Seeing Red

I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.

But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.

For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.

But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.

To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.

So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).

But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.

While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.

These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.

So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.

*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.

Suzy, Do You Know Anything About Witches?

I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.

But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.

It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.

That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.

Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).

But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.

In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.

*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.

That’ll Be the Day.

For Marshall

“Which movie is the hardest to discuss in this week-long John Ford series?” is a question with a lot of answers, but I think his 1956 picture The Searchers might edge through for the individual reason that – as the film widely considered Ford’s best – it seems like every single thing worth saying has already been said by far more intelligent and articulate film people than myself. It doesn’t help that – as I’m sure you’ve guessed with this being a series exclusively dedicated to what I consider Ford’s masterpieces – I’m not really set to go against conventional wisdom. It’s also the case that The Searchers has been getting the mildest drop in reputation over the past few decades, some of which is understandable if also ungenerous.

Understandable on a thematic sense that is, but we’ll get back to that. On an aesthetic sense, however, I don’t get how anybody couldn’t find it overwhelming. It is Ford’s EPIC in a way that no other picture by him could be, with cinematographer Winton Hoch given the expanse of the VistaVision widescreen film to capture the most out of the Western horizon and then make it feel tired on the part of the washed-out coloring without losing one detail of that rocky and sandy expanse. And this matters all the more so when Jack Murray cuts the sequences with every bit of slack to stress that we are feeling the years pass the characters by on a journey that feels… OK, maybe this is something lost once you have seen the movie but it’s a journey that doesn’t promise any particular satisfaction at the end of it.

I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this journey that the scope in structure and image is in service of? Frank Nugent’s screenplay – adapting the 1954 novel by Alan Le May – begins with Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into the Texas homestead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). This arrival is certainly to the pleasure of the children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Debbie (Lana Wood – played later in the film by her sister Natalie), and Ben (Robert Lyden) but less so in the case of Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) for some unspoken reason. It might be because Ethan did not reach out in three years since the Mexican Revolutionary War he was fighting in ended, it might be the romantic tension between Ethan and Martha, it might be the quiet hostility Ethan shows to their adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) specifically because he resembles his Cherokee descent*. In any case, the elders are not jumping for joy to see Ethan back and when the Law shows up in the form of the Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse, there’s even further a friction between Ethan and authorities that are mostly there to recruit help for investigating a cattle theft.

That theft – which Martin accompanies them on as well as Ethan after making a point to NOT swear in – turns out to be a trap, not for the men but for one of their unsuspecting homes. And unfortunately that turns out to be the Edwards’ home, desolated in the wake of a raid and leaving the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben with Debbie and Lucy missing. Something which enrages the already hardened Ethan to go on a search for the two girls with Martin in tow, but it takes very little to scratch the surface and see he’s mostly looking for blood and not for the girls.

In any case, this is a journey that spans over a decade for the two searchers and that timespan takes its toll on both of them, Ethan much more severely as he grows bitter and nastier to Martin in denying him his relationship to the Edwards’ and holding him at a distance compared to the rest of their companions that hop on and then drop off throughout the film (some of whom drop off violently). Which is where Murray’s editing does the most work to slow the flow of momentum. The Searchers doesn’t stop completely but it’s more of a grind under Nugent’s structure and the story’s shape. Certainly one can already call to mind how the iconic opening and closing shots of the movie involving the long empty desert behind a moving door, but there’s also how much of the middle is taken up by a fragmented frame narrative involving the one letter Martin sends to his beau Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as well as how cyclical the movie’s treatment of hot yellow summers crossfading into soft white winters at least twice before it feels like the few clues Ethan and Martin have (a Comanche Chief named Scar has been seen with Debbie) are finally leading them somewhere. The Searchers is not a very long movie – just a minute shy of 2 hours – but it makes it all felt and then some.

And then there’s still the fact that we are spending it in the company of Ethan, a role embodied by Wayne’s single most caustic performance, not above smiling or having a laugh when he’s under the roof of someone (there is a lot to be said about the dichotomy between Ethan’s domestication and savagery) but whose default manner appears to be a firm scowl under the bright desert sun or the shadow of his brim (this particular rewatch having a close-up round the middle of the film truly catch my eye as a moment where Ethan looks so very vicious, not to mention being a great example of what the VistaVision 35mm does to close-ups as it brings out all the stubble and lines on an old face like Wayne’s). His antagonism towards all the many people he will encounter in that long journey within Hoch’s vista (and particularly being dwarfed by those vistas in pointed ways, just as Ford loves to do to his drama visually) is a big part of what makes The Searchers feel so dark as a story without having to try so hard.

Ethan as a character is only one such way that the movie introduces a cynical attitude about what the Western as a genre yields. Conventionally speaking, The Wild Bunch is considered the first revisionist Western and being that The Searchers was still made in the later end of the 1950s, there was only so much violence that the movie could portray. But the implication of the brutality feels so much stronger than any bloodbath could provide: just look at the wide shot revealing what’s left of the Edwards home, the blackened smokey fire in the middle of nothing. It’s not gruesome but it gives us a chill down our spine just the same in its dark fatalism. Violence is what sobers The Searchers most, whether from the things the characters refuse to say or let others see or how three instances an off-screen death that brings further exhaustion to the mission. And particularly in the manner it frames Ethan’s meting of his own violence. One of his earliest moments on this search is to desecrate a found Comanche corpses as a low-angle shot, deliberately in a manner most offensive to the Comanche beliefs. Later, we have a middle shot witnessing Ethan about to commit a heinous act of desecration mirroring an taunt displayed to him just before by Scar himself (Henry Brandon).

Which brings us to the matter of racism and The Searchers. It seems to be a continuing question brought up by both apologists and critics of the film alike: Is The Searchers commenting on racism or is it just plain racist? Not to be too flippant, but I feel the movie makes itself explicitly clear on this matter: Ethan Edwards is a bad person who does not belong in any sort of society (a hell of a reversal on the first big Ford and Wayne collaboration Stagecoach condemning society). But even the Comanche is given the sense of civilization from their organization once we see them and the part-Cherokee Martin plays as a voice of reason and understanding against Ethan’s brutal tactics and philosophies, most often when the possibility of Lucy and Debbie’s miscegenation among the Comanches is brought up and Ethan determines death is a preferable fate for the girls. When they finally meet Scar face-to-face, Scar turns out to be very eloquent and has no trouble communicating his anger towards Ethan and his people with an attitude that feels rather of a kin to Ethan’s rancor (this is maybe the only area where casting a white man as Scar feels like it pays off, otherwise one of my only two issues with the movie besides the intolerable wise fool character giving undeserved comic relief). In nearly every aspect of Ethan’s characterization, he is wrong and the manner with which the film makes the shape of shadow (from the cowboy hat) on Ethan’s face more solid than any other movie Wayne made with Ford is impossible to ignore.

But Ethan is still not just some two-dimensional surprise villain and I think it’s the ending of The Searchers that most appears to complicate its tone as well as Ethan’s character logic in a major final decision, where Max Steiner’s previously weighty score (another area of projected exhaustion from The Searchers) makes a 180 over to this soft idyllic cue that transforms to melancholy in the final moments. And it just all fits, even despite giving us no indication to expect The Searchers to go that route and if anything preparing us for the opposite by having it play as the aftermath of one of Ethan’s most vicious actions. But it still effortlessly swings into those tones of relief and sadness in the last few minutes in an emotionally consistent way before we watch that famous shot of Ethan looking through the doorway but turning around and walking away from us as it closes. Maybe it’s that humane complexity about Ethan that causes everyone to feel like it undercuts its pessimism up to that point. I don’t agree though…

… Because it still marches towards the same final observations The Searchers about the Western and its place in the world anymore. That it idealizes a lone hero who is in fact just a violent bully, that it romanticizes a landscape that has no blatant feeling of the drama within it (Hoch’s cinematography being more realist in its mythic iconography than anything Ford made before or since), that it vilifies a race and enemy that has its own pain and its own establishment and agency. Not too long ago, I was faced with someone dismissing The Searchers with the claim that “I’m sure it was subversive for its time” but I absolutely don’t subscribe to liking movies for being “subversive for their time”. The Searchers is still subversive now in 2021 deconstructing and critiquing elements of storytelling mythology that is used to this day (plus I mean… I love The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it’s not like we stopped having movies portray Native Americans as “savages”) and it’s a wonder that even if you’re not willing to accept how insightful it is as an amalgamation and examination of everything Ford accomplished in his career to that point, you can’t help surrendering into the shadow of a never harsher vision of that long surviving horizon in the American Southwest.

*Which like… Jeffrey Hunter, even with his tan here, resembles a Cherokee about as much as I resemble Bruce Lee. But if I’m going to meet this movie halfway…

Keanu Dig It?

screen-shot-2019-01-17-at-11.28.21-am

Lately I’ve been finding myself over excited for the possibility of Chad Stahelski adapting Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, a series that was a personal guilty pleasure read back in my undergrad years. This excitement was verbalized shortly after seeing his latest feature John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the third in the John Wick franchise that saw him make the move for Hollywood stuntman to action film director, where I realized that this franchise and the Sandman Slim series had a lot of things in common that Stahelski has proven a boon to: (under)world-building, a story of romance-based vengeance, a protagonist who is evidently the best at the violent thing he does, but the biggest element that Parabellum indicates (and that I should have known from the first John Wick) is a love for movies and eagerness for references that is shared by Kadrey’s books.

Within the first three minutes, Buster Keaton clips are projected in the background off of a Times Square building (this was also done in John Wick: Chapter 2 within the first three SHOTS). Within 30 minutes, the titular assassin John Wick (Reeves) seeks refuge in the Tarkovsky Theatre*. And then there’s the casting, which is obviously not the first thing I’d expect to praise John Wick for, but as the best ensemble of the whole franchise to date, a lot of the actors feel very much winking to their past careers. Mark Dacascos is introduced running a sushi shop, Jerome Flynn (in a heinous accent) finally lives Bronn’s dream of having a castle, Boban Marjanovic’s cameo appearance feels reminiscent of fellow basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Bruce Lee vehicle Game of Death, and in a franchise full of flexes, no bigger flex is made than having Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman – Mad Dog and The Assassin themselves – mark over getting to fight John Wick himself! Not unexpected coming from a franchise that knowingly reunited Laurence Fishburne with his Matrix co-star but to the degree that this third entry indulges in… wow.

Needless to say, the ensemble is only one of every single aspect of the John Wick films that Parabellum has amped up. Following in the style of the later Mission: Impossible films, Chad Stahelski and his team’s response to continuing the tales of their grieving assassin is to just bring out “more”. More elaborate fights, more elaborate sets, more elaborate world-building, and on and on. The note that Chapter 2 left Wick on was the promise of the entire underworld of Assassins – centralized by the international chain of hotels called The Continental – coming down on Wick, so there wasn’t much to demand of writer Derek Kolstad and yet he finds a way to add a layer to that threat in the form of the confident and poised official Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). The Adjudicator’s sights expand beyond Wick to the hands of anybody who aided or aids Wick in his escape from repercussions, including New York City’s Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) and Bowery King (Fishburne), and this allows more sketching of the hierarchies and traditions of this murderous culture while Wick has to deal with end-to-end would-be killers trying to get his head.

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More than anything, this unrelenting hunt that Wick is at the center of introduces a wide variety of combat styles stemming from the otherwise mundane locations Wick has to escape from alive – from having to deal with the cramped rows of the New York Public Library to a vintage Chinatown warehouse filled with knives to evading motorcycles under the L train on horseback – bringing out the full creativity of the stunt coordinators trying to escalate each fight to a climax and the full ability of the stunt team to use their bodies as spectacle. And their humor too as this turns out to be the most self-aware of the John Wick films to date with moments like Wick weaponizing a notorious joke from Blart Blart: Mall Blart 2 and recreating Tuco’s revolver-building sequence from The Good, the Bad, the Ugly as a ticking timeclock sequence. Dacascos himself seems eager to jump in on the good humor of the franchise, his shinobi master Zero being all too eager to make pals with Wick while still stressing the inevitability of him killing Wick as hired by The Adjudicator as their primary instrument. And it’s a cheeky attitude that fills every facet of Parabellum as a work of art, most notoriously when production designer Kevin Kavanaugh includes – amongst his sleek, flowing luxury Berber tents in the Sahara and finely-aged historic ballet auditoriums – a set made out of glass designed to visualize the video game-like boss levels Wick must elevate in the climax as well as facilitate an absurdly hilarious moment where he just keeps getting kicked over and over by Zero’s ninjas into sugarglass pillars with no time to catch his breath.

John’s inability to ever catch his breath seems evermore present in this installment, making us more aware then ever that everything John is going through during this trilogy took place in very close chronological proximity (Parabellum opens less than an hour after Chapter 2 closed) and after Kolstad practically ignoring John’s widow-ship in the last movie, it’s brought forward once more for John to answer the query: “My son, how did you come to be so lost? Never seen a man fight so hard to end up back where he started.” Indeed, embodying frustrated exhaustion turns out to be yet another effective utilization of Reeves’ acting limits, where his laconic nature pushes against all the blood and sweat and sand all around him to be more focused in its viciousness than ever.

But really this is all just a pretext for designing fashion like violence. A very dedicated pretext mind you that certain viewers might understandably not find as gloriously pulpish as I do (indeed, a backstory scene between Wick and Halle Berry’s Sofia feels like the weakest moment in the franchise while still maintaining this film being the best work either actor has performed yet), but the pretext is able to step out of the way quick enough to return to the chase for Wick and the constantly escalating danger (paced impeccably by Evan Schiff so that each battle feels like an individual short film) in an ever-more florid array of Metropolitan color provided by Dan Laustsen (this film might include my favorite cinematic depiction of Manhattan’s Chinatown, presented in such overwhelming rain that the lights become blurry circles in the alleys interrupting the blue with imperfect circles of yellow and red).

It’s such an overwhelming amount of visual stimuli, overwrought dramatic epic (with a 30s serial-esque quest into the golden Sahara desert taking place in the middle), and breathtaking body movements (so aware of action movie’s function as cinematic ballet that it intercuts a violent slaughter with a ballet sequence) outdoing its predecessors that answering John Wick: Chapter 4‘s demand for “more” seems an impossible task for Stahelski, but I’m excited nevertheless for how they meet that need head-on. I mean, we have MORE DOGS in this film even and they munch on their enemy’s nuts! Deez Nutz!

*Which in turn brings one to remember Atomic Blonde – directed by John Wick‘s uncredited co-director David Leitch – featuring a fight scene set behind a movie screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

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Ride the Tiger, You Can See His Stripes But You Know He’s Clean/You Can Feel His Heart But You Know He’s Mean

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There is a reticence in talking about Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ fuck crazy 2nd feature film following the 2009 cult horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, by way of its narrative elements by both detractors and fans. The detractors simply posit that the film doesn’t have anything to say while the fans (of which I am a very devoted one) may or may not agree with that but think “who cares?”, a sentiment I would agree with 9 out of 10 times as a hardcore formalist. But when it comes to Mandy, I have to admit the emotional charge of the movie is so irreversibly tied to all of its aesthetical pleasures that it feels like claiming Blade Runner or Mad Max: Fury Road are shallow just because they happen to be simple screenplays with filmmakers who decide to expand their themes within their designs. Every visual and audial decision within those two films does more to inform how you feel, bring up concepts and themes for you to ponder about, and guide you into some semblance of an emotional beginning, middle, and end than their skeletal screenplay.

Mandy’s screenplay, written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is one that begins by taking the good part of an hour establishing the serenity of 1983 California’s Shadow Mountains where grizzled lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and his spacey titular artist/convenience store clerk girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in calming isolation within the wooden terrain, apparently serving as each other’s comforts from some upsetting past (an unacknowledged scar runs down the left of Mandy’s huge pool-like eyes and there’s the slightest hint from Red’s refusal of a beer that he has survived alcoholism). It’s working as Red quietly lounges in their transparent glass house (with a bedroom that’s all windows seeing the trees before them and the stars above) and Mandy indulges in reading dark fantasy novels that inspire her artwork and discussing astronomy with Red. But this does not last as Mandy crosses paths with the sinister Children of the New Dawn cult based in some curdled bastard spawn of hippie philosophy and Christian fanaticism. She particularly catches the lustful eye of their deranged leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and he uses his power to invade Red and Mandy’s home.

The subsequent violence that occurs invokes a rage that brings about the forging of a battle axe that resembles Celtic Frost’s logo, the hunting down of their Black Skulls bikers (who look like grisly Clive Barker-imagined Judas Priest fans, in inky black leather speaking in gargled guttural sounds resembling blood stuck in their throat and surrounded by a doomy fog), an inadvertent trip through cocaine and blood-mixed LSD, and the hunting down of the Children themselves including an eventual chainsaw battle that leaves Motel Hell’s brilliant fight in the dust*. It’s a film that feels like a music video despite the only needle drop being the very calm and lulling King Crimson track “Starless”. But it opens with a quote about being buried listening to music and Mandy’s whole wardrobe is band shirts and we are shown late in the film that they met at a local metal concert, so there’s no escaping the musical nature of the film.

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Overall, Mandy is a film that feels of the same spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow: Panos Cosmatos knows the kind of movies he loves watching and he wants to make more of them (that his tastes align with mine make me all the more eager that he make more while being horrified at the 9-year gap between his first and second movie). He knows what he loves to look at: big swatches of primary colors from cinematographer Benjamin Loeb bathing the images, heavy metal inspired designs with prog rock pacing, unhinged and practically comical bloodletting in large form, and apparently he’s a huge fan of Too Many Cooks (Casper Kelly guest directs a fake commercial that serves as sudden comic relief to the most emotionally devastating moment AND – on second watch I realized this – begins a series of visual breadcrumbs to our protagonist’s crazed journey). More importantly, he knows the sort of music he loves to hear: hellish, droning, sludgy black metal that uses shuddering impact for rhythm and wants to go as deep as it possibly can so as to make your bones vibrate for the coming violence alternating with echoing simple guitar tones for the early moments of domestic bliss, supplied impeccably by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson as the last of his career-long trials to transform music into mood-informing sound design**. If I have to tell you that’s my musical jam, you don’t know me and I must admit Jóhannsson’s range here between sedate relaxation and harsh tonal noise focused on guitar and synthesizers feels the closest we will come to a Buckethead score which is something I’ve always wanted.

Anyway, Mandy does indeed share only the spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow and practically nothing else. For one thing, as opposed to Black Rainbow’s interiors***, Mandy is so very much in love with the texture of the outdoor Shadow Mountains and just as the first hour serves to ingrain the sincerity of Red and Mandy’s relationship, it also makes us intimately familiar with the lush terrain in which they found their peace. The first scene of Red finishing his work day has a dusky shadowy blue to it that softens the image while distinguishing the dark brown from the leafy green (the whole movie seems to go for a fuzzy grained filmic look but the sharpness of the imagery tells us this is digital). A shot of Mandy reading her favorite book on her bed halos her in a glow radiating from the window of trees behind her. It is the sort of movie that makes me wish to live in its environment, if not for the fact that we’re also witnessing this beautiful paradise transform into something more demonic starting with the devil reds that make up the entirety of the Children’s introductory scene driving in. As the film progresses, it slowly dries out into caverns and hills and we have man-made objects impose themselves into this place, like churches and hangars that imprison tigers in them, until it’s a yellow-crimson and alien and unrecognizable. Mandy‘s final shot only confirms a space that seems to mirror the character’s final states of mind.

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For another thing, Mandy is as aware of the presence of cosmic influences as its predecessor but humorously unconcerned with it. Bill Duke’s understated cameo that functions to demystify the dragons Nicolas Cage intends to slay. If it weren’t for the beautiful final shot, a repeating dream format, and a jarring drug trip montage 2/3 of the way in, its dry humor might be seen as dismissive towards its inspired ideas. MIGHT. Instead, all it means is that Cosmatos and his cast and crew – I never even had time to acknowledge the brilliant duality in Brett W. Bachman’s editing because for all the first is patient and in no hurry for us to soak in the place-setting, the second half’s cutting ratchets and escalates things to a roaring final third and that’s while still indulging flourishes like a dissolving superimposed close-up between Jeremiah and Mandy or a ghostly slowing-down of movements. And I don’t know who’s responsible for the three major title cards but I want them all in my bedroom wall – they’re all going to have fun with the movie. Having a sense of humor doesn’t water down how exhilarated it feels about itself. In some ways, it makes Red’s statements more badass in a casual way (“Don’t be negative” is my favorite line in the movie).

Anyway, if I’ve sold anybody on rushing to see this movie, I’m going to insist you stop reading right here because it’s gonna be a good ol’ spoiler alert while I go into what I think the movie wants to say. I sure hope the promise of Mandy‘s rock and roll sensory overload is enough to imply your satisfaction (though there is clearly going to be some people that know this isn’t for them). Indeed, there are some who would argue understandably that Mandy is much more rewarding without reading much into it and it’s certainly rewarding enough as manic carnage with a metal soul.

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I am not one of those people.

That sensory overload is not just sound and fury. It’s a story about loss and the sort of devastation it brings to a personality and to a home. Nicolas Cage is an actor we are familiar with as acting unchained and unhinged, grinning maniacally and screeching and yelling frequently. It’s amusingly extreme, but extreme nonetheless and primal. And in Mandy, there’s a context to that… Red has just had everything that made his home a home destroyed. Everything that domesticated him. He’s now a wild animal, caked in blood by the time he finishes off the Black Skulls and now only speaking in order to discuss the violence he is about to return to the people who killed Mandy. It’s extremely self-indulgent and unhealthy in its portrayal of him drinking and snorting and slashing and decapitating (and if Loeb’s camera movements during the centerpiece bathroom breakdown imply anything, the film is aware of this and afraid to approach him, instead just hovering around) but it’s Red letting his masculine rage out against the Children nevertheless. And by the end of it, he has a John Wick-like emptiness and roams aimlessly down this landscape too close to comfort to Jupiter.

And yet there’s a layer of the film that implies that it’s not Red’s grieving that’s occurring: it’s Mandy’s. I can’t help reading the film as potentially her fantasy in grieving for Red (which would explain the otherwise uncommented on moment where Red is stabbed in the gut). The constant dreams where she is present in gorgeous animated form guiding him, the juxtaposition between him and a tiger, the mythological items that appear (with the villains’ tools always in a sudden flashing green close-up) similar to the books Mandy reads, and the final shot of starlings (a bird Mandy has much grief for) giving a soundscape to illustrations of Red in heroic form share a back and forth between how one person might shed any humanity in dealing with losing someone and another might use storytelling and comforting associations to mourn softly. As Mandy’s shirts imply, she is also the metalhead between the two of them so it’s safe to assume Cosmatos gave Mandy the same tastes as himself.

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It’s an authorial cycle that doesn’t lean towards a complete answer but the ambiguous way in which Mandy maintains that its eponymous character remains involved and arguably a prime mover of the story allows every aesthetical device to be something that informs Mandy’s personalities and likes (despite Riseborough giving a significantly more interiorized performance than anyone save for Duke), probably the most defined character in a movie that’s mostly archetypes.

That’s just me, though. Any positive reading of Mandy seems like one I can dig and overall, it’s a film that refuses to bore me and just wants to be the biggest and most ambitious version of a violent revenge story that it can be. There’s no denying Cosmatos has plenty he wants to say within it – the fragility of male ego (though the fridging of Mandy makes it hard for me to call it a feminist movie), the delusional nature of personality cults if not religions generally, and the true purity of metalheads vs. hippies – but he doesn’t really need you to take those things out of the movie with you. All he wants you to do is take these words to heart:

“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock ‘n’ roll me when I’m dead.”

(wisely refraining from crediting the verse to convicted murderer Douglas Roberts)

*I am willing to shoot to death anyone who tries to claim Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 comes even close.
**I am for the record still very very angry we will never hear his scrapped Blade Runner 2049 score.

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X-Farce

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Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.

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It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.

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So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.

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American Vampire

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I haven’t been the first nor will I be the last to point out how Kathryn Bigelow, famed action filmmaker turned political filmmaker notable for being the very first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, got her in at the industry by focusing almost exclusively on the masculinity of genre action films and proving herself just as capable of working with that machismo as any other man behind the camera at the time. Indeed, given despite the fact that one could reasonably claim she only really made one pure action film (Point Break which might also be her best film), her ability to provide incredibly ambitious setpieces that matched or even outdid whatever Renny Harlin or John McTiernan was going around at that time sure as hell proved her to be top of the “Boys’ Club” and know how to bring testosterone to the screen in an unconscious way that ought to make other genre filmmakers really insecure about themselves.

And yet, her 1987 film Near Dark is possibly the only film that feels… aware of that masculinity – for is there any genre more manly man as the Western – existing in a very outwardly dangerous way. After all, her script co-written by Eric Red starts in an extremely libidinous way for its young Oklahoma cowpoke Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who spots attractive pale drifter Mae (Jenny Wright) and pursues her in an uncomfortably aggressive manner. After a night of wrangling her in a very uncomfortable manner, especially in her fear of getting “home” before dawn, Caleb tries to coax her into kissing him and in frustration and attraction, she responds by biting Caleb’s neck and running off.

That bite is apparently enough to make it so hard for Caleb to walk down the morning horizon, his child sister (Marcie Leeds) and father (Tim Thomerson) witness in horror as he begins smoking and crisping black in the bright Oklahoma sun until he’s forcibly yanked into an RV inhabited by Mae and her fellow vampire drifter gang – sadistic psycho Severin (Bill Paxton), maturely sinister child Homer (Joshua John Miller), burly beauty Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and cold leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) – ready to slice his neck wide open until Mae points out he turned Caleb, saving his life and beginning their relationship with Caleb’s family racing to his rescue.

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Certainly both Point Break and The Hurt Locker are both self-aware of their masculinity, but both of them seem to be in sheer intoxication of the adrenaline rush that comes from asserting their manly selves and The Hurt Locker is an introspective study of how it’s kind of bad for the individual. Near Dark thinks that masculinity leaves nothing but a vile bloodbath and corpses in its wake. Hooker and company are essentially trying to push the reluctant young Caleb into killing alongside them, out of necessity for their survival and also frankly out of enjoyment for the bloodletting. It’s essentially a companion piece to The Lost Boys from the same year.

While The Lost Boys is a lot more light (being a semi-comedy) and the energy of the film is homoerotic between Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, Near Dark is extremely harsh and unforgiving, ominous thanks to the tonal soundscape provided by Tangerine Dream, and very heterosexual in nature. Caleb’s young lust for Mae is what got him in the situation in the first place after all and it’s established very clearly that Homer is the character that hates Caleb most (his first move is to grab Caleb’s scrotum and threaten him if Homer’s name is mispronounced) and that hatred is established by Homer originally laying claim to Mae as a mate*. The juxtaposition between a child trying to claim a grown woman as his prize is unsettling enough, the knowledge that Homer’s much much older than the 11 year old body he’s in becomes more alarming when his new prey is on Caleb’s little sister. And Mae is the only source of Caleb’s relief from trying to kill others, letting him drink from her wrists rather than the truck drivers and street punks the rest of the gang find.

It’s not Miike Takeshi here, but it’s the bloodiest and most violent movie in Kathryn Bigelow’s entire corpus. And the casual manner in which bloodletting occurs in the movie only refuses to aestheticize or romanticize the chest-puffing attitude that brings an unglamorous body count with it. The blood’s dark and dirty, like nasty spit erupting that you feel like you have to wash off your screen. Adam Greenberg as cinematographer provides an unrefined duskiness to every shot that accentuates the grunginess of the gang’s attire and the darkness surrounding them – my favorite shot being an ominous backlit high-angle silhouette of the group against a wispy smoke screen – while the Oklahoma daylight horizon is at times given such a blown brightness to make it as hard to look at as it is for Caleb to walk within it. It doesn’t even need to get bloody for things to get alpha-male, for a throwaway moment of Severin and Hooker aiming pistols at each other cards feels like a joke that’s hard to laugh at in context.

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Greenberg’s texture to the visuals also grants Near Dark an tired and weary attitude that reminds us how badly it would love to be a great manly Western, but reminds us that demands blood. Henriksen’s Hooker is exactly the sort of wandering cowboy we’d expect to be full of wisdom and practicality except there’s also the clear indication that he likes killing and especially making those who he kills suffer horribly. In Near Dark‘s central bar massacre, he tries to toy and lure the server’s company signaling his sinister intentions immediately before Diamondback glibly slits her throat and Hooker fills a beer mug with her blood in excitement and informs everybody in that room they are going to die. When Hooker also charismatically declares that he was a Confederate soldier and his pride that they lost, it’s just another in a long line of chaotic evil expressions from an apparently collected individual.

Meanwhile, Severin’s the “life” of the massacre. He asserts his toxicity from the moment he steps foot into the bar, insulting everybody in the room, deliberately spilling drinks, causing fights (and goading Caleb to get into his own), and stalking the bartender on the very bar into a desperate corner (again a wonderful moment of Greenberg’s framing). It’s the most accomplished scene in the late Paxton’s life. He gives the sort of shitheel turn that feels full of danger and apathy that it’s impossible not to hate him at first appearance but it’s also just as impossible to tell him how much you hate him out of fear.

Unfortunately, as a result of Bigelow and editor Howard E. Smith’s no-nonsense action thriller pacing (which is mostly a strength), the nihilistic dive of Near Dark is cut short at the 3/4 mark when part of Caleb’s predicament is resolved, it feels like a shortcut to the climax than anything organic. Bigelow still has the sense to mostly soften the blow by using her sensibility of spectacle and newfound studio involvement to craft a great big dark Western streets showdown involving the heavy momentum and explosive outcome of a truck and preclude that with one more cowboy image of Caleb riding off tall to save the day on horseback, so Near Dark can stay on its feet until the final minutes. A couple of scenes of resolution doesn’t easily shake off the visceral nightmare that Caleb had to go through earlier.

*Funny enough, Miller – 11 years old at the time of filming – has grown up to be a successful screenwriter/show runner and is in an openly gay relationship with his writing partner, M.A. Fortin. Also coincidentally, he’s half-brothers with Jason Patric, the lead of The Lost Boys.
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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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Shoot ‘Em Up

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If you haven’t seen Gareth Evans’ Indonesian The Raid movies, there’s a very blatant distinction between the two parts in the duology. Of course, they’re both action films set with the same lead cop (the talented Iko Uwais) battling down gangs in awe-inspiring physicality, but one of them – the 150 minute Raid 2 – very clearly has an emphasis and investment on character development (particularly a gangster family drama interwoven between the fight scenes) that the other one – the 101 minute The Raid – does not (this one is 99% action setpieces). The story about why that is will be for another time some day when I review the Raid films, as I only bring this up to note a parallel status with the John Wick movies, a vehicle franchise for the very dedicated Keanu Reeves focusing on a similar ballet of bodies involving gunfights and bullets. I would wonder if this change is on account of co-director David Leitch’s absence from the sequel (going on to direct Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2), but then both films still have director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad involved.

I would happen to recommend that you immediately get to watching the Raid and John Wick movies if you haven’t for they are the quintessential 2010s action movies in my eyes.

Anyway, to focus on our subject John Wick: Chapter Two, one wonders briefly if this series’ neglect on the mindset of our titular assassin would be as a result of its doubling down on visual aesthetic and world-building, which it does in spades. As the first movie is no less gorgeous but still stripped down and focused on John’s path of vengeance without intention at expanding the huge world of underground assassins that it establishes but only portrays peripheral to John’s perspective. Its aesthetic lives in its deliberately limited storytelling, which also resulted in a much more emotional film than Chapter Two. Chapter Two is certainly not an emotional movie.

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It is, however, a wide epic now, expanding its scope from New York City to Rome and back as Wick (Reeves) is forced by the smug crime lord Santino D’Antonio (the effortlessly heel-like Riccardo Scamarcio, who I shortly after witnessed in season 2 of Master of None and realized he’s great at playing douchebags like an Italian Jon Bernthal) via the blood oath that helped Wick ensure his retirement, to kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Absolutely no one is surprised when Santino betrays John and sends Wick on the run, not only from his mute bodyguard Ares (Ruby Rose, who is having a good action movie year with that, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and XXX: Return of Xander Cage – I haven’t seen one of these, but I’m going out on a limb guessing this is her best performance of the three just from how expressive it is for such a small part) and Gianna’s own very personal bodyguard Cassian (Common in a more overt vengeful attitude than Reeves in the previous film), but from all the Assassins in the world. Santino’s arrangement of a 7 million dollar hit on Wick’s head forces the man’s desperation, hiding, and appeal for aid from the homeless Bowery King (kind of spoiled in the trailers, but I’ve seen enough reviews hold back on the actors’ identity to do similar. All I will say is the actor in question gave me a HUUUUUUUGE Orson Welles vibe which made it all the better to me).

Anyway, John Wick vs. The World, basically. The opportunities are endless and Stahelski goes crazy providing several different glorious setpiece designs for Reeves to grunt and sweat his way through, none of them as great as the central scene of John Wick (that club gun battle. Don’t night clubs make the best shooting ranges?) and all of them absolutely novel– here’s a car chase through the mirrored streets of New York, here’s Reeves and Common having a bit of slapstick comedy throwing each other down flights of stairs, here’s a throwback to the famous “with a FUCKING PENCIL!” line (with a foreshadow at the beginning by a cameoing Peter Stormare), here’s a shooting duck gallery in the subway station, here’s a chase/gun battle through a hall of mirrors – and shot by Dan Laustsen in high gloss that makes every fast motion and swipe smooth as baby Jesus’ bottom and edited by Evan Schiff with continuity and impact.

And that’s when they’re in the nocturnal lights of New York City, for the film somehow has a different visual language towards its European setting and gives an aristocratic art cinema sense of pace and style. From the elegant manner of weapon selection, to the underground historic catacombs, right down to briefly replacing Ian McShane as “Zeus”, the way Movies with Mikey called him oh so perfectly, with Franco Nero as “Italian Zeus”. Which possibly helps me enjoy John Wick more, the versatility in distinguishing only two cultures it feels like cheating into globe-trotting. The real expansion comes to the Assassins’ mythology now that we have not only our returning cast like John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, and David Patrick Kelly, but a real sense of stories outside of Wick’s point of view like Cassian’s and The Bowery King’s that only unluckily intertwine with Wick’s and a sense of consequence to their laws by the perfect note Chapter 2 chooses to end on, which only serves more promise for the inevitable third installment. I’ll welcome it eagerly, I only want to see more of this playground Stahelski has set Reeves’ unstoppable badass in, even if the bar is set already much too high by this chapter.

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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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