SIFF Review: The Babadook

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…

This is the promise facing single-mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman). After a car accident killed her husband on the day of Sam’s birth, Amelia has been struggling to hold their lives together amid the fog of grief that just never seems to lift. As the film opens near his seventh birthday, her love for him is constantly tested by his ever challenging behavior.

Sam has a bit of an abandonment issue, needing constant reassurance that Amelia will never leave him, as well as a debilitating fear of monsters. Sam is a constant presence in Amelia’s bed, after numerous searches and sweeps of the closet and under the bed do nothing to calm his nerves and convince him that there are no monsters hiding.

After a bedtime story misfire, wherein Amelia and Sam are introduced to the horrors of Mr. Babadook, a macabre pop-up book from Tim Burton and Edward Gorey’s worst nightmares, Sam takes a turn for the worst, acting out more and more until he is dismissed from school, and Amelia’s sister refuses to allow them near her picture-perfect family after an incident that leaves her daughter injured. This sudden banishment leaves Amelia and Sam virtually cut off from the world, stuck in their home with only each other. In this isolation, Amelia’s emotional state begins to crack, as parenting Sam begins to be a little too much for her. It is also at this point that a dark presence begins to make itself known, and as time goes on, both Amelia and Sam begin to realize that Mr. Babadook was much more than a simple book.

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a fantastically creepy exercise in psychological horror. The terror brought about by the presence in her home is only amplified by Amelia’s increasingly fragile mental state, as she deals with the stresses and isolation of single-parenting a difficult child. It is at once a horrific bedtime story and an examination of the effects of grief, loss and depression, and each aspect feeds the other perfectly.

Davis turns in a complex and brilliant performance as Amelia. The character runs through so many emotional states that simply watching the performance is exhausting, and she really nails every single one of them. And Wiseman was a fantastic choice for Sam. His toothy smile and his buoyant energy make him at one moment an adorable, precocious boy, and in the next a complete monster. You can absolutely understand how Amelia is on the edge when you see the way Sam can turn. He demands a great deal of attention and is constantly testing every level of patience the poor woman has. Watching their interactions, you can certainly sympathize with the stresses that come with this territory, and while you can love Sam, you can certainly see why Amelia is having such a difficult time.

All of the psychological and emotional elements at play feed wonderfully into the terror that begins to build in the home around the shadowy figure of the Babadook himself. And don’t worry – there are plenty of frightening moments. Just because the film is an examination of the psychology surrounding stress and grief, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be scary – and The Babadook has some really terrifying moments. Kent makes great use of darkness and shadows, and the charcoal illustrated look from the pop-up book sets the stage for the look and feel of the scene when the monster enters the real world. She stretches a small budget a long way, and comes up with some very effective and creative ways to keep the audience on edge.

When Mr. Babadook final makes his presence known, you’ll want to dive under your covers and hide until morning.

SIFF Review: Richard Linklater’s Spellbinding BOYHOOD

Few filmmakers understand and represent the human condition as gracefully or as well as Richard Linklater. His films are a mirror of our own thoughts and experiences, and he expertly takes common moments in human lives and make them feel truly great. It’s easy to connect with his characters because you see and understand their circumstances and can easily put yourself in their shoes – because you’ve probably been there yourself. Though his eyes, the moments we take for granted become extraordinary. And all of this in a way that makes you understand just how important these commonplace and shared moments really are. These seemingly ordinary events are what make up and define the human experience, and it is through living them that we become who we are. Linklater’s films reflect them in a way that makes us understand how incredible and important they are.

It is this skill that makes Boyhood so magical. Few directors could have pulled this project off as seamlessly elegantly as Linklater, and the final product is nothing short of amazing. Linklater and the cast (featuring wonderfully grounded and nuanced performances by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) spent twelve years making this film, getting together every year to film additional scenes and just allow the film and the characters to age naturally.

We meet our main character, Mason (Coltrane) during first grade, and watch him grow and transition through his high school graduation and his first steps into college. We see him grow and encounter new challenges and watch him weather difficult changes to his world that are beyond his control and understanding. We see him build relationships and form connections and grow and change with each passing year, as all of these experiences coalesce into the adult that he will become.

The progression through it all is subtle, and never jarring. A scene begins and you notice that everybody looks a little different – a little taller, different hair, a little older, maybe. Linklater wisely chooses to forego any announcement that we have transitioned to a new time period, and instead lets the story and the scenes speak for themselves. It is here that the soundtrack plays such an important role, offering memorable and pivotal songs that remind you exactly what was going on in the world during this portion of Mason’s life, and also remind you where you were when this was taking place. The entire film (and after), you are reflecting on just how far you have come since this story began, and all of the changes and events that you have undergone. It’s a really wonderful mechanism that brings the audience into the story in a very personal way.

Part of what makes it so elegant is just what life events Linklater chooses to focus on. We see important things that help to shape who Mason is and who he will become, but the film is not simply a series of crucial and life-changing days. They are snapshots, and over the course of the film, you get to see and understand how they fit together.

And it offers a layered approach that really represents the sum of our experiences when we are grown and look back. Our lives are composed of a series of important milestones, but how many of those milestones really stand out to us as significant moments? Do we see our lives as a collection of these markers, or do we see them as a series of smaller events that stand out to us more? I remember very little of my high school graduation, but I can tell you in great detail about the first time I had the presence of mind to see my parents as people, rather than as keepers and overlords.

We have our own way of deciding what is important to us, and it usually isn’t governed by what our society tells us is an important rite of passage. And it is through those moments and memories that Linklater constructs his story.

Boyhood is simply an amazing film. An incredible endeavor, an outstanding final result, and a perfect view of life. So much of what is incredible about this film is that, despite its long and complex journey, it is a really simple story. Just a kid growing up. It doesn’t differ wildly from what many of us have experienced. Mason doesn’t experience tragedy or wild adventure or grow up in a strange and exciting place. He grows up in Texas, with a loving but complicated family, and this film is simply the story of his journey through childhood. And it’s absolutely beautiful, celebrating the collective moments that come together to make us who we are once we reach adulthood. The conversations, the experiences, the little things that we remember and take with us for the rest of our lives. It is one of the very best things you are likely to see all year (or ever, for that matter).

SIFF Review: Frank

Art is a mysterious beast. Everyone loves and appreciates it in one form or another, whether that be paintings, music, film, books, Lego sculpture, food, whatever. We are all touched by a piece of art in one form or another. It speaks to us, resonates and makes us feel touched and known in a seemingly impossible way.

And what is more natural than the desire to create something that inspires others in the same way that you were inspired? To want to be the one who creates something that resonates deeply with millions of people and has staying power and significance. Is the desire to create enough? And how do you bridge the gap between desire and commitment to finding the inspiration to actually make something that matters?

It is this concept that makes up the backbone of Frank. The film is the story of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man stuck in a small coastal town in England,  trying desperately to become a songwriter. He has all of the passion and the drive needed to make it happen, but just can’t seem to get a foothold. He begins to compose the music, finds he can’t seem to finish. He begins to write lyrics, and finds he has nothing to say. Whatever the creative spark is, it just isn’t happening for him. He feels that he is on the brink and just needs the right push to go over the edge into true artistry and never look back.

One evening, he happens to cross paths with a band – The Soronprfbs – a group so hip and with so few shits to give that even they can’t pronounce their own name. And don’t even care to. Because who gives a fuck? They make music because it fulfills a basic and primal need. They are driven to create as surely as they are driven to breathe.

Leading this group is Frank (Michael Bassbender), a talented and eclectic musician who chooses to keep his true face and identity concealed behind a giant fake head. None of the other members of the band question it – Frank’s chosen face is just as real as any of their own, and he is their leader, their mentor and their guide. They all know him to be an unequivocal genius, and through him, their music is made stronger.

On this particular evening, the group unexpectedly finds themselves in need of a keyboard player. By chance, Jon happens to play the keyboard (or, a few chords, anyway) and they bring him aboard. After playing a not entirely successful gig at a local bar, the band heads to a remote part of Ireland to begin work on their new album in isolation. It is here that Jon hopes to finally find the inspiration that has been eluding him.

It’s a fantastically strange and funny story. We see Jon willingly immerse himself in the unknown among these artists, and submit to every strange task that Frank sets in front of them in the name of creating something brilliant and new. He knows he has found himself in the midst of geniuses, so if he is to one day attain genius status himself, he must do everything he can to meet the example that they have set forth.

You see, Jon feels that he is already woefully behind as an artist. He didn’t have a rocky childhood, he hasn’t had to overcome any profound challenges or barriers and thus, has nothing to draw upon for inspiration. Unlike the band members and their sordid histories – the perfect storm of experiences, difficulties and tragedies to inspire creativity and ideas. But Jon believes whole-heartedly that if he tries hard enough, he can finally achieve the level of brilliance that he longs for.

Through Jon’s journey, we begin to see and understand the creative process for what it is. Frank is It is a story that examines the very fiber of creation and inspiration. What makes art true and why it exists. Does art have to be consumed by throngs of adoring fans for it to be relevant and important? Or is the simple act of creating it enough to make it worthwhile? Do all artists thrive on fame and recognition? Or is it enough to just experience the inception of something pure? Who is the art really for? And can genius be taught? Are we all possessing a hidden talent, waiting for the right moment to make itself known? Or are some of us simply not gifted?

Frank is a fantastically fun, engaging and beautiful film. Despite being hidden behind a gigantic fake head, Fassbender gives an incredibly nuanced performance. Gleeson brings a ton of heart to the story as Jon, and the supporting cast, including a particularly virulent Maggie Gyllenhaal rounds it out nicely. Funny, absurd, thought-provoking and infectious, Frank celebrates everything we love about art and strive for, even though we might never reach it.

SIFF Review: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

It’s impossible to imagine my childhood without Sesame Street. I watched it every day – usually twice a day! It was a formative part of my early education – before I had even entered school. It gave me the building blocks of what I would eventually learn, taught me important life lessons about friendship and sharing, and introduced me to some of the most amazing characters that would stay with me long into adulthood.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney is an incredible documentary that details the career of one of the greatest and most prolific artists of our time. Spinney’s might not be widely known, and he may not be recognized when he leaves his house, but the impact that he has had on our culture has been enormous.

Spinney is a puppeteer and artist who has worked on Sesame Street for over 40 years. You know him best as Big Bird. This film, directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, looks at the life and career of a man whose work has had a phenomenal impact – reaching millions upon millions of children all over the world. A career that has allowed him to create some of the most memorable characters out there (he also puppets and voices Oscar the Grouch) and to perform in a way that is meaningful to both him and to the audience he reaches.

The film runs the range and looks at every corner of his career. It touches on how he had grown up interested in puppetry and found a way to make a living turning it into an art form, first on local Boston children’s shows, and later on Sesame Street. We learn about his early days on the show, getting to know the cast, working with Jim Henson, and feeling trepidation that he wasn’t skilled enough to count himself among the ranks of his peers. And he talks about creating Big Bird and developing that character into the beloved icon he is today, and all of the joy and incredible opportunities that it has brought Spinney and his family.

One of the most fun parts of this film is hearing about his career from those who have lived theirs right alongside his – faces you might know a bit better. Like Emilio Delgado (Louis), or Bob McGrath (Bob). I saw these people every day of my childhood, and seeing them again for the first time in almost 30 years is like catching up with the best of old friends. It’s so exciting to see them and to hear what they have to say about working on Sesame Street and the dedication that Spinney has to the show and to his characters. And hearing them speak of it now, seeing old footage from episodes I remembered seeing as a kid – it was just incredible. I haven’t watched the show in over 20 years, and really don’t think about it all that often – but that didn’t stop me from getting excited and (I’ll even admit it) teary over seeing these people again and remembering the joy they always brought me.

LaMattina and Walker did a fantastic job of incorporating important moments from Spinney’s career while not retreading ground that was already covered in Being Elmo, the documentary about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash. Where there is a large overlap in these artists’ careers, Caroll Spinney’s story is uniquely his own, and this film takes care to tell it as such.

Above all, something that is clearly conveyed through the film is Spinney’s kind nature and the love that he has for the work that he has done. He started out doing characters on Boston’s version of the Bozo show, and while he enjoyed what he did, he ultimately chose to leave, because he knew that puppetry could be more important. More relevant, and good. The work that he has done on Sesame Street for forty years is a testament to that fact, has he has been instrumental in the early education of children across the world. Big Bird helped teach me letters and numbers, little bits of Spanish, and gave me the building blocks to be a good, kind human being. And much of that is thanks to the life that Spinney has given him.