LIST CANDIDATE: MODUS OPERANDI (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Frankie Latina

FEATURING: Randy Russell,

PLOT: The CIA convinces an alcoholic ex-agent to track down two stolen briefcases in return for

Still from Modus Operandi (2009)

the name of the man who killed his wife.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:The post-Tarantino/ fake-grindhouse movie is a sub-genre that’s less than a decade old, but already feels stale. Newcomer Frankie Latina, however, freshens the formula by spiking this exploitation cocktail with a shot of some sort of quick and dirty experimental hallucinogen he synthesized in his kitchen using drain cleaner, pencil shavings, and an over-the-counter hangover remedy. It’s a minor, but bizarrely entertaining, concoction.

COMMENTS: Exploding cowboy heads! Random film stock switches from black and white to Eastmancolor! Pubic hair shaving! Debuting director Frankie Latina throws everything he can think of into Modus Operandi, including the kitchen sink and whatever other plumbing fixtures he can bum off his Milwaukee pals. Bizarre bikini coke party! Authentic funk soundtrack! Time lapse shot of rotting fruit! Ideas and interruptions come fast and furious, and yet the plot is comfortingly simple to process. The missing briefcases are classic MacGuffins, and although it’s utterly preposterous, almost everything in the story tracks—except when the film breaks and VHS nude model auditions suddenly bleed into the movie. Gratuitous Alexandre Dumas quote! Strip club massacre! Danny Trejo! Ideas, you see, are free, an important asset when you’re filming a movie with no money. Latina disguises the fact that his movie has almost no action by blindsiding the audience with exploitation staples (nudity and gore) and stylistic non sequiturs at every turn. There is little of that alienating “look at us, we’re making a bad movie and we know it” jokiness in Modus Operandi; instead, the comedy in this parody arises from juxtaposition and weirdness. Senseless zooms! Snuff movies! Real life lesbian vampires! Among the film’s subtler jokes is the fact that the nominal hero and supposed ace agent, Stanley Cashay, is a middle-aged, frequently nude drunk who has no observable talent and who doesn’t actually do anything remotely heroic, or even interesting. The CIA is desperate to rehabilitate him from his stupor, but once sobered up the only thing he does is to put in a phone call to his underworld contact, Thunderbird. Thunderbird then calls Xanadu, Xanadu calls Foxy Borwn-wannabe Black Licorice, and somehow, through a confusing series of swaps and double crosses between a series of colorful agents, the briefcases eventually work their way back to Cashay. Meanwhile, Latina delivers more of what we tuned in for. Japanese torture vixens in black corsets! Hitchcock tributes! Intermission sequence with suggestive ice cream licking! As the promo for “Ayesha Ayesha,” the fake Bollywood spy babe TV show that’s a smash hit in Modus Operandi‘s universe, explains, it’s “psychedelic… razor sharp… rainbows and waterfalls… espionage… Air Mumbai… ice cold… bizarre adventures… far out!” To which we can only add: Corkscrews to eyeballs!  Split screens! Background painting of a topless woman riding a unicorn!

Modus Operandi also features fellow low-budget auteur Mark Borchardt (American Movie, Coven) in a small role. It’s “presented by” recently retired adult star Sasha Grey, for no observable reason except for the huckster logic that a porn starlet’s endorsement will sell tickets. Latina is already at work on his second feature, Skinny Dip (due out any day now), which brings back Trejo in a larger role and adds an expanded roster of acting talent including Grey, , Brigitte Nielson, and Pam Grier (now entering her fifth decade of exploitation filmmaking).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…its free-floating storytelling is more akin to the associative human mind than cinema’s traditional flow of familiar establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways. Like a found-footage film, Modus Operandi‘s logic is fragmented and unpredictable…”–Diego Costa, Slant (contemporaneous)

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