Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.

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You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.

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Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.

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I’ve Got a Blank Space, Baby, and I’ll Write Your Name

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It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.

Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.

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The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).

Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.

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Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.

It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.

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25 for 25 – Tears in Rain

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Like I said just before, two movies battle for the spot of My All-Time Favorite Movie and I don’t want my decision to end on the film Blade Runner to imply that I actually give the edge to it as my favorite (even as it appears as number one in the actual posted list from last year, I find myself more and more aligned with Casablanca as I grow older), but mainly the fact that Blade Runner and I happen to share the exact same birthday: 25 June, so given that the special occasion of this series of reviews is in fact my 25 birthday on that day (35th birthday for Blade Runner and the year of its imminent sequel in October Blade Runner 2049), I may as well finish up on that very film that shares its nascency with me. And sure, it came out a full 10 years before I came to the world, it also didn’t truly earn its canonical status in cinema until the misnomered “Director’s Cut” (based on director Ridley Scott’s preferred notes without his direct involvement) came out on the exact year of my birth. So there’s squaring all of the anniversary and yearly stuff and blah.

The house cleaning in that above paragraph doesn’t even square the multiple cuts of Blade Runner that do exist in many forms, the most notable distinction being in which versions have the narration and what note it ends on (some have a direct statement as to the nature of the lead character’s existence, one infamously has an optimistic ending tonally separated from the rest of the movie). I just wanna be clear – ANY version of Blade Runner could be my favorite movie, I love it that much. But to identify what I’m talking about, my preferred version is the 2007-released Final Cut which is essentially the director’s cut (i.e. no narration, “unicorn dream”) with cosmetic changes that fix up any flaws and make it feel modernized and high quality in its visuals.

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For you see, Blade Runner is a movie extremely reliant on its visuals and atmosphere for my high praise of it*, being involved in two of the most visually demanding genres in any form of art… science fiction and neo-noir. Demands that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and designers Laurence G. Paull and David Snyder and concept artist Syd Mead are all willing to meet with, providing a decrepit zombie of urban Los Angeles in 2019 that can only barely stand to feel dynamic based on the poisonous neon lights threatening to evaporate the near-constant rain. It’s like if somebody caught pre-Giuliani New York City on its worst day and decided to give it glowsticks to cheer it up but that only depressed it more. That compliments the pessimistic mood of Blade Runner and meshes well with the nihilistic ideology of the noir genre without even having to deliver a single line of dialogue. Sure, these days that sort of aesthetic is seen in any given dark future picture, but Blade Runner originated most of it and feels like an assemblage of the perfect amount of pieces the same way that Halloween feels so with the slasher genre. And all that style is in benefit to the story, it’s not just what we’re looking at here but what it tells us in an unspoken way:

What it tells us is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-Blade Runner – police hired to kill synthetically created humans known as “replicants” in 2019 – who is pulled back into the profession after the escape of four Nexus-6 brand replicants, the ones most highly capable of emotional responses to their scenarios and the most updated model: imposing Leon (Brion James) who initiated this search after his attempted murder of an active Blade Runner, sharp Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), naïve Pris (Daryl Hannah), and her leader boyfriend Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Deckard’s investigation takes him to the creator of replicants himself Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and the discovery that his assistant Rachael (Sean Young) is in fact a highly advanced form of replicant. So advanced even she doesn’t know she’s a replicant.

Batty has his own problems: The Nexus-6 has a built-in fail safe of a four-year lifespan and so he’s on the hunt for Tyrell in order to acquire the opportunity for an extension on he and his fellow replicants’ clearly numbered days.

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The themes immediately write themselves – the identity crisis of Rachael discovering most of her life to be a fabrication, the dehumanization and amorality of Deckard’s line of work, the existential crisis facing Batty as he faces his own mortality – it doesn’t take much to understand what Blade Runner will explore just from a synopsis or flesh those out (and I do believe Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script very loosely adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the bare minimum of its requirements), but that doesn’t mean there is a whole range to the mysteries and answers Blade Runner tries to provide in the span of itself, as well as its dissection of its central genres. Just looking at the two lead performances from Ford and Hauer – Ford was very famously antagonistic to Scott and the material, yet that contempt for the movie ends up being its best friend in how it translates to cynicism and reluctancy for a character that doesn’t want to be doing this job in the first place. In a genre like noir where apathy and inevitability hang over the protagonist like cigarette smoke, we have a genuinely apathetic presence from an actor’s genuine attitude. And Hauer himself is so excitedly controlled and deliberate in his movement that it demands our eyes look at him when he enters the room, the chill of his eyes promising a savagery that we are paid with the film’s pseudo-slasher final chase, and coldly intellectual in even his expression of sorrow and pain at his comrade’s slaughter that we can believe he’s trying to understand these emotions developing in him while finding profundity in his actions and words (not for nothing can he sell sci-fi jargon like “I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhausen Gate” and make it possibly my favorite line of dialogue of all time. In fact, the whole “Tears in Rain” holds me down) and believing him as artificial perfection. He’s like a child who learned to run instead of walk and is now trying to figure out walking. It’s incredible.

Now, very few intellectual subjects interest me more than the concept of the self and what it means for such an intangible abstraction to give our individual lives such weight. And it’s a very scary topic, one that it’s easy to fall into several downhill spirals. Scott, in one of the few times his attempts at pop philosophy actually works out, provides one of the most welcoming explorations of that concept in Blade Runner and that all comes from how he knows the darkness of those intellectual corners can be given visual root within a city made up almost entirely of shadows without weak lights visually defining what’s on-screen in a minimalist fashion. Our mind fills out the rest of those shadows or we just leave them be, depending on how we look at things. And Blade Runner‘s ambiguity on certain plot threads allows that same level of impressionism on its narrative (though I personally feel there is a direct answer to the “Is Deckard a replicant?” debate within the Director’s and Final Cuts; one that seems to be contradicted by the existence of a Blade Runner sequel where Deckard is still a character). And that versatility to what the viewer gives or takes away only once again goes full circle to the film’s attempts to square with identity and what truly makes one human. Is it their deeds, is it their makeup? Is there actually an absolute answer?

I dunno, but I like thinking about it and for some reason, despite the pessimism of its visual world, I like doing it within the realms of Blade Runner‘s universe. Drifting away from the barely consequential plot to think about it in the middle of the heavy rain (Blade Runner is probably why I love rain) and under the lullabies of Vangelis’ pensive and mechanical synthesizer score (Blade Runner is probably why I love synthesizer music as well). Inside the broken blue-hued shells of the metropolitan nightmares that remind me of living in Far Rockaway provided by its matte paintings and its model visual effects (some of the best practical effects live inside of Blade Runner matching up to 2001: A Space Odyssey in their tangibility and surpassing it outright in imagination and fantasy). It’s all a space for me to draw out my thoughts in between the movie’s runtime. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again and let it be the final note on this movie and this very review series: my greatest dreams live inside the world of Blade Runner.

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*And indeed, I find it very interesting that I can have Casablanca vie so heavily for my favorite movie slot based on its narrative construction and Blade Runner based on its aesthetic. What a split in me.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

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25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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25 for 25 – Hitch’s Seven-Year-Itch

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In the last post, I mentioned Park Chan-wook being one of my teachers on what makes an effective thriller and now I’m not gonna be special in naming a bigger one: Alfred Hitchcock. For who doesn’t know Hitchcock to be the “Master of Suspense” and what cinephile doesn’t adore Hitchcock as a technical master who got it on point over and over and then went on to test the boundaries of cinema. And what (good) filmmaker doesn’t consider Alfred Hitchcock as a grand inspiration? Cinephilia shall chase him out as a mob, so I’m gonna void that fate by stating I hold Hitchcock on that same pedestal as others because I’m a boring traditionalist and like other famous polls and cinephiles, from Sight & Sound to AFI to Martin Scorsese, consider Vertigo one of the greatest movies I’ve seen.

Now, Psycho – another canonical work in my esteem – is notorious for its central narrative twist that smashed its story (and cinema to come) into pieces, but I’d daresay that while it’s apparent why Psycho would be the most impactful moment of that rug-pulling move on Hitchcock’s part, it doesn’t feel like the first part. The first moment that comes to mind is the 1935 British production (wherein Hitchcock perfected his clockwork thriller craft before David O. Selznick brought him to America) The 39 Steps where we witness our protagonist being shot and the movie intends for us to spend an extended amount of time believing our only point of view into the movie was killed and removed, aided by a game fade to black upon his “killing” (though this shock is short-lived). The second moment, and the one I felt would have really changed the game if the movie weren’t so poorly-received on its initial release, is the halfway point of Vertigo that neatly cleaves the picture into two separate halves with their own separate plots, retired San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) at the center of them.

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The reason for Ferguson’s retirement – as we discover in the first scene of Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor’s script based on Pierre Boleau & Thomas Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts – is his acrophobia, unfortunately discovered at a point where it caused him to fail in saving the life of a fellow officer during a rooftop chase. Shortly after his retirement, an old family friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), approaches Ferguson with the worry that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is possessed by a ghost and wants Gavin to watch over and report on her before he decides whether to approach his psychiatrically or paranormally. In short order, Scottie witnesses Madeleine’s obsession with a long-dead suicidal woman named Carlotta Valdes and her portrait in the Legion of Honor museum before getting personally involved by rescuing her from an ambiguous drowning. And because this is a 1950s post-noir thriller (despite the mention of ghosts and possibly a jump scare, this is not remotely a horror film) and especially because it is one directed by Hitchcock, Scottie slowly begins to fall in love with Madeleine, Laura-style.

Now, it’s around this point that I sadly MUST go into some kind of spoiler territory (not exactly the kind that ruins a twist ending, but the kind that acknowledges an unexpected direction the story goes) and before I do that and insist that if you don’t want to be spoiled, abandon the review and go see Vertigo now, I want to acknowledge the brilliant eye-catching use of color. Even if there were no metaphorical legend by which to associate Vertigo‘s themes with its visuals, it’s a gorgeous kaleidoscope of primaries alongside the ever-alluring presence of greens (Red and Green being the most present colors in the film) that one who just looks for movies to be dazzled could find their thirst slaked by the work here of Hitchcock, legendary costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, and the production designers Henry Bumstead and Hal Perreira. But there is a code to crack here by which Scottie’s obsessions with Madeleine and Hitchcock’s famous obsession with blonde actors (I mean, let’s not pretend this may be the single most personal film of Hitch’s and the one that aligns most with his psychology) is decoded by the usages of those reds and greens in how muted they become in the presence of Scottie’s ex-fiancee Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes in a very underrated performance) who he has absolutely no sexual interest in anymore and Madeleine’s surrounded by very strong and aggressive shades of those colors. Madeleine’s clearly the bigger presence in the film and Hitchcock makes the colors arrest our eyes on her while directing Midge’s presence with a visual boredom that practically dismisses her up prematurely… and then the mess of them spilled over by the film’s famous nightmare sequence where there’s only brash plashes. But what precedes that very nightmare? Well, that’s where I bid adieu to the ones who choose to see the movie…

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… for those who remain with us, what precedes it is the very failure of Scottie to save Madeleine from her death halfway through the movie followed up shortly by his own obsession with Judy Barton, a brunette who resembles Madeleine so much that she’s also portrayed by Novak. And Scottie follows this up with a shocking psychosexual fixation on her, forcing her to blonde her hair and wear a similar attire to Madeleine and we can’t not connect such a matter to the way Hitchcock selects and directs his actresses and all with the heavy hue (including a silhouetted echo of an earlier shot that makes one of Vertigo‘s most famous). And that only enters further into a slippery slope of ugly motivations by prematurely showing Judy’s own secrets (something that I had once criticized as a bad move on the film’s part, but slowly I realized this twist was not the point of the movie… the tension and fear in what could happen once it’s discovered is the TRUE point) and Vertigo takes on a whirl similar to all the visual spirals it parades in our face like the other famous shot – the belltower staircase rack zoom where the dolly and zoom lens are both utilized to mess around with space in a toy of visual subjectivity.

Hitchcock may not be indicting himself, but he’s investigating what perverts a man’s intentions and fascinations with women and using himself as the central subject of this experiment and having the audience take a look around in his mind, using all of his favorite narrative elements (even the “wrong man” comes up for a couple of minutes as Scottie is briefly investigated for his liability in Madeleine’s murder) as a complete eruption of the inspirations behind the greatest mind to craft suspense pictures. And Hitchcock the director – not Hitchcock the psychiatric subject – toys around with the audience’s point of view with the great big crack being during Madeleine’s death that I can’t think of a better example of the craftsman turning from a maestro who shot out picture-perfect thrillers like boredom to an artist who actually imbued himself and his personality into the resultant product. Obviously, it may have been too strong for audiences to buy into it at the time, and that alone keeps me from qualifying it as entertainment (some may in fact find it overlong) but now with the amount of retrospect the film’s legacy is granted, who can help but find Vertigo fascinating to look at, even if we’re frozen in shock like Scottie at the staircase.

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25 for 25 – Sympathy for Mr. Dae-Su

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Korean cinema has been a thing since the nation’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II and while there’s almost certainly a long and rich cultural history within that time span into the new millennium, the majority of the world remains somewhat ignorant of its existence, including yours truly. The international attention on the cinema of South Korea had begun around the late 1990s and almost as an after-thought, as much of the domestic financial success of South Korean films came about from a law passed limiting the amount of foreign films from playing in South Korean cinemas. So when the crime film Shiri out-performed Star WarsTitanic, and The Matrix in South Korean cinemas, it got noticed and it only took one year further for Park Chan-wook’s war courtroom drama J.S.A. Joint Security Area to surpass Shiri‘s success. By that point, the New Wave of South Korean Cinema had the world’s eyes upon it and its biggest names – Park, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Ji-woon, Lee Chang-dong – and it was around this point when Oldboy made notoriety by losing the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival allegedly because Tilda Swinton strongarmed the jury and its president Quentin Tarantino into giving the prestigious prize to Fahrenheit 9/11 to protest U.S. President George W. Bush’s potential re-election. Utter scandal aside from possibly the worst year in Cannes history, Tarantino’s raving support for Oldboy may have been the biggest window to South Korean cinema’s impending popularity in Western cinephilia upon its release in the US in 2005, nearly 2 years after its original November 2003 release in South Korea.

That was me overthinking what could have brought the first non-Arabic, non-French, and non-American film that I actually pursued as a budding cinephile (after being fed Jackie Chan and watching Godzilla as a child; also unfortunately French-dubbed Life Is Beautiful in class). When you speak three languages from childhood, your first “Foreign-Language” film is a tough call, but I’d define Oldboy as the first Foreign-Language film I consciously chose to watch. And what brought me to that very selection? Well, I just read the synopsis on a video store’s guide and found it interesting.

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Short and sweet: A man got locked up for 15 years and is released before being assigned only 5 days to find out what led to his imprisonment. That’s all I knew before jumping in – Park Chan-wook had already won the Grand Prix (in consolation to the Palme loss) but he wasn’t as internationally reknowned a name as he is now, I had no idea it was based albeit loosely on a Japanese manga series, and there was absolutely no way I would have known in advance the direction the third act goes that made Oldboy such a notorious grubby pseudo-exploitation shocker. That a movie ends on the note that Oldboy does and it actually encouraged me to find more foreign-language films says something about impressionable 13-year-old me is.

Mind you, the finale is hardly THE problematic element of the script by Park, Hwang Jo-yoon, and Im Joon-hyeong when it focuses on portraying our protagonist, the released prisoner Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, the very star of Shiri) to be a godawful chauvinistic violent drunkard who can barely control his sexual urges (it is a bold move to have our protagonist attempt a rape early on) and has barely any trouble turning into a cold calculating being of vengence. Dae-su seems aware of this himself, as during his imprisonment he begins drafting down all his transgressions and the victims of them as both penance, self-reflection, and most importantly a map on where to start looking. That doesn’t seem necessary because almost immediately upon his release, the wealthy man (Yoo Ji-tae) responsible for Dae-su’s imprisonment, subsequent framing in his wife’s murder, and the out-of-country adoption of their daughter arranges a face-to-face and is somehow unrecognizable to Dae-su. The captor pressures Dae-su into finding out the motive behind the imprisonment or he will also arrange the murder of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the young girl who took Dae-su into her home when he passed out at her restaurant. But hey, Dae-su gets it right, then his captor will kill himself, so there’s an upside.

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You getting a vibe that Oldboy is kind of dismissive about its female characters? Because it kind of is. Mi-do, the weakest performance of the leads, is given no real inner life whatsoever as a person (eventually the movie goes a turn that implies this might be deliberate, but feels icky and empty nevertheless) and any women are props for the men’s suffering, even when they’re being sexually assaulted or subject to depression. It’s kind of impressive that, for all of that, Park would soon after follow up with FOUR womencentric films that are pretty great representations (albeit with their own slight problems). But in the meanwhile, Oldboy is a heavily masculine film. What else would you expect from a movie whose most famous scene is a 3-minute long burly hallway brawl?

And yet, I still have no trouble calling Oldboy my favorite work from the esteemed and accomplished Park. Everything I just described (and even the things I refuse to describe in the third act) would be repulsive at face value and feel like shock content for content’s sake if Park didn’t have a tight control on the romanticism of the movie. Which only makes the film sound more amoral (and it kind of is), but there’s an atmosphere of tragedy and regret placed in every beat – transported softly by Jo Yeong-wook giving one of my all-time favorite scores, a perfect balance between Vivaldi rearrangements, sweeping violins, and modernized tracking – and the movie is… it’s very clean. We have only a few grotty sequences of an underground prison designed to look sickly by Ryu Seong-hie and captured in damp greens by Chung Chung-hoon in his very first collaboration with Park (they’re still working together to this day), but much of the film takes place in modern exteriors and metropolitan areas that Chung and Ryu provide with still a sad and cold white and blue (sometimes khaki) sheen, all traversed by Dae-su dressed in very fine threads. The only visual signifier of Dae-su’s mental instability – other than Choi’s incredible performance where muting his emotions in a manner that makes the character sad rather than scary but still having reserves for intense moments of aggressive savagery – is his loud and unkempt hair (and even that is eventually cut back).

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Park and company are basically trying to package a piece of trash storytelling as a Kafka-esque character drama and it absolutely works. Moments of torture and violence are given an operatic gravitas by the music that almost lends black humor to the situation and inner character scenes have a dark taste that make us captivated emotionally. In spite of knowing early on what kind of man Dae-su is, Oldboy succeeds in handcuffing us to his struggles with what an awful person he is and how far he has to go to get the answers he wants. That’s a gamble no American production can truly make (part of why Spike Lee’s remake is a complete boondoggle) where we’re just as eager to align ourselves with this guy and find out what happened. And that’s what really makes not talking about the third act agonizing.

It’s exactly where the movie unpacks all of the emotional anguish we’ve had to experience and provides a new context that should frankly disgust us on first watch. It’s where the movie pokes and prods and mocks the viewer for getting so involved with Dae-su. But most importantly, and something I needed multiple viewings to catch, it’s where the movie essentially ties tawdriness and tragedy together one more time and provides a devastating final note that can’t possibly leave any of the characters or even the audience satisfied. Despite one narrative element shooting the movie in the foot this late in the game, Choi and Yoo fire on all cylinders with their performance in a final confrontation playing with power dynamics that it’s like watching a Shakespeare on the screen. Choi slowly devolving from the cool calculating monster we saw him at first to a devastated being of flop sweat, Yoo slowly changing on and off between haunted self-loathing into condescendingly confident brat and all barreling to shocking actions that make complete sense in the narrative arc.

I’m going overboard with the hyperbole without description, but Oldboy is a film that I want somebody to experience first-hand. It was a revelatory moment for me to know that stories could go these unseemly places while retaining dignity. It was a piece of pop culture that could function as an intellectual delve into the deviance of man that exploits and still indicts those impulses. That made Park one of my first teachers on the constructs of thriller filmmaking, by having a complete sense of what can actually shock the viewer and what can gain their sympathies…

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Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Uncle STinG’s Egyptian Blood Feast Recipe for Y’all

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For the Memory of Herschell Gordon Lewis 15 June 1926 – 2016

The idea of who brought blood and gore to motion pictures is not a certain thing (obviously the milestone moment of Blood Itself making its appearance in a motion picture is Psycho, but talking what movie really didn’t sanitize the matter and really indulged in the violent shades of red), but I can’t think of many people who actually know their way through horror cinema disputing the concept that the credit belongs to “The Godfather of Gore (and Direct Marketing according to his personal website)” Herschell Gordon Lewis. I don’t think the Direct Marketing aspect is an inaccurate self-observation – he didn’t always do horror pictures, but spent all of his career essentially mapping out and following the trends of cinema. What could be made cheap and quick and get some big damn return was on Lewis’ mind, but notably with his early nude pictures.

When the nude pictures were starting to lose their underground appeal, Lewis and his producer collaborator David Friedman jumped straight into horror and reached for the most shocking exploitative usage of gore and blood as they possibly could, selling their pictures on those extremities and forever making their mark in horror film history with their first indulgence in that genre, Blood Feast – a film about a crazed Egyptian slaughtering people to sacrifice to his Ancient Egyptian God. Amongst the bloodiness of its scenes, Blood Feast is also notorious for being the oldest film in the UK DPP’s Video Nasties list – movies prosecuted under their Obscene Publications Act in an attempt to censor them.

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These movies were honestly… not good. None of them. I don’t think Lewis made good movies (nor did he, I think given some of his interviews… especially this one by Juan Barquin for YAM Magazine). Some are among the worst movies I’ve ever seen, like Blood Feast itself. But I think a good amount of them are a joy to watch nevertheless, like Blood Feast again, which I’d recommend to you all right this second as so-bad-it’s-good good damn time. And to be real, I don’t think another filmmaker was able to have such pride in their status as truly meritless shlock in every way it can be considered art. It suggests a charming and down-to-earth personality which, given that here in S. Florida, I know of enough people who have either met (like yours truly) or been good friends with Lewis, can be confirmed by anyone who has encountered him.

And again… when it comes to making the blood fill the screen, most people agree he did it first. Sometimes, you don’t have to do it best.

Anyway, Blood Feast was my real introduction to the filmmaker (as per a marathon of the Blood trilogy held by my former A Night at the Opera co-host Britt Rhuart) and I thought it would be nice to revisit that movie in an urthodox manner. By trying to adapt it as a recipe for a feast akin to what Fuad is preparing for his victims (and with his victims). Nobody can cook it like Lewis, but why not take a look at what makes up the feast from the very beginning?

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INGREDIENTS

  • 10 Gallons of flop sweat from my boy Mal Arnold’s beady eyed forehead heat in the Miami sun playing the buggy Fuad Ramses.
  • Maybe a box of Just For Men on that grey hair on him too. But seriously, man, somebody get Arnold an AC.
  • 30 whole books on Egyptian culture and history. We ain’t gonna read these, we’re gonna burn them. A movie like Blood Feast ain’t got no need for cultural accuracy or correctness. We’re not making goddamn Citizen Kane here.
  • 118 lb.s of white meat named Connie Mason. That’s literally all she will function as… meat. It’s not like she put anything into her performance.
  • Also get some more white meat for the supporting cast surrounding Arnold and Mason, but make sure they literally can’t intone anything to sound human in their whole life. That’s very important.
  • -5 functioning lightbulbs. Like literally buy them and then break them.
  • 7 cans of gold spray paint.
  • 1 department store mannequin to spray that gold on. It will be the classiest thing in the movie.
  • A basketful of hats no living being should be seen wearing for Lyn Bolton.
  • 20 virgins. The movie is classy enough to suggest them as sacrifices and it’s not like it’ll be worse than appearing in this movie.
  • However, you can contain South Florida heat, you fucking get it. And contain it. It’s a necessary ingredient it adds that spicy flavor and that Florida Man tastefulness to it.
  • 10,000 buckets of red paint as crimson as we imagine blood to be in our nightmares.
  • 6 sheeps worth of body parts and organs from eyes to stomach to tongue, not a bit of sheep wasted without being used in the name of art.
  • Really that last ingredient was an understatement, we want all the blood and gore you can give. Not some, dude. ALL of the blood and gore.
  • Also all the red curtains you can get. It’s gonna look like a magic show in the Black Lodge up in this bitch.
  • Y’know what? Grab a canvas too, because this is gonna be a work of art, yo!

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INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Write the lines to the hands of at least one of those sacks of white meat (btw, you should probably refer to them as actors).
  2. Don’t mix those actors together very well, we’re not looking for chemistry at all by any means.
  3. Paint it all black.
  4. Burn down your script.
  5. Mesh all the listed ingredients together and shove it into your over. Heat at the highest you can go and for an indefinite amount of time.
  6. This is probably a good time to state I can’t cook and you shouldn’t listen to me.
  7. Let your house burn down. Don’t walk out of the house. This is fine. This is as insane as the movie is for sure.
  8. Go make the table while you’re at it. Invite your friends, have a bunch of beers, and pizza.
  9. Go watch Blood Feast right now, it’s a good time.

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Farewell, Lewis. Thanks for the meal!

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Francesca Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Rome

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This review is in part a preview of the 2016 Popcorn Frights Festival in Miami, FL to take place over 12-18 August at the O Cinema Wynwood. The subject of this review Francesca will be playing on the 15 August at 7 pm EST. More information on the festival can be found at their website and Facebook. Tickets for the festival can be ordered here.

There are two opening gestures within the first ten minutes of Italian/Argentine horror production Francesca (it should say the most promising things to the movie that I had a lot of troubling squaring that it wasn’t a purely Italian production, in a manner that will be obvious by the first frame of the film and the end of this review) that bring attention to themselves in the most obvious manner and make clear what director Luciano Onetti (who pulled multiple duties as cinematographer, composer, editor and co-wrote the film with his brother Nicolás) intends to do both in style and storytelling. The immediate first gesture (after a dedication “A Mama” that takes a particularly ironic tone after the fact) is to actually have the frame of the film open itself up slowly to reveal the source of a windy soundscape of a dark sky until it reaches an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 – the preferred frame for anamorphic 35mm film in the 1970s.

Which seems like something absolutely disposable and hardly noted by a casual viewer of movies except as a slimmer wide frame than the US standard, until you realize that it is a ratio that is favored in many works of giallo pictures (an exclusively Italian genre Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries with a particular flavor for bloody knife deaths that had its great run between the mid-1960s to the late 70s), particularly by giants to the genre as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. It’s a subtle stylistic move that clearly announces the intentions of the movie to sit comfortably alongside the greats of those artists from the very first frame – Don’t Torture a DucklingDeep RedThe Bird with a Crystal PlumageThe New York RipperOpera (it is also an aspect ratio shared with Suspiria, arguably Argento’s most famous feature, and while I personally am quite peeved by the idea of categorizing it as a giallo – it has supernatural story elements you will never find in any of the “grounded” giallo films – it is nonetheless considered one by enough people to at least receive a nod).

If that is missed by anybody, the second gesture I allude to is a big enough deal that it literally stopped me in my tracks and made me decide to really strap myself in for the movie I was watching. After a chilling moment of sadistic child-on-infant violence with credits overlayed on top of it, the movie proper feels ready to begin with a completely giallo-esque presentation of the unknown killer in bright blood red attire including raincoat, gloves, and later in the film a wide-brimmed hat, prepares to murder its first victim with a ritualistic atmosphere provided by the cuts Onetti gives in rhythm to the worshipful dark recitation of Canto III from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a piece which is continuously reference directly throughout the film (I also get tickled by the direct quotation of “Gate of Hell”, bringing to mind the OTHER great Italian horror subgenre). It’s a hypnotizing scene that draws you in with absolutely no trip in its deep pace – even the screaming of the gagged victim matches up to the magnificent rhythmic soundscape – before being absolutely thrown off that trance with a savage stab to the mouth, blood dribbling from the tape that bounds our victim so messily that we suddenly remember that we’re watching a horror movie. But that’s not what pulls me back.

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What really did was the fact that the credits – which, maybe I do not speak Italian, I was meant to believe were concluded – actually commence only after this woman has been murdered and the killer is now preparing her body for the daylight discovery of a witness walking her dog (Antonieta Bonarea) and the subsequent involvement of our investigating Detectives Bruno Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) and Benito Succo (Gustavo Dalessanro). Our detectives will come to discover that the disappearance of a young girl named Francesca from 15 years ago may have something to do with these murders. In any case, Francesca‘s concern with willing to completely pause its credits to dole out a very well-crafted scene that kickstarts all the plot tells me three things:

The first is a more overt announcement of the film’s giallo intentions, forgiving me for reading into the aspect ratio now that it’s willing to really put some blood and garish color (especially in the killer’s costume, absolutely the brightest color element in the whole film). The second is an intention to announce that this movie is not going to bother slowing things down and will absolutely run through its mystery with the briskest efficiency, regardless of the layers it may introduce to the plot. This is a promise the 80-minute feature makes very well good on, running so fast into moments that it’s willing to introduce the Detectives’ investigation of crime scenes, cut into a flashback of a witness’s memory, and then cut straight from that flashback to the scene chronologically AFTER the witness is being questioned even while his or her narration continues. Editing gestures like these simply want to move on to the next big kill moment and only leave the Detective’s untangling of the convoluted pattern of kills for the function of the genre and it shows a very delicate ability on Onetti’s part to make sure the audience is not in the slightest bored while telling them “if you’re lost, it doesn’t matter! Here comes the really good stuff, anyway” on to a moment where somebody gets a knife through the throat or an iron press to the face.

Which leads to the third and most telling thing about this move – Onetti is willing to stop the movie from properly starting because he’s really damn proud of his craft and wants you to see it. It is in itself an attitude of the film that is well-deserved in my opinion. What Onetti has done is built up a time capsule of a film from the ground up, using whatever budgetary and lo-fi limitations he has to simply add to the 70’s Italian aesthetic while being mindful of more modern visual language as to allow the genre more accessible to people who simply aren’t as familiar with the movement (though I can’t imagine anybody walking into this film without an idea of what it is) and invite their interest, anyway. This twist on lo-fi filmmaking is especially prevalent in the soft focus and lighting give that grimy old picture feel, accented by a subtle blue color tone (most obviously in interior sequences) that add to the bloated dead feel of the picture, before the presence of the killer’s red dress cuts into that soft tone and another throat. The editing is easily the most modern part of the film, though it favors using canted angles that give the film a 60s hallucinatory vibe, by matching up to the rhythm of the moment like that opening kill promised. Neither of them are the perfect work of a master with either dodgy cuts (a one-second cut at the very beginning calls way too much attention to a fake baby, even if its blink or you’ll miss it), somewhat alienating effects that are so outside the realm of the sort of sophistication Onetti mostly displays that I think it’d be an injustice to call them deliberate goofs (an establishing shot of a church tower warps and distorts like a cartoon manner that you’ll never find elsewhere), and a few completely out-of-focus shots that don’t work outside of the hallucinated moments of the killer’s presence. Still, that Onetti can single-handedly construct a genre picture that works in all the places where it matters AND keep a swift pace is impressive enough.

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And that’s without mentioning how the sound design is easily the most enjoyable thing about the movie to me. Either simply because Onetti wants to match up with the historical habit of Italian productions during that era overdubbing EVERYTHING (giallo or otherwise) or because Onetti knows the true value of a good horror soundscape or maybe both, the point is that Onetti announces before any visual alarm an insistence that something is wrong by heralding a trapped claustrophobic interior tone (sort a muffled form of the opening exterior noise) before really utilizing all the Creepy Sound Effects 101 to great effect: canned baby sounds from a doll (especially with the phrase “Mommy wants to play with you”), piano, all the sort of perfect things to get under your skin and get you ready for when the killer comes out. That these moments are usually preceded by mundane investigation scenes only allows our ears to really pipe up once we hear it coming and that Onetti’s score – while not exactly original – plays well-enough into the time period the film consciously sets itself in pulls double-duty on recalling the dark audial violence of Fulci and Argento and letting it pulsate through the spine-chilling moments prior to a stab.

The plot is of such limited concern to even the film itself that once it ties itself up, it gives the viewer no room to square its final twists and moves right on to the crimson-backgrounded credits (and slowly closes off that aspect ratio in the very same manner). To its credit, though, I think it ties itself up a lot cleaner than pretty much most giallos (certainly Twitch of the Death Nerve and StageFright, amongst my favorites of the genre) and Rodriguez and Dalessandro doing a better job than you’d expect establishing the complete fatigue in their detective characters coming from their stressful line of cases previous to this doozie. And just as well, because what we truly have here is simply a lovingly sincere attempt to not just function as “homage or love letter to the giallo” but to outright insist upon itself as a new entry into the canon.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t see myself having a problem with giving it that. Nothing about Francesca is cynical or throws itself as a cunning wink to the genre as a parody, which might not make it more interesting than a great straightforward genre film, but sometimes that’s all you need and the giallo movement has been in such a drought (I mean, Dario Argento HAS NEVER MADE A MOVIE SINCE OPERA AND ANYBODY WHO TELLS ME THERE ARE ARGENTO MOVIES AFTER THAT IS LYING). All its flaws are to my mind honest mistakes, made by a pair of brothers on their sophomore feature with limited resources or a stifling in creative decisions who worked on this with the whole of their hearts, and all its successes are enviously impressive that leave me with more than just a feeling that anybody who comes across this movie is liable to enjoy it as a fan of good enthusiastic horror work. It also leaves me insisting that anybody who has as much an eagerness to consume giallo works like yours truly actively seek this out and leave me to seek out the Onetti brothers’ first feature Deep Sleep. And that’s not even talking about my excitement for what’s to come in the future for them. New blood was exactly what this genre needed and we got it.

(P.S. stay after the credits for one more special moment – besides the fact that the frame closes itself in the same fashion as it opens.)

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