (somewhat) true! Most of the humor, though, is much more subtle and sophisticated.

"The Intern" has many great lines and great laughs. It also has a big heart and wonderful performances. This is one of De Niro's best roles in years, and Hathaway continues to prove herself as a major talent. Writer-director Nancy Meyers penned a superb script.

I laughed throughout.

I felt good afterward.

What more can I ask for?