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Review: Kill, Baby…Kill!

The conflict between modern medicine and superstition lends the film a striking moral urgency.

4.0

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Kill, Baby…Kill!
Photo: Kino Lorber

Martin Scorsese’s impassioned voyage through Italian cinema, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy), played major lip service to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. The lack of discussion regarding the films of Mario Bava would suggest that Italy’s most revered giallo director had little or no influence on Scorsese. (On the contrary, not only have people pointed out connections between Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill! and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and, more explicitly, between The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Cape Fear, but Scorsese writes the introduction to Tim Lucas’s new book on Bava, All the Colors of the Dark.) But perhaps this blind spot can more accurately be blamed on the pervasive belief that horror films are inferior to most genres of film and therefore unworthy of serious critical thought.

Mario Bava was born on July 31, 1914 in San Reno, Italy. His father was Eugenio Bava, a famous sculptor, set designer and cinematographer who worked prominently in the days of Italian silent cinema. (Curiously, two of Eugenio’s three credited works as photographer, Cabiria and Quo Vadis?, feature prominently in Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy.) Around the time Eugenio went to work as director of optical effects at the Istituto LUCE in 1926, Mario frequently worked as his father’s assistant. Early on, the budding director made a name for himself with his collaborations as a cinematographer with Robert Z. Leonard (Beautiful But Dangerous), Roberto Rossellini, G. W. Pabst, Jacques Tourneur and Raoul Walsh. Bava directed a series of small documentaries in the late ‘40s and later helped save two Riccardo Freda productions, 1957’s I Vampiri and 1959’s Caltiki il mostro immortale (Caltiki the Immortal Monster), before directing his first film, 1960’s now-classic La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday).

In 1962, Bava directed The Girl Who Knew Too Much, considered by some to be the origin of the giallo. In her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Maitland McDonagh notes that Bava’s gialli all seem to lack a “peculiarity present in Argento’s mature work.” But this peculiarity is noticeably present in Bava’s more fetish-driven masterworks (namely The Whip and the Body), which are often dismissed as campy affairs by hardcore fans of Bava’s more popular gialli (in addition to The Girl Who Knew Too Much, there’s Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for a Honeymoon, Five Dolls for an August Moon, and Twitch of the Death Nerve). 1966’s Kill, Baby…Kill! (also known as Operation Fear) is arguably Bava’s greatest achievement, a coolly unnerving and aggressively stylized tale of ghostly obsession that appeals both to fans of Bava’s whodunnit gialli and his more psycho-sexual jaunts.

In a nameless European city in the early 1900s, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives to perform an autopsy on a woman who bled to death under mysterious circumstances. With the help of the sexy Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc), Paul stumbles across the mystery of ball-bouncing Melissa Graps, an eight-year-old girl who was trampled by horses during a festival in 1887 and now haunts the townspeople by driving them to suicide should they glance at her ghost. When Paul’s scientific reasoning fails him, it’s local sorceress Ruth (Fabienne Dali) to the rescue. “Why do they call you as if you are practicing medicine?” he asks her. After infiltrating the mansion of Melissa’s reclusive mother, Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi), Ruth inexplicably ascertains that the old woman has been killing the townspeople and merely using the memory of her daughter as a not-so-elaborate cover-up.

Paul doesn’t make for a very interesting or complex protagonist per se, but his blank-faced naïveté does bring to mind David Hemmings’s weakling protagonist from Argento’s masterpiece Deep Red. Both men scoff at the idea of woman in positions of authority: Dali’s all-powerful witch and Blanc’s student of medicine in Kill, Baby…Kill!, and Daria Nicolodi’s overzealous reporter in Argento’s film. Because both films disclose their killers as females, perhaps Bava and Argento mean for their last-act revelations to be taken as deadening blows to the male ego. Paul condescends to the superstitions of the film’s townspeople and is blamed for the death of the young Nadienne (Micaela Esdra) after he scoffs at Ruth’s bleeding rituals as a means of preventing the girl’s death; soon after he imposes his medicine on the girl, Nadienne is seduced by Melissa’s ghost into impaling herself against a deliriously portentous iron object that hangs from her bedroom wall.

This conflict between modern medicine and superstition lends Kill, Baby…Kill! a moral urgency that’s noticeably absent from some other films in Bava’s canon. Far more savory, though, is Bava’s dizzying mise-en-scène. Some have curiously identified an underlying Oedipal trajectory in the film but there’s no mistaking the Escher-like warping of time and space, none more famous than Paul’s repetitive, seemingly endless trip through the same room in Baroness Graps’s mansion (the scene informs a similar sequence in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). In Kill, Baby…Kill!, Bava evokes Melissa’s ghost rocking back and forth on a swing inside a graveyard by allowing his camera to take on the point of view of the swing itself. Bava’s violent use of zoom shots was often criticized but, more times than not, this technique only served to emphasize the already-disorienting nature of his films.

There’s an overwhelming sense here that the horror that plagues the film’s characters is a response or manifestation of their fears and deepest desires. The film’s aggressively baroque exteriors are often in sharp contrast with the spare, almost Brechtian interiors. Because Bava meant to create a strange dialectic between a hallucinatory, pastoral exterior and a deceptively sterile interior, there’s a heavy emphasis on doors and windows closing on their own or blocking Melissa’s passage between worlds. The girl’s gaze, though, is unavoidable, as is her bouncing ball, which has a way of defying space and teasing the film’s characters, even in death. (Another point of reference: Guillermo del Toro would rework the film’s infamous shot of Melissa peering through a window at Nadienne for El Espinazo del Diablo.)

Equally baroque (or maybe trashily succinct?) is the film’s dialogue. Anyone remotely familiar with Italian horror films has learned to accept their requisite English dubbing as part of the overall package. Erika Blanc’s lines are an artifice all their own (not to mention Carlo Rustichelli’s trippy, quintessentially Italian-lounge score). Who knows who dubbed her English lines, but the voice-over artist’s performance is a work of tongue-in-cheek genius. “Something in this town is supernatural. Tell me, why did they abandon the church? I’m scared, I almost think the devil’s here,” she moans in near-rhyme as Blanc clings to Rossi-Stuart’s Paul. Luchino Visconti purportedly led a standing ovation of the film at its Italian premiere. Indeed, what with all its violent explosions of colors and labyrinthine, almost-monochromatic alleyways seething with expressionistic shadow-play, Kill, Baby…Kill! often plays out like Bava’s answer to Visconti’s equally artificial, sensuous, and deliriously campy Senso.

Cast: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dali, Piero Lulli, Luciano Catenacci, Micaela Esdra, Franca Dominici, Giuseppe Addobbati, Mirella Pamphili, Valerio Valeri, Giana Vivaldi Director: Mario Bava Screenwriter: Mario Bava, Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale Distributor: Europix Consolidated Corp. Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG Year: 1966 Buy: Video

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Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.

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The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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