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A Star Is Born

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 3 December 2018 03:28 (A review of A Star Is Born)

Color me surprised at this fourth (fifth if you count 1932’s What Price Hollwood?) dip into the well has produced such an enjoyable version. Of course, it’s immediate predecessor was the property’s nadir, Barbra Streisand’s onerous 1976 version, so nearly anything would’ve registered as an improvement. But 2018’s version of A Star Is Born isn’t just an improvement, it’s a well-made romantic melodrama that’s second only to Judy Garland’s immortal 1954 version.


Everyone knows the barebones of this story: fading star, either a movie star or a singer, meets undiscovered girl talent, either aspiring actress or singer, and champions her career. They fall in love, and she remains loyal to him as his self-destruction threatens to destroy her nascent career in addition to his crumbling one. The final moments, if done right, are tearjerkers of the highest order as the fading star commits suicide and the ingénue pays tribute as a moment of personal and artistic triumph overcoming her sorrow. Roll the end credits.


This version of A Star Is Born proves how much wiggle room there can be between those signposts. Much like the 1976 version, our doomed romantic pair are musicians. He’s a country/blues rocker, and she’s a budding pop star in the making. It makes sense to keep this story change from the prior film as the mystique of movie stars crumbled with the passing of the studio era. There’s no longer a large publicity department churning out fictional backstories on its stable of stars, remaking them into totems and cinematic idols, but the music industry still allows for pop stars to create artificial personas to hide behind.


Speaking of, one of the genius moves this film makes was to cast Lady Gaga as the aspiring pop starlet. Gaga’s exactly the kind of persona-heavy pop star I’m talking about. Who is the real person behind the construct, and does it matter? Well, A Star Is Born has moments of doubt or criticism that feel lifted from her time spent slumming away in dive bars finessing her kooky outfits and shiny dance-pop. Whether or not they’re directly lifted is immaterial, they feel real and Gaga plays them with an honesty and naked emotional candor that’s quite refreshing.


It’s not just that Gaga’s appearance lends the film a kind of honesty that the presence of an actress who can sing wouldn’t, but that we’re familiar enough with her as a construct that it’s revelatory to watch the real human being underneath it all. Gaga’s performance is candid, truthful, and completely free of artifice. There’s honest to god quaking, aching vulnerability that’s endearing. You root for her to succeed, you’re invested in her triumphs, and you understand why she sticks it out with this man that’s a liability to her professional and personal life at numerous points.


Yet A Star Is Born 2018 differs from its predecessors in a highly noticeable way. Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland’s versions gave the two roles near equal footing even if the female lead got just a touch more sympathy and screen time, and the Streisand version orbited around its star to the occasional detriment of everything else. This version stacks the audience sympathy, understanding, and development in favor of Bradley Cooper’s doomed rock star with Gaga routinely playing second fiddle. This A Star Is Born is more of his story then it is hers or theirs.


Maybe the fact that Cooper co-wrote, directed, and starred in it has something to do with that, or maybe it’s that there’s such a strong focus on the trauma, addiction, recovery, and mental illness of his rock star that Gaga’s rapid ascent up the career ladder couldn’t help but fade away. Cooper’s performance is an absolute marvel. The choice to end the film with Gaga singing the love song he wrote for her only for it to dissolve to a happy time of them goofing around the piano and figuring it out is a smart one. It ends the film on a note of creative expression and romance and differentiates it from the weepy downbeats that end the prior films. I wouldn’t call it a happy ending, but it’s a more emotionally complex one than the others.


It’s Sam Elliott’s last minute speech, the one about how there only being a few notes between an octave and it’s how you play them that matters, that summarizes the film, and works as an argument for it. If we can sit through endless remakes of other properties, Robin Hood and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as very recent examples, then surely we can afford space for another spin on this story. Like any other long running and heavily adapted property, some versions are better than others, so props to Cooper for making what is easily the second best. It’s a well-worn story told with grit, humor, romance, music, and tremendous empathy. I’m shocked at its greatness just as much as you are.   

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Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 3 December 2018 03:28 (A review of Masterminds)

I’m going to assume that the true story was just a kernel here. A mere springboard for its talented ensemble to riff and develop a series of improbable characters and situations, but that’s also the problem with Masterminds. Too much anarchy and lunacy in service of nothing but those exact elements becomes numbing. For comedy to work there has to be a grounding element, a truth and goal at work to keep the hijinks from twisting away into madness for madness sake. I think you see where I’m going with this.


Masterminds present no recognizably human characters or emotions aside from Kristin Wiig, who often appears to be acting in another, better movie entirely. In small supporting parts this can work, look at Kate McKinnon’s aggressively committed near-android of a spurned ex, but when so many of the characters present as these caricatures it begins to drown itself out in a sea of mugging, scene-stealing, and desperation.


This is a reoccurring issue with Jared Hess’ work, the most famous of which is Napoleon Dynamite, a hangout film that presents a time warp setting and no characters that resemble a functional, normal person that’s gained  a cult following. Hess lets his cast rapid-fire jokes at the screen, and by sheer volume of material some of these land. For every DOA reoccurring joke involving misfiring guns, obsession with butt cracks, and wasting Leslie Jones (a crime, I say!), there’s the sheer weirdness of McKinnon, Wiig’s discomfort with a kiss from Zach Galifianakis wearing a sleek blond wig and snake eye contacts, or Jason Sudeikis’ overly emotional hitman.


In the end Masterminds evens out to being fine. The kind of fare you watch on a bored evening at home while sorting through Netflix and thinking “this sounds fine.” A cast this good deserves better, though.

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Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 3 December 2018 03:25 (A review of Ronnie Spector's Best Christmas Ever)

For me it’s not the season until I hear A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, namely for the Ronettes songs and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” I fully admit to loving rock and roll Christmas music. Nothing fills me with the joy of the season quite like hearing Ronnie Spector making Frosty melt, so I’m down to listen to whatever holiday music she makes.


Having said that, Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever is a bit thin on quality material, which is a shame since it’s a five-song EP. There isn’t much room for subpar material on a twenty minute record, and she’s released better EPs before, She Talks to Rainbows and Something’s Gonna Happen, so it’s not like it’s impossible. The problem is that Spector’s clearly hammy it up on material that’s beneath her.


“My Christmas Wish” is a cutesy retro pop/rock opener, and it’s perfect for her showgirl chutzpah. Then we get to the next two songs: “It’s the Time (Happy Holidays)” and “Light One Candle.” The first is a Latin pop number that doesn’t vibe with Spector’s voice, and only stands out for an adorable spoken word moment where she shares a precious childhood memory. No, I won’t repeat it because you need to discover that for yourself. “Light One Candle” is exactly the kind of heavily sentimental, overly drippy song that makes people dislike Christmas music.


The last two songs are much better. “Best Christmas Ever” is cheesy pop/rock that swings like 50s pastiche. It’s fun, it’s junk food for your ear, it’s kinda perfect for her. Then we end with “It’s Christmas Once Again.” Once again, Spector provides an autobiographical spoken word memory, and the surrounding song is tailor-made for her vocal style. The original bad girl of rock has always had a soft, gooey center, and this song plays into that.


Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever ends up being about average. Her voice sounds right at home on alternative rock, so imagine if she’d covered something like the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” or the Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” Then again, there’s a plethora of 50s and 60s Christmas tunes she could’ve done: “Little Saint Nick,” “Blue Christmas,” “Run, Run Rudolph,” “Jingle Bell Rock.” Hell, I saw her perform “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” as part of her encore and a studio version of that would be cool. Oh, what might have been.


DOWNLOAD: “It’s Christmas Once Again”

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Paint Another Picture

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 3 December 2018 03:24 (A review of Paint Another Picture)

Is it shocking to learn that Darlene Love never recorded a solo album until 1988? Yes and no, honestly, as Love came to prominence during the singles era when 45s ruled all, and it wasn’t until later that the LP became the thing. It’s also important to remember that she was primarily tied to Phil Spector during those years, and he had a jaundiced view on the LP, dubbing a few hit singles and some filler.


So how’d her first solo outing turn out? Not too bad, even if the 80s production values date some of the material. Her voice is as powerful as ever here, obtaining a grit and emotive power that can be chalked up to age, experience, and technique. Her artistic range remains as elastic as ever as Paint Another Picture zips between pop, AOR, and a haunting gospel finale.


Sure, there’s nothing here that can compare to the best bits found on The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love, especially a generic update of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” but there’s still a solid album here. Love makes songs like “Paint Another Picture” and “I’ve Never Been the Same” quake with the feeling she gives them and the church-soaked power in her vocals. That’s why I can’t get her version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” out of my mind. Love grew up singing in a gospel choir, and she knows her way around a song like this. Yet her version still shakes the rafters with her emotional rendering and restrained delivery. It strips away the 80s sheen and leaves you with something very real. That’s why she’s one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock and roll.


DOWNLOAD: “You’ll Never Walk Alone

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Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 29 November 2018 10:00 (A review of Paddington)

If you see the words “live action Paddington movie” and immediately go into a dark place, I get that. Between the preponderance of fairy tale blockbusters, needlessly snarky adaptations, or ones that pull and stretch the material beyond recognition, adapting beloved children’s books and stories hasn’t been on the hottest streak as of late. For every Coraline there’s about five Cat in the Hat or Garfield: The Movie. So I completely understand that chilling feeling slowly moving down your spine and settling into your stomach.


But here’s the very good news: Paddington is far more a Coraline then it is a Cat in the Hat. It’s a film of tremendous whimsy, lacking in guile, and populated by kooky, charming characters that exhibit tremendous layers, even our villain is given a backstory that explains her profession and obsession with Paddington. It’s also really funny, has great special effects work, and has a stellar vocal performance from Ben Whishaw in the lead role.


This is after all a film where a talking bear can stand in the middle of a crowded railway station and be greeted with indifference from many of the urban denizens. The film takes it as a given that there’s an element of magical realism at play with children’s literature, and it never goes to great lengths to explain away how and why Paddington can talk. His species of bear can talk and learned English thanks to an explorer several decades back, that’s it, thank god for simplicity. It’s here that the filmmakers and Paddington’s overwhelming sincerity dovetail – Paddington isn’t just a fish-out-of-water story, but one of found families, kindness, and providing emotional support.


Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of daring or ample shenanigans, this is a children’s film after all. Many of them are quite funny, a marmalade sandwich acting as a brick through bureaucracy, Paddington mistaking toothbrushes for ear cleaners, or his accidental flooding of a bathroom are all jubilant, quirky little moments that further the narrative, display his naivety, or merely exist to make you smile. Sometimes they manage to capture all three at once, and that’s the great joy of the film.


It helps that actors as strong as Hugh Bonneville as fuddy-duddy dad, Nicole Kidman as our somewhat-sympathetic villain, Julie Walters as eccentric maid, and Jim Broadbent as an immigrant bringing a tremendous amount of pathos to his scenes breathe life into the film. They’re all clearly enjoying what they’re doing, and that sense of fun and enjoyment translates through the screen to you. That’s no easy feat.


Yet it’s Sally Hawkins as the matriarch that sees magic and adventure everywhere that provides a solid human face for us. Hawkins appears to be making a habit lately of playing women adopting empathetic creatures, and her loopy mother is a ton of fun. She’s the empathetic center of Paddington, the human face that allows us to find the beating heart of the talking bear. We love him as much as she does by the end.


It’s that beating heart at the center of Paddington that makes it all so perfect. There’s humor, warmth, and a refreshing gentleness to be found here, and I’m all for it. Less snark and more overly polite talking bears wearing red hats and blue coats, please.

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Beauty and the Beast

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 29 November 2018 09:08 (A review of Beauty and the Beast (2016))

Hey, have you ever wanted to watch a version of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale that added in unnecessary amounts of CGI, weird side stories involving fortune tellers, and tonally dissonant cutesy animals scurrying about the castle? If so, then have I got the monstrosity for you! A completely forgettable version that adds more tangents and garnishes to a sturdy tale that renders the whole thing strangely muted, and makes Disney’s recent live-action version look like Cocteau’s by comparison.


Why is making a movie of this so damn hard?


Christophe Gans’ version is overburdened with sumptuous imagery that flirts with erotic intensity or perhaps fevered dream logic, but completely lacks the follow-through on either of those points. Then we get a brand new tragic backstory to explain Beast’s transformation and the magic emanating from his castle, and a Beauty that mainly involves its lead actress heaving her breasts and randomly warm-up to her suitor/capture without any budding romance to make the transition clear.


Gans’ Beauty is quite literally sold into sexual slavery to transform the fortunes of her family, specifically the patriarch. Her eventual declaration of love for the Beast must happen, but there’s been no sequences displaying a softening of their relationship, a growth in the Beast away from child-like id into maturity, or a sexual awakening within Beauty. It arrives at the exact point in the story when it must, but it doesn’t have the same sweetness of Disney’s animated classic or the quiet, aching poetry of Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece. Like much of the film, it just happens and exists because the nature of the story demands it as such.


Even worse is the lack of chemistry between Beauty and Beast. How to cast Vincent Cassel, an actor of volcanic sexual dynamism, and manage to make him limp, awkward, and unattractive is a feat, gross incompetence, or both. Léa Seydoux manages to make Beauty something of a presence, but it’s hard to really gage given how little she’s truly asked to do. You watch them in other films and feel a combustible sexual ferocity from each of them, but it’s not here. Perhaps all of the pageantry rendered them a little out to sea?


The worst offense is how hard Gans is clearly working to create something that looks and feels magical, yet there’s nothing grounding it or making it feel like an extension of the characters. Beast’s castle is a series of lovely sets that don’t feel like a coherent vision. The best versions of this story generate a palpably real, magical setting that is as much a reflection of the Beast’s psyche as it is a place for magical occurrences. It feels inevitable that twisted statues ornamenting the property would come alive and attack the interlopers. There’s been a glut of fairy tale blockbusters, effectively trying to transform the Grimms into Tolkein and often failing, and this Beauty and the Beast falls victim to that tendency.


All this did is made me feel wistful and depressed that Guillermo del Toro’s proposed version will never see the light of day.   

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Black Christmas

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 29 November 2018 08:26 (A review of Black Christmas)

Director Bob Clark seems preoccupied with the yuletide as his two most beloved creations, this film and A Christmas Story, examine the holiday through vastly different prisms. A Christmas Story is delightful as it alternates between the saccharine undertones of nostalgia and spiky bits of humor, yet it’s an understandable piece of pop culture ephemera for the seasonal period. Black Christmas, by stark contrast, is equally delightful but something of an antidote/tonic to the never-ending sweetness of holiday-themed products. Black Christmas is appropriately titled as the emphasis is very much on darkness, in humor and subject matter, as the film is an early stage of the slasher genre.


Black Christmas is a lean, mean little killing machine, even if the actual body count is quite small in comparison to most of its brethren. It’s damn propulsive in its telling of its story. From the disorientating and disturbing POV of the killer in the opening scene to the ambiguous ending, Black Christmas spends as little time as possible on anything too distracting from its main thrust.


Don’t misunderstand me, while the black humor of the film is quite fetching as it provides momentary reprise from the ever escalating tension, there’s a few times when the jokes go on too long. A game Margot Kidder plays the sorority’s resident bad girl, she’s eternally smoking, drinking, and loudly vulgar, and she’s clearly game for the part. Kidder finds the absurdity and humor in a scene involving her saying “fellatio” repeatedly to a clearly idiotic police officer that doesn’t get the joke, but the joke just keeps going and going to the point where it becomes distracting. You feel like you’ve wandered into Porky’s, another Clark film, as opposed to a “serial killer on the loose in a near-empty sorority over Christmas” one.


It’s better when we circle back and really develop the characters and their setting. There’s the house mother that hides booze all around, the vamp, the neurotic, the chirpy virgin, and our final girl. While all of them occupy well-known horror film “types,” Clark allows them to develop into idiosyncratic personalities with unexpected depth. Not only that, but Clark allows his vamp to last until the very end whereas another filmmaker would kill her off first, make the virgin the final girl, and definitely kill off the one that wanted an abortion. For the record, our final girl here is the one that wants the abortion, and it’s a storyline that’s refreshingly honest, direct, and a lack of judgment about her wants and needs.


Doesn’t hurt that Clark has assembled a solid little ragtag group of actors, including Kidder, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, and Olivia Hussey as our final girl. She’s long way from the dewy Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece, but she’s independent, smart, and level-headed. Hussey makes for a perfect horror heroine, yet it feels somehow appropriate that her final fate remains somewhat uncertain.


What do I mean? I mean much like another holiday-themed slasher classic, Halloween, Black Christmas ends not with a declarative statement but with a more terrifying, suggestive note of ambiguity. Our heroine is out cold, the police are all around the house, but the phone starts to ring again and the attic door is seen opening again, so maybe it wasn’t who we thought it was all along. What’s to become of her? We don’t know. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you and yours, indeed.

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Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 13 November 2018 04:02 (A review of The BFG)

What’s shocking here is that it took so long for Steven Spielberg to finally work for Disney. He the purveyor of the candy-coated family-friendly adventures filled to the brim with a sense of wonder and awe, often with a dash of darkness lurking underneath to keep the tension going. Is he the right choice for Roald Dahl’s topsy-turvy, macabre world of heavy word-play and twisted poetry? I’m not entirely sure, but The BFG makes an unwieldy but compelling argument that he may be.


If there’s anything to knock The BFG for, and repeatedly, it’s the ungainly way the motion-capture work and the live-action material don’t completely vibe with each other. After a period of time of watching a human child clearly interacting with a largely artificial world, you wonder what would’ve happened if they did most of this with camera tricks, heavy makeup, and a minimal amount of CGI. Or, conversely, if they had gone the opposite route and gone all in on the motion-capture CGI look and made a largely animated film, think of the director’s own The Adventures of Tintin.


Or what if they went with a film that mixed the two mediums into separate chunks like James and the Giant Peach? Imagine a human Sophie in the beginning suddenly transformed into a slightly twisted version of herself once she enters the BFG’s world and then reverts back whenever she returns to the human world. Too conceptual you argue, perhaps, but it’s been successfully done before. Audiences were sophisticated enough to accept that Dorothy’s real-life was in sepia toned Depression-era Kansas and Oz was a colorful land of imagination and nightmares.


But they, like so many of Disney’s recent live-action retreads of their own beloved properties, decided to go through this method, and it displays a serious commitment to the “formula.” This is Spielberg doing Dahl for Disney! Money and time shouldn’t have been an issue, and if group of creative types could’ve taken their time to make something “more,” it was this group of power players. Instead we get something that’s pleasing, nice, and well-acted while also being a bit too cutesy for its own good and strangely defanged from Dahl’s typically venomous humor and worldview.


What they left behind is beyond perfect for Spielberg’s filmmaking milieu: a quiet, whimsical creature that spends much of his time bottling dreams to redistribute them as magical confections. Is that self-reflective of Spielberg’s standing as one of the guardians of a “Dream Factory” filmmaking aesthetic that is rapidly drying up as louder, greedier, bigger, dumber goons, here represented by the other giants that eat human children for the hell of it.


Sure, he’s not out to challenge us with this one, here’s in pure enchanter mode and that means The BFG deflates before reaching its end, but he’s smart enough to hand the role over to Mark Rylance, character actor extraordinaire. The BFG was once a passion project for Spielberg and Robin Williams, hard to imagine the manic, rapid-fire pop culture ramblings of his comedy folding neatly into Dahl’s world, but languished for so long that the role passed over to someone else for a variety of reasons. Rylance is a smart enough actor to know that you don’t compete for laughs and world play with Dahl, you merely find the beats and muscularity of his language and find a way to deliver it. His BFG is a winning combination of gawkiness, befuddled speech, and graceful gentleness and elegance.


It’s best to watch The BFG as an excuse to spend with a great actor treating a curious, strange part with the same reservoir of feeling, empathy, and guilelessness that he brings to his stage parts or darker dramatic work. The flimsy narrative and uneven child actor hinder the film from being a richer experience like several of Spielberg’s prior works, but sometimes a quaint dream is more than enough.

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A Tale of Love and Darkness

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 13 November 2018 04:02 (A review of A Tale of Love and Darkness)

Props to Natalie Portman’s writing and directing debut for being such a smartly handled adaptation of a seminal work about Jewish history and identity. Does her artistic ambition exceed her grasp? Absolutely, but this is no mere vanity project by the star as much as it is a truly invigorating work. You’ll forgive her occasional heavy-hand or awkward transition between reality, memory, or story within a story fable.


A Tale of Love and Darkness is an adaptation of Amos Oz’s autobiography alternating between his childhood in Jerusalem and his parents remembrances of pre-WWII European life, all of it marked either with the promise or fulfillment of violence. Much of the film obsesses over Oz’s relationship with his mother and the stories she told him as a child. These memories often end in blood or some strange stalemate where escape or  peace are illusionary dreams.


To counterbalance his mother’s fabulations, there’s Oz’s father with his formal rigidity and structural demands. This eventual becomes a synecdoche of Israel’s creation and the continual controversy and debate about its prominence, creation, and presence on the world stage to this day. Portman manages to treat this section of the material with the respect, integrity, and nuance it deserves.


Yet when her maternal figure must descend and eventually die, an inciting incident so traumatic and formative for Oz that he begins his memories with the word “mother,” A Tale of Love and Darkness becomes maudlin and Portman’s firm grasp on this section loosens. It is here that the stories that she told Oz, ones that clearly formed a lasting impression and formative understanding upon him, begin to go sideways. It reaches an apex of wish fulfillment at odds with the veracity of the material in a sequence where young Oz enters his mother’s stories and performs a succession of rescues of the tragic subjects, all of whom become his mother.


The romantic storytelling between mother-and-son in the first half has twisted into something cheaper here, and something that distracts from the thornier aspects at play as well. It feels too pat for everything that has gone on before and will go on after. Still, as a debut feature film goes, Portman could’ve done much worse and she deserves rousing applause for what she’s managed to accomplish here. I wonder what she’ll do next.  

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The Babadook

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 13 November 2018 04:01 (A review of The Babadook)

For my money, the best horror films are the ones where the horror can be scanned as literal or metaphorical, so enter The Babadook. Jennifer Kent’s debut horror film is a striking work of minimalism and subversion of expectations as the routine elements of a supernatural thriller are lined up then promptly upended in strange, hypnotic, chilling ways. The Babadook is a relentless experience, and one that has me excited about Kent will go from here.


Harried single mothers and bug-eyed socially inept children are but one common thread she weaves throughout The Babadook. In fact, they’re our point of entry. Next come the oblong shadows, the cursed object, the strange noises, the potential for demonic/supernatural possession, and an inky creature lurking about ready to strike. Kent lines them all up, and we think we know exactly where they’re going but something funny happens on the way there.


Kent gives up the setup of a film not dissimilar to say, The Conjuring, but then goes about slowly revealing layer by layer that there may be nothing so damaging and twisted as the human psyche, unprocessed trauma, and untreated mental illness. The children’s book that ushers in the eponymous creature, Mister Babadook, is a homemade object and something of a projection of where the story will potentially lead, and it’s not a pretty sight. But notice that the mother’s fingers are covered in charcoal and that’s never explained or commented upon. Then think back to what the book was drawn with. Kent’s laid out the breadcrumbs so minutely and smartly that absolute attention to detail is needed to catch them all before the grand finale.


What’s also deeply refreshing about The Babadook is its female point-of-view. Plenty of horror films have presented female heroines in distress and collapsing mental stability, but few have had a female auteur to guide them. Kent taps into something primordial and taboo in her depiction of a mother’s love and resentment towards a child, and how one side is clearly winning and damaging the home/child right along with it. If the The Babadook gets a little obvious in its final moments, so be it. It has the guts to go for something truly great. After all, what’s scarier: a mind unraveling due to PTSD and severe depression or a literal monster destroying a family by preying on those issues?

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