Rare and riveting, ‘The Babadook’ holds its own among horror classics

The Babadook poster 2Prepare to be creeped out, chilled to the bone and genuinely scared. “The Babadook” is one of those rare films that relies on character and psychology, not blood and gore, to get under your skin. In the tradition of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick, writer/director Jennifer Kent creates a mesmerizing world of loneliness and paranoia, frustration and doom.

In doing so, Kent laudably tackles a taboo topic: Motherhood gone awry. Essie Davis plays Amelia, a one-time writer who is mourning the death of her husband and struggling to raise her son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). After they read a children’s book about a menacing creature called the Babadook, Sam becomes convinced that the Babadook is real and that he is coming to get them.

Amelia is initially dismissive, writing off strange occurrences to Sam’s issues and overactive imagination. But as her own life slowly starts to spin out of control and the line between reality and fiction blurs, she must confront demons, on the page and in her past.

“The Babadook” is playing in theaters. Director William Friedkin, one of the film’s many fans, will introduce the film on Saturday, Dec. 6, at 11:45 p.m. at the Vista Theater, 4473 Sunset Drive, in Los Angeles.

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Director William Friedkin reveals the father of film noir

Mystery writer Georges Simenon “probably invented film noir,” said Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin on Thursday at a tribute to the famed Belgian author. The panel discussion and cocktail party at the W Hotel in Hollywood was hosted by Georges Simenon Ltd. and the Ile de France Film Commission.

An image from the Simenon tribute invitation

One of the best-selling writers of the 20th century, Simenon (1903-89) was uncommonly prolific – he produced 191 novels and 160 short stories, in addition to other writing.

His spare, minimalist crime stories (particularly his tales of the pipe-smoking café-frequenting Inspector Jules Maigret) clicked with millions of readers and the likes of William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jean Renoir, Claude Chabrol and Akira Kurosawa.

Simenon’s work inspired 70 feature films and 500 hours of TV worldwide.

“I started reading Simenon around the time I made ‘The French Connection,’ ” said Friedkin. “I certainly was influenced by his writing. He’s thought of as a thriller writer but he defies genre. The ‘romans durs’ [tough novels] were the ones that most resonated with me. They’re so simple and yet complex in their portrayal of character.”

Friedkin pointed to “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1949, Burgess Meredith) as one of the most exciting Simenon adaptations. Based on the novel “A Battle of Nerves” and starring Charles Laughton as Maigret, Friedkin said the scene in a crowded restaurant as the murderer and detective get into a heated talk amid ever-louder violins is “absolutely magnificent and may be my favorite scene in the movies.”

(More of Friedkin’s cinematic influences and inspirations likely will be revealed in his forthcoming book, “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir,” which he confirmed at the party is scheduled for publication in March 2013.)

Joining Friedkin on the panel were John Simenon (one of the author’s sons), scriptwriter John Brian King and Olivier-René Veillon of the Ile de France Film Commission.

John Simenon confirmed that his father’s friendships with cops, criminals and doctors (he also read medical journals regularly) lent his work a gritty authenticity. Furthering the inventor-of-film-noir description, Veillon explained that the city of Paris, which was radically rebuilt and modernized in the 1860s according to Baron Haussmann’s vision, served as a gift to artists, especially Simenon.

“All the characters are defined by their location and their relationship with the city,” Veillon said. Just as the reconceived Paris and its denizens provided rich fodder for Simenon’s imagination, his fiction is ripe for new adaptations on screen.

Friedkin also asked John Simenon to recount his relationship with his father. “He was demanding in terms of how to conduct yourself and how to be a man. But he was there and he was very present, much more present than many fathers are today and more present than I can be for my son.”

Georges Simenon, 1963, by Erling Mandelmann.

One of the first questions from the audience came from a sly Brit, who wanted to know the secrets to Simenon’s sex life, referencing the notion that Simenon was one of the great Casanovas of his time and claimed to have slept with 10,000 women.

First noting that he had not inherited this trait, John Simenon said this comment was “totally overblown” and “more of a joke” stemming from a reported conversation with director Federico Fellini. Between his work, his children and his love for food and cooking, that much bed-hopping would have been a mighty scheduling challenge.

His personal life aside, one of the most important women Georges Simenon knew was the French novelist Colette (1873-1954), whom he met early in his career and who advised him to eschew the literary, to cut his stories to the bone.

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‘Killer Joe’ borders on bipolar, despite a riveting performance from Matthew McConaughey

Killer Joe/2011/LD Entertainment/103 min.

The words “TEXAS REDNECK” jump off the poster for “Killer Joe,” William Friedkin’s neo noir/Southern Gothic black comedy written by playwright Tracy Letts and starring Matthew McConaughey as a hitman who’s also a cop.

The rednecks are the Smiths, a Southern family for whom sleaze and greed have long replaced Sunday grace. In the opening scene, Sharla (Gina Gershon) gets out of bed and answers the door; her stepson Chris (Emile Hirsch) is outside, rain drenched, having been kicked out of his place by his girlfriend. Does Sharla bother to throw on clothes before opening the door? Hell, no. This ain’t no Ritz Hotel after all.

Turns out, Chris is a drug dealer with a debt and needs cash fast. His solution is to murder his mother (mostly unseen in the movie) and cash in on her insurance policy. No one’s really that fond of the mother so the rest of the family – stepmom Sharla, Chris’ remarried father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – are all on board with his plan. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they know a job like this has to be done right so they hire a pro named Killer Joe (McConaughey). Need I say, things don’t go to plan?

On the plus side, “Killer Joe” is well shot, well directed and well acted – McConaughey is especially magnetic, outlining the character’s chilling darkness and letting us fill in the blanks. On the minus side, though, “Killer Joe” never feels like much of a noir or much of a comedy. The mood shifts border on the bipolar, culminating in a resolution that may have worked on stage but seems laughable (in a bad way) on film, not to mention ridiculously violent. By that time, though, we are nothing if not primed for blood to be shed.

This marks the second collaboration for Friedkin and Letts – their first was 2006’s “Bug” based on Letts’ play. The Chicago-based playwright’s other work includes the Pulitzer-prize winning “August: Osage County” (the movie version is set to start filming in September) as well as “Superior Donuts” and “Three Sisters.”

Given the talent that came together for “Killer Joe,” was I wrong to hope for meatier fare? Though tempting on the outside, this ain’t the blood-red burger I wanted on my plate.

“Killer Joe” opens today in LA.

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‘Taxi Driver,’ the ultimate big-city bad dream, screens Sunday at TCM Classic Film Festival

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/113 min.

One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.

And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)

Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver"

In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.

Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).

Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.

After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.

Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.

Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. [Read more...]

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What’s new at the Aero and the Egyptian in January

There’s much for noir aficionados to see this month at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Highlights at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood include:

That Special Something: A Tribute to Great Screen Icons, spotlighting “film actors [who] transcend the realm of mere celebrity, reaching a more profound level of cultural significance.” The series honors Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, John Wayne, James Dean, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Elvis.

Humphrey Bogart

Film noir entries include: “In a Lonely Place,” 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7 at the Egyptian as well as Hitchcock gems “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder” starting at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Egyptian. The Screen Icons series runs Jan. 5-29.

“Chinatown” and “The Tenant” will show at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, at the Egyptian as part of Traumatic Rendition: A Roman Polanski Retrospective.

William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.,” will run at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Aero. This double-bill is part of Strangle-Hold: The Gripping Films of William Friedkin.

This is just scratching the surface, so be sure to check complete schedule. The Egyptian Theatre is at 6712 Hollywood Blvd. The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. General admission is $11; members pay $7.

Meanwhile, I just booked my ticket to attend the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City 9 in San Francisco, Jan. 21-30 at the Castro Theatre. Looking forward to the excellent lineup of films!

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