Thursday, April 5, 2007

"Red Riding Hood" (2003)

If ever a movie was easy to hate, this is it . . . and yet there’s something about it. Determining whether or not “Red Riding Hood” is successful on some level—any level—may require more time than most people would be willing to devote to the task, but that’s why film reviewers are allowed to exist.

The film opens all over the place. First we hear voice over from a talking head news reader. Then a man who is being interviewed on the steps of some official-looking building gets shot in the head at point blank range. Then a man who is a thief gets hit and killed by a van. Then the V.O. changes to that of a young girl.

At this point, it would be hard to blame any viewer for throwing the DVD box across the room while mumbling “What the hell . . ?” And it isn’t going to get any easier for awhile.

We meet 12-year old Jennifer McKenzie (Susan Satta), who lives by herself in a plushy flat in Rome. She has no use for her mother and she holds it against her dad (David McKinney) that he has left her on her own. She is very odd.

Before we go any deeper into this, I need to warn you that this is a movie about which writing is difficult without giving away some plot points. The fact that it falls neatly into the giallo genre pretty much reveals who the villain will turn out to be, especially given the paucity of suspects when the killing starts, but if you’re not familiar with the conventions of giallo, or if you couldn’t tell by looking at Clark Kent that he was really Superman with glasses on, you might want to skip reading the rest of this review.

Jenny seems happy enough living alone, although she does have abandonment issues. She has a hot twentysomething tutor named Tom (Robert Purvis) who drops by every so often to discuss “Don Quixote” with her, and she chats with her imaginary friend, George.

But trouble arises when her grandmother Rose (Kathleen Archebald), an actress from New York, flies to Rome to take her home to the states. This possibility makes Jenny very nervous. So nervous, in fact, that she and George follow a young woman they see shoplift a bottle of wine and George, at Jenny’s command, stabs the woman and cuts off one of her hands.

Later, Jenny will realize that her friendly dentist is swapping saliva with his hygienist. She and George will pay the couple a visit in their hotel room and dispatch the pair of them with a nail gun. By this time, we’re all getting the point. Transgress Jenny’s personal moral code and wham!, right in the eyeball.

Director Giacoma Cimini (using the pseudonym James K. Cimini) begins by playing cat and mouse with what he allows us to see of Jenny and George together. We know that Jenny has an interest in the Red Riding Hood story, but only as it is told from the wolf’s point of view. George is a tall fella wearing a black cape and hood, like hers, and a stylized wolf’s face mask. They both ride their bicycles to the scenes of their crimes.

Early in the film we may see both of them in the same shot, but never in the same frame. She rides across the screen from left to right, and when she exits the frame, he rides across. Later we see both of their hoods at the same time, and later still we see all four of their feet. Most viewers will assume that the child is a little psycho and will be watching to see when Cimini gives that fact away with his camera.

Genre conventions demand that Jenny will do something to keep Rose from carting her back to New York (she binds the older woman to the bed and invites George to drill her kneecaps), and she will have to tell us that she is falling in love with Tom so she can catch him on a date with a woman his own age and vengeance can be plotted.

As a giallo, “Red Riding Hood” has little to offer. The gore exists at about the level of a clever high school production and Cimini’s gift for creating and maintaining suspense is nil. There are touches of black humor from the screenplay by Ovidio G. Assonitis (using the name Oliver Hellman) and Andrew Benker. After all, how many films have you seen in which a grandmother has severe peanut allergies and her granddaughter attempts to kill her by spreading crunchy peanut butter on her face?

The acting is marginal at best. Young Satta appears to have been cast merely on the basis that her eyebrows are wolfishly thick and dark, and Archebald doesn’t do much to convince us that, hey, having your kneecaps drilled by your granddaughter’s imaginary friend kind of hurts.

So viewed merely as a genre film, the picture is mediocre at best. But at this point, the “ . . . and yet . . . “ kicks in.

The movie’s last reel knocks the props out from under everything that’s gone before. The identity of George isn’t difficult to figure out, but the nature of Jenny’s madness is. Jenny and Tom had discussed a central question in “Don Quixote”—is the old man mad from page one, or does he begin the book acting crazy as a rational life style choice, only to genuinely crack up later?

It’s a question that can be asked about Jenny as the movie wraps up. Did any of it really happen or have we spent 90 minutes in Dr. Caligari’s cabinet with an adolescent lunatic?

Whether or not the last five minutes of a movie can salvage the whole thing is a matter of individual choice. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. How’s that for critical guidance? The goofy ending of “Red Riding Hood” supplied a light that, for me, made the experience worth the candle. It might not work for you. In fact, if you’re in any doubt, watching the movie would probably be a waste of your time.

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