Tag Archives: Dakota Johnson

SUSPIRIA (2018)

5 Nov

Luca Guadagnino’s evocative, buzzed about remake of Dario Argento’s supernatural horror Suspiria is finally here in all its bloody glory. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz, 2018’s version – though almost more of a sequel of sorts than a direct remake – is very much a work that stands on its own; it’s something that strives to challenge both new audiences and diehard fans of the cult classic. Set in 1977, (the year the original Suspiria was released in Europe) the film opens on a rainy day in Berlin where Patricia (Grace-Moretz) stumbles into the home of her psychiatrist, Dr Josef Klemperer (one of Tilda Swinton’s many roles here). After some incoherent ramblings about witchcraft and her dance instructors (it’s fitting that one of the film’s first audible lines is “they took my eyes and now they watch me everywhere”) Dr Klemperer decides his patient is delusional. Cut to the mennonite home of our protagonist Susie (Dakota Johnson) who, over a series of title cards, is flown to Berlin to audition for a prestigious dance school. She gets the role, but not after catching the attention of the school’s leadership who have a sinister pact with an ominous supernatural being known only as Mother.

The first act of Suspiria plays out like some frantic fever dream; Guadagnino creates a rich and impressively detailed atmosphere from the opening and employees jump cuts and sound design choices that become more unnerving and disorientating as the film progresses. It’s a lot to soak in at first and we never get the chance to really connect with any of the characters or their entwining subplots. Nor do we need to. The camerawork in conjunction with the editing does most of the heavy lifting here, utilizing the its own cinematic language to establish an overwhelming sense of unease. Suspiria is a powerfully paradoxical work that manages to be playfully surreal and imaginative while simultaneously still grounded in its expression of visceral human emotion. Scored by the dizzying compositions of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the aesthetic setup of Suspiria plays out like a love letter to the European psychodramas of the 60’s and 70’s that Guadagnino assumedly grew up on; almost a sort of romantic tribute to the kind of films that – in the age of the big budget Disney franchise – we just don’t see room for in American megaplexes.

Romantic notions soon give way to horrific displays of violence in Suspiria; it should be seen as more of an occult book of spells than any kind of possible love letter. Guadagnino, in contrast to Argento’s abundant use of vibrant blood, plays down the impact of color in the film’s lavish setpieces, but he does not skip out on the level of unease, anxiety and uncomfortableness from the original. I became physically ill during parts of Suspiria – the breathtaking art direction provides a clarity to details and even simple acts like the closing of a curtain feel weighted and ominous. Certain scenes doubledown on the grotesque factor as an outright assault to the audience’s senses – I haven’t seen something so provocatively disturbing since a particular scene from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (you know the one I’m talking about). However, Guadagnino is less inclined to play things for shock value more than he is interested in the juxtaposition between the obscene and the beautiful. Suspiria constantly maneuvers this exploratory space into a variety of unexpected places, right up to its cataclysmic and frenzied nightmare of a climax. Guaranteed to be divisive among audience interpretations, Suspiria is the kind of work that implants itself deep in your brain and begs you to make some sense of it. If that’s not the definition of engaging cinema then I don’t know what it is.

A sophisticated, enchanting, and disturbing take on the beloved cult classic, Suspiria creates and then deconstructs its own artful and hallucinogenic universe resulting in a profound viewer experience that pushes the limits of conventional genre cinema.

Rating: 9.1

Film Recipe: Black Swan + Eyes Wide Shut + Possession (1981) + Twin Peaks: The Return

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Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

25 Oct

Take a few strangers, a bag of cash, some heroin, a heavy rainstorm, a rifle or two, CIA operatives, domestic violence, PTSD, and alcohol – throw it all together with some 70’s Americana (complete with an abundance of disco soul) and you have Bad Times At El Royale. 

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin In The Woods), the film details the events bestowing a group of unfortunate strangers who happen to be at the same hotel over the course of a stormy night along the California/Nevada border. In fact, the hotel itself straddles the boundary, with half the rooms being in the “sunny and relaxing” California section and the other half in “glamourous and indulgent” Nevada – or so the marketing pitch goes – with a bright red line dividing up the property. It’s in the El Royale’s lobby where we are introduced to a trio of travelers looking for a room. There is the priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a single woman named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) en route to Reno, and a vacuum salesman with a southern drawl named Mr. Sullivan (Jon Hamm). After some chit-chat, the hotel clerk finally shows up in the form of a boyish young man named Miles. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed, and a few surprise guests arrive at the hotel throughout the course of the night.

Bad Times is the kind of film that invests itself heavily in plot. It’s the sort of grounded, single-location storytelling that you see with movies that also work well as theatrical pieces like Wait Until Dark, 12 Angry Men, or August: Osage County. With a film like this, having a character-driven narrative is absolutely essential – especially so when the thing is over 2 hours. Unfortunately, Bad Times collapses under its own weight about halfway through and doesn’t have enough dramatic prowess to justify its lengthy runtime. Goddard is a much better director than he is writer; most of the characters in Bad Times feel stale and onenote. He gets away with it just fine in Cabin In The Woods, a horror venture co-written with Joss Whedon, where the leads are intentionally variations on common genre tropes. Here, Goddard tries to substitute unnecessary flashbacks as a proxy for fleshing out complex character motivations. What he fails to realize is that providing already-thin characters with their own backstory only reinforces their one-dimensional traits.

While I appreciated the overall narrative beats that makeup Bad Times, the characters’ behavior simply does not make enough sense to propel the script along like they need to. The best (worst?) example of this is with Billy (played by Chris Hemsworth), who is the biggest fruitcake-of-a-bad-guy to come along since Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. Hemsworth chews up every line with a portraly that veers on the edge of camp but whose role is essential enough in the story so that Goddard demands we take him seriously (one can’t help but wonder if this character’s most effective contribution here is the image of a shirtless Hemsworth to use in the film’s marketing).

There is a lot to admire with Bad Times – a lot more than there is to dislike. I particularly dug the noir-infused tone and beautiful interior set design. The post-modern story structure (complete with title cards!) is an admirable but obvious attempt to try and emulate Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a film which Bad Times owes a lot to. But unlike that film, (Tarantino is a master at understanding the brevity of writing nuanced, complex characters) Goddard’s work trails off around the third act right when the script should be picking up steam. In retrospect, I liked the film’s first act the best simply because I knew the least about all the players at the hotel and appreciated the intrigue. Most of the second half becomes a prime example of style-over-substance and some parts of Bad Royale end up feeling like a music video that goes on for way too long.

Still though, the film showcases Goddard’s skill as a director who can effectively use the slow-burn to ramp up tension. There are enough clever stylistic choices in the film to keep most viewers happy – including some surprising plot elements that caught me off guard in a give-you-goosebumps kind of way. Bad Times At The El Royale is good. So frustratingly good that its biggest sin might be in exposing the possibility of how much better it could have been.

Bottom Line: Bad Times At The El Royale is a nifty piece of dramaturgical theatre that unfortunately relies too often on underwritten characters as its crutch. 

Rating: 6.5/10 

Film Recipe: The Hateful Eight + Identity + Wait Until Dark + Suburbicon 

Black Mass (2015)

30 Sep

Once the target of every teen girl’s dream in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Johnny Depp has seemingly fallen off the radar lately. One too many childish blockbuster roles with the likes of Tim Burton and Disney have suggested Depp’s artistic prime and affinity for serious adult fare might have faded.

That was, until director Scott Cooper (Into The Furnace, Crazy Heart) decided to make a feature film off legendary Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, and cast Depp as the lead.

Black Mass tells the real life story of Bulger during the later years of his criminal career. Known for his ruthless ferocity and known ties to FBI informants, Bulger was, historically, one of the most infamous leaders of organized crime in Boston.  With a phenomenal supporting cast (one of the year’s best, no doubt) including Jesse Plemons, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Julianne Nicholson, Bill Camp, Rory Cochrane, and Corey Stoll, Black Mass builds an effective narrative with a wide array of housewifes, criminals, prostitutes, FBI officers, junkies, CEOs, and everyone inbetween. The story weaves in and out of these various characters, but mostly focuses on how Bulger is staying off law enforcement’s radar by forging a tight-knit friendship with a certain Officer John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

It’s a compelling watch as we see how exactly these characters are interacting (often in the form of lying, threatening, or murdering) with each other. Editing is fast and speedy, giving just enough time to let the audience digest each new piece of information before moving on to the next. The screenplay, adapted from the true crime novel by Dick Lehr and Gerard K. O’Neill, sizzles with gangster noir tendencies.

Somehow though, once you see past the starry ensemble of characters, Black Mass feels like it can’t escape the shadow of previous and far more prestigious crime flicks like The Departed, (Jack Nicholson allegedly based his character off of Whitey) The Godfather, and Goodfellas.  Though it does offer some interesting ideas within the genre, you can’t help but wonder if this film could have existed without road being paved already by Martin Scorsese.  Black Mass is all stuff we have seen before, but it’s still engaging thanks to some skillful direction and stellar chemistry between a vast array of actors.

Bottom Line: While not quite as innovative or thematically rich as it’s predecessors, Black Mass is a satisfying addition to the gangster film genre and boasts an overdue (and for once, serious) performance from actor Johnny Depp. 

 

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipe: The Departed – cell phones + Johnny Depp in prosthetic makeup