fairy tale

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The Witch puts Horror on Trial

Published March 1, 2016 by rmpixie

the-witch-poster1

The Witch (2015, 1 hr 32 mins.)

 

The hype machine has created yet another horror frenzy with the 2015 festival favourite, The Witch. Much like the Salem Witch Trials, hysteria surrounding this film snowballed, spreading stories of disturbing scenes and terror throughout the festival circuit. I myself wrung my hands in despair when I couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out screening at TIFF this past summer, feeling like I was missing the horror film of the year.   What emerged from the frenzy was a question about what creates horror in a film, and an apparent polarizing of horror fans.

Set in 1630, a puritanical family is banished from a communal plantation for their religious beliefs and claim a place for themselves in a remote forest valley. The family experiences a horrible setback when their infant son vanishes under his adolescent sister Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) watch.  They are under great stress as the crops fail, food is scarce, and they grieve the loss of the baby.  Suspicions soon take hold as the family suspect Thomasin is a witch, and when her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) disappears, they all descend into despair, paranoia and disbelief as accusations fly and things come to a shocking and bitter conclusion.

Director Robert Eggers painstakingly made a film that stayed as true to the era of his story as possible. From the costumes to the language and sets, he recreated a time that saw a narrow vision of the world and religion. There were very real things to fear, like the elements and disease, but nothing is as frightening as the unknown.  Here it poses as the Devil and his witch minions, who could be blamed for a multitude of sins so-to-speak, since these pilgrims didn’t know much else.  Witches and the Devil were their Freddy and Jason back then, and to them it was a very real fear, with salvation and comfort only coming from God.  Eggers also artfully weaves in traditional fairy tale elements amidst the real struggle the family faces; using those stories as a relevant source of horror relatable to the era.  The performances were excellent, especially from Taylor-Joy and the range of emotions Scrimshaw exhibits.  His soon-to-be infamous possession scene is hugely admirable for his young age.

Now, this story wasn’t water-tight. There were opportunities that, without giving away spoilers, could have utilized the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in a way that would have travelled down a more traditional horror route, and perhaps made more sense in a literal way, but it didn’t.  If it had, I think horror fans would have felt more satisfied with the overall film, instead of struggling for a grasp on the horror angle.

The verdict? I liked The Witch and my boyfriend did not.  First off, don’t expect a literal horror.  I did, and along with my boyfriend, we kept waiting for that “horror moment” that never really appeared.  After I relaxed my horror expectations, however, I began to enjoy it for the fairy tale aspects and the medieval woodcutting look.  I have forever been a huge fan of the morbidly violent and creepy tones of Brothers Grimm fairy tales.  The axes swung too and fro, the heads rolled and the innocent suffered often; escapades that have been sugar-coated and softened through the centuries.  Eggers doesn’t do that here.  The witch is a true crone, with seductive wiles and a bloodthirsty stealth that drives this family to mistrust and madness.  It’s a fairy tale at its stark best, from the cinematography to the harsh realities of the wilderness and the living conditions. The fantasy is rinsed off, leaving a brutal uneasiness that turns into a pleasurable weirdness at the end.

As I said before, my boyfriend had no time for this movie. He felt it he was being sold something that didn’t deliver, in his words.  He is a true cinephile, with an enormous love for horror as well as having extremely varied tastes in cinema.  Even though this was a slow-burn horror, which he is familiar with and enjoys as much as a slasher film, he felt that he was promised a terrifying experience that didn’t deliver.  We both read many an article that criticized the horror fans who disliked the film, calling them “narrow-minded” for not being impressed with the art house offering, but I don’t think narrow-mindedness is to blame.  I see his point and agree because the real culprit here is not the filmmaker or a fan’s perception, but those churning the big bad marketing cauldron.

There is an incessant need to crow about the next scariest horror movie guaranteed to make you pee your pants, etc.  It creates a false sense of certainty that first, this is a horror in the traditional sense with an immediate gratification for visceral jolts of fear (see the film’s trailer below), and second, that every horror fan is disturbed by this type of horror.  Horror fans can be the most accepting and diverse film-goers out there, but I think they just don’t like being duped.  It’s a matter of misrepresenting what you’re selling simply because you know what people clamour for in order to create a buzz.  That does the film a disservice as the marketing can be hard to avoid, and it can be difficult to stay your bias.  I felt this way with It Follows, which I didn’t like because it was also sold as a terrifying film, and I wasn’t terrified in the least.  I’m an intelligent horror fan with an open mind, and the hype marred my experience.  Ultimately though, everyone is talking about The Witch, which is what any filmmaker would want, so it’s a win-win and opens up yet another debate about what constitutes horror.

I think you should see a film to support a new director with a unique vision, not because a media fueled machine tells you how you should react to a film.  Some will like The Witch for the meticulous attention to detail and art house flair, and some won’t because it doesn’t represent the type of horror genre it was sold as; it’s as simple as that.  When we are allowed to use our own powers of observation and critical thinking instead of what’s being shoved down our throats, when we allow each other to have and accept each other’s opinions, and when we allow a film to organically emerge and create its own momentum, I think there’ll be a better appreciation for a genre that can be as inclusive as its fans.

 

M. Night Shyamalan Surprises with The Visit

Published September 13, 2015 by rmpixie

TheVisit

The Visit (2015, I hr, 34 mins)

 

Remember when The Sixth Sense created a buzz in 1999 and got all those Oscar nominations?  And then came Unbreakable (2000), which was a different take on the superhero, and Signs (2002), where aliens invade Earth while a grieving pastor questions his reason for being, both also critically acclaimed.  These films all paved a yellow brick road for M. Night Shyamalan, giving him the reputation for being a fresh voice in the horror, sci-fi and supernatural genres.  Unfortunately, he came out with more than a few misses, like The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008),  and After Earth (2013), branding him with an involuntary roll of the eyes when mentioned by the less than forgiving masses.  Thankfully, his latest contribution does the opposite by taking the already tedious found footage genre and pumping refreshingly new life into it with The Visit.

15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going to visit their grandparents for the first time.  Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for 15 years, and at their request, she is reluctantly sending the kids on a week-long stay at their farm in rural Pennsylvania.  Becca is a budding filmmaker and wants to create a documentary based on her mother’s life and familial rift in the hopes of a reunion in the future, so this trip makes for great content and she plans to catch everything on film.

When the kids meet their grandparents, they are excited and apprehensive.  The air is cordial and slightly awkward as they get to know each other, and they explore their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop’s (Peter McRobbie) farm, trying get an angle on them, but things get stranger and stranger as the week goes by.  The seniors exhibit odd and disturbing behaviour, warning their grandkids to stay in their room after 9:30 p.m. because of Nana’s strange nocturnal afflictions.  This leaves Becca and Tyler baffled and soon terrified as a gruesome secret is revealed.

I was on the fence as to whether I would see this latest Shyamalan attempt, since I too was one of those eye-rollers.  I loved his first few films, and I think Devil was underrated, but The Village and The Happening left a bad taste in my mouth, and I became wary of the now expected twist with his films.  He regained my trust recently with Wayward Pines, where he directed the pilot and produced the series.  I had to give him credit with his efforts to tell this weird and wonderful tale, and now he has won me over again with The Visit.

It was refreshing that I didn’t know what to expect from seeing the commercials and the trailer.  I did wonder if it was a comedy because of Kathryn Hahn, who has a long comedic resume, and I was right, but there was no slapstick here.  Instead, there was a slow burn build-up of weirdness and Oxenbould’s brilliant portrayal of the nerdy and hilarious hip-hop enthusiast Tyler made the film for me.  His timing broke up tension in a way that mirrored audience reactions and added to the overall mystery of the plot.  Dunagan and McRobbie took the archetypical loving grandparents to a sinister place and didn’t hold back once the plot turned, and look out for some old school Brothers Grimm references.  Oh, and that Shyamalan twist is very present and will not disappoint.

As the end credits rolled for The Visit, I couldn’t help but think this was a cinematic raspberry blown at those of us who reminded him how terrible some of his efforts were, and to offset the many Golden Raspberry Awards he’s won in the past.  This time, with a mere 5 million dollar budget, Shyamalan redeems himself.  Aside from a couple of dead-end scares and a somewhat sappy ending, he successfully leads us down a road with blinders on only to rip them off and shove us off a pretty crazy cliff.  Go see it if you want a surprising horror comedy with Hansel and Gretel overtones and a decent found footage revival.

 

 

 

 

Pixie Dust: A Journey Into The Fantastic With Director Damon Colquhoun

Published December 23, 2014 by rmpixie

PillJarPosterPortrait

There is a lot of great talent within the indie film scene, and social media is making that more than evident.  All it takes is a follow here, a tweet there, and you are exposed to writers and directors who have a unique vision.  One such person is Damon Colquhoun.  Based in Harlem, New York, this photographer, writer and filmmaker used his multi-faceted talents to create a short film which was a 2013 finalist in Ron Howard’s Project Imagint10n, based on his winning photo “Manhattan’s Many Moons”.  The film, entitled Transporter, is about a young man Darien, whose family is involve in shady, criminal activity.  Darien has a unique ability that is doomed to be exploited by them, unless he can escape.  This 10 minute film is a dark, grim tale of a young man trying to leave his harsh reality behind.  I was really intrigued by this short, which will now be a feature film, and I loved the style and tone of it, so of course when Colquhoun let me know about his next project, Pixie Dust, he got my pixie attention.

Pixie Dust is an urban fantasy about a powerful 13-year-old girl named Faye and her mentally ill mother. Faye’s mother suffers from a mental illness which sends her into violent spells. She refuses to take her medication, forcing Faye to find a way to get her back on track. Through Faye’s journey, she discovers a magical family secret which could help her save her mother, but it could also kill Faye.”   (Excerpt from http://www.damoncolquhoun.com and the Indiegogo campaign currently underway to fund the project, but more on that later…)

I wanted to find out about the mind behind these dark and fantastical stories, so I got a chance to ask him a few questions about his life as an artist, the project and his process.

 

1.  You started out with an art degree, and through your artistic journey, made a stop in the film world.  What got you interested in film?
 
I actually started as an actor. I studied at a pretty serious acting conservatory, and was in few indie films. During my training I kept getting into trouble because I had this urge to control staging, and other actors’ performances. I would get really frustrated if one of my classmates didn’t deliver what I thought they were capable of. Finally, one of my instructors told me I might want to consider directing.
 
I directed a couple of things, got fed up with the no budget process and went back to school. I studied art because I wanted a career in VFX [visual effects]. I figured, learning VFX would allow me to make films on my own, but once I got a job in the industry, the 9-5 hustle took over. Plus I really didn’t care for the tediousness of the work.
 
I went back to directing because all-in-all it’s the right place for someone like me: a jack-of-all trades who’s a control freak with stories to tell and a clear vision through which to present them. Plus, new technology allowed me to make movies the way I wanted to.
 
2.  Tell us a little about the melding of fairy and fay lore with the story of Pixie Dust.
 
I wanted to paint a picture of a modern urban fairy. Some fairy traits are incorporated in an anecdotal way to tease those who know fairy lore. At the start of the film, it’s not obvious that Faye is a fairy, but, for those in the know, there are hints. The most obvious hint is her name, then there’s the fact that Faye doesn’t care for salt. Their landlord is going to wear her sweater inside out as a way to protect herself when delivering the bad news to Faye.
 
Fairies are nature spirits, so Faye is there to restore balance within nature’s black sheep, humans, hence her ability to see people’s inner beast (a metaphor for [their] psychological issues).
 
I also wanted to subvert the popular image of pixie dust. Faye ends up finding her own kind of pixie dust in the form of her mother’s medication, but medication is a double-edged sword: they have side effects. A fairy can be both “good” and “bad,” the viewers have to ask themselves, are Faye’s actions ultimately good or bad?
 
3.  Your cast for Pixie Dust looks amazing! (Mia Guzman as Faye; Rocio Mendez as her mother; and Mary Looram from Orange Is The New Black as the Landlord) How influenced are you by diversity, and in light of the recent Chris Rock essay, how difficult is it to stay true to your community and how it is represented within the independent film world?
 
Thank you! Getting your hands on a great cast is tough. So, yeah, I got lucky.
 
In terms of diversity, it comes organically for me. Growing up in NYC’s Upper West Side means that my world was full of diversity, therefore, diversity is essential to an honest retelling of my experiences. It’s the story that dictates the specific variety of diversity. In a film like Transporter, diversity meant a cast that was African-American, Haitian, Nigerian, and Israeli.
 
Filmmakers have to be true to their stories. Color is not the important thing, ethnicity is. Americans are products of their ethnic backgrounds, which are steeped in history and culture, which create a distinct POV. But look, if you’re a filmmaker who grew up around nothing but middle-American White people, then please don’t add a token Black person to your film. Instead, make certain that you look deep enough into your world to reflect in your film the cultural isolation you were raised in and what effect that had on you and therefore your story.
 
 
4.  With your short film Transporter, your main character Darien is an introvert and lives in his head.  I wondered at times how mentally fit he was.  In Pixie Dust, the film focuses Faye and her mother’s mental illness.  I can see a thread with both films that deal with mental illness using a fantasy backdrop, making it easy to open the subject up to discussion.  Was that your intention in order to address this seemingly still taboo subject in the African-American community?
 
Believe it or not, I had no intention of focusing on the theme of mental illness in the way I have, but it’s a personal topic to me, so it happened organically.
 
I was shot when I was 8 years old. The bullet fell out of the sky, hit my leg, just missing my head, ripping a chunk out of my thigh. I didn’t tell my parents about it, just my sister, so the only treatment I got was a gauze pad and some ointment. From that point on, it felt like death could just descend upon me, seemingly out of nowhere. Many years later I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and OCD. Through therapy, I’ve learned to manage it all pretty well.
 
Once I came to understand the symptoms of anxiety-based mental illnesses, I began to see it everywhere in my Harlem neighborhood: it’s a look people have in their eyes; it’s in their breathing pattern; it’s in the way they communicate or fail to communicate. It’s wild. So yeah, I guess as a filmmaker, mental illness is my raison d’être.
 
5.  Tell us a bit about Faye’s character and where she draws her strength.
 
She’s actually modeled after my wife who is 5’, 100 lbs, but grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The schoolyard chant [in those days] went something like this:
 
Come from the Ville
Know I’m chill
Picture me runnin
Must be buggin
Walk up in your face
Beat you down and walk away
 
So yeah, Faye is a fighter. She’s uncomfortable showing emotion, but is full of love. Unfortunately, her mother’s constant need for care absorbs most of it. Faye [is also] a naturally attractive girl – the type who attracts boys without trying to, or wanting to. The boy-girl dynamic is still foreign to her – she’s got a lot on her plate. The fact that the boys like her means that a lot of girls don’t like her. Faye has to prove her toughness once every couple of school years.           
 
Faye draws her strength from her grandmother. Her grandmother was a fairy as well. There’s a confidence that comes from knowing that you have one more weapon than everybody else. For some people, it’s brains, for some it’s brawn. For Faye’s grandmother, it was brains and magical brawn – likewise for Faye.
 
6.  Do you find you have more freedom for storytelling in the fantasy genre?
I would say so. Reality is a bitch! It’s often hard to digest. So trying to get an audience to explore a difficult subject head on is often asking too much of people. The things you explore and say in a fantasy film can certainly be more overt. At the same time, it’s easier to lose the subtleties – the humanity – when you make an all out fantasy film. That’s why I prefer something closer to a hybrid, like Urban Fantasies.
 
 
7.  You mention films like Take Shelter (which I loved), and Melancholia having a similar vibe to Pixie Dust.  What are some your favorite sci-fi, fantasy or horror films?
As I mention earlier, I like hybrids. There’s nothing like watching human beings interacting without reservation. At the same time, there’s nothing like watching a human being fly!
Here is his list (which is pretty darn great!):
Sci-Fi:
La Jetée – Delicatessen – Children of Men – Battle Royal – Stalker – 12 Monkeys – Alien – Empire Strikes Back
 
Fantasy:
Tin Drum – Blade – Beasts of the Southern Wild – Pan’s Labyrinth – Brotherhood of the Wolf – TLOTR Trilogy (epic) – The Dark Knight – The Wiz
 
Horror:
Let The Right One In – The Birds – Rosemary’s Baby – The Shining – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Suicide Club – Halloween
 
  

Now that we know a little about the film and the mind behind it, I hope the insider info makes you want to see it as much as I do!  This project is in pre-production, with an Indiegogo campaign that will close on January 2, 2015.  $15,000 is needed to create Pixie Dust, with majority of the money going to actually paying cast and crew.

Let the holiday spirit inspire you!  If you can make a contribution, please do, and if you’re not sure, go to the link below where you get a chance to read his great script to help make your decision.  How unique is that?!

I think it is important that we support independent filmmakers who make genre films that defy cookie cutter cinema these days.

Make your contributions here:

http://igg.me/at/pixiedustfilm/x/3950522

and check out all the in-depth info about the production!

Thanks to Damon for taking the time to answer a few questions so candidly, and I can’t wait to see the finished film.

Good luck!

The Babadook TADFF 2014

Published October 29, 2014 by rmpixie

babadook

The Babadook (2014, 1hr 33 mins)

I had read about The Babadook several months ago.  Drawn in by the strange name, I had to see what this indie Aussie horror, touted as one of the best horror films out this year, was about.  I was immediately intrigued by the trailer, and was ecstatic when I found out it was coming to the Toronto After Dark Film Festival as the closing gala film.  This fairytale nightmare was worthy of all the buzz and anticipation as it kept your gut in knots and will make you avoid your bookshelf for a while.

On the day of her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) birth, Amelia (Essie Davis) loses her husband in a car crash.  Samuel, who is now 6, is a handful; his imagination runs wild with monsters he must battle, and he invents treacherous gizmos that creates problems at school.  His mother is a broken woman trying to keep her head above a sea of unrealized emotion, and gets no support from her sister.  One evening for a bedtime story, Samuel picks a book called The Babadook.  It has mysteriously appeared on his shelf, and it is a menacing tale that becomes too close for comfort, immediately scaring the living daylights out of Samuel and his mother.  What ensues is the unleashing of a supernatural force that stakes its claim on their home and their lives.

What draws you in to The Babadook is not the dollhouse-like sets or the moody lighting and midnight blue palette, but the performances.  Davis, with her fresh face and big eyes, played the hell out of her character who goes from distraught to a demonic transformation that will give you chills.  To be in abject terror for such a sustained amount of time deserves an award of some sort!  Wiseman sold the excitable, anxiety-laden Samuel who just wants happiness in his life really well, drawing out concern just as you were ready to write him off.

Writer and director Jennifer Kent uses the age-old fairy tale rule of a moral or warning in its most literal sense, in this case burying your fears and emotions that will eventually come back and bite, or stab you.  She has also made a visually engaging film.  From the simple household sets that conveyed a sad isolation, to the vintage silent film footage that haunts Amelia’s dream and waking life, Kent makes the indie into high art.  And the fact that our antagonist, The Babadook, is not treated like your regular demon/spirit fare elevates the monster to what I hope will be iconic status.  Also note the brilliant sound design that at times you could feel in your seat and made your skin crawl.

When this film comes out in a wider release, and I think with all its success it will, go see it.  You will get a kick out of some old-fashioned scares, harkening back to the spooky stories you remember as a child, and the unusual ending will leave you wondering what will happen to Amelia and Samuel.  Ba Ba Dook-Dook-Dook!

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