Archive for December, 2014

Into the Woods

Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review at 1More Film Blog, I deeply love this musical, and Marshall’s film did not disappoint me.

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Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury Awards (2014)

What is the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury?

It is a common refrain in Evangelical circles that the Christian audience feels shut out at the movies, without choices at the multiplex or rental kiosk that engage issues of religion, faith, or spirituality in a positive, provocative, or entertaining manner. We disagree. The Ecumenical Jury nominated over sixty films for consideration and then faced the daunting task of winnowing down that rich field to the ten films we felt were most worthy of recognition.

I am proud to have been a member of the jury, and I think my fellow jurors did a great job of selecting ten films that are definitely worth checking out.

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The Babadook

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Jennifer Kent.  Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, and Tim Purcell.

The nearest point of comparison to The Babadook is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in that both are horror films which begins as films about a frightened, psychotic child then transitions to a film about a frightened, psychotic parent. I have seen a few critics call The Babadook superior to The Shining, and while I understand the reasoning behind that claim, (the transition from child to parent focus is more subtle and unnerving) I’m not sure I can go quite that far, although a second viewing may change my mind. However, I will give The Babadook this: it’s scarier than The Shining.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, whose husband died nearly seven years ago as he was driving her to the hospital to deliver Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia has never really accepted her husband’s passing, and while she occasionally visits her sister and stops to chat with her kind elderly neighbor, she has mostly shut herself and Sam alone in their house, with their main outside interactions being work and school.

Sam naturally does not fit in at school or among his peers. He is obsessed with monsters and loves telling stories that disturb not only other children but their parents as well. His favorite hobby is building weapons to fight the monsters. He smuggles those weapons to school in his backpack, and some of them would be extremely dangerous and painful if employed against a child. Amelia responds to the school’s concern by promising to have a serious talk with Sam, and when they suggest psychotic evaluation, she pulls him out of school with plans to find another one.

The setup is perfect for a horror film. Sam’s bratty behavior and obsession with outlandish tales of monsters make it so that almost no one would believe him if he really were in danger. Amelia’s desire to keep up appearances of normalcy, even as she increasingly isolates herself and her son so no one knows of their troubles, makes her foolish decisions believable and prevents any of them from being clichéd, stupid horror film choices, even when she copies one of Jack Torrence’s reckless actions in The Shining. Noah Wiseman is terrific at portraying a the terror of a child who *knows* that he and his mother are in danger from the monsters in the basement or in the closet as well as the determination of a child to protect himself and his mother. As Amelia, Essie Davis fluctuates perfectly among a deeply concerned mother, a neglectful and barely coping parent who expects her child just to behave on his own, and a mother exasperated by her son’s disobedient behavior.

The source of the horror stems from the tension between mother and son and the way it undermines the love that both of them ultimately have for one another. The Babadook is a character in a morbid children’s popup book, and it first appears when Amelia reads the book to Samuel before bedtime, unaware of the gruesome nature of the story. What was an effort for mother and son to bond gives birth to the thing that threatens to destroy them. When Sam begins insisting that he can see the Babadook and that they are in great danger from the monster which it is impossible to get rid of, the strain of such claims begins an escalation of sleepless nights, anger, resentment, and threats of violence which would be unsettling without the aid of a demonic presence. With the possibility of some unknown monster, it’s terrifying.

First time feature film director Jennifer Kent makes two great choices. She eschews trumped up special effects and gore, and creates an atmosphere of dread though suspense and suggestion, which she heightens with brilliant editing. Whenever a character is in jeopardy or frightened, the camera cuts to the next scene right before the resolution, leaving the outcome uncertain and starting a new conflict before the viewer can fully relax from the previous one. Kent also wisely avoids portraying the Babadook as a traditional scary monster which would make the audience jump on first sight, but then calmly sigh (and laugh) once they had seen it. I won’t spoil the minimalistic appearance, but it assists the menacing atmosphere of the film.

If I have any complaint at all about The Babadook, it is this: about an hour in I said to myself, “If this is going where I think it is, it’s going to need a twist.” It went where I thought, and it did have a twist, but I will need a second viewing to determine whether the twist is strong enough to work. I am inclined to say it is, because it cleverly ties together two earlier themes, and it reminds the viewer that:

Once you invite him in by reading his book,
There’s no getting rid of the Babadook.


Content Advisory: Much terror throughout, deeply disturbing scenes of violence between a parent and child, off-camera masturbation, and occasional rough language.                   Not rated; would be R.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A

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Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.  Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, and Dawid Ogrodnik.

Throughout Ida the camera hardly ever moves. I don’t mean that the takes are unusually long; I mean that for each take, director Pawel Pawlikowski frames the shot, keeps the camera stationary, and then lets the actors act out the scene, as they move towards and away from the lens and from one side of the frame to the other. That choice is remarkably effective at creating the impression of a window into the life of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) a young novice about to take her vows as a nun, only to discover dark family secrets which challenge her conceptions.

Before Anna takes her vows, her mother superior wishes her to visit her only living family member, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna has never met her aunt, who refused to raise her because she is a prominent judge and proud supporter of the Communist party in Poland, and she assumes the Catholic sisters brainwashed Anna to hate her. However, the nuns did so such thing, and Anna is completely ignorant of her past, her identity, and her family’s dark history.

Ida is much more than story merely about discovering one’s roots, or bonding with an estranged family member. While both of those things happen to Anna, as well as learning her real name: Ida, the film is just as much a story of doubt, resolution, uncertainty, and lifelike scenarios that are painful, comforting, and confusing. The juxtaposition of such scenarios is not unlike the moral conflicts in Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, and Ida’s searching for her past, as well as the blocking of two crucial scenes, certainly reminded me of The Double Life of Veronique. I love that in a story about personal roots and reconciling two different lives Pawlikowski references some of the greatest Polish cinema.

However, Ida struggles to reconcile her past with her present life, and Pawlikowski introduces his own techniques as well. Many of the subjects are positioned in the lower corners of the screen, drawing attention to the open space above, suggesting that there is something more than the individuals in the scenes. That blocking is prominent during the early scenes set in the abbey when Ida has no clue regarding her past or why she came to the convent. As Ida learns more about her past, the subjects take up more and more of the screen; however, long distance shots, corner blocking, and extreme angles occur throughout, appropriately emphasizing dramatic developments in the story.

When Ida first embarks to learn her past, her embittered aunt says both as a taunt and as a compassionate warning, “What if you go there and discover there’s no God?” I would not go so far as to say Ida has a crisis of faith, but her resolution and religious certainty is certainly tested by what she learns regarding human depravity, surprising acts of mercy, and her own desires. Ultimately, Ida’s life as a novice, the history of her family, and the time spent with her aunt come to a climax that encapsulates the worldliness of her aunt, her family’s tragic past, and her religious upbringing. This balance is achieved by the scene’s location, its sensual setup, the meticulously placed camera, and the minimal dialogue. Ida’s choice after this moment is foreshadowed by her aunt’s earlier retort: “What sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Whatever choice Ida makes is going to be some sort of sacrifice; the pain and joy of life which she has now experienced will affect her and remain with her.

The window Pawlikowski creates is focused incredibly clearly (both literally and figuratively), and the view it provides is thought-provoking and touching. As a stark contrast to the window-like stationary camera, there are three shots in which the camera moves, (or six if you count a still camera in a moving vehicle) all of them perfectly synchronized immediately before or after a period of change and upheaval in Ida’s life. The final one is a handheld backwards tracking shot, as tenuous and uncertain as the pain and joy of life as well as the reconciliation of past and present as Ida walks towards the unknown future.

Content Advisory: Two off-screen sexual encounters, one with fleeting nudity; an off-screen suicide; tragic themes.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A

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Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.

Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman is a film that is carefully edited to appear to be a single take. The reason is simple: this is a story of a famous Hollywood actor (Riggan Thomas – played perfectly by Michael Keaton) trying to prove his relevance and revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s poetry. In order to create the feeling of a single, live performance, Alejandro Inarritu merges the beginning and ends of takes together, much in the same way Hitchcock did in Rope. And like Rope some of those hidden seams are brilliant, and some are obvious and a bit corny. Regardless of how smooth the editing is or isn’t, the technique is very successful at creating the sensation of watching a play unfold live, and all the actors are up to the challenge, turning in incredible performances in long takes.

As Riggan, whose last great role was a masked superhero in a black suit with wings in 1992 (no, not Batman Returns), Keaton perfectly captures the abrasiveness and insecurity of a talented actor who is afraid he is becoming irrelevant. As his costars, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are great at working with his eccentricities, supporting him, and arguing with him. Emma Stone gives what may be her best performance yet as Riggan’s long-suffering daughter who has just gotten out of rehab. And Edward Norton plays against Keaton perfectly as the super talented but borderline crazy actor who threatens to steal Riggan’s production from under him. Both Norton and Keaton are great as their stage lives being to blend with their real lives, albeit in very different ways. Finally, as the manager trying to deal with all these personalities, Zach Galifianakis is great as the straight man in the midst of comedy.

Birdman is clearly an actors’ movie, and the entire cast drives the film, but director Alejandro Inarritu highlights their terrific performances with his unobtrusive camera, making frequent use of behind the shoulder tracking shots and slowly spinning camera. Some viewers may find the style irritating, but for me, the techniques on display enhanced the drama of the film. Inarritu places the viewer right into the world of the film, allowing him to see the brokenness of these characters, their desire for greatness and importance, and their struggles to achieve something worthwhile, a struggle which Sam (Riggan’s daughter played by Emma Stone) cynically insists is futile, because everyone is terrified of the world and ultimately is irrelevant. That desire comes to a head when Riggan confronts the uptight New York Time’s theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) in a scene that is essentially a dare to any critic to dislike this film.

It would be all too easy to apply Riggan’s takedown of Tabitha to someone who writes a negative review of Birdman. Riggan rips into her and her obsession with labeling everything she reviews, and her tendency to pan anything she cannot easily define. He insists that true art, which is what he is doing, is a baring of the artist’s soul, and it defies labels and reflects the messiness of life. Birdman certainly reflects the messiness of a broken family, unstable careers, and jealous insecure actors, but whether the resolution of the critic takedown is a shallow affirmation of every actors’ desire or a profound insight into performing and human nature is debatable. Since I am very enthusiastic about the rest of the film, I am inclined to lean toward the latter, but I would not argue too much with someone who insisted on the former. Either way, the film introduces an idea I find fascinating and worth pondering: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Do these foolish conceited actors have insight to offer us, or is this just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Not only is Birdman driven by excellent performances from a talented cast, it also thoughtfully explores many aspects of performing. It takes an unflattering look at the backstage lives of performers who are overly concerned about their careers and public perception, and it shows human beings who are afraid as they try to do what they know best. Like the seamless editing, these characters struggle to separate their personal lives from the stage, but their ignorance gives birth to a spectacular depiction of heartfelt guts and all performances that are well worth observing.


Content Advisory: Sexual references and some obscene language throughout, several shots of men in briefs one involving an erection, drug use, and an attempted suicide.                              MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A-

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