Grief turns to terror in ‘The Babbadook’

People who have been tuned into the news from film festivals all over the world likely have heard the buzz about “The Babbadook,” the feature film debut of Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent. It has won 16 awards including four in the Horror Features category for best actor, best actress, best screenplay and best picture at the Austin Fantastic Fest.

A domestic horror story, “The Babbadook,” also is an emotionally unnerving exploration into grief and the debilitating effects it can have on a person when it is suppressed.

Kent based this movie on a short film she did earlier, “Monster,” and with funding from Kickstart was able to develop a full-length feature.

In interviews, Kent — a fan of horror movies since childhood — has said “The Babbadook” was influenced by the early silent horror films, along with the works of Roman Polanski, such as “Repulsion,” and David Lynch. In fact, she uses footage from creepy silents like clips from Georges Melies’ movies to enhance the spookiness of her film.

In “The Babbadook,” Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed mother trying to cope with raising her six-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), and it has not been easy. Sam has some obvious problems. He is socially isolated, prone to violence, and each night wakes his mother, claiming there are monsters under his bed and in his closet. One of the causes of Sam’s anxieties is a pop-up book titled “Mister Babbadook,” featuring a character that Sam is convinced has invaded their home.

Initially, Sam is presented as an absolute terror, screaming, devising weapons and wearing Amelia down with his constant need for attention. Seeing the Babbadook book as a bad influence, she discards it, but like the creepy doll Annabelle, it reappears in the house.

As the movie progresses, Kent’s script challenges the viewers into questioning who really is more unstable — Amelia or Sam. Given the circumstances that led to the death of Amelia’s husband, serious issues may be simmering in the mother-son relationship.

Thus, an ambiguity arises as to who is more vulnerable to the psychological impact of the Babbadook book — mother or son. The pages of the book, although on screen only a few seconds at a time, are darkly disturbing, with illustrations designed by stop-motion animator Alex Juhasz, who won an Emmy for his opening credit sequences on Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”

Before long, Amelia is unable to convince Sam that Babbadook is not real because her own sense of reality is slipping and she begins a descent into madness.

Kent  has said suppression of emotions was the underlying theme of “The Babbadook,” exploring Amelia’s attempt to keep her life together without a complete emotional breakdown. The result is a terrifying and gradually billowing inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not

Kent as the script writer and Davis as the actress have collaborated on making Amelia empathetic. She does things that are compassionate while also engaging in selfish and irresponsible behavior, yet given what she is enduring it is difficult to judge her harshly.

Meanwhile, Wiseman, the son of a child psychologist, is a marvel, as he evolves from what seems to be a candidate for serious therapy into a basically sweet and caring child, terrified of the Babbadook but motivated by love to do what he can to protect his mother. The death of his father is something he can only absorb in an abstract way. He brings up it casually and in a detached way, as if dismissing it as one of those things in life. Yet he too seems to be suppressing his true emotional feelings about being fatherless.

“The Babbadook,” now available on pay per view while its DVD/Blu-Ray release is yet to be announced, is a well-constructed and ably acted view of a personal tragedy that metamorphoses into a dark and frightening psychological episode. In the end, Kent leaves it up to the viewers to decide if indeed the nightmare was real, and if it was, will it ever be over.

‘Whiplash’ presents look at a hellacious road to perfection

J.K. Simmons is one of those people whose face everyone knows, but whose name may elude many. Even his most high-profile exposure, in a series of State Farm Insurance commercials, he plays a character we all have grown to recognize. But what is his name?

For the record, his name in the State Farm commercials is Prof. Nathaniel Burke.

Simmons has had a career dating back to 1994 in mostly supporting roles but has added his special touch in fleshing out some memorable characters such as Vern Schilliger in “Oz,” Dr. Emil Skoda in several “Law & Order” episodes, J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” films as well as other upcoming Marvel adventures, and Assistant Chief Will Hope in “The Closer.”

Now Simmons is being mentioned as a possible Academy Award nominee for his work in “Whiplash.” As Terrence Fletcher, Simmons puts on a command performance, one in which every second he is on the screen he keeps the audience riveted with his unpredictable behavior.

“Whiplash” is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at one of the most prestigious musical academies in the nation, located in Manhattan. Andrew is a jazz drummer who aspires to achieve the status reserved for the likes of Buddy Rich.

One day while practicing the drums on his own, Andrew is visited by Fletcher, the most renowned, and feared, teacher at the academy. Fletcher sets up the parameters of this teacher-student relationship by asking Andrew to do a specific piece of percussion work, then in the middle of the performance walks away, as if disinterested.

Later, however, Fletcher tells Andrew to report to the practice studio of the school’s highly regarded jazz band that under Fletcher’s guidance has a reputation for winning competitions. Andrew arrives and learns he is to be, initially, the back-up drummer for the group.

It is at these practice sessions that Fletcher is most volatile. Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher has been likened to that of  R. Lee Ermey’s Gunner Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” a man who is unrelenting and vicious in molding his charges into the toughest of the tough. Fletcher is a master at keeping the musicians on full alert. His facial expressions give nothing away. He may appear to be satisfied with the performances but in a flash can blow up and deliver vile, confidence-bashing tirades, or even resort to throwing things.

Fletcher has three words that all of his students dread to hear because when he says it, they know they are in for difficult time. Those three words are “not my tempo.” He is a stickler for the musicians to be in lock with his tempo and has such a gifted ear he can detect within seconds if the tempo is wrong.

He is cruel with his sharp criticisms and insults, and praise never comes from his lips. An approving nod is all the students will get if he is pleased.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle based “Whiplash” on his own experiences in a band led by a man who intimidated him. Initially, because he lacked finances, Chazelle filmed “Whiplash” as a short that he submitted in the short-film category at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the Jury Award and funding came through for Chazelle to make it a feature-length movie.

Teller, an accomplished drummer, turns in a credible performance as Andrew, a disciplined young man who wavers but never gives up despite the driving force of Fletcher with his mixed signals and unyielding demand for perfection.

“Whiplash” is a study of two people, one a master who honestly believes his methods are justified to mold musicians into true artists, the other an impassioned young person already driven to succeed who goes even further, willing to sacrifice a promising relationship with a young woman, Nicole (Melissa Benoist from “Glee”), to achieve his goals.

Under Chazelle’s direction, there are some intense scenes of Fletcher cracking a verbal whip, driving his students to exhaustion — and in the the case of the drummers, bloodied hands — never letting up until they reach their full potential. Even then, a simple mistake can result in any of the musicians being mercilessly ridiculed and degraded by Fletcher.

People who had their own experiences as musicians, dealing with stern teachers, will identify with “Whiplash,” although they may concede that Fletcher’s behavior is extreme.

The camera work during some of the performance scenes is impeccable, and fans of jazz will savor the moments of cool music, especially as a respite from the grueling exercises Fletcher puts his students through in the pursuit of perfection.


Keaton regains screen presence in ‘Birdman’

Back in 1982 Michael Keaton seemingly came out of nowhere and upstaged Henry Winkler with his performance in “Night Shift.” At the time, Keaton had worked mostly in television (his first credit was as a” volunteer” on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”
in 1975). His work as Bill Blazejowski in “Night Shift” was a breakout role, and a few years later he made a real name for himself as Betelgeuse in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”

He did a stint as the caped crusader in “Batman” in 1989 and “Batman Returns” in 1992. For several years thereafter he took on supporting roles (“Out of Sight,” “The Other Guys”) without much distinction until he once again pulled off a scene-stealing performance as the rogue Internet streaming personality Monarch in “Need for Speed” earlier this year.

Now Keaton has returned to a lead role in “Birdman (also known as “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), a uniquely structured character study by director and writer Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, whose earlier works have included “Amores Perros,” “Babel,” “21 Grams” and “Biutiful.”

The product of three writers in addition to Inarritu — Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — “Birdman” is the behind-the-scenes look as Riggan (Keaton), a washed-up actor who years earlier had played an iconic superhero called Birdman, tries to resurrect his floundering career and redeem himself as a serious actor by directing and starring in a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Aside from a crumbling career, a failed marriage and an alienated daughter, Riggan is occasionally visited by a voice in his head, the voice of his younger self, insisting he reprise his Birdman role and return to the top of his game.

Meanwhile, Riggan has to deal with the problems that inevitably arise as a stage production moves into the final rehearsals and premiere showings. Among the personalities weaving in and out of Riggan’s immediate existence are Jake (Zack Galifianakis), his high-strung attorney and financial handler; Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his lead actresses about to make her Broadway debut in the play; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other lead actress and with whom he is romantically involved; Mike (Edward Norton), a late replacement in the other male lead role, a man who functions better on stage than in real life; and Sam (Emma Stone), his daughter, fresh out of rehab and still smoldering with resentment over her father’s absentee parenting while she was growing up.

Inarritu and his production staff have employed a single tracking shot effect, which can be riveting as the movie flows from one scene to the next without any cuts. The impression is similar to that of a live show being recorded with no pauses or additional takes.

Also unique is the drum score by Antonio Sanchez, heavy percussion interwoven with orchestral music. Some viewers might find the drum work jarring.

While visually appealing, “Birdman” is primarily about the performances, and Keaton does his best work in years as a man beset by regrets over his life, along with the anxieties that go with taking a major career risk. Some of the best scenes involve the interaction between Riggan and Mike, two giant egos posturing and trying to manipulate one another. Mike does not hide his disdain for Riggan as an actor and director while Riggan sees through the shallowness of this man who behind the curtain has many imperfections.

Among the women, Stone stands out as Sam, interjecting some insight that lifts the young woman from the usual portrayal of a person embittered by a dysfunctional family life. Watts and Riseborough also have some moments but their characters fade a bit, overshadowed by the performances of Keaton, Norton and Stone.

Some debate may arise over the metaphysical turn “Birdman” takes in the final moments, an abrupt change of tone from a grounded comedy-drama to what evolves into a fantasy sequence. Viewers who go with the flow of this change of course may find “Birdman” to be an interesting and layered study of the emotional ride performers must endure as they prepare to put it all out there for an audience that can either embrace or reject their work.

Gyllenhaal mesmerizes in ‘Nightcrawler’

A few years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal went through a critical wringer when he played Dastan in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a heavily financed movie that fizzled at the box office, not even grossing half of its cost. The consensus of many reviewers was that Gyllenhaal, while a proven actor (he was nominated for an Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005), he was not cut out to be an action hero.

Given the right role, however, Gyllenhaal can be a commanding presence, and his work as Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler” may be his best opportunity so far to show off his talent.

A lot credit also goes to writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Two for the Money”) for providing a script that allows Gyllenhaal as Bloom to build a character that can leave the audience with mixed feelings about this man and what he does.

As “Nightcrawler” opens, Bloom is a man trying to make a living in dishonest ways but is driven to find legitimate work. Early in the movie Bloom shows talent for building himself up to a prospective employer, a sales pitch that might have worked if only his past did not include illegal activities.

One night, fate intercedes. While driving home in his clunky car, Bloom comes upon a serious auto accident where firemen are working to free an injured driver from the burning wreckage. As he pulls over and closes in to get a closer view of the action, a van pulls up and a “nightcrawler” emerges and takes videotape of the rescue operation. Entranced by this man’s actions, Bloom hovers nearby learns that this guy is what might be generously termed a “crime (or accident) journalist.” Not affiliated with any news organization, these nightcrawlers cruise the cities while plugged into police and fire department radio scanners, and go to the scenes and take news footage that is then sold to whatever television news organization is willing to buy it. They are freelancers, or as the news organizations call them, stringers.

This becomes a defining moment in Bloom’s life. He engineers a theft that helps him finance the purchase of the basic tools in his new line of work: a video camera and a scanner. His first foray into this gruesome world of first-responders to crime and accident scenes yields sloppy but graphic images. Wisely, Bloom takes his tape to a local Los Angeles television news outlet that is last in ratings, assuming the people there will be eager to obtain and air his footage. There he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the station’s news director whose career is teetering after years of bouncing around.

In Bloom, Nina sees a man driven to succeed in this line of work, but one who needs to refine his skills.

“Nightcrawler” is a character study, and Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Bloom. He is very motivated, while also showing mastery in negotiations — he could thrive as a sports agent — and manipulation. The movie is heavy in dialogue but never boring. The camera zooms in on Bloom as he uses his powers of persuasion and exercises an ability to keep people off balance.

His interchanges with Nina are fascinating as he tries to build not only a business relationship with the woman, but an intimate one as well. In addition, he hires a desperate unemployed man, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to be his assistant. The way Bloom treats Rick is chilling — he plays the poor man, one minute praising him and building his confidence with predictions of a bright future, then a minute later cutting him down with brutal, yet useful, criticism.

“Nightcrawler” also is a study of exploitation and how Bloom, with emotional detachment, can turn people’s tragedies into money-making opportunities for himself, and how he can work a desperate employee to near exhaustion and then trick the man into making a payment deal that clearly benefits himself more.

The screenplay and Gyllenhaal’s performance also create a conflict in how the Bloom character is perceived. He can be ruthless in going after his goals, yet is admirable in that he is willing to do his research and put himself on the front lines. When he tells people that he would not force them to do anything he would not do, it is the truth.

“Nightcrawler” is an uncompromising look at a world where tragedies and crimes can be immediately recorded and dispatched via various media, and what can happen when people driven by personal motivations are able to set aside any sensitivity to achieve their goals, be it great ratings on television, or big payoffs for muscling in on horrible events without ever considering the dignity or privacy of the victims.

It seemed fitting that “Nightcrawler” would be released on Halloween weekend, as it is a modern urban horror story, with Lou Bloom and Nina Romina as monsters preying on the unfortunate.