Director & Screenwriter: Jennifer Kent // Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Barbara West, Tim Purcell.
Review: In a horror-drama crammed with unsettling moments, The Babadook’s most nimbly wielded weapon is the fleeting but resonant savageness with which it depicts a mother struggling to love their child. It’s a concept that director Jennifer Kent arguably employs to emulsify the two genres her feature film debut works within; part kitchen sink character study, part haunted house freak show. The film’s first half is understandably earnest and dialogue-driven as Kent takes care to convey the everyday exasperation of single mother Amelia (played by the extraordinary Essie Davis), who lives an anxious life in the Australian suburbs and while in mourning for her husband seven years after a bid to rush her and their unborn child to the maternity ward resulted in a fatal car crash.
A superstitious eccentric with a skill for crafting Home Alone-style artillery, her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a sweet but stubbornly errant loner who can rarely go a night without crawling into his mother’s bed. Deprived of sleep – with Kent fast-forwarding through the few hours she does indulge in to exacerbate the interminable nature of her day-to-day – Amelia insists on not only looking after her son’s needs, but also those of her elderly neighbour (Barbara West) and the geriatrics she tends to at a nursing home each day. Both her and Samuel look forward to reading a children’s story at the end of a long day, that is until the sudden appearance of a grisly but beautifully crafted pop-up book entitled Mister Babadook captures the darkest recesses of Samuel’s imagination.
Sketched in charcoal, the book’s eponymous character is a behatted sycophant with sharp, spindly fingers and a manic expression; his murderous behaviour relayed in playground-friendly couplets: “Take heed of what you’ve read… / Once you see what’s underneath / You’re going to wish you were dead”). As Samuel’s palpably felt obsession with the monster grows, Amelia’s professional and personal relationships begin to crumble, and it is the ensuing mental and physical self-isolation that becomes the cue for Kent to flex her flair for evoking moods of near-suffocating dread. There is an admittedly awkward shift from dramatic realism to conventional horror tropes as the impact of illogical reactions take effect, but this is small price to pay for the thought-provoking thrills stashed away in the film’s latter half.
Refusing to settle for cheap jump scares in order to rile up its audience, The Babadook is at its best when suggesting the monster’s existence in surprisingly rational ways. Think you’re safe at a police station in the day time? Kent implores you to think again. The exquisitely dull colours of Amelia’s home, bristling sound design (the scrape of the book’s pop-up appendages against paper, the creaky-floorboard growl of the Babadook itself), and a singular but magnificently unexpected burst of gore will have your skin practically ushering the film underneath it.
With the tumultuous relationship between Amelia and Samuel realised in affecting detail, The Babadook is a uniquely cerebral horror and a promising calling-card for Kent. Even if her obvious talents remain just a tad raw, as her film’s ending suggests, there is truly nothing a little nurturing cannot fix.
Director: François Ozon // Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuale Seigner, Denis Ménochet, Bastien Ughetto // Plot: When sixteen-year-old Claude shows promise as a writer, his teacher becomes increasingly involved in creating a story that blurs the line between fact and fiction.
Review: The first half of François Ozon’s latest is an absolute dream, as enigmatic teenager Claude (Umhauer) brings wholesome suburbanites Esther and Rapha Artole (Seigner and Ménochet) to the attention of snarky, childless teacher Germain (Luchini) and his wife Jeanne (Scott Thomas) via his designated writing assignments. The dialogue fizzes and the pace is relentless and confident, while a subplot involving the intricacies of Jeanne’s art gallery works in tandem alongside the teacher’s aggressive critiquing to pose the rather stupefying question of what actually constitutes as credible art, in whatever form. Sadly, such neat self-awareness is simultaneously lost on Ozon, as the celebrated auteur takes his characters into unnecessarily strange territory.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow // Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler // Plot: An exhaustive account of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.
Review: Much has been made of Zero Dark Thirty’s stance on torture as a method of interrogation, with some publications accusing director Kathryn Bigelow of lacing a pro-torture agenda throughout her latest film – a finely sculpted account of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. An alarming thought, no doubt – but what is of more concern is the readiness with which some critics are willing to discount the films many achievements almost entirely as a result. Zero Dark Thirty is remarkable for its ability to keep one as enthralled watching a CIA boardroom meeting as they are to witness the true jewel in an already-encrusted crown: a breathless reenactment of bin Laden’s eventual capture in Pakistan that ensures the film’s final stretch is also its most rewarding.
Director: Dustin Hoffman // Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connelly, Pauline Collins // Plot: Ageing opera singer Reginald Paget (Courtenay) finds the splendour of Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, to be compromised when his prickly ex-wife Jean (Smith) comes to stay. As the houses financial future becomes unclear, Jean does all she can to avoid reuniting with her former quartet members Sissy (Collins), Wilf (Connelly) and, of course, her ex-husband Reggie.
Review: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is a sporadically touching adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1998 play of the same name. Despite being very much geared towards to a particular demographic, this viewer can attest that he, at the tender age of 21, found much to enjoy in Quartet, although a frustrating lack of focus makes it hard to recommend to audiences at large.
Director: Juan Antonio Bayora // Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor // Plot: The true story of how one family – mother Maria (Naomi Watts), father Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) – survived the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 during their Christmas break to the region.
Review: With the carefully endorsed authenticity of this story still fresh in our minds thanks to an opening placard, a deep, low-end rumbling intensifies to the point of discomfort. It’s an unnerving moment, no doubt, but for this viewer, it made for a very exciting opening. This is a sound synonymous with dread and expectation. As anyone who has sat through a Paranormal Activity film will tell you; this is the sound of something actually happening.
It is also the first of many confrontations with The Impossible’s incredible sound design. Ominous tones are laced throughout, with a clear emphasis on every crunch and shock absorbed by the bodies of our ravaged protagonists. It is at times overwhelming in its desolation, so much so that when the inevitably shimmering piano does make an appearance, it is with heartfelt relief rather than a rolling of the eyes.