Category Archives: Now Showing

THE BABADOOK

Producer: Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Ben Winspear, Cathy Adamek, Craig Behenna, Adam Morgan
Studio: IFC Midnight

B+

A combination of horror movie and psychological thriller that’s deliciously old-fashioned in technique while putting a new spin on familiar tropes, Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” is a rarity, both genre exercise and art film. One could compare it to one of Tim Burton’s animated pictures minus the whimsy, or to “The Shining” minus Jack Torrance (with the mother going the possessed route instead). You can even say that it recalls Roman Polanski’s early work—“Repulsion” in particular. But the fact of the matter is that it has a distinctive voice all its own.

It’s essentially a small two-character piece in which mom Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six-year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) live still traumatized by the death of Amelia’s husband Oskar (Ben Winspear), who was killed in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to the boy. Samuel’s a high-strung kid, obsessed with protecting his mother and constructing a barrage of weapons for the purpose. In fact, when he takes one of them to school, it’s the final straw in a series of episodes involving his classmates that induces the authorities to determine that his behavior will need to be constantly monitored, a decision that leads Amelia to withdraw him from the place. That will eventually lead to the intervention of social services.

Though there are a few other characters involved as the plot unfolds—Amelia’s unsympathetic sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and her bratty daughter; elderly, helpful neighbor Grace (Barbara West); Robbie (Daniel Henshall), Amelia’s pleasant colleague at the nursing home where she works. But Kent’s script introduces them mainly to upend your expectations about how they’ll figure into things. When push comes to shove, there’s only one other figure, besides Amelia and Samuel, who matters—Mr. Babadook, the title character of a children’s pop-up book that mysteriously appears in the boy’s bedroom one night.

Who is Mr. Babadook? That’s the question. He can be described as a ghoulish fellow who owes a lot to German expressionism and Edward Gorey, though perhaps the closest physical approximation would be the fake vampire played by Lon Chaney, Sr., in Tod Browning lost 1927 movie “London After Midnight,” complete with stovepipe hat and sinister grin—at least if the surviving stills from that film don’t lie. But what’s important about him is that as he appears in the book, a sumptuous item equipped with thick pages and little levers that make some images jump out at you, he comes across as a threatening sort who, once admitted after knocking three times, will be impossible to get rid of and means you no good. Amelia’s taken aback by the book and tries to destroy it, ripping it to shreds and burning the remnants, but that doesn’t work. It reappears on her doorstep, carefully pasted back together and more menacing than ever. And as if that weren’t enough, Mr. Babadook shows up outside its covers, most memorably one night in shadowy form in Amelia’s bedroom, and occasionally drops a guttural message on her phone. The frightened woman takes her concerns to the local police, but the scene that follows in the station is as scary as anything happening in her house.

Gradually the experience affects the isolated mother and son in fearsome ways. The boy becomes more and more a handful, alternately demanding attention and shrieking. And Amelia begins to lose her patience with him, feeding him tranquilizers while trying futilely to sleep herself. Her attitude deteriorates so radically that she actually seems bent on hurting him, which leaves him no choice but to defend himself against a person he no longer recognizes.

Of course the question is whether Mr. Babadook is some sort of evil entity that’s taking over Amelia, or the manifestation of her inner psychological torment—something like the Krell in “Forbidden Planet.” Whichever option you choose, Kent’s film delivers in the same way as the hallucinatory George Melies clips that keep popping up on the family’s TV along with a plethora of excerpts from old horror flicks. Davis and Wiseman are both astonishingly effective, causing you both concern and sympathy, and Kent, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, production designer Alex Holmes, art directors Holmes and Karen Hannaford, set designer Ross Perkin and decorator Jennifer Drake, and editor Simon Njoo assiduously build up an almost palpable atmosphere of dread.

“The Babadook” has its share of shocks, but not of the cheap variety: it insinuates more than it goes for the jugular, and ultimately offers the rather grim observation that in the end we might just have to learn to live with our demons rather than exorcizing them. It’s a stylish, sophisticated horror fantasy that provides some genuine scares and, more importantly, a constant stream of shudders, the sort of unsettling genre piece that will stick with you far longer than its bloodier, more gruesome cousins.

DIPLOMACY (DIPLOMATIE)

Producer: Marc De Bayser, Frank De Wita, Sidonie Dumas and Francis Boespflug
Director: Volker Schlondorff
Writer: Cyril Gely
Stars: Andre Dussollier, Niels Arestrup, Burghart Klaussner, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Nelson, Jean Marc Roulot, Stefan Wilkening, Thomas Arnold, Lucas Prisor
Studio: Zeitgeist Films

B+

In August, 1944, Allied troops were converging on German-occupied Paris, and General Dietrich von Choltitz, the recently-appointed military governor, was preparing to execute Adolf Hitler’s order to bomb the city to bits before surrendering it, killing much of the population in the process. As he gave final instructions regarding the operation, Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul-general, came to his headquarters and somehow persuaded him to disobey the Fuhrer’s directive and leave the French capital intact.

What was the reason behind the turnabout by the general, who was by all accounts a loyal and dedicated officer? That’s the question posed by Cyril Gely in his 2011 play, which director Volker Schlondorff (whose “The Tin Drum” won an Oscar in 1979) has adapted for the screen, utilizing a screenplay penned by the playwright himself. It’s not the first time the episode has been fodder for cinematic treatment. In 1966 Rene Clement directed “Is Paris Burning?,” one of those big-budget international World War II extravaganzas that bombed spectacularly at the box office, and two members of the massive ensemble were Gert Frobe as the general and Orson Welles as the diplomat. It followed the account in the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre on which it was based, to the effect that Nordling persuaded Choltitz to spare the city in return for a promise to save his family from possible execution—rather than the explanation given by the general in his memoir, which explained the decision as his determination that the action would be militarily futile and his belief than Hitler was insane.

Gely follows the Collins-Lapierre version, but Schlondorff’s treatment of the incident is much more elaborate and clever than the prosaic account in Clement’s film. Here, as befits what was in its origin basically a wordy two-character piece, the confrontation between the two men is far more complicated, filled with twists, turns, revelations and sudden reversals. As played in forceful fashion by Niels Arestrup, Choltitz is a gruff good soldier, yet hobbled not only by doubts but by illness—and by the fear that his actions could mean doom for his wife and children. By contrast Nordling, played by the cultured, well-spoken Andre Dussollier, is shrewd and calculating; he shows up in Choltitz’s plush hotel suite via a secret passage supposedly built by Napoleon III for visits to his mistress, and plays on what he perceives as Choltitz’s weaknesses while desperately trying to save the city he loves. The result is an elaborate verbal chess match of the sort that the stage loves, especially as it concludes with a nice checkmate, but that can shrivel up and die on celluloid.

That is doesn’t is testimony to the performances and to Schlondorff’s skill. It’s not merely that he opens up the piece considerably—giving us some outside shots and using archival footage, while collaborating with cinematographer Mathieu Amathieu, production designer Jacques Rouxel and editor Virginie Bruant to give variety to the interiors of Choltitz’s headquarters hotel as well. It’s testimony to their success that although nobody can be uncertain of the outcome—Paris is still the City of Lights, after all—“Diplomacy” still builds suspense, and in the end earns a sigh of relief.

Much of what happens in the film, of course, is purely conjectural. We know that Choltitz and Nordling met, of course, but not much more than that. What they said, how they said it, and what determined the outcome of their conversation, is all unknowable. And whatever transpired between them could hardly have been as smoothly choreographed as what we see and hear on screen. The actions of those around them—like the French engineer who plays a pivotal part in the denouement—are similarly speculative. But of course it doesn’t matter. “Diplomacy” is drama based on history, not history, and as such it’s a crackerjack example of it.

It also shows that Schlondorff, whose career has been erratic at best, hasn’t lost his touch. Like another veteran filmmaker, Roman Polanski, his turn to the stage for inspiration has proven a wise choice. And like “Venus In Fur,” “Diplomacy” is a winner, though of a very different sort.