Dakota Johnson

Suspiria

 

18/11/18

After the sublime Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino could probably have made pretty much any film he wanted to. For some reason, he’s landed on a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo masterpiece, Suspiria. This is starting to feel like a trend. After Steve McQueen’s recent reinterpretation of Lynda La Plante’s Widows, I wonder what we can expect next? Guillermo Del Toro’s On the Buses, perhaps?

I’ll admit that I’ve long had a soft spot for the original Suspiria. I first saw it at a University film society in the early 1980s. (I wasn’t even a student there, but they had the full uncensored cut, so naturally I inveigled my way in!) I had, I suppose, been expecting just another slice n’ dicer and was quite blown away by what I saw on the screen. To me, it was an almost overwhelming onslaught of vibrant colour, copious bloodshed and histrionic terror, quite unlike any other horror movie I’d ever seen. One thing it most certainly wasn’t was pretentious. Sadly, I can’t say the same about this film, which is long and rambling and only occasionally fizzes into enough life to fully command my attention. It feels as though it’s a long-cherished dream project for Guadagnino, and the problem with such an undertaking is that, while the director knows exactly what he’s trying to say at any given moment, the audience is not always quite so lucky.

The story is broken up into six acts, and is set in a divided Germany in 1977, where the news is all about the the Baader-Meinhoff separatists and their exploits in Entebbe. Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a student at a prestigious dance academy in West Berlin, comes seeking the help of elderly (and suspiciously latex-faced) psychiatrist Dr Joseph Klemperer, before running off into the night, leaving her journal for Klemperer to read. We then meet Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who duly arrives at the self-same dance academy, eagerly looking to enrol. At her audition, she manages to catch the eye of influential dance tutor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), but not everything here is as it appears…

While Guadagnino certainly doesn’t stint on the bloodletting and the nudity, he does attempt to intellectualise what was once a very straightforward tale of witchcraft and demonic possession, pulling in strands of other – seemingly disparate – stories,  with the result that they feel clumsily crowbarred into the proceedings. There’s the aforementioned Red Army Faction, and also Dr Klemperer’s tragic history during the Second World War, which, if nothing else, gives Suspiria’s original star, Jessica Harper, a brief cameo. And sadly, the only dancing in evidence seems to consist of people writhing around on the floor without recourse to any music.

Of course, this being a Luca Guadagnino film, it’s not a total loss –  there’s a decent sense of foreboding throughout and some truly jarring bits of body horror – but with a punishing running time of two hours and thirty two minutes, this one is only for the hardiest viewers and those, like me, who can’t resist seeing how a brilliant original has been reinterpreted.

I have to say, my major feeling here is one of profound disappointment.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

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Bad Times at the El Royale

22/10/18

Drew Goddard has made his name mostly as a writer on various projects over the years with only 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods under his directorial hand. With Bad Times at the El Royale, he finally goes the full Orson Welles: writing, producing, directing – and no doubt making the tea whenever he has a spare moment.

It’s clear from the get go that this is a true labour of love and, what’s more, a considerable cinematic achievement. The film looks absolutely stunning and its multilayered characterisations and linking narratives recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on the equally labyrinthine Magnolia. Praise indeed.

The story opens in 1959 in a room of the titular hotel, where something mysterious and very film noir kicks off the proceedings with a loud gunshot. We then cut to the same location, ten years later. The El Royale is situated slap bang on the border between sunny California and dusty Nevada – indeed, a red line runs through the lobby and guests can choose to stay in their preferred state, so long as they agree to abide by its rules. A disparate group of travellers book themselves in for the night. They comprise shambolic priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), angel-voiced pop singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), loud-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour (John Hamm), and the mysterious and sullen Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). They are greeted by the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, after delivering a well-rehearsed introduction, assigns them to their various rooms.

It soon becomes clear that hardly any of the guests are quite what they seem – and that the hotel too has many dark secrets to be uncovered. Indeed, the story has so many fascinating twists and turns, it makes it difficult to relate much in the way of plot without risking major spoilers. Suffice to say that Goddard’s masterful script is packed full of genuine surprises. Just when I think I know where I am, he gleefully pulls the rug from under me, again and again. And each time I fall for it. Every occupied room number is assigned a title header – think of them, if you will, as chapters – and there is much about this film that makes me think of great books rather than films.

At two hours and twenty one minutes, Goddard is clearly happy to take his own sweet time to let his characters fully develop; indeed, it’s a good forty minutes before we even get so much as a glimpse of  the Charles Manson-esque, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s only in the film’s final stretches that he comes swaggering into the action, dispensing violent retribution to whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path.

This is simply glorious filmmaking and if there’s a more intelligent thriller this year, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Bridges is terrific (let’s face it, he always is) but it’s Erivo as the quietly determined Darlene who is the true revelation here, her presence absolutely illuminating every frame she’s in. There’s a superb soundtrack of Motown classics (with a little Deep Purple to emphasise Billy Lee’s satanic connections) and, despite the complexity of those interweaving stories, complete with various flashbacks to earlier days, I never have any questions left unanswered.

There aren’t many people in the viewing I attend and that’s a real shame. Sadly, films of this quality don’t come around too often.

My advice? See it now, before it’s gone. That gorgeous cinematography won’t look half as ravishing on the small screen.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney