Category Archives: Guest Reviews

GUEST REVIEW: DARK SHADOWS (2012)

 is an actor, director, producer, and the owner of Liberty or Death productions.  He has directed several short horror films along with the feature To Haunt You, produced W the Movie, and previously provided us with a top 10 weird movies list.

Although I watch a lot of films, for various reasons I’m not huge on reviewing them. However, seeing as I’ve been a “Dark Shadows” fan for over 40 years and a Tim Burton fan since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), I thought perhaps his new epic deserved a paragraph or two from me. I saw it this past weekend on the Hamilton IMAX screen in what seemed liked a rather depopulated theater, but I’m not sure what their usual Sunday crowd is like–perhaps everyone else was taking their mom to dinner for Mother’s Day. At any rate. . .

I had followed the dribbling out of info and photos over the past year or so and had seen the infamous trailer that makes the film look like “Vampires Suck Part Deux”. As a disciple of the original series, none of this sat any better with me than I think it did for most fans. Once more we have Tim Burton going his own way without much regard for audience’s expectations or their affection for the originals (think especially Planet of the Apes or even more so his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the latter of which I still haven’t managed to make it all the way through.) I can understand not working toward expectations, but is it always necessary to tread on sacred ground with jackboots? This being said I will consider Dark Shadows from two different perspectives: as a remake of the original series, and as another entry in the auteur’s canon.

Still from Dark Shadows (2012)Many fans of the original series are going to hate this film. Hands down. Jonathan Frid’s beloved, beautiful, complex, tortured Barnabas Collins has been morphed into a typically Burtonesque, overly made-up, funny pages version of the character, ripe for rendering into dolls and action figures. Johnny Depp‘s pancake makeup is so thick and obvious he constantly makes the viewer think of someone made up as Dracula for Halloween (indeed, one wonders if this isn’t partly the idea–this is Tim and Johnny’s Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: DARK SHADOWS (2012)

PROFESSOR GIBBERN’S PREPARATION: ANDREI ZVYAGINTSEV’S THE BANISHMENT (2007)

 Eugene Vasiliev is a Doctor of Philosophy and a member of the Russian Guild of Film Critics.  This detailed analysis of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment was originally published (in Russian) at Ruskino.   

The Banishment, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s second feature-length motion picture after triumphing in Venice with The Return (2003), was received coldly by the audience.  After the first screenings, bewilderment reigned even among “advanced” cinema enthusiasts. Some applauded languidly, some grumbled discontentedly, and when cineastes read slashing reviews by renowned film experts, a torrent of criticism pounced on Zvyagintsev like tsunami on the province of Aceh. It seemed that curses and swearing would sweep yesterday’s favorite down to the ocean of oblivion, and Andrei would drown there along with Baluyev, Lavronenko, and Maria Bonnevie. Those who only yesterday had raved about The Return regretted their past admiration: as they said, “we were “bought” all for nothing at the time”. Those who had silently swallowed the success of The Return, felt relief at last by stating that “the movie is total shit”.

Still from The Banishment (2007)Yekaterina Barabash argued that Zvyagintsev had invented “spiritual glamor”: merciless in its form and meaningless in its content.  Yelena Ardabatskaya noted that it had been a difficult viewing experience since The Banishment has nothing at all in it: no people, no scents, only Emptiness.  Roman Volobuyev, who at first confined himself mostly to sneering, finally succumbed and began to speak his mind. According to him, even Mikhalkov, now an object of scorn, “is a complex personality, while Zvyagintsev is a single-layered structure; he is a good professional director, at the level of an average American TV series maker, who makes films about things he does not give a damn about – and out of mercenary motives at that, and because he works not in the world of  ‘My Perfect Nanny’ but in Russian, kind of, spirituality, his indifference and the fact that he knows nothing about those abstruse things that he depicts in his movies is the most terrible thing.”  Even peacefully disposed Sam Klebanov complained, “It seems as if it is repeatedly suggested that we should think about the meaning of all those religious parallels.  Perhaps, we did not think well enough, but somehow we have not thought up anything.”

I am not going to list all the complaints and accusations of displeased cinema experts and Continue reading PROFESSOR GIBBERN’S PREPARATION: ANDREI ZVYAGINTSEV’S THE BANISHMENT (2007)

GUEST REVIEW: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Guest review by Scott Sentinella, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Norman Z. McLeod

FEATURING: Charlotte Henry, Gary Cooper, , Cary Grant, Mae Marsh, , Alison Skipworth, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, Sterling Holloway, and many others.

PLOT: A teenage girl named Alice travels through a mirror into a nonsensical fantasy world

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1933)

where animals talk, mad tea parties are held and queens threaten beheadings.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material, and because of this version’s especially creepy use of bizarre, grotesque masks on many members of its all-star cast.

COMMENTS: Before Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, every big-screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic book had flopped at the box office, and this early 1930’s curio was no exception.  Directed by Norman Z. McLeod (known for the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers), and with a screenplay by Joseph L, Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and William Cameron Menzies (better known as the art director on Gone With the Wind), this primitive-looking extravaganza rounded up some 22 stars from the Paramount lot and immediately hid most of them behind very unpleasant-looking masks and bulky costumes.  This Alice was made only five-and-a-half years before The Wizard of Oz, but some of the technology on display here looks like it was left over from the Victorian era.  (Incidentally, Alice’s then-starry cast now consists of three legends—Cooper, Fields, Grant; a lot of character actors familiar to viewers of Turner Classic Movies—Horton, Holloway, Ruggles; and then a host of performers unknown to even the most die-hard classic film buffs—-Jackie Searle? Raymond Hatton?) The results are a bit too disturbing, even for Lewis Carroll, but at least it captures the madness of the novel(s) in a way that Burton’s neutered, watered-down disappointment never really does.  Like most films based on Alice, this one liberally combines elements of both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”  This time, Alice (Babes in Toyland’s Charlotte Henry) first finds her way through a mirror and then tumbles down a rabbit hole, where she meets the usual Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

GUEST REVIEW: AMER (2009)

This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.

Brought to opulent (some might say pretentious) life by Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Amer is an homage to the Italian giallo horror films of the 1960s and ’70s, and more specifically the works of the genre’s most notable denizen, Dario ArgentoAmer (French for bitter) is an all-but-wordless, trisected mindbender of a movie, running portentously through one girl’s life, from her twisted childhood, to the seductively innocent carnality of young womanhood, to her inevitably tragic (and inevitably violent) demise.  In short, it is a lyrical horror movie that manages to arouse and nauseate at the same time and in equal measure.  In shorter yet, it is both succulent and repellent.  In even shorter, it is simply Amer.

Still from Amer (2009)Told as almost Gothic horror, set in a sufficiently terrifying seaside villa, Amer starts out with an eight or nine year old Ana, running from room to room, trying her best to outsmart both her overbearing mother and the ugly crone of a witch that was her grandfather’s caretaker, while attempting to steal a necklace she must pry out of her ancient grandfather’s cold dead hands.  The film takes on a magical feel right away, as an insidious doom overshadows all that is happening around her and her young eyes are assaulted by the evil that lurks around her and (in a scene of frenetic, salacious eroticism) the writhing, sweating bodies of her parents bedroom.  The terror, both metaphorical and physical, that will eventually devour Ana, is already beginning to surround this wide-eyed little girl.

We next turn to the adolescent Ana, her Lolita-esque body glistening in the midday sun, her bee-stung lips curling in a seraphic yet alluring manner, the slight breeze blowing her light dress provocatively, all the while slowly waltzing in front of a row of very-interested bikers, flaunting, advertising her newfound sexual desires.  The erotic longings that first popped up in Ana’s wicked childhood surface here in a much more dangerous way.  Next we see a grown Ana, her fantasy world now completely engulfing her, returning to her now dilapidated seaside home, every shadow, every noise, every creak, every sensual yearning, an ominous foreshadowing of the horror to come.

With the mysterious black-gloved hand that keep Ana from screaming, the muscled, libidinous arms that grope her and strangle her, and the shining, silvery blade that coldly slices against her face and mouth, warning her of what is to become of her, Amer ends with the same seductively perilous urgency with which it began.  Perhaps made as the ego-trip many claim it to have been, Cattet and Forzani nonetheless have captured the essense of those giallo films, and especially the warped, libidinous proclivities of Mr. Argento, to a visual and aural “t.”  Just like the Italian horrormeister’s movies, Amer is an erotically charged mindbender of a movie indeed.

GUEST REVIEW: UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’  Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.

Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand.  The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my.  The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.

Still from Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.

In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.

GUEST REVIEW: THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY [Püha Tõnu kiusamine] (2009)

This review originally appeared in a slightly different form at The Cinematheque.

Surprisingly resonant, this little film from the wilds of Estonia is a sharply focused take on the classic tale of St. Anthony, recalling the work of such past auteurs as Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson and Renoir. The Temptation of St. Tony, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, explores the modern world by showing the strange half-built state of affairs in the former Soviet state: middle-management bureaucrats with bourgeois attitudes traipsing about in the visual poverty of newly built homes on ugly, fauna-less tracts of land—Huxley’s grey squat buildings with a twist. All the while, the film is ensconced inside the world of Hieronymus Bosch, whose “Temptation of St. Anthony” provides the visual starting point.

Still from The Temptation of St. Tony (2009)Shot in crisp black and white (so crisp one could call it black and silver) Õunpuu gives us a tale that is pure Kafka (via Tarkovksy visually and Bunuel spiritually), interspersed with visions of a hellish possibility that twists the film into a nightmare.  Our faithful and fateful protag is homebound after a party when he hits and kills a dog. He drags the dog into the woods to hide the evidence and stumbles upon a severed human hand. Upon further inspection, our man finds a pile of dozens and dozens of severed human hands. This is the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare, which roller coasters its way through Hell and back and into its inevitably tragic, incessantly twisted finale.

The centerpiece of the film is the Bosch-like Hell that plays itself as some sort of nightclub-cum-cannibalistic whorehouse where our “hero” must save the waifish (read: pretty, but used would-be crack whore) damsel-in-distress he has become enamored with—and since we are throwing in influences, let’s toss in David Lynch right around this point.  The place is made up in such a way that we would not be surprised to find the disfigured face of Tom Waits dancing about in some sinister manner—and for a second we almost seem to, though at second glance we find that it’s the French actor .  Whatever the case may be, The Temptation of St. Tony—this strangely sublime nightmare of a movie, in its crisper-than-crisp photography, impossible Kafkaesque storyline, Bosch-inspired visual audacity and Tarkovskyian layerings—is a film you’ll be hard pressed to avert your eyes from, even in the most disturbing of moments.

LIST CANDIDATE: BLACK SWAN (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: A shy up-and-coming ballet dancer lands the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”

Still from Black Swan (2010)

Obsessed with perfection and paranoid that the dual role will be taken away from her, she struggles to become both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan characters.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological horror-thriller, no doubt about it, and in many ways it sticks to the conventions of that kind of film . But at the same time, Black Swan is so eerie, so unsettling, and so strange in its hallucinatory freak-outs and loosening grip on reality—and so good overall—that it probably warrants inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: It is very difficult to write any kind of in-depth review of this movie without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, just take my word for it that Black Swan is a truly exceptional film and you should go see it.  Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid any big revelations, but will mention various plot points.

It seems the controversial Darren Aronofsky has found a way to combine the considerable and versatile talents he exhibited in his preceding films into one near-perfect thriller that’s both unsettling and emotionally gripping.  He infuses his new feature with all the depravity of Requiem for a Dream, the visceral surrealism of Pi, the visual splendor of The Fountain, and the grounded character of The Wrestler, while of course adding some beautiful dance sequences and a sapphic fantasy. His camera moves with the dancers as they bound across the stage, offering a volatile but accessible glimpse at a live art form and throwing in enough technical tricks to keep any camera geek guessing.

Nina is a quiet, innocent young woman—an obvious product of her coddling, controlling mother—and her quest for perfection in dance leads her to attempt a complete personality overhaul. To play the Black Swan role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” she must release the dark, confident, seductive force within her that’s been fighting to break out. This duality within her character is frequently hinted at throughout the film through use of mirrors, sex, and hallucination woven so seamlessly with reality that the viewer is frequently unsure what is real—as is Nina herself. The constant mind games Aronofsky plays with his audience—along with Natalie Portman’s dedicated performance—make for a captivating, tense experience. I was so engaged and so anxious during this movie I felt myself physically relax about twenty minutes after it ended, though mentally I still felt shaken.

A testament to the great struggles inherent to any artistic expression, Black Swan is an intense and passionate film. Every sound is acutely felt, every strange vision strikes a cord. At times things get as visceral as Cronenberg‘s body horrors. The horror is derived from how little we really know about anything outside of Nina’s own experience, and how unsure we are about how much worse it’s going to get. Everyone around her presumably leads a fairly normal, expected life (well, everyone except Winona Ryder’s tragic, boozy ex-dancer Beth), but we are rarely able to see outside of Nina’s self-constructed dual prison of home and studio, which is inflated in her own head. Indeed, the few times we are reminded of the outside world offer welcome comedic breaks to somewhat ease the ever-building tension.

All of Aronofsky’s stylistic flourishes and subtly terrifying images are tempered by several truly impressive performances. Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation, and exhilaration. Mila Kunis is an excellent foil, physically mirroring the shy protagonist while exuding the sexuality and abandon Nina strives for. Vincent Cassell is a superb jackass, channeling George Balanchine in his romantic, tyrannical choreographer Thomas Leroy, and Barbara Hershey is appropriately sympathetic and creepy as Nina’s obsessive mother Erica.

From the very beginning Black Swan reaches out and grabs its audience, never letting its grip slip until well after the credits roll. At times it may be hard to watch, but you’ll never want to look away, and what you see will certainly stick with you. And the combination of backstage ballet drama, pulp-thriller gore, and hallucinatory allegory actually is pretty weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times