The Lure (2017)

Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty. This debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

Two young mermaid sisters, Golden & Silver, join us legged folk on land after curiously spying on some drunken revelers from just under the surface of the water at a cityside beach. Fascinated with the mermaids’ siren song duet & apparent ability to temporarily sprout legs (but no human genitalia, much to everyone’s dismay), the beach-side drunks adopt the sisters into their band: an adult-themed nightclub act that sounds something like synthpop act Berlin gone disco. Soon they’re the most popular act at any disco burlesque in all of Warsaw, first providing the backing track for other topless performers and then quickly becoming topless performers themselves. The club makes no effort to hide the fact that these are fantastical creatures, making their gigantic, muscular mermaid tails a central part of the act. The problems that break up this sexed-up reverie arise when Silver & Golden aren’t performing. One falls in love with a human, both grow frustrated with their over-controlling band mates, and neither are sure what to make of Triton, who leads a similar life on land fronting a wildly popular punk band at a nearby club. All of these conflicts come to a head the way they also did in Poland’s last significant international horror release, Demon: through a drunken wedding celebration that ends much, much later into the night than it should.

It’s possible that some of the cultural significance of themes lurking just under the surface of The Lure might be going over my head as an American outsider (a concern I also had with Demon, to be honest). Inscrutable dialogue like, “Do you live in some old monkey’s ear?” occasionally threw me off-balance in that way, but that open-for-interpretation oddness lends itself well to the universality of pop music lyrics’ subjectivity. Lines like, “Bitter tastes can be delicious,” “We’re all gloomy as hell,” and “Put your hand deep inside me and drag me to shore,” cut through the language barrier of the pop lyrics translations to feel significant despite their enigmatic nature. This dynamic also plays well into how the sisters relate to the outside world in ways we don’t fully understand as an audience of land-walkers. Sometimes their dolphin-noise communication between one another is subtitled for our benefit, but often we’re left completely in the dark. This not only maintains the suspense of whether Golden or Silver are about to strike out in another act of animalistic, flesh-eating violence (or equally animalistic acts of sexual perversion), but also supports the film’s necessary distinction of their unknowable inhumanity. As Triton puts it, “We are not human. We are just on vacation here.” Any tragedy that befalls the mermaids or the humans who desire to interact with them is a direct result of losing track of that basic truth, which is an easy enough narrative through-line to hold onto, even if some of the details in the phrasing present a communicative struggle.

Of course, the lure of The Lure isn’t entirely dependent on the film’s dialogue or thematic weight. From a filmmaking standpoint, my favorite aspect of the movie is just its value as a stunning collection of sights & sounds. Every scene in the film looks either like a music video dream sequence or a flashlight-illuminated crime scene. The costuming & old school musical sound stage imagery is impeccable. Its The Knife-esque synths & vocal distortions had me tapping my foot for the entire length of the runtime. I could ramble on forever praising The Lure for the way it handles themes like the infantilization & casual dismissal of women after their commodification loses potency or its admirably blasé attitudes toward bisexuality or feminist revenge narratives. That kind of highfalutin critical praise would be somewhat dishonest to what I most fell in love with in the film, however. Smoczyńska’s major accomplishment is in how she captures the grand scale spectacle of a Baz Luhrmann musical within the context of a slick, modern horror film that’s both comically light on its feet and chillingly brutal in its gore-heavy cruelty. It’s an incredible love-at-first-sight debut that already has me willing to give the director a lifetime pass just one entry into her career.

-Brandon Ledet

Beware the Slenderman (2017)

threehalfstar

One of the most common complaints that documentaries suffer is the accusation that they exploit their human subjects for artistic (and financial) gain. It’d be difficult to argue against that accusation in regards to the recent HBO Docs release Beware the Slenderman, which turns the real-life stabbing of a twelve year old girl into a midnight movie creepshow & a jumping point for internet age fear mongering. Although I could comfortably call Beware the Slenderman exploitative, it’s exploitation cinema done exceedingly well. The first hour of the documentary is highly effective as bone-chilling horror, opening with a Blair Witch-style dramatization of the titular “creepy pasta” the Slenderman in a heavily pixelated version of the woods. As the film tracks the legend of the Slenderman from online fiction to amateur video games to Tumblr fan art to YouTube mainstay, it makes some really interesting and genuinely unnerving points about the evolution of memes as a collective “virus of the mind” and the function of online folklore as “digital fairy tales.” It’s when the film instead focuses on the 2014 stabbing of a young Wisconsin girl that it veers into the more exploitative True Crime territory and loses track of its Candyman-esque fascination with the nature of urban legends. I definitely found one side of that divide far more satisfying than the other, but watching Beware the Slenderman navigate this confusing tonal clash and gleefully cross some ethical lines to get its point across made for a unique documentary experience.

Two twelve year old girls are taken into custody and tried as adults for stabbing their friend 19 times in the woods of Wisconsin suburbia. As there has been no decision made in their first-degree attempted murder trial to this date, a charge that could possibly earn them each 65 years in prison, the two girls’ story has, by design, no conclusion. All we know upfront about the stabbing is that the victim thankfully survived and that the accused have made no attempt to hide the fact that they are guilty. The crime is introduced in-film through media coverage montage and long-form interviews with the accused’s parents, which tells their entire life story to a backdrop of home video footage. The parents describe mostly normal childhoods outside stray sociopathic reactions to pop culture media (specifically the infamously devastating scene from the beginning of Bambi) and a gothy tinge to their daughters’ online activity. There’s a lot of frustration and empathy in those interviews as the parents struggle to make sense of children they thought they knew, an internet culture they completely underestimated, and the earliest signs of mental illness in otherwise normal-seeming childhoods. The problem is that they aren’t the only interviews the documentary is structured around. In a much sleazier line of inquiry, Beware the Slenderman integrates long stretches of the two girls’ confessions/police interrogations from mere hours after the stabbing. Watching two children describe the stabbing of a third child in cold-blooded terms is just about the most exploitative thing I’ve ever seen in True Crime media, but it serves the material well, especially in the way it deepens the creepiness of the film’s titular monster, the Slenderman.

Originally penned as a creepy pasta, but earning a full-blown urban legend status through online folklore, the Slenderman is a tall, lanky being with long arms, claws, and retractable tendrils. He is faceless, always wears a suit & tie, and is naturally drawn to young children. Adults see his attraction to children as a threat of harm, but children (especially bullied outsiders) see it as welcoming & protective. As one interviewee puts it, “Often in the adult world, we can forget how much it sucks to be a kid.” This modernized version of the Boogeyman or the Pied Piper offers alienated children the promise of protection & community. The scary part is that some kids truly believe he’s real, real enough for them to stab a friend 19 times to “prove themselves worthy” and to “prove the skeptics wrong.” By their logic they had no choice but to slay a human sacrifice for the Slenderman, explaining, “I didn’t want to do this, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.” Richard Dawkins is brought in as an evolution expert on the way memes spread & adapt. Brothers Grimm scholars attempt to contextualize the phenomenon in the tradition of fairy tale folklore. None of the talking heads are nearly as effective as seeing for yourself how the Slenderman is represented in online multimedia art and hearing what the fictional character’s devotees are willing to do “for him” in the real world. It may be a question of my general genre preferences with all media, but I think this documentary works best when it pursues this type of urban legend horror aesthetic instead of playing with the ethics of True Crime narratives.

I’ll admit that as an audience, my biggest hurdle with Beware the Slenderman was its length, not its ethical dilemmas. At two full hours, the film outwears its welcome a bit by the concluding 30min stretch, which started to feel as pedestrian as an episode of Dateline NBC. I’m always advocating for my horror cinema to limit its runtime, though, and it’s that genre distinction that allowed me to enjoy the documentary despite its occasionally objectionable sense of morality. Using the near-murder of a young girl by her peers for shock value or an audience hook is certainly questionable, especially if the ultimate purpose of your works to creep adults out with technophobic warnings about what children are getting into online. That’s not even to mention that the film liberally appropriates artwork from those same children for its imagery without pay or credit. I expect that kind of unethical alarmism in my horror media, though, and I really like the way Beware the Slenderman tried to make phenomena like the Ice Bucket Challenge, planking, and YouTube reaction videos into just as sinister of a force as CandyCrush is in #horror and Skype is in Unfriended. Before the easy fact checking days of the internet, people used to believe films like The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust were genuine documentaries, real life recordings of actual incidents. Beware the Slenderman works best as a continuation of that horror tradition by actually filling that role as a document of a real-life event. It’s a little overlong, a tad sensationalist, and mundanely sleazy in some of its True Crime touches, but it’s also a great horror film, especially for a documentary.

-Brandon Ledet

Tale of Tales (2016)

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“Every new life calls for a life to be lost. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.”

It’s almost a cliché concept to explain at this point, but traditional fairy tales are not the saccharine Disney romances they’re often believed to be. Fairy tales are often horrifically brutal stories of otherworldly magic meant to warn real world people, often children, about the dangers of human follies like lust, greed, selfishness, or curiosity. It isn’t often that an authentic-feeling, appropriately brutal fairy tale makes to the big screen. It’s even rarer that it’d be live-action and an original property, rather than an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Tale of Tales is a once-in-a-lifetime gem in the way it not only fills this requirement, but also excels as an intricately detailed piece of high art & cinematic finery.

I didn’t expect to see a more exquisite, idiosyncratic work than Hail, Caesar! all year, but Tale of Tales might’ve blown it out of the water. It’s like The Fall, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover all rolled into one hideous fairy tale directed by Cronenberg in his prime. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.

The film opens with Selma Hayek & John C. Reilly sitting as the king & queen of a fantasy realm kingdom. Hayek is perfectly regal on the throne while Reilly feels plucked from an especially expensive episode of Wishbone, recalling his blissfully clueless husband role in We Need to Talk about Kevin. There’s a strain on their relationship and, thus, the kingdom as it’s revealed that the couple cannot conceive a child as a future heir. Advised by an old, wizardly fella who lives in a cave, the royal couple addresses this problem by slaying a sea beast & eating its heart after it’s cooked by a virgin. The trick works & the queen carries her pregnancy to term over the course of a single night. And that’s when things get weird.

I reveal this plot detail only to illustrate just how varied & far-reaching the territory Tale of Tales covers can be. The tale of the sea monster’s heart is just one facet of just one story that continues to spiral out from there over the course of the film. All told, there are three tales covering three adjacent kingdoms that give this film its shape. Inexplicably, the Hayek & Reilly royalty aren’t even the most interesting characters of the bunch. Tale of Tales is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. The three tales told here all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Each character featured here suffers a hideous fate because of their own obsessive selfishness. And if there’s any who don’t, they likely suffer at the hands of others’, especially the ones who supposedly love them.

I urge you not to watch the trailer to this film if you can avoid it. It both spoils way too much of the plot(s) that you’re better off discovering on your own and completely misreads the tone of the film as a whole. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). Don’t be fooled when the film threatens to devolve into modernist showboating with its explicit gore or its exploitative lesbian make-outs in the early proceedings. It’s very much in the tradition of fairy tales in their purest form, immense beauty, cruelty, warts, and all. I highly recommend lending it your full attention & willing imagination, especially if you have the chance to watch it on the big screen. You’ll both love & loathe the places it takes you.

-Brandon Ledet

Mirror Mirror (2012)

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onehalfstar

How many times do you allow a filmmaker to burn you before you stop coming back for more? Usually I’d allow a fairly long leash in these situations, but I have a feeling Tarsem Singh is about to really test my patience. Singh’s first feature, The Cell, is a fairly decent thriller that’s stuck with me over the years due to its intense, dream-logic visuals (a knack the director undoubtedly picked up from his music video/advertisement days). It was The Cell‘s follow-up, The Fall, that affords him so much patience form me as an audience. Easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen in a theater, The Fall is a fantastic, visually overwhelming movie about the very nature of storytelling as an artform, a work that nearly outdoes the great Terry Gilliam at his own game. I can’t say enough hyperbolically great thing about The Fall, which makes it all the more confusing why not any one of the three Tarsem Singh features that have followed have piqued my interest. Somehow, each follow-up looked even blander than the last and I didn’t want to ruin the high note The Fall left me soaring on.

I recently ruined all that goodwill by checking in on Tarsem Singh’s most high profile work to date. When considered in the abstract, a big budget retelling of a classic Grimms’ tale would be a perfect follow-up to the grandiose fantasy dreamscape of The Fall, but Singh does so little to justify that optimism here. I’m honestly not convinced that he hasn’t been murdered & replaced by an imposter, possibly some kind of artificial intelligence from the future or an ancient human-impersonating monster. Mirror Mirror is Tarsem operating in the world of fairy tales (Snow White, for those somehow unaware), but it’s a dull, passionless work that could’ve been handled by any number of journeymen with a Hollywood-sized checkbook. Indeed, there are echoes of the film’s contemporaries like Maleficent and Snow White & The Huntsmen at work in Mirror Mirror, but I’d argue that even those far-from-prestigious comparison points far outshine this lifeless exercise. They’re at least occasionally fun. Even this film’s out-of-nowhere Bollywood song & dance ending was somehow more painful than delightful.

I’m not sure how closely Mirror Mirror follows the original Grimms’ tale, but I am sure that I don’t care to investigate. In this version (subversion?) Snow White carries a sword and saves her own ass from peril, which is presented as a big whoop, but instead bores to the point of cruelty. If I’m remembering correctly, I’ve seen a swordfighting, swashbuckling Snow White onscreen before on the impossibly cheesy ABC show Once Upon a Time and even they did a better a job of keeping my eyes open than this drag. I guess the film gets certain brownie points for at least attempting to subvert the damsel in distress dynamic of many (bastardized) fairy tales, but it does so with such a half-hearted non-effort that it’s hard to drum up any genuine enthusiasm for the content.

The true story of this film is the long list of suffering actors practically checking their watches as the running time slowly bleeds out. Nathan Lane looks especially pained in his boredom and, despite thanklessly giving the same endless charm he brought to his roles in The Social Network & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,  Armie Hammer does little to lighten the mood. The most embarrassing turn of all comes from Julia Roberts, however, who fully commits to her role as the evil queen/witch, but fails miserably. Roberts toothlessly gums the scenery when the movie demands that she devour it. An over the top villain might’ve saved Mirror Mirror from total devastation but Roberts simply isn’t up for it & watching her try is admittedly a little pathetic.

I guess if I were to say one nice thing about Mirror Mirror I could point to its lavish costumes, which likely deserved the Academy Award they took home in 2013. As the costuming in The Fall was similarly striking, this one detail could maybe serve as a glimmer of hope that Tarsem Singh has at least one more decent movie buried deep within him somewhere, depending on how closely you want to look. Costume design is only one small piece in the larger, complex filmmaking puzzle, though, and I doubt the other Singh films I’m going to catch up with despite myself are going to fare much better, brilliant costume design or no. There honestly isn’t much hope left out there.

-Brandon Ledet

A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)

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fourstar

Not many films capture the essence of childhood innocence like A Kid for Two Farthings. At first, I mistook it for a classic live-action Disney film, but it’s not affiliated with Disney whatsoever. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Wolf Mankowitz, and was helmed by Academy Award winning director Carol Reed. A Kid for Two Farthings is not known as one of Reed’s best films and I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why it received such negative criticism. The enchanting story, filled with heart and whimsy, is far from being a failure.

Set in post-war London’s East End, specifically Petticoat Lane, the film focuses on the story of a delightful little boy named Joe (Jonathan Ashmore) and his diverse, overpopulated community. Joe’s neighbor, Mr. Kadinsky (David Kossof), tells him that unicorns have the magical ability to grant wishes and Joe becomes infatuated with getting his hands on one of the mystical creatures. Soon after listening to Mr. Kadinsky’s story, Joe uses his savings to purchase a unicorn, but it’s actually a baby goat with a crooked growth in the middle of its head that resembles a small horn. While most children would use their magical unicorn’s powers to grant selfish wishes, Joe is more concerned with helping out his loved ones. I’m not a fan of child actors in general, but Jonathan Ashmore is absolutely adorable and tremendously talented. It’s a shame that this is the only film he would ever act in.

As an adult, I really do appreciate the emphasis on the importance of imagination in this real-life fairytale. Imagination is what makes Joe’s childhood in the congested slums of London better and it gives him hope during a time of struggle. Joe is the only child that appears in the entire film and he participates in very adult activities. He attends evening wrestling matches, assists adults with their errands, and is involved with very grown-up situations, but his unicorn and Mr. Kadinsky’s tales keep him young and innocent by feeding into his imagination and allowing it to blossom.

Watching this flick for the first time was quite a memorable experience and it reminded me of the significance of creativity and fantasy in my own life. No matter how old we are, when times are rough, a little make-believe usually makes things a whole lot better. A Kid for Two Farthings should be widely known as a classic for all ages instead of being buried away with all the other forgotten children’s films.

A Kid for Two Farthings is currently streaming on Hulu Plus.

-Britnee Lombas

Upside Down (2013)

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fourstar

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It’s probably safe to say that by the end of its whopping seven minutes of opening narration you’ll be prepared to tell if you’re game for where Upside Down wants to take you. In heavy, overreaching breaths the protagonist coos about pink bees, forbidden love, flying pancakes, and “the three basic laws of double gravity” in a stunningly over-explanation of the film’s ludicrous premise. It’s as if Romeo & Juliet were retold through the half-mad kaleidoscope of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. The line “Once love was stronger than gravity” best sums up the tone, distinctly warning the audience that this is a fairy tale and a love story, not a crowd-pleaser for discerning sci-fi types.

As is common with fairy tales (and sci-fi for that matter), the film sets up a very simple haves-vs-have-nots dichotomy. Two worlds are connected by opposing gravitational pulls, so that inhabitants of one are always looking upside down at the inhabitants of the other. The world on top is rich. The world on bottom is poor. It’s about as simple of an allegory as you’ll get outside the front & back of the train in Snowpiercer. The fun is in the film’s more fantastic elements, like the aforementioned pink bees that pollinate flowers from both worlds and improbably make an interplanetary romance possible. Besides a few grim details in the wealth disparity and interplanetary oil trade, Upside Down is mostly light fare. If you have the ability (or desire) to turn off your brain and enjoy a sappy against-all-odds love story that involves distant planets and magical pink nectar, it’s a truly fun film.

Even though the movie requires a complete absence of cynicism, it does boast visually thoughtful rewards as well. The spaces where the two worlds meet (particularly in offices & ballrooms that stretch on like two mirrors facing each other) are just straight up nifty. There’s an effortless cool to watching Kirsten Dunst sip a martini out of an upside down glass or watching her love interest hop around on floating platforms like a video game character. After the film’s opening Richard Kelly-style rant, it slows way down to tell a simple love story that will sound awfully familiar to most, but it’s a cliché that’s substantially boosted by its outlandish setting. The romantic fairy tale Upside Down tells is trite, but it’s also timelessly cute and backed up by a puzzling visual landscape that’s deliciously stubborn to even the most basic logic.

Upside Down is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Brandon Ledet