Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2004-2005)

15. The Card Player
Il cartaio

“The Card Player” isn’t a terrible film but is very listless. If it wasn’t for a key factor, I suspect it would’ve fallen apart completely. The movie starts with a striking opening sequence, one shot with light blues that has a nice Argento feel. Immediately afterwards, the plot gets rolling. These are good things.

Soon afterwards, the seams begin to show. First off, the film is badly dubbed. The lips match up but the voices sound like something out of an old AIP dub. Secondly, the biggest issue of the movie is that far too much of it is composed of people sitting around and watching/playing virtual poker. Which is boring, even if you like on-line poker, and even more so if you have no experience or understanding of the game. (*Points to self.*) Cards get clicked on, the intentionally, I hope, cheesy graphics flash, and we see a close-up of the struggling girl’s face. This repeats at least three times. So the major device of the film comes off as boring, which is perhaps why the overall film feels so half-hearted.

Another problem is the almost complete lack of blood. We see the box cutter waved in front of the camera and then the girl goes limp. Why, Dario? Why are you, of all the filmmakers in the world, holding back on the gore? The goriest sequences are all postmortem examination of bodies, which certainly don’t have the intensity you associate with Argento.

Simonetti brings in another score but even it is off balanced. The main theme is pretty decent but far too much of the music sounds like bad Europop techno. Some computer sounds are incorporated in, which only reinforces the cheesy feel.

The story also has issues. There’s a pretty big plot revelation towards the end of the film that makes very little sense. Spoiler alert: How can the murders be pre-recorded? How would the killer know if he would win the game or not? How do you account for the scene where the girl escapes? It’s sloppy writing and just doesn’t make any sense. The movie is paced like an old seventies cop show, which drags the entire flick down.

Chief among the few things that make the film work at all are the main two actors. Stefania Rocca gives a very good performance. She has an enchanting charm that makes her a joy to watch. Even that is somewhat spoiled by her character’s background, concerning her father’s past, that mostly comes out of nowhere and is brought up messily near the end. Liam Cunningham as the male lead is also good. His arc as an alcoholic cop is clichéd but the actor does decently with the material he’s given. The final fate of that character is also one of the standout scenes in the film. The two actor’s romantic subplot isn’t one of the great romantic subplots in Argento’s film but it does work. I also like the singing, dancing coroner. The scene where Stefania is assaulted in her home generates some suspense as does the climatic moments on the train tracks. And, if nothing else, Argento continues the tradition of his killers getting cool deaths themselves.

The reveal of said killer is clumsy and the very last scene is completely confusing and arbitrary. “The Card Player” feels lifeless and awkward. It’s just a really off day for the director... One that’s been on-going for about a decade now, I guess. [Grade: C]

16. Do You Like Hitchcock?
Ti piace Hitchcock?

How big of an influence on Argento is Hitchcock, really? Yes, both directors share a similar love and fascination for voyeurism. And “Psycho” was undoubtedly a huge influence on Argento’s career, but you could really say that for every horror director of the last three decades. Argento’s sensibility have always seem far more European to me, influenced more by the surrealism of the sixties' New Wave. The most obvious Hitchcockian element to Argento’s film is the use (overuse?) of the sweeping steady-cam and other inventive camera angles, something that could just as much be attribute to any other number of directors.

But, whatever, anyway, Dario made a straight-up homage to Alfred Hitchcock. (Or he made a Brian DePalma movie. Zing!) The movie name drops “Strangers on a Train” and “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” gratuitously, while also liberally referencing “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” and “Family Plot.” In a way the movie is less in the style of Hitchcock and more uses his films as plot elements.

The best thing about “Do You Like Hitchcock?” is how much it feels like Argento. Yes, it’s shot on the same digital film stock as his last few films and lacks the body and deep colors of classic film stock. However, Argento seems to be actively striving to reclaim his classic style, the intimate intensity. He doesn’t completely succeed but you can tell that he’s at least trying.

The attack on Sasha’s mother is the best example. Its focus on blood on a window reminds me a great deal of “Susipria” and its opening moments. The bright red blood doesn’t look as good on this film stock. While the movie is surprisingly free of “Psycho” references, the moment Giulio is attacked in the bathtub is another highlight of the film.

Another Argento trademark, aside from the rickety old elevator (which, sadly, no one is decapitated in), is the romantic subplot that drives much of the action of the film. I swear, if it wasn’t for all the murder and evisceration, Argento would’ve made a pretty decent romantic comedy director. Elio Germano and Chirara Conit do have pretty good chemistry, even if the gap between hotness of girlfriend and boyfriend is pretty wide. Elio Germano’s nerdiness does get in the way a few times, but I say it’s a good performance. Elisabetta Rocchetti and Cristina Rocchetti exist more as eye-candy then anything else… Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyone else notice that Argento is seriously becoming a dirty old man? An early sex scene almost feels like something out of some softcore skin flick. And, to think, this was actually made for Italian television.

The opening flashback sequence has little to do with the rest of the movie but I like it. It feels like a very personal moment from Argento, like something he himself could have experienced as a child. The direction is fairly subtle, with a number of close-ups being the main flamboyances. Pino Donaggio’s score is a little overdone at times but appropriately Herman-esque.

“Do You Like Hitchcock?” is far from a great film but it does represent something of a return to form for Argento. It’s more satisfying then most of his disappointing recent output. [Grade: B-]

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