Sunday, October 31, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Suspiria

It’s finally Halloween dear readers, and you’ve lasted with us through 30 days of suicidal werewolves, vampires, satanic teens, and terrifying garden animals. But on this final day, it’s only right for us to pay homage to the great horror master Dario Argento. I love every movie he’s involved with, but Suspiria, the tale of an evil dance academy and the young student that gets caught up in its web of dangerous lies and witchcraft, is my all time favorite, and one of his greatest works. Suspiria isn’t the pitch perfect film that people expect for something that gets such high praise. The acting is somewhat annoying, as according some trivia Argento, intended the characters to be 12 years old and under, but was forced into raising the ages to get the film approved. He reportedly didn’t change the script and even made the door knobs high so that the actors would still have to reach up to get to them. The plot is mostly unexplained, and there are few direct scares, making this a hard film to use to frighten the jaded. But despite all those complaints, not a minute of the film disappoints. It showcases the creativity lurking in Argento’s mind, his brilliant Technicolor style, unusual sets, beautiful unrelenting score, and unique camera angles providing a strange landscape that’s simultaneously horrifying and intriguing, the more realistic cousin of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s visual style, the various rooms (each with a different colored theme or colored lights) invoking one of Poe’s most terrifying stories, The Mask of the Red Death. These visions intensify the violence, making the rare times that it does happen shocking and disturbing enough to stick with you for days. Get the Jiffy Pop, turn out the lights, and see red tonight with Argento....and Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Eraserhead

Here we are: Devil's Night's day, dawn of my last Halloween entry for 2010.  I have to admit, I feel like I've blown my load a little bit.  This wasn't designed to be a countdown, but now I can't escape this nagging idea that I should have been leading up to something huge.  There are a couple films I scratched off the list as I moved forward.  Funny Games got the brush because, while the concept is terrifying, the film itself isn't one I particularly enjoy.  Martin, Shaun of the Dead, and Alien were all still in the running in spite of the fact that, while Alien is one of my all-time favorite movies, I don't consider it at all a horror film.  So, in heaven, everything is fine, and on this Devil's Night, we will speak of the second David Lynch movie to make this list: Eraserhead.  If you watch Eraserhead with the sound up in a dark room late at night by yourself, I think it's very likely that the film will haunt your dreams.  Describing Eraserhead serves no purpose, for Eraserhead is less a film and more an atmosphere.  It is the paranoia of its protagonist; a nightmare of industry, an at times incoherently disorienting black & white noise that wallows in its weirdness and lurks down the pitch dark corridors like a modern art freakshow.  Its wonders are horrors and vice versa.  As a movie, it is one of the all-time freaky-deakys, and as Tracy Jordan told us, freaky-deakys need love too.   

Bonus time!  Just to feed M.'s harmless backyard creature phobia, we present David Lynch's "Rabbits"!

31 Days of Halloween: Donnie Darko

Wilde.Dash knows lots of embarrassing things about me, including my phobias of both harmless garden animals and the apocalypse. Combine the two, and you get Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, a film that everyone sees in high school, favorites, and then abandons by college when they discover Lynch and Bergman and push such childish fluff aside. But Darko is an excellent and elegant film, terrifying and beautiful as it expertly exposes our worst fears about the mysteries of the universe and the mind, and pulls those insecurities out of the viewer. After watching (and hearing *shudder*) Frank give the countdown, after watching the visible connections between people that Donnie discovers, it's tough not to ruminate on how small your life is, how at any moment it could end, no matter how much you pray it doesn't. It's unsettling because the emotions are true, plucked right from your most primal of fears, even if the actions on screen seem utterly ridiculous. We're all going to die, we're all going to lose what we love, and no matter how hard we try to repress it, we feel the nostalgic sadness that comes with that knowledge everyday, something that Kelly encapsulates perfectly here. That's a Halloween movie if I've ever seen one, giant scary bunny suit or no.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Thirst

One of my favorite films of 2009, Thirst is a stunning cross-genre achievement that serves (alongside Let the Right One In/Let Me In) as concrete proof Stephenie Meyer hasn't managed to totally slay the vampire story.  From Korean extreme director Chan-Wook Park, Thirst is the tale of a priest who, in trying to do good, is forced to reconcile with his dark side by a bad blood transfusion.  Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) finds himself walking the line between feeding sinful desires of the flesh and filling the ever increasing needs of his spirit. It's a clever juxtaposition, and one that heightens the dizzying, brilliantly paced storytelling at work in the film. Effortlessly navigating through heavy dramatic tension, buckets of blood, eroticism, and dark humor, is a genre bending romance, epic in its scope and intimate in its telling.  Thirst exists where escapism and brutality meet, and the tale is brilliantly told in stunning, truly beautiful cinematography. Park knows how to use color and angles, and this film has a flair that makes it like no other.  While it's admittedly a tad on the long side, I love Thirst.  It's a wicked little movie full of compelling characters, dazzling sights, and twisted storytelling.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: The Golem

German Expressionism is the perfect film movement to set the tone for Halloween; trippy, surreal, frightening, and alluring all at the same time. But while many of the movement’s golden era films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari get most of the credit, there’s a little known one, The Golem, which while hard to find doesn’t disappoint. Fearing the expulsion of his people, a Rabbi pulls upon his knowledge of the ancient Kabbalistic arts to create a Golem, a deadly minion made of river clay to protect the people. Unfortunately for the Rabbi, when his enemies get involved, things don’t work out as planned. Like Freaks, The Golem is not without controversy. A German film released in the early stages of the Nazi movement (1920), there’s debate as to whether or not the film is sympathetic to Jews in understanding the challenges and prejudices they face, or against them by portraying Jewish mysticism as akin to witchcraft. It is that sorcery, however, that makes the film interesting. While it’s not the all out surreal feast of Caligari, or anywhere near as creepy as the variety of vampire films of the time, when Directors Carl Boese and Paul Wegener do unleash their creativity, the work casts a devious and beautiful spell that feels like you’ve unlocked something truly inventive and mysterious.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Ginger Snaps

Two suicide-obsessed sisters discover that, actually, it is possible for teenager-dom to be even more difficult than it already is.  When Ginger is bitten by a werewolf, the bonds of sisterhood become strained as she drifts away and begins to transform in more ways than one.  Her sister, Brigitte, is left to reconcile her love for her sister (and only friend) with her fear of the monster Ginger has become.  Where films like Jennifer's Body have dabbled with monster as catty behavioral metaphor, Ginger Snaps is perhaps the most successful of the adolescent transformation flicks.  Via lycanthropy, Ginger Snaps explores adolescence's sharpest growing pains; most notably, the rifts created as friends (or siblings) grow up and apart.  This is a clever little Canadian film aided by the believability of its two leads (Emily Perkins & Katharine Isabelle) and the strength of its story. It's a truly effective horror comedy with creature effects that are just about right.  Before the untapped lust of Twilight, Ginger Snaps was taking your angst and alienation and devouring it. Whole.

Monday, October 25, 2010

31 Days Halloween: The Church

I'm trying really hard not to talk about Dario Argento (save for my Halloween posting in just 7 days) as, if I let myself go, nearly all my posts would be his movies. The Church, one of the spooky movies I have to watch every Halloween, is directed by Michele Soavi. So, I can pretend that it doesn't really count even though Argento produced/wrote the film and it stars his (then young) daughter Asia.  In college, my major was history, it's now my career and Mr. Argento seems to have a penchant for us archivists, librarians, and related nerdy types in his films.  This one in particular, in which a librarian and a fresco/building restorationist unlock a satanic mass grave hidden under a Gothic cathedral makes me extremely nervous to be alone with the stack of books in my ancient office.  But even if you have yet to reach my level of nerdom both professionally and personally, you'll appreciate the clever set-up, the horrific imagery, and the strange comedy that comes from the over-the-top scenes and the hysterical dubbing (on certain versions) that Soavi neatly balances.  Laugh, scream, get seriously freaked out, and for the love of God remember that if there's a big cross over something with a nasty warning in Latin you should probably just leave it alone.
You can access the trailer here. I can't find one that doesn't autoplay, and I don't want to get you in trouble at work.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: The House of the Devil

One of the best straight horror films in recent memory slipped by the mainstream virtually unnoticed last year.  In the shadow of the over-hyped, silly scares of Paranormal Activity, retro throwback The House of the Devil traveled the festival and midnight movie circuit accumulating a heady amount of praise, but failing to bring in the audience it deserved.  The House of the Devil  is old school horror: babysitters, Satanism, large kitchen knives, the works.  Everything about it, right down to the casting, makes it feel as though its been recently unearthed from a vault closed in 1983.  The plot is a simple but effective blend of suspense and monstrous menace.  Samantha, a broke college student pining for an apartment,  takes a babysitting job at a mysterious house on the outskirts of town.  It's the night of a lunar eclipse when Samantha is scheduled to work for the creepy Mr. Ullman who informs her that he actually has no child, and Samantha will actually just be standing by to make sure nothing goes wrong with his elderly mother.  $400 for a single evening of nothing.   If it sounds too good to be true, it of course is.  But, you know, you really need to watch it unfold for yourself.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Night Watch

For all the vampire movies out there, few have the masterful atmosphere of Night Watch. A Russian movie with a Russian setting in the Russian language, presented in grungy and visceral cinematography, it feels the way a proper, authentic vampire movie should. But despite all the Eastern European vibes, you can forget Bela Lugosi as the film speeds through at a frenetic pace, a little bit 300 and a little bit Matrix, littered with creative and stunning imagery. The first part of a trilogy (Day Watch the sequel isn't quite as impressive), Night Watch sets up the apocalyptic battle forming between the forces of "Darkness" and "Light," who have worked for centuries to find a balance and protect a long standing truce, that as suspected the Darkness people don't really stick to. As a newly discovered member of the Light, Anton learns the ropes and works to protect those close to him as the end of the world is close at hand. Refreshingly creative, cool, and gorgeous to watch, it's a great pleasure to see some real vampire action that involves minimal sparkle and gooeyness and instead goes straight for the heart both philosophically and physically. Let's hope the vampire craze gets film studios excited enough to finish the trilogy and finally film the finale Twilight Watch (not to be confused with KStew and RPatts).

Friday, October 22, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Videodrome

So, we at Love & Squalor have an odd affinity for Videodrome.  We love it.  So much so, in fact, that it was very nearly a battle when deciding who would claim post authoring rights for the entry you're reading right now.  Because M. included the 1983 oddball classic in her brief Halloween list last year, I won.  Of course, this was after we battled about whether or not anything should overlap between last year and this year.  This, my friends, was the one allowance.   Videodrome is only partially horror, and is the sort of brain-eating film that will only get picked up this season by those with a great love of weird and a high tolerance for both cerebral postmodern babble and good old fashioned shock value.  The monster, you see, is society.  Everything, however, is sinister.  David Cronenberg's film follows sleazy television programmer Max Renn (James Woods) as he begins to experience intense, reality blurring hallucinations brought on by a frequency scrambled torture television show called Videodrome.  There's an underground revolution going on, one that scathingly comments on the depraved nature of North America  even as it serves up murder, torture, S&M, silly soft core, and weird, weird, weird.  For Max, television is his reality, his hallucination, and his demise.  For the viewer, it's a crazy trip.  Breathing VHS tapes, odd cavities in unexpected places, rice crispy guts...glorious.  It might be an acquired taste, but it's an 80's cult gem.  Re-watching it last night caused an all too real dream in which Blake Lively from Gossip Girl went rogue and shot 17 people.  Gossip Girl wasn't even on this week so I have no idea why it was Blake Lively.  That didn't happen, right?  That was just a dream?

Long live the new flesh.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Hour of the Wolf

As a child, if I woke up after my parents were asleep between 3 am and 6am, when the moon and street lights would mingle and dance on the wall, I would spend the rest of the night wide awake in terror under the blankets, my imagination on full throttle. Ingmar Bergman’s only straight horror film (and by straight I mean the one with the most outright elements of horror in addition to his typical existential and psychological horror) Hour of the Wolf gives a name to that time of primitive fear. Painter Johan (Bergman regular Max Von Sydow) moves with his pregnant wife (the innocent and sweet looking Liv Ullmann) to a secluded island to escape and work on his paintings. As an insomniac, he is awake during "the Hour of the Wolf,” the time late at night, “when people die, when babies are born, and when nightmares run free” (and most people are abducted by aliens I’d wager). His wife stays awake with him each night and is witness as he slowly loses his mind and grip on reality, aided by a group of rich and strange aristocrats on the island that seem hell bent on getting him there. In typical Bergman style, the film is shot beautifully with an emphasis on isolation and the play between dark and light. It’s also disorienting and surreal in a careful way, so unlike what audiences are used to today, emphasizing how just a slight twist on normal life can suddenly become horrific (watching a man suddenly walk up the wall near the end of this film will have you in freak out mode faster than the box of hypodermic needles in Saw II). The precursor of Eraserheard and Videodrome, it's a must see on every film buff's Halloween list. P.S. Trailer below is probably NSFW...depending upon the work.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Halloween (1978)

Halloween is perhaps the most basic horror film ever.   If there's a list of scary flicks made in October, you can almost guarantee that Halloween is not only on it, but somewhere near the top. It is the quintessential teen oriented slasher, and while it might not be anything you don't already know, snubbing it is out of the question.  I love Halloween perhaps because it is one of the only films in this genre to legitimately stress me out.  I get antsy when I watch this, and that, my friends, is a rarity.  In his eerie William Shatner-mold mask, Michael Myers is just the sort of plausible villain you don't want hunting you down.  I think the trick r'
 treat aspect of Halloween is the thing that freaks me out the most.  It's that tiny little possibility that, in a season where everyone has an excuse to wear a mask and carry a phony weapon, some card carrying psycho might be prancing about with a real knife and knocking on your door.  Try describing that when you call the police, "um, yeah...Michael Myers just tried to break in here..."  Does not want.  The Strangers is sort of unnerving for similar reasons.  It's the mask.  In inhumanity.  The stalking.  The waiting.  The looking outside and seeing this thing that doesn't make sense in your yard.  The stress of being a teenager home alone or babysitting in someone else's house and becoming targeted for reasons you can't possibly understand.  It's just bad.  The movie, though, is awesome.  Everything, from Jamie Lee Curtis's likable Final Girl Laurie Strode to the instantly recognizable score works to the film's advantage.  It's a brilliant, highly suspenseful thriller that every child in America should be forced to watch before they graduate high school.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys is a bit of a joke now (the subject of one of my favorites of all time- see below). But remember how magical it was to be in 8th grade and discover this film? How sexy Jason Patric had seemed, how much fun it would have been to run with Haim and Feldman back in the glory days before they fell into drugs and Hollywood obscurity faster than Lindsay Lohan? Regardless of nostalgia, The Lost Boys is still a great vampire movie, sexy, scary, and comical, the big toothy cousin of Buffy. It’s the ultimate 80’s bonding movie to pull out at your Halloween celebration to satisfy most if all of the pickiest of guests, and undoubtedly one of the best Joel Schumacher films. It almost makes up for his other schlock like Batman and Robin or The Phantom of the Opera...almost.

Get the HD clip here.

Under 250: Ondine

Neil Jordan is the only director that can effectively take what seems to be a neorealist film on the surface and spin it into a beautiful, magical fairy tale that makes you question your better judgments about reality while keeping you totally invested. Commercial fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell), often referred to as “Circus” in his Irish village due to his past as a drunk, finds a nearly drown young woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his fishing net who calls herself “Ondine,” French for “the girl from the water.” An amnesiac, she refuses to let him take her to the hospital, so he takes her to his mother’s abandoned home. Ondine quickly becomes an important part of Syracuse and his sick daughter Annie’s lives as wishes come true, magical things start happening, and the line between myth and reality become blurred, especially for Annie who is convinced that Ondine is a “selkie” or a woman from Irish legend who was once a seal, but comes on dry land for seven years and falls for a “landsman.” This is a dark fairy tale that despite its happier moments dips deep into human suffering. Jordan expertly makes you yearn for a return to a time when you could easily believe that magic still existed, making you believe in Ondine just like Annie does, as Syracuse himself allows his “adult” presumptions to fall away, only to be slapped back into reality. This “slap,” which comes near the end of the film, spoils the magic a little bit, but it’s hard to blame Jordan, as the disappointment mirrors Syracuse’s as well and keeps the film grounded. With stunning cinematography, luscious forbidding landscapes, and gut-wrenching acting from all involved, particularly Farrell, it’s another great Jordan film that has sadly has slipped under the radar.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Love: Red

Red is a movie about John Malkovich stealing scenes and Helen Mirren firing a sub-machine gun and looking like a badass.  Alright, so that's not what it's about at all, but once you watch it I'm sure you'll agree that everything in between pales in comparison to the events just described.  Adapted from the DC comic by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Red is the senior citizen response to what must have been the desperate Hollywood call for espionage thriller submissions in 2010.   Bruce Willis is only 55, so he's the baby of the bunch and thus also the film's featured player.  He and his bald head and action figure proboscis play Frank Moses, an ex-CIA black ops agent with a massive secret file stamped "RED" - Retired: Extremely Dangerous.  As can be expected, the government has it out for Frank.  So, Frank picks up a new girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker), gets his gang of retirees together, and begins to fight the good fight against the CIA young guns.  Everything key within the plot is expected; there are lots of click click booms and tons of very large weapons.  Everyone is having a good time, everyone has a don't-want-to-die death wish, there are many things happening that would never work out in the real world.  You know the type.  The thing is, though, that apparently all it takes to lift the 2010 espionage thriller action comedy outside of its repetitive, schlocky form is a solid cast and a good gimmick.  Red has both.  It gives you seniors who could trounce everyone in Knight & Day, Salt, and The A-Team while also offering you a gleefully happy 93-year old Ernest Borgnine.  It might seem silly, but that, ladies & gents, is entertainment.
Red is fluff.  It's flatly filmed and has plot holes everywhere.  Everything comes too easily and the romantic entanglements are more akin to Stockholm Syndrome than built-up love.  The script operates in and out of cliche.  Sometimes (and this is perhaps due more to the delivery) it seems quite clever, other times it hits the expected bit of dialogue right where you know it will be (taunting the retirees by calling them "old man" and "grandpa" for example).  In spite of all its faults, however, Red is delightful.  It's fast paced and easy breezy with the surprisingly consistent ability to provoke me to laugh.  Whether you like it or not, there is something comically brilliant about older folks getting antsy in the rest home and picking up the grenade launcher, just as much so the setting up John Malkovich as the paranoid, violent, maniac loose cannon of the bunch.   I'm not exaggerating when I say that Malkovich and Mirren make this movie a truly enjoyable, genuinely silly popcorn flick.  I could take or leave Willis, Freeman, and Parker (though her comedic timing and facial expressions do wonders given the limitations of her character), but I loved seeing Dame Helen Mirren find joy in killing government drones, and every minute Malkovich was on the screen I seemed to find something to giggle at.   Non-sequitors and ham fisted efforts that would never fly with the other actors worked pitch perfectly with Malkovich.  As Boggs, the wild-eyed agent who underwent 10-years of LSD testing, the actor manages to blow the top off his omnipresent (typically restrained or villainous) madness and just have fun.  He may be cashing in, but I'll be damned if he's not having a great time letting loose.  If you want to see Malkovich disguised as a bush, toting a stuffed pig, and just generally being the one of these things is not like the other part of the scene, you need to see Red.  Sometimes, it's the little things in life.  This weekend, Malkovich and Mirren were those little things.  If they make a sequel, it would be my hope that the focus is just on them.

31 Days of Halloween: Jennifer's Body

Upon its release last year, Jennifer's Body picked up a lot of flack.  It was pretty firmly denounced as being a joke of a film; not scary or grisly enough to earn its horror merit badge, not light enough to be considered a comedy, and (its greatest offense of all) starring Megan Fox.  In putting Jennifer's Body on my Halloween list, you might think I'm admitting a guilty pleasure.  You'd be wrong.  I'm not at all guilty about liking, really liking, the Diablo Cody penned Jennifer's Body.  It is, simply put, spectacularly misunderstood and underrated.  The film's biggest failure, I believe, was all in its marketing.  Studio executives tried to sell it as a thriller, a Megan Fox blood orgy for teenage boys when, in actuality, the film is very specifically made by women (Cody, director Karyn Kusama), for girls.  Jennifer's Body is not all about Megan Fox's body.   It's not even about suspense or gore.  Its title comes from a Hole song, for chist's sake!  What it is about is a very literal, satirical adaptation of the complications and backstabbing of teen girl relationships.  It's all your adolescent angst transformed into violence.  It draws from films like Heathers and Mean Girls but gives you the morally complicated, rather sad carnage of the literal man-eater you love to hate just as much as you hate to love.  While it doesn't execute this perfectly, the attempt is nothing if not entertaining.  Megan Fox does well as complicated, demonically possessed teen bitch Jennifer.  She displays a surprising vulnerability that's brought out of her via an equally likable Amanda Seyfried (as her "needy" normal girl best friend).  This is girl horror, and while it certainly isn't a thriller, it's an absolutely perfect, substantially fun Halloween sleepover movie.  Break out the pixie sticks, the ouija boards and the MASH pads and don't listen to the haters. 

My only real problem with it?  I once wrote a story that I've been wanting to try and adapt into a novel.  It had a similar premise.  Now, I anguish over how exactly to avoid any and all comparisons to Jennifer's Body.  Damn you, Cody.  Damn you.

31 Days of Halloween: Dark City

Before The Matrix, before Inception, and before Brick, there was Dark City, a noir/horror/sci-fi hybrid from the Director of The Crow that explored the nature of reality, identity, and memory against a terrifying backdrop that Rick Deckard, Sweeney Todd, or Sam Spade would feel right at home in. Like The Matrix’s Neo, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) finds himself on the run through a world that’s familiar and yet alien, one that forces him to reexamine what he knows about life and his own reality before learning that he has the gift of superhuman powers. But unlike Neo's epic story arc, Dark City feels intimate, drawing on the best dark visual and emotional qualities of noir (the caged feeling, the shadows, the cool detachment) and German Expressionism to bring out the horror without making it feel too over the top, the perfect balance between The Maltese Falcon and a Tim Burton film. Also starring Kiefer Sutherland at his most creepy, Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt, it's sinister, beautiful, engaging, and thought provoking, a little respected film that deserves so much more.
P.S. It's one got one of the best film trailers...ever.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Love: Black Swan (Chicago International Film Festival Review)

Darren Aronofsky, who has wowed us with Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and The Fountain, is pulling in frenzied, rave early reviews for his ballet-centric thrill ride Black Swan.  The film will be released nationally in early December, but has been riding high on the festival circuit where critics and bloggers have taken to pronouncing the film, and Natalie Portman's performance, as all sorts of brilliant.  Portman plays Nina Sayers; a shy, emotionally vulnerable ballerina with a narcissistic, overly protective mother and some implied psychological damage.  Nina's life is ballet.  She lives and breathes it.  Her days are little more than practicing, puking, and moving to and from Lincoln Center dreaming of the day she will dance Swan Lake as The Swan Queen.  Miraculously, when her New York company's prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is forced into early retirement, Nina is given that chance.  She embodies the White Swan, but ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) insists he does not yet see the loose seductiveness of the evil twin Black Swan in Nina's performance.  Nina, possessed by a desperate quest for her own perfection, becomes fixated on Lily (Mila Kunis) a newcomer in the company who becomes both threat and obsession; the living embodiment of the Black Swan's dark qualities.  In many ways, what Aronofsky has done is adapt Swan Lake itself for 21st century, urban consumption.  A little Red Shoes here, a little Showgirls there, just a touch of Suspiria with a dose of MDMA.  The ingredients make for a devil of a film.  Black Swan is a fragile, delirious fairy tale that effectively toes the line between real and unreal.  Nina suffers for her art.  She pushes herself to her breaking point.  For the audience, however, it's hard to know where that breaking point lies.  Is Nina's experience fact or fiction?  Do we lose her early on?  Are we witnessing an elaborate fantasy or a chilling reality?  Does it even matter?
As the film crescendos and the audience is driven further and further into hypersexualized mania and Cronenbergian transformation, you're either fully invested or dubious.  I have to admit, I was dubious.  For me, Black Swan was just a horror film.  A well-executed, beautifully shot, carefully crafted horror film, yes, but of the genre we conventionally consider horror nonetheless.  I kid you not.  Don't be fooled by dramatic ad campaigns and claims of bizarro mind-fuckery.  At its roots, Black Swan is a snow pure, first class genre film.  Not in the wrenching way Lars von Trier's Antichrist was, but instead much like Carrie or the aforementioned Dario Argento film.  Its heart is melodrama, and its greatest assets materialize as atmospherics, intense musical strains, and little haunted house twists.

Perhaps I'm jaded, perhaps my definition of weird cinema has been slanted and enchanted by Jodorowsky and Makavejev (there's no going back), but Black Swan was not the blow-me-out-of-the-water surreality I'd been prepared for.  It didn't hit any of the marks that would cause me to label it 'disturbing' or 'unlike anything I'd seen before'.  The end of Showgirls, for those interested, was patently more unsettling (on a few levels) than any of the bad trip Aronofsky offers here.  No, Black Swan was a different breed of 'good movie'.  Just as it drifts between real and unreal, it fades in and out between "Oscar contender" and "B-grade Camp".  Cassel's Thomas is a near caricature of the grabby, manipulative stage director.  His lines are oft absurdly comical, Pepe le Pew-style instructions that Nina get into the spirit of the Black Swan via some late night masturbation.  Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) is the creepy, domineering archetype of bad, boundary-crossing parenting we've seen in a million horror films.  Nina herself is an adult-child.  She's high-strung and precious with a personality that, when it swings, seems as silly as it is menacing.  Portman does well in her role, though I'll admit that I'm almost surprised to hear so many early snippets buzz about her award potential when, at times, she seems to be quite deliberately overacting (this is a completely different kind of overacting than, say, the cheery fakery in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium).   
The acting aside, much of the heavy lifting that moves the film from cult classic to 'serious' art film (though it's undoubtedly still destined for the former) can be attributed to its clever construction.  The color dynamics, the symbolic uses of whites, blacks, pinks and grays, the twisting of Tchaikovsky's compositions into driving film score, the psychological interplay and the choreography lend themselves to film student circles of  discussion.  When you see it, you want to talk about Black Swan in ways far from simply remarking on its "awesomeness."   That conversational necessity, and the film's violent self-restraint (which could be said to mirror the control issues of Nina herself), transform Black Swan into that rare, tricky, respected piece of entertainingly clever genre work.

Thus, while Black Swan may not be the mind-blowing masterwork of unexpected cinema you wish it to be, in a largely tepid cinematic year, it's a stand out.  I liked the film as a fun, joyously trippy, often amusing (I laughed.  I'm pretty sure it was with the film, but there was a time where it could have been at it...) horror film.  Aronofsky's dirtied-up ballet saga feels self-aware in that way that noir-tinted dramas often are.  He's having fun with it, and, if the early promotional commentary is any indication, he knows he's made a film designed to be more midnight movie than Oscar bait.  Luckily for him, the two aren't mutually exclusive.  Think, for example, of Sunset Boulevard.  Sunset Blvd. manages high-camp in a way that's effortlessly classy (and classic).  Billy Wilder's Hollywood noir embraced its showier, more ridiculous aspects. It pushed at the boundaries of its characters and displayed their instability for an effect that was as comedic as it was unsettling.  Black Swan does the same, and while it's no Sunset Blvd. (its attempts don't always work, the supernatural gives way beneath a suspension of disbelief issue that will most certainly lose some of its audience, the script can be a little too trite), it's operating in a similar, popcorn-friendly vein.  As a psychological horror film, it's of the highest caliber (though not at all frightening), as a drama...meh.  

Decide for yourself when Black Swan opens on December 3.  Check out more of the Chicago International Film Festival here.

31 Days of Halloween: Re-Animator

I have a promotional postcard on the wall near my desk for Re-Animator with the tagline the reads "Herbert West has a perfectly good head on his shoulders...and another one in the dish on his desk."  It's great, and in some ways, so is Re-Animator itself, but it's one of those movies that always seems better in retrospect than during the actual viewing.  Based on the H.P. Lovecraft story "Herbert West - Reanimator", the movie follows an overzealous young scientist who succeeds in resurrecting the corpse of his creepshow dead professor.  The side effects, as it turns out, are pretty bad.  What follows can only be described as the makings of pure cult horror: out-and-out gore in its most frivolous, shiny red trappings.  Re-Animator is at its best rather silly, at its worst, just a little on the slow side.  Horror fanatics wax nostalgic about it perhaps because there's just something about those hypodermic needles filled with glowing green fluid that brings back fond memories of those Halloweens of yore.  Well, that and the action really picks up in the film's end sequences...a very merry zombie blood orgy for all.

Friday, October 15, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Ladyhawke

Halloween is a lot about horror, but also a lot about fantasy and the escape that comes from dipping into another world. Richard Donner's Ladyhawke, one of the best fantasy movies out there, the movie that defined my 80's experience and childhood is perfect for a late October night. Captain Etienne Navarre (the beautiful Rutger Hauer) and Isabeau d'Anjou (the equally beautiful Michelle Pfieffer in one of her first real roles) are cursed by an evil Bishop bent on having Isabeau for his own. The curse details are thus: by day, the Captain is a man, and Isabeau a hawk, by night, he's a wolf, and she's a woman. When an eclipse gives them the chance to finally set things right and end the torture of being "forever together, always apart," they take it, aided by the comic relief-thief Phillipe Gaston (a very young, and borderline very annoying Matthew Broderick with the worst British accent ever) who ushers the audience through the story as it unfolds before him. The film is beautifully photographed, artfully emotive, and easy to get lost in, the haunting (and extremely 80's) soundtrack by Alan Parsons and Andrew Powell only enhancing the experience.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Candyman

I remember seeing stills from Candyman when I was little and being positively freaked out.  When I was younger, images of a man covered in bees with an exposed rib cage were not something I wanted to see.  The only thing more frightening than this, for me, was the trailer for Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I swear to you...I absolutely swear, was inappropriately placed before the theatrical run of Aladdin.  Of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula isn't exactly a frightening film, and that childhood fear was coupled with a keen interest in the going ons of that movie.  That said, I conquered it in my mid-teen years.  Candyman, however, went forgotten only to be viewed for the first time last year, in the middle of the night on Halloween, with more than half the party already asleep around me.  Um, let me tell you some stuff about Candyman.  The film is about a graduate student (Virginia Madsen) whose dissertation is about urban legends.  Her focus is on a Chicago supernatural killer called Candyman, who is summoned by the repetition of his name in the mirror and who lurks around Cabrini Green (that's an infamous, dangerous project, for those outside Chi-town).  Our protagonist is a pigheaded, naive little white girl, who thinks she can march around the slums of the city without consequence.  The fear comes not only from the monstrous existence of the Candyman, but from her insistence on going places she has been told (and threatened) not to go.  When I watched it, I was in the midst of a graduate degree...from the very campus the film is set on.  You know what's worse than watching a horror movie that's actually kind of freaky?  Yeah, it's watching a freaky horror movie that takes place where you are every day.  Places I wasn't thrilled about being after this movie: campus parking lots. Nope. Not doing it.  You don't have to have experienced the locales, however, to find this film creepy.  The story works on several levels, as do the make-up and effects.  The moral of the story is: you should really watch Candyman.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Ravenous

All wars are horrific and terrifying in their own unique ways, but there’s something about America’s first few, namely the Civil War and the Mexican-American War, that, perhaps due to their placement so far in the past, hold a special sort of freakiness. Ravenous, one of my favorite movies in general, uses this to its advantage, tapping into the torturous carnage of both wars while simultaneously reaching into our fears of the unknown wilderness, particularly the vast American West. Mentally disturbed after waking up on the very bottom of a pile of corpses during the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pierce) is stationed at a remote outpost of Fort Spencer after it's discovered that he cowardly ducked under said corpses to escape action. As the few men at the outpost start dropping like flies, he is forced to take matters into his own hands to defeat the devil (Robert Carlyle ), the evil of nature, cannibalism, and his own demons. An excellent piece of filmmaking in terms of the basics, I wouldn’t ever call Ravenous “scary,” but it’s a film that cleverly unlocks the darkness in its viewer, all the while keeping things on the near humorous and light before breaking out the big guns. And yes, that awesomely upsetting music was composed by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. You can't make that greatness up.

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