Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) has less color than the original, but more of everything else

I appreciate that Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not attempting to copy Dario Argento’s horror classic, per se, but the association immediately pitches a number of disappointments to get over.

First, its avoidance of the original’s vivid, lurid color is so aggressive as to be a punk rock statement. The creative choice sets up a dramatic late-film widening of the color spectrum, but perhaps the early desaturation goes too far. Even in a scene where two characters are talking during the daytime, it’s so dark you can barely see their faces. Before you say “you should have seen it on the big screen”, I would counter that this and the also infamously dim Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” were produced for small screens by Amazon and HBO respectively.

Mia Goth in Suspiria
“Ah, Lacan”… mirror stage. Mia Goth in Suspiria (2018)

Second, it’s curious that the plot of movie made in 2018, about female artists and witches, would revolve around a male character. But again, this is a deliberate creative choice, and without spoilers, I would invite you to pay close attention to first-time actor Lutz Ebersdorf’s performance as the psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Still, I felt the movie was trying to have it both ways: putting a feminist spin on witchcraft tropes, while still portraying them as either frequently nude beautiful young women or as shrieking cackling harpies.

It may have less color than the original, but it has more of almost everything else: it’s more political, more gory, more fragmented, and more like a copy of Cahiers du cinéma come to life. If it’s not enough for a character to sigh “Ahhhh… Lacan”, the film is positively scattered with Lacanian mirrors, so much so that I continuously marveled at how the camera was hidden or erased.

Toys buy happiness in the cloying The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Cloying, saccharine, and worst of all, painfully obvious.

Mike Mitchell’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part emblematizes my biggest gripe with most contemporary animated features: that perhaps the purest form of cinema is so often overwritten to the point of death. With animation, everything must be literally created from nothing, and anything is possible. There are virtually no limits to the visuals or sound. But The Lego Movie 2 is yet another animated feature heavily weighed towards the written word — a betrayal of the form.

No doubt a direct result of the extreme budget and time investments required to produce one of these monstrosities, there are business reasons for these projects to exist on paper for too long. Perhaps the financiers could not be wooed by dazzling pre-visualizations and concept art, and instead were convinced by a celebrity-heavy table read of a thick, verbose script, dumbed down a few levels below the basement of its all-ages audience. And so here we have yet another animated disappointment, drowning in oceans of dialog that repeatedly spell out didactic themes, with its biggest claim to visual spectacle probably being something like advancements in a computer algorithm to calculate the glint of magic-hour sunlight upon tiny pieces of Danish plastic.

This third entry in what has somehow become a franchise exposes how derivative of Pixar the premise is: from Toy Story comes the device of children imbuing their toys with life through play, and from Inside Out the conceit that these embodiments represent dueling facets of personalities that adapt with age. But this is to give too much credit to the sub-sitcom characterization of the parents: Will Ferrell literally phones in a voice cameo as a “honey have you seen my socks” type of husband, and Maya Rudolph is a zero-fun helicopter mom whose nuclear option punishment strategy is to take toys away.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

It’s right there in the title that The Lego Movie is based on a toy line, but it’s just plain insulting that the happy ending is two kids maturing and working out their psychological issues through thousands of dollars worth of Lego product, under the gleaming smile of the parent that paid for it all. Even the subtitle is so irritatingly dumb that it barely qualifies as a pun.

Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks can’t dig themselves out of the reams of dialog, but the brightest aspect of the film is the rest of the cast: Tiffany Haddish challenges the animators to keep up with her sheer force of personality, Will Arnett’s material amusingly pierces the aura of self-seriousness around Batman, and I wouldn’t want anybody else to play the pivotal role of the cat than Alison Brie.

Modern America is born out of lawlessness and chaos in David Milch’s Deadwood: The Movie

What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.

The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.

Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie

There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.

The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos. But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.

The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).

The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.

When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.

One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.

France burns with religious mania in Ken Russell’s The Devils

Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is a fictionalized account of the 17th-century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, tried and executed in Loudon, France. Questioning the authority of the Catholic Church is a controversial provocation at any time, but consider: if today, a sober movie like Spotlight (2015) is viewed as brave, then the The Devils’ depiction of the historical Church as depraved, sex-obsessed, and corrupt must have really rankled in 1971. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a company like Warner Bros. producing anything remotely like The Devils in our current climate of resurgent Christian intolerance and fundamentalism.

Hard to find in any form, Filmstruck had what was apparently the abbreviated 109-minute US release version. I think it was part of the Warner Bros. / Turner library, and considering its still-controversial aspects, it’s probably unlikely it will reappear on Warner Bros.’ forthcoming streaming service. Perhaps it could find a home with a boutique outlet like The Criterion Collection, which has been unafraid to release other hot potatoes like The Last Temptation of Christ and Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.

If possible to set its subject matter aside, it’s also a pity The Devils has been suppressed, for it is a lavish production with truly massive outdoor sets and if not literally a cast of thousands, then at least a cast of several hundred.

Oliver Reed in The Devils
It would seem that major Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. were less afraid to court controversy in 1971.

Thanks to the late, lamented Filmstruck for filling another gap in my understanding of cinema history. A helpful reminder to young and old film fans approaching cinema history in non-chronological order: nothing comes out of nowhere. I had long assumed Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Life of Brian to be landmark satires of de-romanticized European history as crazed, filthy, ignorant, superstitious, and chaotic. But belatedly seeing The Devils now, Gilliam looks less a sudden deviation, and more part of a continuum.

I know I am not alone in Gilliam being one of the gateway drugs that sparked a love of movies — the usual suspects usually being 1970s American directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, etc. I’ve since come to recognize the influences that led to so many other classics, but it’s great to know that even now, having caught up with thousands of other movies, I can still be surprised.

No escape from the tyranny of continuity, in Avengers: Endgame

There is no escape from the tyranny of continuity. Like daytime soaps, superhero comics exist in a quantum state of constant churn and perpetual stasis. Characters are introduced and die and un-die, relationships form and split and reform, villains are defeated and rally and are defeated again. Excelsior, and collect your pocket change to spend at the newsstand next month, true believer!

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the apotheosis of comics’ perpetually open-ended narrative, in movie form. It was a painful experience for any humanities student, or indeed anybody who loves novels and cinema. How quaint to expect a classical narrative, now that popular entertainment movies have become what Martin Scorsese has called a series of sequences. Avengers: Infinity War was 2+ hours of hors d’oeuvres before a long-promised fancy dinner. At about 18 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe series by that point, one began to wonder if we’d ever get to the main course, let alone dessert. It can’t be coincidental that the best episodes are the few that managed to wriggle free of the bonds of the larger umbrella story, particularly Black Panther, Ant-Man & The Wasp, and Thor: Ragnarok.

That Anthony & Joe Russo’s Endgame is so drastic an improvement over Infinity War that new corporate owners Disney must have issued a memo on Micky letterhead, reading “OK, good job, kids, but make sure the next one has a plot”. Its classical structure plot is so startlingly unfamiliar for anything with Captain America in it, that if anything, it’s almost too simple, like a video game. Our heroes discover they have to do five specific things to prepare for a confrontation; they do those five things; they have that confrontation; there’s a wound-licking denouement. Bingo: it’s a movie!

Avengers: Endgame
Like much of the movie, this is a striking image. Avengers: Endgame deserves credit for its relatively complex villain (relatively for the genre, I must stress). But I just can’t get over the invitation to take this stuff seriously.

I loved Marvel Comics as a kid, but was more of an X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil kind of guy. I always thought The Avengers were lame, and instinctually steered away from the likes of Captain America long before I ever learned the word jingoistic, from Iron Man before I learned the word asshole, and from Thor because — I mean, come on, seriously? So it’s been a struggle for adult-me to take the cinematic Avengers characters semi-seriously enough to enjoy in live-action form.

Of the six original movie Avengers, only one is female and all are white. We can place the original whitebread Marvel Comics in the context of the 1960s, but what’s the movies’ excuse? Even years later, when the franchise has finally cultivated a deeper bench of female characters, it insultingly limits most of them to a single contrived hero shot. And to get specific with one head-scratcher I just can’t get over: when Brainy Hulk and Rocket Raccoon go on a special mission to Norway to re-recruit an incapacitated Thor, is it A) sexist, B) moronic or C) both that they ignore the last living Valkyrie warrior? She may have, you know, been useful. I mean, at least two of the official Avengers don’t even have superpowers (unless you count being really good at archery as super).

Avengers: Endgame
The women of the Marvel Universe deserved more than a single hero shot, which plays as a contrived “insert girl power moment here” sticky note in the screenplay. Especially since one is the last surviving Valkyrie warrior (a god!) and another is the most powerful superhero of any gender.

Speaking of, can we talk for a moment about how Hawkeye is totally let off the hook for going around the world summarily executing bad guys, without due process? Black Widow literally just stands there and watches him behead somebody. These are supposed to be heroes, with an aspirational moral element. That there wasn’t even a tossed-off line like “we don’t do that anymore” makes me suspect that a chunk of Hawkeye’s story was cut out of the final film, or that the filmmakers lost control over the many character arcs they had to juggle, or most worryingly, that they just thought it was super cool.

Griping aside, I have serious praise for Robert Downey Jr. for delivering some of the finest acting yet in any Marvel movie. His portrayal of a broken Tony Stark early in the film is almost uncomfortably real.

It’s a hard world for little things, in Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is a perennial source of fascination for cinéastes, both as a singular oddity in Hollywood history but also as a masterpiece in the truest sense: not only is it the best of what it is, it’s the only.

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”

The Gospel of Matthew

It’s difficult to divorce any analysis of the film itself from its remarkable trajectory from rejection to acclaim. Watching it for the first time is one of those shocking, startling moviegoing experiences that makes one want more, more from whomever made this — by the way, who did made this, again? And then when one finds out its director only made one film, this one… impossible! How could this have come out of nowhere? How can there not be more? What could have possibly happened?

Noted actor and stage director Charles Laughton sadly did not live to see his only film as director receive its complete reappraisal and entry into the canon. Luckily for history, he saved his sketches, memos, and critically, hours of rushes. Nearly five decades later, film archivist Robert Gitt assembled these materials into the feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter(available on the 2010 Criterion Collection edition). No mere making-of, compilation of deleted scenes, or blooper reel; but rather a fascinating dive into the process that led to a masterpiece.

Charles Laughton The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter

The two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove is perhaps a bit much for the casual fan to absorb, but it’s full of revelatory moments both extraordinary and mundane. In the latter category, it’s bemusing to watch Laughton struggle to coax a performance out of the very young Sally Jane Bruce, who was perhaps better suited to a Shirley Temple-like cutesy comedy. He seems to have also struggled to communicate with Shelly Winters (who, incidentally, between this and Lolita (1962), seems typecast as the doomed, sexually frustrated widow who makes poor choices when it comes to second husbands). Robert Mitchum delivered a remarkably un-vain performance, creating one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters in the sociopathic Reverend Powell. The documentary reveals that Mitchum essentially arrived with the character fully-formed, and Laughton didn’t have to give him much direction. But the film also pierces this bubble slightly: it’s disconcerting to see him josh around after missing a cue (“I would if I could remember my line”).

The Night of the Hunter is so gorgeously designed, lit, shot, and edited that it’s tempting to suspect that perhaps Laughton was great with actors but maybe less of a singular cinema auteur. History lionizes the fabled total control of the likes of Hitchcock and Welles, but Laughton’s single film tempts the suspicion that his collaborators were the true authors. It is true that novelist Davis Grubb provided concept art, but this documentary makes clear Laughton brought the full power of his theatrical staging talent to the Expressionist-inspired visual design of the film. But he did not merely draw upon the past, for his film is ahead of its time in its employ of bold jump cuts and striking aerial shots. He also modestly declined a deserved co-writer credit, and even acted offscreen throughout.

Shelly Winters in The Night of the Hunter
Like something out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, even The Night of the Hunter’s crime scenes are beautiful

This exhaustive examination can illuminate the remarkable making of a classic, but the finished film itself retains its aura as something special, mysteriously powerful, and certainly more than the sum of the ephemera that Laughton left behind. Like its unforgettable antagonist, The Night of the Hunter is dark, pitiless, and gruesome. The initial list of ingredients is very film noir, with shoot-first cops and desperate robbers, escaped convicts and gullible widows, and a classic macguffin in the form of literal buried treasure. But the bulk of the action quickly veers into territory uncommon for noirs: a condemnation of insincere evangelical mania, and a surreal journey into hell by two homeless orphans pursued by a primal archetype, all while slowly starving to death.

The Night of the Hunter
The visual design of The Night of the Hunter drew from German Expressionism

In that respect The Night of the Hunter portends the similarly harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It does, however, pull back from the brink of pure nihilism with its concluding paean to the resilience of children to abide and endure, while allowing for a hint of lasting trauma in the famous line “It’s a hard world for little things”, and in a heartbreakingly sincere exchange of gifts.

In our #metoo era in which we are more conscious than ever of male abuse and gaslighting, including reexamining classic Hollywood film plots. The Night of the Hunter holds up well in our present, and it’s hugely empowering to see Lillian Gish as a formidable woman that isn’t fooled for one moment by the villain. She is the perfect archetypal mother figure, protector and nurturer of children, to counter and negate the masculine monster. She confronts him with the most emblematically male, violent, and dare I say phallic of movie props: a gun, but defeats him in the most emasculating way of all, by revealing him as pitiful.

Netflix’s Triple Frontier is aggro, macho horseshit

Triple Frontier

J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, Netflix’s latest high-profile exclusive, aspires to be a serious Expendables. It draws surface-level inspiration from the likes of Heat and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but forgets that you need more than square jaws and gun porn.

There’s some dramatic potential in the premise of a heist orchestrated by veterans left behind by their country, fancying themselves a band of Robin Hoods robbing from criminals. Certainly none of them are Merry Men, and it fails to seriously grapple with what should have been interestingly conflicting motivations: moral duty vs. financial need vs. greed vs. vengeance. It instead becomes yet another macho gun movie where grim white dudes growl at each other and shoot Central Americans in the head for two hours.

Aggro, macho horseshit.

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 traps superheroes in motels and courtrooms

The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.

Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?

Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.

But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.

Geneviève Bujold fights the medical patriarchy in Michael Crichton’s Coma

Coma movie poster

A thriller set among medical professionals, with just enough scientific accuracy to temper its science fiction, and a craven corporation perverting science for profit? If only Michael Crichton’s Coma had been set in an amusement park, it would have been the most Michael Crichton movie ever.

More than just a dry run for his hit TV series ER, it’s also strikingly feminist — in some ways more than a similar thriller would be today. Not for nothing does an inciting incident involve an abortion subplot. Even Crichton’s own Westworld (1973) barely included any female characters at all.

Geneviève Bujold plays an accomplished female surgeon who discovers and exposes a criminal conspiracy. She is unable to break through the dismissive armor of the establishment bureaucracy, or even her mansplaining boyfriend (Michael Douglas) — an interesting character in that he is not so much an antagonist but an obstacle to her aims.

She is left to battle alone against an entrenched medical patriarchy that stymies her with variations of “don’t rock the boat”, “you’re being hysterical”, and “take a valium”. Even a sequence in which she removes her stockings is no sexy striptease, but rather a symbolic shedding of constraints in her pursuit of the truth.

Noomi Rapace shoots ’em up in the Netflix exclusive Close

Noomi Rapace was seemingly set for big things after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films, but was shortly thereafter cruelly written out of her starring role in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels. I can only imagine how it must hurt for an actor to “appear” in a sequel only as a corpse, as she did in Alien: Covenant. Add to that the additional betrayal of the franchise’s thematic dependence on female protagonists, replacing the iconic Ripley and Shaw with Michael Fasbender’s mopey and boring male-presenting robots.

She’s since been racking up quite the filmography with Netflix exclusive movies. She was especially great in seven different roles in What Happened to Monday, but she was also unfortunately in the inexplicably awful Bright (which was pretty racist for a movie that was supposed to be about racism). Considering her action prowess, I wonder if she was considered for the Tomb Raider reboot that went to Alicia Vikander? Anyway, rooting for you, Noomi.

But Vicky Jewson’s Close doesn’t seem to be the way forward. For starters, how do you pronounce it? Since I watched this in the Netflix app, I actually forgot what it was called, and more than once mistook “Close” for a call-to-action to close the Netflix app.

Since the action thriller genre depends more on tight plotting than anything else, Close is oddly structured and non-dramatic. A good chunk of the story is spent escaping a dangerous place, only for the characters to later decide to return, which is so easy that they literally just drive up to it. A key plot twist is fleetingly communicated through shouted dialogue during a shootout, denying what should have been the most significant realization (spoiler: Indira Varma’s villain was not really the villain, and instead just some generic evil corporation that barely mentioned prior). Two sequences are set in a luxe fortress-like safehouse in exotic Morocco, but the space is not taken advantage of in the way that, say, David Fincher mapped out the claustrophobic space of Panic Room.

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