Piercing (2019)

Piercing is A Strange Movie, both in pretension and in practice. It’s a tightly wound, carefully mannered character study that titillates with deadly violence & sexual kink for a purpose neither its creators nor its audience can ever quite fully figure out. If the overall goal of the film is to humorously parody the roleplay of adult kink scenarios through the societal manners of buttoned-up dramas from the past, it’s an effect that’s been archived much more convincingly in recent titles like Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy. If it’s simply trying to titillate & amuse voyeuristic onlookers with no further purpose, though, it’s living up to its full potential admirably. Sex & violence are entertaining enough on their own merits, whether or not they serve a greater purpose, and Piercing has plenty of fun with the shameless voyeurism & throwback genre payoffs its buttoned-up kink play parody affords it. It may be a little weird-for-weird’s sake, but it still at least passes for pleasant, playful entertainment – though not quite fun for the whole family.

Halfway between a giallo throwback and a snazzy Euro heist like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Twelve in an aesthetic sense, Piercing is largely a two-hander detailing the deranged sexual & violent impulses of two star-crossed combatants. Christopher Abbott stars as an uptight, sexually frustrated husband who plans to channel his violent resentment towards his wife & baby into murdering an anonymous sex worker with an ice pick. Mia Wasikowska costars as his potential victim – an S&M equipped prostitute who threatens to self-destruct before he has the chance to kill her himself. The film is constrained to stage play-scale settings & act structures as their mysterious, clashing plans play out to disastrous ends. Like all seasoned kinksters, the uptight murderous husband gets most of his thrills from planning & anticipating the act, only to find that reality doesn’t exactly match up with his fantasy. The prostitute proves to be a wild variable that chaotically derails his thoroughly detailed plans in the heat of the moment – perhaps to his own peril. As with Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy, the exact power dynamics of those two sly combatants become the central mystery of the story being told, as they conceal as much of their true selves as they can beneath a falsely calm, civil surface.

Your own appreciation of Piercing may depend on your appetite for these cheeky 70s genre throwbacks in general. If your patience was tested by High-Rise, Free Fire, or Hotel Artemis, for instance, there’s even less fun to be found here despite the allure of the sex & violence in the premise. Its genre nostalgia is blatant, expressed through VHS tape warping in its opening credits, Goblin needle-drops on its soundtrack, and its high-rise apartment exteriors being digitally constructed as impossible miniatures. Still, puzzling your way through the hidden motivations & strengths of its two leads can be wickedly fun. Is the wife giving her husband permission to murder this unsuspending sex worker or is that his auditory hallucination? Is he into auto-erotic asphyxiation or just practicing his choking skills? Is he going to stab his own baby with an ice pick or just having a lark? Watching the film yourself won’t provide any clearer answers to these questions that you could derive from reading this review. Questioning the intent, motivation, and meaning in this violent kink scenario is the entirety of the entrainment value offered here – whether or not it’s been achieved before in better, more meaningful works.

-Brandon Ledet

That’s So Ava!: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)’s Potential Second Life as a Multi-Cam Sitcom

There’s a certain crop of 90s art house films that I can never quite fully give into despite their consistently positive reputations. Titles like Clerks, Slacker, and Living in Oblivion are supposedly essential to the voice of a disaffected, laid back generation of arty farty types, but I often have a difficult time connecting with what they’re selling (possibly because they pretend not to be selling anything at all). Gen-X cinema often purported to be the laid back slacker counterpoint to the over-enthusiastic, grandiose generations that came before, but in actuality felt more try-hard & fresh out of art school than ever. The king of this I Don’t Care At All (But I Secretly Care Too Much) aesthetic is, in my mind, one Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s intentional art house pretension leads to some interesting moments that all too often get drowned out by the suffocating self-indulgence that surrounds them. There are some amazing small moments & images in Jarmsuch titles like Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, and Coffee & Cigarettes, but all three of those examples leave me so frustrated because they ultimately feel like wasted potential when considered in their fatally affected totality.

As much as I can be frustrated with Jarmusch’s overall product, I genuinely enjoy his sillier flourishes. Besides poking fun at his own self-serious mystique on the show Bored to Death & appearing as the “French fried potater” salesman in Sling Blade, the director always includes a flight of fancy or two in his works that catch my attention & delight me. Bill Murray serving diner food to the Wu Tang Clan, Steve Buscemi getting hung up on Lost in Space trivia, and (in my only pet favorite from the director’s catalog) Roberto Benigni annoying the piss out of Tom Waits are the kinds of breath-of-fresh-air moments of sublime humor that nearly save his work for me. Nearly. If Jarmusch dealt exclusively in broad, yuck-it-up comedy instead of using it to punctuate his more intellectual tendencies toward existential self-reflection I might even be willing to call myself a fan.

I waited as long as possible to catch up with Jarmusch’s most recent work, the vampiric existential crisis piece Only Lovers Left Alive, despite my burning fan worship of bonafide changeling Tilda Swinton (who was on fire that year, considering her work in Snowpiercer & Grand Budapest Hotel). Something about the film’s promo material struck me as a lowkey remake of The Hunger (I still don’t think I was entirely off-base there), which is one of those delicately immaculate cult films that probably should not be touched or even cautiously approached. Buried somewhere deep in the film’s ennui & self-pity, however, was one of those typical Jarmusch saving graces I’m prattling on about here. Mia Wasikowska, who has dazzled me before in titles like Crimson Peak & Maps to the Stars, absolutely steals the show in Only Lovers Left Alive. There’s some kind of self-important rock star cool at the heart of Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton’s titular vampiric lovers that honestly bores me to no end in the film, but Wasikowska’s wonderfully disruptive, chaotic presence brings the film, well, back from the dead with the minuscule screentime she’s allowed. Swinton’s matriarch vampire Eve (her vampy hubby’s name is Adam btw *puke*) is struggling with the tedium of centuries-long survival, but her younger, still-stoked sister Ava is a frivolous hoot. She consistently fucks up, wreaks havoc, and over-indulges like a spoiled brat, a behavioral pattern Adam indicates is habitual . . . which finally brings me to my pitch.

Imagine for a minute an alternate, preferable universe in which Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t a stuffy art house film about addiction or romantic ennui or whatever, but instead a multi-cam sitcom with a laugh track in which Wasikowska’s vampire brat Ava crashed the gloomy party every week in spectacular fashion. I want to go to there. Adam & Ava have an exquisitely balanced Odd Couple dynamic. His gloom & her glitz clash beautifully & hilariously, but aren’t given nearly enough screen time to fully play out. Fairly soon after Ava arrives from Los Angeles & burns Adam’s entire life to ground, he’s stuffing her into a cab so that he can pout & whither with Eve in Europe somewhere. Boring. It’s not fair to me as a trash-loving citizen of the movie-going audience. I demand more goofy, disastrous Ava antics, preferably delivered to my television set on a weekly basis with a laugh track prompting me on when to chuckle & slap my knee. Wasikowska delivers a stellar performance here as a bubbly (unintentional) antagonist brat & I could watch her do that shtick for at least 100 syndicated episodes of a formulaic sitcom.

Unfortunately, Wasikowska feels like she’s performing in an entirely different movie form everyone else (Amy Heckerling’s underrated gem Vamps, maybe?) and, although I understand the sentiment is far from universal, it’s a movie I’d much rather be watching. This film’s Gen-X aesthetic hangover just doesn’t do it for me the way an Ava vs. Adam sitcom would. I’m totally okay with how vapid that makes me sound; I just also wish that I had the funding to make the ultimate reality where we had a That’s So Ava! sitcom meld with our own. The world would be a much better place for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Crimson Peak’s Giallo Treats

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A lot has been made about the genre mashups to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s most recent foray into horror: Crimson Peak. As Erin mentioned in her review, the film boasts an oldschool horror vibe that longingly looks back to the infamous Hammer horror productions of the 50s & 60s, while also recalling the romantic parlor dramas & ghost stories of the Victorian era. Indeed, those points of reference are worn proudly on the film’s sleeve. It’s impossible to look at the ancient, spooky, castle-like haunts that plague the film’s three central characters (played by Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Waskowska) without conjuring thoughts of the Hammer horror style. The romantic, Victorian ghost story aesthetic is referenced by Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist directly (along with apt name-checks for Jane Austen & Mary Shelly for good measure) because she herself is writing one & submitting it for publication. Something I could not stop thinking about while I was watching Crimson Peak, however, (and I’m sure I’m far from alone) was the stylistic influences of the Italian giallo genre of the 1960s & 70s, particularly the work of Dario Argento & Mario Bava.

While the narrative of Crimson Peak is much more closely related to the Hammer horror classics & Victorian ghost stories mentioned, the film’s visual palette & style-over-substance mentality are deeply rooted in giallo. I’m not talking the traditional murder mystery giallo films where the genre gets its name (though there certainly is a good bit of that), such as Bava’s Blood & Black Lace, but more of the spooky witchery in works that came later, like in Argento’s Suspiria. The most easily recognizable giallo element at work in Crimson Peak is the film’s lighting. Stark red, blue, green, and yellow lights clash in the film’s internal spaces as if Bava himself were alive & running del Toro’s lighting on set. Also present is Argento & Bava’s love of a gleaming straight razor just begging to slit a throat, as well as a masked, gloved, mostly offscreen killer shrouded in black-clad secrecy until the last-minute reveal. The giallo influences get more specific from there– be they the creepy dolls from Deep Red, Phenomena‘s fascination with close-up shots of insects, or the image of characters spying through keyholes, which is so prevalent in giallo that it appears in two of the genre’s recent pastiche tributes: Amer & The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

What’s most striking about Crimson Peak‘s giallo heritage, though, is just as elementary as the Mario Bava lighting, but also important enough to be referenced in the film’s title: blood. There is a ludicrous amount of blood in this film. Just ridiculous. It flows from the sink & the bathtub faucet. It seeps through the floorboards & runs down the walls. Characters cry blood. They cough it up. Snow is blood-red in Crimson Peak, as are the film’s beautiful CGI ghosts. I should mention here that most of this “blood” is actually the red clay that rests below the trio of central characters’ haunted household. The effect is, of course, intentional, allowing del Toro to fill the frame with absurd amounts of a thick, blood-red substance (stored even in gigantic bloody vats in the house’s basement/workroom), without relying on a supernatural source for it. It can be no mistake either that the film’s blood-red clay is much more akin to the vibrant hue you’d see in an acrylic paint or a ripe tomato. Giallo films were particularly fond of this cartooonish style of stage blood as well, tending to shy away from the more brownish hues of the real stuff.

So, if you happen to have any buddies out there who are huge giallo nerds & haven’t yet shown an interest in Crimson Peak (is that possible?) it might be worthwhile to shoot them a recommendation. The film’s tendency to value visual style over narrative substance should fit in snugly with their tastes, as should its over-the-top lighting & untold gallons of crimson blood. Of course, the film will play even better if these hypothetical giallo nerds also have a taste for Hammer horror & Victorian ghost stories. I’m sure there’s a great deal of overlap on that Venn diagram & the movie will eventually find a sizeable cult following, even if it currently isn’t doing so hot at the box office. It genuinely deserves it, if nothing else, just based on its visual accomplishments alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Crimson Peak (2015)

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fourhalfstar

Crimson Peak is luscious, extravagant, and terrible – a perfectly gothic Gothic Horror. Guillermo del Toro makes another entry into his visually stunning filmography, providing a richness and grotesqueness in both storytelling and cinematography.

I really appreciate that Crimson Peak is a classic Gothic Horror, with the storyline sticking closely to the standard tropes of the genre – isolation, bloody histories, unnatural relationships, menacing architecture, Victorians, obvious symbolism, endangered virgins, things that gibber and chitter in the night, etc.  Del Toro makes references to the Hammer Horror aesthetic, appropriate for a movie with such an overstated sense of dramatic Victorian style (although, to be fair, the Victorians were really dramatic to begin with).

The plot is not complicated or particularly innovative, but the storytelling is superb and the style is to die for.  Crimson Peak is perfectly dark and creepy, with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain delivering a wonderful combination of passion, tension, and insanity.  Del Toro knows how to keep the audience horrified and engaged, and he continues to exercise his use of obscenely rich visuals.

I’d recommend Crimson Peak to anyone looking for Halloween movie.  It’s not a slasher movie or a suspense drama, but it’s terribly good fun.

-Erin Kinchen