It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.
All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter. Here’s the rundown:
First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD. In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born. Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored. The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia. The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future. The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes. The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound.
Next up is the feel-good “grown man overcomes his personality faults while befriending a young boy” dramedy, St. Vincent, another film derivative as all get-out but well made and ultimately entertaining in spite of the clichés. Essentially this is the same film as About a Boy except replace the sad-sack hound dog lead with a sad-sack senior and throw in a dash of Bad Santa. Theodore Melfi’s first time feature film is an acting showcase for the irascible Bill Murray (who even does a believable Brooklyn accent in this one) who is well supported by his junior companion (Jaeden Lieberher, a much better actor than the stupid trendy name his stage parents gave him) and two actresses going against type: Melissa McCarthy playing it mostly straight and subdued as the single mom, and Naomi Watts going full on comedy gonzo as a Russian hooker (everyone say it with me now) WITH A HEART OF GOLD! There’s nothing revolutionary going on here, and there’s even a few questionable plot threads dropped and left unresolved, but it’s just a nice film with a few good laughs and some sincere pleas for tears, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rightfully so, it’s become a bit of a sleeper hit and is still playing out a long run in theaters.
Zach Braff (who controversially funded this on the back of fans through Kickstarter) finally delivers his directorial follow-up to the overrated but still well-regarded Garden State with Wish I Was Here, which came and went from theaters quickly last summer and is currently available through Netflix. Like St. Vincent, Zach Braff clearly wanted to make a nice film with a few good laughs and some sincere pleas for tears, but unfortunately he’s completely clueless about real people and real human emotions. Everything about this film, from its overcooked bad sitcom-like set-up (failing actor Dad has to yank cranky/funny kids from clichéd Jewish school and begin homeschooling them when he can’t find a job and grandpa starts dying) to its shallow uplifting montage in the end, is horribly off and full of otherwise decent cast members reading self-help platitudes completely detached from any sense of reality. You know you’re watching a bad film when the most authentic performance comes from the youngest cast member (Pierce Gagnon) when he entertains his dying grandfather with a “wheel of farts” electronic device. The kid was smart enough to realize that was the funniest thing about the movie. Although it’s probably not, Wish I Was Here feels like the worst movie of the year and it represents the absolute worst use of Kickstarter film funding to date.
Finally, there’s Jon Stewart’s directorial debut (inspired by the Iranian-British journalist interviewed on The Daily Show who ended up detained and imprisoned in Iran unlawfully as a suspected spy), Rosewater, a film both so earnest and so…blah…I almost forgot I had seen it in theaters a few weeks ago. Rosewater features a compelling lead performance from Gael Garcia Bernal and sticks cleanly to the facts as it playfully makes its case that the worst kind of governments are those without a sense of humor. There’s really nothing wrong with Rosewater from any kind of technical sense, except that the true story probably would’ve been better served as a HBO film, the type you would watch on a Monday night and think, “hmmm…that was interesting…and factual,” and then forget about the next day.
The Babadook: B
St. Vincent: B-
Wish I Was Here: D
Written by David H. Schleicher