Oct 22, 2013

25 HORROR MOVIES YOU'VE NEVER SEEN

As dedicated horror movie fans, we all love the Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen or Scream series but you can only watch those films every October the 31st so many times until you're looking for something new.

After being asked on several occasions for a recommendation (because I watch too many movies), I thought I might share a list of horror films that don't always get mentioned come this time of year but I feel still deserve recognition.  With any luck you might find a few of them here you've never seen and will soon fall in love with.

Click on the movie title for a mini-review courtesy of Doc Faustus, Budarc, Marceline and myself over at In A Nutshell.

First up, let's take a look at the ones that are just plain sick & twisted fun perfect for a group screening.

1)  TRICK 'R TREAT [2007]
An anthology of pure wicked entertainment that screams pre-drinks before heading out to the Halloween party.  It's been an annual tradition for me since it first came out.
2)  BITTER FEAST [2010]
A grisly low budget film about a chef extracting revenge on a snotty food critic.  It's gruesome but deliciously entertaining in stomach churning ways.
3)  GRAVE ENCOUNTERS [2011]
Another silly found footage film that actually supplies some decent thrills & chills that will have you laughing in terror.  Filmed in an abandoned Vancouver mental institute the film is heavy on atmosphere and light on most of everything else but doesn't matter when it gets the job done.
4)  THE DEVIL'S CARNIVAL [2012]
An hour long circus rock opera from Hell by the guys who brought you Saw and Repo! The Genetic Opera.  It's certainly not for everybody but if you love yourself some Rocky Horror Picture Show or Forbidden Zone then this colorful and scary musical ride should be right down your twisted little alley.  
5)  THE CHILDREN [2008]
This dark, dark tale about homicidal tots might be a bit much for some of the weaker at heart.  However if you're in for some "OMG! Should I laugh or be offended?" scenes with some very effective scares then this one is for you.

****

Secondly, how about a gander at the loony ladies of the horror genre?  I assure you, there's something seriously wrong with all 5 of these girls, making Dexter Morgan look like a teddy bear.

1)  MAY [2002]
Angela Bettis' fantastic performance makes this creepy little tale about a girl who has a bit more than just a rough case of Asperger's.  Lucky McKee's gone on to make many more films after this but none have stood up to this fine little tale of weirdness.
2)  AMERICAN MARY [2012]
The Soska Sisters direct this twisted Cronenberg-esque film about a deranged & disturbing style of body modifications.  Kat Isabelle carries the film mostly on her own, with the help from a scene-stealing performance from a immensely unsettling Tristan Risk.
3)  EXCISION [2012]
Filled with some WTF moments then just a few more for good measure, this film is one of those ones that sneaks up on you and lingers for many a day afterwards.  I loved it.  I'd be surprised if it wasn't a cult classic 10 years down the road.
4)  STOKER [2013]
Get that fancy schmancy sound system out for this one because the sound design is to die for as it crawls inside your ears and threatens to lays eggs inside.  Park Chan-wook directs Nicole Kidman & Mia Wasikowska in some painfully underrated creepsome performances.
5)  THE LOVED ONES [2009]
As Marceline says in her Nutshell review it's "fun to watch people get maimed when they're wearing formalwear."
A colorful Australian horror film that goes all Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the viewer by the end.

****

How about some artsy-fartsy slow-burning creepy movies that are perfect to watch alone to allow them to haunt you for days afterwards with their stark weirdness and chilling atmospheres?  


1)  KILL LIST [2011]
Ben Wheatley's pagan ritual/crime thriller is an odd bird indeed.  It's as frightening as it is intense with some shocking shots of violence scattered here and there.  One of them "pick my jaw up off the floor" films after it's final act.  
2)  FEAR X [2003]
Nicolas Winding Refn's bizarre thriller is an ode to David Lynch as it makes me afraid of the things around the corner or on the other side of the door that I can't see onscreen.  Written by Requiem For A Dream author Hubert Selby Jr. means you're guaranteed for some lingering creepies.  
3)  CALVAIRE [2004]
This Belgian film is all about it's chilling atmosphere that leaves you grasping for a breath of fresh air and a warm jacket.  If you're tired of the "weary traveller finds a scary backwoods village" story, then this unpredictable dose of extreme weirdness is just for you and your dancing friends. 
4)  EL HABITANTE INCIERTO [2004]
A immensely unsettling supernatural home invasion film from Spain that relies mostly on it's chilling mood and eerie setting to give you the uber-wiggins.  I ain't ever living in a big house.  
...ever.  I like to keep my wiggins in check.
5)  BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO [2012]
A movie about a sound engineer that begins letting his cheese slide of his crackers while working on a disturbing Italian horror film.  Weird.  Weird.  Weird.  Check out the dizzying soundtrack for maximum creep factor.

****

There's also instensely grotesque and disturbing that's borderline JUST TOO DAMNED MUCH.  Bring a barf bag, kiddies.  ...and maybe a few years of therapy afterwards.

1)  MARTYRS [2008]
Feckin' feck.  I nearly turned this one off due to it's horrifying intensity but was glad I subjected myself to the whole thing in a single setting, because this French-Canadian HORROR film is incredibly well written and performed.  Let this be a warning to all who dare to venture down into this traumatizing cinematic experience.
2)  THE GIRL NEXT DOOR [2007]
At first this one looks deceivingly innocent and kind of cheesy but as it developed I found myself immersed into something I'd rather not think about.  It's inspired by a true murder & torture case which makes it all the more scarier and unsettling to think about.  People are feckin' sick sometimes.
3)  KOTOKO [2012]
Shinya Tsukamoto studies mental illness in the most disturbing and haunting of ways.  A schizophrenic style of photography and emotions the film will make you queasy and afraid to think about the subject too much.  
4)  BEDEVILLED [2010]
Some seriously sadistic stuff are on full display here that makes it hard to call it entertainment but more like a frightening study of characteristics.  It's mercilessly vicious and guaranteed to make you reach for the happy pills afterwards.  
5)  TAXIDERMIA [2006]
The four films above are all grotesque, depressing, shocking & savage, and so is this one but it's actually quite fun in a "I think there's something seriously wrong me" kind of way.  A bizarre film broken up into three connected stories that are all so feckin' weird you won't soon forget it.  

****

Some miscellaneous debris of creepy goodness....


1)  THE EYE [2002]
The Pang Brothers' Asian horror film that doesn't receive as much recognition as Ringu or Ju-On but certainly deserves the same amount of respect.  There's some serious wiggins to be had here.
...and avoid the Jessica Alba remake at all costs.  
2)  PONTYPOOL [2008]
A Canadian zombie movie with some serious brains about it.  If you're in love with the concept of language than this one is definitely for you.  If you're sick of zombie films then check this one out before you completely write them off.  Really good stuff here.
3)  STREET OF CROCODILES [1987]
An animated short from The Brothers Quay that I can guarantee you, will remain embedded in your mind for the rest of your life due to it's terrifying visuals.  If I wasn't so damned frightened of it I could live in this world.
4)  ALICE [1988]
Jan Švankmajer's adaptation of Lewis Carrol's Alice In Wonderland isn't something one will easily forget.  It's blend of live action and stop-action bug-eyed puppets are creatively memorable and so weird you almost want to look away.  
..."said the rabbit".
5)  DETENTION [2011]
This horror/comedy really isn't a good film at all.  
...but it's enthusiasm, visual flair and non-stop pop culture jokes make for one of the most enjoyable crappy films I've seen in a long time.  All 5 times.
If you grew up in the '90's as a teenager than you'll know just what I mean.  Stupid, stupid fun.

****

There you have it, folks.  25 scary films you probably haven't seen.

I'm fully aware many readers will have seen at least half of them but I need to meet the pervert who's seen all 25 and then we'll talk.     

Dec 7, 2011

Sunshine (Dir. Danny Boyle. 2007)


Britain does 3 things well.  1. Bad weather.  2. Movie bad guys.  3. Science Fiction film.  I’ll be focusing on the 3rd while watching the 1st through my window.

Danny Boyle has never been afraid to reference his influences and pay homage to his peers and they’re starkly obvious this time around.  Sunshine is the illegitimate child of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979).  It’s not unfair to say that Sunshine wouldn’t exist in its current state without those two films.  It gels Scott’s sense of entrapment, his cold, hard spaceship design, his internal camera movements and sense of displacement with Kubrick’s low angle corridor shots, his sense of exterior grandeur, the majesty of space and the desperate need for adaption when faced with the loss of control.  It shouldn’t work, it should be called a blatant act of egotistical plagiarism but somehow it not only works, it excels.
I’ll not elaborate much but need to also say that it also owes a debt to Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) but since that was the skeletal basis for and was written by the author of Alien it’s another easy comparison.

The plot of Sunshine is simple.  Our Sun is dying and a permanent solar winter threatens the future of mankind.  A vessel, the Icarus II (this naming is perhaps the only intentional humour in the whole film) is launched with a ‘Stellar Bomb’ onboard.  The bomb has a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island, and when fired into the Sun could theoretically cause a chain reaction that sets everything right again.  I’m not giving spoilers - this is where the film begins.

The Icarus II has an eight man crew, all of whom are the protagonists.  The physicist Robert Cappa (played by Cillian Murphy) is the closest thing we get to a traditional main character type.  Cappa is the compassionate and logical one; he acknowledges his emotions but isn’t ruled by them.  He’s the kind of person we want to be at heart so we readily sympathise and connect with him on a subconscious level.  We want Cappa to succeed, we want a hero.  It’s a tough choice as the characters care about little beyond their fields of expertise. When the tears come it’s not for the individual, it’s for the failure to perform and the feeling of being cast in the shadow of someone else, and of being judged.  They need to be basking in the shining light of their own self-image or they get depressed.  I've heard people that say the human element is missing from Sunshine but I would argue that they simply weren’t paying attention, or perhaps they refuse to accept their own selfish desires and failings and recognise what it is that makes us human.
 
Cappa has his detractors onboard the Icarus, most notably Mace (Chris Evans) who is the closest thing to an antagonist crew member the film has for the most part; those two have a dynamic that again reminds of Scott’s Alien setup: the small crew that respect each other but are equally as happy to get some peace away from each other.
The remainder of the crew are equally well cast.  They react to threats and stimuli differently and effortlessly keep their character in check.

We spend our time on the ship experiencing the same sense of seclusion as the rest of the crew; we’re the ninth crew member.  There are no happy cuts back to earth to give us room to breathe, no gathering of NASA brains in a room full of computers, ties pulled to the side, name tags tilted, waiting for that camaraderie moment when they can cheer and throw Styrofoam cups in air, thankfully.
The sense of space inside the Icarus II is best described as claustrophobic, an overused device in sci-fi but one that we accept, chalking it up to realism.

Elsewhere the set design, set dressings and props are functional and lifeless; inside the ship there is little colour.
In contrast, outside the ship is a blinding brilliant golden hue.  Being so close to the Sun means the light can kill, it can burn you to a frazzled crisp.  It’s unusual to see light as something threatening, as a menacing force, usually darkness or more correctly the unknown things that lurk in darkness are what filmmakers use to scare and unnerve us.  When sunlight can kill you it takes on a more ominous aspect.  It’s the opposite of what we expect.

The universe is full of unknowns; the mission is based on theory which can be perceived as another word for unknown so the fear of not knowing coupled with the horror of the light is very real for the crew.  When the ship you’re on is slowly inching toward both those things, the tension is sure to cause rifts and perhaps even conflict between thought and action; Mace and Cappa personify this.

Returning to the visuals for a moment, the first glimpse we get of the stylistic space suits is like something from a bad music video.  Once the scene changes the suits begin to make sense within the context of the film aesthetic but it’s hard to shake that initial feeling of fail each time they reappear.  They do manage to highlight the crippling claustrophobic nature of something that is both designed to keep you from dying and causes you to fear your own personal space, so they aren't all bad.

There was some significant post production colour fixing on the imagery but it actually works to the films advantage.  The visual splendour is reliant on the backdrop of space; ordinary studio lighting could never have achieved the same outcome no matter how much money was spent.

The final third of the film will leave a lot of people wondering what happened during the writing process which is something I’ve thought more than once of Alex Garland’s work; he is able to set up a situation with tension and an insistence on strong characters making strong decisions beautifully but when it comes time to providing a satisfactory conclusion he’s like a trout out of water.
It’s not confusing, if you pay attention to the story in the run up to the final act it makes perfect sense, the people that claim otherwise are talking when they should be listening, the problem is the sharp left turn the film takes before it takes us there.  There is a “we’ll add this because we need it” attitude that sits uncomfortably alongside the earlier insistence of pretentious science.  If you make your audience work to appreciate your clever science and then throw in a genie in a lamp it tends to stick out like glow in the dark stitching.

The score by John Murphy (with occasional help from Underworld) is for me his finest moment; it sits in the shadows until needed and when the rousing build hits its peak my heart is in my throat every time.  It’s undoubtedly Boyle’s film but there are three or four special moments during the 107 minutes running time where Murphy steals it from him.  I’m not saying the visuals take second place, they work in tandem with each other beautifully, I’m saying that Murphy makes those moments unique, emotionally draining and achingly memorable.


Sunshine is nothing more than a variation on a theme, it’s 80% homage and only 20% unique but when it’s done with such favourable results and openly acknowledges the constituent parts then I’m happy to go along with it.  Accounting for its flaws and despite Garland’s hokum script towards the end Sunshine succeeds where almost every other English language sci-fi film of the past 20 years has failed.  I will never tire of it's staid charms.
Kubrick gets a final nod in the final scene; you’ll see what I mean.  It made me happy clap.

***** out of *****

Dec 5, 2011

Young Sherlock Holmes (dir. Barry Levinson - 1984)


I'm well aware that what I'm about to say is blasphemous, but I'll say it all the same: I don't consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales to be very good mysteries. They're great stories, to be sure, full of wonderfully crafted characters, but as pure mystery tales, they fall short. To paraphrase S. S. Van Dine, in a good mystery tale, a reader must have the same chance of solving the mystery that the detective does. Part of the appeal of Holmes stories is his dazzling intellect, his ability to look at a person and know things that readers at home would never be able to decipher. Solving mysteries along with Holmes requires more leaps of logic than it does careful analyzation of clues. In Young Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is youthful and inexperienced, which offered the chance to weave a mystery tale in which the viewer and the famous detective were, for once, on equal footing. But, as much as I love a good mystery, I'm glad they didn't take that opportunity. Young Sherlock Holmes has mysterious elements, but it's a pure adventure tale, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Young Sherlock Holmes was a movie that was tremendously special to me as a child. At the time, I loved Holmes enough that I would have enjoyed the movie no matter what, but it was almost as if the writer (Chris Columbus, the first screenwriter whose name I ever took note of) was going out of his way to appeal to me. For the part of me that loved horror, there were scenes that terrified in incredibly imaginative ways. For the part of me who delighted over Indiana Jones, there were scenes that felt as though they'd come straight out of Temple of Doom. For the part of me that was a hopeless romantic, there was a love story I could swoon over again and again. And, more importantly that anything else, the film gave me one of my very first looks into the magic of Pixar.


Pixar spent much of the 80's creating special effects for various Lucasfilm projects, but the work they did on Young Sherlock Holmes is their most notable. Not only did they create the first ever fully CG character, a knight made entirely out of stained glass, but they combined CGI with a live-action background for the very first time. This earned Pixar the first of many Academy Award nominations, even if they somehow managed to lose this one to Cocoon. I'm not always the biggest fan of CG in film, but their work here was absolutely groundbreaking, and still holds up today:




CG is so often used as a shortcut, but the folks at Pixar are true animators. They put so much thought into the way their creations move, into the way their pieces come together, that less than 30 seconds of screentime can still be mindbogglingly awesome. John Lasseter himself created the effect, which required the pieces of the knight to be painted on film via laser, and it remains one of my all-time favorite uses of CG in a live-action film.

Were it not for the work of Pixar, I would have been too afraid to revisit the world of Young Sherlock Holmes. It's a film that I loved so dearly, that influenced the sort of stories I wrote for so long, that I knew it was going to never live up to my memories of it. But thankfully, while it's much easier to see the failings of Young Sherlock Holmes when looking at it through the eyes of an adult, it's still a fantastic kid's movie, and just a pretty great movie in general.

Young Sherlock Holmes, by its very nature, is required to take liberties with the Holmes canon. In Doyle's stories, Holmes didn't develop an interest in mysteries until his time at university, and he and Watson didn't meet until they were both adults. But it feels right for these two characters to be boyhood friends, and it's hard to imagine a Holmes not enamored with mysteries, no matter what the canon says. It's always been easy to understand why Watson is so taken with Holmes- in spite of his many eccentricities, he's an astonishing person, and getting to be a part of his world is worth putting up with all that comes with it. But here, it's easy to understand Holmes' fondness for Watson as well. His peers are largely concerned with being fashionable or finding jobs that will make them money, and the unassuming, country boy Watson must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Watson is unafraid to be wrong, and couldn't put on airs or pretend to be someone else even if he tried. They compliment each other wonderfully, and their friendship is one of the film's highlights.

Unfortunately, the other characters don't succeed in the way these two do. Holmes and Watson are iconic characters, and the film builds on the basic knowledge that most viewers will have of them. However, original creations, such as Holmes' rival Dudley and his love interest, Elizabeth, don't get much in the way of development and suffer for it. The former feels very by the numbers, and the latter doesn't seem to do much except look very pretty. Just a little more work on Elizabeth would've gone a long way, and it's a shame the movie couldn't have been 10 or 15 minutes longer.

Maybe it's just that life's crushed the hopeless romantic out of me, but it's hard for me to see the relationship between Holmes and Elizabeth as the grand romance I once did. More than anything else, their relationship seems to have sprung out of their limited possibilities- for Holmes, she's the only female around, and for her, he's one of the only males who isn't a self-absorbed dolt. But even if I don't think their tale is a romance for the ages, I can certainly buy that the two are in love. I generally think of Holmes as being completely aromantic, but when he watches Elizabeth out the window and professes that when he grows up, he "never wants to be alone", there's a hardened part of me that softens just a tad.

It took me a while to get used to the movie's pacing. In the first half of the film, there's not much of a flow from scene to scene. It feels more like you're watching a series of vignettes than a single cohesive tale. It bothered me at first, but eventually I realized how well it worked with Watson's narrations. It really does feel like he's recounting a few early memories before diving into the meaty tale. Fittingly, the narration slows down once the pace of the film picks up, and it its ending scenes seem to fit in with the feel of its early ones. It's not something every viewer will enjoy- it took me a good while to appreciate it- but I do think it enhances the viewing experience.


But even if you never warm up to the unusual pacing, those early horror scenes are an absolutely delight. Columbus seems to get that the horrors that lurk in your imagination can be more terrifying than any evil villain or monstrous creature that might be hiding in the shadow. I'm not sure I buy the effectiveness of the hallucinogen as a murder weapon. While it often seemed to kill its victims in minutes, anyone wearing plot armor seemed to get around its effects fairly easily. But still, I'm hard pressed to think of a scene more whimsically frightening than the adorable pastries who force Watson- bound up by sausages- to eat them. Nearly all these effects aged beautifully, and they manage to be scary without feeling out of place in a family friendly film.

At times, the movie is incredibly corny. It goes to great lengths to show how various things we know about Holmes came to be, and there's actually a scene in which kid after kid exclaims "Holmes is going to solve the crime!". But it's also extremely creepy, and manages to be fun from start to finish, even with an ending that's a bit of a downer. I wouldn't describe the acting in the film as good, exactly, but it's well cast. Nicholas Rowe plays Holmes as so cerebral and wise beyond his years that the moments in which he genuinely feels like his age are striking. Alan Cox gets some of the movie's best lines in as Watson, and manages to keep his character from diving into annoying territory. Sophie Ward doesn't do much besides look pretty, but it's what the script called for, and she does a good job of it. The film's villain (who went on to play Holmes in another movie) is wonderfully charismatic, and makes his reveal a pretty powerful moment. And I adore Roger Ashton-Griffiths's performance as a pre-inspector Lestrade. Occasionally, I cringed at the delivery of a line, but for a mostly young cast, the quality of the performances wasn't at all bad.

Young Sherlock Holmes has a satisfying ending as is, but the post-credits reveal takes it to a whole new level. These days, an extra scene after the credits is pretty common, but back then, it was incredibly rare, and I can't think of one that pre-dates it. The last few moments are so good that I'm also hard pressed to think of anything that's surpassed it since. Even when I watch it and know exactly what's coming, it gives me goosebumps.

These days, I could see myself being cynical enough to dismiss a movie like Young Sherlock Holmes before ever even watching it, and I'm glad that it came out long enough ago that I got to watch it with a child-like wonder instead. It's not quite as amazing as it seemed to a little girl back in the 80's, but it's still a very entertaining film with a lot of historical importance. Rest assured, you can make it through this one with nostalgia goggles intact.

**** out of 5.

May 15, 2011

Nadja (Dir. Michael Almereyda. 1994)


Note:  If Nadia appears in italics it’s the film I’m referring to, any other instance is the titular character.

Vampires used to be scary, monstrous and dangerous predators.  Then Hollywood made them sexy and enchanting, darkly seductive but still dangerous.
Lately they’ve been sparkly and twee.  Occasionally they are arthouse.  Tony Scott’s wonderfully dreamy The Hunger (1983) springs instantly to mind.  Nadja is arthouse, yet it’s a house not in the same zip code as Scott’s.  It was written and directed by Michael Almereyda back in 1994.  I know it’s not current, I rarely do current.  I have to confess to having never viewed an Almereyda film before so I don’t know if this is typical of his style or not.
It’s a style that left me with contradictory feelings.

The film shifts through various locations in its 93 minute running time.  Initially set in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the cities teem with a sense of hurried nightlife.  
In contrast to the animated city, the characters are drifting, distant, dreamlike and drugged as they move through life or un-life.  Even the married couple, who one supposes the viewers are meant to more readily identify with, are living in a disconnected, self-indulgent, bordering on clinical depression, cloudy haze.  It’s damn depressing.  Every person in the film is living in a self-created fictional reality.
I wouldn’t want any of them at my house for tea and cake.

The characters have names that most viewers will be familiar with as they are taken from Bram Stoker’s original.
Van Helsing.  Lucy.  Renfield.  Count Dracula.  In many ways it’s a modern retelling of the same story, yet they aren’t as alluring as they should be and all have an unlikable dysfunctional existentialism that puts them at odds with their environment.  Vampires are supposed to be ill-fitting in their milieu but usually they sit atop it, not buried underneath its filth.  They are usually isolated from it by self-imposed alienation not their own shortcomings.
Clearly the film has something new to say by taking this stance but does it present it effectively is the burning question.

Our first real insight into Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) comes near the beginning of the film; we play voyeur as she seems to chat candidly with someone.  It’s an interesting scene, putting the viewer instantly in mind of Interview with the Vampire, which coincidently Neil Jordan released as a film that same year.  We listen furtively as the other person feigns interest in what Nadja has to say.  “I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level,” she tells him.
And that is essentially what the film is about.  Nadja is beautiful on the surface but hopelessly lost inside.  Her life is complicated, but much of the complicated nature is a result of her own neuroses.  Superficial is in her blood (no pun intended).  The consciousness inside her wants escape from the dark clutches and the madness that controls her.
She longs to be free of the insanity and the dysfunctional family she is a part of, and yet she is forever bound to them by her condition.
The film can be seen as reflective of that, it too is fighting with itself.  Visually and thematically it is great but the pacing and the script are terrible.

As the film progresses it repeatedly goes back to Nadja telling her story to anyone that will listen; she craves an audience that she can use to help define her.  Nadja is playing a role.  She even wears the long dark ‘look at me, I’m a vamp’ cape when out walking.   

The brief scene with David Lynch was interesting.  It seemed to be homage to the man himself.  He is sat at a desk with a paper coffee cup, it’s dreamlike, it has a similar ambient industrial sound that he and Angelo Badalamenti are known for and it utilises a slow zooming camera reactionary shot.  It’s a shame it’s only 42 seconds long. 

The most effective element of the film was Jim Denault's seductively low key black and white cinematography.  For most of the film it resembles a beautifully constructed painted canvas from a palette of cold light and velvet dark; shadows fall upon walls and give pathos to faces wonderfully.  It gives them a depth and an intensity that is reminiscent of the classic horror films from which Nadja draws much of its story inspiration.

Very occasionally it reminded me of old Bela Lugosi films, with the symbolical climbing of the stairs from a fixed camera position, and the eyes looming omnisciently over the action in a cheap double exposure effect.  Those moments were fantastic.  The director even includes a scene of Lugosi from White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932).  However, these moments are few; more of them would have been a welcome addition.

Unfortunately, Denault occasionally sets aside his beautiful 35mm film stock with its dramatic lighting in favour of what appears to be a child’s toy camera with a horrible pixellated image.  As the film unfolds you should come to understand why he chose such a stylistic approach but personally I found it irritating, almost hateful.  There were a dozen other ways he could have achieved the same result without making it look so amateurish.

I watched the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (Andy Wilson, 2000) directly before Nadja, and while the two productions have absolutely nothing in common with each other, the former served to highlight the poor casting of the latter.  Gormenghast was perfect casting, flawless, faultless, whereas Nadja was just plain terrible.  Nadja herself was well cast, and Elina Löwensohn photographs beautifully in black and white but Renfield, Van Helsing, and the rest of the ensemble were not well suited.

Poor Peter Fonda gets some of the worst dialogue in the film.  He plays the Van Helsing character and he does his best with the material but at times he looks embarrassed to be there.   “Blood is like chewing gum to these creatures!” he says.  I’ve always believed that chewing gum is not supposed to be swallowed.  It’s what we use in place of our real craving and then spat out when no longer needed.  And if that doesn’t make you cringe there is always the “...psychic fax.”  It’s remarkable how Jared Harris manages to keep his dignity as he describes it, and yet he does, only just.  Peter Fonda was spared that one.

I have to admit that 50 minutes into the feature my attention began to drift and I found myself wondering what I was going to make for lunch.  I tried to picture the contents of my fridge the last time I had peeked into it.
And that's when the Portishead moment drew me back into the film.  It was the highlight of the whole film for me and it gelled beautifully.  The music of Portishead is used twice, the second instance accompanies Nadja as she walks the streets in her vamp cape.  It's an avant-garde, sombre and creepy scene that would have sat beautifully in a French New wave film, if they had dabbled in such things.
It was ethereal, dreamy, creepy, pressing, and ultimately fantastic.

In conclusion, the psychology of Nadja is much more interesting than the film itself but is underdeveloped and left hanging in the air, even at the films end.  It does make pains to reference that first insight, “I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level,” but the symmetry is unbalanced.  It tries to be multi-faceted and deeply spiritual but I really don’t think it achieves either of those.
It tries to add depth by adding interwoven relationships but it’s handled so clumsily that I was left not caring at all.
Nadja can be seen as a study of our post-modern world and of the need of the individual to transcend it, or it can be seen as an avant-garde vampire film with some really shitty dialogue.  And for me that’s the crux of the problem I had with the film.  Is it deep, or do we project deepness upon it?  Is it clever or is it empty?  I hate that uncertainty.
I love ambiguity but uncertainty is a different kettle of fish.
I wholly admit that maybe I missed the point entirely but something inside me tells me there was no clear point to begin with.  It’s open to interpretation, so make of that what you will.

* 1/2 out of 5

Apr 27, 2011

CUCKOO'S TOP 10 SCORES OF 2010

Better late than never. In my defense, some of professional and respected score reviewers just posted their lists in the past few weeks.

Without further ado:

10. CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN


A fascinating mixture of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake masterpiece stirred into Clint Mansell's distorted and unsettling sonic manipulations.
Not for everyone but without a doubt one of the most innovative and ballsy scores to be produced in a long time.


9. THEODORE SHAPIRO / DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS


A quirky little gem that is both off-kilter waltzes and Beatles-esque intimacy. It never fails to bring a smile to my face with it's humor and warmth. Shapiro's nailed the comedy genre with his resume of quality scores in the genre.

8. ALEXANDRE DESPLAT / THE GHOST WRITER


Desplat turns on the Herrmann-esque scoring for this twist-filled thriller. Frantic and nerve-wracking at times, Desplat's The Ghost Writer digs deep into a paranoid world that leaves the listener very unsettled.

7. HANS ZIMMER, BLAKE NEELY & GEOFF ZANELLI / THE PACIFIC


A grim and emotionally heavy score that layers on the tonal textures and sonic wallpapers with a subtle grace that never takes the listener out of the era and the world displayed on screen.
While it may not stand up against Michael Kamen's Band Of Brothers masterpiece it certainly gives it a run for it's money.


6. ARMAND AMAR / AO: LE DERNIER NEANDERTRAL


French-Israeli-Moroccan composer Armand Amar borrows from cultures all over the world to produce a powerful dramatic score for the "caveman" film, AO.
With the difficult task of having to compose music for a film with virtually no dialogue, while having to remain in the background yet push the emotions forward, Amar excels in this.

5. OSCAR ARAUJO / CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW


Relatively unknown Spanish composer Oscar Araujo reinvents the Castlevania scores with a choir heavy gothic orchestral score that is simply astounding.
Araujo sets the bar on video game scoring genre a whole lot higher, rivaling Giacchino's Medal Of Honor and John Debney's Lair scores.

4. ARNAU BATALLER / LA HERENCIA VALDERMAR


Another heavy hitter in the "Iberian Revolution" in film scoring, Arnau Bataller sweeps me off my feet with the gothic choral masterpiece. It stands along side Chris Young's best work for horror scoring. A true gem buried underneath a truly horrible film.

3. GARRY SCHYMANN / BIOSHOCK 2


A divine mixture of tonal ambient terror and stark beauty, Garry Schymann steps it up a notch with his second score in the BioShock video game series.
It's a chilling and haunting score that lingers with you long after it's done playing.

2. JOHN POWELL / HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON


John Powell's perfect score is the best of his entire career. A smooth blend of thematic progression and exciting action pieces, Dragon is perfect coming from all angles.
It will be difficult to top this one...but I suspect he has it in him.

1. NAOKI SATO (& Yasushi Miyagawa) / SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO


This score came out of nowhere and knocked me off my feet.
Naoki Sato's "western" action score is simply breathtaking. Throwing in orchestated variations of Hiroshi Miyagawa's original themes with some of his makes for one of 2010's most pleasant surprises.

Apr 23, 2011

CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN




If you went anywhere near a magazine stand, the television or the cinema last year, director Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan needs no introduction whatsoever.
One of the most anticipated films of 2010, Swan was one of the few films to actually live up to the buzz it generated before it’s release. The film graced us with wonderfully disturbing performances, beautifully shot and choreographed dance scenes, a strong sense of storytelling & direction and of course the much talked about psycho-sexual scene involving co-stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballet dancer, Nina (played by Natalie Portman) who is so obsessed with being the best at what she does, she seems to lose focus of who exactly it is she’s trying to impress. With nearly every single scene shadowed with some sort of reflective surface, it gives off a feeling like eyes are always on her, whether it’s her own or an unseen audience only Nina knows. The few scenes that don’t feature a reflective surface are the sparse moments Nina seems to be at peace with herself. Each character in this tale are terrifyingly intimidating in their own way and most scenes are shot in a claustrophobic style, the entire film seems to suffocate you in such an unsettling and effective way, you’re almost glad it’s over, just so you can catch your breath and give some thought to what you’ve just seen.
Aronofsky’s disturbing style of storytelling has always been wonderfully complimented with the music of the former frontman of the alternative/industrial act “Pop Will Eat Itself”, Clint Mansell. After working with Aronofsky on all of his films starting with Pi in 1998, followed by Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler and many more, Mansell’s made a name for himself in the film scoring business and to a certain degree the pop score industry too, along with John Murphy, Steve Jablonsky and Hans Zimmer. Showcasing his orchestral talents has been something Mansell has never really been able to do, apart from the impressive action score Sahara in 2005. Beyond that, he’s been mostly known to score with a prog-rock, minimalist method that seems to be quite favorable to the average music listener, thus setting him into the pop-score category. Using those same orchestral talents from Sahara, Mansell puts them to good use with Black Swan.
You couldn’t make a film with ‘Swan Lake’ serving as a backdrop and not include Tchaikovsky’s iconic music. What Mansell does here is he cleverly adapts and violently distorts it when the action onscreen deems it necessary. What is unclear for a great deal of the film (and very unsettling) is whether or not the score is what we the viewers are hearing as underscore or what Nina is constantly hearing in her head. The score seems to blur the lines of reality and storytelling with wonderful results. It’s actually very well done and thus Mansell receives top credit for using it in such manner.
By hardly changing a note in the actual "Swan Lake" moments in the score, Mansell manages to orchestrate it in such a way that it retains it’s beauty and easy flow but hints at discomfort and neurosis with some bizarre, yet small changes in the orchestration.
Like Nina, we get lost in the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and soon forget that we aren’t listening to it, until Mansell attacks us with threatening electronic slashes and crashes, immediately snapping us back into the cruel world that is depicted into the film. The very first thing we hear is “Nina’s Dream” which is a note for note adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Introduction” from the first act of his ballet. It doesn’t take long for Mansell to insert some unsettling effects to distract us from the beauty of the music and remind us of it’s not just about "Swan Lake". This cue just touches the edge of the different methods and techniques Mansell uses over the course of the film to engulf us into the insanity of the narrative.
While “Mother Me” doesn’t quote anything directly written by Tchaikovsky, Mansell manages to emulate his compositional style so well it’s almost as if the classical composer is haunting Nina even in the moments of her life that aren’t showcasing the ballet. Mansell uses this in a few cues later on and it works so well blending in with "Swan Lake", most reviewers and listeners didn’t even realize it was Mansell’s original work.
“A New Season” cleverly quotes only the first three notes of the 'Swan Theme' with a brass instrumentation and repeats it like a broken record, sounding somewhat incomplete but works quite well simultaneously.
My favorite cue throughout the entire album is “A New Swan Queen” because of the way Mansell adapted Tchaikovsky’s work and turned into something almost unrecognizable. For the first half he uses a portion of the fourth act in an uplifting manner but quickly changes things over into a rather sinister bit that is incredibly clever. While he does use Tchaikovsky’s music, he only uses the brass section from the first scene of the first act. While in it’s original context it’s quite delightful, here without the fluttery string and woodwinds it comes off as very scary in this version. A haunting descending piano motif comes into play as the percussion lightly taps away like something gnawing into your head. And on film “something” is gnawing into Nina’s head….Mansell uses this as Mother’s theme. Very creepsome.
The terrifyingly erotic “Lose Yourself” and “Opposites Attract” are the only two cues that are pure Mansell compositions, that instantly remind me of his scores for Smokin’ Aces and L’affaire Farewell. Making use of erratic electronic withering and synthetic textures, they serve as the only two scenes in the film where Nina completely forgets about her career and lets loose, only to face horrible consequences.
Mansell showcases his unique ability to shift from the inspirationally stimulating to downright creepy and discordant with ease in just flashes of second in “Night Of Terror”. This cue is what I believe defines Mansell’s score as a schizophrenic musical character in the film. It never really breaks but gives off a steam-rolling tension of ‘ready to snap’ at any given moment and that’s the general terrifying feeling the entire film seems to emit.
The beauty of "Swan Lake" and the grinding madness of Mansell’s Black Swan begin to meld together even more as we come closer to the end with “Stumbled Beginnings”, “It’s My Time” and “A Swan Is Born”. The lines begin to blur and everything becomes so insanely unpredictable that you keep waiting for it to let go and allow you to lose everything.
It all comes to a soaring, sweeping climax with the aptly titled “Perfection”. It’s perhaps the longest passage Mansell uses from the original "Swan Lake". Here he makes a bold, dominating statement with the Swan Theme that’s so magnificent and powerful you can’t wait to stand up and cheer before it’s over and the curtain closes.
While “Perfection” is the high point of the album it just doesn’t feel complete without “A Swan Song (For Nina)”. It sort of withers away and feels like a requiem for your sanity. It’s almost like one final exhale from all the tension that’s built up and slowly let loose as you watch the world fade away. Making use of some beautiful piano playing, it slowly becomes more morbid as Mansell adds in layers of unsettling dissonance, breaking glass (reflective surfaces, perhaps?), scattered cello chords and a very small hint of a dying heartbeat. It eventually envelops into a dark and very depressing closing that fades away in a cello hell that reminds me of Angelo Badalamenti’s darker scores for David Lynch.
In the end it is very apparent that Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" takes center stage with this film but Mansell comes in every now and then and shatters the flow with such precision and violence it becomes a whole new monster of it’s own name.
It’s a shame, because of the use of non-original material, Black Swan was not eligible for awards and therefore Mansell remained empty-handed for one of his most innovative works to date. Of course, working in the business for so long, he would have realized that before he started and he still poured his heart and soul into this and that is good enough. It proves he’s not in it for the business but the music.
Clint Mansell created one of the most effective scores of 2010 and possibly one of the most controversial as well. Classical enthusiasts shunned it for messing with a classic and score enthusiasts shunned it for being too much like Tchaikovsky….I reward it with praise for having the balls to approach such a project.

4 **** out of 5

Apr 20, 2011

YOUR HIGHNESS - composed by Steve Jablonsky


I should start off this review by stating this is not the original album I was going to scrutinize as my next review. In fact I was planning on ripping apart Steve Jablonsky's uninspired Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen score from 2009. I was planning on treating it to a very poor rating and bury it in my cat's litter box to see if the cat shit improves the quality anymore. That was until I heard Jablonsky's score to Your Highness...and with that my mind took another direction.

Your Highness is a 2011 stoner-comedy, taking elements of adventure and fantasy then rolling them into a medieval time period. With the intent of being a comedic tribute to '80's fantasy actions films, such as Conan The Barbarian, Krull and Beastmaster, Your Highness was beginning to sound as if it was going to be a fun way to waste 2 hours at the cinema. Starring Danny McBride, from television's hilarious Eastbound & Down and James Franco, as two not so bright prince brothers that embark on a dangerous mission to rescue Franco's bride-to-be (Zooey Deschanel) from an evil wizard, played by writer/actor Justin Theroux. Along the way they team up with a female warrior, far more skilled than the both of them combined, played by Natalie Portman (who seems a little embarrassed to be seen in such a film) and encounter many dangerous creatures and 'colorful' characters, both human and...well...not human.
The film is silly and inane, not to say that 'silly' is bad when it comes to comedy. You can be silly and still be good, as Monty Python and Ghostbusters proved or you can be silly and just be really bad, as Austin Powers and all the Date/Epic/Scary Movies proved. Mel Brooks tends to teeter back and forth between the two, just for the record. Sadly, Your Highness falls into that 'bad silly' category.
However, what came as a very pleasant surprise to me was Steve Jablonsky's highly entertaining straight-up adventure score.
Here he seems to be channeling Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Miklós Rózsa's The Knights Of The Roundtable and even goes as far back as the late 1930's swashbuckling stylings of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his score for the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood. While he does manage to capture a lot of that feel, he does resort back to the tired MV/RC style and mucks it up a bit with some electronic textures and synths that seem so ridiculously out of place in this "period piece".
Beyond that minor criticism, Jablonsky's Your Highness is by far his best work since the 2004 Katsuhiro Ôtomo anime Steamboy. While it's nowhere near as good as Steamboy it's as equally entertaining as his score for the first Transformers film. After so many years of scoring aimless synthetic slop for shitty Hollywood blockbuster Slasher flick remakes and TV's Desperate Housewives, Your Highness must have been a welcome breath of fresh air for Jablonsky.
Here he is able to develop and layer multiple themes that seem to be constantly taking turns as the main focal point. To be frank, that's what I believe a good film score should do.
Jablonsky takes the film score seriously for the most part and hands in a solid action score with a few elements of a period piece as well, instead of a goofy comedy score most would expect. This writing is much like what Theodore Shapiro did for Tropic Thunder, Christopher Lennertz did for Vampires Suck and Debbie Wiseman did for Lesbian Vampire Killers.
Right off of the bat, Jablonsky almost lost me with an electronic loop and ambient synth textures that seemed nothing like what one would expect for such a film. Instead it came off as sounding like something no different than any other action score today. It may as well serve as the opening notes for a movie about Shia LeBeouf saving the U.S.A. from an Alien nuclear bomb. That was until 40 seconds in and the string section began. It immediately started to give off a medieval folk like feel with somewhat of a modern twist. Joined by a beautiful solo violin and a muted choir, Jablonsky builds upon that while creating a feel of heroism and grandeur. It seems the orchestra is ready to explode and then Jablonsky drops everything and speeds things up a bit with an upbeat single mandolin strumming with all it's heart, that's quickly joined by a strong percussion and brass stings and a swashbuckling styled fiddle racing up and down the scales. It begins to sound like something not much different from Hans Zimmer's entertaining Pirates scores and there's nothing wrong with that. Soon enough an oboe comes into the mix and plays as if it's dueling against the fiddle which proves to be quite effective and suiting to the the sword-fighting in the film.
Immediately toning things down and playing at the other end of the thematic spectrum is "Isabel The Strong". A gorgeous woodwind led theme, backed up by a delicately placed harp is nothing short of impressive. Jablonsky brings in film score regular, Lisbeth Scott for some beautiful vocalizations that seem to act as the romantic and melancholy voice of Natalie Portman's Isabel character. Once he allows the orchestra and vocals fully flourish, Jablonsky proves he is fully capable of writing for not just electronic hogwash, like he's been known for in the past few years but able to compose organically as well. This beautifully penned cue reminds me of the more tender moments in Harry Gregson-Williams & John Powell's scores for the Shrek series, once again establishing that the MV/RC guys don't stray too far from the nest.
"Goodbye Mr. Tinys" is an album high point and serves as Danny McBride's character, Thadeous' theme. Highlighted with some plucky harpsichord playing and a delightful pennywhistle, this cue seems to be written for a cheeky, mischievous type of anti-hero, much like Jack Sparrow or Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, that is not the case for McBride's portrayal of the character and instead he comes off as just an idiotic stoner that calls for a much different style of them played by a tuba. Whether or not Jablonsky was instructed to write such a theme or didn't quite get the character is not certain. On screen, it's a little misplaced, on album is nothing short of highly entertaining and can be forgiven.
"Best Man" is more of slower thoughtful heroic piece, backed by a string and brass section, concluding with a harpsichord tapping in a few final notes. It almost makes you forget this is for a stoner comedy...almost, until the next track that is.
"The Greatest Most Beautifullest Love Song In All The Land" reminds us that this score is indeed for an incredibly ridiculous film. With half-decent vocals performed by Zooey Deschanel and absolutely horrendous vocals by James Franco, I can't help but enjoying this terrible song for what it is. Although it is a little out of place and immediately snaps you out of the mood set up so far with the first 4 cues, it couldn't be better timed on the album.
"The Virgin Is Plucked" is a rather stirring and intimidating action cue that makes wonderful use of that Transformers type of choir chants. It wouldn't be out of place approaching the Realms of Mordor, with it's threatening low end cello stirs and taunting high end string section, joined by a blaring brass section and synthetic, pulsating textures
We are reminded of Vangelis' work in Alexander and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, with the rousing "Not In My Castle". Making use of the cliche MV/RC string crescendos, it raises the bar with an inspiring brass section and percussive marching.
"Playful Secrets!" tick-tock's it's way with wonder and the majestic that takes me back to an old SNES game called ActRaiser or some of John Williams' work on the Harry Potter series.
While the cue "Leezar’s Date, Belladonna’s Hate" reminded me too much of the Fallen's theme from the Transformers' sequel, "Here Come The Marteetee" and "A Fistful Of Snakes" are the tracks that really degrades the score into the boring and mundane. They could be written for any run of the mill action score, from biker cyber punk attacks to Will Smith fistfighting with aliens or monsters and in the end, that lack of creativity just can't go unnoticed. A middle-eastern style flute is what grounds these cues in it's time period a little but not enough to keep one from rolling their eyes, unless you're merely into what sounds "epic" to you.
Jablonksy enters 'horror' scoring territory with "Labyrinths And Humps". It's riddled with orchestrated anarchy and well placed stings that would make Marco Beltrami smile.
Jablonsky stirs the emotions with excitement and suspense on the climatic and wonderfully titled "Orgy Of Violence" cue. One of the finest details I have to point out is a well placed chime hitting the same notes as the choir chanting, which requires a good sound system to really get feel of the impact and intimacy of such a huge piece and it's many finer specifics. I can't help but wonder why Jablonsky didn't go with this sort of action writing for the rest of the score. It's almost entirely orchestral hardly relying on any electronics or synthesizers and is one of the most pleasurable cues he's written in his career.
Concluding the album presentation is the rallying concert cue "Thadeous" reprising the theme with much more heroism and bravery than it's initial performance.
As delightfully enjoyable Your Highness is, I can't help but feel mildly disappointed with Steve Jablonsky's use of out of place electronics and synthetic textures. I don't mind electronics and synths in scores at all, I just feel there's a time and place for them...a medieval set film is not one of them.
Had Jablonsky stuck to the purely organic and orchestral composing I would have awarded it an extra star. He proved he could do it with Steamboy and many cues on this album, why didn't he stay with it?
When it all comes down to it, Your Highness is nothing short of pure fun and keeps Jablonsky on my list of composers to keep an eye on.

3 out of 5