Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Sunday, January 9, 2011
An expressionist horror film currently in wide release, Black Swan deserves recognition for dealing with such heady subjects as the duality of human nature, the fragmentation of personality by mental illness, the projection by stage parents onto their children, and the uniquely impossible demands placed on women in modern society. Conceptually audacious, and drawing on such varied sources as All About Eve, Suspiria, Repulsion, and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the film suffers from too many baroque flourishes and brushes with the garish. Also, its highly visual style, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s idea of “pure cinema”, might be taken as “operatic” in how it deals with these themes, or maybe just superficial. As with nearly all of Darren Aronofsky’s films so far, there does seem to be something missing in the storyline- a hole that gets papered over with stylistic daring.
Expressionist drama frequently depicts a central character’s spritual suffering as they go through a series of painful events quite often modeled on the stations of the cross. Our martyr here is Nina, played by Natalie Portman, a self-sacrificing ballerina whose perfectionism facilitates neurosis, bulimia, scratching her skin bloody, and finally breaking with reality. Ultimately, her stations of suffering will lead her, we are aware, to either transcendence of selfhood through dance, a mental breakdown, or death; and probably all three. It becomes clear fairly early in the film that her grasp on reality is weakening, partly because we suspect that her new friend/rival Lily, played by Mila Kunis, is just a projection of the darker aspects of her personality, particularly the sexual, and partly because Arronofsky introduces classic images of the uncanny early on, such as Nina passing herself on a sidewalk. A later scene, with Winona Ryder stabbing herself, is fully in line with the logic of nightmares. And at times, Aronofsky’s visual sense, for as refreshingly risk-taking as it is, verges on symbolism for dummies. Having Nina dressed in white as often as Lily is clad in black is a bit like hammering us over the head, not to mention a borderline-goofy late scene in the film in which a character literally transforms into a swan.
Similarly, Barbara Hershey’s overbearing stage mother is a great portrayal of a one-note character. Aronofsky uses the character partly to convey the short careers of professional ballerinas, but he also uses Winona Ryder’s character Beth to do the same and her portrayal is much more interesting anyway. As in The Wrestler, the director is fascinated with performers who pour their lives into professions that are inherently limited by the aging of the human body, itself a subject of The Fountain. Here, as well, he takes great interest in showing the daily rituals that his characters engage in; asRequiem for a Dream was nearly a primer on shooting heroin, this film is a good guide to preparing ballet shoes for dance.Expressionism also deals frequently with the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie and especially Father authority figures. Vincent Cassel, as the director of the dance company who sleeps with all his lead dancers, does a great job portraying the emotionally-distant father that dominates Nina’s psyche. He triggers a sexual awakening that makes her perfectionist character more relatable (Nina is, frankly, a bit of a prig) and is likely tied to her mental breakdown. Frankly, I think Cassel could read the phone book and make it compelling, but he’s especially good playing an asshole.
The one real problem I have with the film, and it’s a problem I have with nearly all of Aronofsky’s films (the exception being the perfect Requiem for a Dream) is that it’s not clear to me if Aronofsky is dealing with profound themes or just beckoning towards those themes without really engaging in them. A particularly over the top scene in which Portman masturbates alone in her room before recoiling in terror at a hallucination of her mother in the corner conveys the role her mother plays in the character’s psyche, but is also a little obvious. A later scene with Hershey painting image after image of her daughter verges on camp. It’s easy to imagine the film becoming a staple of drag queens and midnight showings.
But I suppose Aronofsky gets extra credit because so few general release American movies deal in any way with adult psychology anymore. The kiddie matinee so dominates the multiplexes now that we could be overestimating the handful of films that are made for adult viewers and all released in this month every year as Oscar-bait. It’s not to say that Black Swan isn’t a really good movie. But, if Arronofsky had a bit more faith in his material and his viewers, it could have been great.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Anyway, three Japanese soliders survive the massacre and they swear to return someday. 36 years later, Rex Larson (Edmund Purdom), a rich bastard, shows up asking the survivors about the gold. He kills one of the ex-soldiers in a shootout and the next commits hari-kari. Luckily, the third, Mr. Tobashi, is willing to go along on the rich bastard's planned expedition to retrieve the gold. Along for the ride are Larson's partner, Mr. Jefferson (David DeMartin), Jefferson's daughter Janice (Glynis Barber), Tobachi's wife Maria (played by Laura Gemser, naturally) and the American adventurer Mark Forrest (Stuart Whitman), who has a drinking problem, did jail time, and has a dark secret in his past involving the rich bastard, but is the best there is at leading these expeditions. Whitman's character, incidentally, is introduced during a bar brawl that seems to suggest that American sailors are astoundingly racist and go to the worst titty bars in Japan.
Off they go into the jungle and Forrest hits it off with Janice, which is a bit disappointing for Maria, his ex-lover who wants to start things up again. The strangeness of Laura Gemser not having a sex scene in the film does not tear a hole in the time-space continuum, thankfully, and probably because she does have a nude scene. Her nude scene, incidentally is very brief, and her part in the film is minor; but you'll notice how central it is to the film's advertising! It's also sort of weird because she goes skinny dipping and then cries out in pain for no apparent reason and we're to understand that her character has been killed. I'm really just amazed that the film was never entitled "Emanuelle Goes on a Horror Safari".
As you might have guessed, characters are gradually picked off one-by-one in creative ways that eschew continuity or plot coherence, and at the end we find out who was doing it. This shouldn't be much of a surprise- after all, it is a horror safari. But, you might be surprised to find that the film doesn't become a cannibal epic. It's still got some decent gore, a few thrills, and some brief nudity. Other reviewers have complained that it's not very exciting. But I liked the throwback aspects of it and found it more competant than most of the films I've seen lately. Maybe I do need to stop watching so much crap though.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
There is also a great scene in which Monica recounts to the nuns the tearful story of being assaulted by three young strangers at the beach in the voice-over, while the flashback actually shows her seducing them. Zanchi does a great job playing a young girl whose motivation consists of being basically impressed with her body and the trouble she can cause with it. It's obviously a one-note role (and film), but everyone has fun with it, and it's nice that the character's lie is the closest we come to sexual assault in the film (a problem in the Black Emanuelle series). Anyway, off they go to the convent, where Monica immediately takes off and Sister Emanuelle has to chase her down and subdue her. She struggles with the girl and wrestles her into sexy submission but catches hell for wearing the wrong panties under her habit! Apparently, the Mother Superior is a bitch on wheels and forces the nun to wear woolen undies, which is clearly difficult for her.
But thicken it does! Into the picture comes an escaped convict, played by the versatile Gabriele Tinti, who is in most of the Laura Gemser films. Monica first discovers him and hides/conspires with the convict in order to bonk him repeatedly in soft focus. She also implicates Emanulle by introducing her to the thug while threatening he'll massacre the students if she tells anyone else. Eventually, Gemser and Tinti have sex, pretty much a given in the films they did together. Sister Manuelle also punishes Monica by tying her up and having sex with Tinti in front of her, something that would totally happen. She then tries to burn the girl's bush with a torch!Thankfully, it was all just a dream. This is good because, otherwise, the storyline might seem a bit silly.
Meanwhile, the family hires Cameron Mitchell, playing "just a man with ESP" to find the killer. When he gets to her room, he hears the sound of screaming angels, something that happens to me in the bedrooms of teenaged girls as well, and which clearly means something important. He soon realizes that what they're dealing with is "less than a man. But also more than a man. Much more." So a woman?
Turns out the killer is also stalking a young teacher and her visiting American friend who like to hang around the house and meditate. The young friend is dating a rich fellow who has won her heart by taking her out for lobster thermidor and wine. But the teacher friend doesn't seem compelled to inform her roomate that there's someone making scary phone calls and so forth because, really why would you?
Anyway, the story follows Mitchell who eventually figures out the kidnapped girl is dead, and never really tells us who the killer is or why he's killing. We do see frequent shots of waves breaking against rocks, which are either symbolic or padding. At the end, we finally see the killer unmasked, but unfortunately have no idea who he is, making the mask unnecessary. To be honest, not a lot of what's happening here is ever explained, which is probably why you can so often find this movie in 99 cent DVD editions.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
The missing link between the Italian art house cinema and exploitation genres, Velluto Nero (black velvet) brings together a cast straight out of a million gore/sexploitation movies (including Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Annie Bell, and Al Cliver) for a film written and directed by Academy Award winner and longtime Fellini scripter Brunello Rondi. The result is a story that plays like 8 & 1/2 with more nudity. Not terribly surprising that enterprising distributors marketed it as another Laura Gemser classic "Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle", in spite of the fact that none of the characters is named Emanuelle.
There is not much of a plot to speak of, although by now you might be expecting that to be the case. Personally, I'm not much of a plot man anyway; any hack can recycle plot mechanics and most of them do; besides, life doesn't usually have character arcs and beginnings, middles, and ends. Here, there are some interesting events that happen, beautifully filmed Egyptian landscapes and very colorful characters, just like in the Fellini movies. Here too, the storyline is loose and vague. The only difference is there's more sex and violence here. Not like that's a bad thing.
The characters are mostly European ex-pats in Egypt. Crista, played by "Susan Scott" (Nieves Navarro), owns a fancy villa on the Nile and screws around with her Arab servant, played by Tarik Ali. Al Cliver (Zombie) plays a mystical guru figure who spouts esoteric mumbo-jumbo while cott blows him, culminating in one of the best reaction shots in cinema: Scott staring very meaningfully towards the sunset as fake jizz drips down her face. Ziggy Zanger, who sadly only did three movies, plays Crista's bratty young daughter who gets off on teasing her poor Arab servant by showing him her pussy and teaching him to say, "this is not for me"! Even better is the scene in which she screws two gentlemen in the sand next to Egyptian ruins while drinking whiskey from the bottle. (In other words, she's my kind of girl!) Feodor Chialapin is a rich pedophile who hilariously retired to Egypt from Hollywood. Annie Bell is Crista's other daughter Pina, who has sex with Gemser, and is, in some versions, called "Laure" in order to capitalize off her title role in another Emmanuelle rip-off written by the real Emmanuelle Arsan. Finally we have the hilariously dysfunctional couple of Carlo and Laura, a hotheaded and abusive photographer and his model, who he gets off on posing next to roadkill and dung! They're played by real-life couple Laura Gemser and Gabriele Tinti; his dubbing is from the ridiculous "Whatsamattayou?!" school of Italian characterizations, while she eventually is liberated from the creep by screwing a girl and sacrificing a goat!
I think that pretty much covers the highlights of the film too. The characters bicker, screw, wander around, and try to achieve some sort of enlightenment, all the while unwittingly exploiting the locals and getting nowhere. There's a weighty feeling of European decadence and the fact that the story goes in circles without getting very far seems to be the point- so do the characters. Some might dislike that aspect of the film, but I was okay with it.