Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Babadook: A Terrifying Thriller

Searching for The Babadook
The horror genre in recent years seems to have have backslid a bit to the 80s model, when a host of slasher movies dominated the market in the wake of Halloween & Friday The 13th. There’s a renewed interest in that kind of film, as well as a rash of copycat  “found footage” stories & zombie thrillers, due to the success of the Paranormal Activity films & The Walking Dead TV series. But there are still some offbeat, interesting & worthwhile genre films to be found, such as director James Wan’s Insidious & The Conjuring, and one of my personal favorites, the Swedish made vampire tale, 2008’s Let The Right One In. One of the best recent examples is the Australian/Canadian horror film The Babadook (2014). It is without a doubt, one of the most intense, scary & disturbing movies I’ve seen in some time. The Babadook tells the story of Amelia, a mother whose young son, Samuel, is having behavioral issues and is acting out at school & at home. He always has his mother check his room for monsters at bedtime. He even creates makeshift weapons to protect himself & his Mom from the monsters he knows are real. Amelia's family, friends & Samuel's school feel he has deeper issues, and urge her to get help for the boy.

Samuel’s problems become so bad that Amelia is forced to take him out of school while she figures out her next move. She’s struggling to keep things together at work & at home, and we learn that Amelia lost her husband in an accident the night Samuel was born. Things have never been the same for her since. One evening, Amelia offers to read Sam a story before he goes to bed; he chooses a book she’s never seen before called Mister Babadook. It’s the tale of an evil spirit that haunts the person who releases it forever. Amelia finds the odd story distressing, and stops reading it. But Sam becomes convinced the Babadook is real, and that reading the book aloud has released it; he wants to protect his mother from the creature. Strange things begin to happen around the house, and Amelia becomes increasingly stressed & paranoid. The monster seems to manifest itself everywhere; and Amelia seems to be its target. Will this malevolent spirit possess her, and harm Samuel?

For a good portion of the film, this appears to be the story of a single mother who’s dealing with a difficult situation with her child, and sidestepping her own emotional issues. Amelia is losing her grip on things, and her son’s problems are only making life more difficult. When Amelia must face the Babadook to save herself and her son, is the creature really there, or is it a manifestation of her own repressed grief, resentment & regret? The darkness that seems to surround Amelia & Samuel could be self-constructed, and that makes it all the more terrifying. It’s a movie that leaves itself open to interpretation; is there really a supernatural menace at work here, or have Amelia’s inner demons been brought to life? Writer-director Jennifer Kent builds the tension slowly, and the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense as the film moves forward. The Babadook is a real presence throughout the movie, and is evoked by the eerie illustrations from the book, and the excellent work of Kent, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk & editor Simon Njoo. Kent uses shadows & sounds to evoke a real sense of terror & disquiet, and many of the effects are done in an old school style.

The acting by Essie Davis as Amelia & Noah Wiseman as Samuel is outstanding. You can relate to Amelia and feel for her as she starts to lose her grip on reality as the movie reaches its final third. Davis gets to the heart of this character, and it’s a raw, amazing performance. As for Samuel, he is at turns, lovable, frustrating & occasionally, wiser than the grown ups in the film. Samuel is a kid who clearly has issues of his own, and the character can be a bit tough to take at times, but there are other times you just want to hug him & protect him, just like his mother. Wiseman conveys all of these things with his fine work. This really is a three-character story: Amelia, Samuel & The Babadook. Could a supernatural being represent the emotions & feelings you haven't dealt with & choose to bury deep down? Would you have the strength to overcome that darkness within? The Babadook is an emotional, powerful & terrifying film that tries to answer that question. It will resonate with you long after its over. The cast & crew deserve kudos for creating a unique, unsettling psychological horror/suspense tale. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray & for streaming on services such as Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Monday, May 25, 2015

Joan Jett & The Who "Pick Up Their Guitars & Play" at Mohegan Sun

Photo by John V
When you go to live shows regularly, as I do, you often see a mix of fair/decent shows, good shows, or very good shows. Then there are the concerts that can only be described by one word: epic. Sunday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, we were treated a truly epic show by The Who. The night began with opening act Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, who were recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Joan & the band tore up the place with a fierce, energetic 11-song set that included “I Love Rock & Roll, Crimson & Clover, and Cherry Bomb.” Jett prowled the stage, jamming on guitar, having a good time, and getting the audience charged up for the main event. She’s a consummate live performer, and a rock & roll road warrior. It was the perfect opening salvo to a great night of music. Joan rocks!

Following a short break, during which text, photos & graphics about The Who’s 50-year history were flashed on a screen, the band took the stage, and kicked off the show with a terrific version of “I Can’t Explain.” After that we were treated to almost two hours of classic songs, including “My Generation, Who Are You, Sparks and I Can See For Miles.” Roger Daltrey was in excellent voice, and sounded strong throughout the night, especially on a breathtaking, powerful vocal on “Love, Reign O’er Me” that gave us chills. Pete Townshend performed a few of his trademark guitar moves, and did a nice turn on lead vocal duties for “I’m One,” from Quadrophenia. The memorable show was nothing less than a celebration of the band’s enduring musical catalog, and both Daltrey & Townshend told a few stories about the group, including an amusing tale regarding “The Kids Are Alright.” Townshend, in particular, showed off his caustic sense of humor several times in the between song chatter during the show. He's lost none of his wit (or grit) over the years.

Photo by John V
But this night was all about the music, and if you were a fan, it was truly magical. Excellent versions of “You Better You, Bet, I Can See For Miles and Join Together” had the audience singing along & on their feet, which was where many of them stayed throughout the evening. Song after song was amazing: “Bargain, Squeeze Box" & even "Eminence Front” which was the most recent number performed during the show, dating back to the 1982 album It's Hard. The backing band included longtime touring members Pino Palladino on bass, Zak Starkey on drums and Townshend’s brother Simon on guitar. Palladino & Starkey have incredibly big shoes to fill (those of John Entwistle & Keith Moon, respectively) but they were both magnificent, and sounded sensational throughout the show. The entire band was totally in sync during the concert, and if Joan Jett & The Blackhearts tore the roof off the joint during their set, The Who truly demolished what was left of it during their time on stage.

As the show reached it’s final third, the band performed its original mini-opera, “A Quick One While He’s Away,” as well as a few numbers from Tommy, including a rousing version of “Pinball Wizard.” By the way, kudos to the entire band & their crew, and an extra shout out to the lighting & graphics team; the images projected behind the band during the show were perfect. The evening ended with the one-two punch of “Baba O’Riley” & “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and the audience certainly wanted more. But after some thank yous to the fans from Daltrey & Townshend, this phenomenal night of music came to a close. Daltrey also mentioned in his closing comments that the only other performer in their age group touring regularly is Paul McCartney, and that he’s not doing too badly. He said they’d keep doing this as The Who as long as it continues to makes sense, and then maybe they’ll make a change and just do two hours of Johnny Cash songs! ;) “The Who Hits 50” tour continues with additional dates through the fall, and if you love The Who, then get some tickets and see the show. It is very well worth it. You'll experience an unforgettable night of classic rock & roll.

Set List - Joan Jett & The Blackhearts:
Bad Reputation
Cherry Bomb
Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)
You Drive Me Wild
Light of Day
Love Is Pain
The French Song
I Love Rock & Roll
Crimson & Clover
I Hate Myself For Loving You

Set List - The Who:
I Can't Explain
The Seeker
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
Squeeze Box
I Can See For Miles
My Generation
Behind Blue Eyes
Join Together
You Better You Bet
I'm One
Love Reign O'er Me
Eminence Front
A Quick One (While He's Away)
Amazing Journey
Pinball Wizard
See Me, Feel Me
Baba O'Riley
Won't Get Fooled Again

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Avengers Return in "Age Of Ultron"

Writer-Director Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is an entertaining, eye-popping, action-filled superhero movie. The film starts in the middle of an action sequence (if you watch ABC’s Agents of SHIELD series, you’ll know a little of the backstory, but it’s not essential) as our team of heroes head to a HYDRA base to retrieve the villainous Loki’s scepter, and end up tangling with two new enemies: Pietro, the super speed enabled Quicksilver, and his sister Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, who can control people’s minds & shoot energy bursts from her hands. HYDRA, as part of an experiment to create their own super-beings, has given them their powers. Wanda zaps our heroes and gives them a look at their darkest fears: Iron Man sees a terrible future in which his fellow Avengers appear defeated & dead after a furious battle. Our heroes retrieve the scepter, but aloo of their thoughts are troubled by Wanda’s manipulation of their minds. The entire scene is fantastic, and gets the movie off to a rousing start; kind of like a 007 pre-credits sequence, Marvel style.

Tony Stark’s fears cause him to enlist Dr. Bruce (the Hulk’s alter ego) Banner’s help to finish the creation of Ultron, an artificial intelligence system that can protect the entire world. Stark believes that if Ultron works, there will eventually be no need for The Avengers. The problem is, Ultron goes live & becomes a little too self-aware: it decides the best way to save the world is to destroy humanity. Now our heroes have a new battle to fight against an enemy that can control every computer system on the planet, and is personified by a robot (eerily voiced by James Spader) that is constantly upgrading itself. Ultron enlists Wanda & Pietro to help him in his battle against The Avengers, and is one step ahead of them at every turn. Can our heroes stop Ultron before he destroys the world? Will the team be able to trust Stark after his mistakes once again causes chaos & destruction? Before the battle is over, The Avengers will have to put aside their differences and enlist the help of even more heroes to stop Ultron. And just whose side will Wanda & Pietro end up on?

It’s interesting that a running plot point of these films has been Stark’s pride and his lack of asking the opinions of his teammates before he makes decisions that could affect them all. Many of the events in this film are sowing the seeds for the next Captain America sequel, 2016’s Civil War and the next Avengers film, the two-part Infinity War, due in 2018. There are a host of cameos from characters throughout the Marvel cinematic universe, and a lot of nods & hints for Marvel fans in the movie. There’s also an appearance toward the last part of the film by another Marvel hero that will really please classic Avengers fans. In a way, that’s one of the minor issues with the movie: it’s such a large-scale story and there are so many characters & and plot points that you can’t possibly give everyone & everything equal time. Wanda & Pietro are interesting, but aren’t quite as fully fleshed out as they could be. However, I will say that the main characters are given some nice development, especially Hawkeye & Black Widow, who were given kind of short shrift in the first film; Jeremy Renner & Scarlett Johansson both get some nice scenes in the movie. In fact, Hawkeye feels like the heart of the team in this story.

Whedon is the perfect writer & director for this type of film, thanks to his love for these superheroes, and his ability to balance action & humor with some real character moments & depth. I also think it’s the Marvel movie that best captures the look & feel of the classic Marvel comics of the 60s & 70s, especially in the action sequences. The movie really makes you feel like you’re watching a comic book come to life. Kudos to Whedon & his team; the look, effects, music & entire design of the film are fantastic. The cast is wonderful, and the actors really have grown nicely into their roles; you really can’t imagine anyone other than Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Cap, Liam Hemsworth as Thor, or Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. The film is a very enjoyable, large-scale summer popcorn movie. It’s a shame Whedon won’t be returning for the next films in the series, but he’s leaving those entries in the capable hands of Joe & Anthony Russo, who helmed 2014’s excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For Marvel superhero fans & action movie fans, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a great way to kick off your 2015 summer movie season. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt: Pizza Men?

Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt - photo by John V
John Hiatt & Lyle Lovett have both spent their careers as singer-songwriters defying the expectations of listeners, and providing us with some excellent music. Hiatt has had his songs recorded by many artists, including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Roseanne Cash & Marshall Crenshaw. Like Mr. Hiatt, Lovett continues to dive into multiple musical genres, including country, folk & the blues, most recently on 2012’s album Release Me. The two friends are out on the road for a brief acoustic tour, which made a stop on Saturday, May 2 at New Haven’s newly opened College Street Music Hall. It was a spellbinding evening of songs, stories & excellent performances. Since the venue is located in New Haven, Connecticut, the duo took the stage carrying pizzas from two of the area’s most celebrated pizza palaces, Pepe’s & Sally’s. It was a running joke during the show, including Lovett’s assertion that Hiatt was playing for “Team Pepe’s.”

The show was fantastic, with both men trading the spotlight, and backing each other on their performances. The artists also took requests which were shouted out by audience members, but it was Hiatt that seemed most energized by doing so, especially on memorable performances of “Icy Blue Heart “ and “Memphis in The Meantime.” Lovett also got into the act, playing “North Dakota” and “If I Had A Boat,” after continuous cajoling from fans. As the two artists took turns playing songs and trading stories & a few laughs, it was clear they had tremendous respect for one another. Hiatt was amazing on guitar & harmonica, and he absolutely tore up the place on a dazzling version of Lovett’s “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” which was one of the show’s highlights, along with a fantastic rendition of Hiatt’s own “Tennessee Plates.” Some of the other great tunes included Lovett’s version of Michael Frank’s “White Boy Lost In The Blues” and Hiatt’s “Real Fine Love.” It was a thrilling evening of music, and the audience loved every minute of the show.

There is something so uplifting about seeing wonderful artists like this in their element, doing what they do best. And hey, if this music thing doesn’t work out for them, maybe they can start a new career as pizza guys! ;) As a fan of both performers, I can tell you the show exceeded my expectations. If you get the chance to see Hiatt or Lovett together, or when they're playing their own shows, I highly recommend checking them out. A few words about the College Street Music Hall; located on the site of the former Palace Theatre, it’s a warm venue with good acoustics. It can be set up for seated or standing room shows. The staff was warm and helpful, and the well designed bar area (located at the rear of the theater) has a good selection. It’s great that the New Haven area has a live music venue like this once again. I look forward to seeing more shows there in the future. Here's a link to a performance of "My Baby Don't Tolerate" by Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt & Joe Ely: