Archive for the ‘fantasy’ category

Solo: A Star Wars Story

September 30, 2018

solo_edited The best performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as is often the case in these things, comes courtesy of someone playing a droid — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37, who navigates the Millennium Falcon for its pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). L3-37, who has a clever ambigrammatic name, has a revolutionary spirit — she’s always agitating for the freedom of any droid she happens across. She’s passionate about her cause in a way that nobody else in this overlong movie is — mostly everyone’s out for themselves.

Which might seem like the proper tone for a spin-off movie about the smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), but it seems like a regression coming after the rather more complex view of heroism over in the current sequel trilogy, where Luke Skywalker just brushes the saga’s Joseph Campbell worship right off his shoulder. And we know Han will grow and deepen as a character, so Solo can’t help coming off like “Come see Han before he became interesting!” Ehrenreich doesn’t ring many bells as Han — he neither looks nor sounds much like Harrison Ford, the character’s previous steward — and the grinning lightness of his performance makes us think he’s trying to ape not Ford but rather George W. Bush trying to play Jack Nicholson.

God help Lucasfilm if they try a young Indiana Jones movie and miscast it this badly while missing the appeal of the character so wildly. To be fair, some of the side casting works. Donald Glover is as charismatic as you’ve heard as Lando, and has a better grief-stricken scene than does Woody Harrelson as Beckett, a thief Han falls in with, when someone close to Beckett dies. The loss of that person also means the loss of one of the movie’s better actors before the film is a half hour old, but what are you gonna do? The movie, which was started by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) and then given the directorial equivalent of a page-one rewrite by Ron Howard, moves fast (for a while, before bogging down somewhere in the second hour) and is “plotty” in a hectic, meaningless way I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I couldn’t see how a movie like this could have been any better, either.

Like many prequels, Solo often seems more like a checklist than a movie. We gotta have the Kessel run in there somewhere, so let’s make that front and center instead of leaving it to the fans’ imaginations. And we know Han wins Lando’s ship in a card game, so let’s do that, too, but leave it till last, so the audience waits the whole damn film for something they know has to happen. These supposed stand-alone Star Wars movies (Rogue One was the first) are still chained to the larger narrative and events of the core Star Wars films. I think Lucasfilm, which apparently wants to take the movies in another direction away from Luke and anyone he knew, is going to find to its dismay that nobody outside the fandom cares all that much about stories that veer too far from Luke, Han, Leia and so forth. And, judging from this movie’s embarrassing status as the first bona fide Star Wars flop, they don’t even care about Han that much unless Harrison Ford is playing him.

Ron Howard does his usual proficient, zero-personality job of work. There are at least four in-jokes in the casting as it pertains to Howard’s past as a director — you start looking for Henry Winkler in there somewhere. It makes Solo play more like an Arrested Development episode than like a Star Wars movie. Han Solo has always been a hero in spite of himself, someone who could just as easily have been bullshitting the whole “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” thing. George Lucas even originally saw Han’s boast as a blatant lie meant to impress Luke and Ben Kenobi. What if the Kessel run had actually been a complete shambolic comedy of errors? Not in this movie, it isn’t — so it turns out Han’s claim is legit and not some bullshit meant to get Han a gig he needs. Solo doesn’t just make the young Han boring; it reaches back and retrospectively makes the older Han more boring, too. That’s some trick.

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Mandy

September 23, 2018

Mandy-1-Nicolas-cage-1200x520 Roger Ebert’s most enduring maxim, perhaps, is this: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Jesus fuckin’ Christ, is Mandy ever not about what it’s about. It is full-metal, full-throttle how it is about it. The story is one we’ve seen a million times — a lone man avenges his lost love. But what director-cowriter Panos Cosmatos does with it makes all the difference. The movie is not of this earth; almost every frame of it could be painted on the side of a van, or appear on a death-metal band’s double live album cover. The story is tragic and pauses to take proper measure of what has been lost and what might be lost, but more than once I still cackled at the demonic-purple Heavy Metal aesthetic, presided over by Nicolas Cage with his Dwight-Frye-meets-Timothy-Carey efflorescence dialed up past 11.

Cage is Red, a lumberjack who lives in a secluded house (that seems to be made largely out of windows) with his love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, creating a complexly vulnerable character in her pittance of screen time). Mandy catches the eye of diabolical cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who sends his band of eye-rolling numbfuck sadists to kidnap her. Mandy displeases Jeremiah, and is extinguished in front of Red’s tormented eyes. After a while, he goes after the “crazy evil.” On the face of it, this seems like a fine example of what female comics fans snarkily refer to as “fridging” — killing a woman to kick the male lead into vicious, self-righteous, vengeful action. But again, it’s about how it’s about it, and the very retro style (the movie is set in 1983, when Reagan is on the radio and women can unironically wear Mötley Crüe baseball shirts) seems to comment on how dusty the trope is. For instance, Mandy is no conventional fridged prettyface but a literally and figuratively scarred woman who we often see reading for pleasure. You might laugh and say showing a woman (or anyone) reading for pleasure in a pop entertainment isn’t so uncommon as to merit comment. You’d be mistaken.

Cosmatos, son of the late schlock director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, among others), uses the basic plot to throw in anything he finds cool and/or interesting. Mandy is such a specific woman you just know she’s based on someone Cosmatos values in real life. Red, on the other hand, is a standard-issue stoic hero that Cage riffs on in his customary manic-expressionist manner. I do have to say, however, that Mandy is deliberate bordering on poky for at least its first hour. Scenes and shots go on far longer than necessary — to establish a mood, though, not to convey information. The prolonged shots, wedded to the trippy colors and aggressive soundtrack, start to come across as hypnotic. We are steering into a point of no return, past which — courtesy of a bathroom meltdown that will stand among many others in Cage’s greatest-hits reel — the movie becomes dark and grimy, faster-paced, a rock opera about revenge.

I mention Mandy’s slow first half because, first, I want to acknowledge that my patience was tested and yours might be too, and second, to emphasize that once the film turns on a dime into a pop apocalypse that might have been illustrated by Richard Corben at his most feral, the first half comes to seem like an oasis whose relative calm we failed, like Red and Mandy, to appreciate at the time. (Although on repeat viewings, going into it knowing its initial tempo, we might occupy the film’s open spaces more willingly.) Mandy becomes about grief and its deranging aspects; the movie’s garish, psychotronic vibe is a combustible and original filter through which to view loss and guilt. The growing legion of folks who love Mandy are responding to something deeper in it than its badass violence, Cage camp, or retro-irony. It sinks its emotional hooks into us while we’re not looking, while we’re distracted by the beauty and art of this hellscape and its mythic denizens, the surrealism of a TV commercial featuring “Cheddar Goblin” (the fans have already sung Cheddar Goblin’s fervent praises; next comes the Funko Pop Cheddar Goblin, no doubt), the phallic hilarity of an opponent wielding the longest chainsaw you’ve ever seen. This midnight movie, this spiritual bastard child of a thousand drive-in flicks, ultimately takes its place in the halls of art. It’s purple and inflamed, like a fireworks show or an abscess.

They Call Me Jeeg

March 5, 2017

they_call_me_jeeg_italy_390The grimly realistic Roman superhero drama They Call Me Jeeg, which swept the Italian equivalent of the Oscars last year and will soon open in America, doesn’t put any particular emphasis on its feats of power and heroism. They just happen, in a gray-blue gunmetal world, and sometimes they go viral on YouTube. The title, perhaps bewildering to some, refers to a 1975 Japanese anime called Steel Jeeg. The protagonist, career thief Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), falls into a submerged barrel of toxic waste and emerges with heightened strength and healing powers. Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the mentally unstable daughter of one of Enzo’s associates, is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees the newly super Enzo as her long-awaited Jeeg. At first, though, Enzo does nothing more noble with his gifts than, say, ripping off an ATM. And when I say “ripping off an ATM,” I mean he literally rips it off of a building.

In a movie like this, special effects are used in a matter-of-fact way, and it often leads to strange, memorable details; in a Marvel or DC superhero movie, for instance, you won’t hear the unique hollow thud-thud of a shoe being shaken with a severed toe rattling around inside it. You’ll hear it in They Call Me Jeeg, for sure. But you’ll also see things like Enzo making a ferris wheel turn with his bare hands to cheer up Alessia, who’s in one of the cabins — it’s a nicely understated but still grandly romantic moment. The severed toe belongs, or belonged, to Enzo, who has already healed from gunshots and now assumes he can simply duct-tape the toe back onto its little stump and wait for the flesh and bone to meld. What happens the following day is a deadpan sick joke, and it establishes that this slice of fantasy in a grubby real world has its limits. Enzo can’t fly, for example, but he can survive long falls, though even then he rises slowly and has to shake off the effects of the impact.

Even a stubbly superhero like Enzo needs a supervillain, and he gets one in the form of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a manic and preening young gangster who relishes the theater of evildoing. Fabio fancies himself a singer and used to be on Italy’s version of Big Brother. He’s always holding rallies in his head, and the numbers are tremendous. At first I thought Marinelli’s performance was cringe-worthy, but soon realized he was playing a scared kid playing a bad-ass — putting layers of identity on the character. His flashy corruption runs counter to the cracked innocence of Alessia; Ilenia Pastorelli makes her a shattered girl stronger in the broken places, with a fantasist’s desperately escapist zeal. The acting in They Call Me Jeeg is far better than it needed to be, sharper and respectful of people’s complexities and need to see themselves as the center of their stories. The movie sneaks up and bounces some satirical riffs off of the nature of fame in the selfie/YouTube/Instagram culture.

The climax involves cobwebbed tropes like the ticking bomb and the antagonists facing off one last, big time. But director Gabriele Mainetti dials down the traditional histrionics, and we end up thinking more about the people involved. On some level, They Call Me Jeeg walks the same path as previous überschmuck films like Super, Defendor, Ichi the Killer, and Chronicle. But it also comments on its own genre in a way that those films more or less didn’t. The characters’ imaginations have been fed by the same pop culture that feeds ours; everyone acts the roles of the people they would like to be, but we see the cracks in the façades. Those cracks fuel the tensions of the film far more than punches or explosions do.

Big Trouble in Little China

May 1, 2016

big-trouble-in-little-chinaIf you want to enjoy Big Trouble in Little China the correct way, listen to its director, John Carpenter, and star, Kurt Russell, who will cheerfully tell you that the man you might assume is the hero — intrepid trucker Jack Burton (Russell) — is actually the film’s idiot sidekick. The real hero is Jack’s friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who has the movie’s true heroic arc. Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) has been kidnapped, and he must rescue her. Jack kind of tags along because Wang owes him money and, later, because his truck is stolen and he wants it back. So while Wang goes forward and drives the plot, Jack muscles in and talks like John Wayne and occasionally manages not to shit the bed completely.

Big Trouble in Little China started out as a period Western with martial-arts flavor — something like the later Shanghai Noon, possibly — but was modernized by script doctor W.D. Richter (Buckaroo Banzai), and ended up as both an homage to and example of mystical chop-socky. Audiences in 1986 were simply not ready for it, and it tanked badly in theaters before gaining, like some of Carpenter’s other “failures,” an eager cult on home video. Today it’s generally viewed as a precursor to the cinema of actor-director Stephen Chow, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and everything else made possible in the wake of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The plot is basically an explosion in a clown factory. It needs near-constant exposition, as much to keep us up to speed as to get Jack’s head on straight — he almost never knows what’s going on. He’s the Dumb White Man at sea in Chinatown, where the local customs are bizarre and incomprehensible to him. The narrative is almost a parody of “Asian inscrutability.” The gist of it is that Miao Yin, along with another, possibly mixed-race woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), have been captured so that they can be married off to the 2000-year-old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong), because the women both have green eyes and this is vital to lift the curse that keeps Lo Pan decrepit and/or an incorporeal spirit. You can kind of see why Jack says “Huh?” a lot.

Various superpowered minions of Lo Pan’s show up and do their elemental specialties. Monsters lurch into the frame, mostly unexplained. Yet Big Trouble in Little China is a comedy — a giggly, jostling adventure that sneers in the face of logic. I’m not sure why a reporter (Kate Burton) is around at all, other than to give Gracie someone to talk to and pass the Bechdel Test. Pretty much everyone in the movie is there to aid or frustrate Wang Chi’s goal; Jack frequently does one or the other, sometimes both at once. Carpenter and his favored cinematographer Dean Cundey (doing his fifth and final work for Carpenter) keep the action colorful and bright, even when rain pours down; a more poetic title for the movie might be Blue Lightning, Red Gowns, after the magic weapon of one villain and the dresses Gracie and Miao Yin wear during Lo Pan’s ceremony. This PG-13 film, despite its frequent shooting and bashing and swordplay, is also completely bloodless except for the blood-draw in the aforementioned ceremony.

The movie contains as well the single drop-dead funniest moment in all of Carpenter’s filmography, one that Kurt Russell can’t even get through talking about without guffawing. I won’t give it away. But watch not only for an ill-advised show of boisterous force but for a shot a few seconds later of “our hero” missing all the fun. Big Trouble in Little China was significantly before its time in more ways than one: it was a goofily meta satire in an era of mostly fearfully sincere action (think of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Eastwood), razzing tropes that American audiences hadn’t yet been taught to question. Kurt Russell is front and center on the burnished Drew Struzan poster; I don’t think Dennis Dun is anywhere on there at all. But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Snickering all the way, Carpenter and Russell suckered audiences into sitting down for a White Savior action picture but gave them a moron who only wins in the end because of “reflexes.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 27, 2015

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Scene for scene, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as heedlessly entertaining as anything that’s emerged from the franchise. As a whole, though, its relentless pace resolves in memory as a blur. A great many things happen, and the movie scarcely takes a breath to register the import of the events. It’s enjoyable in the moment but leaves us little to chew on, to dream on. Even the much-ballyhooed final shot is needlessly goosed by the camera chasing itself around a cliff, as if director J.J. Abrams had handed the keys over to the 360-addicted Peter Jackson. “Stay calm,” says defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). “I am calm,” says Finn’s new buddy, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). “I was talking to myself,” Finn says, and the movie likewise seems to be checking its insecurity.

Calmness is in short supply here, which is a shame, because I got a welcome sunshiny vibe from much of the film. Here, after the tone of George Lucas’ prequels, which darkened and sickened into a saga of the degradation of a hero, is once again a Star Wars film full of goodness and optimism. Finn, kidnapped and trained from childhood to be a foot soldier in the bloodletting of the First Order (the new update of the evil Empire), finds himself unable to kill, and leaves his post. Which brings me to wonder how many other stormtroopers have second thoughts about their line of work but don’t get a chance to nope out of the corporation. They remain targets, as always, brainwashed or not. But never mind.

Some of the film meditates, albeit in rushed abbreviated form, on what it takes to become a reformed blackhat versus a fallen angel. The latter is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked baddie with a fixation on Darth Vader that will go unexplained here (we are in spoiler-free territory). Unmasked, Ren looks as much “just a kid” as the unmasked Michael Myers did in the original Halloween. He is torn, and chooses the dark side, as Finn opts for the light. The inherited royalty of the Force takes something of a back seat here; I didn’t hear the word “midichlorian” once, thank the Force. Whether or not one has the Force, what matters is the choice one makes in the crunch: will you use your power, whatever it may be, for good or for its opposite?

J.J. Abrams mostly uses his for good. Mostly. The movie has a nice, warming devotion to filling the screen with non-white-males, not only among its leads but in bit roles everywhere you look. At times, though, The Force Awakens is like an omnibus of favorite bits of business from the original trilogy, and Abrams drags the old hands on whenever possible, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The gravitas in the reunion of Leia and Han is due to these actors as these characters, not due to anything in the script, really. Ford seems awake and engaged, and can still get his voice up to a lion’s roar in the din of battle. Where’s Luke Skywalker? Well, he “has vanished,” as the opening crawl tells us, and most of the film is a chase after the map that may lead to his doorstep. This quest doesn’t seem as urgent as simply avoiding the clutches and blasters of Kylo Ren and his cadre of fascists, and when Finn just wants to run, we can understand why.

The movie’s restless motion can sometimes produce not heat but a kind of coldness that doesn’t take the full measure of death (although there’s a strong moment when Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the film’s emergent heroine, plugs a stormtrooper and then pauses a second — this is, after all, the first life Rey has taken). The new kids are fine: Boyega afraid but bravely pressing forward, Ridley vital and amusingly impatient at times, Isaac as uncomplicatedly moral here as he was complexly amoral in Inside Llewyn Davis and other films. Abrams more or less leaves his actors to their own considerable devices; as Richard Brody has pointed out, Abrams is a nostalgist and pastiche maker, not a visionary. But for the first time in at least a decade, this old Star Wars skeptic felt not resentment at more star wars but a sense of gratitude for the return of a corporate concern that at least gestures towards the possibility of altruism and redemption.

Twice Upon a Time

November 8, 2015

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Something was in the air in the late ’70s — a small, weird, but welcome animation renaissance that popped up in the void left by Disney in their dreary pre-Mermaid days. Ralph Bakshi hadn’t yet packed it in, Don Bluth was getting started, and not-for-kids toons like Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule were actually financed and put in theaters. Of course, given the lead time of cel animation back then, most of these didn’t hit theaters until the early ’80s, coinciding with a rise in sci-fi/fantasy films. Many of these experiments found little box-office traction but gathered cults that persist even now.

The cultiest of them all might well be 1983’s Twice Upon a Time, bankrolled by none other than Lucasfilm. It was released in a grand total of one theater, then banished to HBO for a handful of showings, which is how most of its fans caught it. Due to a foofarah over which version was being shown — there were two, one seasoned with lots of PG profanity, one largely clean — the film has been unavailable for decades. The cleaner version was the preferred version of its co-director, John Korty, but viewers erroneously considered the more profane version the “uncut, uncensored” one and thus the more attractive one. Now, finally, Warner Archives has made available a burn-on-demand DVD containing both versions.

What the new viewer (as well as the longtime fan who has never seen it in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio) will get here is a visually sumptuous experience tied to a fairly simple story given convolutions by Korty, his co-director Charles Swenson, and cowriters Suella Kennedy and Bill Couterie. In the black-and-white land of Din (Earth) live the Rushers (us), who receive sweet dreams from Greensleeves and the Figmen of Imagination. Not-so-sweet dreams arrive courtesy of the nefarious Synonamess Botch, who kidnaps Greensleeves and seeks to entrap us Rushers in waking nightmares forever. Our heroes are Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and Mumford the mime, who must keep Botch from procuring the main spring from the Cosmic Clock, which … well, you see what I mean about convolutions.

You could very well just let Twice Upon a Time babble and rave in front of you (most of the dialogue was improvised) and care nothing about its plot, because every frame looks as though it were engineered by the Figmen of Imagination. The animation style, which for all I know was limited to this one film, was called “Lumage,” in which plastic cut-out figures were filmed atop a light table, resulting in a lively and unique world of subtle hues. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s madcap creations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the trippy, quippy wooziness of Yellow Submarine; but its sarcastic, visually fecund spirit is all its own. Animation fans, and admirers of pure cinema in general, owe it to themselves to see this at least once.

I watched Korty’s preferred version, which still packs a couple of PG-rated swears (so neither version is altogether school-viewing-safe). The movie is essentially a comedy, satirizing such tropes as the Fairy Godmother (who here wants to be called FGM) and the superhero (goofed on via a Viking-helmeted idiot called Rod Rescueman) and paying homage to its executive patron when a television-headed creature named Ibor plays footage of Darth Vader and Indiana Jones on its face. The biggest name in the voice cast is the late Lorenzo Music, who voiced Garfield for years and does Ralph’s voice in the same jaded deadpan. But as I say, you could almost turn the sound off (a good way to avoid the lame, much-derided songs on the soundtrack) and still groove on the colors and the weirdness and the dreams and nightmares and the killer Scotch tape dispensers and so on.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

August 16, 2015

valerieweekofwonders2Grown-ups want to scare kids away from having sex too soon. Fairy tales are loaded with this agenda, and so are any fable-inflected movies about a young innocent’s fearful introduction to adult sexuality — David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, Marielle Heller’s current Diary of a Teenage Girl. To this list we might add Jaromil Jireš’ Czechoslovakian surrealist gem Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which shares with Stephen King’s Carrie and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps a certain menstrual dread: when the girl becomes a woman, blood flows, and not just the expected blood.

Valerie, like the actress who played her at the time (Jaroslava Schallerová), is thirteen. She lives with her grandmother (Helena Anýžová) and pursues an odd relationship with a young man (Petr Kopriva) who may or may not be her brother. There is a horrid-looking vampire skulking around called the Polecat, and Grandmother seeks to sacrifice Valerie to him and become a vampire herself so as to gain eternal youth and get back together with her former lover, a repulsive priest who tries to molest Valerie. This bedtime story, with its knife-edged sexuality and nightmare logic, is decidedly not for children, though it uses what we would call adult themes to illustrate what children know instinctively anyway.

The visuals are positively swollen with metaphorical import, starting with the early image of a daisy dappled with blood. At one point, Valerie comes right out and says she’s asleep and dreaming, but that just seems like a reassurance to the more insecure viewers in the audience. Why do we demand that everything in a movie, especially one as elliptical as Valerie, make literal sense? Sometimes a movie is a story; sometimes it’s a song or a poem or a sketch. The story at the heart of Valerie is somewhat emotionally convoluted, premised as it is on yearning and dread. We may fear for Valerie, but she seldom fears for herself; she tells herself she’s dreaming, and therefore none of this is “really happening” to her, but she also could be aware that she’s in a fairy tale.

One thing Valerie knows, that all children know and grown-ups wish they didn’t, is that adults can’t be trusted. This is why Grandmother is all too willing to sell her granddaughter’s soul, and why the priest wants Valerie’s body. The movie isn’t saying anything as boring as “all grandmothers and priests are bad”; it’s more that grown-ups have their own angels and demons, incomprehensible to children on their side of the sexual equator. (In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, adult male sexuality is likened to the chittering of chthonic insects.) To understand grown-up madness is to cross over into it forever and to lose the magic of childhood, symbolized perhaps by Valerie’s enchanted earrings, which she’s always in danger of losing or having stolen from her.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and it’s full of nightmarish supernatural creatures and bizarre human behavior. Sexuality here grins and feeds and infects. It drives adults crazy, makes way for the sleep of reason that literally produces monsters. Valerie is a horror film, sort of, in that it touches on carnal terrors, but for Valerie herself it’s all a strange but wonderful journey — hence Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not Her Week of Trauma. The world surrounding Valerie is populated by corrupt men and weak women, who drain each other’s lifeblood figuratively. Valerie hasn’t quite entered that world yet; she sees it through a scrim created by being half in childhood and half in womanhood, so therefore she sees it as we see it through the film — jumbled and chaotic yet serenely menacing and darkly erotic. We see it all through Valerie’s unfrightened gaze. Like the best fairy tales, Valerie is voluptuously suggestive, a bit dangerous, and perfectly legible on its own subterranean terms.