Monthly Archives: October 2018

Suspiria — 6/10

SUSPIRIA (2018, Luca Guadagnino)

On paper, it shouldn’t work — remaking the (arguably) giallo classic by adapting the story but leaving behind everything that made the original distinct: Argento’s one-of-a-kind gonzo visual style and its fantastic Goblin score. Why do this again if you’re only taking the one thing nobody much liked — the narrative? But as it turns out, Guadagnino and his BIGGER SPLASH writer David Kajganich haven’t even taken the narrative, either. They’ve given us a more expansive, creepy epic that turns out to be as stealthily Jewish as CALL ME BY YOUR NAME was.

The fact that this leans on Holocaust drama the deeper it goes is just one of the ways in which the remake has departed from the original text. While we still have Susie the American student joining the ballet company, and characters like Patricia, Olga, Sara, Tanner, Blanc, and Markos remain, everyone’s position has been remixed to further some sort of examination of fascism, guilt, and delusion. At one point Josef* tells his patient that “delusion is lies that tell the truth,” and you can’t help but wonder if Guadagnino feels the same about film — is it fiction that tells the truth? If so, truth about what? The ideas here are large: personal responsibility, power struggles among organizations, artistic interpretation, and complicity with regard to inaction in the face of terrifying institutionalized violence. (It’s telling that we see Blanc’s failure to protect Markos just after we learn about Josef’s failure to protect Anke).

But those ideas are all crammed into a whiplash soup of cinematic flourishes — Walter Fasano’s editing uses too much coverage to stab a lot of cuts into dialogue scenes, hyper-alienating the viewer, while Guadagnino constantly directs our eyes to mirrors and reflections (in one insane location, he manages to completely remove a swirling camera from the mirrors in front of which the characters are standing; that must have been a post-production nightmare)… dream sequences are self-consciously arty but also quite weird and unique. When it turns into an all-out gore-fest at the end, it’s hard to care about anything going on because of how insane it all is presented — and for a movie that spends a lot of exposition time asking us to care about the narrative, that’s a problem. There’s a lot to unpack in this, a lot of sequences to admire and issues to contemplate, but it’s so studied and full of effort that I wasn’t able to connect viscerally to it. Perhaps a second viewing would do the trick, that is if I can muster the courage for it.


  • Note: I didn’t realize who was playing Josef until I looked it up on IMDb afterwards. If you’re reading this before seeing the movie, I’d recommend not looking up who plays Josef to protect the integrity of that performance. 

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Bad Times at the El Royale — 6/10

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018, Drew Goddard)

Plays like a demo-version B-side of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS — it has the same voyeuristic puppeteering, the things-are-not-what-they-seem artifice, deconstruction of a theatrical genre, and apocalyptic finale with moralizing overtones — but despite some dazzling set pieces and visuals, it falls a little limp overall.

The questions posed by CABIN’s weird, twisty premise were answered in hilarious, shocking ways — and those answers provided a commentary on horror films at large. The questions posed here aren’t even answered much at all, and don’t end up having anything to say about post-Tarantino noir (which isn’t even much of a genre to deconstruct). There are two McGuffins: a bag of money and an incriminating film reel, but they don’t serve to underscore the rot of the characters. In fact, the specter of Watergate, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination (?), sexual assault, and racism all drape over this plot, but they are just window dressing for a pseudo-HATEFUL EIGHT third act that culminates in a religious scene lacking any emotional resonance.

Before that deflated conclusion, though, there’s a lot to enjoy here: Jon Hamm hams it up with a terrible southern accent (an issue quickly resolved one scene later) and even plays on his MAD MEN persona… a pre-credit prologue with Nick Offerman teaches the audience that they’re essentially watching a stage play on a fake set… a star-making out-of-nowhere lead performance from Cynthia Erivo makes you eager to see what she does in Steve McQueen’s forthcoming WIDOWS… Seamus McGarvey’s exacting compositions behind the camera continue to prove that the DP of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ATONEMENT, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is one of the most underrated in the business (not to mention keen on 35mm!)… the heavy dose of Phil Spector hits on the soundtrack both place the film in a distinct era and lend it a populist but sinister character… and Chris Hemsworth has the misfortune of being cast in the film’s worst role (a cult leader with a pedestrian weakness and nothing clever to do or say) but relishes the physical needs of the performance and manages to acquit himself wonderfully.

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A Star Is Born — 6/10

A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)

Just as Cooper pitches his voice down an octave to play Jackson Maine (and it’s about three octaves south of Rocket Raccoon), this iteration of the timeless tragic love story about fame and alcoholism is pitched at a lower level of melodrama. Where the Cukor version was full of big-show 1950s manipulations, this one is marked by an element of restraint and “cool,” despite its maudlin DNA and big-ballad sap. For that, it’s an easy sit: surface-level pleasurable, not annoying, and likable in a shaggy-dog way — all qualities you could also apply to Cooper himself in this movie. As both an actor and a director, he has made a cheap-seats belter; a massive crowd-pleaser that is guaranteed to make huge amounts of money, and is such a surefire lock for Best Picture that even the wrong envelopes will contain its title as well.

But as every mom in the building exits their matinee screenings into blasting sunlight, wiping buckets of tears off their faces, it’s hard to shake the ultimate skimpiness of this product. Sure, it provides a hit soundtrack with a few solid gold songs, a breakthrough performance of unimpeachable quality from Lady Gaga (I can’t see how the seasoned, decades-trained actresses who lose to this relative rookie in February can complain too much), and fierce supporting work from Sam Elliott (his red-eyed face as he backs up his car away from Jackson is the most affecting shot in the movie), but is it really saying anything at all?

First of all, the alcoholism storyline, omnipresent in all the versions, I imagine (I haven’t seen most of them), is both clichéd and muddled. Is it all on Jack, as his brother argues? Or is it Not His Fault, It’s The Disease, as his wife does? Either way, as long as Cooper looks cool both in his sweaty cowboy hat holding a glass of gin or on stage with a guitar, it’s all good, right? Also, if the movie is a condemnation of fame both as a weapon of separation (the bullshit British manager character, totally false and one-dimensional) and a corrupt enemy of art (Ally’s sellout pop hits and SNL performance), then why am I watching two characters who don’t even contemplate that issue, or question why they’re so eager to be famous? Ally isn’t at her happiest when she’s with Jack; it’s when she’s showered with Grammys (barely an award, but apparently the be-all-end-all of artistic recognition) and watching her own face projected to an amphitheater of adoring fans.

Gaga herself likes to investigate the concept of fame as a two-headed beast — her first two albums were The Fame and The Fame Monster, and two of her biggest hits are “Paparazzi” and “Applause” — but the script here doesn’t allow for such introspection. It just shovels in a few platitudes about “telling your truth out there” and being who you are, or whatever, and that’s all anyone in 2018 wants to hear. This is the 5th cinematic telling of this story, but it’s very much about 2018: in an era of both social media likes/follows and of hit TV shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent, it’s never been a surer bet to release a slick Hollywood sugar-bomb giving every shower-singer and YouTuber with an Instagram page some hope that maybe she too will be able to get on stage and make everyone shut up and pay attention to her voice and one-of-a-kind songwriting chops. If everyone is a star just waiting to be discovered, then who’s left to buy a ticket to the show?

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Private Life — 9/10

PRIVATE LIFE (2018, Tamara Jenkins)

A fantastic argument in favor of form over content. It proves that a movie can contain subject matter that I either have zero interest in sitting through, or world views I actively disagree with, and still be massively affecting because of how skillfully it is presented. What Jenkins has done with this funny, acerbic, deeply honest indie dramedy is create two believable, likable adults and put them and her audience through hell because none of us have any choice in the matter. Or do they?

I wouldn’t have expected a modern fertility comedy starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti to end up as a treatise on the Myth of Sisyphus, but by the time this couple is continuing their struggle for the Nth time, it becomes obvious that that’s the vision of the human condition Jenkins believes in, and it strikes home with a thunder. For a few specific reasons, I wasn’t exactly eager to watch a story about a couple in their 40s first going through IVF, then hunting for an egg donor, then sweating the egg donor’s retrieval, more IVF, more money down the drain, and painful scams by hillbilly young women serving as phony surrogates. (People I’m very close to shouldn’t even be reading this review let alone watch the movie). But with each passing scene of exacting composition, shrewd cutting, and swelling, multi-dimensional performances, it became clear I was watching something exceptional regardless.

Jenkins peppers her movie with a lot of striking, memorable dialogue, but she also knows when to be quiet and let images do the talking rather than take a This Is Us approach and deliver every bit of exposition through conversation. One great shot that tells us Sadie isn’t staying with Rachel and Richard anymore is just Richard silently deflating her air mattress. And of course that isn’t the only thing in the room being deflated. Another great touch is when Sadie is taking a psychological test to qualify her for being an egg donor, and they ask the woman a question: “Do you ever feel like smashing things?” Cut to Richard and his brother smashing a racquetball on the court. Here, Jenkins is (not so?) subtly showing that standards for women’s sanity are much higher than those for men, yet also puts everyone in the same boat. All in one cut. And in the long game, it’s amazing how Richard and Rachel’s fostering of Sadie mirrors all the stages of parenthood they hope to actually have, sped up and made metaphorical: feeding their young daughter, then having frank birds-and-bees talk, then sending her off on her first date, then taking her to college. It’s 18 years in 18 weeks, and when that all hits home by the end it’s almost too much to bear. And it makes the final sequence all that much more astounding.

Note: You can’t see this movie in theaters, because every screen is too busy showing cartoons and comic book franchise bullshit. In the ’90s this would have had a healthy theatrical run. In 2018 it was released on Netflix, proving furthermore, for better or worse, that modest-budgeted American stories for adults are finding their homes far more often on our television screens than in our theaters.

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