Darren Aronofsky

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2017 in Review: Pixie’s Horror Picks

Published January 8, 2018 by rmpixie

 

 

It seems like a blur, but another year has passed. Quite a few horror films made their mark in 2017; some were out of the gate hits while others were divisive. All of them created a buzz and garnered a bit more respect for our beloved horror genre. Here are my top picks from the past year.

Being a programmer for Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival, I have a soft spot for indie film. There were a few that I saw at Toronto After Dark and BITS that I must mention for their unique subject matter and execution despite low budgets.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival

Lowlife drew me into the multiple narratives leading up to an insane climax. The charm of this film is its heart and filmmaker Ryan Prows made sure there was plenty to go around. The well written left-field characters amidst the constantly botched criminal antics will make you root for them ten times over. It’s definitely a sleeper hit in my eyes. Read my review on Cinema Axis here.

A total left-fielder at TADFF for me was Beyond Skyline.  This sequel came out of the shadow of its lukewarm and not well received predecessor Skyline to blast it out of the water.  Where the first film followed people in a condo as the world falls under an alien attack, Beyond Skyline picks up from Skyline’s cliffhanger ending. The unlikely redemption lies with Frank Grillo’s action star swagger, a genuinely funny script, great aliens combined with practical and CGI effects, and some kick ass action from The Raid’s Iko Uwais.

Two more After Dark films that still resonate for me are Rabbit and The Endless. Following a twin’s quest to find her missing and thought dead sister leads her into a world of madness, science and an undeniable connection to her sibling. With breathtaking cinematography and scoring that will chill you to the bone, director Luke Shanahan’s Rabbit is visceral and confounding. I reviewed it here.

The Endless also takes you on a journey, one that brings two brothers back to a cult they escaped years ago. Each one recalls a different experience of the commune they once called home, and things become more intoxicating and confusing as realities and perceptions blur. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson come back after their indie hits Resolution and Spring with a strong effort that left fans wanting more from this mind-bending film.

Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival

My programming rights give me access to incredible indie gems, the filmmakers and cast, and I’m privileged help put on a film festival that gives genre film fans a chance to see some great Canadian talent. This year was one of Blood in the Snow’s best, taking place at the gorgeous Royal Cinema, and all the titles left audiences talking well after the festival was over. You can find the 2017 lineup at bloodinthesnow.ca and check out the feature film award winners for BITS 6th year:

Darken, a dystopian fantasy with strong female leads was our closing night film and won for Best Poster, Best Cinematography, Best Music Score and the lovely Audrey Cummings took home the Best Director prize.

The winner for Best Feature film and Best Screenplay was Buckout Road directed by Matthew Currie Holmes. Based on a notoriously haunted road in New York state, this film was a fun blend of urban legends with great star power including Canadian acting vets Colm Feore, Henry Czerny and Hollywood mainstay Danny Glover.

Fake Blood, a documentary style feature follows two filmmakers who want to explore the effects of violence in film on audiences, eventually coming face to face with some real danger when they flirt with the criminal element. Rob Grant and Mike Kovacs took home the award for Best Editing. It’s a truly disturbing film that kept the audience wondering what was real long after the screening.

Best Actor went to Jeff Sinasac, a long-time actor in the GTA who revealed more of his talents by not only starring in but also directing his film Red Spring, a tense post-apocalyptic vampire survivalist film; while the acclaimed Suzanne Clément took home the Best Actress for The Child Remains, a chilling tale directed by Michael Melski based on the horrific true story of the Butterbox Babies.

Best Special FX went to Kill Order (Meza) and followed a young man who must deal with his superhuman powers, a sinister plot and plenty of danger. A martial arts spectacle filmed right here in Toronto, director James Mark created a real crowd pleaser with tons of stunts and action.

Best Acting Ensemble went to Ryan M. Andrews’ The Art of Obsession. This film, starring our Vanguard winner Ry Barrett, went deep into the mind of a writer and his process; haunted by his muse and his work. It’s a departure from the usual psychological horror and one that will resonate with those who are passionate about what they create.

Pleasant Surprises, The Grotesque, and a Timely Game Changer

There were two films that surprised me by how much I liked them. The first was Rue Morgue’s presentation of The Evil Within. Directed by the late Andrew Getty, a member of one of the richest families in America, the film took a long time to finish due to his untimely death. Frederick Koehler stars as Dennis, a mentally challenged young man who is gifted a mirror he’s seen in his nightmares. It holds a powerful evil and manifests itself as sinister and smarter reflection of himself, taunting Dennis and putting those around him in danger. Koehler outdoes himself playing the two roles, and the mixture of nightmare scenes and long-time horror actor Michael Berryman as the mirror’s evil demon makes this film a one of a kind gem. Thanks to the determination of those involved with the production despite the loss of the director, the film finally got it’s release last year. Rue Morgue issue #177 delves into the trials and tribulations of the film’s journey and is well worth the read.

The second film that surprised me was Darren Aronofsky’s’ mother! It screened at TIFF 2017 and I was prepared to find something to dislike about it since it was so polarizing and a lot of my film critic cronies hated it. While I respect their opinions, I ended up loving it and sat through it another time at home, only to love it even more (and not because Mr. Stephen McHattie is in it…well ok, there’s that, but it’s now one of my favorite films to date). Once again, my full review can be found here.

My only other TIFF 2017 selection that made the list was The Crescent. Hailing from the east coast, this hypnotic psychological thriller about a young mother coming to terms with her grief and the safety of her son in a strange town, in my eyes, didn’t get enough love. The use of art and the scoring by the film’s director Seth A. Smith created a brilliantly eerie atmosphere highlighting isolation and tension. Read my review here.

Shudder Canada has continually impressed me with the unique content they offer horror fans who want to escape the mainstream. One of their films that had a limited screening in Toronto was Kuso. After an earthquake befuddles L.A., several characters and their stories intersect as they try to navigate through their afflicted city. There are a ton of vile moments, along with scathing social commentary and bleak humor. It’s a trying yet exhilarating film filled with music, art and the grotesque by first time director Flying Lotus aka Steven Ellison, better know for his musical and D.J. talents. Be forewarned that it’s not the usual gore and not for the squeamish, and it is most likely not for everyone, but a must-see anyway. Read my full review here.

My favourite film of 2017 is Get Out for so many reasons. I’m going off on a tangent for a moment. In my research for pieces that will be included in an upcoming book on racism in American film, I learned African-Americans were underestimated for their love of westerns. When producers and movie house owners learned that African-Americans did indeed enjoy stories of life on the open range (in fact there is a long history of African-Americans working as cowboys), saving a damsel in distress and immortalizing cowboy action in song, they capitalized on that desire and made Black westerns. While short-lived (spanning from the 1920s-40s), it showed that demand ruled and the creators of media listened. Fast forward to modern-day, where actor and comedian Jordan Peele wrote and directed his first horror film starring a Black actor about the Black experience. It was clever, scathing, and always on point. And the masses, both Black and white (for the most part) loved it. Once again, African-Americans proved that they loved and wanted content in genre films. Instead of leaving it up to the powers that be, Peele took it into his own hands and created that content, opening doors for more people of colour to join in the wave of genre filmmakers. We owe so much to Peele and Get Out, and while there is still so much room for improvement and inclusivity within the film industry, I honestly hope the momentum continues. Read my thoughts on this game changing film here.

For 2018, I hope horror continues to create conversations and include fans of all genders and colours. All the best to you in this shiny new year!

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Mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Published September 28, 2017 by rmpixie

mother! (2017, 2 hrs, 1 min.)

 

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

 

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