Every month, Establishing Shot brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Chris Forrester, contributor | Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
My condolences to Todd Haynes’s May December, which I called in my review (and still believe it to be) “the finest American film of the year” but has been overshadowed in my mind by Martin Scorsese’s towering behemoth of a historical epic, Killers of the Flower Moon. Working in, but also critiquing and reshaping, the genre that made him, here the Great American Filmmaker rethinks his approach to both his religious epics (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence) and sprawling documentations of American greed (Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street), merging them around a bleak-as-hell portrait of a poisonous marriage that largely eschews the intensely palatable seductiveness of his most beloved work in favor of a deliberately unsuspenseful bluntness that heightens the story’s ugliness and tragedy.
As if that’s not enough, Scorsese also reckons with cinema’s relationship to and documentation of historical atrocity, by way of newsreel clips, makeshift “home video” footage, and a formally/conceptually exciting finale that’s unlike anything he’s ever attempted before, as if in acknowledgment of the film and his, its maker’s, inherent perspective limitations. Killers of the Flower Moon is not just a necessary reckoning with an ugly and largely forgotten chapter of (recent!) American history, but a plea to reconsider the terms on which such reckonings get to happen — who makes them, who they center, how they center them, and to what end. It’s an occasionally messy film limited by Scorsese’s perspective and a sometimes frustratingly inscrutable romantic (though perhaps intentionally so) angle, but a powerful and unforgettable work.
Michaela Owens, Editor | The Leopard Man (1943)
As someone who adores producer Val Lewton’s consistently incredible filmography of thought-provoking, gorgeously moody B-horror films, I’m not sure why it took me as long as it did to finally catch one of Lewton’s greatest, The Leopard Man. Clearly meant to capitalize on the success of Cat People, the film begins with New Mexico nightclub promoter Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe) bringing in a tamed leopard to help Kiki (Jean Brooks), one of the club acts and his paramour, steal the spotlight from Clo-Clo, a flashy dancer who has become Kiki’s rival. When Clo-Clo scares the leopard with her castanets, it runs away and winds up killing a local girl. As Jerry and the police continue to search for the animal, more women are slaughtered — but are they really all victims of the leopard, or is there a madman on the prowl?
Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and stunningly directed by Jacques Tourneur with cinematography by Robert De Grasse, The Leopard Man is a chilling tale not because of its gruesome murders but because of its unexpected tenderness. We spend time with each victim before their lives are cut short, learning about their fears, families, and ambitions in succinct yet profound sequences that lead up to their deaths. These women’s lives matter, which is especially important to note here because all of the victims are Hispanic and working-class. While unmasking the killer becomes Jerry and Kiki’s mission as the film goes on, their journey is more about respecting the loss of life that has surrounded them and realizing that embracing their empathetic impulses (or being “soft,” as they call it) shouldn’t be considered weak or pathetic.
There is so much to be said about this movie — its “less is more” approach to its scares, for instance, is unbelievably good, especially when the first death happens — but maybe it’s better if you discover these things for yourself. Just be sure to turn the lights off and cuddle up with your favorite hot beverage before you press play!
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Mr. Vampire III (1987)
I’ve been spending most of October watching a lot of horror movies. Many of them have been famous (Friday the 13th Part 2, Child’s Play 1-3), but some of my favorites are lesser known. In fact, my favorite thing that I have watched this month is Mr. Vampire III (1987), a Hong Kong horror-comedy which is one of the most entertaining films I have ever seen.
Mr. Vampire III is about a Taoist priest named Mao Ming (Richard Ng) who travels around performing phony exorcisms with Big Pao (David Lui) and Small Pao (Hoh Kin-wa), two ghosts who have become his friends. During their travels, they encounter Master Gau (Ching-Ying Lam), who is trying to defeat an evil sorceress (Pauline Yuk-Wan Wong) and her henchmen. Ming and his ghost friends team up with Master Gau to stop the Sorceress.
What distinguishes this movie from the other films in the franchise which came before it is its go-for-broke mentality. Mr. Vampire (1985) is a good martial arts comedy, but a lot of scenes in it feel a little pedestrian. The fight sequences in Mr. Vampire II (1986) are not as good, in part because it elects to spend most of its time telling an E.T.-esque story about the friendship between a child jiāngshī (a creature from Chinese folklore that’s a mixture of vampire and zombie that only moves by hopping) and some human children. Mr. Vampire III, in contrast, has both of those qualities — its fight sequences are incredible and there are some lovely moments between Ming and his ghost friends — in addition to great gonzo energy which courses through it like blood through a body.
There are certain images in this film which blew me away. Some of them include a Taoist priest’s arms extending forward like he’s Mr. Fantastic, Master Gau folding up a spirit like he’s a piece of paper, and a deep-fried ghost which looks even wilder than it sounds. To watch this movie is to be in the presence of something wild and alive which continually surprises and delights you. Mr. Vampire III deserves to be better known. Its mixture of excellent fight sequences and idiosyncratic imagery is one that I will be thinking about for a long time. I have a feeling that I’m going to be watching it every October for years to come, too.