Sunday, November 30, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 6

Title: The Pope’s Toilet
Director: Cesar Chalone and Enrique Fernandez
Country: Uruguay
Score: 6.0
Beto is a smalltime border smuggler just this side of Uruguay from Brazil. His “work” consists of heart-pounding 60 mile bicycle trips across the open countryside with the risk of raids and financial ruin on any voyage. He lives in a small shack with his devout wife and unhappy daughter, who longs to become a reporter. When news comes out that the Pope will be stopping in their remote village to give a speech, everyone in town plans to pull themselves out of poverty by selling food to the tens of thousands of projected visitors. Beto plans to capitalize on the situation from the opposite end: by charging for use of a homemade restroom.

The simple setup allows plenty of time to get to know the family and to witness the humor and pain they cause each other. The film’s greatest success is its honest, unsentimental portrayal of poverty, where limited resources cause harsh competition and families are so desperate to escape their conditions that they will risk everything on inflated hopes. The casting of non-actors works beautifully and each of the central three characters gives fresh, realistic performances.

However, I was annoyed at the directors’ decisions in how they portrayed this based-on-a-real-life story. Whether it’s intentional dramatic irony or not, I never for a moment believed that a happy ending was possible. The tension and buildup for the inevitable disappointment felt hallow and manipulative to me. Ill-advised music rubs the disaster in our face. I found that I was holding myself back from emotionally connecting with the characters because I was conscious of the directors’ intentions from very early on.

Title: Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains
Director: Gonzalo Arijon
Country: Uruguay
Score: 5.0
Arijon’s much-hailed documentary revisits a headline that captured international attention in 1972. A rugby team from Uruguay crash-landed on a snow-covered Andean mountain and survived for 72 days before they were able to contact civilization. Untreated injuries, starvation, extreme-cold and depression plague the stranded boys. Two-thirds of the passengers die and the remainder resorted to cannibalism to survive.

I’m occasionally accused of being too tough on documentaries, and I’m likely to draw that complaint once again. Let me first say, though, that the story of these survivors is absolutely captivating and inspiring. When I rate a documentary, however, only a small amount of the score is based on the topic chosen while the primary thing I try to judge is the presentation of the subject. For that reason, I was not much impressed by “Stranded,” which looks and feels like a routine television special.

Arijon’s re-enactments are particularly uninspired. He uses vague, shaky clips where you can’t really see any details and grainy filters try to convince us the footage is old or damaged. This material doesn’t capture anything of the reality, not even the atmosphere or terror, and serves very little purpose except as filler. I’m sure the idea was to temper the talking heads syndrome that is brought on by trying to tell the story through interviews decades after the fact. The most interesting visual moments, notably, are the authentic photographs and the news footage near the end.

I think a full-scale paid-actor/set-recreation treatment would have been worthwhile and compelling. In fact, I’d have probably liked a film adaptation more than any documentary version, but that’s purely personal taste. As a documentary, I felt it relied too heavily on the emotional emphasis and didn’t give enough facts to really appreciate the situation. Despite the film’s totally unnecessary 126 minute run-time, I was left still fairly clueless and curious at the end:

How cold did it get at night? How much battery power was in the radio? Did they build snow-shoes or sleds to travel over the snow drifts? Were they able to build fires? How did they decide which direction to head off in? What was the decision hierarchy like? Did they converse or invent games to pass the time or sit in silence? How far away were they from the nearest village? Do they keep in touch today? Etc, etc, etc.

Friday, November 28, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 5

Title: Opera Jawa
Director: Garin Nugroho
Country: Indonesia
Score: 6.0
This adaptation of a love triangle from the Hindu epic Ramayana has enough to intrigue almost anyone into giving it a try, but it’s a rare instance of a film almost too exotic for me to take. Siti is a gorgeous pottery maker who is loved by her modest husband and a ruthless butcher magnate. The latter’s seduction scheme leads to sorrow, battle and death. Every line of dialogue is song (a bit like an oriental “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and every movement is choreographed. The costumes and sets are allowed to be equally expressive.

While I really like the idea of this film in theory, the simple story adapts poorly into a two hour movie and most of the scenes are consequently irrelevant to the narrative. This isn’t a problem if the presentation sufficiently wows you, but I my ignorance of Javanese traditional music and language had me feeling like all the vocals sounded pretty much the same and the choreography looked like bad modern dance. That said, I really liked the exotic instrumentation and the decision to model the acting after animals (a particularly good example is done in shadow silhouette).

The set design is imaginative, if not as consistently impressive as Parajanov’s work. I did enjoy the use of ceramics, wicker cones and crimson wax heads as reoccurring visual motifs. There are a handful of scenes that make for unforgettable imagery, like a room full of candle skulls or the beach finale inside a sheer yellow tent.

Yet all the sound and colors didn’t seem to make for a consistent story, mood or pacing and I ended up with the dissatisfying feeling that I’d just beheld one of the world’s most visually resplendent bores. I don’t understand it. I usually love visually resplendent bores! I think “Opera Jawa” is the type of film that I’ll engage with better on DVD, where I can appreciate its charms without the bustle and exhaustion of the festival.

Title: Heartbeat Detector
Director: Nicolas Klotz
Country: France
Score: 5.0
“Heartbeat Detector” (also known by its literal translation “The Human Question,” which I prefer) had already made so many waves in Europe, that my expectations were perhaps a bit too high. I didn’t like it, yet so far it’s the festival film I’m most interested in discussing.

The first hour of the film is a corporate intrigue thriller without the intrigue or thrills as we watch a company psychologist for a large faceless organization deal with his relationships and an investigation into the sanity of his own CEO. Eventually the film stumbles its way into a series of revelations about Nazi ties amongst the executives, but it doesn’t actually get interesting until the movie turns into a polemic indictment of corporate culture in general.

The clumsy interrogation of this one idea, that fascism and capitalism can come to disturbingly similar conclusions, is just about the only redeeming debate to emerge from the film. It taps into our innate mistrust for powerful entities of any variety, and our suspicion that companies, bureaucracies and hierarchies may be intrinsically and profoundly evil. “Heartbeat Detector” never really covers enough ground or goes far enough to say anything new or provocative on these subjects, but its mixture of fear, doubt, regret and loathing is sincere and potent.

Sadly, the unremarkable story goes along way towards undermining the themes, especially by making the references to Nazism so terribly literal. In movies since the start of WII Nazi villains are dragged out for audiences to boo and jeer at so that we can feel even more self-righteous. The really scary thing is no longer onscreen Nazis caricatures, but the implication that offscreen, we may be slipping into the same “I’m just trying to get by” cog-psychology that makes inhuman totalitarianism possible.

The boilerplate bits of script are equally indigestible, featuring 2.5 hours of a blank-faced protagonist that we’re thankfully never asked to care about and a bunch of elderly executives who are cryptic and depressing. The worst are the lead’s pointless girlfriends, who stop existing for the main character (and the screenwriter) the moment they are offscreen. The cinematography is murky and underlit, probably an attempt to enforce the somber mood. The gray and black color scheme, rectilinear locales and sleepy emo soundtrack would probably have accomplished this anyway. The lack of proper lighting just makes the film feel frustrating and unprofessional. I was amused to see that the screenshots used for the poster and DVD have been digitally brightened.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 4

Title: All for Free
Director: Antonio Nuić
Country: Croatia
Score: 7.0
After the good luck I had with last year’s “Fine Dead Girls,” I decided to try another shot-on-digital Croatian character study and once again found it to be quite satisfying. This one features Goran, a friendly slacker who spends most of his time drinking and hanging out with his tight-knit quartet of local friends. One night at their favorite hangout, one of his pals shoots the other two dead. Goran is shocked out of his complacent stasis and haplessly scrambles for some meaning in life. With nothing to keep him in town, he decides to sell his house and buy a travelling beverage stand where he’ll give out drinks “all for free.”

Goran’s mellow adventures are full of ironic character observations as the citizens of each new town turn their suspicions upon him. Each customer is sure that there’s some catch or hidden agenda. Nuic’s sense of humor is smart and deadpan, a little like Jarmusch or Kaurismaki, but more incisive. Their isn’t much expectation that anything will happen, and true to form, very little does. The story slowly evolves a romance and rivalry, but it never really abandons its core as an existential reverie.

“All for Free” is probably too slow and too comically sparse for most, but I found it pleasant and thoughtful. It never tries to be anything more than what it is and it’s just wise enough not to outstay its welcome. “All for Free” strikes me as a good example of what a tiny budget and a reflective personality can do.

Title: Special
Director: Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore
Country: USA
Score: 7.51 (to make sure it rounds up)
Les Franken isn’t exactly happy; he’s just not unhappy. He works as a meter maid, reads comics and watches TV. He has the sensation that his soul is slowly seeping from his body and decides to enroll in a clinical trial for a new antidepressant, Specioprin Hydrochloride.

The medication has unexpected results: Les develops a multitude of superpowers. But while Les acclimates himself to his newfound powers, others see nothing but a young man with a screw loose. The directors strike an inspired comical duality between the world as Les sees it and the sad reality. Thus, while Les believe that he can run through walls (and we watch him do so), we also can’t help but notice that he has a bloody nose and bruises afterwards.

This setup makes for quite a variety of great scenes, like a visit with his clinical supervisor who suggests he immediately cease taking the drug. Les suddenly develops telepathy and believes that the doctor is mentally telling him just the opposite, but to put up the pretense of quitting since an enemy is listening. This enemy turns out to be the suit-wearing financiers behind the drug, who don’t want Les to create a media embarrassment. When they try to kidnap him, Les converses with a version of himself sent back from the future, who advises not to trust them. Michael Rapaport is well-cast in the lead role and is convincingly sympathetic as a deranged nerd whose desperate need to feel special may actually make it true.

“Special” is the type of indie comedy that alternates making you laugh and feel depressed, a combination I happen to like. It deals in the type of quirky irony where dream sequences are painfully normal (like riding in an elevator), and when the protagonist suddenly wakes up, it’s in a much stranger reality. The small budget may be the film’s biggest liability, especially towards the overly-padded, uninspired ending. With a longer, loopier second half and a few more subplots, this could have been a real favorite.

Monday, November 24, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 3

Title: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Country: UK/India
Score: 8.0
Boyle continues his successful string of high-energy entertainment with this slick Indian production based around “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Ironically, contestant Jamal Malik, a poor orphan raised on the tough streets of Mumbai, is more interested in reuniting with his lost love from childhood than winning the money, but he just might get both wishes. The inspired structure has Malik narrating his life story to the police, as a way of explaining how a “slumdog” with no formal education could know each answer without cheating.

As with all of Boyle’s films (“Shallow Grave,” “28 Day Later,” “Sunshine”) the style is unabashedly populist, characterized by rapid cutting, throbbing music and aesthetic hedonism. While it isn’t surprising that this formula worked well for his films about gangsters, zombies and astronauts, I was surprised how easily it integrated with the more serious setting of India’s megaslums. It helps that the writer took care to channel the excitement, humor and optimism of youth even as he bares the pain and viciousness of poverty and crime. Even the visuals manage to strike a unique beauty, finding splashes of joy in human faces and dyed cloth against backdrops that include sprawling dumps and open sewers.

The final third of the movie becomes more subdued and saccharine, turning into a more conventional love story complete with overtures about destiny, smirking villains and tragic sacrifice. It’s likely to rub the wrong way with many who enjoyed the freshness of the rest of the film, but I suspect that it’s an intentional nod by Boyle towards the traditions of Indian cinematic romances. The ending credits are done as a Bollywood music video, making a more explicit reference to Indian pop culture.

With his kinetic storytelling, emotional range and engaging story, Boyle’s likely to have another hit on his hands. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he walked away with the SLIFF audience award. At the same time, I suspect the critical elite will turn their noses up at the flashy style, cheesy ending and occasionally hokey acting and they’d probably have a good point… but I have to say it was one of the most entertaining releases I’ve seen this year.

Title: Alone
Director: Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
Country: Thailand
Score: 7.0
The Pisanthanakun/Wongpoom team (“Shutter”) continues to make a name for themselves in the international horror scene with this creepy tale about cojoined twins and the strange separation anxiety and survivor guilt that results when only one survives into adulthood. Pim seems to be doing well with her loving husband Wee, but when her mother becomes critically ill and they return from South Korea to Thailand, painful memories of her twin sister Ploy begin to drive her towards insanity.

Though “Alone” is unmistakably genre-bound, it is far less interested in the grotesque body-horror possibilities of its premise than the intensified intimacy of its relationships (twin sisters, husband/wife) and their psychological ramifications. This is more “A Tale of Two Sisters” or “Sisters” (1973) than “Basket Case” or “Dead Ringers” (1988) (interesting to note that this split seems to run down gender lines). The directors are quite skilled, if not particularly original, at developing atmosphere, tension and curiosity around their setup.

Horror fans will be particularly pleased by the sheer quantity of scares, which are thankfully not all hoarded for the finale. These are almost all of the loud-noise/sudden-image variety that I’m not usually impressed by, but I give “Alone” credit for actually scaring me time and again. I wish the directors would have tried to sustain the terror, however, since most of the fear-climaxes lasted only a single shot (sometimes with a reaction shot) and I was too often able to assure myself that “it will be over in just a second.” Though the film tarries a little long in the one-scene, one-scare purgatory of horror set pieces, the directors get the plot out of a rut and managed to admirably surprise me (and everyone with me) with a solid final act.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 2

Title: Shadowland (2008)
Director: Wyatt Weed
Country: USA
Score: 1.5
“Shadowland” looks to be an early frontrunner for my least favorite film of the festival. The SLIFF website describes it as an amnesiac mystery. It leaves out any reference to vampirism, which is odd, because this is a vampire movie. I would have seen it anyway (in fact, I would have been more interested). My primary motivation for checking it out wasn’t the plot, but that it was made locally and I wanted to try and see more native St. Louis films this year.

The scraggly story involves a young woman who emerges from a hidden churchyard grave with no memories, but a desire to head towards “main street.” She meets a friendly diner waiter, a pushy hobo and a snobby retro clothing clerk along the way. A professional vampire hunter named Julian and eventually the police are on her trail. Meanwhile, she struggles to remember the circumstances that led to her “death.”

Despite a surprising amount of production polish for a local film, “Shadowland” is ultimately closer to the Sci-Fi channel’s original programming than something you might want to see even for throwaway thrills. The acting is consistently embarrassing, especially the “period” flashbacks (signaled, of course, by overused streak-blur transitions). The writing is unimaginative and devoid of personality, exacerbated by over-earnest performances.

The special effects are of the quaint TV variety. I think the film really should have gone the less-is-more route, since the conventional fake fangs and bad contact lenses were bad enough without the fast-motion running and CG wings.

Ultimately, the main pleasure came from spotting the familiar locations. I got to see my street on a sign and a scene set at a diner where I tried to eat right before the film. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to make the movie legitimately good (pay attention, New Yorkers reviewing NYC films) and I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Title: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Director: Paul Schrader
Country: Japan
Score: 8.5
Despite being well-aware that “Mishima” is 23 years old and that Criterion has put the restoration on DVD, I really wanted to see this on the big screen and was not disappointed. The movie weaves together three time periods, each in its own style. Mishima’s life growing up in shown in black and white. His final day plays in color, detailing his carefully plotted attempt to rally a pro-emperor military coup and his infamous ritual suicide. Most beautiful of all are the scenes from three of his best-known works, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” “Kyoko’s House” and “Runaway Horses.”

Schrader expertly weaves together Mishima’s biography and philosophy, creating a mesmerizing investigation of a body-building, hyper-nationalist, homosexual artist fixated on harmonizing life and art through suicidal glory. The soundtrack by Philip Glass is central to the mood, and feels perfectly at home with the themes of trance-like passion and transcendence. The theatrical staging of his novels, while confusing at first, melts into the spirit of the film and is ultimately more revealing about the author than the more strictly biographical segments. The sets for these vignettes are precisely geometric and richly color-coded islands in a sea of black.

Last year, Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” left me pretty unimpressed, so I’m glad this one restored my faith in him. I didn’t see “Adam Resurrected,” his latest film, when it played Friday night, but I’ll probably visit it on DVD. The only other directing work I’ve seen by Schrader is “Affliction” and “Light Sleeper,” neither of which stand out in my mind as great works. I suspect, therefore, that Schrader is getting this year’s SLIFF lifetime achievement award as much for his writings on and for cinema as for his directing. It’s interesting that SLIFF [almost] gave last year’s award to Peter Greenaway since the two are probably the most vocal directors when it comes to declaring the death of cinema. The film walrus does not agree.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Film Walrus Issues Required Reading

I’d like to issue two hardy welcomes to a couple of new bloggers who I know from the fleshosphere.

Fellow WashU film student Exactly Why shares my passion for film in general, and noir and horror specifically. Her comments have often appeared on the Film Walrus and our discussions have helped shape my ideas on cinema. Most recently, she joined me for a weekend of SLIFF fun. Her new blog, “Why Film, Exactly?” will no doubt benefit from her wide-ranging film taste, talented writing skills and training in Classics.

Meanwhile, my older sister Meredith has entered the blog arena with The Czech, a diverse social issues blog. Along with my brother’s music review blog, this puts half my family in the blogosphere and allows us to cover most of everything that is interesting on the internet.

It’s probably no coincidence that my sister’s blog is named after our most important heritage. Czech culture is replete with superlative achievements ranging from our cinematic new wave to our bridges and spires.

Our shadowy-puppetmaster role on the global political-economic stage is a testament both the greatness and subtlety of Czechs. The nonexistence of negative Czech stereotypes (sorry Poland) is one clear indicator that we’ve been successful at our insidious campaign. One of Wim Wenders’ characters in “Kings of the Road” assesses the impact of America on Germany by saying “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” Well the counterrevolution has come and gone: the Czechs have invaded your unconscious. If all goes according to plan, no one will even realize that power has changed hands. I can literally announce it on The Film Walrus and you’ll probably remain complacent.

But enough fun, we didn’t orchestrate this coup just to gloat. I must now command you to add reading these new blogs to your standing orders of working, consuming and reproducing. And don’t you drones have some droning you should be doing, too?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 1

Well, it's high time the SLIFF reviews started trickling out. Here's the first batch, and from here on out I'll try to keep them coming at a reasonably steady pace. But don't wait for me to filter through the roster: the festival continues and St. Louisians should take advantage! If you want to see where I'll be for the remainder of the festival, you can check out my calendar over at Highway 61, where I'll be cross-posting.

I'm already sensing that the festival has taken a lot of my advise from last, though probably not from me. There's a lot more late-night genre options and shorter intro commercials for one thing. More on that after the festival.

Title: Vanaja
Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Country: India
Score: 7.0
After already playing in almost every other festival in the world (it seems) and getting a DVD release, “Vanaja” finally made its way to St. Louis. It tells a the coming of age story of Vanaja in a rural Indian village, who hopes to overcome her poverty, low-caste status and poor prospects by learning traditional dance in the home of her rich landlady. While working as a servant girl, she wins the approval of the landlady and sets about becoming an accomplished dancer.

This familiar arc is soon disrupted both by her father’s increasingly lethal drunkenness and the arrival of the landlady’s attractive, politically ambitious son. Despite early flirtations, any chance of a storybook romance is foiled by age and class, resulting in a painful relationship that includes rape, a contentious pregnancy, blackmail and difficult choices about motherhood.

For some reason I felt hard to please while watching “Vanaja,” both during it predictable plucky-hero dances towards her dreams first half and it’s more complicated young-mother making tough decisions second half. Perhaps it’s because both plotlines are such perennial festival scenarios. Yet what they lack in originality they make up for in delivery. There’s a great deal of well-earned emotional moments and enough time and nuance to gather honest sympathy for Vanaja and her situation.

The acting, particularly the 15-year-old lead Mamatha Bhukya and Urmila Dammannagari’s curmudgeonly landlady, is where the film really shines. Director Domalpalli deserves credit for his unassuming sunlit photography, which captures the rustic dustiness and colorful highlights of rural India. Working on a small budget, the film nevertheless has just the right atmosphere to intensify the drama without overwhelming it.

Title: Interkosmos
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 4.0
Part of a double-feature by experimental director Jim Finn, “Interkosmos” is a mishmash of appropriated documentary footage transformed into a fictional history of a lost East German space program. A mixed crew from assorted communist nations attempts to establish mining and refueling stations on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but spends most of their time chatting aimless by radio. Their greatest success is in positioning orbiting libraries of communist material, which later conspiracy theories suggest was the real mission goal all along. When the budget disappears, the manned ships go silent and the government covers up the program.

Finn’s premise and his unusual style of integrating archival footage with artificially-aged fiction are certainly interesting, but this first feature by the director suffers from a fatal lack of focus. Monologues about dolphins, minimalist space exercise routines, an all-girls Marxist hockey match, a hamster in a space suit, NASA videos of Earth and a lot more are loosely fitted into place, but they amount to a fairly arbitrary collection of things that Finn found amusing more than a story or even a compelling overview of a story (which is probably closer to his intention).

Even with the short ~70 minute run-time, the film feels far too long and drawn out. It’s hurt by a lack of editing discretion and abundant repetition, revisiting low-interest imagery with minor variations of what we’ve already seen and digested. The overextended intro and end credits are perhaps the clearest examples of indulging at the audience’s expense. Even the best set designs, like a spaceship cockpit and two moving models of the moon stations, are given too much time to sink in while we listen to mildly informative monotone voice-overs. The film is at its best when it plays the narration for bone-dry humor, as in the radio transmission conversations with their blend of bored small talk and Marxist rhetoric.

Title: The Juche Idea
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
Much more successful than his previous film is Finn’s “The Juche Idea,” a rough retrospective of fictional propaganda films created by an enthusiastic North Korean director. The director once again appropriates a disparate assemblage of archival footage including media coverage of national celebrations, internal theatrical releases and corporate training videos.

Not only is it clear that Finn has matured as a director and polished his style since the former film, he also seems to have homed in on his strong suit: humor. Laughs are stitched from all sorts of unexpected resources, rather from juxtaposing Kim Jong-il's ideological tenets with laughably lame film clips, mocking language-training videos with badly green-screened backgrounds and heavily-accented ludicrous conversations or just from spouting inappropriately convoluted metaphors.

One still finds too much repetition, a lack of visual stimuli and the unsatisfying feeling that no cogent movie really forms from the individual scenes, but the pacing is more stable, the rhythm tighter and the themes better realized. For those who are interested, I’d recommend sampling this film first before giving “Interkosmos” a try.

Monday, November 17, 2008

SLIFF 2008

Just a reminder that the St. Louis International Film Festival started last week and runs until next Sunday (Nov 23rd). There are tons of interesting movies and I'll try to hit a good portion of them. The reviews will appear in the same format as last year, both here and over at Highway 61 (Revised). Three of my best friends were in town for the start of the festival and we kept awfully busy (18 films in about 3 days, both at home and on the silver screen), so I haven't started writing yet. Expect plenty of reviews soon.

If you live in the St. Louis area, you owe it to yourself to see at least one film!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Ants!

While a lot of sci-fi is based around mind-boggling concepts like alternative worlds, time-travel, intergalactic politics, technology singularities and post-human evolution, it’s occasionally nice to revisit SF’s most simple and familiar premise: an attack by something very large. It might be a giant ape evolved in isolation or an alien invader from space, but ever since 1954’s “Godzilla,” atomic mutation has become the culprit of choice.

In mediocre films for the past sixty years humanity has been assailed by enormous lizards, 50 foot women, praying mantises, venus flytraps, killer tomatoes, spiders, wasps, slugs, shrews, crabs, cacti and much more. Collectively, I’ll refer to these as “Attack of the X” or “Giant X” films. Today we’ll be looking at one particular foe: ants.

Perhaps because of their steadfast industrial workaholic nature, ants are quite capable of inspiring resentment, if not particularly fear. Their vast numbers, hierarchical society and constructed cities make them popular metaphors for, or rivals of, human civilization. Their collective-before-individual behavior made them suitable cinematic stand-ins for the presumed inhumanity of communism during the Cold War.

Today’s Iceberg Arena will force three ant armies to square off, hailing from the films “Them!” “Phase IV” and “Empire of the Ants.”

Them! (1954)

After finding a little girl wandering the desert in a state of shock, the New Mexico police begin an investigation, quickly discovering a shredded trailer and a general store ransacked for sugar. A wise entomologist and his partner/daughter suspect giant ants, a hypothesis soon proven correct when they are attacked by a patrol. The government manages to locate the nest in the desert and flamethrower troopers are sent in to wipe it out, Unfortunately, two queens fly out in time to start new hives, one that must be scuttled in a cargo ship transporting sugar while the other gets dramatically purged from the underground maze of the L.A. sewer system.

“Them!” was one of the earliest Giant X films, and its effective combination of SF and horror was highly influential on the countless waves of knockoffs. The original story by George Worthing Yates is the primary asset, hurrying the action through several stages and maintaining the suspense even as the “shocking” revelations are dispensed with and the stakes escalated. Lesser monster films delay the action for too long (as if the posters and trailers hadn’t already spoiled the anticipated creatures) and wade through viscous filler before going all-out in the last ten minutes.

The cheap-but-distinctive sets help sell the situation whether they're exploiting the exposure of the open desert or the claustrophobia of the hive tunnels and sewer nests. The giant ants themselves are mean and plentiful, gnashing their jaws, waving their antennae and emitting high pitched whines and clicks. Action scenes are frequent, with ants biting people in half or getting fried to a crisp.

None of this should be taken to mean that the film is realistic or scary. The serious tone, oversized ant puppets and scientific babble makes for vintage cheese. “Them!” endures as solid entertainment today because it provides retro silliness without the poor pacing and embarrassing incompetence of duds like "The Wasp Woman" or "The Giant Gila Monster."

Phase IV (1974)

“Phase IV” is something of exception amongst ant films and Giant X cinema more generally, because, well, the ants aren’t giant. A secluded research dome is set up to with a two man skeleton crew to monitor unusually aggressive ant colonies that have been terrorizing a small town and even making geometric crop circles. The film wastes no time having the local population either evacuate or die, leaving the two scientists and an orphaned girl to match their wits against a diabolic ant siege.

Saul Bass is better known for his graphic design work (he created the logos for AT&T and several major airlines) and innovative title sequences (like the paper cut-outs in “Anatomy of a Murder” and the moving text in “Vertigo”) than this singular feature film effort. Yet despite setting out with a pedestrian premise and miniscule budget, Bass’s work is closer to an existential art film than a B-movie monster flick. After a rambling, garbled kickoff, the film gradually begins to convert snickers to shivers with its eerie sun-scorched cinematography and unrelenting conviction.

It’s clear from the dogmatic dialog and clunky performances that Bass wasn’t an “actor’s director,” but his extensive deployment of ant macro photography, far beyond the usual stock-footage inserts, manages to put the hive and humanity on equal footing. This unusual amount of insect screen time actually goes a long way towards making the story work, especially in vignettes showing the self-sacrificing ants adapting to a yellow chemical spray or attempting to single-handedly destroy some electronic equipment while being hunted by a mantis.

The tenacity and resourcefulness of the ants is ultimately a convincing depiction of how armies of tiny creatures could conquer the planet. Combined with Dick Bush’s coldly observant cinematography and the weird, pessimistic finale, this certainly makes for one of the most chilling and underappreciated monster movies of its era. I also find it interesting to note, especially given Bass’s background as a title designer, that the title does not appear until the arresting final image.

Empire of the Ants (1977)

If the exposition in “Phase IV” is a limping misfire, then the grueling snoozefest at the start of “Empire of the Ants” is something far worse. Why we must listen to the petulant yammering of crudely-developed caricatures destined to be indiscriminately dished out as ant bait is beyond me. These are the type of characters that you hope will die; men who pointlessly suggest that the group split up and woman who would rather spend their last ten minutes screaming than outpacing the glacial monster-dolls being waved about by some poor schmuck just offscreen. Sadly, that passes for an FX-packed money shot in a film where the insects are made to look giant by – and I wish I were making this up – filming ants crawling on still photos of the sets.

I should talk about the plot, but I got sidetracked with frustration. Anyway, the story is about a group of prospective real estate buyers who are stranded on a tropical island where radiation has caused giant ants to take over. The queen ant uses pheromones to turn nearby townspeople into zombie slaves and forces them to harvest a king’s ransom in sugar cane.

The film stars a pre-“Dynasty” Joan Collins, who would later leave this title off her resume. The acting is atrocious, the pacing unbearable and the cinematography flat. Yet somehow I found this film nightmare inducing as a youngster, though to provide some context I was also frightened of brontosauruses and Ronald McDonald.

We happened to own this film on VHS because a cardiac medicine vendor mailed my father a series of “video classics” that had promotional infomercials for experimental medications in the place of trailers. I always wondered if some physician out there was really so grateful to own a copy of “The Graduate” or "Midnight Cowboys" that they actually prescribed their patients FDA-unapproved drugs. I don’t think my dad has ever gotten around to watching the film (or the infomercial), but for some reason I’ve seen it three times now.


This is actually kind of a hard choice. “Empire of the Ants” is so impossibly bad that it almost might be the most fun to watch if you have a group of MST3K-type friends, but then again, all three of these films work well for humorous camp and the others are much more entertaining.

“Phase IV” is really the film I’d like to declare the winner, for its wildly disproportionate ambition if nothing else. It’s worth checking out if you're even slightly curious and definitely deserves a cult following. Still, I think the answer has to be “Them!,” which is just so classically fun and alarmist. It remains a staple of retro-SF cinema and stands a head above most of its brethren.

Winner: Them!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Review of Baron Prasil

One of my favorite films growing up was “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), a rambling tall tale based on the notoriously exaggerated adventures of a German baron in the Russian war against the Turks. Historical setting takes backstage to impossible flights of fancy, including a sojourn in the sultan’s palace, trips to the moon, romance in a volcano and a journey inside a sea monster.

The film has its share of flaws, including a particularly grotesque performance by Robin Williams (over-the-top even by his standards) as the king of the moon, but I love its creativity, circuitousness, and cackling celebration of plot holes. One particularly long flashback, narrated by the baron, ends with his death and funeral. He explains to his confused audience that it “was only one of the many occasions on which I met my death, an experience I don’t hesitate to strongly recommend.”

Director Terry Gilliam obviously sympathies with the baron’s character, championing his underdog fight against the burgeoning age of reason. Yet similar to the baron’s impossible ambitions, Gilliam’s reach exceeded his grasp [as usual] and the film became an infamous box-office failure. I still consider it one of my favorites, but I now regard it as somewhat inferior to it’s earlier influence: the 1961 Czech adaptation “Baron Prasil.”

“Baron Prasil” (1961) begins with a modern astronaut named Joe arriving on the moon, only to discover that’s he’s already been beaten by the likes of Jules Verne, Baron Munchausen and Cyrano de Bergerac, who toast to the new arrival from their lunar-Victorian dinner table. The baron invites Joe onto his Pegasus-drawn frigate for an interstellar traipse back to terrestrial territory.

[Images: Not that it makes any sense otherwise, but if you look closely, one of the pegasi is actually a wooden toy horse.]

They head to the sultan’s palace where they both fall in love with a kidnapped maiden. Their romantic rescue leads to war with the Turks and a globe-trotting adventure across land and sea.

[Image: The jaded sultan wiggles his grapes, it’s movements mirrored by his belly dancer.]

Fans of Gottfried August Burger’s humorous tales will recognize many of the baron’s most famous exploit, such as riding a cannonball over a battlefield and residing in the belly of a sea monster.

[Images: Funny, I don’t remember the pyramids having an ocean so near by.]

The baron considers himself a dashing, idolized mentor for the shy astronaut, but becomes a somewhat bitter rival after their mutual love interest shows greater affection for Joe. However, he comes to recognize Joe as something of a fellow fantasist who indulges in such crazy ideas as steam power, rocketry and science. Joe eventually mellows out, too, and immerses himself in the baron’s illogical ingenuity. The two ultimately return to the moon by exploding a castle, this time to claim it not for the scientists, generals and politicians, but for the dreamers, poets and lovers.

[Image: An amphibious steamboat with a picture of Adam and Eve that comes to life.]

Director Karel Zeman is something of a forgotten master, a creative workhorse and special effects prodigy in the vein of Ray Harryhausen. Zeman started his career as a pioneer of animation and stop-motion techniques, throwing live-action actors and sets into the mix as he moved into feature filmmaking. Zeman's other works include "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" (the only other one I've seen) and "Journey to the Beginning of Time."

A master of forced perspective, Zeman created countless shots that brought the impossible to life in startling, imaginative compositions.

Like with Harryhausen, Tom Savini and Cronenberg, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the plot necessitated the effects or if an idea for an effect guided the direction of the story. Yet even though the movie is carpeted with wall-to-wall camera tricks, it remains a beautiful and endearing story with a creative fast-paced narrative, an unforgettable characterization of Munchausen and a family-friendly promoter of confidence, resourcefulness and imagination.

[Image: The baron, astride his seahorse in an ocean of wine, receives his jacket from a coat hanger hooked on a swordfish.]

The mixed-media presentation is particularly noteworthy, with Zeman designing sets to look like pen-and-ink drawing to better mesh with his illustrated embellishments. Many segments use animation, stop-motion, rear-project, tinting and matting, sometimes with color and black-and-white in the same image.

[Images: A castle fort bristling with cannons, before and during battle.]

One memorable sequence portrays an unfathomably large army bearing down on the protagonists as a crimson cloud of liquid consuming the frame. Much of the distinctive flavor of “Baron Prasil” comes from similar rejections of literalism and realism.

Portions of the style are imitating by Gilliam’s version (the cardboard moon city in particular) and were purportedly major influences on his earlier work (see, for instance, the animated digressions in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “The Life of Brian”). Yet aside from rare exceptions like Gilliam, “Labyrinth,” “Paperhouse,” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Zeman seems to have left few artistic progeny and his brand of inspired eclecticism is now treated as obsolete gimmickry.

“Lord of the Rings” took forced perspective to the next level with its hobbits, dwarfs and giants (the frequent continuity errors caused by having moving characters and cameras never really disrupt the illusion), and yet the rash of “me too” fantasy epics which look shiny but play out like dead-eyed dolls reciting Tolkein fanfic makes me think producers are just as scared of originality as ever. I blame the “safeguards” deemed necessarily for most huge-budget, highly-collaborative effort for systematically turning great novels like the Narnia series and “The Golden Compass” into mediocre films. I can only cross my fingers and hope that “Watchmen” and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” won’t be similarly drained of their personality and verve.

[Image: Force perspective makes it difficult to tell which pillars are real and which fake on sets that Zeman could never actually afford.]

Well, at least it means kids still have good reason to read. And while you parents are buying them books (you ARE buying them books and reading to them, RIGHT?), get them a copy of “Baron Prasil” from over at AllCluesNoSolutions. They’ll grow up to be better people and maybe they’ll stop nagging you to take them to the next 90-minute pokemon-of-the-moment commercial or brainless sequel to a spinoff of a remake of a film that was honestly pretty crappy back in 1932 and 1959.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amassing Movies: The Art of the DVD/HD Collection

Ever since I was very little I've indulged in the collecting compulsion. At one time or another I collected just about everything: rocks, bouncy balls, erasers, marbles, stamps, coins, baseball cards (I didn’t even watch baseball), Star Trek paraphernalia, collectable card games (Magic: The Gathering being just one example), collectable dice games (has anyone even heard of Dragon Dice?), science fiction books, etc. I’m lucky to have missed out on Pokemon, but I played my share of videogames that preyed on the “gotta catch them all” premise.

In retrospect, quite a bit of this insatiable hoarding process was utterly useless and downright embarrassing. I mean, Pogs? Seriously? Why was I paying money for glorified bottle caps simulated with cheap cardboard and used for a game with almost no merit whatsoever? And surely I should have been too old for beanie babies, right? I certainly wasn’t collecting things in the hopes of making a financial success out of them. These days the collectable debris of games whose rules I long ago forgot are worth approximately zero, and even the more popular items are worth more to me in nostalgia than the eBay pittance they could earn.

Today I’m occasionally tempted to read my collector’s drive as purely unhealthy mental compulsions or early-childhood capitalist brainwashing, and those these are doubtlessly important factors, the truth is that I did (and do) derive a degree of satisfaction from collecting. Over time, I’ve come to prefer there to be some form of genuine utility intrinsic to the items amassed. My rock collection has long since been reinstated in the wild, though I do still fondly display a walrus menagerie, locked in an endless war with their race’s ancient arch-nemeses: Katie’s robot collection. Today the only collections that I maintain with any real monetary commitment are books and movies.

I remember a high school acquaintance boasting about his 200+ DVD collection. I asked him to name some of his latest additions and, though I forget the exact titles, it might as well be the five top-grossing Hollywood comedies and action fodder from any given month. What bothered me was not necessarily the stifling banality and narrowness of his recent purchases (his idea of a broadminded approach to cinema was appreciating the occasional romantic comedy), but the total redundancy of owning films that could be found at every video store, on half the TV channels and in the homes of all his friends.

In college I saw the same thing taken to an even greater extreme. You could probably find twelve copies of every mainstream college-themed comedy made between 1978’s “Animal House” and 2003’s “Old School” on my freshman floor alone. Almost every self-styled hipster I knew (including myself) had a copy of “Reservoir Dogs,” “Donnie Darko” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The requisite checklist of off-Hollywood films to own ran maybe a dozen titles long, and was primarily designed to signal to browsers that you were intellectual, indie and deep. I’m hard-pressed to name a foreign language film other than anime, “Amelie” and “Run, Lola, Run” that I saw in the possession of a dormmate.

Questions of taste aside, it was troublesome to see how culturally insular college could be (even for the Midwest) and to witness the scarcity of experimentation, open-mindedness, curiosity and interest in the average freshman. Fortunately, a great deal branched out as their college years went on. Even so, my frustration with the minimal “college canon” was one of my reasons for joining and later running SPLICE, an alternative film club which maintains a healthy following to this day.

So what films do I think are worth owning? Here are some of the questions I ask myself as a guideline:

1) Do I like the movie?

Seems obvious, yet people still buy films they haven’t even seen and are unlikely to enjoy just because the title is recognizable and they missed it in theaters. Or they’ll buy movies they felt vaguely positive about just to “round out” a collection, take advantage of a negligible sale or “just in case” they ever feel like seeing it again. You can get Netflix for a month with less green than most DVDs, and you’ll have time to peruse for a film you don’t regret later. This test is also a great defense against completionist collecting, an expensive and generally overrated task.

2) Am I likely to rewatch the movie?

If no, why are you buying it? If the answer is “rarely,” maybe you should reconsider. A negative answer to this question can be offset by criterion #3.

3) Is this the type of film that I’d want to show or lend to other people?

This is absolutely key for me. One of the main reasons I own films is so that I can lend them out to friends who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of or seek out such pictures. Technically, I’m sure this is somehow illegal, but I doubt I’m actually cutting into the bottom line of anyone (hopefully the Film Walrus has even tossed some miniscule iota of business to distributers out there). This often combines with #4 where I find myself foisting a rare or obscure film on an unsuspecting mark to back up some exuberant review I’ve just spouted.

4) Is there any way of seeing the film outside of buying it?

I am much more likely to purchase a film I’ve never seen if there is no other feasible way of viewing it. If I can rent one of eight copies from the library or play it on Netflix Instant Watch or see it every other week on TBS, then why spend the money? On the other hand, if I have to drive five hours to a midnight screening or wire money to the Slovak Film Institute or wait for a half-razed archive in Alabama to hold an auction, then I will, but I’m only going to do it once and then I want to put a secure a copy in my collection. Besides, finding rare films generates better memories, conversations and karma.

5) Is it worth the price?

When I bought my first movies I maintained a price cap of $10. That figure has steadily climbed and has since been entirely removed. Now there is no definite cut-off, but a gradual decline in probability as the price heads skyward. I will gladly pay more for good English subtitles, a pristine transfer in the correct aspect ratio and worthwhile special features. I enjoy indulging in Criterion DVDs, because I also find a definite value in tasteful box art and informative essay booklets.

6) Is this likely to be the definitive release of the film?

It pains me greatly to have to pay for something twice, so I generally like to get things right the first time. Obviously format changes make this a little difficult. Basically, if I’m on the fence about a particular release and I think a better edition will one day come along, I usually wait. An example that comes to mind are the cheap cardboard snap-case DVDs for Stanley Kubrick films. The movies are must-see, but I won’t own copies until they give him the high-quality treatment his films deserve (Blu-Ray, are you man enough for the task?).

Much of these principles can be reduced to the concept of getting value for your money and utility from the value. Before you buy a film you haven’t seen, do a little bit of research and make sure the odds are favorable that it’s worthwhile and see if you can view it first through a free/cheap resource.

My personal collection is a little odd because my stash is relatively lean (for a film-obsessed nerd of reasonable means) and tips towards my favorite categories: Czech New Wave, Italian horror, foreign arthouse, cult, sci-fi, noir. I still keep around VHS tapes when few other options exist (An Actor’s Revenge, Blood and Roses, My Twentieth Century, Phenix City Story, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Death Watch (1980) to name a few). For digital media I often insist on having subtitles, even for English language films. As for presentation, my movie collection is currently colorbatized (courtesy of Katie), since we reasoned that it increases browsing attractiveness for others and only mildly inconveniences us.

[Images: Previously, even the black and white DVDs were ordered by font color, but it only made things more confusing.]

Of course, everyone who collects movies will have their own guiding principles and preferences. Some will focus on genres, actors, directors, countries or time periods. Price may be no object or a deal breaker. Some people prefer box sets or collect multiple editions while others could care less about cases and like the minimal storage hassle of a disc album. I’ve met collectors who are more interested in the transfer quality or bonus materials than the actual movies and others who never watch any special features and don’t notice or care about sins as egregious as pan-and-scan.

Anyways, I’d love to hear about everyone else’s collections. Are there important factors in your purchasing decisions that I’ve left out? Do you have eccentric specializations or deep convictions about what should and should be on any self-respecting cinephile’s shelf? Do you have the world's largest collection? Let me know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

While it’s fair to call “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (1963) the first giallo, the genre didn’t really become internationally recognized until Dario Argento’s debut film “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1970). The film introduced many of the genres touchstones, like bold color highlights, art-decked set pieces, multiple red herrings and a creative twist ending. While its rougher around the edges than his later masterpieces (“Deep Red,” “Suspiria” and “Phenomena”), it’s still one of his best pictures.

The story follows Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) who are temporarily residing in Rome. One night Sam witnesses a fight taking place in an art gallery: a beautiful red-haired woman (Eva Renzi) is struggling with a black-clad knife-wielding killer. Trying to intercede, Sam find himself trapped between the entranceway’s inner and outer glass panes and he watches impotently as the woman collapses and the villain escapes. When the police arrive, they confiscate his passport, involuntarily forcing Sam to open his own investigation before he can go home.

Gialli, and thrillers in general, are known for plucky amateur sleuths who, despite no training and life-threatening circumstances, manage to solve cases that stymie entire police forces. Sam would be considered enthusiastic even within that tradition. He seems to find every new attempt on his life (or Julia’s) exciting and helpful; confirmation that he’s on the right track. He buys a creepy work of art that might be a clue and stares at it whenever he’s not trotting around jails and reclusive cottages conducting interviews.

A mark of a less-talented giallo director is that this travel/interview/investigation phase is often a hollow wild goose chase that treads water until the big showdown and shocking twist. In terms of the narrative progress, Argento is almost guilty, but he excels at making this stagnant phase unusually interesting.

One way he does this is with over-developed characters. These are minor characters that are given extreme quirks, outrageous personalities or elaborate backstories even though they will have little or no bearing on the plot. Examples here include a hermit artist who feeds the hero cat meat from his feline kennel and a kindly imprisoned pimp who overcomes his stutter by finishing sentences with “goodbye.”

Meanwhile, every relatively normal character is turned into a potential suspect, not just because of meaningful zoom shots. A series of clues are given at the beginning of the film, including a fiber from a gray English suit and the assailant’s smoking preference. From this point onward, almost every character will wear gray English suits and smoke. The red herrings are often unassuming, since Sam almost never mentions them out loud and the audience is left to catch them with only light emphasis.

[Image: One of many throw-away red herrings, in which Sam and Julia awkwardly make-out as their ornithologist friend smokes an incriminating cigar. Conveniently enough, the key clue involves a rare bird call.]

If Argento had pointed out these connections directly, everyone would have known they were red herrings. The subtly of this schema is perhaps best displayed by a moment when Sam throws the victim’s husband a cigarette box and he catches it left-handed. Mystery enthusiasts know to watch cigarette preferences and left/right-handedness like hawks as they’re virtually clue clichés, but these pieces of trivia turns out to be relevant in a way more likely to misdirect the viewer than to enlighten. Argento accepts that a lot of people will miss the game completely, but explanatory codas ensure that everyone comprehends the final reveal (in this case, a talky tv special literally spells it out for the audience).

Long before the giallo, Italy had a tradition of dubbing rather than using subtitles. Since this meant that quality writing and dialogue-heavy performances would inevitably suffer in foreign markets, it sent much of Italy’s film exports down market. Mysteries in the style of Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent, that are often based on solving cases through verbal cues, psychological traps and the Socratic method would be lost in translation.

Argento, like Bava before him, adapted to the problem by developing a highly visual presentation. This lent itself to an international audience whose appetite for gore and nudity was increasing, but also allowed for a rapid intensification of stylistics. This explains one cause for the heightened focus on over-the-top camerawork, fashion and set design. It also created a need for mysteries based around object clues rather than verbal slips and performance “tells.” Gialli often play this up in the titles that feature provocative adjective-noun clues from the plot like Crystal Plumage, Scorpion Tail, Black Lace, Bloody Iris, Bloodstained Shadow, etc.

[Image: Close-ups of eyes have become a horror film staple, often as a self-referential implication of the role voyeurism plays in films, fear and pleasure. Gialli are no exceptions.]

I’d speculate that the decreased reliance on dialogue also encouraged the rise of atmospheric soundtracks to fill the silence. Ennio Morricone worked on this film, for example and would help shape the mood on many other gialli to come. He established a tradition of horror music that saturates the action rather than simply accentuating the dramatic moments.

It also fits that protagonists in gialli are usually not private detectives or policemen called in to investigate, but first-hand witnesses to a crime. Argento established a popular system where the solution to the case hinges upon a detail from that first trigger event, often involving a reinterpretation of an image that the hero, and by extension the audience, already saw. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is a very clever example of this, while “Deep Red” takes it to the extreme.

This witness-hero convention has another advantage: if gives an excuse for the killer to mark the witness, who may have unknowingly seen the key to the killer’s identity, as his next target. In addition to providing an excuse for more action and tension, this makes use of a common horror film goal: to transform the observer (with the hero as a surrogate for the audience) into a participant. This can sometimes be predatory, as in villain POVs (what I call “stalker vision,” where the camera pushes through branches as it sneaks up on the oblivious victim), but it is more often a way to vicariously experience the fear of the victim.

Argento uses a particularly neat structure for effecting the observer-to-victim transformation. Sam is an unhappily passive observer during the first attack. The audience and their surrogate are frustratingly trapped outside, forced to watch the action with the detachment of window shopping. At the conclusion of the film, Sam and the killer will return to the same location, but this time Sam will be trapped under a heavy, spike-bristling sculpture as the killer threatens to stab him. It is almost as though he were reliving the first scene as the victim. “Suspiria” and many other Argento films follow this pattern.

So what else distinguishes an aesthetics-driven mystery from a traditional dialogue-driven one? Zooms, close-ups and fast-cut continuity editing were popular tools available to Italian directors for guiding the narrative and the attention of the viewer, but Argento’s genius lay in adopting other methods. Often, he relies simply on color. The fight that Sam witnesses near the start of the film, for instance, features a white set, a white-clad woman and a black-clad man. These colors help to influence our interpretation of the scene.

Another example is an assassination attempt on Sam featuring a killer in a bright yellow jacket. The jacket serves as a striking contrast during a nighttime chase through a parking lot filled with blue busses and helps the audience follow the action even in the dark. Argento then plays with our expectations as Sam turns the tables and uses the jacket to trail his attacker. The identifying feature is soon lost in a convention of auto mechanics all wearing the same jacket.

One explicit nod to the difference color makes is a painting that a previous victim purchased shortly before being murdered. Sam and Julia hang a black-and-white print of the picture on their wall because they believe, correctly, that the image has some bearing on the case. It does not end up helping their investigation, partly because their experience of viewing the picture is not as dramatic as the killer’s, who possesses the brightly colored original. Argento will use a graphic match from the BW print to the color painting as a way of cutting from Sam’s loft to the killer’s apartment.

There are some memorable set pieces in “Crystal Plumage,” too, and a lot of inspired props (like a candelabra stuck in shatterproof glass), but you get the idea. The visual-driven storytelling style can take many forms and stimulated a lot of groundbreaking creativity. Much of the distinctive styles of giallo directors can be thought of as a way of communicating to the audience beyond the unreliable intermediate of dubbed dialogue. It can also be seen in Martino’s fondness for letting the eyes do the talking, Ercoli’s way of defining a characters personality and feelings through outlandish clothing and Fulci ability to provoke gut reactions with zooms and in-your-face gore.

Walrus Rating: 8.0