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The Babadook




At the Sofa-Plex : December 11, 2014
Movie playing on a screen very near you

12/11/14
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



The Babadook (R)

A single mother and her son are tormented by a creature from a creepy story book in this smart horror movie, which also is in theaters now.
Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) already have it rough. On the way to the hospital to have Samuel, Amelia and her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) were in a car accident which killed Oskar and left Amelia, a new mother, alone. Now, some six years later, Amelia seems to be barely hanging on. She awakens from a nightmare about the crash only to find Samuel in her room dealing with his own fears — their middle-of-the-night ritual seems to involve her checking under the bed and all closets before he winds up in her bed, kicking and elbowing the sleep-deprived Amelia. His fears get even worse after they find a book called Mr. Babadook on the shelf. What at first seems like a children’s story quickly gets so menacing that Amelia refuses to finish it. Samuel remains scared of Mr. Babadook anyway — scared and convinced he’s trying to get in their house. As the sleepless nights wear on, Amelia starts to wonder if something really is lurking in the shadows and we start to wonder if the pressure of being a single working mom to a highly anxious child (who has just been kicked out of school for discipline problems) has finally caused Amelia to break.
In some ways, The Babadook is a very straightforward horror tale — something scary is noticed by the child but not the adults, who dismisses the escalating trouble as behavioral problems until it starts to affect them as well. But The Babadook, which is an Australian film, is smart about how it unfolds its mystery. And Davis is very good at playing Amelia as a woman who is both being driven mad by whatever the thing is that is scaring her son and already at the breaking point due to the loneliness and exhaustion caused by her home life. While still very much about the supernatural, the movie is also a good study of the extremes of parenthood — extreme frustration, extreme love, extreme protectiveness, extreme exertion. B
Available via services including iTunes, Comcast OnDemand and Amazon.
 
A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (PG-13)
The third-to-last credit on Robin Williams’ IMDB page is this holiday comedy, which apparently received some kind of release in November.
Williams is Virgil Mitchler, the drunken father whom Boyd (Joel McHale) is desperately trying not to be. One of Boyd’s formative memories is of Virgil on Christmas Eve explaining that the world is a horrible place and there is no Santa Claus. Boyd wants his young son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon) to hold on to the magic as long as possible. So when contrivance requires Boyd and family — his wife Luann (Lauren Graham) and kids Douglas and Vera (Bebe Wood, who was the adorable Shania on The New Normal) — to spend the holiday at his parents’ house, he is determined to keep the Santa tradition alive. Unfortunately, the one thing he forgot when packing the family car for the four-hour trip from Boyd’s Chicago suburb to Virgil’s Wisconsin home is Douglas’ gift from Santa. Thus does fate conspire to put Virgil and Boyd in a car together for the eight-hour, Christmas-Eve-night car trip.
I picked this movie for the same reason a lot of people who run into it on OnDemand might pick it — the cast. In addition to Williams, McHale and Graham there’s Clark Duke (of Greek and The Office and, apparently, Two and a Half Men), Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Candice Bergen. This movie did an excellent job at casting — and a terrible job at everything else. There’s a bit of suspension of disbelief required for most holiday family movies — the bus breaks down again? the crazy girlfriend said what? — but A Merry Friggin’ Christmas is nothing but the kind of tortured plot contrivance that strains your ability to stay engaged. Normal people wouldn’t make pretty much any of the decisions characters make here and the real comedy of this kind of movie comes from taking the germ of a believable thing and exaggerating. Then there’s the stilted dialogue, which somehow works against the natural comic abilities of the cast. This cast should be able to make a live reading of a take-out menu funny, but the jokes here fall like thuds.
A Merry Friggin’ Christmas  seems like it should be the perfect dark but not too dark holiday comedy, but steer clear. D
Available via services including iTunes, Amazon and Comcast OnDemand.
 
The Skeleton Twins (R)
Though mostly known for comic performances, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader go dramatic in this movie, which hit theaters in September and is now available for purchase.
Twins Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) haven’t talked in 10 years but reconnect on a day that’s clearly a life low-point for both of them — Milo slits his wrists and Maggie is contemplating a fistful of pills when she gets the call from the hospital about Milo’s condition. She flies out to Los Angeles and brings him home with her to upstate New York, to the siblings’ hometown where she lives with her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). While Maggie, with her husband, job and house, would seem to be in a better life circumstance than Milo (a lonely actor/waiter who is more waiter than actor), she is equally adrift. While Lance eagerly announces to Milo that they’re trying to get pregnant, Maggie is still taking birth control pills and making eyes at her scuba instructor. 
The film has a very You Can Count on Me vibe — though in this case they’re both the Mark Ruffalo characters, both unsure what they want out of life and both still feeling the effects of their father’s death by suicide when they were 14. This is not the happiest movie you’ll ever watch — its humor is  decidedly dark — but it has a sweet-tart charm, particularly in scenes where Wiig and Hader are alone together. Their characters are their least guarded around each other and the actors have the exact right kind of chemistry to make these parts — estranged but still very close siblings — believable. B +
Available for purchase from outlets including Comcast OnDemand, Amazon and iTunes.
 
Life After Beth (R)
Aubrey Plaza, best known as the very Daria-esque April on Parks & Recreation, is the perfect oblivious zombie in this fun little horror-flavored comedy, which was released in August. 
Zach (Dane DeHaan, Harry Osborn in the most recent Spider-man franchise and a dead ringer for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?-era Leonardo DiCaprio) is mourning the loss of his girlfriend, Beth (Plaza), who died from a snake bite while on a hike. Or did she? After spending some time with her grief-stricken parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), Zach suddenly can’t get them to open the door for him or return his calls. And, while peering through the windows of her house, Zach even catches a glimpse of what he thinks is Beth. Forcing his way into the house, Zach learns the truth — Beth is back. She has no memory of dying, or it appears of the days before her death, days when she and Zach had been having relationship problems. She is just happy to be at home with her parents, happy to see Zach again, happy to hang out in the attic and very happy whenever she hears any soft jazz. Maury and Geenie say their daughter has been resurrected. But Zach thinks that her surprising physical strength and her sudden need to fill her attic hangout with dirt points to zombie.
Life After Beth is a cute, quirky take on, well, not a romantic comedy but a break-up comedy. We learn that Beth was the one looking to break up with Zach. At first, Zach is just so happy to have Beth back that he sets both relationship worries and concerns that she might want to eat his flesh aside. But as she becomes more zombie-like, he starts to see the flaws in their relationship. A meeting with family friend Erica (Anna Kendrick) even has him thinking that maybe it is time for him to see other, living people. Zach’s journey — from not wanting to let Beth go to being able to move on — is actually a sweet take on the stages of post-relationship grief. Comedy from a strong supporting cast (which also includes Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines and Adam Pally) gives a nice balance to the romance and zombies. B- 
Available through services such as Amazon, Comcast OnDemand and iTunes.
 
Happy Christmas (R)
Anna Kendrick also appears in this indie take on a family-together-at-Christmas tale, which also stars Melanie Lynskey and Lena Dunham and which opened in July.
In some respects, not much actually happens in Happy Christmas. It’s the holiday season and Jenny (Kendrick), who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, moves in with her brother, Jeff (Joe Swanberg, who also wrote and directed the film), his wife Kelly (Lynskey) and their young son Jude (Jude Swanberg). Though they’re not so different in age, the younger Jenny is still in her young adulthood — partying, not a lot of responsibilities — while Jeff has some kind of successful film career and Kelly is a stay-at-home mom. The “action” of the movie is the differences and clashes between these two cultures. 
In the Hollywood version of this movie, there would be more extremes between the suburban Kelly and the partying Jenny. Here, though, the women share nice moments and bring out good qualities even though Kelly still eyes Jenny as a potential upset to her fragile hold on her chaotic, baby-centered life.  
I really like Happy Christmas. It feels like a throwback to the kind of talk-centric, natural-lighting indie movies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. There’s an easygoing quality about it that makes it very relaxing while its characters are engaging and nicely human. If the words “family Christmas comedy” make you cringe, Happy Christmas, with its low-key vibe and solid performances, might be your kind of movie. B+   
Available via services including Netflix, Comcast OnDemand, Amazon and iTunes.
 
Obvious Child (R)
Though it’s been labeled the “abortion comedy” or sometimes even “abortion rom-com,” there is a lot more than that to Obvious Child, which was released in theaters back in June.
Donna (Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comedian whose life is at something of a crossroads. Her boyfriend leaves her for one of her best friends, and her day job at a bookstore is about to come to an end as the store goes out of business. In a wrecked state, after an awkward drunken performance, Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy, probably best known as a late-series addition to The Office). She and Max have a few drinks, go home together, rock out to Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child” and end up in bed. As she later describes to friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), she vaguely remembers the presence of a condom that night but not what it did. About three weeks later, it’s pretty clear what it didn’t do, as Donna finds herself pregnant. 
Obvious Child deals with Donna’s situation — an unwanted pregnancy but also her professional instability and her I’m-an-adult-but-not-quite-an-adult sense of adriftness — with remarkable nuance and kindness. By the time the movie ends, Donna isn’t in a new career or married or otherwise in dramatically different circumstances than when the movie starts. But there is a sense that she makes choices and thinks about her life in a way that pushes her into some new life phase, somewhere closer to adulthood. It’s as much a “coming of age” movie as it is an “abortion comedy” — though, yeah, there is plenty of shmashmortion talk, again in a very thoughtful and kind way. Often, there’s an afterschool special quality to abortion discussion in movies, with characters feeling like they’re reading from opposing viewpoint pamphlets. Here, it’s discussed the way real people discuss things — with a blend of personal feelings and matter-of-fact “here is my situation” honesty. 
Obvious Child is the smarter, more realistic and more honestly funny version of the Knocked Up-style one-night-stand-produces-pregnancy story. It is also an excellent showcase for Jenny Slate, who radiates genuineness in a way that makes even her zanier moments feel authentic. A
Available through services including iTunes and Amazon.
 
Belle (PG)
Justice and morality mix with an almost Jane Austen-like courting drama in this based-on-a-true-story romance-flavored history, which got a late spring, early summer release. 
The daughter of an aristocrat (Matthew Goode, who is such fun, even in his small role here) and a former slave, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows up on the large country estate of Lord (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady (Emily Watson) Mansfield, her great-uncle and -aunt. Her childhood and young-womanhood appears to be a happy one, particularly since she has a constant playmate and companion in Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), another Mansfield niece of about the same age. The two play together, giggle about the prospect of meeting boys together but can’t eat together when company comes. Dido can hang out with the family in the drawing room after dinner but the rules, rules Lord Mansfield takes very seriously, make her appearance at dinner impossible. 
Her status causes Belle an understandable amount of angst — too high in rank to eat with the servants but (because of race and illegitimacy) not quite “good enough.” When she receives a large inheritance from her father, Belle’s situation gets even odder. Her money makes her an heiress — an attractive quality to a man from a good family. But her race is an obstacle that the Mansfields feel men from the right families can’t overcome — and for Belle to preserve her (and the family’s) status she can only marry a man from a good family.
As Dido and Elizabeth attempt to navigate their marriage options, Lord Mansfield, who is Lord Chief Justice, is considering the case of the Zong, a slave ship where hundreds of slaves were murdered by the crew. Mansfield’s young protegee, John Davinier (Sam Reid), is both ambitious and abolition-minded and hoping to persuade Mansfield to rule in a way that is in opposition to the most slave traders — a constituency that is hugely important to the economy of the empire. 
If you loved the wheeling-and-dealing, legislation-passing parts of Lincoln (or, as I think of them, the best parts of Lincoln) and the first season “what will become of Lady Mary” plotline on Downton Abbey, this movie is your jam. I am a sucker both for big moral issues decided via legal maneuverings and people looking for love while wearing period costumes. Mbatha-Raw is not just a lovely heroine, she’s believable —  her moxie fits with the person the movie crafts her character to be and doesn’t feel like an anachronism. A
Available on Comcast OnDemand, Amazon, iTunes and other services.





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