The Babadook. Directed by Jennifer Kent. I always cross my fingers for films which have been highly praised, so I am happy to confirm that Jennifer Kent’s debut feature is an exceptionally well-made entry into the psychological horror genre. I guess I must have a predilection for this cinematic category; what others may find distasteful about Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, I find fascinating in them and in The Babadook. I’m not a big fan of gore, but movies about female protagonists who struggle against a combination of mental and supernatural forces appear to be my cup of tea. (Is that good? Bad? You decide.) You’re not going to see the expected closed classical body; instead, the grotesque oozing of desire, blood, body parts and screams is on display throughout the film. Kent gives lead actress Essie Davis (known in the US, if at all, for the Australian TV series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) a rare showcase for an actress: the chance to be weak, lonely, fearful, murderously aggressive and defiantly stronger than the ghosts of her past. Davis’s work is nearly matched by the young actor playing her son (Noah Wiseman); in fact, all of the actors in the film acquit themselves admirably. The Babadook is disturbing, but perhaps more than anything because it forces the viewer to get dangerously close to the heart of a woman still grieving her late husband.
Foxcatcher. Directed by Bennett Miller. I had such high hopes for this Oscar-bait drama based on a true story that I was already familiar with (an important point since I think it makes a big difference, whether the audience knows what’s going to happen or not), but it ended up being very disappointing. My brother and I agreed, after seeing the film on Christmas day at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (what better way to celebrate for we of the Jewish faith?), that the shoddy script goes nowhere near far enough in making clear what John du Pont’s issues were. Both director Miller and star Steve Carell attempt to show du Pont as a weird, eccentric, creepy guy (if you’ve already seen the film, take a look at this Slate essay, which touches on many points that my brother and I both took note of in the film), but it’s not obvious enough to the viewer that du Pont had paranoid schizophrenia, not just weird habits. The whole film is a slow burn, which is a kind of pacing filled with uncomfortable pauses and silences that I really liked (and which makes the moments of violence more potent), but you do expect more of a big finish to the build-up and the film never quite catches fire. And what was really infuriating about the ending was that after 2 hours of lingering on the 1987-1988 training period for the Foxcatcher team, the film does not say that the end of the film takes place in 1996 rather than, I don’t know, the late 80s. There is no sense of how much time has elapsed, so that’s really strange. Getting back to discussing the performances, I came away from the film with the most appreciation for Channing Tatum, who I always like better than I think I will. Carell is a really fine dramatic actor, but I often felt like I was paying too much attention to the makeup and the gimmick rather than a performance that felt real, even though he was as over-the-top as the actual John du Pont. I don’t understand why Mark Ruffalo is in line for an Oscar nomination; the script never gives him any one spotlight or opportunity to stand out in an “Oscar” kind of way. Vanessa Redgrave is good in her few scenes and I guess Sienna Miller is alright for the few moments we see her, but overall I just feel like the film falls flat. And no, contrary to what the film poster says, it’s not the new Citizen Kane. Foxcatcher is a fascinating portrait of male aggression and psychosexual power dynamics, but it never goes far enough in any of its themes.
Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Where does Interstellar fall on the 2001-Alien-Prometheus-Gravity scale? Well, it gets 100% for its organ-driven score by Hans Zimmer, which I thought was pretty amazing, especially coming through the top-notch speakers in the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 IMAX theater. And yes, this is a film that looks terrific in IMAX 70mm, which feels like a big-deal event, as have Nolan’s other films in the IMAX format. The combination of the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (who also photographed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Her) and Zimmer’s score – which sounds Wagnerian at times, coming close to Tristan und Isolde, as well as having string arrangements that remind me of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien – makes many scenes very exciting. Matthew McConaughey is excellent in the lead role, a blend of the innate, likeable McConaughey-ness that we have come to know and love as well as an ability to transcend the sometimes quite corny lines (Nolan is good at seeing the big picture – literally – but I find he often falls short with dialogue). There are too many characters to mention all of the performances in detail but I would most like to point out the work done by Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, young Mackenzie Foy and the voice work by Bill Irwin. (And there was so much randomness I didn’t expect, particularly since I didn’t check the cast list before seeing the film: William Devane! Topher Grace! Brooke Smith in what was basically a walk-on!) Even though the science is far, far beyond my scope of understanding, I stuck with the film for the most part. There was one element, really a very important element, which felt like a jump-the-shark, too-ridiculous-to-consider moment, but even so the thing you take away from the film is the important of love. The film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, nor do I think it succeeds in the way that Gravity did with a smaller cast and a far shorter running time, but you do get a lot of great acting, great music and some riveting action scenes out of it – solid entertainment. And isn’t that what going to the movies is all about?
Non-Stop. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Does it make sense? No, not really. It’s still a lot of fun, though. Liam Neeson is his usual reliable self, as is Julianne Moore, so you know you’re in for a pretty good time. (Bonus: a male actor who’s 60+ has a female love interest who’s actually 50+ and not college-age. Huzzah!) My favorite supporting performances were by Scoot McNairy (fast becoming one of the most versatile supporting actors on the market), Corey Stoll (always good), Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner (has some pretty excellent moments as the plane’s copilot) and Linus Roache, but I guess Nate Parker, Lupita Nyong’o (which reminds me: I still haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave…), Shea Whigham, Anson Mount and Quinn McColgan were OK too. (I’m kind of on the fence about Michelle Dockery.) For added perspective: Beth Dixon’s character didn’t even have a proper name (“Older Woman”) and yet with one particular scene she did a memorable job for me. Good editing by Jim May helps make the action scenes stand out, so the logic doesn’t matter quite so much as being entertained. Like Interstellar, if you start to pick apart the story behind Non-Stop it quickly becomes more and more ridiculous, but if nothing else the film will hold your interest for an hour and 47 minutes.
The Salt of the Earth. Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders. This new documentary looked beautiful in its limited run on the big screen (at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas), although many of the photographs taken by the film’s subject, the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, are quite hard to look at as there are many images of dead or dying adults and children. But it is for that reason – all of the suffering – that the film must be seen. As the film itself states, Salgado’s lifelong vocation, the photographic documentation of the plight of peoples in African and South American countries, as well as his efforts for the reforestation of Brazilian land, both give hope to the future of humanity. Wenders and his co-director, who is Sebastião Salgado’s oldest son, film their subject with the exactly the sort of reverence and compassion that I have come to expect from Wenders’ narratives. The moving way in which the elder Salgado’s story is told and the heart-stopping photography, whether seen in still photos or in the documentary camerawork by Hugo Barbier and co-director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, come together to form an exemplary film experience. I would be very pleased if Salt, which is one of the fifteen titles shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar, gets one of the coveted spots.