Suspiria (2018)

[3.5 stars]

While Dakota Johnson (Bad Times at the El Royale) does a passable job in her role, and Chloë Grace Moretz (November Criminals) helps launch the tale, they aren’t the reasons to see this movie. The reason to see this film is Tilda Swinton (Okja), who executes three roles in service to the story and the intent. Her main role is obvious, as the Dance Master of the troop. But the other two roles take a bit of effort to see. All three are done beautifully, with the complex emotions and physicality you’d expect from this wonderful performer. Her efforts alone were worth the price of admission for me.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has taken Dario Argento’s original concept and, with the help of David Kajganich’s (A Bigger Splash) script, expanded on it as well as added meat to its bones. This remake is more of a real story than just a psychological splatter pic. The multiple roles for Swinton are just the tip of it. There are dualities and mirrors all over the story, from a divided Berlin to the  Baader-Meinhof connection (and even its subsequent psychological phenomenon) to male/female, high/low, etc. The layering is thick and fast; this is a movie that takes time to unpack.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever finished a film and feel like it came to a point, but have a heck of a time nailing it down? This remake of Suspiria is like that. There is a lot going on with metaphors upon metaphors not to mention just a darn good classic horror/suspense thing going on. But it doesn’t exactly spoon feed you (or force feed you) all of its intent. Some is obvious from the beginning, other aspects develop, and some will likely leave you pondering the purpose. The original was as much art house as it was horror as well, so building on that legacy isn’t a bad thing. It does mean that not everyone will be satisfied, especially when such a classic horror like Halloween is available in the theater next door.

Like the original, this movie is also violent. Whether it is violent toward women or in support of them is arguable. It is intensely weird and definitely dense and inscrutable at times. Guardagnino makes some challenging choices near the end that force you to shift your thinking. But it does feel complete, as I’ve said. The structure is there and, as I chipped away at it for hours after viewing, I made sense of a lot of it. Does that mean it worked or that, despite oblique choices, I was able to create sense out of a chaos? I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

If you’re a fan of the original or like horror that has a bit more going on, like Hereditary, then you should give this a chance. If you don’t want to go to theater, it will end up on Prime eventually, but it is visually impressive on the big screen.

The Happy Prince

[3  stars]

When Oscar Wilde died, he was buried beneath a monstrosity of neo-classical faux Egyptian frieze of his own design…that, of course, had an enormous phallus extending from the winged vision of himself like some kind of air rudder or, more likely, a final statement to the world for how they treated him. So the story goes, shortly after its unveiling an elderly woman came by and whacked the adornment off with her umbrella.

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the sense of that ongoing tale, told daily in Père Lachaise cemetery, is mirrored in this reflection of Wilde’s final years. A clash of ego and society, a sense of self versus a sense of decorum. Woven though the movie is the thread of Wilde’s own children’s tale, The Happy Prince, which metes out the lesson much more poignantly. It reminds us also what he gave to the world and what the world did to him.

Writer, director, and star Rupert Everett (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) wore many hats for this period production. He gives us a tired and ruined Wilde in the last couple years of life, but with a strong memory of what came before. It is an intriguing performance, though only sympathetic through the actions of others against him; Wilde is just not a very nice guy in almost any way in this portrayal, though he is deeply passionate. Everett’s directing is subtle and he navigates a very complex narrative to bring us to the end. Ultimately this is as much metaphor about artists and outsiders as it is about Wilde (the near ultimate of both).

Everett is helped along by a number of solid performances, by the likes of Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Emily Watson (Lear), and Tom Wilkinson (The Titan) to name a few. Joshua McGuire (Lovesick [nee Scrotal Recall]) has a particularly strong bit part to deliver too. However, it is Colin Morgan (The Living and the Dead), as Wilde’s long-time and volatile lover, Bosie (Lord Douglas), and Edwin Thomas as Wilde’s longtime friend that form the structure of the tale and its downward spiral with intense performances.

The Happy Prince isn’t a happy tale, to be sure. I can’t tell whether Everett liked or disliked Wilde, but he certainly tried to tackle him in one big gulp with this first feature script and first time directing. Unlike another recent artist biopic, Final Portrait, while we do get a glimpse inside the mature artist at the end of his days, we don’t quite get a sense of why he was the icon he had been; it is in this I think Everett missed, or perhaps made, his point. Honestly, either works but we’re more used to seeing Wilde as an outrageous and brilliant character than as a broken man. It isn’t that there aren’t moments of joy and glimpses of his glorious past, but simply that it is all through Wilde’s lens of loss with little triumph.

Ultimately, it isn’t a great film due to its pacing and slightly muddled resolution and focus. But it is a disturbing reflection of our current times and a hard look at the end of Wilde’s life without flinching. If you are intrigued by Wilde’s life, it is a look at this period in a rather different way than we’ve seen before in films like Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance or the more recent (and wonderful) Wilde. The performances are a study in quiet longing and devotion, even when unreciprocated. And the recreation of the era across several countries well executed. That may sound a bit clinical, but as I noted, Wilde, who dominates the story, isn’t particularly sympathetic, even if those around him are. It is a film you need to be in the mood or be warned that it may take you some dark places.

Tig

[3.5 stars]

Tig Notaro (In a World…) is a comic with a unique delivery and an even more unique story. I know I’m late to discovering this one, but I was impressed enough with the docu to recommend it to those who also may have missed it up till now.

Notaro was a rising star when events conspired, in an avalanche, to try and derail her. What followed those events was a study in perseverance and, yes I’ll say it, moxy. She took tragedy and coped with it by turning into something of value. Not immediately and not easily, but she did it. That is one portion of this docu.

The other aspect of this documentary is a smaller portion, but adds an interesting layer. You get to watch the evolution of a routine and the honing of a joke. I was reminded strongly of the ongoing edit sequence of the comedian’s efforts in All That Jazz till it was perfect. It is a lesson and a wonder to watch the choices and the subtlety of the effort (not to mention the bravery of a stand-up trying out work to see what’s ready or bombing).

I will admit that while I very much enjoyed this Tig installment, her more recent 2018 special Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here is less solid. I don’t fault her for that, and it makes a fascinating companion piece to see what three years and life changes offered her comedy. I imagine that will continue to evolve because, if nothing else, this docu and her specials prove she is a comedienne through and through, and one to be reckoned with who will continue to surprise as life offers her material.  And, regardless of your interest in comedy, Notaro’s story is ultimately an empowering and positive one.

Fall 2018 TV – The New Stuff (and what survived)

I’m being very, very picky this season about broadcast TV. Just too much out there to watch streaming to add mediocre or underwhelming shows to my already long committed list. (Updated 19 Nov.)

Keeping

Connors – I was impressed with how they handled the hard pivot into the post-Barr show. The show proved it could still handle hard subjects with a sense of reality and humor. Sure there is a political element keeping me here, but I am also being entertained, so win/win.
Murphy Brown – It doesn’t have the same snap and energy as the original, but it has guts and a great cast. The additions of Jake McDorman and Tyne Daily were inspired, and Nik Dodani is holding his own.

On the Bubble

Manifest – nothing particularly new, but nothing particularly frustrating about it at its launch. Curious enough to give it few more to cement its place in my schedule, but they have to get better writing, especially around police and fed procedure or it will be too painful to continue. And unless the uber-conspiracy vibe abates, it will be tossed like last week’s trash.
Charmed – it is as light as the first go-round, and without any of the charismatic star power of Combs and Milano, but it appears to have enough to survive. It could still fall victim to the axe, but it was one of the more complete pilots put out there this season. However, as the season progresses, it is clear they don’t have the chemistry of the first, and some of the writing and acting is a problem. This may fall even further to being axed.
Single Parents – the kids are great but the writing barely pulls it together by the end of each episode. We shall see.
New Amsterdam – intriguing characters, but a somewhat cookie-cutter formula with very weak research, at times. Whether it survives for me will be whether it can find some new take on the medical venue.
The Cool Kids – a great cast and silly humor, but executed by a solid cast despite painful scripts at times. I’m giving it more time. It may never be great, but it could be a nice and empty weekly 22 minutes of escape.

Forget it

I Feel Bad – this came so close, but just doesn’t have the writing to sell it for me. The characters, particularly the gaming programmers, are just absurd.
Hang Ups – the cast is what convinced me to watch…the writing drove me away. It had its moments, but the lack of any sense of reality left it untethered and, ultimately for me, unfunny.
Magnum PI – not bad, but nothing overly compelling. To be fair, the original casts a long shadow and dims this reboot’s hopes.
REL – writing was weak and broad and just not landing for me.
God Friended Me – actually relatively good writing and acting, but I don’t see where this can go that we haven’t been before. Life’s too short to see it all again. Also, I’m not confident the message will be universal enough rather than targeted.
The Neighborhood – just a bit too forced, for all its moments of truth, to work for me for longer than a couple episodes.
Happy Together – despite the potential and the chemistry, just didn’t grab me. Two main issues: lack of credibility and the broad humor.
FBI – While there are a couple of great cast members, neither of those are the leads, who are wooden and the least credible special agents I’ve seen in a while. Add bad procedures, even if with clever plots, and this just isn’t up to the Law & Order level of interest.
Million Little Pieces – This latest This is Us cum 30-Something copy-cat has a good cast and writing with possibility, but was quickly becoming a slog of a soap-opera. Cast and writing or not, just didn’t need that in my weekly lineup.
The Kids are Alright – the writing and cast aren’t bad, but I am definitely not its audience. Too broad, too loud, and too silly.
The Rookie – Really, I’m only here for Nathan Fillion, Melissa O’Neil, and Richard T. Jones. It is possible this survives if it can find something to say without trying so hard, like the pilot did. I didn’t hold out much hope…and I was right.

Sorry to Bother You

[3 stars]

Writer/director Boots Riley certainly didn’t tackle an easy narrative for his first feature film. This movie goes from broad humor, to dark humor, to absurdist, to surreal over the course of its unreeling. A strange journey indeed. Sort of a more grounded Idiocracy, and yet more disturbing for that fact. Riley even consciously nods to Eyes Wide Shut in both his approach and specific scenes.  It is also the latest in a growing collection of social commentaries across many genre (Get OutBlacKkKlansman, etc).

Lakeith Stanfield (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) carries this film with a guileless approach. He accepts all the world has to throw at him and tries to play by the rules and then to use the rules to his favor. He is supported by his primary companions Tessa Thompson (Furlough), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), and Steven Yeun (Okja), who are each on their own journey and with their own sets of challenges for him and for themselves.

Three smaller roles provide impetus. Danny Glover (Old Man & the Gun) and Terry Crews (Deadpool 2) become mentors, of a sort. They represent two sides of the same coin for Stanfield to consider. And then there is Armie Hammer (Final Portrait), who gets to play an understated Steve Jobs-like character that serves a multitude of purposes. Hammer does an excellent job of keeping him human, despite the baggage the character has to represent.

There is no question that this is an interesting film. It is often funny. It is packed with commentary, some of it shouted at a very shrill pitch. But it isn’t just aimed at race, it encompasses art, personal success, corporate responsibility, political ennui, general happiness…the list goes on. Like I said, Riley tackled a complex narrative. It isn’t an easy film, but it manages to keep you as the world and story gets stranger and stranger, through to the final moments. But it definitely isn’t a film for everyone; it really depends on your tolerance for the bizarre.

I Think We’re Alone Now

[3 stars]

Peter Dinklage (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) and Elle Fanning (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) may not be your first thought as a pairing, but the two balance each other nicely with neither’s presence taking over the screen at the cost of the other.  And, as unlikely as they are, they make a credible couple…given the circumstances. And, yes, circumstances matter. These two are the latest to tackle what is becoming a renewed trend: quiet apocalypse films.

Director Reed Morano (Handmaid’s Tale) takes her time laying out the tone and emotional landscape of these survivors. Like Into the Forest, These Final Hours, Z for Zachariah, even 10 Cloverfield Lane and A Quiet Place, to a degree, the end of the world is a backdrop to an emotional drama rather than the point of the story. The movie also manages marry current sensibilities with two classics from The Twilight Zone: Burgess Meredith’s turn in Time Enough at Last and Elizabeth Montgomery/Charles Bronson’s Two. And if you haven’t seen these two, find time to do so.

Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Snowman) and Paul Giamatti (Morgan) round out the small cast and add some necessary layers. Neither is particularly brilliant in their roles, but they are intended to feel out of place.

By the end, it is clear the film is as much metaphor as it is its own story. In fact, it has several messages, some highly personal and human and some social commentary (particularly in the final moments). It is to Marano’s credit that she delivers a kaleidoscope that allows you resolve those aspects that reflect on your own mood and place in life.

As always, watching Dinklage perform is a pleasure. Fanning delivers as well, adding another positive result in an opus that is less consistent for me. This isn’t a fast or even overly intense story, but it is highly human and very effective.

Boundaries

[3 stars]

This is a hard one to discuss. There are reasons to see this movie, but it isn’t ultimately for the story. Rather, you see this for the performances.

Christopher Plummer (Remember) sheds all of his typical uptightness and let’s loose with a morally reprehensible character who is also funny as hell. Vera Farmiga (The Commuter) as his semi-wannabe-estranged daughter manages to present the conflict of an ignored and abused child-now-adult dealing with the fallout. And as her son, Lewis MacDougall (A Monster Calls) creates a third generation casualty of the same. The dance between these three is the movie and is just as often disturbing as it is amusing. Around them are a collection of other interesting characters which they bounce off of during a most unusual road trip.

The issue with this movie isn’t that it isn’t entertaining, it is. And I will warn you that I am possibly giving away a bit here: It is also some of the worst wish-fulfillment and glossing of issues I’ve seen in similarly talent-laden movies. Real issues are brought up in the story. Real moments and confrontations occur throughout. But, somehow, that all gets forgotten or forgiven with barely a blink. Honestly, I kinda had to grit my teeth through the fairy tale ending and final cascade of shots. Writer/director Shana Feste (Country Strong) should be banned from creating scripts until she learns how to really commit and tell the story she intended (laughs, warts, and all) and not wimp out. There was a different road that could have been taken and that still could have been redemptive.

So should you see this? Yes. See it for the main actors and their supporting cast. There are some really good and complex performances. Just be prepared for a less than genuine resolution.

The Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

A six part series that can keep you off balance to near the end is a rarity. The Bodyguard delivers on this point. Richard Madden (Oasis) is the largest part of that success. He brings painful and unexpected layers to the character willing himself between ice block and utterly vulnerable.

In addition to Madden, UK mystery/suspense stalwarts Keeley Hawes (High-Rise), Gina McKee (Line of Duty), and Pippa Haywood (Scott & Bailey) each bring different kinds of strong women to the tale. There are some other familiar faces, such as Stuart Bowman (Versailles), but despite a male lead, this is a heavily female-driven tale. One real standout is Anjli Mohindra (Bancroft) who has really grown up since the Sarah Jane Adventures.

The finale episode is this show’s only real stumble. The breathless rush to the ending confrontation is well orchestrated but is done primarily to (hopefully) keep you from noticing the bad plotting and choices. It works emotionally, but it is utterly wrong technically. Squint a little and you’re fine. It frustrated me mainly because up to these moments it had been so well done. The show as a whole is still very much worth the viewing time, but it is a slightly flawed resolution.

Halloween (2018)

[3.5 stars]

This sequel is different than most. One of its most radical choices is that it discarded every film that followed the 1978 original, even those with Jamie Lee Curtis in them, to give us a different follow-up and one more fitting for the times. The depiction of a woman under threat and not being believed becomes a metaphor made manifest. The result is a bit more than a slasher flick…but not much. Though it tried to subvert that formula, it ended up bowing to the weight of expectation and gave in a bit too often.

Along with Curtis Judy Greer (Wilson) and Andi Matichak as her daughter and granddaughter add some generational expansion and views. And there is a host of potential and realized fodder with some nice talent throughout, including Virginia Gardner (Runaways) and Dylan Arnold (Mudbound) for some nice teenage hijinks. The rest of the cast is good. But then there was Haluk Bilginer’s (Rosewater) shrink, who fills the hole left by the late Donald Pleasence. Like Dr. Loomis, he is an obsessive with his own agenda. This is also where the script is at its weakest and moves the furthest from its updated feel. But none of it is far from the genre.

Director and co-writer David Gordon Green (Your Highness) was a mere 3 years old when the original Halloween hit screens in 1978 and spawned a 40 year franchise. Despite growing up with the sequels, he really managed to make it his own but with nods to both the original and the sequels as we knew them. Stylistically, however, it fits right in with the original. The script, co-written with Danny McBride (Hell and Back) and Jeff Fradley shows a real love for the series and the horror experience. It isn’t brilliant, but it manages a few surprises and some grounded aspects to its plotting.

As a side note, I’ve been watching a number of conversations about why horror is making such a come-back these days. One explanation is that horror is best experienced with others in a theater, that is more fun and satisfying that way. Sure, I’ll give you that, but I think it has more to do with our current state of the world. As with during the Cold War, people want safe ways to feel scared and in control. Then it was primarily scifi monsters. There is also a new trend in horror (Get Out, Quiet Place, It), that takes itself seriously as film, not just pulp. Halloween doesn’t rise to that level, though it certainly takes itself a half-step above pure slasher film by the end very cleverly.

For the heck of it, I also decided to see this in one of AMC’s new Dolby theaters, assuming that sound was more important than visuals for this kind of skin crawl and seat jump film. I have to say, the visuals and sound are pretty astounding. While it doesn’t quite have the visual scope of IMAX, it certainly has impact. If you’re wanting to try it out, pick a film like this one to try it out where you are less invested and think sound will be impactful.

But back to the film in question. If you like this kind of horror or just have a penchant for Halloween, you’ll have fun with this. I wish it had been a little more, but I definitely had fun and appreciated the result.

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…