BABYTEETH (2020)

June 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is no logical explanation for how an Australian indie film, the first feature from director Shannon Murphy, can contain so many elements: a terminally ill teenager, first love, addiction, music lessons, questionable parenting, comedy, a small time drug dealer, a defensive smoking pregnant neighbor, a clueless classmate, a school formal, multiple wigs, a music teacher, a smorgasbord of prescription and illegal drugs, a doctor and dog both named Henry, a bad haircut, and a broken 4th wall … all kicked off by a bloody nose during the ‘meet cute’ at the train stop.

The best explanation for how this crazy jigsaw fits together is the extraordinary work from director Murphy, the tremendous performances from the talented cast, and the exceptional script (her first screenplay) from Rita Kalnejais, which she adapted from her own play. That cast is made up of screen veterans Ben Mendelsohn (always great) and Essie Davis (the mother in THE BABADOOK, 2014), as well as rising star Eliza Scanlen (so memorable in “Sharp Objects”), and relative unknown (but probably not for long) Toby Wallace. Support work is provided by Emily Barclay, as the neighbor mentioned above, and Eugene Gilfedder as the music teacher.

Sixteen year old Milla (Ms. Scanlen) has terminal cancer. Her resigned demeanor turns to excitement when she meets Moses (Mr. Wallace), a gangly hyper-active ball of energy who looks her in the eye through his own blood-shot peepers. She falls quickly and hard. When Milla invites Moses to dinner, her parents Henry (Mr. Mendolsohn) and Anna (Ms. Davis) are as shocked and confounded as any parent would be – and least of all at her haircut. They forbid Milla to see Moses, and we all know how well that approach works for parents.

Henry is a psychiatrist who walks to work, which sometimes leads to an exchange with his new neighbor Toby – the one who has a dog named Henry, and whose defense of her smoking while pregnant stuns us and Henry (the man, not the dog). Milla’s mother Anna was a musician, and now suffers from bouts of depression. She’s heavily medicated thanks to her husband who can legally prescribe drugs for her. Moses has been cast out by his own mother in an effort to protect her younger son, and Milla views Moses as a way to live life before dying.

Director Murphy uses segment/chapter titles to distinguish the bouts of dysfunction, and to allow time to skip ahead. Initially we find ourselves asking the same question Henry and Anna ask, why would Milla go ‘slumming’ for a guy like Moses? We all slowly come around to accept what’s happening. It’s all about feeling as much as possible and experiencing what she can before it’s all over. Time remaining is her motivation.

There are some terrific moments throughout – some easier to watch than others. Milla’s clueless classmate’s selfie is excruciating for us and Milla, and when Anna tells Henry, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine”, every parent can relate. The actors are in fine form here, each making their character relatable without being showy – even Milla’s breaking the 4th wall is understated. The film teeters between pain and underlying humor, and balances on the edge of melodrama without tipping. The closest film I can recall in tone and style is Mike Mills’ underrated THUMBSUCKER (2005). With characters that come across as sincere and organic, director Murphy offers up a heartbreaking celebration of living while you are able. Chaos is inevitable, so we might as well accept it.

IFC Films presents this On Demand and in some theatres June 19, 2020

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TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening title card states “Nothing you are about to see is true” … and then it dissolves, leaving the word ‘true’ as the first word in the film’s title. Of course, some of the things we are about to see are true, though it is a dramatized version with a screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant (BERLIN SYNDROME, 2017) from Peter Carey’s 2000 novel. Director Justin Kurzel (MACBETH, 2015) takes a very artsy and stylistic approach in telling the story of the notorious Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, while still including the expected violence and brutality.

Opening in 1867 Australia, we first see young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwert) spying on his mother (Essie Davis, THE BABADOOK, 2014) as she provides service to Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam). It’s the kind of service a young boy should never see his mother perform, especially as the father/husband (Ben Corbett) hovers outside the cabin with Ned’s siblings. Life is difficult for the Kelly family. Dad has some issues, so mom does what she has to in order to keep food on the table. Ned’s life and family dynamics change quickly when his dad takes the fall for a crime Ned committed.

Harry Power (played by hefty Russell Crowe) arrives on the scene, and becomes Ned’s mentor in song (a sing-a-long title that can’t be repeated here) and as a bushranger. It’s not long after this when the movie shifts from Ned as a boy, to Ned as a man (played by George Mackay, 1917), who spends a few years away from home. Ned crosses paths with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) numerous times, one which results in Ned meeting, and falling for, a young prostitute named Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT). Ned and Mary return home to visit his mother, and they find she’s now engaged to a younger man, George King (Marlon Williams). George has been teaching his “trade” of horse-thieving to Ned’s brothers, including Dan (played by musician Nick Cave’s son, Earl Cave). It’s at this point we learn about how the Kelly Gang was formed, and why they took to wearing dresses … “Nothing scares a man like crazy.”

There is a lot going on in this story for the tale of a man who was executed at age 25. We see Ned evolve from a curious youngster to a bare-knuckle boxer to an outlaw who became an anti-hero cult icon. Witnessing the father figures he endured leaves little wonder why he turned out the way he did – an angry, cross-dressing outlaw leading the Irish rebellion in hopes of taking down the Crown. Ned is told that “a man can never outrun his fate”, and we know Ned’s fate upfront. We are there as Ned gives a motivational speech to the Kelly gang, and we watch in awe as they self-test their own body armor.

My Dear Son …” are the first words we hear as Ned writes a letter promising to tell no lies about his history. The letter acts as somewhat of a framing device for the film, and covers the entirety of the Kelly Outbreak, as it’s now referred. There have been numerous projects (movies, mini-series, docu-dramas) over the years, including Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as those who have portrayed Ned Kelly on screen. Director Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner offer up quite a stylish look for this vast wasteland, and even utilizes some Terrence Malick-type editing for effect. Even the closing credit sequence is a work of art. It’s a family affair for director Justin Kurzel, as his brother Jed Kurzel delivers the music, and Justin’s wife Essie Davis plays Ned’s mother. It’s certainly not a typical western, and Ned is difficult to relate to as a character, but the look and style of the film keep us engaged. Perhaps the oddest decision was to have MacKay clean-shaven, as most of us have seen the photos of Ned Kelly and his beard … a beard that seemed to inspire modern day hipsters. Filming took place at Old Melbourne Gaol, which was the actual spot where Ned Kelly was hanged. His last words were: “Such is life.”

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THE BABADOOK (2014)

December 7, 2014

babadook Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing more frightening than the thoughts that occur within the recesses of our own mind. And therein lies the problem with so many “horror” movies. We may squirm and cover our eyes while watching the latest slasher film, but to stick with us as real horror, a film must tap into those internal, psychological fears that we each carry. This first feature film from writer/director Jennifer Kent does that so effectively that I am hesitant to write much more than … go see this one (but of course, I will).

Ms. Kent has fully developed her award winning short film Monster from 2005. With a limited budget of around $2 million, she has figured out a way to utilize many horror staples: a misfit child, the family dog, an old house with creaky floors and doors, a musty basement, old reliables like under the bed and in the closet, open windows, and the always effective knocks on the door. Combine these touches with an incredibly creepy and dramatically graphically illustrated children’s book, and terrific characters in the mom and her young son, and all the elements are in place for a suspenseful and terrifying film that is a throwback to the good old days.

It’s easy to spot the influences of such classics as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but Ms. Kent has her own style with the camera and expertly creates an atmosphere of widely disparate mood swings grounded in believable characters. Essie Davis (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) delivers an extraordinary performance as Amelia, whose husband died en route to the hospital as she gave birth to their son. Noah Wiseman plays Samuel, the now 7 year old boy who has behavioral issues, fears the monster under his bed, and recognizes the resentment his mom feels towards him as a constant reminder of the death that occurred on the day of his birth. Wiseman looks like a cross between Elijah Wood in Witness and Danny in The Shining … only he is much more energetic and animated than either of those characters.

The suspense builds as Amelia’s lack of sleep progressively wears her down, as her job and parenting responsibilities rob her of any down time or relaxation. She can’t even get through a solo release in bed without her frightened son barging in for security. The dynamic between mother, son and dead husband/father elevate this to a level of psychological thrills that we don’t often get on screen. There are so many superb moments to “enjoy”. The amount of blood present is minimal, especially in comparison to modern day slashers. It’s much more about how grief and stress can affect us in sinister ways. In addition to the influences already listed, there is also a tip of the cap to pioneer Georges Mêlies and his use of magic in the early days of film. Babadook may be an anagram for “a bad book”, but it’s also now synonymous with a really good horror movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a true horror film fanatic

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you already sleep with the lights on

watch the trailer: