Fear “The Babadook”

So, it’s 1:35 AM and I’ve just finished watching “The Babadook,” a new Australian horror film from first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent. Normally I would wait until tomorrow to type up this review, but I’d much rather do it now. Why? Well, I’m not quite ready to sleep without the lights on and the lightest creak in my house would probably make me jump out of whatever position I might be in. That’s right readers, “The Babadook” is THAT scary.

The movie focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother caring for her six-year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel, with bags under his eyes and a scream equal to nails on a chalkboard, makes homemade weapons to fight off monsters and lashes out at anyone telling him how weird he is. Amelia pulls him out of school and tries hard to connect with her son, but it’s extremely difficult given his strange nature and how lonely they both are. One night, Samuel picks out a red book from his shelf and asks his mother to read it to him. The book, “Mister Babadook,” is the story of a monster that knocks at the door of sleeping children and slowly overtakes their lives. Amelia and Samuel have never seen the book before and toss it aside, but things start to happen: thumps are heard in the house, Amelia is losing sleep more and more, Samuel keeps talking about the Babadook and Amelia is starting to lose herself. The more she tries to shut the Babadook out, the more it knocks at her bedroom door.

There is no form of Hollywood gleam or shine to “The Babadook,” as the characters and settings are smothered in messy hair, pale skin and pitch black coloring. Everything in the movie is unpleasant as the gloom creeps up on Amelia and Samuel. Kent also has a great use of time lapses to keep things moving but not taking away the feeling of dread in the very next scene. No matter who is trying to help Amelia, Kent shoots them all like boogeymen out to get Amelia. The main actors, Davis and Wiseman, are excellent for their anti-chemistry and general fear of one another. Davis shows how horrified Amelia is, whether that be of the Babadook or of her own feelings for her son. Wiseman may be one of the creepiest kids in a horror movie since Samara in “The Ring,” but he still keeps a shred of innocence throughout the movie. The horror of the movie itself is fantastically frightening by using little creaks and bumps in the house at night with mental tricks during the day. The audience gets to see bits of the Babadook, but only in the nightmares and hallucinations of Amelia that makes the audience question if it’s real or in her head. But when the Babadook is finally let in, snuggle up with a loved one and take deep breaths because it will haunt you well after the movie is over.

In a year full of piss-poor mainstream horror movies like “Annabelle,” “Ouija,” and the god-awful “As Above, So Below,” the unsettling nature of “The Babadook” is a breath of fresh air. Something that doesn’t rely on cliches and overcompensating music to scare people, but well-crafted atmosphere and committed performances instead. For that to come from an unknown director is noteworthy, but from a rookie writer/director is something worth major applause. I’ll admit in it losing a tad of steam in the final act, but it’s now 2:08 AM and I still don’t want to sleep in the dark yet because of this movie. It’s the scariest movie of the year, maybe of the last 10 years, and certainly one of the best movies this year. You may not want to let the Babadook in your nightmares, but you’d be a fool not to let Ms. Kent try to scare you sleepless.

Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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Chris Rock’s Self-Made Success

Confession: I never knew why so many people thought Chris Rock was funny. Don’t get me wrong, he’s made me laugh in his stand-up specials and on occasion with supporting roles in “Dogma,” “Madagascar,” “The Longest Yard” and the cult classic “Pootie Tang.” The problem was that he never got that one leading movie role that other comedians got: Will Ferrell had “Anchorman,” Adam Sandler had “Happy Gilmore” and Mike Myers had “Austin Powers.” Rock has proven himself as one of the funniest (and most topical) comedians around today, but he never truly thrived in movies where he had the spotlight all to himself. So who better to give Chris Rock his first proper leading role than Chris Rock?
“Top Five” has Chris Rock writing, directing and starring in this sharp look at the after affects of comedic fame and fortune. Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who achieved massive acclaim for his stand-up shows (something Rock knows about from experience) but is now primarily known for solving crimes in a bear suit for the blockbuster franchise “Hammy the Bear.” One day in New York City, the world starts to swirl a bit faster for Andre: he’s promoting a new movie where he plays a Haitian slave turned revolutionary and is about to marry reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), who wants the wedding broadcasted on her show. In the midst of all this is Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter looking to write a profile on Andre as he is about to try more serious movie roles and get married on national television. Andre doesn’t like reporters and critics, but Chelsea’s persistence to talk with the real Andre Allen persuades him to keep her around as he tours around New York City doing press, seeing friends and wondering if he’s truly happy with his new career path.
Not to point out the presumably obvious, but “Top Five” is very funny. Rock’s writing allows him to rip on everything from the addiction of Angry Birds, the draw of Tyler Perry movies and everything in-between. In fact, “Top Five” is less a comedy movie and more of a theatrical version of a Rock stand-up routine. Rock doesn’t save all the jokes for himself by bringing in fellow funny folk like Tracy Morgan, J.B. Smoove, Jerry Seinfeld, Leslie Jones, Kevin Hart and especially Cedric the Entertainer. There’s also Rosario Dawson, who is an absolute delight poking at Andre’s fame, and then leveling with him as he lets his guard down.In fact, Dawson’s Chelsea Brown is basically the female version of Rock, with her modern take on Cinderella involving a Prince concert and topical dialogue. While it seemed easy for Rock to write a female character matching his likes and dislikes, but Dawson makes the chemistry seem so natural.
What makes this movie stand out is how Rock shows the struggle comics have when even the smallest amount of fame hits them. Andre is doing a more serious role because he doesn’t “feel funny” anymore after being worn down from too many Hammy movies and alcohol. Andre Allen’s recent sobriety stresses him out and makes him more aware of who is laughing at him and who wants to laugh with him. The title of “Top Five” refers to Andre asking friends and family who their top five favorite rappers are, but that’s a minor element compared to the rest of the show. “Top Five” is more about the blinding light of fame (specifically for comedians) and how to never let it become too blinding. It’s also about a comic getting a second chance at a self-satisfying form of fame, which is something Chris Rock deserves. He’s been at the driver’s seat of his comedy career all of his life, so it makes sense that he should be in the driver’s seat of his movie career. If Rock can keep making movies as good as “Top Five,” he’s in for a smooth ride.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Prince Returns…Twice

Prince can be called many things: weird, unpredictable, innovative, genius, and other things. But one thing he has always been is generous, especially with his music. He was one of the first music superstars to provide new albums on the Internet, released 3-4 disc collections of new or unheard cuts, and his last album was available for free exclusively in European tabloids and newspapers. Considering the artist formally known as The Artist has made 10 platinum albums out of 32 in a nearly 40 year career, you’d think he’s some guy passing out unmarked discs at a garage sale and not one of the biggest and most influential artists of all time. It’s been 4 years since Prince has put music to a record, but he’s stayed busy playing intimate surprise shows, chatting with Arsenio Hall, and eating pancakes with Zooey Deschanel. More notably, Prince has been playing shows with his new all-girl backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. Now, Prince is giving the world twice the beat in two different ways with a new solo album and 3RDEYEGIRL’s album debut. So what fits Prince better: rock and roll frontman or the purple funk freak the world knows and loves?

Well, if you have a far reaching knowledge of Prince, you’d know that he is an excellent guitar player (along with all of the other basic instruments he can play). Because of his original stance as an R&B legend, that skill hasn’t been highlighted as often as he would like. With 3RDEYEGIRL, he’s able to really flex his fingers with a six-string. On Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL’s new (confusingly titled) album “PLECTRUMELECTRUM,” Prince shreds his distorted, fuzzed-out guitar like he’s Jimmy Page on “Pretzelbodylogic,” “Fixurlifeup,” and “Funknroll.” 3RDEYEGIRL themselves sync up with the purple one very well. Bassist Ida Nielsen slaps each note of “Boytrouble” and make great rhythm sections with drummer Hannah Ford Welton on “Stopthistrain.” The group as a whole give off a great Led Zeppelin meets Sly & the Family Stone sound, but manages to slow things down for intimate moments on “Whitecaps” and tear through cuts like “Anotherlove.” Prince sounds more free and fun on “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” than he has in quite some time.

Prince’s solo disc “Art Official Age” is another story. Here, he never kicks things into high gear. His solo take on “Funknroll” always manages to forget to turn up to 11 when it needs to, while the title track and “The Gold Standard” has too many vocal effects and not enough killer breakdowns to make 5-star tracks. In fact, “Art Official Age” shines brightest when Prince slows things down. Take “Breakfast Can Wait” for instance, where Prince makes sex before pancakes sound like the ultimate come-on, especially with the use of less vocal effects, a drum beat and smooth guitar. “U Know” on the other hand has Prince sing-rapping into a vocoder with a skittering beat to back his purple freshness. “What It Feels Like” has Prince laying out his desire for his future girl, while “Breakdown” has Prince looking back on lost time. It’s a good record, but half the songs here feel like something’s missing.

Where “Art Official Age” shines on slow jams, “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” burns through funk-rock like there’s no tomorrow. If 3RDEYEGIRL is Prince’s new musical direction, it sounds as electric as his guitar he probably has turned up to 11. Out of the new releases, “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” seems to stand out more for its volume and spirit. “Art Official Age” has its moments that prove Prince is still smoother than anyone will ever be, be his upbeat tracks need more authentic instruments and not Pro Tools. The world will love Prince either way (it’s impossible not to like at least one of his songs), but 3RDEYEGIRL may be the vehicle he needs to release his inner-Hendrix. Either way, Prince loves music so much, he’ll give it to the world in two ways, God bless him.

Final Verdict (“Art Official Age”): 3.5 out of 5 stars
Final Verdict (“PLECTRUMELECTRUM”): 4 out of 5 stars

U2 Take a Sales Step Forward, But a Sonic Step Back

This is it? This is all we get after 5 years?

Well, it looks like U2 are finally enjoying the perks of being the Biggest Band in the World. For those unaware, being the Biggest Band in the World entitles this Irish quartet, with over 150 million records sold and the highest grossing tour ever, to much leisure: global recognition when a new song or album is released, instant buzz on the album being either a “return to form” or “artistic leap forward,” top notch producers or songwriters, methods of releasing new material in ways nobody else could, and the most popular perk to global music stardom; phoning it in.

Now, it wouldn’t be a big deal if anyone else made a half-assed record that’s just an advertisement for how awesome they are (see The Rolling Stones’ output from 1986 to 2005). But it’s a bit more distressing when U2 is pulling back on the throttle. Hearing that Bono and company, men that dared to mix post punk with politics and then German industrial music with visual overload, decided to unleash their new album upon iTunes and Apple users for free (in return for a reported $100 million from Apple themselves) seems more like an annoying email from your professor about homework than a new statement from the best stadium rock band alive today. Regardless, “Songs of Innocence,” the first U2 album since 2009s criminally underrated “No Line on the Horizon,” is here to remind listeners that U2 are back…kind of.

Despite main production of the album being from Danger Mouse (Beck, Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys) and songwriting credits from Ryan Tedder (of bore-rock king OneRepublic, who U2 should stay as far away from as possible) and Paul Epworth (Adele), “Songs of Innocence” sounds incomplete with only half the effort of a traditional U2 record put into it. Nearly every song here sounds like something is missing, like the band doesn’t capitalize on the great build up each songs gives off.

Lead single and opening track “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” has the typical fuzzed out riff from The Edge and “ooo aahh oo”s in the background. The lyrics are Bono thanking the late Ramones lead singer for enlightening him through punk rock (“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world/Everything I ever lost now has been returned/The most beautiful sound I ever heard”). It’s a nice thought, but the Ramones’ spirit is drowned out by electronic effects and a lack of drive from the band. “Volcano,” driven by a bass line The Black Keys probably want back, could’ve been a real fist-pumper thanks to the bass and Edge’s fuzzy riffs. But again, they never go for the jugular and just stay a little above mid-tempo (despite Bono really trying to pump himself here on the vocals). Tracks like “Raised By Wolves,” 
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” could’ve used a big production boost to leave a more lasting impression, perhaps from previous U2 collaborators like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, or Steve Lillywhite. Instead, tracks like “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” do just that; put the listener to sleep.

Musically, “Songs of Innocence” sounds like a collection of unfinished demos. The good news is that the lyrics are very autobiographical and intimate. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a loving tribute to Bono’s mother (“You took me by the hand/I thought that I was leading you/But it was you made me your man/Machine, I dream where you are/Iris standing in the hall/She tells me I can do it all”). Meanwhile, the dreamy sound of California rock gets a nod on “California (There Is No End To Love),” via back-up vocals mimicking The Beach Boys “Barbara Ann.” They even showcase both sides of a relationship: the beautiful beginnings (“Song for Someone”) and the fear of the end (“Every Breaking Wave”). U2 even make room for Swedish singer Lykke Li for album closer “The Troubles,” where U2 deal with age creeping up on them and shaking it off (“I have a will for survival/So you can hurt me/And then hurt me some more/I can live with denial/But you’re not my troubles anymore”). By the album’s end, it’s clear this is U2 taking a good long look at themselves instead of everything in the world. It’s great to hear U2 looking inward now and understanding their age. They’re not going to be around forever, so they’re proudly reminding who they are, where they came from, and they still want more.

If only they sounded like all of those things. Whether it be from a production team that’s holding them back sonically or if this was a rushed job to make a souvenir for the iPhone 6, “Songs of Innocence” is disappointing. A U2 album about who U2 are is great on paper, but the delivery needs more of a kick. All of the songs on here are sonically half-baked with nothing to make it memorable. Nothing here sounds as huge as stuff like “Beautiful Day” or “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the intimate moments of album are too few or too boring. No wonder Apple already released a device to get this album off people’s devices, because everyone’s needs more room for their photos of cats and food. Actually, that might be the saddest thing about “Songs of Innocence”; that it’s competing for space on iPhones. Yikes.

Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Essential Tracks: “Every Breaking Wave,” “”California (There Is No End to Love),” “Song for Someone,” “The Troubles.”