Thursday, April 30, 2015

'The Babadook' doesn't live up to the hype

"The Babadook" arrives on home video riding an outsized wave of hype. This small, Australian movie, partly funded via a Kickstarter campaign, has been dubbed the next big thing in horror. "Exorcist" director William Friedkin has proclaimed it even scarier than his seminal work.

That leaves one to wonder: When was the last time Friedkin saw "The Exorcist," anyway?

As a depiction of a family's trauma, "The Babadook" almost works, but as a horror movie it's a major letdown.

Arriving simultaneously on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix streaming, "The Babadook" is another spin on that tried and true horror trope, the haunted object. In this case, the object is a children's pop-up book with no author and no publication information, just a title — "The Babadook."

Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis of"Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries") is surrounded by death. She works in a nursing home, tending to the aged and running their weekly bingo game, not that many of them seem to notice. Most of her charges have already passed on, mentally if not physically. It's the sort of work that can sap the life out of you, if you're not careful.

At the end of the day, Amelia comes home to her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). And Samuel, as they say, is a handful. He is always in trouble at school, where the administrators are inclined to drug him, ship him off to therapy, or preferably both.

Samuel is also without a male role model, his dad having died in an auto accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to him. So, if you think Amelia sees in Samuel a subconscious reminder of her husband's death, you got it in one.

Precocious but over-imaginative, Samuel insists his mother check the closet and peek under the bed for monsters each night. He constructs "Home Alone"-style booby traps for any boogeymen she might miss. You can bet that's the sort of detail that will be important later.

After yet another parent/teacher conference, Amelia yanks Samuel out of class until she can find a school that will treat him as something more than a problem to be managed. In the meantime, mother and son have an opportunity for quality time at home. This cannot possibly go wrong.

One night, Samuel asks to pick the book for his nightly bedtime story, and he picks one Amelia has never seen before. It's "The Babadook," and it's about a boogeyman.

There's little here we haven't seen before. The Babadook comes to life to torment Samuel and Amelia, the book returns no matter how many times Amelia disposes of it, the usual stuff.

While the plot isn't compelling, the family dynamics are. One need not be Sigmund Freud to see the Babadook as representing Amelia's suppressed resentments, and the ambivalent way the movie deals with them is a nice surprise. Without giving it away, the ending is the one thing about "The Babadook" that works beautifully. It's just that getting there is a slog.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent, helming her first feature, doesn't yet have the knack for horror. "The Babadook" is lacking in both atmosphere and suspense. It doesn't help that the book within the movie telegraphs almost every potential fright. Even the most experienced horror directors have trouble ginning up terror when the audience knows what's coming next.

Making matters worse, it's hard to care about either Amelia or Samuel. Both are shrill and unlikable, although not without cause. And while that may work in a different context, here it's a nearly fatal flaw. We should care whether Amelia and Samuel live or die, but we don't. There's only so much high-pitched screaming you can endure before you want it silenced. As most of Kent's screen credits are for acting, I can only guess these are the performances she wanted.

"The Babadook" is not a total loss. The ending becomes more unsettling the more you think about it, and the little nod to Italian horror director Mario Bava shows Kent's heart is in the right place. With more experience, she probably has a good horror movie in her. "The Babadook" just isn't it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Culture Shock 04.23.15: Documentary digs up Atari's past

Before Xbox, PlayStation and Wii, there was Atari, once America's dominant video game maker.

Today, Atari is a logo on retro-styled T-shirts but little else, and Atari's rise and fall are the subjects of Zak Penn's documentary "Atari: Game Over," now streaming on Netflix.

Full disclosure: The only home video game console I've ever owned is the Atari 2600, released in 1977. My time as a gamer ended around 1983. But for a while, I was obsessed: playing video games, reading magazines about video games, calling telephone hot lines to get the latest news and release dates for video games — you name it.

Two of my favorite Atari 2600 games, "Yar's Revenge" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," were designed by the same programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw. When I finally beat "Raiders," I chalked it up as a significant accomplishment. Warshaw's games were tough but fair. Little did I — or anyone else  — suspect that Warshaw and his next game were destined to become scapegoats for the collapse of not only Atari but the entire first wave of home video gaming.

Warshaw's next game was "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," based on the movie, obviously. Rushed into stores for Christmas 1982, "E.T." sold roughly 1.5 million units, but it failed to meet Atari's stratospheric expectations. Millions more cartridges remained unsold.

In 1983, the home video game market crashed, doing in Atari and most of its rivals. "E.T.," which would go on to earn an unfair reputation as the "worst video game ever," took a lot of the blame. And from that, an urban legend arose: that Atari, in the dead of night, buried its millions of unsold "E.T." cartridges in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The landfill legend is the hook for Penn's documentary. Penn introduces us to Joe Lewandowski, waste disposal expert and amateur archaeologist. Lewandowski believes the legend is true, and he has a good idea where in the landfill the lost "E.T." games are buried.

So the question is, is this "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with a prize waiting at the end, or is this Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's "vault" and finding only a couple of broken bottles?

While large earth movers excavate a trash heap in search of Atari's shame, Penn takes us back to the glory days of Atari, interviewing Warshaw and company executives. On the campus of what was once Atari's headquarters, Warshaw describes a high-tech Shangri-La. Ideas and pot smoke were heavy in the air, dress codes were lax and met sales quotas were rewarded with keggers. Atari was every Silicon Valley stereotype turned up to 11.

The business side of the story is the most interesting and deserves more time and attention than Penn devotes. He digs deep into the New Mexico desert, but he barely scratches the surface of the 1980s home console bust. Going by Penn's account, one would think Atari existed in a vacuum. He gives us no hint of the other consoles on the market at the time, such as ColecoVision, Intellivision and Atari's designated 2600 successor, the Atari 5200. The crash of 1983 left a dark age of video gaming, the scale of which Penn loses with his myopic focus on the 2600. For two years, it seemed as if home video games had been just a fad. Then the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived in the U.S., and America has been a nation of gamers ever since.

Penn is far more interested in the New Mexico dig, and that's no surprise. He previously directed a mockumentary about another legend, "Incident at Loch Ness," aided and abetted by — of all people — Werner Herzog. Unfortunately, the off-putting persona Penn showcased in "Incident" is still on display. He interrupts the workers digging in the landfill to ask stupid questions just so he can film their incredulous responses. Whether staged or real, it adds nothing but irritation.

Yet for all the missteps and wasted opportunities, "Atari: Game Over" has its moments. Warshaw is a fascinating figure who has never gotten his due, and we get to watch as he comes to terms with seeing his past unearthed in a landfill. It's a powerful scene, and one that deserves a better movie.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Culture Shock 04.16.15: 'Daredevil' brings Marvel back down to Earth

One particular scene marks when Marvel's "Daredevil" goes from being merely good TV to being something special.

At the end of the second episode, Daredevil — although he isn't yet called that — fights his way through a gang of Russian mobsters in order to rescue a kidnapped boy. The entire fight plays out in one long take, no cuts and no trickery. With its bare-knuckle brutality and seemingly effortless cinematography, it immediately draws comparisons to the extraordinary hallway fight in Chan-wook Park's 2003 film "Oldboy." One rarely sees such compelling fight scenes in movies nowadays, and never on television. If anything, "Daredevil's" fight surpasses "Oldboy's."

If there's one thing "Daredevil" does well, it's fight scenes, but the show does a lot of other things well, too.

All 13 episodes of "Daredevil's" first season debuted on Netflix last Friday to near unanimous raves. Count this review among them. The first of Marvel's five planned Netflix series, "Daredevil" brings the far-flung Marvel Cinematic Universe, which took off into deepest space with "Guardians of the Galaxy," back down to street level, specifically New York City's Hell's Kitchen.

This is a New York still rebuilding following the events of "The Avengers," and one man wants to see the city rebuilt according to his own grand design, and heaven help anyone who stands in his way.

Wilson Fisk (a perfectly cast Vincent D'Onofrio) may lack the Red Skull's Cosmic Cube or Loki's godlike powers, but he more than makes up that deficit with sheer physical menace. He's Marvel's most fully realized villain to date, in large part thanks to D'Onofrio's mercurial performance.

A man-mountain barely concealing both volcanic rage and childlike insecurities, Fisk has never truly grown up. But he has grown powerful, and from Hell's Kitchen's shadows he runs the most fearsome criminal organization in the city. He owns the cops, the courts and even members of the media. And he's looking to expand.

That places Fisk on a collision course with Hell's Kitchen's self-appointed defender, a masked vigilante dressed in black who is chipping away at Fisk's empire.

When he was 9 years old, young Matthew Murdock (Skylar Gaertner) was blinded while saving a man from being run over by a truck carrying chemicals. The chemicals took Matt's sight, but they heightened his other senses to superhuman levels. He can hear cries for help across town, tell when you're lying by your heartbeat, and smell a hit man’s aftershave two floors down.

He's also an expert in martial arts, thanks to being recruited and trained by a blind martial arts master and all-around jerk named Stick, made likable by Scott Glenn's endearing portrayal.

Yes, that sounds a lot like the old TV show "Kung Fu," a fact the show acknowledges with a sly grin, proving you can do gritty street-level superheroics without losing your sense of humor.

Now an adult, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) fights for the innocent by day as a lawyer and by night as the "man in the mask." Like I said, he's not Daredevil yet, but he is on the path.

As not-quite-Daredevil, Matt has one ally, Rosario Dawson as the nurse who patches him back together. As Matt Murdock he has a few more: his law partner Foggy (Elden Henson), their client-turned-secretary Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) and investigative reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall).

Cox's Matt Murdock makes us forget Ben Affleck was ever miscast in the same role. Cox brings humor and drive to the character, and endows him with charisma to spare.

Show runner Steven S. DeKnight, taking over for Drew Goddard, who dropped out early into production, ably treads the fine line between genres. By the time Matt finally puts on his red costume with the horns, it feels natural. The Marvel Cinematic Universe happily accommodates the spectacle of the movies, the family-friendly adventure of ABC's "Agents of SHIELD" and the adult crime drama of "Daredevil." But those of us who grew up reading the comics already knew that.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Culture Shock 04.09.15: 'It Follows' is relentlessly suspenseful

It's rare in this era of blockbusters and Oscar pretenders, but sometimes a movie can still sneak up and surprise you. "It Follows" does exactly that.

"It Follows" is a nearly flawless horror movie. But more, it's the best movie of 2015 thus far. With his second feature, writer/director David Robert Mitchell ("The Myth of the American Sleepover") has made what likely will be a career-defining film. "It Follows" is relentlessly suspenseful, even for jaded horror fans. You're relieved when the end credits roll, but you're soon ready to see it again. "It Follows" is that good. It hooks us with its opening scene — a single long take of a girl who appears to be running from nothing — and never lets go.

There's a bit of John Carpenter's "Halloween" in its DNA. The Carpenter vibe comes through especially in Mike Gioulakis' fluid cinematography and the unnerving electronic score by Rich Vreeland (credited as Disasterpeace).

Yet "It Follows" is not another winking, nostalgia-fueled love letter to horror flicks of decades past. Drew Goddard's "Cabin in the Woods" has taken that approach as far as it can go — for now, anyway. Instead, "It Follows" plays it straight, and the result is refreshingly modern.

What most sets "It Follows" apart is the extent to which Mitchell leaves events and motivations open to interpretation. We piece together the mystery just as his characters do. Mitchell's confidence in his audience makes the experience more rewarding and, strangely, more unsettling.

Mitchell starts with a clichéd premise and makes it seem new. A group of young friends find themselves stalked by a supernatural force passed around through sex. One could describe most "Friday the 13th" movies the same way. But from there, Mitchell plays off the greatest fears of youth, which are anything but supernatural: isolation and rejection.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is a pretty college student whose date with the new guy in the neighborhood (Jake Weary) goes wrong when he tells her he's given her a curse: a creature only she can see. The creature can appear to her either as a stranger or as someone she knows. Regardless, it will pursue her as far and as long as it takes to kill her — unless she passes it on by having sex with someone else. No matter how much distance she puts between herself and the monster, it will always follow her.

Jay turns to her sister and friends for help, and while they are naturally skeptical, they become her Scooby gang, helping her stay one step ahead of the creature while trying to find a permanent solution, if there is one to be found.

Mitchell has an ear for how teens speak. Jay and her friends sound like real young people, not hip thirty-somethings steeped in pop trivia and skilled in snarky comebacks. It helps, too, that they're played by a talented cast of relative unknowns, the most familiar of whom is Keir Gilchrist ("United States of Tara") as Paul, the awkward guy nursing an unrequited crush on Jay. (In this case, the "friend zone" is the safest place to be.) Mitchell's naturalistic approach makes the characters' predicament seem more real, too, which ratchets up the tension even more.

Monroe delivers a star-making performance. She hits all the high notes that come with being a "scream queen" then gives Jay a depth that pulls us close and makes us feel for her. By the time she considers passing the curse to an unsuspecting stranger, we're invested. We sympathize even if we don't approve because we suspect we'd act similarly.

Mitchell shot "It Follows" in the hollowed-out ruins of post-industrial Detroit. Parents, the police and other authority figures are mostly absent. Jay and her friends can stay on their folks' health insurance until they're 26, but otherwise they're on their own. No one is looking out for them.

It happens to everyone. Eventually, you have to grow up and face the world — a world that includes bad sex, bad decisions and the realization death is slowly creeping up on you. One day you're young and invincible, the next you're an adult and everything aches. The real horror is knowing it's coming.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Culture Shock 04.02.15: 'iZombie' brings life to the undead

Rose McIver as Liv Moore in "iZombie." (Photo courtesy The CW.)
I believe it was the late philosopher of teenage angst Jason Dean, as played by Christian Slater in the 1988 movie "Heathers," who asked, "Now that you're dead, what are you gonna do with your life?"

Ah, that is the question — or at least it is for Liv Moore, who is not feeling quite herself these days.

Liv (Rose McIver, late of "Once Upon a Time" and "Masters of Sex") puts the lower-case "i" in The CW's latest comic-to-screen adaptation, "iZombie." The show is loosely based on writer Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred's 28-issue series published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint.

On paper, Liv seems to have it all. She has a loving and not-too-embarrassing family, a handsome and caring fiancé, and a promising career as a doctor in her future. Until, that is, against all her usual instincts, Liv accepts an invitation to a party, held at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe it's the right place at the right time, if a zombie outbreak is your idea of a happening scene.

So, Liv Moore — the name is a pun; get it? — wakes up the next morning dead, or rather undead, and with an occasional craving for brains with hot sauce, but otherwise just a little worse for wear.

Liv's new undead look — unruly white hair and a deathly pallor — even works for her. Put her in a hoodie, and she totally rocks shoegazer chic, which I read is making a comeback. It's a style that'll probably be all the rage among cosplayers on this year's sci-fi convention circuit.

Mind you, being a zombie entails some serious lifestyle changes. Liv abandons her hospital internship and gets a job as a medical examiner's assistant. Not counting state legislatures, morgues have the best stash of fresh brains just going to waste. Also, Liv dumps her boyfriend (Robert Buckley's equally punny Major Lilywhite) so as to avoid accidentally zombifying him.

With a regular diet of microwaved brains keeping her from going "full-on zombie" and frequent applications of bronzer, Liv passes for alive — emo, but alive. The only living person in on Liv's secret so far is Ravi the M.E. (Rahul Kohli), who thinks he might be able to cure her, but in the meantime, her condition makes for fascinating study.

Speaking of her condition, when Liv eats a person's brain, she also absorbs fragments of the person's memories and personality traits. Say Liv eats the brain of a kleptomaniac, she might find herself unconsciously stealing things. Say also the kelpto was murdered. Liv might have some insights into who done it.

In the comic book, Liv (named Gwen instead) works as a gravedigger so as to satisfy her hunger for gray matter. The TV's show's change of setting allows "iZombie" to double as a police procedural.

Enter newbie police detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), who could use a little assist making his way past the department's old boys club. A zombie assistant M.E. could help with that, only better not let on she's a zombie. Just tell Clive she's psychic instead. Cops really go for that "psychic detective" stuff, just like USA's "Psych."

There you have it. The perfect setup for a story about a woman who comes to find out only after she's dead that she rushed through life so fast she never stopped to smell the roses. So she uses her second chance to have a life worth living. If it seems a bit trite, it is, but Liv and her supporting cast are endearing enough to make it work. McIver's Liv is a pleasant change from the tedious slow-walkers over on AMC's "The Walking Dead" (and I'm not talking about that show's zombies). She's adorably morbid, and her banter with Ravi makes the show.

The recurring baddie, David Anders' dealer-turned-zombie Blaine, is also a blast, with his fatalistic plan to make the most of his situation by turning more people into zombies and then acting as their hook-up for prime-cut brains. The first lobe is free, but then you've got to pay.

It's Blaine who, briefly speaking as the voice of the show's producers, wonders aloud if zombies are past their sell-by date. I wonder the same, but if shows like "iZombie" can think up new twists, there may be some life in this genre yet.