SUSPIRIA (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. After three artsy prestige projects (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE), Oscar nominated Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decides to let his freak flag fly. And what better way than to pay homage to his fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal cult classic that featured a blinding color palette, obtuse camera angles, and enough schlock-horror (in a good way) to remain a midnight movie favorite for more than 40 years? While both movies are B**S**T crazy, we can’t help but think a filmmaker of Mr. Guadagnino’s caliber should have done better.

Dakota Johnson (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) stars as Susie, a Bambi-eyed self-trained dancer raised in Ohio by her Mennonite parents. Following her dream, she shows up for an audition at the world renowned Markos Dance Company in Berlin. The film is set in 1977 (the same year as the original was released) and Susie sufficiently impresses the company director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to be invited to join.

A title card informs us that we are about to undertake “Six Acts and an Epilogue set in divided Berlin”. It should have added the run time of two-and-a-half hours (it seemed longer). For those of us who would pay to watch Tilda Swinton in any role, this one does deliver bonus value. The enormously talented actress who has disappeared into numerous characters over the years, plays two other roles here – disguised by heavy make-up in both. The trade-off is that Ms. Johnson is the lead, so not only are we subjected to the limitations of her acting, but also camera-trickery when it comes to her dance scenes. A bushy bushy red hairdo conceals her face during the most physically demanding dance sequences … think Cousin It from “The Addams Family”.

An almost entirely female cast features some interesting choices from across generational and geographical boundaries. Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven have long been familiar faces on the big screen, and Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine choices for the younger company members. As an added bonus, Jessica Harper appears in one segment towards the end. Ms. Harper played the lead role of Suzy in the original. Other fun comparisons between the two films are the original score by Goblin compared to the updated (and more serene) score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and the muted color palette chosen by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this updated version.

The reason there is an open spot in the company for Susie is that Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has disappeared after unloading her ‘coven of witches’ theory on an aged psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Dr. Klemperer initially thinks the hysterical Patricia is delusional, and would prefer to wallow in his grief over his beloved wife Anke – missing since WWII. When Susie gets her shot at the lead in what is to be the company’s final performance of its most famous dance piece Volk, we get the film’s best sequence and one of a few WTF moments. A mirrored dance studio is the site of unexplained violence, and some terrific editing shoots us back and forth between art and mayhem. It’s difficult to watch but exceedingly well done.

Unfortunately, the truly bizarre and horrific moments are much too rare. In fact, some of the segments come off as unintentionally funny, which is not a good thing for a horror flick. The primal dancing never seems sensual, the bloodbath finale is too far over the top, and the political subtext with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group just never seems to fit. While watching this, a few films came to mind: BLACK SWAN, THE WICKER MAN, MOTHER!, and ROSEMARY’S BABY, though this one doesn’t reach the level of any of those. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t lend itself to analysis or review, and it comes down to whether this is your cup of tea.

watch the trailer:


CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Although confusing the two is understandable, there is a difference between a story of romance and a story of love. That’s not to say that the two can’t overlap; in fact, they often do. In movies, romance is the dish most often served because it’s usually more interesting. Watching the flirtatious dance and often awkward exploratory stage of what was once called the rituals of courting offers a writer, actor and director infinitely more possibilities than what we associate with the years of deep connection labeled as love. Andre Aciman’s novel is adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame, and 3 times Oscar nominated for Best Director) and the script leans heavily on romance … lustful romance, to be specific.

Director Luca Guadagnino (A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE) is an expert at making movies that engage our senses. His movies delicately tease us – they slowly absorb us into the emotions and feelings of the characters. Very few filmmakers have the skill to subtly seduce the viewer, and draw us into the story so that we are no longer merely observing. It’s nuanced story-telling at the highest level.

Elio’s (Timothee Chalamet) family spends the summer at their estate in northern Italy. You’ve likely never met a more cultured family. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned professor, his mother (Amira Casar) a recognized translator, and Elio himself is a musical prodigy who whiles away the days by transcribing classical music and reading every book he can get his hands on. Oh, he also flirts with the local girls because he is, after all, a 17 year old boy. His intelligence and corresponding wit is of a much older person, standing in stark contrast to his innocence and childlike maturity level with all other pieces of life’s puzzle.

Elio’s world is rocked when his father’s newest research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), shows up. An “Americano” who offsets his extreme politeness with an unrefined “Later” when departing any encounter, Oliver explodes on the scene like a Greek God. He and Elio have an initial passive-aggressiveness towards each other as they test the boundaries for weakness, and more importantly, interest. Things move very slowly as the passion and curiosity brews during their bike rides, walks through the apricot orchards (forbidden fruit), swimming in every watering hole, and competitive banters on intellectual topics. There is a sensuality to most every scene, though those same scenes are filled with unspoken tension.

The sunlit beauty as each summer day passes initially masks the emotions, and the stunning setting, people, colors, and music is accentuated by the camera work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Nature is on display in its full glory; not just through trees, sunlight, and water, but in that elusive and unexplained connection between two people so strongly drawn to one another.

Director Guadagnino’s film easily slides into the romantic sub-genre of such films as BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CAROL, and the artistic approach provides a gentleness that even the peach scene can’t undo. Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to be everywhere these days) has an extraordinary father/son scene near the end which reminds us that each one of us has a story on how life may or may not have turned out as planned. The gut-wrenching pain with sharing that story usually means it remains untold; however, the invaluable lesson is not lost on Elio. First love and first heartbreak bring both emotional ecstasy and emotional devastation, and whether you believe the film’s statement “We have less to give each new person”, you’ll likely agree that the use of Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way” is spot on.

watch the trailer:


A BIGGER SPLASH (2016)

June 5, 2016

a bigger splash Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said before that she is such a fascinating actress that I would probably buy a ticket to watch Tilda Swinton just stand on stage. In her latest collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2009), Ms. Swinton’s character remains mostly silent, save a few well placed whispers and one uncontrollable outburst, and she is certainly worth the price of that ticket.

Adding to the movie fun here is a script by David Kajganich adapted from Alain Paige’s story that was the basis for the 1969 film La Piscine. Ms. Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a glam rock singer (think 60’s-70’s David Bowie) who has gone on holiday to recover from throat surgery. She is accompanied by her photographer/filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the couple has sought seclusion and serenity on the picturesque Italian island of Pantalleria in the Strait of Siciliy. They spend their time sunbathing (European style) and enjoying intimacy in the swimming pool at the stunning compound they have rented.

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if things went according to plan. Blowing into town like the upcoming sirocco winds is Marianne’s former lover and former music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), along with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Showing up uninvited adds to the palpable underlying tension – which only gets thicker as the layers are peeled back. In addition to the former relationship of Marianne and Harry, it turns out Harry and Paul were once close friends, and it’s only been in the last year that Harry found out Penelope is his daughter (and there’s even some doubt on this).

Fiennes’ Harry is the kind of annoying blow-hard we want to punch after about 5 minutes. He is unrelenting with his energy and motor-mouth approach to most every moment in life. In that same 5 minute span, we also figure out his not-so-subtle desire to win back Marianne. His Lolita-type daughter may or may not be part of his plan, but she surely has her own sights set on Paul. Over food, wine and swimming, we learn more and more backstory on each character, and it’s pretty obvious the beautiful bodies and faces are masking mountains of vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Ms. Swinton, despite her minimal dialogue, makes Marianne a captivating character – balancing the entitlement of a rock star with a desperate attempt to be normal. Mr. Schoenaerts brings his usual physicality and simmering emotional quiet to the role of Paul – a guy much less “together” than he would have us believe. Penelope is a good fit for Ms. Johnson, as she mostly lounges around the pool leering lustfully at Paul. But it’s Mr. Fiennes who rules the roost here with his appendage-flapping portrayal of the vulgar and vulnerable Harry – complete with Monty Python references, Mick Jagger dancing and au natural pool diving. It’s a different kind of role for Fiennes and one he clearly relishes.

It’s a film filled with lush visuals and fans (like me) of Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool will recognize the stylings of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Beauty abounds: the setting, the water, the clothes, and the house. Things do get a bit clunky in the third act with a minor sub-plot involving Tunisian refugees. Fortunately that doesn’t negate the many good things here … including a terrific and creative soundtrack featuring a couple of deep cuts from the Rolling Stones, Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire”, St. Vincent’s cover of “Emotional Rescue”, and even Robert Mitchum’s “Beauty is only Skin Deep”. It’s a stylish, ultra slow-burn emotional thriller that has a swimming pool shot somewhat reminiscent of the iconic one from Sunset Boulevard. If all of that is still not enough reason to buy that ticket … don’t forget about Ms. Swinton!

watch the trailer:

 

 


I AM LOVE (2009)

June 28, 2010

Greetings again from the darkness. A really good Italian film from writer/director Luca Guadagnino and a terrific performance from Tilda Swinton. The film centers on power and family and trust and self-discovery … and the complexities of each.

As a young, working class Russian, Emma (Tilda Swinton) is whisked away to marriage and life in the aristocracy of Milan. She dutifully raises her kids and organizes huge dinners and parties at their mansion as the Rechhi’s entertain business clients and their own family. It is during these parties that we realize Emma is technically part of the family, but really still an outsider. She escapes to her own space once the events are running smoothly.

Being an avid cook herself, she easily clicks with a brilliant young chef introduced to the family by her own son. Very little doubt where it’s headed at this point as Emma unleashes the pent up energy she has been forced to hide. While we are very aware that the upper crust has learned to look the other way with infidelity, that’s not the case with the Rechhi’s and their Russian wife/mother.

The brilliance in the film is that it shows how the younger generation doesn’t really fit any better than Emma. The difference is that they are part of the fabric and will be allowed more rope than an outsider. Still it is painful to watch Emma with her son, who can’t quite adapt to the family business. Better yet, to watch her with her daughter, who confesses her preference for other women. Emma sees herself in these two, but doesn’t have the same freedom. Her best ally is the caretaker who seems to understand the multiple levels on which this family functions.

Fascinating interactions and complex writing make this a film for film lovers. There is so little dialogue, but much is said with a glance or head nod. Many U.S. writers could learn a thing or two. Must also mention the startling score by John Adams. It is quite operatic, which plays along with the themes of the film.