Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Spring, or: Squid Game

At last, a thoroughly appropriate pick to round out this month’s spring theme. Maybe a little too on the nose, this week’s film is…Spring. And it’s also the last film of the month where we’ve finally gotten the hang of the theme thing. As usual, I have no regrets about our consistently creative interpretations. Which I’m pretty sure our film’s protagonists would support.

The Film:



Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

The Premise:

With no ties keeping him in the States, a young man travels to Italy and is intrigued by a woman with a twisted secret.

The Ramble:

Following the death of his mother and last living family member to cancer, Evan finds himself alone, unhappy personally and professionally. After a stranger picks a fight with him at the bar where he works, Evan seems on a perpetual downward spiral. Losing his job and worried the cops or the stranger will come after him, Evan decides to make use of his neglected passport and travel the world. And where do white people want to go if not Italy?

Meeting a couple of drunken Brits on his first night abroad, Evan impulsively joins them on their drive along the coast. Honestly, I got very sidetracked by my anxiety about Evan’s complete absence of a vacation plan at this point, but I powered through it. While in a small coastal town, Evan locks eyes with a gorgeous woman in a red dress and takes it as something of a sign when he encounters her again.

Working up the nerve to ask the woman, Louise, on a date, Evan is invited back to her place as she explains she doesn’t date. Evan’s too intrigued just to hook up and never see her again; when the Brits decide to move on, Evan hangs around, responding to a sign offering a room in exchange for farm work. Shockingly, the elderly farmer living alone in the Italian countryside doesn’t give off serial murderer vibes.

When Evan runs into Louise again, he asks one more time for a date, and the two end up spending the day together exploring a museum and enjoying the fresh air. Louise is a student of evolutionary genetics and knows a suspicious amount about fertility scenes in ancient art, but that doesn’t seem like a deal breaker…right?

After the two spend a night together, strange things happen to Louise’s appearance, and dead things begin turning up around the town. Catching Louise injecting herself with needles, Evan becomes concerned she’s using drugs…though the truth turns out to be much more troubling. As Evan falls for Louise, it’s clear she’s holding onto a major secret. How much longer can Evan continue to lead his Italian fantasy life?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Though I do think some of the earlier scenes involving Evan’s life in the States are unnecessary & mopey, the build-up to our twist works so well. There’s seriously so much of the film dedicated to establishing what a nice guy Evan is, and honestly he’s pretty bland and boring.

I’m impressed with how many genres this film pulls from and manages to blend them together fairly seamlessly. As is well established on the Collab, romantic films are never our top pick, but the romance works well here. While the twist is very much classic horror, its dramatic revelation doesn’t go in the direction I expected. There are some surprisingly funny observations (Louise and Evan dissecting classic art is a favorite for me) and quite a few more philosophical discussion than I’d associate with horror (or romance for that matter). We’re considering the breezy questions only; what does it mean to live, to die, to be successful?

Would my blog wife appreciate Italian sunsets with this one or make it into calamari? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Classic Horror Story, or: Nailed It

*Spoilers follow*

Something about this month feels right for horror. And here’s a degree of separation from last week’s film: ritual sacrifice in a pastoral setting, connected by Nicolas Cage. Last week’s film featured Italian-American Cage fighting animatronics possessed by Satanic serial killers; this week stars Italian actors terrorized by cult members that owe much of their existence to 2006’s modern classic Wicker Man.

Sorry–no bear costumes in this one.

The Film:

A Classic Horror Story

The Premise:

While traveling to southern Italy, a group of strangers is stranded in the woods where a cult engages in ritual human sacrifice.

The Ramble:

Take a ride share through the Italian countryside, they said. It’s a budget-friendly alternative to renting a car that offers more convenience than public transit, they said. And obviously traveling across a remote landscape with a handful of strangers and poor cell phone reception will never take a sinister turn.

A group of four people stands in a dark room, looking with dread at the scene before them.

For our crew of 5 on the road, it’s clear from the beginning that a fairly straightforward journey to southern Italy will not end as anticipated. All have different reasons for traveling, and some are more eager than others to spill the details. Young couple Sofia and Mark are off to attend a friend’s wedding, while reserved Elisa is visiting her parents (who have pressured her into having an abortion). Another elusive passenger, Dr. Riccardo, seems to have little patience for his fellow travelers. And driver Fabrizio is an aspiring filmmaker cheerfully recording the journey.

Impatient with the cautious driving of Fabrizio, cocky Mark decides to take the wheel of the RV. Late at night, he fails to notice a dead goat lying in the middle of the road. Fabrizio takes the wheel, swerving to avoid the animal, though this plants the vehicle firmly in the center of a tree trunk. Both Fabrizio and Mark blame each other for the accident, in which Mark is injured and requires medical care. Luckily, there’s a doctor in the house. Unluckily, no one is getting any cell reception whatsoever.

As the crew wanders in search of help, they find a creepy, isolated cabin in the woods. Of course they do. Uncovering more ominous signs like a sacrificial site complete with decapitated pig heads, taxidermy animals, and antique photographs of people wearing animal heads, it becomes increasingly clear that the group has stumbled upon a murder cult rivaling that of Lord Summerisle.

A figure wearing a grotesque mask with an oversized tongue holds up a jar. On either side of the figure are two people tied to wooden stakes.

Fabrizio, self-appointed nerd of the gang, explains the symbolism of the three brothers depicted: Osso, Mastrosso, and Carcagnosso. Legend has it these figures came from another world, promising starving people hope…but at the cost of sacrifice. In ritual sacrifice, victims would have their tongue, ears, and eyes cut before their deaths because, you know, the legend.

As everyone is getting properly freaked out, the 5 discover a young girl in a wooden structure, her tongue having been cut out. When they free the girl, one of the group is caught by several cult members and becomes the first to undergo the gruesome ritual. While the survivors attempt to escape, they merely find evidence that [in the voice of Six from Battlestar Galactica]: “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”

Two young women and a girl lie on a wooden floor, bathed in the soft light of a lantern on the ground between them.

As the RV has disappeared, the group has little choice but to spend the night in the creepy cabin. While it seems they will have each other’s back as they stand guard, Elisa wakes in horror to discover several of the party in the beginning stages of the ritual sacrifice. Even more disturbing is the conspiracy that begins to unfold as Elisa connects the gory dots. Could it be that (gasp) not all is what it seems in the land of cult murder and taxidermy headwear?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Okay, there are a lot of gaps in logic here that you have to be comfortable with. This film opens up more questions than it’s willing to answer with its major twist, and this isn’t entirely rewarding. Like one of our leading characters, it has a certain smug satisfaction with the proceedings, which can be downright irksome.

Overall, though, I can’t deny that this is a lot of fun to watch. There are very clear references to Evil Dead, Midsommar, Wicker Man, and more than I can remember at this point. For the most part, the balance of comedy and gore works. I also very much enjoy the commentary on the cutthroat nature of the film industry; the events of the story occur largely because a failed director has powerful connections that allow him to live out his fantasy.

Some of it falls apart here, though, as there’s too much snide social commentary thrown in at the end. We’ve got your attention economy, corrupt government, mafia, and social media boxes all checked off. The messaging about abortion is confusing too; I wouldn’t say this is necessarily an anti-abortion film, but the tone is…odd. Elisa apparently doesn’t have a strong interest in the path her parents envision for her, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what exactly any of her interests are and how that relates to what she ultimately decides.

Credit where credit’s due: this film did more to promote an anti-bullying message than Melania ever did.

Would my blog wife chauffeur this one through the woods or cut off its ears without hesitation? Read her review to find out!

men in a recording studio look dissatisfied
Collaborative Blogging

Berberian Sound Studio, or: The Equestrian Vortex

Another week, another disturbing exploration of the depths of human depravity.  And for once I’m not talking about the election.

The Film:

Berberian Sound Studio

The Premise (I love the Wikipedia summary for this):

British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Berberian film studio in Italy to work on what he believes is a film about horses.

The Uncondensed Version:

Our somewhat surreal film begins as Gilderoy arrives in Italy to work on the sound effects for an Italian movie, The Equestrian Vortex.  After checking in at the recording studio, hejust wants reimbursement for his plane ticket, but fails to get a clear answer about which department handles that.  Worse news is that no one seems to have received a paycheck for months.  He’s even more confused as everyone speaks Italian around him in both reality and in the film he’s working on.

Contrary to what the title leads him to believe, this is not a nice movie about horses, but a horror.  (Can I just say Equestrian Vortex would be a great horror movie that could be the next Sharknado?)  Of course, the director claims it’s not a horror and is extremely offended at the mere suggestion.  But it’s horror.

The director, Santini, is rather easygoing and constantly smiling, hiding something sinister as it turns out.  The man determined to finish the film and put in the work is the producer, who is not an especially charming boss.  Perhaps the only reasonably nice character in all of this is Silvia, one of the actresses.  She does provide several ominous warnings to Gilderoy, who of course ignores them.

a man adjusts a microphone in a recording booth
“Hillary and Obama stole my microphone and took it to Kenya and now it’s broken.”

I still don’t understand what the equestrian vortex is, but the gist of the film is that witches have risen from the grave to torture and kill girls at a riding school.  At one point, the girls find the witches’ decaying bodies in the poultry tunnel, which I don’t understand outside of a slaughterhouse context.

To create the sound effects, there is so much screaming.  So.  Much.  Screaming.  We also see vegetables being dropped, melons chopped, juice blended—it’s not good to be produce in this film.  It’s actually quite fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at film sound effects.  I can’t think of any other movies about movies that focus so much on sound.

a man in a recording studio stands behind a table full of lettuce heads
So many heads of lettuce had to die to make this movie.

The increasingly disturbing plot of the film Gilderoy is working on parallels his frustration and mistreatment.  He very much wants to quit, especially as Santini emphatically declares he hates the exploitation of women in his film but must tell the story.  What a crock.  The highly artistic and intellectual film requires the witches to be stabbed, drowned, and stuck in the vagina with a red hot poker.

There’s also an extremely odd scene in which Santini feeds Gilderoy a grape and tells him to swallow the seed.  Er…?

a man puts his arm around another man in a dimly lit room
Trust me, there’s absolutely no subtext involved with this scene.

Gilderoy becomes very disturbed by screaming/crying sounds he hears at night.  He finds Silvia one night, who warns him about Santini, and reveals that he harassed and sexually assaulted her on set.  Finally fed up, she promises to destroy what he loves most and show him the real meaning of a curse.

It gets more surreal from here, and I don’t want to ruin the plot completely, most of which happens in the last 15 or so minutes of the film anyway.  One of the big questions of this movie is can you create exploitative art without yourself becoming exploitative?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is pretty light on plot, but extremely atmospheric.  There’s a mood of anxiety and confusion that becomes increasingly present as the film goes on, as well as a number of WTF scenes.  As soon as Silvia reveals the director’s harassment, the film begins to make a bit more sense–at least in one interpretation.

There is so much screaming in this film, which is so uncomfortable but which all of our characters become virtually immune to.  The “Silenzio” flashes in red repeatedly during recording, but it also serves as a reminder to the cast and crew to shut up and stop complaining.  This works when thinking about the women harassed in this movie and could more broadly speak to the film industry as a whole.

I am still scratching my head over some of the scenes in this movie (including a short film about the South Downs), and biggest complain is I hoped there was going to be an actual witch and really wanted Silvia to put an actual curse on some dudes.

Would Christa ride this one through an equestrian vortex or smash it like a melon creating a murder sound effect?  Find out by reading her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

It’s a Hard Knox Life

Another week, another terrible made for TV movie. I’ll be honest, I think Lovestruck: The Musical deserves a boatload of Emmys in comparison to this week’s film (sorry, Christa, but it’s true!). See Christa’s thoughts on this week’s pick here!

The Film:

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy

The Premise:

Guys. Read the title. This is a Lifetime original movie about the Amanda Knox trial. For murder. In Italy.

The Trailer:

The Uncondensed Version:

Since it’s a Lifetime movie based on a true story, we’ve got our news clips, we’ve got our gorgeous Italian countryside, and we’ve got our Hayden Panettiere with brownish hair and a super hipster-y Italian boyfriend.

a young woman stands next to a man who is wearing a large yellow scarf as they face a police officer
I’m wearing this scarf ironically.

The police arrive at the house Amanda shares with three other students after finding her roommate Meredith’s cellphone.

When the police open the door to Amanda/Meredith’s room, they find Meredith’s body on the floor covered with a blanket. As you probably know since this trial was everywhere, Amanda and Raffaele are about to spend years in prison after being implicated for Meredith’s murder.

However, just two months earlier in Seattle, Amanda is a too cheerful barista who is excited to study abroad in Italy. Her family is throwing her a nice normal going away party, and her sister visits after a few weeks. Amanda advises her sister that in Italy “Everything’s illegal and nothing’s forbidden.” Whoa, Amanda.

Around this time, Amanda moves in with the three students, including Meredith, who is super serious and British and studying all the time. Amanda, on the other hand, is busy picking up Italian Steve Jobs. Their first date basically consists of Raffaele sitting next to Amanda after they make sexy eyes for an extended period, Amanda feeding him a chocolate strawberry, and riding a carousel. He does make risotto, though, thus earning major points on the potential boyfriend front. They bond over having divorced parents and being former victims of bullying in school.

a woman gestures to another young woman as they stand next to a stone wall
This was just not the world’s most screen cap-able movie.

Later, Meredith and Amanda have a minor fight b/c Amanda is apparently a slob. This is going to come back to haunt Amanda, along with her strange/apparently indecent behavior in the wake of the murder: PDAs with her boyfriend, doing cartwheels while at the police station, and going lingerie shopping. Also it’s not great to have the nickname “Foxy Knoxy” when the police are investigating a possible rape and murder.

people gathered in a courthouse all stand and face the judges underneath a large dome depicting figures that represent justice
This is the most beautiful court house I’ve ever seen, though.

Okay, I’m going to skip to the end because seriously, the rest of the movie just goes through virtually every detail of the trial that you can read about in a Newsweek article or…Wikipedia.

For whatever bullshit reason, Amanda receives a 26-year sentence, while Raffaele gets 25.

And, as we know, the conviction goes through all kinds of legal mumbo jumbo before the two are acquitted.

The Critique:

Honestly, it’s really hard to be sarcastic about this movie. I was expecting it to be way more melodramatic or at least involve a crazy conspiracy theory. But noooooooooooooo, Lifetime decided to stick to the facts for once, which makes it really difficult to snark about without being a total asshole.

I did get a bit emotional at the end, but I attribute that to recently binge-watching season 2 of Broadchurch, which is just a sucker punch for the soul. (Coincidentally, Sucker Punch for the Soul was the less successful follow-up series to the Chicken Soup for the Soul books.)

The Rating:

Small Pink PantherSmall Pink PantherSmall Pink Panther 3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I expect more of you, Lifetime. Or possibly less?

Either way, check out Christa’s post here!

Book Reviews

Book Review: Church of Marvels

I don’t usually do book reviews (bad librarian) because if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it, while if I LOVE a book, I find it difficult to be snarky. Snark-less is not a status I’m particularly comfortable with; however, I’m willing to power through it so I can tell you how much I love love LOVE Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels. (But please note that since this is Leslie Parry’s first novel, I’m basically obligated to despise her at least a little bit.)

cover art for the book Church of Marvels

Just last month you could have quoted me as saying “The novel is dead” (you can seriously start throwing rocks at me any time and I won’t blame you at all; I got a huge eye roll from my mom for those words of wisdom). I need novels to be engaging, the characters believable, and the prose beautiful. I’m not opposed to genre fiction, but soooooooooooo much of it seems to be writers plugging different names into the same plot (this conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro is the most perfect article about genre I’ve ever read: Anyway, my point is, I’m looking for a long-term commitment with a novel. I want to think about it for a long time after I’ve read it, what it means, which were my favorite parts. This book? Check, check, and check.

I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll keep plot details brief. There are three intersecting stories: that of Odile, a former carny trying to find her twin sister after losing almost everything in a fire; Sylvan, a night-soiler searching for the origins of a baby he finds while shoveling shit (really); and Alphie, a woman locked in an asylum because of her overbearing Italian mother-in-law. The only complaint I have with these three characters is that Sylvan is at times way too nice/likeable to be believed, but maybe that’s just my cynicism speaking.

The secondary characters are excellent. I DARE you to tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if you met the Signora in a dark alley. Though she is dead before the book begins, the mother of Odile and her sister Belle, Friendship Willingbird Church, is in the running for biggest badass in literature (also best name). Case in point:

“My mother was fearsome and beautiful, the impresario of the sideshow; she brought me and my sister up on sawdust, greasepaint, and applause. Her name—known throughout the music halls and traveling tent shows of America—was Friendship Willingbird Church. She was born to a clan of miners in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but ran away from home when her older brother was killed at Antietam. She cut off her hair, joined the infantry, and saw her first battle at the age of fourteen. In the tent at night, she buried her face in the gunnysack pillow and wept bitterly thinking of him, hungry for revenge.”

There are more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. This is basically the modern, feminist version of Dickens; I kept thinking of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, though that’s not really a perfect comparison. One of the characters collects teeth. TEETH. That’s straight-up a page out of Miss Havisham’s book. At a certain point, you’ll get to a major plot twist and everything will make so much more sense.   There were several plot twists which made me re-read the paragraph multiple times because I was thinking, “Fuck, does that mean what I think it means? Wait, really? How did I miss that???”

Most of the novel takes place in the seedy underbelly of turn-of-the-century NYC (thank CHRIST b/c I’m really tired of hearing about rich people, Downton Abbey), but all of it is described with completely lovely prose. There is a brothel located at the end of a giant whale skeleton. And consider how beautiful this description of tigers being burned ALIVE is:

“The tigers were the first living things she saw. They were galloping down toward the shore, their great legs springing through the sand, cloaks of flame rising from their backs. She waited for them to howl, but they were silent. She didn’t even hear the sound of waves breaking over their bodies as they thrashed blindly into the sea.”

It’s seriously been AT LEAST a year since I’ve read a book I liked this much, the last one I can recall being Octavia Butler’s Kindred (don’t talk to me about Fledgling, though). There’s some fantastic exploration of identity and disguises and healing. But you don’t have to take my word for it…because this novel speaks for itself:

“His early life, he thought, was like the slow flip of photographs: the images were too sparse and sporadic to make any sense together, but each was so vivid that whenever one flickered to his mind, he was startled by its intensity. How could certain visions like these remain so luminous, and yet he had no recollection at all of what had come before or after?”

Please read this book so I can freak out (further) about it.