Film Roundup, 2/7: The Babadook, Whiplash, et al

Fresh Outta 2014

I don’t watch enough films to spend a lot of time writing about them—I only saw a handful of flicks released over the last year, one of which (The Interview) was so fucking stupid I had to turn it off. Plenty I want to see—Birdman, especially—but I’ll absorb them at my current snail-like pace.

Only one movie here I would say to steer clear of, but it’s been nominated for Best Picture a billion times and people seem to love it, so whatever. I have a bunch of other recent release films that I’ll catalog soon—if I can muster up the will to write something about them.

The-Babadook-PosterThe Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014): I only watch horror films because my wife makes me. Had I the choice, I never would have watched Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature-length about a children’s book that comes to life and terrorizes mother and child. Only it’s not about that, as any good horror film isn’t about the obvious, upfront threat—it’s about a woman’s descent into madness, spurred by depression after losing her husband and raising a rebellious child all on her own. The Babadook is more a metaphor for the lost father and Amelia’s grief, which continues years after the fact, and funnily enough (though my guess is it’s a happy coincidence), “baba” means father in Turkish. All praise to Kent and her visual, audio, editing teams, as I can’t remember the last time I saw a film so sweeping in its presentation, so creative in its surrealism, so spine-chilling in its timing. It really does rank alongside the greatest horror films ever made, meaning it transcends the oft-derided genre and stands as what it is: great art.

Coherence_TheatricalPoster_HiresCoherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit, 2013): Daring in its attempt, the problem with these kinds of movies is that once the illusion starts to give way, the dam comes crashing down. A group of friends having a dinner party are interrupted by a blackout possibly caused by a passing comet, which Emily (Emily Baldoni) informs the others supposedly caused residents of a Norwegian town about a century before to become so discombobulated that they didn’t even know what house they lived in or whether their husband really was their husband anymore. Without giving too much away, similar eerie events take place in the house, leading to gripping, paranoia-fueled drama and dialogue that will keep you on edge until, and I hate to say it, the mystery is finally revealed. At that point, as with all movies based on a premise that no writer can successfully write himself out of, disinterest settles in, and you ride the movie to its inevitably convoluted and contrived ending. Regardless, the less you know going in the better the ride is, and who cares if it can’t perfectly tie up all the tidbits it lays out? It’s an entertaining film and a mysterious one at that. So long as you aren’t the type of analytical asshole who can’t enjoy Inception because the sequences aren’t synced perfectly with the speeds each dream level is supposed to proceed at, Coherence is a fun, goosebump-inducing mystery, even if the name is, er, highly ironic.

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2014): I have to stop pretending like anyone will ever get a Godzilla movie right. Among the many follies relatively inexperienced British director Gareth Edwards makes, probably the most unforgivable is the complete absence of story. There’s plot, sure; my God, is it plotty in its plottiness, but titular all-American good guy Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) doesn’t get much blander as far as stereotypical disaster film protagonists go. The film’s central problem is that it only half understands what made the original Godzilla so electrifying. It wasn’t the visuals, necessarily, as King Kong was arguably more advanced twenty years prior. It’s not just the environmental message hammered home by Godzilla being a manifestation of Mother Earth revolting against man’s use of the atomic bomb. It’s that in 1954 the images of the firestorms that swept over Tokyo caused by US bombing during World War II—where the gusts were so strong the air was sucked out of your lungs and you yourself pulled into the inferno only to roast alive—were still fresh in the minds of many. This is what American audiences can’t understand, as we’ve never experienced anything so horrible. The only comparable event is 9/11, but even there the cinematic depictions we’ve received star the likes of Nic Cage as the fearless fireman. The 1954 Godzilla had no heroes. There is no Japanese übermensch who valiantly saves the day, only faceless scientists attempting to undo the monstrosity they helped create. The creature is not an inadvertent force for good, but a reflection of the dark side of nature, one provoked by humans that possibly cannot be undone. Godzilla is death. Not an action figure, not a spectacular visual display. Only death. And that’s why we’ll never get another good Godzilla movie.

Gone_Girl_PosterGone Girl (dir. David Fincher, 2014): Ben Affleck is such a gigantic schmuck someone ought to preserve him in a time capsule to illustrate to future generations of how not to act in film. In some ways Affleck is perfect for the mildly villainous and contemptibly bland Nick Dunne, whose wife disappears one morning and who is slowly suspected of her disappearance (and murder? gasp!) as more evidence is unveiled. Essentially two films rolled into one—the first a predictable whodunit puzzle that’s pieced together by the audience long before any of the characters have a clue, and the second a B-grade thriller of a clever-in-theory woman’s plan falling to pieces, only to land herself in a hellish sex slave situation—this is peppered with moments of Fincher’s visual brilliance, but ultimately it’s a long slog (150 minute running time—that’s far too much of Affleck’s affectless mug) more concerned about building a by-the-numbers narrative than coloring its characters with humanlike personality traits. So yes, Affleck’s a cheating doofus, and Elliot-Dunne his conniving, Ivy League educated wife, but considering not one person in this film thought for a moment they should act like a normal person, it’s all reduced to flat, pretty pictures.

A_Most_Wanted_Man_PosterA Most Wanted Man (dir. Anton Corbijn, 2014): Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film released while he was alive, this political espionage flick sees Hoffman playing German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann tracking an illegal Chechen immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin as Issa Karpov) to see if he’ll lead Bachmann and his agents to a bigger fish, the suspected money laundering and terrorist-funding Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a local figurehead in the Muslim community. Hoffman’s performance as the chain smoking Bachmann teeters between the stone-faced coolness of a government lackey and highly emotional rollercoaster of a man on the verge of collapse, and the supporting cast, a cavalcade of talent including Rachel McAdams and Willem DeFoe, make what could have been an otherwise standard thriller a perfect balance of human vulnerability and high-stakes realpolitik.

Whiplash_posterWhiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2014): Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a first year drumming student at the fictional Schaffer Conservatory, whom highly-regarded and overtly authoritarian teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) drafts into his studio jazz band—the premier outfit at the best music school in the country. It quickly becomes clear that Fletcher is an abusive maniac, hurling chairs and homophobic epithets at his students so casually you’d think it were in his job description. (Side note: director Damien Chazelle claims he was inspired by his own experiences in the studio band at Princeton.) The New Yorker’s Richard Brody is on the right track but goes off point—the film’s idea of jazz is anything but jazz, as Andrew never once improvises or practices with other students outside the class; it portrays jazz as a solitary venture, a craft honed in secluded, isolated meditation. But Brody doesn’t get that the film isn’t about jazz any more than it’s about father-son relationships: it’s about competition and overcoming adversity, though Andrew’s worldview is indelibly skewed by the tyrannical Fletcher. I will admit that despite having enjoyed it, I am a little suspicious what exactly I’m supposed to take away from the film. There is nothing admirable in Fletcher’s actions or philosophy (his bit about “good job” being the worst phrase in the English language ignores the fact that most artists are already unusually hard on themselves), and Andrew’s drive is borne out of pure selfishness, and when it’s not it’s because he seeks Fletcher’s approval in a Stockholm Syndrome type of dealio. So if there’s any moral pulse in Whiplash, it’s got to be something about redemption, regardless of how ambiguous Andrew’s motivation may be. Does he merely want to be a great jazz drummer? Does his ex-girlfriend having the final ‘fuck you’ inspire or deflate him? Is he, in the end, playing for Fletcher? Or himself? Or both? Regardless, this is about as tense as drama can get, and J.K. Simmons turns in what is easily his greatest performance—never has a villain been both alluring and repellant to the point of confusing me on how I felt about him. I still don’t know.


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