Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black Swan

I was going to save this review to bulk out the small amount of pre-prepared material I have for the next couple of weeks while I take some time out from film reviewing to work on the novel; however, I figured it would be better to post it now, ahead of the Oscar brouhaha.

Early in Darren Aronofsky’s stone-cold modern classic ‘Black Swan’, impresario Tomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) offers a 72-word synopsis of Tchaikovsky’s eternally popular ballet ‘Swan Lake’:

“We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated the white swan leaps of a cliff killing herself and, in death, finds freedom.”

Leroy’s intent is for his ailing ballet company to present a new version of ‘Swan Lake’. Although he admits that “it’s been done to death”, his idea is to “strip it down, make it visceral”. With prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) retiring from the company under a storm of bad feeling, Leroy also intends on using ‘Swan Lake’ as the debut of his next leading lady. Tensions are running high as the ballerinas vie for the role.

While Leroy delivers the above synopsis, he walks among the ranks, all of them primping and preening and trying to catch his attention as they practice at the barre. He steps some of the women on shoulder. They beam with smug superiority. After he concludes his address, Leroy instructs all those he tapped to continue with their scheduled rehearsals that afternoon; the others are to attend for auditions for the Swan Queen. The smug looks vanish.

This scene is the first of many that play with expectations, pull the rug from under the audience’s (and the characters’) perceptions, and explore the theme of dualism. Even the title adheres to this aesthetic. The White Swan is the heroine of ‘Swan Lake’, the Black Swan the villainess. That both are danced by the same ballerina is the very core of the film. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a naïve but determined member of the company. Her entire life, shaped by the obsessive influence of her ex-ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), has led her to this audition. Damaged feet, broken toenails, endless hours at the barre, punishing self-discipline, a total negation of a social life, friends, romance. And while Leroy can’t fault the precision and perfection of her technique – Nina’s got the White Swan in the bag, no question – his big concern is whether she can convince as the Black Swan; whether she can be sensual, unpredictable and seductive. Whether she can lose control.

If duality is the aesthetic, this is the dynamic.

As Leroy – through highly questionable means (I rather think if he pulled any of his shit with the Bolshoi, there’d the sexual harassment accusations all over the place) – drives Nina towards a breakthrough as the Black Swan, the psychological implications begin to take their toll. Nina develops a rash on her shoulder which seems to be sprouting something; her already brittle relationship with Erica approaches breaking point; and she alternates between being paranoid about and attracted to Lily (Mila Kunis), a fellow ballerina who has none of the precision and control required for the White Swan, but whose sensuality and determinism to live in the moment tick all of the boxes for the Black Swan.

Aronofsky’s film – for my money his best yet, and that’s saying something for the guy who made ‘Pi’, ‘Requiem for a Dream’, ‘The Fountain’ and ‘The Wrestler’ – is at one and the same time the best film about ballet since ‘The Red Shoes’, the most visceral body horror picture this side of David Cronenberg and an astonishingly accomplished extended visual metaphor for the incremental and ultimately terrifyingly emergence of the protagonist’s dark side. A scene, during Nina’s climatic performance of ‘Swan Lake’, where she literally becomes the Black Swan is as daring, breathtaking and magnificently accomplished as anything I’ve seen on the big screen.

Moreover, this is a film which will richly reward repeated viewings. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as enigmatic and ripe for debating since Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Prestige’. The big question here is: how much of what happens is in Nina’s mind? And how much is the actuality which feeds her state of mind? You could watch ‘Black Swan’ a thousand times and still be debating it. In the future, book length theses will be written on this film. A myriad different conclusions will be arrived at. They’ll all be just as valid.

Aronofsky’s direction is astounding. His exerts complete control of the material, knowing far more intuitively than his heroine just when to cut loose with the visceral imagery, jarringly effective juxtapositions and the sometimes outrageous but always perfectly contextualized set-pieces. His use of black and white (the palette that defines ‘Black Swan’ so overwhelmingly that you could almost start to believe it was actually filmed in monochrome) purposefully evokes the central dynamic in frame after frame. Not just the tendency of Nina to wear white and Lily black (culminating in a metaphor redolent of troilism where Nina dons a black top of Lily’s over her own white tee-shirt) but the white walls and black doors of Nina’s apartment building, the harsh white lights of the ballet studio which are suddenly extinguished plunging the protagonists into darkness (tellingly, this happens twice); the equally harsh lights and shadowy corners of both the subway and the nocturnal streets Nina takes to get home; the dominant colours of the canvases Erica paints; the décor of Tomas’s apartment.

And then, in what can only be an homage to Powell and Pressburger’s classic, there are the sudden and garish splashes of red. The tube of lipstick Nina steals from Beth’s dressing room; the red-lipstick scrawled “whore” that Nina finds on her mirror after it’s announced she’s won the role of the Swan Queen (endlessly debatable question #1: did she write this herself?); the rash on Nina’s shoulder; the blood from her broken toenails; the red strobe lights in the disco she goes to with Lily (a scene so elliptically edited that Nina and Lily seem to merge before your eyes); a nail file coated with blood; Nina herself bathed in red backstage.

I don’t think there’s a single image in ‘Black Swan’ that doesn’t contribute to the overall meaning and/or enigma of the film (the use of mirrors is explicitly apparent). The same applies to character names. There’s a tinge of the Scottish to Beth Macintyre’s name, bringing to mind the beautiful and incredibly talented Moira Shearer, one of the most famous British ballerinas, the star of ‘The Red Shoes’ and an acclaimed actress in her own right. The fact that Beth is the outgoing prima ballerina in ‘Black Swan’, her departure leaving the stage free for a very different new soloist, is Aronofsky’s first hint to audiences that his film is going to be a very different beast to Powell and Pressburger’s. Tomas Leroy’s surname is a play on “le roi”, which is French for “the king”, indicating that while Nina may have been “crowned” (ie. picked as) the Swan Queen, the impresario still holds sway over her as he does the rest of the company. Nina and Lily have remarkably similar names: four letters, with the same first letter/third letter repetition and the same vowel as the second letter. Nina is Spanish for “girl”, appropriate to the character since her life has been subjugated to her mother’s demands. Lily is more ironic, since it means innocence, purity and beauty. A case of one out of three ain’t bad as far as the Lily of the film is concerned (or is Lily symbolic of all three and it’s just Nina’s fracturing state of mind that imposes the sensuality and promiscuity on her? Endlessly debatable question #2.)

The performances match the brilliance of Aronofsky’s direction. Portman has never been better, Kunis is a revelation, Hershey delivers a turn that’s as quietly terrifying as Billie Whitelaw in ‘The Omen’, and Cassel proves (if proof were needed) why he’s one of the best actors working today. OST providers Clint Mansell and Matt Dunkley provide an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ so cleverly done that it’s impossible to see (or should that be “hear”) the joins, while cinematographer Matthew Libatique handles the palette and the visual cues in beautifully understated style, as well as taking his camera right into the middle of the ballet (Portman utterly utterly utterly convinces) to create a swirling and vertiginous immersion in the intensity and pain of the performance.

Looking back at the 1,400 words I’ve just written, it’s a testament to the magnificence of ‘Black Swan’ that I got so much out of the film on my first viewing and that I’m counting the minutes till it’s out on DVD and I can reapproach it and re-engage with its enigmas and its visceral brutality and, despite everything, its soaring flights of undeniable beauty. ‘Black Swan’ is about as perfect as the art of cinema gets.

GIALLO SUNDAY: Death Walks on High Heels

I just love the title. ‘Death Walks on High Heels’. It gives me a mental image that’s half ‘Seventh Seal’, half ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’.

The film itself is similarly schizophrenic: it starts off like a Hitchcock movie in the chic, playful stage of his career (think ‘North by Northwest’ or ‘To Catch a Thief’, but with more in the way of striptease routines and straight razors), then catches a flight to England and holes up in a rural backwater village with a bit of a ‘Straw Dogs’ vibe before sharing a cup of tea with Baxter of the Yard (I kid you not, that’s exactly how the character’s introduced) for an Agatha Christie inspired carousel of twists and turns, murky motives and herrings of a decidedly crimson pigmentation.

Sounds like a mishmash, doesn’t it; an all-over-the-place splurge of WTF? Credit, then, to director Luciano Ercoli – he of ‘Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion’ fame – for never letting things degenerate into a scattering of loose ends. And for wrapping the whole thing up satisfactorily despite narrative developments that leave you wondering if a couple of reels from a whole other movie haven’t been spliced in by accident and so much rug-pulling in the final act that you begin to fear for the floorboards.

Things start off with a jewel thief in the twilight of his career knifed to death on a train to Switzerland. Back in his home country of France, his daughter Nicole (Susan Scott), an exotic dancer, is pulled in by the police and grilled about where he stashed the ill-gotten cache of diamonds from his last job. She denies all knowledge. They give her loser, pisshead boyfriend Michel (Simon Andreu – the sleazy sex fiend from the aforementioned ‘Forbidden Photos’) a grilling as well, but he doesn’t come up with anything either.

Nicole argues with Michel and sends him packing. At the nightclub, she’s propositioned by middle-aged wannabe lothario Dr Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), who’s looking for a dalliance before he heads home to England. Successfully disentangling herself from his attentions, Nicole is then menaced by a masked figure with piercing blue eyes who breaks into her home and threatens to do unspeakable things with a straight-razor if she doesn’t come up with the diamonds.

Turning to Michel again for comfort, Nicole begins to suspect that he might be involved in the attack on her. She exploits Matthews’ libido and promises to be his mistress if he takes her to England. Hardly believing his luck, the “good” doctor agrees and loses no time installing her in his holiday home on the coast while he tries to arrange a divorce from his wife Vanessa (Claudie Lange). Biding her time during Matthews’ frequent commutes up to London to his practice, Nicole is increasingly unnerved by the too-inquisitive behaviour of the locals. Meanwhile, Michel has got a lead on Matthews’ identity and is determined to track Nicole down. His eventual arrival in the village coincides with a murder. Next thing, the tenacious Inspector Baxter (Carlo Gentili) is on the case and determined to prove that a copper in a giallo doesn’t have to be a bumbling incompetent.

After a slow midsection in which every suggestive bit of dialogue between Nicole and Matthews, every candlelit meal and every lingering glance is documented in such painfully slow detail that the only thing separating ‘Death Walks on High Heels’ from ‘Elvira Madigan’ is a bit of soft focus and twenty minutes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto N° 21, things perk up no end as Baxter untangles a web of murderous motives, village secrets are revealed, alibis are disproved and Michel goes on the run when things take an even more surprising turn.

Gorgeously shot, featuring generally decent performances (Scott’s range is limited but, damn!, the woman had vamp written all over her) and boasting enough twists and turns to fill half a dozen other movies, ‘Death Walks in High Heels’ transcends its almost comedic title and delivers a thinking-caps-on slice of entertainment, the denouement of which will probably make you, once your head’s stopped spinning, want to rewatch it immediately just to assurance yourself that it did actually fit together so cleverly.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Social Network 2, anyone?

"I was egomaniacal and complacent."

"And blogging."

"And blogging."

Mini reviews

In addition to putting the call out for guest articles to augment the fortnight’s worth of material I’ve got prepared for the blog – the aim being to free up a month’s worth of evenings and weekends to really make headway with my embryonic novel while at the same time maintaining semi-regular content on these pages – it has to be said that the last couple of films I’ve watched fell outwith the remit of The Agitation of the Mind: ie. celebrating what’s great about cinema rather than picking over the carcass of its failures.

Where do ‘Frailty’ and ‘The Butterfly Effect’ fit into the scheme of things? They’re not great enough to merit an 800 word article, nor are they fuck-awful enough to have fun writing a piss-take review (tune in next week for an overview of a horror movie franchise you can cheerfully file under “so bad it’s good”).

Then it occurred to me: haiku.


Bill Paxton directs
As solidly as he acts
But twist ending sucks


Dark childhood secrets
Imbue first half with tension
Rest of film so-so

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Agitation of the Mind needs YOU!

Between the necessary evil of holding down the day job, the unalloyed pleasure of watching movies and blogging about them, and a deep and abiding love for real ale ...

... I have neglected what ought to be my overriding ambition: work on the novel.

My rationale has always been that in the time it would take me to progress a work of fiction 400 or 500 words, with the probability of the thing not finding a publisher at the end of the day, I can write an 800 - 1000 word review, have it online and know it will find a readership.

But the concept of the novel won't let me be. It keeps plucking away at my imagination. The sections I've written so far vary between the inspired and the fuck-awful, and I desperately need to reconsider the structure. To this end, I need to have some time away from TAOTM.

However, I don't want to let the blog lapse. I've got about a fortnight's worth of material prepared, and I'd like to augment it by featuring guest posts. Which is why, to reiterate the title of this post, The Agitation of the Mind needs YOU.

No limits as regards length, no strictures as regards subject. Anything cinema-related. Anything arts related. Hell, pretty much anything!

Any and all contributions, emailed to, would be gratefully received and fully attributed to the author.

Emily Blunt

Didn’t I do this last year?

Who cares if I did – Emily Blunt is one of Britain’s most talented actresses (Anthony Hopkins ranked her alongside Jodie Foster in a recent Empire interview). It’s her 28th birthday today and a large glass of chenin blanc is being raised here at chez Agitation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


My contribution to this month’s Final Girl Film Club.

Fifteen minutes into ‘Frozen’ and I was mentally preparing my review. I was going to refer to it by what must surely have been its working title – ‘Three Douchebags on a Chairlift’ – and post this screengrab …

… just so I could sarcastically conjecture that the rest of the sign read “… from watching this movie”.

Then, round about the halfway mark, Adam Green’s admittedly (and it’s something I admit through gritted teeth) taut thriller began to exude a palpable sense of tension. And, even though I didn’t develop any great degree of sympathy, empathy or even give-a-shitness about the characters, I knew I’d have to see the film out. I had to know how it resolved.

Let’s get the characters out of the way. We have three student types: smug twat Dan (Kevin Zegers), wiseass fuckwad Joe (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan’s whiny girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) Granted, Parker has good reason to be whiny since Dan treats her like a piece of meat and Joe spits snarky comments her way, but her whining just gets pitiful and annoying after a while. And by “a while”, I mean roughly ten minutes.

Here’s how annoying and whiny Parker is: Joe bitches to Dan while they’re in a café that they’ve had to waste a day on the “bunny slopes” because Parker is a novice skier and why did Dan have to bring her along, dude they could have done some real ski-ing but Dan totally brought his girlfriend along and why is he acting like such a pussy and not spending so much time with Joe anymore just because he’s, like, got a girlfriend. It’s so unfair. Joe stops his diatribe short of stamping a foot or sticking his tongue out. Which is shame. Dan, instead of telling Joe to get a life or smacking him upside the head and warning him not to diss the g/f (ie. the two most likely scenarios in reality) gives Joe a sheepish “uh, actually, dude, she’s right behind you” look. And Parker, instead of dumping the scalding contents of her Styrofoam cup of coffee into Joe’s lap, slapping Dan, calling them both fucking losers and going out and finding herself a guy who doesn’t secretly want to get all ‘Brokeback Mountain’ with his best bud (ie. the most likely scenario in reality), comes across all totally, oh my God, I’m so sorry I’ve come between you guys, I should never have come on this holiday, I should have just stayed at home and baked cookies and let you guys do the manly ski-ing thing and, I dunno, break out the KY jelly in the chalet afterwards.

So: two candyass guys and a girl who whinily acts like feminism never happened. Three douchebags on a chairlift, everyone.

How they get stranded on the chairlift is: they plead with Chairlift Operator #1 to let them take one last trip up to the summit even though he’s just about to shut up shop for the night. Won over by their charming way of whining and going “awww, c’mon maaaan” repeatedly and not saying please, he lets them. Chairlift Operator #2 wanders by and mentions to Chairlift Operator #1 that their boss (let’s call him Big Chief Chairlift) wants Chairlift Operator #1 to work next weekend. Chairlift Operator #1 goes off on one – turns out its his brother’s stag night on the date in question – and stomps away to give Big Chief Chairlift a piece of his mind. (At this point I was hoping director Adam Green would cut to the altercation in Big Chief Chairlift’s office and actually give this motherfucker some real drama.) Chairlift Operator #2 is left to shut up shop. Which he does very quickly because he’s bursting for a pee.

This leaves three douchebags stranded on a chairlift.

To begin with, they treat the matter as an annoyance. A surprisingly witty bit of badinage has our trapped trio debate the worst ways to die, a tombstone humour response to the minor inconvenience of the chairlift stopping (Green also seems to be presupposing the inevitable “it does for chairlifts what ‘Jaws’ did for sharks” comparisons of lazy critics*), before the string of lights which illuminate the length of the cableway go off and the gang get real about the possibility of being stuck up there all night. Then Parker reminds them that it’s Sunday and the resort only opens Friday to Sunday.

Panic sets in. Uncertainty manifests. Should they wait? Should one of them try jumping to the ground (“I might hurt myself, but I’ll be able to get down off the mountain and get help”)? Or is inching one’s way hand over hand along the cabling a better option (factoring in that the cable’s razor sharp)? One of the gang decides to jump. They’re a fairly athletic personage and confident that they can make it. They leap from the chairlift.

Let’s just pause here and review the options when jumping from any significant height. Does one:

(a) bend the knees and roll one’s body on impact;


(b) jump with legs rigidly extended and trust in the Lord?

This, folks, is an object lesson in what happens when you go with option (b):

It’s at this point that the wolves turn up.

Things pretty much go from bad to worse from hereon in.

‘Frozen’ incrementally develops into a gripping exercise in tension, enriched no end by the Philip Glass-style modulations of Andy Garfield’s score, and beautifully shot by Will Barratt who works a minor miracle in creating movement, scope and striking images in a film which restricts its protagonists to one unmoving locale for two-thirds of its running time.

Adam Green, best known for the grim and joyless ‘Hatchet’, wrings everything he can out of the material and the performances from the three leads are as good as can be expected given the often trite dialogue into which Green’s script retreats. This is the major contributing factor to the flaw that almost sinks the film: as excruciating as their ordeal becomes, it’s almost impossible to root for these douches. To be perfectly honest, I was rooting for the freakin’ wolves at one point! Don’t get me wrong, I dig the anti-hero as much as the next blogger – hell, give me an evil bastard whose out-and-out villainy throws the moral simplicity of the hero into sharp and unflattering relief and I’m as happy as a dipso in a liquor store – but, damn it, give your bastards and villains and anti-heroes some interesting dialogue. That, or make your heroes sympathetic enough for us to care about.

An exercise in tension can only ever remain just that – an exercise – if the characters are characterless and their interrelationships redundant.

*Notwithstanding that ‘Jaws’ earned its reputation by proving the best of any number of films about sharks. As opposed to the dearth of films about chairlifts. And, no, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ doesn’t count – that’s a cable car.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When you side with a man, you stay with him …

If there’s a candidate for patron saint on this blog, it’s surely Sam Peckinpah.

The man would have been 86 today.

Compadre, I’m in Nottingham not Old Mexico, I’m raising a glass of beer not a shot of tequila, but I’m drinking to your eternal memory all the same.

“I want to enter my house justified” – ‘Ride the High Country’

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Although not as well-represented in gialli as black gloves, wickedly glinting knives, spiral staircases or bottles of J&B, the image of a broken or ritually dismembered doll is one of the most provocative images the genre has given us.

One pops up during the opening credits of Sergio Martino’s sleazy, brutal and red-herring ridden opus ‘Torso’. The doll is placed in a sexualized context. A whisper of chiffon is pulled from the curvaceous body of strikingly attractive blonde woman. She and another woman engage in a threesome (the gentleman who makes up the third party is unseen) as a Martino’s camera drifts out of the focus. Meanwhile, another camera clicks away. A doll sits between one of the women’s legs. Someone’s hand slides over the doll’s face. Their fingers put its eyes out.

So. Nudity, voyeurism (as well as a hint of blackmail, perhaps?) and fetishized imagery. All within the first two and half minutes. Señor Martino has your attention, yes? Just to make sure he retains it, the first murder comes less than ten minutes in, after our second bout of nudity as a couple make out in a Mini parked beneath an overpass. I suspect camera trickery was used, since the kind of languorous make-out session these two engage in is spatially impossible in a 1970s Mini unless you have both doors open and shove the gear lever in reverse.

Ahem. Moving swiftly on. They’re disturbed by a masked figure and the young gentleman makes the terminal mistake of giving chase. The young lady makes the equally inadvisable mistake of getting out of the car. The killer strikes. Once she’s dead, he really gets to work.

A note on the title. ‘Torso’ is pretty meaningless, notwithstanding the killer’s hacksaw technique in the latter stages of the proceedings. The original title is much more apposite: ‘I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale’. Which you don’t have to be a linguist to figure out means ‘the bodies showed signs of carnal violence’. And why? Because, as the killer puts it – and I’m giving nothing away here whatsoever – “they were all dolls, just stupid dolls made of flesh and blood”.

The overpass victim – Florence (Patrizia Adiutori) – was a classmate of Jane (Suzy Kendall) and Daniela (Tina Aumont), both of whom are studying art in Rome. Florence’s murder coincides with Daniela’s stalking by the spurned by persistent Stefano (Roberto Bisacco) and their friend Carol (Christina Airoldi) acting out of character. Then there’s a second murder. But fear not – Inspector Martino (Luciano De Ambrosis) is on the case and he’s tenaciously following up a lead.

Uh, actually, this being a giallo and coppers in gialli being as effectual as a bulletproof vest made out of rice paper, scratch that. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Daniela is. She’s seen something she thinks might be important and she’s initially convinced that it implicates Stefano. Jane uncovers evidence that she believes is to the contrary. Nonetheless, Daniela gets a whispered message warning her against talking to the police. Her nerves shredded, Daniela’s uncle (whose attentions towards her seem more voyeuristic than avuncular) suggests she repair to his villa in the country to rest and recuperate. A business trip prevents him from accompanying her, so Daniela invites Jane, along with Ursula (Carla Brait) and Katia (Angela Covello), who have their own motivations for sequestering themselves away in the back waters.

This turns out to be the biggest mistake since Florence decided to get out of the Mini and go looking for her boyfriend, rather than locking all the doors, firing up the ignition and getting the fuck out of Dodge.

The second half of the film follows the girls to the villa, where the rural idyll turns very sour very quickly. The local yokels take an unhealthy interest in them. Stalker-boy Stefano shows up. Jane sustains an injury that puts her at a disadvantage when the killer comes calling. The last half hour is a sustained cat-and-mouse sequence which sees Martino at his tension-ratcheting best.

And it’s because he handles the suspense and the shocks so well that ‘Torso’ emerges a damn fine giallo rather than the cheap sex ‘n’ violence exploitationer it was obviously conceived as. Sure, it oozes sleaze: the nudity is as copious as the slayings and Martino takes pains to render two of the victims in a state of undress at point of death, plus it deserves a special award for the most gratuitous J&B placement in the history of gialli

… (just in case Ms Brait’s elegant form is too distracting, it’s the ashtray), but ‘Torso’ is worlds removed from the clumsy wank-fodder of ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ or the grim misogyny of ‘The New York Ripper’. It’s effectively paced, makes good use of the kind of subjective prowling camerawork normally associated with Argento, and it’s slew of red-herrings and misdirections keep you guessing right up to the buttock-clenching finale.

This was the fifth of five consecutive gialli Martino made between 1971 and 1973, following ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’, ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’, ‘All the Colours of the Dark’ and ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’. And that’s a hell of a good run by anyone’s standards.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

New blog on the block

I just wanted to give a shout to the recently established film blog The Silver Screen. It’s the home of Brent, a New Zealander with a genuine love of cinema who’s open to all kinds of movies.

In his first month of blogging, Brent has reviewed a diverse range of films, from recent releases ‘True Grit’, ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Tangled’ to foreign fare such as ‘The White Ribbon’ and ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ by way of ‘Bitch Slap’, ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ and ’21 Grams’.

His reviews are succinct, conversational and feature links to various resources. Pop over for a visit; tell him Neil sent ya!


I'm kind of giving away tomorrow's Giallo Sunday choice here, but what the hell? I figured it was high time the doe-eyed and meltingly lovely Tina Aumont took her rightful place in the SFTW gallery.

Friday, February 18, 2011


NOTE: proliferation of SPOILERS in this review.

With ‘Dark City’, ‘The Crow’ and (to a lesser degree) ‘I, Robot’, Alex Proyas demonstrated a noirish sensibility with a touch of the gothic. These films are dystopias, characterized by an appropriately brooding atmosphere. ‘Dark City’ and ‘The Crow’ demonstrate the kind of visuals that Fritz Lang, Bob Kane and Hieronymus Bosch would all be proud of. Even the toned-down mainstream approach of ‘I, Robot’ delivered more inherent threat and sense of dread at the (inevitable?) dangers of advanced technology than is the norm for a Will Smith vehicle.

Alex Proyas has a dark vision of the future. Which, theoretically at least, would make him the ideal director for a film about the end of the world.

The first problem is that it’s a contemporarily set film about the end of the world. For all that the desaturated palette of Simon Duggan’s cinematography throws an autumnal hue across every frame, like someone draping dustcovers over the furniture in a summer house at the end of the season, there are none of the darkly iconic images from elsewhere in Proyas’s filmography.

Nor does he coax the same quality of performance from star Nicolas Cage that he got from Rufus Sewell ‘Dark City’, Brandon Lee in ‘The Crow’ or Will Smith in ‘I, Robot’. This is the pre-‘Kick-Ass’, pre-‘Bad Lieutenant’ Cage, mercifully not as comatose as in the execrable ‘Next’ or as bug-eyed hammy as in ‘Ghost Rider’ or the (possibly even more) execrable ‘Wicker Man’ remake. But an autopilot, going-through-the-motions Nic Cage all the same.

The main problem, though, is … well, let’s do the synopsis thing and all should become clear.

1959: the pupils of a newly opened school bury a time capsule, the kids all contributing a picture of what they think the future will look like. All except Lucinda (Lara Robinson), who covers her sheet of paper with numbers. Her teacher collects the paper from her before she can write the last few digits. She disappears during the ceremony in which the capsule is buried in front of the school and is later found hidden in a janitor’s closet, driven almost to hysterics by the whispering “voices” who told her the pattern of numbers, her fingers bloody from scratching the final sequence into the wood of the closet door.

Fifty years later: MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) is immersing himself in his work and trying to comfort his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Caleb attends a ceremony at school where the time capsule is retrieved and opened. The kids are all given one of the drawings. Caleb gets Lucinda’s page of numbers. By chance, John recognises the date and number of casualties from the 9/11 attacks in the number string and obsessively starts analyzing the sequence. He comes up with the dates and death tolls for every major disaster, catastrophe or act of terrorism for the last fifty years. As well as three more dates just a few days into the future. A colleague points out that there are seemingly random strings of numbers between these date/death toll groupings and suggests, quite reasonably, that John has gone a tad loco as a result of his bereavement. Then John witnesses the next event and realizes that the unaccounted for numbers are co-ordinates. He can now predict where the last few events will take place. But will he be able to prevent them? And what’s the significance of the last few digits that Lucinda didn’t have time to add to the list?

Right then. So far we’ve got numerology, a code and a correlation to cataclysmic events. All good, dramatic stuff. And damn sight better than ‘The Da Vinci Crud’. However, ‘Knowing’ edges into uneasy territory with its choice of 9/11 as the key to John’s deciphering of the code. In a narratively effective but aesthetically questionable montage, John searches the net for archive news reports of various real-life tragedies, including the Oklahoma bombings and Lockerbie. With Lockerbie recently back in the news in the UK due to the continuing controversy over the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds (my opinion: the bastard should have died in jail – a Scottish jail – not be swanning around in a specially built villa back in Libya eighteen months after he supposedly only had three months to live), the inclusion of that reference in ‘Knowing’ threw me out of the film – much as I imagine the several 9/11 references did for American audiences – and it took me a while to reintegrate with it; to remind myself that I was watching a work of fiction.

But even this is surmountable. Proyas has already established a debate between determinism and randomness; the stage is set for an enquiry into whether John is genuinely on to something or channeling his grief into apophenia. Unfortunately, this isn’t where the filmmakers go with the material.

A subplot regarding John’s estrangement from his father – a pastor – underpins the proceedings with a theological element which gradually threatens to overwhelm the film. Once the enigma of the number sequence has solved (and its narrative potential therefore exhausted), things get a little less scientific, a little less logical – hell, a whole fuckload less! – and the three credited scripters start relying a little too desperately on shabby devices such as a kid colouring in the sun in a print of Matthaus Merian’s engraving of the chariot from ‘Ezekiel’ triggering John to a hitherto unseeded expository ejaculation along the lines of “Oh my God, yes, that paper I published recently about solar flares, I remember now, increased activity in the Kappa Beta Delta quadrant, let me immediately dash over to talk to my buddy who works at one of those fuck-off big telescopes in the middle of nowhere so that he can run a programme everyone in the astrological discipline has conveniently overlooked until I turned up to point it out … oh my God, yes, a massive solar flare is going to cause the end of the world!!!!!

This alone would be enough to question whether or not the choo-choo train of a movie’s intellectual cachet hadn’t experience a wheels/rail detachment scenario, but ‘Knowing’ ain’t done yet. Oh no, we’ve now got Lucinda’s granddaughter, annoyingly played by the same actress. Not annoying in terms of the performance – Lara Robinson is one of those rare child actors who manages to be as cute as a button without being puke-inducingly cutesy – but because this casting decision inherently hints a reincarnation theme which is otherwise unexplored, and just causes confusion when we get to the quasi-religious, cod-philosophical, wannabe-‘Close Encounters’ finale.

Ah, the finale. This is the true sticking point of the film. Now, I’m not saying that filmmakers shouldn’t mix things up, prompt the audience to think for themselves by wrongfooting them occasionally, or strive for a different perspective on established tropes. But, if you’re going to do these things, you should at least be pretty secure in your own mind (a) what you want to achieve, (b) how you intend to achieve it, and (c) that you play fair by your own rules in doing so. Christopher Nolan is a grand master at this: as big a suspension of disbelief as ‘The Prestige’ or ‘Inception’ require, as tricksy as the structures of ‘Memento’ or ‘The Prestige’ are, Nolan is absolutely lucid about what he wants to achieve, utterly focused in the realization of it, and plays scrupulously fair.

‘Knowing’ starts out as an enigmatic puzzle based on numerology, develops into a race-against-time thriller once the message is decoded, takes a theological detour to get all Revelations on our ass … then throws aliens into the mix. Fucking aliens! It’s like watching ‘Pi’ only for it to morph into ‘Winter Light’ before going breaking out the Spielbergian god-lights and cloying sentimentality. Oh, and with Jerry Bruckheimer, Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay invited to the “let’s blow up a fuckton of stuff” end of the world party.

Not that any of those dudes would have the class to end the world to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, so kudos to Proyas for that at least.

But let’s get back to the aliens thing for a minute. And I’ll try to make it quick. I’ve exhausted almost 1,400 words so far on ‘Knowing’ – 1,400 words on an essentially flawed movie that I’ll probably never reapproach – and I have other things to do. Such as drink beer. Read the new Iain M. Banks. Watch other movies.

The alien thing starts with some emotionless types in anonymous black vehicles surveilling John’s house. They’re tall, blonde, chiselled faces, long black coats. In a war movie, these boys’d have the Gestapo audition in the bag. You spend a while wondering if they’re from some sinister government agency.

Late in the game, they’re revealed to be aliens. When they shuck off their human guises, they present as silvery, shiny humanoid types. When they turn away from John to lead his son and Lucinda’s granddaughter into the pod that will carry them up into a mothership that looks like an icicle on steroids, a translucence wavers around their shoulderblades; a transulence that shimmers and almost imperceptibly weaves itself into the suggestion of wings.

And there we have the essential flaw of ‘Knowing’. It morphs through its various stages/subgenres/narrative touchstones to reconcile finally with the deus ex machina of Aryan alien angels picking up two kids from the whole of humankind and dropping them off on an otherwise uninhabited planet to “start over”. And – astoundingly – it gets even worse in the very last shot (the coda to the Beethoven’s 7th/humanity-buys-the-farm set-piece). The planet these poor kids are dumped on (without a whisper of instruction or any supplies courtesy of their extraterrestrial alleged benefactors) is full of something that looks like cornfields made of polyps, with a fucking big hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-garden-of-Eden-allegory tree in the middle of it. They’re both clutching their pet rabbits as the aliens beam them down and unceremoniously depart.


As in breed like ~.

Subtle. Real subtle.

Ladies and gentleman: ‘Knowing’. A film that destroys our world but offers us the happy ending of two prepubescent kids being abandoned in the cosmos (with the expectation of sexual compatibility, self-sufficiency and the rebuilding of society by way of generations of inbreeding) by a bunch of Nazi alien angels.

Surely Erich von Daniken is owed some royalties.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Women in horror: six great horror heroines

Celebrating Day of the Woman’s “Women in Horror Month” with half a dozen feisty final girls, resilient heroines and one sexy sheriff who looks good packing a shotgun.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie in ‘Halloween’

Melissa George as Jess in ‘Triangle’

Signourey Weaver as Ripley in ‘Alien’

Jessica Harper as Suzy in ‘Suspiria’

Adrienne Barbeau as Stevie in ‘The Fog’

Kari Wuhrer as Sheriff Parker in ‘Eight Legged Freaks’

(Don’t forget to visit Day of the Woman for a month-long celebration of women in horror.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Women in horror: more deadly than the male

Celebrating Day of the Woman’s “Women in Horror Month” with half a dozen female horror icons whose pint you definitely wouldn’t spill.

Robin McLeavy as Lola in ‘The Loved Ones’

Linda Hayden as Angel in ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’

Ingrid Pitt as Countess Elisabeth in ‘Countess Dracula’

Rie Ino’o as Sadako in ‘The Ring’

Katharine Isabelle as Ginger in ‘Ginger Snaps’

Amelia Kinkade as Angela in ‘Night of the Demon’

(Don’t forget to visit Day of the Woman for a month-long celebration of women in horror.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Women in horror: the best of the bloggers

Brittney-Jade Colangelo has declared February “Women in Horror Month” at her intelligent, witty and highly readable blog Day of the Woman. If Brittney-Jade isn’t on your sidebar already, rectify that oversight now.

In honour of her blog-a-thon and in celebration of the all the accomplished female horror bloggers out there, The Agitation of the Mind would like to take this opportunity to give a big round of applause to half a dozen of his favourite femmes fatale of the blogosphere.

In alphabetical order by blog name (to avoid accusations of favouritism):


Your hostess with the mostess: Kimberly Lindbergs. Not a 24/7 horror blogger, but her love of all things 70s has taken her from obscure gems to a heartfelt appreciation of Ingrid Pitt. Kimberly is one of the most elegant and well-respected bloggers out there.

Your hostess with the mostess: the aforementioned Brittney-Jade. The 2009 Ms Horror Blogosphere Winner, absurdly accomplished for such a young writer and – if such a thing is possible – an even more facetiously vehement hater of all things ‘Twilight’ related than myself.

Final Girl

Your hostess with the mostess: Stacie Ponder. Blogger, broadcaster, artist, director and all-round renaissance woman, there’s a reason why Stacie has 813 followers and is on first-name terms with Lena freakin’ Headey. Final Girl isn’t just a blog; it’s a way of life!

Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire

Your hostess with the mostess: Tenebrous Kate. How can a blog with this title not be cool? Answer: it can’t. Kate’s banner promises the “lurid, weird, fantastique”. Her blog delivers.

Scare Sarah

Your hostess with the mostess: Sarah. Packing maximum insight and dry humour into succinct reviews, Scare Sarah is a Lammy-nominated site and its author a proud member of both the Horror Blogger Alliance and the Brighton Bloggers.

Totally Jinxed

Your hostess with the mostess: Jinx. Three great things have come out of Newcastle: Newcastle Brown Ale (a.k.a. Newkie Brahn), Jimmy Nail (Oz in ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’) and Jinx, one of the sassiest no-bullshit bloggers (of either sex) you’re ever likely to encounter. Her profile reads “flame haired tattooed love goddess”. What’s not to like?

Ladies, you rock. I salute you.