Sunday, January 11, 2015

PREDESTINATION Is a New Time-Travel Cult-Classic



- I love a good time-travel yarn, and PREDESTINATION - based on a classic story by the great Robert Heinlein - is a doozy. This is one of those great little January gems that kicks off the movie-watching year on a high note - which is something that directors Michael and Peter Spierig know something about. In 2010, the brothers directed Daybreakers, another January gem that featured Ethan Hawke in a world overrun by vampires. Now, the brothers reunite with their Daybreakers star for yet another smart, intriguing, high-concept genre film that dares to go all the way with its out-there premise. I wasn't sure what to expect from PREDESTINATION. After all, not only was this a January release, but it was quietly put out there with only a very limited theatrical release and day-and-date digital and VOD availability. A win for us movie fans, I suppose. The film is currently tearing up the digital charts, and with good reason: it's the kind of instant cult-classic mind-bender that gives you the urgent need to tell every one of your friends to go watch it immediately.

To talk too much about the twisty story here would be to spoil things. So I'll talk in broad terms, and say that the movie tells the story of Ethan Hawke's character, known only as "The Bartender," who is in fact a secret operative for an organization that tries to preemptively stop crimes via time-travel.  Been there, done that - right? Not so fast. While on the surface, PREDESTINATION is about Hawke's search for a mysterious criminal known as "The Fizzle-Bomber," the real story here is not so much about the investigation itself, but about the strange causality loop that Hawke (maybe inadvertently, maybe intentionally) creates. We all know the cliches about how going back in time can mess with the present in unexpected and undesired ways. That's why Hawke's character is the product of a very strange, very unique plan designed to prevent time from ever being changed by his actions.

It's an absolutely fascinating premise, and it's a story that is also genuinely shocking to watch unfold. If you're not familiar with the Heinlein story ("All You Zombies"), definitely hold off on reading more until you've seen the film - because the revelations that the movie drops include some big-time jaw-droppers.

Hawke is really fantastic in the film. I think seeing him perform so winningly in Boyhood make me appreciate the work he does in genre films that much more. Here's a guy who brings his A-game as much to sci-fi films like this one as he does to more earthbound dramas. Hawke especially impresses given how he has to mask his true agenda for a lot of the movie's running time. But it's the kind of performance that makes you want to go back and re-watch, so as to catch the subtle hints at the character's real self that may have been missed on the first go-round.

But man, the show-stealer here is up-and-comer Sarah Snook, who is absolutely phenomenal in the film. Snook plays a gender-bending character who gets caught up in The Bartender's plans, and she ends up becoming the true heart and soul of the film. Some of the choices that the character has to make - and the trials that she goes through - are heartbreaking, and Snook gives them an emotional weight that helps make even the film's most out-there, potentially hard-to-swallow twists feel somehow plausible. Snook gives what might have been a more mechanical sci-fi story a beating heart. And the extent to which she plays different iterations of her character is impressive. Look, I get that PREDESTINATION is a January-release sci-fi film, but Snook should be in awards conversations for her performance here. Suffice it to say, I can't wait to see the actress in more films in the future.

What I like about the Spierig Brothers is how fully they commit to the worlds they create. Daybreakers impressed me with how well-drawn its vampiric world felt. Here, we get the rare time-travel movie where it feels like all of the pieces of the puzzle ultimately fit nearly-perfectly into place when all is said and done. Sure, we have to take some major leaps to get there, but those leaps are what make the movie memorable and distinct. I also dig how the Spierigs pace their films. In PREDESTINATION, a good chunk of the first half of the movie is taken up by Snook relaying her backstory to Hawke. It's a seemingly odd choice - but the story is so compelling, and Snook is so captivating, that the payoff is well worth it. Basically, the movie takes its time on the character stuff, but it is also remarkably economical with its plot. So many genre films are the exact opposite - bogged down with nonsensical plot yet lacking in the characterization department. This one is a refreshing change-of-pace. Visually, the Spierigs seem to have a similarly economical approach. Much of the movie is really about character, and they make the most of Hawke and Snook's captivating character moments. But they also have a knack for pretty eye-popping, iconic shots of sci-fi weirdness - like when we see Snook's character enroll for a strange space-program with peculiar requirements for its applicants. The gonzo sci-fi imagery at the program is downright mesmerizing. There's even some pretty badass action, including a brutal fight between Hawke and the mysterious bomber he's chasing through time.

PREDESTINATION is the kind of narratively ambitious movie that I love. Some will surely shake their heads at the big twists, but this is the kind of film that is deliberately presenting us with extreme possibilities. It's the kind of stuff that the old sci-fi masters like Heinlein excelled at, but that we don't see as much of anymore. But if you like big, Twilight Zone-style twists, then this will be right up your alley. Additionally, some will say that the ending is predictable. My counter-argument is that the film's big twists are in the middle. After that, it's less about shock-value and more about the character study, about the idea of a person who is essentially trapped in a time-loop with no hope of escape.

In any case, I could ramble on, but like I said, this is one worth going in cold. If you want a clever, well-acted time-travel story with some genuinely "holy $%#@" revelations, do yourself a favor and check out PREDESTINATION. And then let's talk about it, because I'm dying to compare notes. If that's not the sign of a fun movie, then I don't know what is.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, January 8, 2015

THE BABADOOK Is First-Rate Psychological Horror


- On the surface, THE BABADOOK sounds like a run-of-the-mill horror flick: mom reads son a creepy bedtime-story book, monster from said book becomes real and terrorizes family, yada yada yada. But don't let the premise fool you. This Australia-set film is actually one of the most engrossing and original horror movies in years - a movie with a deep psychological edge that makes it about much more than the usual jump scares.

Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mother struggling to raise Samuel, her handful of a son. Davis is flat-out brilliant here. She plays Amelia as someone who genuinely loves and cares for her son, but who is also overwhelmed by the attention he demands. The backstory here is a tragic one: Amelia's husband - Samuel's father - was killed in a car-crash while driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital, on her way to give birth. The trauma of that event has never gone away, and clearly, a small part of Amelia resents her son for indirectly causing her husband's death. But Amelia keeps that resentment bottled up. Outwardly, she is fiercely protective of her son. Though other parents and kids grow weary of Samuel's eccentricities and tendency to act-out, Amelia always stands up for him and begs others to give him a chance.

However, things change when, one night, Samuel picks "The Babadook" as his bedtime story. The book, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, is all about a tophat-sporting, shadowy monster who will haunt you when you're sleeping. Not only is the book inappropriately creepy, but it also seems to be ever-changing, directly addressing, threatening, and taunting Samuel and his mother. Samuel becomes convinced that The Babadook is real, and as such he becomes even more difficult than usual - driving Essie to her wits' end.

The movie keeps ramping up the psychological horror until it reaches almost unbearable levels by the final act. The Babadook himself is rarely seen, more felt - and when he is there is always the question of whether what we're seeing is real, or simply a manifestation of Amelia's escalating madness. But that's really the key to the film - the implication that the monster is in fact some dark, hidden, locked-away side of Amelia that is only now being unleashed. Is there some dark part of us that wants to kill the ones we love? A disturbing thought, sure - but that's what makes THE BABADOOK such an effective horror film - its supernatural horror is rooted in a very human sort of psychology.

Essie Davis, as mentioned, just kills it in the film. It's a very unglamorous role, and she plays it to perfection. She completely inhabits the role of a single mother - worn down, frustrated, protective of her son but also desperate for some separation, for a life apart from him. Later though, when the intensity really escalates and Amelia starts to go a bit mad, Davis is chill-inducingly good - at times empathetic, at times scary-as-hell. Davis' performance is awards-worthy.

Young actor Noah Wiseman also has to be commended for his portrayal of Samuel, who I think will go down as one of the all-time creepy horror movie kids. I give a lot of credit to the film's smart script, but I also credit Wiseman for constantly walking the line between lovable and annoying. His performance completely makes you feel the mixed emotions towards him that Amelia has throughout the film.

Jennifer Kent wrote and directed the movie, and she is now certifiably one to watch. The script is smart and creepy and psychologically rich, and visually, the movie is ultra-effective at sucking you in to this atmosphere of creeping dread. The film really uses little to no jump-scares. Instead, it's all about escalating creepiness that culminates in a satisfyingly insane and intense climax. By grounding the film in a very ordinary-seeming setting of middle-class, suburban Australia, Kent provides the film with a feet-on-the-ground authenticity that makes the weird stuff that goes down that much more resonant and affecting.

That's what's so cool about THE BABADOOK - it's one of the rare horror movies that will *genuinely* creep you out, in a way that buries deep and really sticks with you.

My Grade: A-