Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

The horror genre has gone very stale of late. On one hand, there are violent slasher flicks that offer nothing interesting in terms of substance other than gory visuals. And then there are those done-to-death plots of haunted houses, demonic possessions, unhappy spirits, exorcisms, and of course, the very common, oft-used plot device of little children seeing apparitions, but their parents denying their claim until the very end. Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent offers an interesting spin on that last mentioned premise in her debut flick, "The Babadook" (2014). Despite borrowing from the age-old device, she steers clear of most other cliches associated with the plot and introduces a fresh, compelling psychological twist to the proceedings.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother still coping with the traumatic loss of her husband who was killed whilst driving her to the hospital to have her only son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia loves her son, but the incident has clearly had a huge impact on her psyche as a person and hence is affecting her role as a parent. 

Under such circumstances, in Samuel's bedtime stories collection, out of nowhere, appears a pop-up book of the menacing "Mister Babadook" a creepy looking hat-clad monster in black. The book has certain ominous messages, and appears to be genuinely scary and inappropriate for kids. Very soon, Samuel, who is already obsessed with violence and killing monsters, begins to see the Babadook all around him and rigs up weapons to kill the monster and protect his mum!

Things start to spiral out of control, when Samuel's behaviour gets increasingly aggressive and delusional. Very soon, it all begins to have an effect on Amelia, as paranoia and fear grip her. Following some strange occurrences, she begins to feel the presence of a sinister being around her, and is convinced that they are being stalked.

Unlike other films of the genre that disregard the characters, Kent's film serves as an intimate character study of Amelia, a grief-stricken single mother dealing with her loss and struggling to raise a problem child. Despite making the claims, she clearly hasn't gotten over the loss of her husband. She continues to have dreams of falling and recalls the accident in a half-broken sleep. She longs for a companion. While Amelia loves Samuel and does what she can to raise him all by herself, she can never erase the fact that Samuel was born the day her husband died. Despite a great concern for Samuel, there are moments of unmistakable rejection for the boy.

A thankless elderly care job, and the pressures of raising her son take a visible toll on her, deriving her of sleep, making her all haggard with fatigue. She mostly lacks any social life, but for a friendly male co-worker and her sister Claire. With a dreary life of this sort, it is not surprising that there are pent up emotions owing to loneliness and restrained freedom, a frustration built over the years, being released in the form of hostility and irritation in response to Samuel's annoying behaviour. With the entry of the Babadook, this behaviour seems to be amplified with Amelia's demeanour getting progressively volatile, and bordering on violent psychosis.

Toward the latter half of the film, the madness reaches extreme proportions in some hair-raising moments. Certain jaw-dropping sequences bring to mind the David Lynch brand of psychological thrillers with hallucinating central characters having a questionable mental state, who are unable to distinguish between reality and imagination. The cheap jump-scare tactics are kept at bay, relying instead on intense, shocking sequences that implore you to sit up and pay attention. Adding to it is an atmosphere of dread that literally gets under your skin, with some nightmarish imagery, recurring dialog and a constant sensation of an invisible presence lurking around the corner.

Another fresh touch is how the Babadook isn't pigeonholed with a label of a supernatural entity, which is usually the case. So indeed, it isn't spelled out if it's a ghost, an evil spirit, a demon, a psychopath, or even a figment of imagination. All that is apparent is that it's an antagonistic presence of some sort. In fact the Babadook is seen only in the shadows or split-second illusory images, the kind that make one think that the mind is playing tricks and there's really nothing there!

There are hints to suggest that the Babadook is in fact a dark, malevolent manifestation of the negative energy that stems from a stagnation that comes from being stuck in time; the inability to move on from a tragedy. Could it be a symbol of grief, an unpleasant memory, a can of worms that needs to be fed and maintained with more bowls of worms for it can never be totally erased from the heart and mind? And therefore, thanks to the rich subtext surrounding the titular entity, there is no room for convulsive displays of possession, no religious rituals to rid ghosts, or any of that stuff which has become so boring lately.

Instead, what we have is some solid psychological horror, an ode of sorts to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980), that focuses on insanity gradually engulfing a parent, who thereby turns into a predator from a protector. One particular scene in which a mentally deteriorated Amelia mocks and imitates a whining Samuel, directly references a similar sequence in the Kubrick film when Jack Nicholson's character completely loses his marbles and derides Shelley Duvall's pleas of taking their son to the doctor.

It was essential to have a solid performer to pull off the Jack Nicholson kind of over the top dementia and Essie Davis rivals that act with a fantastic performance. She displays a wide range of emotions, from a sobbing, vulnerable mother to a hysterical and dangerous, psychotic maniac. Noah Wiseman appears to annoy quite a bit for a while, but it only goes to show how effective the little actor is in his display of an irritating kid who manages to irk the hell out of his mother.

Don't let the plot synopses online, the title or the poster design fool you like it did me. This is not the kind of run-of-the-mill bogeyman horror cum unintentional comedy that you might think it to be. It's a solid work of modern psychological horror that will surprise you. Check it out now!

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tangerines (2013)

In a neat little smile-inducing scene in Zaza Urushadze's "Tangerines" (aka "Mandariinid") (2013), is a meta reference to the way cinema sometimes fools the audiences with exaggeration. A military van damaged during a war in Abkhazia (Georgia) in the early 90s, is being disposed of by three Estonian men, by pushing it over a gorge. The van rolls down and one of the men expresses surprise that it didn't explode like in the movies. The oldest, wisest of the three remarks, "The cinema is one big cheating". Perhaps it is a cynical dig by Zaza Urushadze at his own beautiful but almost unrealistically optimistic story that champions peace and harmony in the midst of a bitter war.

Following a crossfire between the Georgian and the Abkhazian/Chechen armies, a kindly old Estonian box-maker Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his tangerine farmer friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen) rescue two wounded soldiers, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and Niko (Misha Meskhi) of opposite factions. Both, despite being in no position to fight, are practically baying for each others' blood upon finding that they are alive and under the same roof.

Ivo, however, makes them promise that there would be no killing in his house. Being the proud soldiers that they claim to be, and indebted to Ivo for saving their lives, they vow not to indulge in violence as long as they are under Ivo's care. Ahmed however, swears that he would kill Niko as soon as they are out on their own. As days pass by, and Ivo nurses the brave men back to life, an unusual bond develops between them, one that makes them look beyond territorial disputes and awaken to the humane aspect of being.

Much like the old protagonist in the film, filmmaker Urushadze advocates unity and non-violence, emphasizing upon the futility of war. However, (referring back to the scene mentioned above) while narrating a story such as this, that makes soft human beings out of stubborn, angry protectors of the land, somewhere deep within, he feels that such a scenario is too idealistic and he is probably cheating himself to even think of, or hope for such warmth in the face of cold hostility.

But it is quite a welcome scenario for the viewer anyway to witness friendship and kindness triumph over the brutality of war. Over time, despite a superficial will to kill, one can't help but notice the gradual decline of animosity between the soldiers. They deride each other, exchange empty words of attacking one another when seated across the same table, but refrain from making a move, even with an opportunity in hand, thereby abiding by Ivo's condition. The bitterness soon melts into smiles and short peals of laughter over sporadic jests. It goes to show that it has probably been a while for these soldiers since they had such moments of pleasantries in a relaxed atmosphere.

In the scenario presented, what ensues is completely believable. Urushadze mostly keeps it all composed, and with a simple story, delivers a very profound message. With the aid of some clever writing, Urushadze makes a powerful anti-war statement that is in fact, very obvious, yet one which most men fail to realize. It might seem like a message done to death, but the treatment and the method of delivery stands out in the case of "Tangerines".

Ultimately, what difference does all the killing make? Lives are lost in vain. Men fight for their land, but when they cease to exist, and the time comes to go beneath this very land, is it of any consequence what territory they are in? You might as well bury a Georgian with an Estonian or a Chechen in the end, like the old man Ivo says. How would it matter?

Urushadze shuns excess in favour of restrained minimalism and makes "Tangerines" an easy and effortless ride. A sublime theme music plays throughout the film, evocative of feelings of isolation and longing. These moods reflect Ivo's loneliness and sadness concerning the state of affairs in the countryside he has so come to love and hence continues to stay on, while his family members move to homeland Estonia as war commences. The cinematography captures the ethereal beauty of the country landscapes, contrasting the beauty of the land with the ugliness of the war that is being fought for it.

Moments of light humour are subtly infused, while keeping the seriousness of the subject intact and the overall fabric of his material from any harm of unevenness. Take for example, that excellent exchange that takes you by surprise just when you think things would turn sour. Margus storms out in a huff in protest when Ivo asks him to forget about his tangerines business, given the conditions of war. Ivo turns to Ahmed who's unaware of what happened and asks "Does he happen to be your relative, by any chance?", a visible question mark on Ahmed's face palpable. Little moments like these and more also establish the strength of Urushadze's actors. It is difficult to single out one, for all of the primary players make their presence felt with a conviction that is rare.

"Tangerines" is a work of elegance and pure excellence. One would have to struggle to find a fault with it and would certainly have to try very hard not to be moved by the extraordinary third act that restores one's faith in humanity. How great a place this world would be, if everyone recognized the human in them and let the sweetness trump the sourness, much like in a tangerine! "Don't give my men any money. Just give them a few boxes of tangerines", says a soldier who promises to send men to help Ivo. If only he realized the symbolic significance of his words that goes so much deeper; that it is kindness and compassion that should be chosen over material possession.

Score: 9/10