Holiday Season Movie Roundup: Part 2

My second round of bite-sized reviews! Sorry I’m late—today’s been kind of hectic, so I haven’t been able to access my computer until now. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the reviews, and once again, feel free to let me know what you think in the Comments section!

Foxcatcher

Courtesy of usatlife.files.wordpress.

Courtesy of usatlife.files.wordpress.

The story of the late John Eleuthère du Pont, former coach of the Olympic wrestling team Foxcatcher and convicted murderer, made an infamous headline in the world of sports journalism, but as manifested onscreen by director Bennett Miller, it reads like a textbook on psychoanalysis. Turning biographical exposition into psychiatric case study is familiar territory for Miller—he helmed Capote, a film about the psychosexual tension between the titular writer and the death row inmate he befriended, as well as Moneyball, whose subject is obsession as much as it is the contributions to baseball made by Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane. Set in the milieu of Olympic sports and foregrounding both the destructive determination of wrestler Mark Schultz and the disquieting, homoerotic relationship between him and du Pont, Foxcatcher plays like the perfect hybrid of Miller’s last two projects.

The result is a fine piece of filmmaking characterized by potent atmosphere and transcendent performances, but it has one marked imperfection. This flaw lies in the fact that, despite being about real people with real, idiosyncratic struggles, the film reduces its characters to archetypes in service of its psychoanalytic angle on the story, and ultimately, to literary types intended to cement the film’s aspirations of being a modern-day Greek tragedy (as aptly observed by one A.V. Club film critic). Granted, it is precisely because we human beings exhibit patterns in our behavior and thought that psychoanalytic theories were developed in the first place—we are, in a sense, “reducible” thanks to our shared humanness. But the degree to which the film persists at typifying the characters, and thus justifying their fates in a way the complexity of real life would not allow, makes the film’s progression feel somewhat contrived, if never anything less than riveting.  Grade: B+

The Babadook

Courtesy of variety.com

Courtesy of variety.com

“Don’t let it in!” screams the six-year-old knight in pajamas defending his mom in The Babadook. And yet in it comes—both the monster of the title and the movie itself, the former slithering ghastily across ceilings and down chimneys, the latter sneaking its way unexpectedly into our hearts. Jennifer Kent’s debut, which has been making ripples in film critic circles ever since it premiered at Sundance, is scary, but not as scary as it’s made out to be. The suspense-building sequences are nifty but fairly routine, and the children’s-book aesthetic that organizes the film’s subtly cartoonish, vaguely gothic look edges every would-be horrific moment toward campiness, leaving viewers often slightly detached from the terror unfolding onscreen.

No, The Babadook is effective primarily not as horror but as art cinema, and even more than that, as a poignant metaphor for both grief and the powerful bond between mother and child. The mother here is played by Australian actress Essie Davis, who with great sensitivity conveys the deep, corrosive exhaustion of a widow on the brink of both physical and emotional defeat. The full impact of her performance is felt in the film’s freak-out finale, which, in addition to showcasing the beautifully expressionistic interiors of the haunted house, embodies a full-tilt descent into the depths of the subconscious where bleeding wounds are in desperate need of healing. It is within this psychological space that we experience the full range of Davis’ acting ability, and through this climactic sequence that The Babadook breaks down our defenses and wins us over.  Grade: B+

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