Film Analysis: “The Babadook”

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After watching Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”, Jennifer Kent wrote the director an email expressing her willingness to learn from him. At one point she pointed out that she would rather stick pins into her eyeballs than go to film school. She must’ve said something right, because he replied with an invitation to his “Dogville” set. The idea was to let her watch and learn, and let me assure you, watch and learn she did.

The young Australian’s feature film debut, “The Babadook”, is the horror film of the year and probably the best horror film to come out since “Let the Right One In”. Now, that may not be saying much since the horror genre hasn’t been all that impressive lately, but it really is a rather brilliant film. Here’s a horror film that strays away from cheap thrills, and taps into something real, a real human fear- grief, anxiety, and depression.

If you watch the trailers, you will most probably write it off as just another run-of-the-mill Boogeyman film. At least, this is how I felt when I first encountered the trailers, but then all the five-star reviews started rolling in and I had to give the film a shot. I remember walking out of the theater with mixed feeling. However, the more I thought of the Babadook, the deeper it sank into my psyche. The Babadook is knitted from the same cloth as the greatest horror films of all time from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Shining”. It scares you long after you’ve walked out of the theater; it lingers in your thoughts and crawls under your skin. You won’t be able to shake off the unnerving feeling this film gives you for days after the initial viewing. That said, it does require thought and analysis, and it is only after you attempt to understand what it all means that’ll start haunting you.

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Essie Davis delivers one of the strongest lead performances of the year as a widow haunted by the memory of her husband, who died in an accident on their way to the hospital to deliver their baby. The story begins years later. Amelia is constantly stressed out and exhausted. Most of her time is spent looking after a kid “with significant behavioral problems”. The troubled boy is also relentless in his fantasy; a monster he believes will eat his mom from the inside out.

Amelia skims through clips of silent George Melies shorts late at night on her living room TV. Melies is a filmmaker who believed filmmakers are like magicians performing a grand illusion to audiences using cinematic tools. Magic is a big theme in “The Babadook”, and the whole film feels like it’s magic trick. At first, Kent tricks us into thinking we’re about to watch a film about a problematic disturbed child who has access to another demonic dimension, but as soon as the Babadook creeps into their home, we begin to suspect that the problem isn’t with the child, but rather the mom. The final reveal will have many scratching their heads wondering what they’ve just seen and more importantly what it all means.

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The deeply disturbing demonic figure known as the Babadook erupts into their lives around the anniversary of her husband’s death, which coincides with her son’s birthday. The reading of an old children’s pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” is what essentially unleashes hell upon them. The book is brilliantly designed with disturbing illustrations clearly influenced by German Expressionism. In fact, the creature resembles a character you’d see in “Nosfertu” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Kent is well versed in the roots of the horror genre; she knows her films proudly her references up her sleeves. It kind of gives her film historic weight.

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The aspiring filmmaker pitched her idea through Kickstarter and raised $30,071. Most of her budget was used to cultivate the art direction of the film. With a budget so small, Kent managed to create a horror film that very much looks and feels more authentic and spooky than any horror film to come out this decade. I will now proceed and reveal what I think the Babadook stands for. If you don’t want the ending spoiled, I strongly suggest you stop reading and I hope you return to this review after witnessing one of the most talked about endings in a long time.

The malevolent Babadook is basically a physicalized form of the mother’s trauma. What it stands for is up for debate. I believe, the Babadook embodies the destructive power of grief. Throughout the film, we see the mother insist nobody bring up her husband’s name. She basically lives in denial. Amelia has repressed grief for years, refusing to surrender to it. Here lies the mastery of Kent’s film; it is frightfully clever because not only is it based on something very real, it is feels unusually beautiful and even therapeutic.

“If it’s in a word or in a look. You can’t get rid of the Babadook. I’ll wager with you. I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get. The Babadook is growing right under your skin”The-Babadook-2

Throughout the film, Amelia tries to hide the book and even burn it at one point, only to have it and the monster latched on to it reappear. Denying a traumatic memory and pretending it never happened to avoid dealing with grief only works for so long, before it eats you from the inside out, and you release it all in the form of a mental breakdown.

Amelia avoids pictures of her husband and flips out when someone utters his name, the actions of a woman in complete denial. You can’t get rid of your past, but you can learn to live with it, and that’s exactly what our main character does by the end of the film.

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We see her feed the Babadook in the basement. The basement is where her husband’s stuff is locked away. By feeding the Babadook, she metaphorically feeds her grief. Rather than completely shutting it off and locking it away, she keeps it at bay. She controls and manages the monster the second she acknowledges that you can’t escape your past; you can only learn to live with.

Great Scenes: “Gravity”

The first time Kowalski saved Stone’s life was earlier, when he told her to detach. The second time is in another post impact scene that mirrors the first. Only this time, the roles are reversed. He’s the one about to drift into infinite blackness. We see that he’s dragging her with him and the only chance for any of them to survive is if he cuts off the rope. In other words, Kowalski saves her life again through detachment. It’s not by preventing her to float with him into space, but by teaching her that sometimes it’s ok to let go, both literally and metaphorically. “You have to learn to let go,” he says. It’s a beautiful scene that should feel therapeutical for anyone carrying past grief on their shoulders for far too long.

Great Scenes: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is one of the greatest films ever made and it may just be the most breathtaking film of the past two decades. Who could’ve imagined that the simple arrival of a doomed train could look so cinematically beautiful. This is quite possible the most breathtaking scene of its kind in all of cinema. Cinematographer Roger Deakins paints with light and shadow in perhaps his best work to date.

Great Scenes: “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”

When Auguste and Louis Lumière
first screened their short film, “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” in 1896, the audience was so alarmed by the sight of a life-sized train coming their way, they screamed in panic and ran to the back of the room. Who needs 3D when all you need is good framing right?

Film Review: “Interstellar” ★★★★ (4.5/5)

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When a filmmaker as ambitious as Christopher Nolan decides to make a science fiction film about space exploration, people are bound to compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A space Odyssey”; and while one can pinpoint where Nolan drew inspiration from the 1968 classic, the comparison is unfair for anything less is bound to disappoint. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is arguably the greatest film ever made. Personally, I think it is one of the greatest works of art regardless of the medium. Kubrick’s film is comparable to the work of DaVinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, and any masterpiece of art in human history. It is for that very reason that pitting “Interstellar” against it even before its release date is bound to end badly for the film, which explains the mixed reactions it has received from audiences and critics alike.

I would go as far and argue that both films are polar opposites. While Kubrick’s film is vague and ambiguous, Nolan’s film follows a very direct storyline. The former suggests the impotence of humanity in the face of higher authority, while Nolan’s film is all about humanity conquering universes. In fact, humans seem rather small in Kubrick’s film, some scene are downright scary, making the overall experience a divine one. In order for one to enjoy watching “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the viewer has to deprogram the conventional way of watching a film, for experiencing it is more in tune with gazing at a painting or listening to a symphony. It is philosophical in nature and demands patience, whereas, “Interstellar” is a scientific space adventure targeted to the blockbuster audience.

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I guess what I’m trying to say is, Kubrick’s film makes humanity seem insignificant in the vastness of space, while Nolan’s empowers human beings as potential conquers of worlds. Both are undeniably successful at reaching what they seek as motion pictures, but make no mistake, they seek two extremely different things. I started my review with this long warning of what not to expect, because if you watch this films with the expectations of witnessing the next “2001”, you’ll leave the theater fairly disappointed. Embrace “Interstellar” for what it is, as opposed to hating it for turning out to be anything other than what you wanted it to be.

“Interstellar” can easily be split into three acts. The first act feels like a post apocalyptic version of “Grapes of Wrath”. We are pulled into a world where dust storms eclipse the sky. Farmers are the planet’s only hope, but even they can’t save the future, for crops are dying and food supply is fading away within the thickness of dust. Nolan shoots this part of the film like it’s a documentary. Scenes are interrupted with interview like shots of people talking directly to the audience. Here lies the film’s weakest point.

“Interstellar’ feels like three different films have been stitched together without a definitive mise-en-scene or consistent thread linking all three parts. The first act has the look and feel of a heartwarming Great Depression picture; the second act plays like an action packed space adventure in he vain of “Gravity”, and the third act clearly goes for the brainy grandiosity of Kubrick’s “2001”. I did enjoy each act on its own, but I do wish scenes flowed more smoothly from one act to the other.

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That said, I could see what Nolan was aiming at achieving with all three acts. The first act was all about getting to know the characters and establishing the strong father-daughter chemistry between Mathew McConaughey’s Cooper and Murph played marvelously by both Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain in the latter scenes. This act dragged a bit and the overall film would’ve felt less fragmented had it played like a prologue as opposed to an entire act. But the good news it, the film keeps getting better and better as it goes along.

The second act revolves around a search for an inhabitable planet, and here’s where most of the brainy scientific talk comes into play. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with the Nolan brothers in making sure the science behind the screenplay rang true, and I must say I enjoyed watching Einstein’s theories being played out on screen. The black hole sequence is the film’s most awe-inspiring visual, and watching characters leap back and forth between the space-time continuums tickled my imagination.

Both McConaughey and Hathaway deliver good performances, with McConaughey occasionally stealing the scene. There are also two delightfully surprising cameos thrown into the mix, which shows how good Nolan is at keeping his cards close to his chest during filming. Hans Zimmer delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful musical score. Perhaps the score’s only flaw is its tendency to stumble over much of the dialogue.

If I could nitpick about the weaknesses of this act, it would probably be the good-old generic explanatory action defect. Often filmmakers find it necessary to explain everything that happens on-screen to the audience, so we end up with characters spoon-feeding explanatory passages as the action is being played out. I can’t imagine understanding any of what was going on without hearing the mechanics and explanations behind what’s at stake, but the fact remains, it doesn’t really make any sense for the characters to speak out any of this to one another. Wouldn’t they know all this already? Who are they really talking to? The audience?

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Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene revolves around a gigantic wave approaching their spacecraft. There is no denying, the scene is awe-inspiring from a visual standpoint. However, the logistics behind it is lacking. How can an ocean produce mountain-size waves from a body of water that is merely two feet deep? The depth would have to be at least twice as deep as the wave is high for this visual to make any sense. Maybe Nolan compromised logic to give his characters the ability to run, adding a bit of suspense. One could argue that it’s an extraterrestrial tidal wave and the physics behind it is beyond our understanding, but it did seem rather silly, or at least misplaced, given the film desperately tries to prove the science behind every plot progression.

I will not go into the film’s third act, but I will say that it’s the film’s strongest point. In fact, if it weren’t for the third act, I wouldn’t have considered this to be one of the best films of the year, but it’s hard to argue against it. “Interstellar’ ends in a way that’ll leave inconceivable images and thoughts rushing through your head. I may even go as far as calling the last hour of “Interstellar’, the finest hour of cinema of the past few years. Without spoiling anything, I will say that “Interstellar” is about the passage of time in the blink of an eye. Our lives are over before we know it and we powerlessly watch the lives of others speed before our eyes. Our children grow up in no time, our parents grow old fast, and we find ourselves helplessly getting pulled into the continuously moving current of life. But the one thing that always triumphs time and science is love. Despite some of the film’s shortcomings, I do love “Interstellar”.

Film Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” ★★★★★ (5/5)

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Before moving to New York, the one thing I was most excited about was catching small films on limited release before they get released nationwide, and in most cases, worldwide. I always wanted to witness a good independent film snowball through word of mouth, and grow legs, so to speak. You know, to see a film take its first steps towards success, and to see it all firsthand.

I caught Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” while it was playing in only three theaters across New York, but before its limited release, “Birdman” had already made the rounds at film festivals, and it wasn’t growing legs; “Birdman” had already spread its wings. I can only assure you that those wings will keep flapping across the awards season all the way to Oscar night.

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Michael Keaton delivers the best performance of his career, in what is unquestionably, the biggest Hollywood comeback since Mickey Rourke stepped back into the ring of cinema as “The Wrestler”. Keaton displays a full array of complex emotions, delivering one performance within the other, and then reinventing the performance within the performance over and over again. This is the work of an actor in complete control of his craft.

That said, his powerhouse performance is matched with an equally outstanding supporting cast. And while, many are calling “Birdman”, Keaton’s comeback, the same case could be made about Edward Norton’s return to cinematic splendor. I’ve always respected Norton as an actor, but he hasn’t delivered any awards worthy performances since “25th Hour”. Here, Norton soars right next to Keaton. Keaton was once the blockbuster superstar of “Batman” films, and it wasn’t long ago that many predicted Norton to be the next Robert De Niro. Both actors deliver brutally honest portrayals of characters sharing remarkably similar careers as the actors themselves.

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Also deserving much praise is Emma Stone, who in one scene delivers a heartbreaking monologue that left the entire audience in complete utter silence. On a purely technical standpoint, “Birdman” is the most impressive film of the year. Most of the film was shot in a way to give viewers the illusion that it is all one continuous long take. The sweeping cinematography and smooth editing flow together in perfect harmony making it nearly impossible to spot where the filmmakers interrupted the seamless visuals.

Like all great films, “Birdman” is about life itself. Inarritu satirically mocks professional criticism, blockbusters, art, and even social media, in a film that is just as much about the film industry itself, as it is about the pursuit of happiness, and our ridiculously desperate need to be admired, recognized, and respected by people that shouldn’t really matter to us. It is, in many ways, a wakeup call to look around you, and realize the people you take for granted everyday, the people who love you for who you are, regardless of success or failure. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is one of the best films of the year. Make sure to catch it when it flies over your nearest picture house.

Great Scenes: “Goodfellas”

Jimmy Conway smiles at Morrie from afar, knowing the poor bastard juster walked into the wrong bar. But he’s in no hurry. Before whacking him, Jimmy takes a moment to enjoy a few drags off his cigarette. Scorsese’s use of slow motion, combined with De Niro’s über cool performance and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” makes for one hell of a memorable moment in cinema.

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