★★★ / ★★★★
Luca Guadagnino’s interpretation of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” is fresh and exciting because, unlike its inspiration that has proven to be influential and has gained a cult following over the years, a work that I found to be generic and boring despite its would-be shocking images, the new perspective is actually interested in plot and less so when it comes to delivering shlock. What results is a horror film with class: even though there are gruesome images, the terror lingers and festers in the mind. It is an effective genre exercise not because we encounter with blood, guts, and bones snapping like twigs, but that, once delivered, we anticipate the next left field happening and attempt to put together the handful of curious pieces surrounding a Berlin-based dance academy run by witches.
I was piqued by its use of color and sound. Notice how in the beginning of the picture, the color red stands out like a punch in the gut. I was reminded immediately of “Schindler’s List” and how director Steven Spielberg forces the viewer to focus on the girl wearing a red coat amidst the depressed, barren, dead black and white. But the tinge of red in this film is paler, as if nearly devoid of life and about to reek of death. It made me think of the funeral parlors: the couches or carpets there, the various hues of roses placed next to coffins, lipstick painted on corpses to make them look presentable. This color is almost like a character because it can be seen throughout—and yet, like the picture’s human characters, it is never predictable or tedious. It does not simply appear when a key moment is about to occur. At times it is there to be noticed as if to remind us that a pair of eyes may be watching nearby or that a witch is able to see the scene psychically. Close-ups reveal creepy knowing in their eyes.
And then there is the sound. Dialogue is often whispered, at times mumbled, barely audible occasionally. When words can be heard with clarity, the content can be cryptic at times. On the outside, the work embodies the horror genre. On the inside, there are mysterious, curious elements meant to create an unsettling feeling. Suspense grows in the not knowing. And yet—the spattering of rain, dancers’ bodies hitting the floor, bones cracking, antique doors opening and closing—these are almost always amplified, at times to the point where the sound is deafening, overwhelming. It shows that Guadagnino has an understanding of classic horror pictures: there are instances when sound is—and should be—enough to send a tingle up one’s spine. Truly horrifying experiences require synergy of the senses, allowing the mind to draw a picture. Notice that in modern, certainly mainstream, horror pictures, it is often about what you see in front of you.
“Suspiria” is not without shortcomings. For instance, I found the final fifteen minutes to be, for the most part, pretentious drivel. There is one too many exploding heads for my liking; a denouement I expect from 1980s B- or C-grade sci-fi and horror flicks that must be wrapped up due to budgetary constraints or lazy writing. Although a few strands that lead up to such a conclusion do make sense, it is one of those bizarre final acts that feel forced or tacked on. (The final minutes of Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” quickly comes to mind.) I would have preferred a subtle or ironic ending, an approach that the project has proven to excel at—quite impressive for a horror film with a running time of almost one hundred fifty minutes. In addition, to a lesser degree, dance sequences usually running in parallel with other critical scenes gets tiresome eventually. At times I wanted a chance to appreciate the choreography, not the skillful editing. A bit of variation might have been more effective.
Immensely watchable performances throughout: Dakota Johnson as the gifted new member of the dance academy, Tilda Swinton as one of the most respected matrons who takes a special interest in the new girl, Mia Goth as our protagonist’s friend who discovers the role of witchcraft in the place she considers home. These performances, and the characters, are so interesting, at one point I thought it would be neat to experience the story through each of their perspectives.
Io sono l’amore (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love” has a way of daring the audience to look past its beautiful facade and consider the quiet pains and longings of each character, even if one appears to be secondary to the plot, which likens that of looking at a painting and making our own interpretations—most appropriate because the Recchi family is drenched in a lavish Italian lifestyle, from the extravagant clothing to the rare art pieces hung on palatial walls. Like such luxurious items, these characters are to be regarded, perhaps even studied. And yet it is not an intellectual film; it is romantic, focused on providing an addictive sensory experience.
The work amplifies one of Tilda Swinton’s greatest strengths as a consummate performer: the ability to stand out from the environment while at the same time thoroughly belonging in it. Put her in the middle of busy-buzzing streets, inside mausoleum-like homes, or walking around bucolic terrain, she changes, with seeming ease, not only her face or body language but her entire sense of being. She demands that we pay attention—not necessarily to what her character is doing; rather, what she is feeling, thinking, or daydreaming. Emma Recchi, Russian by birth who chooses to “become Italian” but will never belong in her aristocratic Italian family, is a great curiosity, an enigma to be admired, like the Mona Lisa. I could not stop looking at her.
The director, who wrote the screenplay with Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, and Walter Fasano, allows freedom in his work: the freedom to allow the viewers to breathe between the clan’s crucial life events, the freedom to feel a scope of emotions from simply catching a certain look or a meaningful glance, the freedom to look beyond the confines of what a film should be like. I refer to instances when Guadagnino decides to include details, in-between moments, that do not typically make it through the cutting room floor.
He is willing to show us people simply walking from one place to another without any punchline in the course of action. How servants move with urgency while preparing dinner. The rhythm of vehicles and pedestrians as the character in focal point undergoes great personal turmoil. How Emma derives pleasure from the food sitting in front of her; how she tastes it, savors it; how she fantasizes about how it might be like to be physically involved with the chef (Edoardo Gabbriellino) who created the orgasm that is exploding in her mouth and making its way through her senses. It is so beautiful, so refreshing, when filmmakers are free of constraints. What results is an original piece of work even though Guadagnino is clearly influenced by Italian films from the 1960s and 1970s when sudden zooms, handheld cameras, and intense close-ups were generously utilized.
While some may choose to detail the melodramatic plot, I decide to go the opposite direction because, in my eyes, this film is not about plot but about feeling. “Io sono l’amore,” like Guadagnino’s masterpiece “Call Me By Your Name,” places the viewer from the perspective of looking into a specific person’s intense personal memories and coming to understand how and why such life events shaped our protagonist, why he or she must surrender to his or her needs and have a shot at attaining happiness, contentment.
Doctor Strange (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite impressive visual effects and capable performances, “Doctor Strange” lacks the emotional depth and heft that modern superhero films now require. If it were released back in the mid-1990s or early-2000s, it would have been considered first-class, but given that the bar had been set quite high by other Marvel films, viewers with a critical eye are likely to consider the picture to be entertaining in parts but average as a whole. Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, perhaps the material might have been improved upon given a fuller characterization of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), both as a fallen top neurosurgeon who decides to seek alternative medicine after modern science had failed to fix his injuries and as a believer of the mystic, eventual savior of the planet.
Pay close attention to the way people speak to one another. There is a reductive approach to the script, a nasty habit of explaining how a person feels or thinks about rather than showing and trusting the audience to be empathetic enough to relate to the plight of its characters—not just toward Strange’s circumstances but also to those around him. For example, I found the romantic interest, Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, to be overwritten. Scenes which depict the two arguing feel as though they are stripped off a bad melodrama. Good melodramas tend to have implications, the script thriving off the unsaid and long silences. Here, just about everything has to be vocalized just in case the audience doesn’t get it.
The writers’ attempts at humor feel misplaced at times. Perhaps it is because I wish so badly to be engaged with the core drama of an arrogant man unable to come to terms with his broken self that all efforts which change the tone come across rather disingenuous. Or maybe the script does not command a strong grip on the story’s identity and thus its inability to control tone effectively. Having not read Stan Lee’s comics, it made me wonder if the source material had the same type of humor or if the humor was tacked onto the film make the work more palatable, relatable to mainstream audiences. Either way, no viewer should have to wonder.
There are neat visual effects in which skyscrapers and busy streets fold into—or out of?—one another as characters battle it out using their limbs and summoned magic. There is an urgency to the chases that allows it to work in an action-fantasy film. Still, such high-level energy fails to continue once the action stops and people start talking or relating to one another. For instance, the subplot point involving Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange’s contrasting approaches—the former’s steel willfulness at following rules to a tee and the latter’s versatility to follow and bend rules when necessary—comes across as rushed and undercooked during the latter half.
Directed by Scott Derrickson, “Doctor Strange” is watchable and entertaining at times, but one gets the feeling there is more to the character and the mythology. And had the filmmakers been willing to take more risks and trust that the audience is capable of understanding the more cryptic aspects of the title character’s universe, they might have created a film that aimed to set an example rather than simply following an oft-traversed path.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Currently living in Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton) decides to pay Adam (Tom Hiddleston) a visit in Detroit given his increasing depression. Its source: once a wonderful world quickly being reduced to a wasteland of mainstream-mindedness and self-imposed limitation resulting in humanity’s failure to progress. Eve hopes that her presence will help her fellow vampire to climb out of the rut, but the eventual arrival of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s sister, threatens to lodge him deeper into his crippling frustrations.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” rests on its mood and atmosphere to tell a relatively forgettable story of two lovers who have lived together for centuries and are now questioning, in their own ways, if their everlasting lives, given that they choose to sustain it, is still worth continuing. Its languid pacing gives plenty of room for thought but it is certainly not the kind of picture that offers any kind of excitement despite its blood-drinking—preferably from blood donations—protagonists.
In a way, the slow as molasses pacing is appropriate. Since Adam and Eve are able to live for eternity and have been alive—if such a word is appropriate—for hundreds of years, time for them is to be relished. The film concerns itself with the details of its characters’ lives. Looking at the state of their homes, we can tell immediately that they admire art and music, like to read books, and value antiques. We get a taste of their personalities through the clothes they wear and how they are worn. We get an idea of what they like to do by looking at materials left on tables, chairs, and beds.
Casting Swinton and Hiddleston works for the movie’s advantage. These great performers are able to create something from pretty much close to nothing. Imagine if actors of lesser caliber were cast instead. Gone are the subtleties in facial expressions, how their limbs are placed and hung just right to evoke both menace and elegance, the control of movement from one point to another which communicates that they may look human on the outside but inside they are not. Both conjure up a mythical presence about them.
For instance, one of the more memorable shots is Swinton’s nostrils flaring just so when Eve, on her way to the City of Champions, notices a man’s finger dripping with blood. Just imagine: Creating tension from a simple millisecond movement of the nostrils? Only seasoned or naturally gifted thespians are able to pull that off without looking silly.
There is talk of “contaminated” blood which forces vampires, at least the very few we meet, to withhold from drinking any red at the most convenient opportunity. Is contamination referring to disease or drugs? There may be some evidence that it is the latter given one remark about a character spending too much time in underground clubs. Has the contamination gotten so bad that the vampire community is under a threat of extinction?
“Only Lovers Left Alive,” not without a sense of humor, gives audiences time to wonder what one might decide to do if one were given a chance to live forever. I would like to say something typical like “travel the world” or something of that sort. But I propose to take on a more challenging prospect: To watch every movie that has ever been released around the world… including those that are believed to have been destroyed. Places to visit are limited but movies are made and released on a daily basis.
★★ / ★★★★
In an attempt to stop global warming seventeen years earlier, CW-7 was released into the air. But instead of lowering the temperatures to a desired level, the entire planet is inadvertently thrown toward a whole new Ice Age. The remaining human survivors are aboard a self-sustaining train called The Rattling Ark. The rich live lavishly in the front end of the train while the poor barely subsist in substandard conditions at the tail end. Naturally, the latter group revolts.
Based on the graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, “Snowpiercer,” directed by Joon-ho Bong, has a fairly entertaining although standard first half but it is derailed almost completely by the second half when the lead actor must bring to life the motivations and inner turmoil of a reluctant hero. Because the performer is unable to communicate that he is playing a man who has seen a lot of unimaginable horrors over the years, the overall struggle of the class he represents loses traction. By the end, it is just another science fiction film with an interesting premise but fails to deliver its potential.
Chris Evans plays Curtis, one of the handful of survivors in the back of the train who still has all of his limbs intact. Evans is effective in conveying believable toughness and determination, but when he is required to be vulnerable and tortured, I could see through the performance. This is especially problematic with the scene in which Curtis reveals what had happened in the tail section when there was no food for about a month. I felt Evans trying to put on a mask of angst and trying to get the tears flowing. A more seasoned actor would have been more successful at getting us to pay attention to the story being told rather than noticing the forced performance.
This is problematic because Curtis is a reluctant leader of the oppressed. People around him believe that he can lead but just because they believe it, does not necessarily mean that we automatically do, too. In addition, the aforementioned scene does not work because his character is not given a well-defined arc. Clearly, the screenplay needs work.
I enjoyed the dinginess and darkness of the tail section, how one can barely discern, for instance, a person lying down, covered in gray clothing, from, say, a pile of boxes or pipes. One gets a real impression that people have lived in that environment for years so one could almost get an idea of the stench of the overcrowded cars.
Jamie Bell, who plays one of the unhappy oppressed, plays his character to match the environment: rough around the edges, desperate, filled with rage. He and Tilda Swinton, whose character is so despicable surely she deserves everything that is coming to her, are highlights of the picture. I wished, however, that Octavia Spencer, playing an enraged mother whose son is forcibly taken from her to see Wilford (Ed Harris)—the man who runs the train, were given more to do.
There are images that come off completely fake. Every time the camera shows the icy terrain outside, just about everything looks computerized. The buildings that have collapsed look like something I have already seen from a video game back in the early 2000s. The director shows the frozen wasteland several times and it just looks cheap.
“Snowpiercer” will give the impression that it is compelling to those distracted by the action—which are mostly well-executed. Looking closer upon Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson’s screenplay, however, reveals obvious questions gone unanswered, poor characterization especially that of the lead protagonist’s, and its preoccupation toward introducing surrealistic elements that do nothing to progress the pacing and the story. Ultimately, in order for a science fiction picture to impress or set a standard, it must go beyond its cool premise.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a once popular author, woke up and found the front of her home covered in red paint. After an interview with a traveling agency, a woman came up to Eva and smacked her across the face, leaving her a bloody nose. A man came to help and asked if he should call 911, but Eva insisted it was completely her fault. We learned that Eva’s son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), murdered some of his classmates back when he was only fifteen. Most of the community held Eva responsible for raising such a morally deficient child. Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” posed very interesting questions about parenting and its role in raising a child who could function in society. Specifically, are there some people who are born evil? The picture explored this question with succinctly maneuvered flashbacks. Eva and her husband (John C. Reilly) enjoyed traveling, learning about other cultures, and having fun together. When Eva learned that she was pregnant, she equated this as the end of her independence. I admired that the film left her feelings toward the being in her womb to be quite ambiguous. Her emotions weren’t as clear as black and white as most would readily jump into. We saw her examining her figure in front of a mirror. Maybe she was concerned what the pregnancy was doing to her body. After all, it was her first time. We watched her looking listless around other pregnant women who seemed very social and excited about being with child. Maybe Eva feared the idea of giving birth and didn’t feel like sharing her feelings with strangers. And that’s alright. There was not one definite clue convincing enough for us to say, without a doubt, that she hated her unborn child. While she could have put more energy or enthusiasm in being pregnant, the fact is that women react to pregnancy in different ways. When the child was born, it was an entirely different matter. I loved that the film was able to switch gears so effortlessly without sacrificing an ounce of subtlety. From what I observed, Eva wanted to love her son but Kevin was a very difficult baby and an impossible toddler. I didn’t always agree with Eva’s methods and I certainly don’t think we were supposed to. I thought the material was ingenious because by providing us a series of meticulously crafted scenes of Eva’s bad parenting, it was like putting us in the shoes of that woman who hit her in the beginning of the film. The issue was our judgment of Eva although for entirely different reasons. Even I have to admit that there were times when I wanted to shake or yell at her. One of those times involved Eva putting her baby near an active jackhammer in order to drown his inconsolable crying. While I felt bad for Eva for feeling that she was an ineffective parent, she could’ve handled the stress much better than putting her child near a construction zone and endangered him of turning deaf. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” directed by Lynne Ramsay, was smart because, although relevant, it was not about the killings that happened in the school. Notice that the violence was not shown, only the aftermath. By focusing on Eva and her feelings of inadequacy, anger, and depression, the film put a face on a tragedy that permanently changed people’s lives. I certainly didn’t feel for Kevin as a teenager. He was so wrapped up in his hatred toward his mother that eventually I began seeing him as a bomb just waiting to go off. I believe that there are some people who are beyond help. They can’t help it because of the chemical imbalance in their brains. I believe Kevin was one of them and his unpredictability was a great source of suspense.
Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tilda Swinton stars as the title character who is an irresponsible alcoholic and liar who one day agrees to kidnap a kid (Aidan Gould) after the mother (Kate del Castillo) claims that she wants to rescue him from the multimillionaire grandfather. I understand that this can be a difficult film to swallow because of its two hours and twenty minutes running time. Although even I have to admit that it did drag during some parts, I thought that showing Julia’s journey from deep trouble to really, really deep trouble was fascinating in its own strange way. Another reason is that this is primarily a character-driven picture where we see Swinton’s character evolve in subtle ways from beginning to end. I definitely did not expect this film to be so visceral. I thought I was going to see a movie about a woman who was way out of her league as she tries to fight off henchmen and ultimately achieve redemption. I was so wrong because the main character did not want to change, unapologetically lewd and racist. There were times when I thought she really should stop lying to herself (and to others) and admit that she had a problem and that she needed help. But then there were also times when I was glad she was a great liar because her lies sometimes got her out of very complicated (and scary) situations. Without Swinton’s charisma and great timing, I think this film would have essentially fallen apart. Even though the lead character had the negative qualites mentioned prior, I still wanted her to succeed in her plight. In the end, even though she was not the character who appreciated other people’s pity, that’s exactly how I felt toward her. I got the feeling that she was not happy with her life and she ultimately wanted escape because it was too late to turn her life around. I’m giving “Julia” a strong recommendation because it very realistically portrayed people who were drowning in their own desperation. Other people may not agree but I think this film is a diamond in the rough.
Deep End, The (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I love most about this film is its audacity to be atypical. Tilda Swinton is absolutely terrific as the mother who is constantly tested to see how far she will go to protect her son (Jonathan Tucker) and his secrets. Throughout the picture, I felt like I was watching a poker game as I peer over her shoulder, both of us knowing that she has a bad hand, but she keeps calling her opponents’ bets because she invested too much in the round, desperately hoping that the others are simply bluffing. The bleak atmosphere elevated the constantly increasing drama to the point where it almost works as a thriller. I tried not to look Swinton in the eye too much because once I do, I feel like I’m in as much trouble as she is. Her Oscar win from “Michael Clayton” was a long time coming. Another great performance comes from Goran Visnjic who plays one of the men that blackmails Swinton. I thought I knew which direction his character was going to take so that specific twist was a nice surprise. As for Jonathan Tucker, I’ve seen him in movies like “Pulse,” “Hostage” and the 2003 version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but it was “In the Valley of Elah” and “The Ruins” that made me want to know more about his capabilities. Even though he’s not in as many scenes I as I would have liked here (considering he’s a crucial part of the story), he was spot-on in each of them. Overall, I was invested in each character because the situations they are put in can happen to just about anybody. There’s a certain sense of realism and that’s what makes it so engaging. This is the kind of movie that not everybody can appreciate because it’s far from the norm. Instead of focusing on what was said, the film focuses on the characters’ silent moments and decisions, thereby creating a plethora of implications. Suffice to say, I think this film is exemplary in every way.
Burn After Reading (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s something profound in this picture but Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film, failed to eliminate the distracting elements that dragged this movie down. What I love about “Burn After Reading” is its clear thesis: characters mistaking other characters’ identities and intentions, resulting in one big mess on top of another. It’s really too bad because this film is full of talented actors: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and J.K. Simmons. McDormand really steps up to the plate whenever she’s asked to play an extremely quirky character. The last time I’ve seen her this good was in “Fargo.” Another stand-out is Pitt, as McDormand’s co-worker and partner in crime. Both of them gave this film a much-needed life and humor. I wanted to see more of them as the movie progressed but we get scene after scene of Clooney messing around Swinton–physically and psychologically. To be honest, it made me look back on “Michael Clayton,” when the two of them are at their prime. In this movie, they are pretty one-dimensional; when the occupation of one of them was revealed near the end, it felt all too forced, as if the Coen brothers were trying to milk the irony. Malkovich is another character that could’ve been explored more (I love his random over-the-top outbursts) but he’s only portrayed as an angry guy who was fired from his job and lost everything. I love dark comedies because there’s a certain smugness to them that other people won’t understand no matter how many times they see the film, but this one felt way too into itself. But, really, in the overall scope of things, this isn’t necessarily a bad follow-up of “No Country for Old Men.” The style is there; it’s just that it could’ve been edgier and more involving.