THE FAVOURITE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Yorgos Lanthimos is an unusual director. His best-known films include DOGTOOTH (2009) about a strange family where the children are not allowed to leave their house; THE LOBSTER (2015) starring Colin Farrell as a man who has 45 days to find someone to marry, or he will be turned into the title creature; and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) with Farrell, again, this time as a doctor who has to pay a gruesome price for losing one of his patients on the operating table. As you can tell, his films have a dark, surreal bent, which has made him one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last few years. With each film, his audience grows. And with his most recent film, THE FAVOURITE (2018), that audience will grow larger still, especially since the movie has been winning lots of awards and getting some Oscar buzz.

But the strangest thing about THE FAVOURITE is its storyline, which sounds absolutely normal compared to his other work. A historical drama about real people, with some dark humor thrown in (a Lanthimos staple), the film is about Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled England in the early 1700s (from 1702 to 1707), and her closest advisor, Sarah Churchill  (Winston was one of her descendants) played by Rachel Weisz. They dynamic changes considerably when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace, looking for employment.

Either due to her ill health or long history of tragedy (she had lost 17 children over the years), Anne is a bit “off,” (perhaps eccentric would be a better description), acting almost child-like with her inability to focus on matters of state, her regular temper tantrums, and her impetuous manner. This behavior makes it fairly easy for Sarah, her confidant, to take over the job of running the country, and she does the job well. The members of parliament (all male) obviously aren’t pleased with having to gain favor with a woman, but they understand the hierarchy, and the fact that to get the queen’s approval, they must first get Sarah’s, making her the most powerful (non-royal) woman in England.

A typical day for the Queen includes having lobsters complete in a race before being eaten, and playing with her 17 rabbits, which are stand-ins for her children which she had miscarried, or which died soon after birth.

Abigail was once a lady, but has fallen on hard times, due mostly to the gambling debts of her father. She has come to the Queen’s household for a job as a maid, and immediately the other servants play tricks on her to put her in her place. It’s not long, however, before Sarah takes her young relative under her wing as her assistant. Abigail no longer has to scrub floors, and is able to watch her formidable cousin in action.

During a period where Sarah and the Queen are having a falling out, Abigail tends to the Queen’s demands instead, and in turn gets closer to the monarch. And then it becomes a competition to see who will be the Queen’s favorite, a role Sarah is determined to keep and Abigail is just as eager to usurp.

The strength of the film lies squarely on its three leads. Olivia Coleman who was the hotel manager in Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER, as well as in Edgar Wright’s HOT FUZZ (2007), and perhaps most memorably as D.S. Ellie Miller, the partner of David Tennant’s Detective Alec Hardy in the excellent British series, BROADCHURCH (2013 – 2017), is brilliant here as Queen Anne, playing the role with a constant see-saw of high self-regard (she is the queen, after all) and low self-esteem (she’s also incredibly volatile). She is the heart of the film, and rises to the occasion.

Rachel Weisz (in everything from THE MUMMY, 1999, to Neil LaBute’s THE SHAPE OF THINGS, to THE LOBSTER) is the seemingly indomitable Lady Sarah, the Queen’s confidante and her strong, political voice. Where the Queen is confused and indecisive when it comes to political matters, Sarah is quite capable. And she’s just as determined to keep her position as the Queen’s right hand, resorting to constant attention, and even sex, to keep the monarch in line.

Emma Stone (EASY A, 2010, BIRDMAN, 2014, and LA LA LAND, 2016) is equally a force a nature as Abigail, who first seems innocent and sympathetic when she joins the household, but who proves herself to be as crafty and merciless as her cousin. She covets Sarah’s life and is determined to take it for her own by gaining the Queen’s favor.

The men who surround them as a mix of cads, opportunists, and fools, including James Smith (also in THE IRON LADY, 2011) as Sidney Godolphin, who leads the majority in parliament, and minority leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, also in WARM BODIES and JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, both 2013, and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015), who claims to speak for the people, but who clearly has his own ambitions at the fore.

The look and feel of the film are marvelous, and the script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is strong and often witty. I enjoyed this one a lot, and totally agree with the praise it’s been getting. If you’re a fan or either historical dramas or Yorgos Lanthimos films, you need to check this out.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE FAVOURITE ~ four knives

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

Advertisements

FIRST REFORMED (2018)

Review by LL Soares

A movie about faith and climate change activism doesn’t sound like something I’d normally run to see, but FIRST REFORMED was bound to present these themes in a compelling way, since the movie is directed by Paul Schrader.

Schrader is a seasoned pro, having written the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976) RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). As writer/director, he’s given us BLUE COLLAR (1978), HARDCORE (1979), MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985), LIGHT SLEEPER (1992), AFFLICTION (1997) and AUTO FOCUS (2002). He’s something of a cinematic legend, and while not all of his films have been successful (his 2013 film, THE CANYONS, for example, starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, was a flop, but I have to admit, I still found it fascinating), a new Schrader film is usually something to get excited about. Unfortunately, I didn’t see FIRST REFORMED in a theater when it came out, but it is streaming now on Netflix, and I made sure to correct my mistake in missing it.

The movie has also been getting a ton of praise since its release earlier this year, and there’s even been some Oscar buzz for the movie and its star, Ethan Hawke (BEFORE SUNRISE, 1995, TRAINING DAY, 2001,  SINISTER, 2012, and THE PURGE, 2013).

Hawke plays Reverend Enrst Toller, who is the pastor of the small, historical First Reformed Church. His congregation is small, and the church is owned by a much larger mega-church, run by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, of THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY, 2000, BARBERSHOP, 2002, and lots of TV shows, here billed as Cedric Kyles), who heads his church, Abundant Life, like a business. Chances are the First Reformed Church would have closed a long time ago, since it’s really not adding to Abundant Life’s flock, but its history makes it important.

One day, one of Toller’s parishoners, Mary Mansana (Amanda Seyfried, JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009, CHLOE, 2009, LOVELACE, 2013, and LES MISERABLES, 2012), comes to him asking for help. She is worried about her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger, COMPLIANCE, 2012, and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, 2017), who is an environmental activist, who is becoming more and more obsessed with his cause. Michael doesn’t want to have kids with Mary, because he doesn’t want to bring anyone into a world where climate change is going to have a big, negative effect on the future.

Toller goes to talk to Michael, and they talk a long time. They really seem to hit it off, but it seems that the talk did little to change Michael’s mind. A frantic Mary even contacts the pastor at one point to come to her house and see a suicide vest that Michael had assembled, that was hidden in the garage.

Toller hopes he can get through to Michael, but this becomes impossible when the man asks the pastor to meet him somewhere, and Toller finds that he has committed suicide.

Meanwhile, the First Reformed Church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and there is a big event planned, that will be simulcast from the church to Abdundant Life, and which is being funded by local businessman Edward Balq (Michael Gaston, BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015, and THE LEFTOVERS, 2014 – 2017) a billionaire who has made his money in fossil fuels, but who likes to appear to be a philanthropist. At a lunch with Revered Jeffers and Mr. Balq, Toller learns that Balq is exactly the kind of person that Michael was fighting against, which disturbs him.

Toller has been reading articles about global warming on the kinds of sites Michael frequented and is becoming more and more concerned about the future of the planet himself, thus sharing Michael’s fear for the future. At the same time, he is getting close to Michael’s widow, Mary, and also learns that he is ill, and it might possibly be cancer. Which all gives him a lot to think about.

FIRST REFORMED is fascinating because it gets to the root of faith, as opposed to organized religion, as Toller begins to question if the church is able to deal with a threat such as climate change, and if it isn’t, then what can he do as one man to save the planet that God has entrusted to mankind.

It is a compelling film, fueled by Ethan Hawke’s intense performance as Toller. The rest of the cast is also very good, including Seyfried as the conflicted Mary, and Cedric the Entertainer, who has impressed me in a variety of roles lately (from comedy to drama), and who is very effective as Reverend Jeffries. FIRST REFORMED is a powerful film that actually makes you ponder these questions yourself, and invest in feelings of what we can do to save our world (along with Reverend Toller).

I hope this film does get some Oscar nominations, because it deserves it. Schrader has made one of the best films of his career, and Hawke has delivered an electrifying performance. Despite its unusual topic, the film transcends its plot to have a deeper resonance.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives FIRST REFORMED ~ 4 knives.

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

CAM (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Madeline Brewer, previously in the TV shows ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013), HEMLOCK GROVE (2014 2015), and more recently on Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE, plays Alice, a young woman who undresses in front of a camera for money (i.e., a camgirl). While many camgirls go so far as to perform sex acts onscreen, Alice has rules. She won’t do anything in public, she won’t get completely naked, and there’s a line to what she will (and won’t) do for her adoring audience, many of whom are regulars who tune in just to see her. Welcome to the world of CAM (2018).

Despite all the things she won’t do, Alice seems to be doing okay at it, making enough money to pay the bills. But she can’t break the Top 40 of most popular camgirls. She does get a boost when she tries something new and fakes an onscreen suicide (with lots of fake blood), but soon finds that her efforts are being thwarted by other camgirls who are actively trying to lower her score.

Meanwhile, when she’s not on camera, Alice is trying to live a normal life, including spending time with her hairdresser mother, Lynne (Melora Walters) and her teenage brother, Jordan (Devin Druid). Jordan’s friends have found out what she does for a living and endlessly tease Jordan about it, but Alice is hesitant to tell her mother about her job.

Soon, she’s not going to have a choice in the matter.

One day she looks online and sees that her camera account is active, and that she’s onscreen, doing things a bit wilder than normal. The problem is, she’s not doing it. Someone who looks exactly like her has hacked her account and is stealing her internet “fame.” The movie never really explains who this doppelganger is, or where she came from, but she makes Alice’s life increasingly nightmarish, stealing her livelihood and ruining a reputation she’s taken so long to establish.

This other Alice, using her onscreen name of Lola, doesn’t follow the same rules, and as a result, her score is going higher. But the real Alice can’t benefit. Her password won’t work, and the Help desk at the site that runs her feed is helpless to fix things. Alice even calls in the police, but they have no idea what to do, and one of the cops even hits on her.

We also get to see the people who are part of her “Lola” world, including fellow camgirls like her friends Baby (Imani Hakin) and Fox (Flora Diaz), and a rival named PrincessX (Samantha Robinson from THE LOVE WITCH, 2016); customers like Barney (Michael Dempsey), who enjoys the power and attention he gets by showering chosen camgirls with attention and money, and who would be an average schlub otherwise; and Tinker (Patch Darragh), a weird guy (who sweats a lot!) who tunes in regularly and appears to be a stalker, having followed Alice to her hometown.

CAM is the feature debut of filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber, who previously made some short films, and the screenplay is by Goldhaber and fellow newbie Isa Mazzei. It is currently streaming on Netflix and is a fun little flick, mostly due to its charismatic star (Brewer), who really deserves more lead roles.

I give CAM, three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives CAM ~ three knives.

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

APOSTLE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

A stew made of great ingredients, APOSTLE (2018) comes to an enjoyable boil. First off, it’s directed (and written) by the talented Gareth Evans, who gave us the exceptional action movies in THE RAID franchise – THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2011, aka THE RAID) and THE RAID 2 (2014). It also stars Dan Stevens, who, since his time as Matthew Crawley in DOWNTON ABBEY (the role most people know him from), has been making some very interesting career choices—including starring roles in THE GUEST (2014), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), and the wildly chaotic FX series LEGION. Here, he’s our protagonist, Thomas Richardson. Michael Sheen, who has played such disparate roles as Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (2006), David Frost in FROST/NIXON (2008), and Dr. William Masters in the Showtime series MASTERS OF SEX (2013 – 2016), is our main antagonist, Prophet Malcolm.

When we first see Thomas Richardson, he has returned home after a long (and violent) ordeal as a missionary in China, only to immediately set out on a journey to an island where his sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys) is being held for ransom. His rich father is suffering from dementia, and Richardson has to handle the situation himself. He is given the ransom money, but told not to part with it unless he has to. He takes a train, and then a ship to the kidnappers’ island, where a pagan cult, led by Prophet Malcolm, lives a life of (seemingly) simple devotion: attending church services, working the land, and living in simple homes.

Malcolm was once in prison, falsely convicted (he claims), and escaped with two other men, Frank (Paul Higgins) and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones). Malcolm says that as soon as he was upon the island, he heard the voice of the goddess who lived there, declaring him her voice among men. They created their colony, and pilgrims arrive on a regular basis to be part of it.

Richardson does not reveal who he is, as he infiltrates the community. In fact, when he notices an odd red mark on his certificate to enter the island (which the kidnappers sent his father), he makes sure to switch it with the unmarked certificate of another pilgrim (which has unfortunate results for that man). During the day, Richardson pretends to be one of them, and at night, he searches for the whereabouts of his sister.

He finds a reluctant ally in Jeremy (Bill Milner), the teenaged son of the island elder Frank, who is having a secret love affair with Ffion (Kristine Froseth), the daughter of island founder Quinn. Richardson agrees not to tell their parents about the love affair if Jeremy will help him find his sister. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s daughter, Andrea (Lucy Boynton), who also acts as the community’s doctor, has taken a liking to our hero.

The community is running out of money and resources, which is why they have taken to kidnapping rich kids. But Prophet Malcolm and his friends are going nuts trying to track down the stranger among them. They know he’s there (because of that marked certificate), and they desperately want the money he should have brought with him, but they can’t smoke him out. Richardson eludes them further when he risks his life to prevent an assassination attempt by a spy, sent by the English King. This makes Malcolm trust him, which works to his advantage.

Meanwhile, the community proves it’s not so benevolent, when transgressors are brutally tortured in the town square. And why are the people encouraged to bleed a bit into jars each night?

And what of the weird hut in the middle of the woods, occupied by a constantly bloodied, beast-like man wearing a mask of bandages? What is he doing there?

By the time we learn the island’s creepy secret, everyone’s true intentions will come to light.

Stevens, who has proven himself to be a very watchable actor, is terrific here as the dour, angry Richardson, who is definitely capable of violence when it’s needed. Sheen is quite good as Prophet Malcolm as well, a man devoted to his faith and his daughter, who may not be at peace with the awful things he has been forced to do. I thought all of the acting here was very good, and Evans has given us a strong script, and even stronger direction.

The film has a feeling of dark foreboding throughout. There is darkness and dirt everywhere, and while this creates for a strong atmosphere, there are scenes where it’s so dark, it’s hard to fully see what’s going on. And that’s my biggest complaint. The pacing is a bit slow here and there as well, but it wasn’t enough to bother me too much.

APOSTLE is currently streaming on Netflix, and is one of my favorite movies of 2018 so far. I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives APOSTLE ~ four knives.

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

OVERLORD (2018)

Review by LL Soares

When I first heard about the movie OVERLORD, it was over a year ago, and it was about to go into production. At that time I knew just a few things about it. First, it was produced by JJ Abrams; second, the script was about Nazi zombies; and third, it would be part of the loosely-connected CLOVERFIELD series of films that Abrams have overseen, which so far consists of the movies CLOVERFIELD (2008), 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016), and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018). Well, the first two things I’d heard were right, but Abrams eventually decided not to have OVERLORD be a continuation of the CLOVERFIELD mythos after all, probably due to the failure of CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, which went straight to Netflix earlier this year and was pretty much universally panned by critics (including this one). Not making OVERLORD part of the CLOVERFIELD story was probably a good idea. Right now, PARADOX still has a lingering stink on it, and OVERLORD didn’t need the extra baggage.

A mix of a WWII mission movie and a horror film, OVERLORD is a fun little flick that tells a story that isn’t all that original, but which does a good job getting where it wants to go.

It starts in a plane over occupied France, one of many planes, but this one carries our heroes. It’s not long before the other planes around them start erupting in flames, and their own gets riddled with ammunition, forcing them to parachute out a little sooner than planned. This early scene takes us right into the middle of battle, and does a good job. OVERLORD isn’t SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but this strong beginning is a little reminiscent of its “war as chaos” motif, if a low-budget version of it.

Our crew includes Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), an African-American soldier who is teased for his kindness (he even had a hard time hurting a mouse), and who is trying to prove himself in battle; wise-cracking Tibbet (John Magaro), who seems like the New York-bred wise-cracking private who we always see in these kinds of movies, a motor-mouth with a heart of gold under all that bluster; Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), a young Jewish kid who is terrified to be in Nazi territory; and Chase (Iain De Caestecker), a journalist/photographer who is embedded in their group to take pictures. There’s also the mysterious Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) who has been added to this group of greenhorns because he’s a demolitions expert, and their mission needs him.

That mission is to take out a church steeple that doubles as a radio control tower. Take out the tower, and you seriously screw up the Nazis’ communications system, giving the Allies a chance to get in.

Our heroes find themselves in the little town surrounding the church, hiding in the attic of a German girl named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who lives there with her extremely ill aunt (Eva Magyar), and her young brother, Paul (Gianny Taufer). When a Nazi officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) drops by for a “visit,” with every intention of raping Chloe, things get tense, and then violent. Leading to a plan to get inside the church and destroy the radio tower forever.

But there’s a lab in the church, a creepy German doctor (Erich Redman), and syringes full of red fluid very reminiscent of the (much prettier) glowing green goo that Herbert West injected into cadavers in RE-ANIMATOR (1985), with similar results.

There’s a scene toward the end where a zombified Wafner takes on the Americans, that goes on for a while, and yet works quite well. It’s a grueling sequence, and if Asbaek was effective as Wafner alive, he’s even more effective as the half-faced monster version.

The film is directed by Julius Avery, who previously directed some shorts and one other feature film, SON OF A GUN (2014), starring Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander, and he does a good job here. The  script by Billy Ray (who also wrote THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012, and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, 2013) and Mark L. Smith (who wrote VACANCY, 2007, THE REVENANT, 2015, and the 2015 American version of the French horror film MARTYRS), does some interesting things with a overly familiar story.

Jovan Adepo (also the son in FENCES, 2016, as well as having roles in MOTHER!, 2017, and the HBO series THE LEFTOVERS, 2015 – 2017) is good here as the kind-hearted Boyce, who nonetheless has something to prove as a soldier. He brings heart to his role. Wyatt Russell, who plays Ford, was previously in Richard Linklater’s EVERYBODY WANTS SOME! (2016) and the Joe R. Lansdale adaptation, COLD IN JULY (2014), but is currently playing Sean “Dud” Dudley, a goofy surfer dude, in the FX series LODGE 49. His Corporal Ford is kind of a badass, and the complete opposite of dim-witted Dud, which I found kind of fascinating. I always love it when actors play against type and make it work. I also enjoyed the performance by Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe, who starts out as a desperate woman who is just trying to survive, but who, in later scenes, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, even picking up a flame-thrower when the opportunity presents itself. And, as I mentioned, Pilou Asbaek is very good as the main villain, Wafner.

OVERLORD isn’t life-changing, but it is an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes in a movie theater, and I thought it worked well, considering the whole “Nazi experiments” horror movie has been done before (and zombies have been done to death). If you want to have a good time watching a movie, you could do worse than this one. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives OVERLORD ~ three knives out of five.

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

Have you gotten HARD yet?

The new edition of my third novel, HARD, is available now from Crossroads Press in both an ebook/Kindle version, and a paperback hard copy version. Either way, if you haven’t read it yet, why not pop on over and check it out?

It’s not horror, but it does have porn stars, torturers, a serial killer, peeping toms, murder, and a whole lot more. Kind of a neo-noir novel with lots of sex and violence. 

Check it out on Kindle here!

Check out the paperback edition here!

Hard cover (1)

 

SUSPIRIA (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Like the recent reboot/sequel HALLOWEEN (2018), I left the theater with mixed emotions about Luca Gaudagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento horror classic SUSPIRIA (1977), but one thing was clear. Despite its flaws, the new SUSPIRIA is head and shoulders above David Gordon Green’s so-so HALLOWEEN. If nothing else, Gaudagnino is much more ambitious in his intentions.

Coming off of the massive hit of last year’s CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Guadagnino seems to be an odd choice to remake one of the hallmarks of 1970s Italian horror. Except for both being Italian, there seems to be little in common between Gaudagnino and Argento. But let’s get something straight right from the start – this new film is not a direct remake. The two films share some characters and plot points (and, of course, a title), but the two SUSPIRIAs are very different films.

Gaudagnino’s SUSPIRIA is broken up into six acts and an epilogue. The first scene involves a young dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) going to the office of her psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf), agitated and afraid. She says that the women who run the Helena Markos Dance Academy, where she lives as a student, are a coven of witches, and mean her harm. Klemperer is so alarmed by her behavior that he cancels his appointments with other patients to talk to her, but she ends up disappearing as quickly as she arrived. While I’m a big fan of Moretz, I found this scene, and her behavior, very annoying. I’m sure Gaudagnino intentionally crafted her behavior and lines, but for me, it immediately made it difficult to get into the story. I was so busy being irritated by Patricia, that I couldn’t let myself be immersed in the world of the film. That didn’t happen until the Patricia storyline was over, and Susie Bannion arrives.

The new film takes place in Berlin in 1977 (the year of Argento’s original film), and it’s a time of chaos, at the height of the Cold War, when Berlin was still a divided city between the democratic West and the Russian-controlled East. On the news is the hijacking of a plane by terrorists who are killing passengers if the police do not meet their demands (the real-life Lufthansa Flight 181 incident). While this intrusion of real history doesn’t explicitly play into the storyline, it creates a sense of unease throughout the film. 

Back to Susie. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is an American from a Mennonite family, who has come to Berlin to be a student of the much-vaunted Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who is something of a legend in the world of modern dance. It seems that the academy has a stringent admittance policy, but Susie dazzles her teachers right from the start with her accomplished moves.

In fact, despite being a brand new student, Susie takes on the lead of the dance movement they are rehearsing, called Volk, when the former lead, Olga (Elena Fokina), leaves in a huff over Patricia’s disappearance. Olga doesn’t get far, though.

I took karate for awhile, and one of the things we did was a sequence of movements called katas, which were made up of a series of offensive and defensive moves. Later, we learned something called goshins, which were basically the mirror image of the katas—if katas were a one-sided fighting sequence, then goshins presented the other side of the fight.

What happens to Olga reminded me a lot of the concept of goshins. In one room, Susie is performing the dance sequence of Volk, which involves lots of sharp, forceful movements. Meanwhile, in another room, Olga has found herself trapped while trying to leave the school, and as Susie launches into her dance moves, the sharp thrusts and kicks she performs have real effects on Olga, as she is knocked about the room, beaten and twisted, and left in a heap of blood and bone shards on the floor. It looks like she is being pummeled by an invisible man, but it’s all in Susie’s dance.

As Susie becomes more and more the most talented dancer of the troupe, we learn that the women in charge have something sinister planned for her, that involves more than just matriculation. The school’s hierarchy is indeed a supernatural coven, the dance movements a form of magic, and an ancient, dying creature is in need of new flesh.

So let’s see what works and what doesn’t, shall we?

First off, what works. I was very impressed with the performance of Dakota Johnson here. She was the only thing that made those laughably awful FIFTY SHADES OF GREY movies watchable, despite the silly lines she had to spout. Mostly, she transcended those films because she really does have a strong sensual presence. Here, as she performs strenuous, powerful dance moves, she seems even more sensual. I’m heartened to see that she has taken on such an interesting role after the commercial success of those GREY movies, because it reminds me of the fascinating roles Kristen Stewart has been taking since the TWILIGHT series ended. I can really respect actors who use their most commercial/ successful roles as a launching pad for a much more eclectic and daring career. And I’m a fan of Ms. Johnson. She is perfect in the role of Susie Bannion here, a character much different from the one Jessica Harper played in Argento’s original. When she’s onscreen, Johnson is mesmerizing.

Tilda Swinton is also mesmerizing as Madame Blanc. Beautiful, strong, and completely in control, she makes the role work extremely well.

Other standout performances include Mia Goth as Susie’s fellow student and friend (she was also close to Patricia) Sara, who slowly realizes what is going on; Angela Winkler as another sinister teacher named Miss Tanner; and Malgorzata Bela, who is striking as both Susie’s mother, shown mostly on her deathbed in Ohio’s Mennonite community, and as an angel of death. Even Jessica Harper, the star of Argento’s original film, appears in this one, as Klemperer’s long lost wife, Anke.

And I really liked the dancing. Gaudagnino has said that he thinks Argento made a mistake to set his Markos Academy in the world of ballet, which is more stifling. Gaudagnino feels that modern dance is more vibrant and alive, more in tune with the very female magic here, and I have to agree with him. There was dancing in the original film, but I don’t remember much of it. In Gaudagnino’s SUSPIRIA it is unforgettable. The choreography (by Damien Jalet) is really breathtaking at times. And you really believe that this is a dance troupe, preparing for an actual performance.

I enjoyed the soundtrack by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. At times, it sounds a little more like you’d think a horror movie score would, but in key scenes his piano is more melancholy than horrific, helping to create a distinctive mood. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom doesn’t go in the direction of the bright, garish colors that made Argento’s original so distinctive—the colors here are more muted, even grim and gritty when we’re outside the academy—and the look and feel of the film worked well for me.

One complaint people had with Argento’s original—in fact with many of his films—is that not everything makes sense (the original was written by Argento and his frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi). That the heightened style of Argento’s film came at the expense of clarity. Personally, that never really bothered me. I always saw Argento’s best work as brightly-colored dreamscapes. But the script to the new film is by David Kajganich, and it’s a bit more clear about what’s going on. Although a few details may still have some viewers scratching their heads.

Like the dance sequences, the scenes of violence (and violent abandon) are done quite well here.

On to what I didn’t like about the film.

At two hours and 32 minutes, I thought Gaudagnino’s film was too long. The pacing is a bit slow in parts, but I’ll admit I was never bored. The only scene that really annoyed me was that first one between Patricia and Dr. Klemperer (which is actually problematic, since a movie, like a good book, should grab you right away). There could have been some cutting to make the whole thing flow a bit smoother.

And then there’s Lutz Ebersdorf. A lot was made of this actor before the movie came to theaters. If you didn’t hear the controversy, no one had ever heard of Mr. Ebersdorf before, and there was speculation about his true identity. It turns out the role is played by Tilda Swinton under mostly effective prosthetic makeup. Many people said the makeup effects were so good, they couldn’t even tell it was Ms. Swinton beneath it all. Guadagnino tried to pull one over on us, but it was exposed before the film opened in America.

The thing is, I don’t’ think it’s half as clever as Guadagnino seems to think it is.

Yes, there are a few scenes, like that problematic first one, where Swinton really does look like an old man. The makeup is terrific. But in other scenes, it doesn’t look as impressive—and in certain shades of light, you can see Ms. Swinton’s features quite easily. So the makeup is not consistently believable throughout the entire film. Secondly, there’s the matter of Mr. Ebersdorf’s voice. It doesn’t sound at all like a man’s voice—and, to me, it sounds clearly like Tilda Swinton’s. Maybe if they’d played around with voice effects, deepening it a bit, it would have been more convincing. But as is, I didn’t think it was too difficult to realize we were being hoodwinked. It was also very distracting, taking me out of the movie almost every time Dr. Klemperer was onscreen. Swinton does a good job with the character, and should be commended for her virtuosity. But not once was I convinced this was a real actor. If I didn’t know beforehand that Swinton was playing him, I’m not saying that I would have been able to identify her immediately (except that voice might still have given it away). But I would have still been aware that something was definitely “off” about him, and it still would still have been distracting.

Guadagnino has said that what he was going for was a movie where all of the main characters, even the male one, were portrayed by women. That he wanted the movie to be extremely women-centric, perhaps as the opposite of the more male-centric CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. And I totally understand this aesthetic choice. But it could have been done in a more convincing way.

When we reach the last 30 minutes or so of the film, when all of the real violence is unleashed, I found the film extremely enjoyable. And scenes like the big one toward the end, and the murder of Olga that I mentioned earlier, are very well done. But not once did I really feel that this SUSPIRIA had the scares it needed to really have an impact. Sure, I’m a jaded horror movie fan, but I thought Argento’s original did have some truly effective moments of fear, and I just didn’t feel that with this version. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, just that the aesthetic is different. Argento was a hard-as-nails horror director in his best films. Gaudagnino, for better or worse, is an effective art movie director. They came at their films from different perspectives, and there are going to be differences.

Despite my complaints, I found that SUSPIRIA was one of those rare movies (like last year’s mother! By Darren Aronofsky) that sticks with you long after it ends. And I’ve been thinking about the film since I saw it, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. That doesn’t happen very often.

But the dance scenes, the horror scenes, the overall mood, the performances, the soundtrack, the cinematography, all combines to create a unique movie experience. It has its flaws, but I was impressed with it. I give Guadagnino’s a rating of three and a half knives out of five.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives SUSPIRIA (2018) ~ three and a half knives

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF