The most feted horror film of the year, The Babadook is an exercise in psychological horror that mixes elements from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Delving into the fraying emotional states of a woman and her special-needs son, director Jennifer Kent spins a harrowing yarn about the terror that accompanies the pleasures of motherhood — the fear that you will be unable to do enough, to muster all the spirit and goodheartedness that are required, to care for your child.
I opted to see this at the last minute, instead of Interstellar, because I worried that Interstellar might have too much of a feeling of self-importance about it for an early Saturday matinee. Hoo boy. There is no doubt in my mind that I made the wrong choice. Birdman wants to say something about what it means to be an artist — what it means to invest your heart and your soul in a project and to be racked with anxiety over the potential outcomes: fame! fortune! ruin! mockery! — but the chosen method of delivery is a hoary old backstage drama bereft of ideas.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a petty thief in the Los Angeles dark whose shamelessness — specifically his lack of anything like a moral compass — becomes an enormous asset when he manages to get a foothold in the straight world. Pawning a fancy bicycle (was it stolen?) in exchange for a camcorder and a police scanner, he joins the ranks of the video shooters who prowl at night, angling for close-up footage of bloody meat on the city streets.
The list of things Terry Gilliam doesn’t like includes iPhones, earphones, computers in general, advertising, modern pop music, and the yawning vacuum at the end of the universe. Gilliam drafts Christof Waltz as his beaten-down-by-bureaucracy surrogate this time around, casting him as a kind of genius math whiz who’s put to work as a kind of human calculator, performing numeric operations to help prove the titular postulation about the fate of the universe and the meaninglessness to which it suggests human existence amounts.
It’s schematic and mostly redundant in Gilliam’s body of work, but still there’s stuff to like here, including the performances (David Thewlis does a mean Michael Palin, as it turns out) and some of the production design. I liked the parody of targeted advertising, in which annoying talking billboards follow right on your heels as you walk down the sidewalks of the future. I was pretty impressed, even, by Gilliam’s crude-by-CG-standards visualization of mathematical problem-solving as a huge three-dimensional puzzle, especially the deflating moments when huge masses of perfectly stacked building blocks come tumbling down, another big idea collapsed into rubble. (Gilliam knows a thing or two about that kind of heartbreak.)
There are some striking moments where the grim conditions of Waltz’s life are compared to the benevolent, it’s-always-the-golden-hour fantasies that a virtual-reality suit bestows, but mostly it feels like Gilliam is directing a screenplay written by a tyro who was really, really impressed by Brazil — homage becomes cannibalization, and as Big Statements go The Zero Theorem doesn’t add anything to what Gilliam’s delivered before. Part of the problem is surely budgetary, lack of funds limiting the film’s visual scope and finesse. On the other hand, there’s that script. Emotionally stunted hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with disturbed hermit 25 years her elder? Ye gods, Gilliam, you can do better than this.
At 44, I sometimes feel like I’ve been growing up for decades while popular culture has been standing still. Radio stations I hear in grocery stores and coffee shops play the same songs that were popular when I was in high school. The comic books and fantasy novels that I read in the 1970s and 1980s (or their derivatives) have become the blockbuster TV and film franchises of the 2010s.Saturday Night Live has been on the air, in sickness and in health, since I was 5. And Hollywood studios are still making sequels to the movie that was my favorite at the age of 7.
But one thing has changed — we no longer get raunchy R-rated comedies targeted at teenagers. Back in their heyday, movies likePorky’s and Zapped and Screwballs were all about high school and high-schoolers, and they were obviously designed to appeal to viewers of the same age. Hell, the good ones — I think immediately of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I know there are others — had three-dimensional female characters and could even teach a kid something useful about human relations. But over the years, culture has changed. Now we get raunchy R-rated comedies about and for adults. We get 40-Year Old Virgins andThis Is 40s and, Neighbors. in which the buff, sexy frat kids are actually the bad guys and the square 30-something couple next door are the righteous heroes, able to smoke up and party down to spec but still coming out righteously on top of the extended kerfuffle.
I approve of the loose, matter-of-fact approach to adult sex, with Seth Rogen’s soft hips making another appearance on the big screen, as well as the irreverent treatment of parenthood. But I wonder at the way this film turns suburban schlubs like me into wise-cracking, big-screen heroes with enough of the right moves to completely shut down the cool kids. It makes me laugh, and that’s the main thing. But is it wrong to be a little annoyed by the flattery?
I keep imagining Juliette Binoche holding a script in one hand and a cell phone in the other, asking someone on the other end, “And you’ll pay me how much for this? OK, I’m in.” Every great actor in this thing — Binoche, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen — inexplicably cast aside, the movie instead focuses on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s bland Navy officer, who follows Godzilla himself from waypoint to waypoint, from a ruined nuclear plant in the shadow of Mount Fuji to a wrecked Honolulu airport to the heart of San Francisco. (Eventually, he and the big green guy himself exchange meaningful gazes; it’s pretty silly.)
Riddled with sci-fi action movie cliches, the screenplay may not have a single original idea, but the film is all about the kaiju-on-kaiju action. Director Gareth Edwards has a good eye — the opening images of the Philippines implicitly compare the bumpy island landscape to giant lizard spikes peeking up from the water, setting up the film’s notion that Godzilla is a manifestation of the natural world itself. His camerawork is naturalistic, angling for documentary-style shots that inspire more awe than the swooping and spinning virtual cameras that have gotten so popular. And he sets up a genuinely spooky spydiving sequence toward the end of the film, brave soldiers plummeting directly into harm’s way.
But a reprocessed Gojira is wheel-spinning almost by definition — no way can the Hollywood version have the same mournful resonance as the radioactive creature that leveled Tokyo just nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if the smoky imagery is rife with the kind of 9/11 visuals that have become commonplace in American action movies over the last few years. Even as homage, it’s secondhand — the big green guy’s high-decibel farewell (at least until the inevitable sequel) made me flash back to Jurassic Park rather than Gojira. Will Edwards develop his own style? Let’s hope this film’s box-office returns give him the confidence he needs to start developing as an artist without looking over his shoulder.
As long as this stays loose — just its writer-director Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, and John Leguizamo pretending to run a commercial kitchen during the dinner rush, with Scarlett Johansson slinking around the margins and Dustin Hoffman making the occasional appearance as the know-nothing moneybags behind the culinary goings-on — it’s pretty much golden. (I don’t mean it’s exceptionally valuable, but that it’s completely engaging and entertaining in that family-night-at-the-movies kind of way that it clearly aspires to.) It only gets tedious when it heads into life-lessons territory.
Favreau’s chef character, who stumbles into an accidental Twitter feud after being chastised for his professional stagnation by an influential food blogger (Oliver Platt), quits his job because his boss won’t let him grow creatively. He only regains his mojo when he goes back to operating on a small scale, selling Cuban sandwiches out of a humble food truck. Favreau made a number of creatively unexceptional but increasingly successful Hollywood features before hitting a brick wall with Cowboys & Aliens, so you might expect this film to represent some soul-searching on the part of the auteur, but no — for the most part,Chef insists on the professional integrity of its main character, whose culinary genius has not stagnated (pshaw!) but has simply been held in check by his bosses. All it takes is a quick detour to Miami, where the local culture — exotica! — inspires him to start building magnificent pork sandwiches with the help of his magical Latino (Leguizamo). And, like that, Chef Carl Casper is back, baby!
As formula filmmaking goes, it’s not terrible, but it’s hobbled by a reluctance to deal with anything like the reality of being out of work (Casper does complain about money at one point, but as it turns out he needn’t worry about being gainfully employed because his rich acquaintances are willing to bankroll him) as well as the too-familiar subplot in which the divorced Casper struggles to be a decent dad to his mostly estranged son, who’s along for the ride. In the film’s father-and-son scenes, Favreau comes off as an inexplicably dim-witted variant on Louis C.K.’s tryin-to-be-good Louie, consistently choosing to stomp on the kid’s heart for no good reason other than to force some emotional tension on the way to the inevitable happy ending. And I do mean inevitable — a Robert Downey Jr. cameo sends some voltage through this thing, but otherwise there are no idiosyncrasies, no surprises, and no awareness that Favreau’s Chef is the cinematic equivalent of the kind of tasty but generic menu item that gets its lead character knocked on his ass in the first place.
The first half of this is dynamite. Though the concept is derivative of any number of sci-fi conceits, Bong’s visual imagination lends the hoary old scenario some striking imagery — a masked army wielding hatchets, a man with a flash-frozen arm, Tilda Swinton whipping out a denture — and while he’s not the world’s greatest action director, he does know his way around a bloody set piece.
The central metaphor — a passenger train running around the world in infinite circles gives the swells the run of the front cars and relegates the poors to the back — just keeps chugging along for most of the film’s running time but eventually starts to creak under its weight and call attention to its artificiality. (As someone on my Twitter feed asked: do the kids have to walk through the rave every day on their way to school?* However, when the schoolteacher turns out to be an absolutely ferocious Alison Pill, I can forgive all kinds of artifice.)
It really does run out of steam once it reaches The Hall of the Exposition King and lurches toward not a happy ending but at least a hopeful one. Still bracing. Terry Gilliam would have had a field day with this material — and Bong knows it, which is part of what makes the whole production so much fun. I want to call it the best science-fiction movie of the year (take that, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and then I remember Under the Skin and I nod solemnly and shiver a little. That’s a science-fiction movie. (Technically a 2013 release? Note to self.) But this one is really good, too. And the one about the apes isn’t even half-bad. Imagine, a cycle of excellent SF films in 2014. What did we do to deserve this?
* Judging from this diagram, I guess the answer is “No,” but it sort of feels like that’s the case when you’re watching.