Archive for January 18, 2011

"Black Swan" Movie Poster

I’m just gonna come right out and say it — am I the only person who was just a little bit disappointed with this flick?

I know, I know — after Natalie Portman walking off with the best actress award at the Golden Globes last night this hardly puts me in the “popular opinion” camp. And I don’t want to slag her performance off in the least. She’s really solid as a hyper-competetive ballerina losing herself into the darker side of her starring role in “Swan Lake” and trying to hold onto her sanity as she explores a side to her nature she’s always kept under control. When she truly lets herself go and become the titular black swan, the resulting transformation from calm, cool, and collected to ferociously alluring is downright incredible . And so was everyone else in it, to be honest. Mila Kunis is terrific as her possiblly-looking-to-usurp-her “friend.” Vincent cassel is by turns understandably creepy and flat-out creepy as her boss at the ballet. Winona Ryder — who I didn’t even know was in the film — is great as the mentally-and-physically broken former lead dancer of the troupe. And Barbara Hershey turns in possibly the stongest performance in the entire film as Portman’s neurotic mother.

In addition, director Darren Aronofsky is back in top form here. After losing himself underneath heaping mountains of auteurism in The Fountain and then reigning in his strong visual and stylistic instincts a bit too much with The Wrestler, he really seems to have found his voice again here and turns in his best directorial effort since Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky has a very real talent for bringing out the best in all his performers — always has — and that’s never been on display more grandly than it is here.

So why did I leave the theater feeling  a bit flat about the whole thing? Good question.

Maybe it’s just that my expectations had been pumped up so high — in fact, I’m sure that’s a big part of it, and it’s not fair in the least to judge Black Swan based on all the incredible buzz that’s been swirling around it. Hey, they can’t help it if people loved the movie and have been saying so at top volume. But mostly, I think, what left me feeling a little bit lukewarm to the proceedings was the fact that this type of story has been done before and, frankly, better.

Both Roman Polanski’s criminally-underrated The Tenant and, more recently, David Lynch’s Inland Empire dealt with similar subject matter — sure, in The Tenant the title character was “turning into” his dead predecessor in the apartment, aided and abetted (perhaps) by the other residents of the building, but the idea of losing oneself in another persona was the same. And with Inland Empire the parallels are even more striking, as Laura Dern and Justin Theroux literally find themselves becoming the characters they’re portraying in a film production.

So I guess my main “beef,” if you will, with Black Swan is that this isn’t particularly new thematic territory to be mining, and it’s following in the footsteps of some better — if less universally-lauded — work that concerned itself with largely the same type of thing.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here — I definitely think this is a film most folks will enjoy the heck out of and that everyone should see. the striking performances alone are more than worth it. But if I could offer just one piece of advice, it would be this — temper your expectations a bit. There’s plenty to enjoy here, but there’s nothing actually new going on.

"Frankenstein's Castle Of Freaks" Movie Poster

Quick : what do you get when you stick a third-rate American director into an Italian production, stock it with has-been Italian and American “stars,” throw in a couple of busty babes, a lost tribe of cavemen, and Count ( I know, it’s usually doctor or Baron, but consider the source here, folks) Frankenstein himself?

The answer, of course, is 1974’s Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks.  And if this movie sounds like a total mishmash, rest assured — it is. In fact, it’s probably even more of a discombobulated affair than I’ve made it sound so far.

Our story opens with some neanderthal dude getting stoned to death by local villagers in the middle ages (I think) who apparently take kindly to having his kind around.  And it only gets weirder from there. Next we learn that local girls have been turning up dead in the village and their graves have been robbed. Given the flick’s title, any sane audience member would, at this point, assume that Dr. — excuse me, Count — Frankenstein would be involved. And of course you’d be right. The Count’s up to his usual tricks, trying to reanimate the newly-deceased and all that, but rest assured, that’s where any similarity to the Frankenstein story as we know it comes to an end.

First off, the Count is a widow in this one, with a lovely young buxom daughter named Maria (Simonetta Vitelli, acting under the pseudonym “Simone Blondell”) who brings her equally lovely and even more buxom friend Valda (Laura De Benedittis) to Castle Frankenstein for a visit. Being a red-blooded Italian male, the Bar — errr, Count — takes a liking to his daughter’s companion and is soon seducing her by revealing the depths of his scientific depravity to his would-be paramour. Strangely enough, it seems to work! If only I’d thought of trying that angle back when I was single — but I digress.

In any case, other shenanigans are afoot, as well. When the Count (played, incidentally, by Rossano Brazzi) is forced to dismiss his longtime dwarf-servant Hans (Italian midget mainstay Luciano Pigozzi, billed here as “Alan Collins”) for getting frisky with the corpses, the diminutive necrophile swears revenge on the castle and all who live in it and, with nowhere to go, quickly falls in with one of the outcast cavemen living in the woods that he names “Ook” (Salvatore Baccaro, billed here as — I shit you not — “Boris Lugosi”). Meanwhile, we get to learn that Igor (here played by washed-out former muscle-hunk Gordon Mitchell) is one deceptive bastard who likes to slap women around, that the caves in the woods where the neanderthal men live have a natural hot spring that Frankenstein’s daughter and her friend like to play around in named before smearing mud on each other in clumsy faux-lesbian-eroticism fashion, and that the chief inspector looking into the grave robberies, Prefect Ewing (Edmund Purdom, who seasoned Eurotrash veterans will recognize from the likes of Pieces and 2019:After the Fall of New York) is easily snookered by Frankenstein’s wealth, power, prestige, and privilege.

Things start to come to a boil, though, when the mad Count gets his hands on the corpse of a Neanderthal he names “Goliath”  (Loren Ewing) and decides to reanimate the hulking monstrosity. In case you couldn’t guess already, folks, when you combine a stock-footage lightning storm with a zombie cavemen and a midget out for revenge who has another caveman in tow with him, bad things are gonna happen.

Everything you’re looking for in a cheap Italian monster classic knock-off is here, my friends — atrocious dubbing. terrible acting and effects. Gratuitous nudity. Implied lesbianism. Implied rape and necrophilia (all this with a PG rating, mind you!). And best of all — no apparent understanding of its source material whatsoever, even though it was directed by an American hack (Dick Randall) who probably had seen the original dozens of times as a kid! A movie this flat-out fucking weird and ill-conceived could only come from one of two places — Italy or Hollywood. But it’s so much more fun when the Italians do it, don’t you think?

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is available on DVD in a couple of different formats — either as a stand-alone release from Something Weird Video with their usual plethora of pretty-much-unrelated extras, or in a version hosted by Elvira that was put out by Shout! Factory as part of its Elvira’s Movie Macabre series. both feature full-frame transfers with a minimal amount of remastering (if any) and a just-barely-adequate mono soundtrack. Needless to say, I highly recommend you track at least one of them down immediately, this is a true B-movie lover’s dream and you’ll be damn glad you saw it.