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Things get a bit scary this week on The Shelf, with a storybook that summons a real nasty creature, a lie that involves taking a woman’s livelihood through giant eyeballs, and a boy who can do everything, but it’s creepy because he’s a puppet. All that, and so much more!

The Babadook
It’s a shame that we live in an age where most people who go to horror movies think that the term “horror” has to only refer to jump scares or heavy gore. Grossness isn’t scary, and neither is startling. Not saying neither has a place in horror, but there are so many ways to frighten someone, and my personal tastes go toward the deeper and more disturbing. The feeling you get from a big “BOO!” is temporary; the feeling you get from being utterly creeped out and ill at ease will last forever. This is why something like Eraserhead is a billion times scarier to me than Paranormal Activity. Jennifer Kent’s film The Babadook certainly doesn’t skew nearly as puzzling as the aforementioned David Lynch film, but it certainly filled me with dread, and was in fact quite chilling at points, as well as being a deep look at depression, the trials of motherhood, gradual insanity, and feeling unsafe in your own home.

For the uninitiated, The Babadook stars Essie Davis as Amelia, a single mother whose husband died on the way to the hospital while she was in labor with her now-7-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is a troubled little boy, always afraid of monsters and making weapons out of household implements to fight them. He swears to protect his mother, but mostly that looks like him being terrified and needing to sleep in her room. One evening, he pulls a storybook off the shelf she’s never seen before, called Mister Babadook, an odd pop-up book that starts out fairly normal, if creepy, but quickly becomes truly the stuff of nightmares. Samuel swears he sees the Babadook places and it’s driving Amelia crazy, but soon even she starts seeing the image of the behatted man with long fingers and a big grin all over, and she starts receiving disheartening phone calls. The Babadook is getting into her brain, and it might make her do the unthinkable.

This movie is genius, and it’s not got anything to do with the creature itself. I’ve read a lot of criticism that says the movie wasn’t scary (which is patently false) and that the Babadook itself was stupid looking. This is also not true, but even if it were, the entity is more than just the visage we see. It’s what crawls into this woman and makes her change. She’s not sleeping and slowly going mad anyway, even before the Babadook, but we see this slow, steady descent into complete hysteria, and then she comes back for a bit. Essie Davis is astounding and manages to make us both sympathize with and cower in fear of her character, depending on what’s happening. She is both the protagonist and the monster at points. Young Noah Wiseman, also, is outstanding, and manages to be just the right level of annoying but still strong and capable. There are other people in the film, but this is a real two-hander for sure.

This has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%, but an IMDb user rating of only 6.9. This speaks to audiences not being able to view a creeping terror and expect constant jumps and bloodshed. Trust the critics, people. Truuuuuust uuuuusssss.

Big Eyes
Back in 1994, Tim Burton made a film called Ed Wood from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. That film is, in my humble opinion, the best work of all three of them, despite having made some stellar movies separately. Last year, they re-teamed for another biopic of a cult figure, this time the “artist” Walter Keane who made a fortune in the 1960s selling paintings of children with big, sad eyes, and Margaret Keane, his wife who actually did all the painting but couldn’t tell anyone. The film is, of course, Big Eyes and it was a movie that many thought would be a big Oscars contender but was, in fact, not.

The story is not one that I’d really heard of before, but it’s one that plays out onscreen almost exactly the way you think it will: Margaret (Amy Adams) is a young mother who decides to leave her boring husband and make her way to San Francisco with her daughter to sell paintings and just live her own life. When selling her wares, cheaply, on the street, she meets another artist, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who evidently paints street scenes of Paris exclusively. The two have a very fast romance and eventually they get married and Walter attempts to sell both his and his new wife’s paintings at various places without much luck. However, when someone seems interested in buying one of the Big Eyes pictures, and Keane gets into a fight with a club owner and it makes the papers, the opportunistic man decides to say that he was, in fact, the artist. Soon, and pretty rabidly, the paintings are selling like crazy and are being commodified and a small empire is born. But Margaret hates that she can’t take credit for her own work and longs to do paintings of her own, and soon the veneer around Walter begins to fade and lies upon lies start to reveal themselves.

There’s not a whole lot to dislike in this movie, but there’s also not much to love. Alexander and Karaszewski’s script is report-like and functional, sometimes a bit too narrative-driven without a lot of letting the characters exist for a bit, however there’s nothing wrong with having a tightly-structured script about real people. Burton’s direction is fine, but ultimately nothing special; like it could have been directed by anybody, even though the pictures in question definitely feel like they belong in a Burton world. Amy Adams is definitely the highlight of the film and her performance did win a Golden Globe, and I think that’s perfectly well deserved. Waltz, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be doing anything other than what he always does. It works for a Nazi detective or a wild west bounty hunter but not if you’re trying to portray an everyman, or even an anyman.

Big Eyes is perfectly fine but squarely in the middle of the Burton canon.

Joe 90
For the past several months, ITV and Shout Factory have been releasing complete series sets of the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation TV shows he produced in the ’60s in Britain. The big one of these is Thunderbirds which is getting both a DVD and a Blu-ray release later this year. Until then, we’ve been getting DVD releases of the other shows in no particular order, starting with Stingray, and then Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Fireball XL5. Now, they’ve released one of the last Anderson marionette shows, Joe 90, and it’s easily the weirdest one I’ve seen. Released 1968-1969, Joe 90 was comprised of 30 half-hour episodes.

What’s the show about? A very good question. While all the shows were made for kids, this is the first one that actually has a kid as its main character–Joe McClaine, a nine-year-old adopted son of a scientist who develops an experimental procedure that effectively uploads experiences and know-how into the brain, basically like The Matrix without being in a computer. Joe’s father’s American friend, Sam (whom Joe calls “Uncle Sam” naturally) is an agent for the World Intelligence Network (or WIN), which wants to use the technique on covert missions, and to use Joe as the Most Special Agent to do them. Honestly, it’s the weirdest conceit, made even weirder by the fact that the whole first episode–in which Joe 90 steals a new Russian fighter-bomber to prevent an arms race between the East and West–is a hypothetical scenario told by Sam to the professor about the kind of thing that might happen IF they let Joe be the agent…WHAT?! So it was just a dream-sequence first episode? Not to mention all the ethical problems with putting a child in that kind of danger week to week. But, like all Anderson programs, the effects work by Derek Meddings is phenomenal and at least the look of it is great.


Sullivan’s Travels – Preston Sturges’ bittersweet road picture about a film director who goes into the poorest and most depression-hurt areas and sees how it is to live like the destitute in order to make a movie called O Brother Where Art Thou.

Odd Man Out – Carol Reed’s tense postwar crime thriller with James Mason as a master thief on the run after a botched robbery in Belfast.

Class of 1984 – A gritty action thriller where a young music teacher begins working at a tough inner-city school and runs afoul with the smart and talented but dangerous young gang leader.

Tales of Terror – One of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, this one featuring three shorts, starring Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Lorre.

Metal Hurlant Chronicles – A live-action sci-fi anthology along the same lines as Heavy Metal.

Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2 – Not the Brian de Palma original, but the weird-bad remake and the weird-bad sequel.

I Am Steve McQueen – A documentary about the coolest actor who ever lived.

The Missing – James Nesbitt stars as a man whose son goes missing in France in this tense miniseries.

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