suspiria

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by/nicholas leon
Amazon/152 min.

Horror is not something that is generally looked up to in modern cinema. It’s definitely more of a guilty pleasure or treasure for connoisseurs of trash or cult classic films (which I do consider myself to be a part of, for clarification). So when I felt mesmerized by the astounding skill with which director Luca Guardagnino employs still shots, blocking, and imagery, I knew I was watching something other than a conventional film.

Starring Dakota Johnson as Susie, the film follows her journey through an elite dance school in Berlin during the 1970s. Numerous events of historical context play out in parallel to her plot, echoing the themes of the central narrative but only playing a minor role in its importance. Susie comes to Berlin from Ohio, where she lived an oppressive life in a religious school. She goes to Berlin, in part, to be free, but during her time there, she discovers that what she wants may not turn out to be so fantastic and enlightened.

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Surrounding Johnson’s Susie include Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc, Chloe Grace-Moretz as the elusive and perhaps delusional Patricia, Mia Goth as Sara, and also Tilda Swinton as some other characters which I’d prefer not to spoil. There are many more characters that add to this group I’ve already listed, but they serve a purpose more akin to set dressing that say things and have mischievous looks about them, rather than three-dimensional people.

Of course, for those who have seen the original film, something mysterious is happening behind the doors of the dance academy that Susie attends. Others have their suspicions, but the teachers at the academy have their ways of concealing what happens behind closed doors. It is this air of mystery that Guardagnino lights and directs the film. Faces and bodies cast in shadow while rooms are clearly lit with a stylized flair. The dormitories of both student and staff characters, corridors leading to the dance studio, and even the lobby of the dance academy are lit like a temple, with barely any noticeable light except what is needed to properly illuminate characters in a dark, mysterious fashion. Take, for instance, a scene early on in the film, where Susie goes in for the initial audition to the prestigious dance academy. Susie stands in a dark hallway, and then a door opens. A teacher stands there, backlit with bright dance studio lights. Susie’s face is illuminated, while the teacher’s face is in silhouette.

In hindsight, I personally view this as Guardagnino’s thesis for the lighting in this film. The dance studio serves as a place of ceremony for both the students and teachers of this dance academy, while all other parts are simply dark and gray. That is quite literally true, as all scenes that take place outside the film look like they take place in realistically colored settings on an otherwise quite dreary day. I understand that this is a sort of antithesis to the lighting of the original film, and I judge it not on that basis, but rather its own originality. I was going to label the way Guardagnino lights outdoor settings something cliché like desaturated or overcast, but really, it’s more like everything outside the dance studio is lit this way because the elements are without life, not to say that the dance academy is a joyous experience for all its students.

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It’s nice then, that this film gives the audience people to root for in their respective arcs. Sara, played by Mia Goth, and a Dr. Josef Klemperer become the audience surrogates, characters who have motivations to find out what’s going on behind the scenes. Compared to Susie’s journey, which is almost oppressively static until the end of the film, theirs are paths of change. The scenes that involve them investigating the mystery behind the academy are quite intense, and had me gasping about what was going to happen, likely to the annoyance of the audience members in front of me. Although Sara’s character is less complex than Klemperer’s, with the latter having a fairly obscure past that is dug up as the film goes on, she slowly became my favorite character in the whole movie.

Characters, rather than plot and genre, are the driving force behind the film. I wouldn’t find the darker elements so interesting if I hadn’t taken note of the people onscreen. I don’t want to spend too much time on the darker elements of the movie, besides to say that they are good, if slightly overindulgent at times. One scene near the beginning of the film, for instance, starts out intense, but as it goes on, becomes a slog to watch, as if the director is saying: “look how terrible I can make you feel” rather than just scaring us with the thought of what could be happening onscreen. Otherwise, they’re good, except for a few glaring times that the direction changes the way viewers see what plays out onscreen.

Up to now, I’ve had nothing but praise for the direction of the movie. More than anything, it made me care about the characters’ lives, and even better, it looked darn good. I barely mentioned the way Guardagnino deftly uses slow and still shots, which evoke a belying calm to the proceedings. It’s unfortunate then, that the director has a tendency to break his own rules.

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Character motivations, lighting, and filming techniques are all things that the film does well, and yet there are occasions where it trips on its own face trying to be different about its own approach that it’s heretofore built up so well.

Flashbacks to Susie’s life in America, Madame Blanc’s decisions that have her siding with students sometimes, the academy and instructors at others, and Dr. Josef Klemperer’s life history playing into his character come as interruptions to the narrative, causing me to question both the importance and decisions of placement in the writing. They don’t override how the good the film is, but they are serious road bumps in that they are not very clear to understand.

Other mistakes that Guardagnino makes is messing with his own formula, and also taking it too far. As I said, his best shots are slow and still. Although they make up most of visual arrangement of the film, they are interrupted at times by really quick, really sloppy zooms. Unless he’s trying to replicate purposefully terrible B-movie zooms or somehow attempting to echo shot composition of the original film (which I would not know since I have not seen it yet), then it makes no sense why they are included. In addition, there are times, especially toward the ending, where the film’s already eccentric lighting is taken to an extreme, and although I am certainly not complaining about what I saw onscreen, I do take issue with how it is executed. Deliberately slowing down or speeding up the way people move onscreen works if it is a leitmotif, but not in singular instances, as is the case here. Of that, I will say no more.

This is the best horror film I’ve seen in quite a while, and one of the few that I personally take seriously as real contenders for excellent writing and direction. But it is overly self-indulgent in the way it approaches its own techniques in lighting and editing, which although seems fine at first, just causes me to question why it’s come out this way in the first place, throwing me out of a film that is otherwise quite engaging. But Suspiria is a lot more than what it looks like, and for that I am thankful.

border

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by/nicholas leon
Neon/110 min.

Interesting character traits, shady people, and mysterious plot threads dangling in front of the viewer’s face should elicit a tense, interesting picture, but in Ali Abbasi’s new film Border, a Swedish film adapting author John Lindqvist’s short story of the same name, it just ends up a visually uninspired, narratively tepid slog.

Following Tina, a border patrol officer with a keen sense of smell, the viewer is treated with shot after shot made to look like they were composed with purpose, with the color palette inflected by a gray Scandinavian autumn. Tina’s life is pretty boring. She waits for the right person with the wrong things packed in their bag to walk across her path, visits her ailing father in a nursing home, and has to deal with her probably unfaithful boyfriend.

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This changes once elements of the plot, rather than Tina’s own actions, change the course of the narrative. Due to Tina’s excellent nose, she is roped into doing some shady work for the local PD to catch a ring of criminal offenders. It’s not clear why Tina does this, other than the fact that she’s the best person for the job, and her life is empty otherwise. The second element, the one that actually changes the character, comes with the arrival of Vore. An enigmatic man who has a thing for bugs. There is a bit more emotional motivation going on with Vore’s plotline, with him revealing to Tina details of her past hidden to her from her father, and some pseudointellectual discussion on what it means to be human. The film would have engaged me more, however, if these two parts hadn’t really kicked in until about an hour into the film. Until then, all viewers get are quiet shots of backcountry roads and the occasional interaction with side characters that only serve as meat for the plot to advance, only slimly serving as anything for Tina to build off of in a meaningful way.

That’s not to say that the writing and direction don’t try. It’s clear that with a change in the character come new consequences, and with this being a film that combines mystery, mythological history, and thriller elements, the stakes will keep building, and a neat resolution will remain elusive. That part of the film is actually quite satisfying, not just emotionally but because it makes clear that the filmmakers know that what really matters is Tina’s journey of self-discovery.

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It’s a shame that what hinders that is the film’s choice of genre, or perhaps it’s non-choice. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that Border’s story is literally and metaphorically about what makes us human, and treads the tired trope of using a particular genre to reflect our world, without taking the risk of fully embracing the requisite ruleset. This is what happens when you set up your movie with aimless visual drivel, only to throw in one plot that the character is not fully active in their pursuit of, and then layer up aspect upon aspect in the main plot.

As an aside, I do have something I’d like to say about the genre element of the film. If you’ve seen any advertisement for the film, you know that Tina certainly has an unconventional appearance. For the sake of not spoiling things, I’ll leave it at that. Tina’s presentation is unconventional. The reason for that can be boiled down to the aforementioned cliché of reflecting our world with genres that bend the rules of realism. But the only thing it shows is the filmmakers’ aversion to address real issues about real people. Kudos to the makeup team on Border, because I thought that Vore and Tina were real people. I really thought that I was watching a movie that didn’t star conventionally attractive white people (it’s Sweden but stick with me, please), but when Tina calls herself ugly and the film want me to think it’s being smart, but I have the awareness that I’m watching a typically pretty face wearing a ton of makeup, a discrepancy pops into my head which tells me that, rather than dealing with real issues of self-perception, the film is actually telling me to treat so-called ugly people as unhuman. It’s a misstep, and a pretty ugly one at that.

mid90s/another take

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by/lauren davidson

Admission: my recent viewing of Eighth Gradegreatly colored my opinion on Jonah Hill’s much-anticipated feature directorial debut, Mid90s. Both movies aim to tell a coming-of-age story about children in similar age ranges. Where Eighth Grade takes the viewer deep into the psyche of its protagonist, Mid90s focuses on serving a highly-curated vibe; I recently read an article about the hours Hill spent in the editing room, contemplating the tiniest of details, like what was being shown on a background television.

Seeing the runtime prior to entering the showing led me to believe that this would be a brief exercise in world shaping. I was unpleasantly surprised when I ended up checking my watch multiple times. One could say that Mid90s is severely lacking in terms of a storyline, consequences or any kind of stakes.

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If I were to guess at a plotline, I’d say it was revealed in the long stoner soliloquies from the skater crew, one of whom goes by the nickname “Fuck Shit”. Along with conversations with LA’s homeless population, these speeches hinted at a gravity that Hill was trying to reach, but ultimately failed to nail down.

Still, there were glimmers of the movie which I enjoyed. There was an excellent party scene and the soundtrack is incredible. Hill created a well-thought-out world and the nostalgia immediately sucks you in. If the movie had focused on fleshing out the atmosphere and staying more adherently to a storyline, it could’ve been great. Sadly, the constant introduction of random elements and lack of any real consequences leads to viewer detachment and–frankly—a boring and disappointing way to spend 84 minutes.

 

mid90s

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by/nicholas leon
A24/85 min.

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If you’ve seen any of the trailers for the film Mid90s, the directorial debut from actor Jonah Hill, you might think it a pastiche of superficial nostalgia mixed in with a fun narrative about some young punk skateboarders. I was of the same opinion, until I saw it.

Starring Sunny Suljic as Stevie, an aimless middle schooler with a gaze both dazed and bleak who lives with his distant but loving mother (Katherine Waterston) and abusive brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), the film follows his picaresque narrative as he ambles around Los Angeles in search of a home among people.

Pointless references to pop culture are—with the exception of Stevie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bedspread—largely absent from the film, instead replaced with mostly solid visual communication showing why Stevie makes certain decisions with his life. Yes, the 90s and skateboarding are a major part of the film, but only insofar as they serve as the backdrop for why Stevie and his group of friends get together.

His friends, who go by the names Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ray (Na-kel Smith), are rambunctious types who drink and smoke while underage spit on authority, but ultimately are not entirely ill-meaning, instead driven by their emotions. Hill writes them with believability. They are equal parts thoughtful, rude, and stupid. In other words, they’re teenagers, living their tough lives at home, and trying to make something of it at the local skate park.

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Shot in 4:3, the visual aspect of the film is equal parts inspired and original. Many times, the film has a grain that makes it look as if it were made in the 2000s at the latest (I say that because many films that I’ve seen that were made circa 2000-2001 look like they were made in the 80s). But Hill deftly employs frames-within-frames, a color palette of a gritty sans glitz Los Angeles drained of all its sunny superficiality, and wide shots and close ups composed solely of movement and silence to show the viewer both what Stevie wants and what he thinks. Sunny plays him with a blank look that can change from loving to loathing in an instant. As the film goes on, the experience he goes through with his friends galvanizes him to fight back against his brother and against his mother, turning the lonely kid into one assertive of his place in the world, even though he hasn’t actually done anything except drink, smoke, and barely even learn how to ollie.

Stevie’s friends, however, are not afforded that same type of dynamic. In a pivotal scene after a chaotic sequence that sees Stevie’s family erupt, the oldest (and dopest) of the group, Ray, tells Stevie about the family troubles that all members of the group are going through. It’s a touching scene, and one that is especially relatable, at least to myself, and demonstrates to the viewer why this group is as tight as it is. But in doing so, it breaks that classic rule of show, don’t tell. Hill makes up for this by letting the viewer connect the dots by thinking about the scenes set in Stevie’s home, and imagining what might go on behind the doors of the other kids’ homes, but it leaves something to be desired.

But luckily, that is partially filled in by the performances. Equal parts touching, funny, and disgusting, the acting on display for Stevie’s friends is on point. They’re fragile, reaching for something, but all are stuck in their own unfortunate situations in one way or another.

It’s unfortunate then, that the ending of the film, which leads the viewer to think that there will be room to watch the characters change, are instead left hanging by a thread once the credits start rolling. Again, it both does and does not work. The emotional work done by the characters is complete. They probably realize that certain aspects of their freewheeling lifestyle are not beneficial to their safety, but we don’t see that play out on film, instead, we go on a literal nostalgia trip recounting the fun-and-love filled parts of their lives. It gives a bittersweet energy to the film, and certainly ends it on a high note, but I was still surprised when the film cut to black.

museo

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by/nicholas leon
Vitagraph Films/128 min.

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“Why ruin a good story with the truth?” states a character in Museo, the newest film from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios. It tells the story of two men, Juan and Ben, who pull off the largest heist of cultural artifacts in Mexico’s history.

Juan, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a stoner with seemingly no aim in life, but ironically, has (no pun intended) high ambitions. While working at Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology, he gets the bright idea to steal over one hundred Mesoamerican artifacts from their display cases, and sell them for profit. To do this, he drags along his friend Ben, played by Leonardo Ortizgris. Ben is the passive to Juan’s active, and also serves as the film’s narrator.

Early on in the film, we learn that both men face crisis in their family life. Juan lives at home with his mother, father, and sister, and Ben is caring for ailing father. The legacy of family and shared cultural history, as well as multiple parallels with death, is an ever-present theme in the film. It should also be mentioned that this, in every way, shape, and form, a very Mexican film. From the attitude towards English speakers (you have to be Mexican to understand), the idea of inheritance of indigenous ancestry while at the same time marginalizing indigenous peoples, to the exploration of Mexico that the plot takes.

A dramedy with layers, it is filled with equal parts cinematic restraint and flare, with the film divided along both thematic and cinematic lines. Although I won’t detail specifics, the first half of the film deals with the setup and pulling off of the heist, while the second deals with the socio-cultural and familial aftermath.

 

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The color palette of the first half of the film can best be described as pastel, especially in daytime, with the writing accompanying those scenes being appropriately lighthearted or full of jabs. Ben, for instance, extols that Juan works at the museum as a way to pay for his pot, and the idea to steal over one hundred Mesoamerican artifacts comes on at little more than a whim, not to mention the jokes that Juan’s family make about him for living with his mother and father for so many years.

Ruizpalacios makes limited stylistic use of the camera in this part of the film, preferring to use simple mediums and wides to fit enough characters onscreen so that we can see them talk. But I started to notice a recurring use of close up on Bernal – and I mean it is close up – that caught my eye. These sorts of shots are few and far between, like Ruizpalacios is saving up his more eccentric tastes for later.

And that is very much the case. About an hour into the film, I was wondering where the rest of the plot and characters would end up. And I was not disappointed. I found that, as the film goes on, nearly every aspect of it is heightened (with even the colors getting a more realistic feel to them). Not to say that the comedic first half isn’t as good, but that the themes that Ruizpalacios (and fellow scriptwriter Manuel Alcala) explore go pretty deep into culture, responsibility, and stewardship.

As the film progresses, Ruizpalacios goes all out with the camera in many ways, including a sequence reliant entirely on visual storytelling that is tense and riveting. He specializes in seemingly still shots, as well as meta visuals that are surprising but well done.

On a personal note, I’m glad that Ruizpalacios makes an effort to shine a light on the more diverse aspects of Mexican society. Although the main cast is mainly made up of white or mestizo actors (the majority of Mexico’s population is “mixed-race”) Ruizpalacios made the wise decision to incorporate Mayan characters, who, while supportive, still make for interesting characters and provide context for the wider cultural aspects the film speaks to. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the black population of Mexico, which is essentially (although probably not intentionally) brushed off with a single image and a patronizing remark.This is a Mexican film made for a Mexican audience, with all the positives and negatives that come with colonial baggage, but it still manages to communicate a riveting story with writing both comedic and thought-provoking, acting that is both funny and touching, and directing that takes the film to new heights.

love, gilda

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by/lauren davidson
CNN Films/88 min.

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All images courtesy of Love, Gilda

No matter what side of the party lines you fall on, I think we can all agree that we’re living in divisive times. I think it’s why there’s been a resurgence of comedies in the past two years. When Netflix announced that this summer was the summer of the romantic comedy, the internet exploded. We’ve been starved for it. It’s why Saturday Night Live’s legacy of commenting on politics while providing laughs continues to dominate television. It’s as if they’re saying, yes, we’re in a mess, but we’re in it together.

6_tThe first performer chosen for SNL, Gilda Radner, had a long history of uniting audiences through laughter.  “When I look back on my life,” Radner says in a voiceover from Love, Gilda, “My comedy was just to make things alright. I could use comedy to be in control of my situation.” Radner’s comedy career spanned the feminist wave of the ‘70s; she was the first performer to say “bitch” on television. Radner also saw personal struggles that included a damaging relationship with food; she was put on diet pills at the age of ten. Love, Gilda touches lovingly on the hard parts of Radner’s life, treating them with equal measure as the highlight reel. The film is a balanced portrait of the beloved comedienne’s life. Unlike Whitney, there is no angle, no shock value. It’s a sweet look at the history of Radner’s career and life, which is refreshing.

2_tThe inclusion of current and former SNL players and hosts reading from Radner’s diaries is done respectfully. The amount of material included in this movie is tremendous—Radner’s life was very well documented through tapes, diaries and film clips. There are moments that felt a little clunky—I’m not sure why the choice was made to include one still image while a voiceover played, for instance—but overall, this was a charming film that was respectful to its subject.

 

 

blackkklansman

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by/nicholas leon

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction. So if I were to tell you that in the 1970s, a black police detective infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, you probably wouldn’t believe me. BlacKkKlansman, the latest film from director Spike Lee and based on a memoir of the same name by former Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth, tells that story. And it is that strange truth, as well as the superb direction, that make the film such a triumph. Drenched in a stylized palette evoking a glossy but gritty look of the 1970s, Lee deftly combines filmmaking and writing to create one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

imageStarring John David Washington as Ron Stallworth (who uses his voice to initially “infiltrate” the Klan),  Adam Driver as Philip “Flip” Zimmermann (who performs as the in-person version of Ron Stallworth to the Klan), and Topher Grace as David Duke, the movie is funny, touching, tense, and replete with parallels to divisions cropping up today. The characters are quirky, tough, and conflicted. The themes, whether calling to contemporary issues or how institutions that may be opposed to one another often carry on the same traditions, are prescient and announce themselves clearly, but they never interrupt the viewing experience. The writing in certain scenes may (and in my case, did) make the audience laugh because it’s something they recognize in certain currents of political rhetoric. But at other times, Lee combines archival news footage, photos from lynchings, and clips from films like Birth of a Nation to paint a more nuanced (and, most importantly, visual) portrait about how the problems faced by the characters in BlacKkKlansman were not new, even in the 70s, but rather another resurgence in a long line of resurgences of hatred.image-3

But the aspects that I enjoyed most about the film were the general filmmaking, acting, and writing. There is a scene early on in the film, where Lee uses the long take, quick cuts, close ups, and a sort of collage to visually portray the changing heart of the character who is investigating the event in which the scene takes place. Although the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach that level of cinematic daring, Lee effectively utilizes more traditional shots as well as blocking to convey depth, emotion, humor, and change in the characters.

But the thing that will stick out in most viewers’ minds will probably be the performances. John David Washington as Ron Stallworth is stellar, Adam Driver as Flip is great, and Topher Grace as David Duke is at once evil and bumblingly hilarious (the real Ron Stallworth has spoken that the Klan members he was infiltrating were not the brightest bulbs), Of note is the performance of the supporting cast, in particular the severely underutilized Laura Harrier, who plays Patrice, the President of a Black Student Union that Stallworth dates in the film. Her actions present a foil to Stallworth’s actions, and present many competing ideas of how to take down repressive institutions. Jasper Paakonen, a Finnish actor, plays Klan enforcer Felix Kendrickson with dripping malice, and pumps every one of his scenes with tension.

Last, but certainly not least, the writing in this film is what drives a lot of its success. Combining scenes from the memoir with then-contemporary themes of anti-semitism and misogyny, to direct references to today’s socio-political tensions, Lee and his writing team weave a story with numerous layers that at once provide a good film, and also some food for thought.

BlacKkKlansman is courageous, brilliant, smart, and funny. The callbacks to film and how their interactions with the viewers watching it inform their beliefs and opinions, the both subtle and not references to the modern era, never feel too clever. The questions raised about identity and when to act, what is right and what is wrong, all of it, have added up to a perfect mixture.