Suspiria (1977) and Suspiria (2018)

Back-to-back reviews

Dakota Johnson (centre) and colleagues contort themselves in Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria

I had been saving Dario Argento’s Suspiria for a special occasion, and that turned out to be the release of Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake. I watched the two films back-to-back: the 4K restored original at home and the remake at a packed CinemaCity Picturehouse preview screening. The film is officially released in UK cinemas today.

Jessica Harper in one of the many vibrant uses of lighting in Dario Argentino’s 1977 movie

Suspiria (1977)

The 1977 film was exactly what I expected, and I loved it. The vivid colour palette, especially the reds, and the striking use of lighting blew me away. The film’s score was a bonkers combination of synthesizers, greek and indian drums which will etch itself in my memory in exactly the same way that Cannibal Holocaust’s did. Some of it was ludicrously over-the-top, but it is a 70s Italian horror film after all.

The three irises: Delicate and dream-like paintings make some of the backdrops to the 1977 film

Jessica Harper was utterly convincing as Suzy Bannion — an American dancer going to study ballet in a German school where some gruesome murders have just been carried out. The film starts at a breakneck pace and does not relent all the way to the final reveal. The dialogue and special effects aren’t perfect, but the atmosphere and the scene-setting is as close as could be. I was left panting by the end.

Geometric shapes and pastel colours to create a convincingly surreal dance academy in Suspiria (1977)

The film’s twin stars of sound and colour complement each other perfectly, bringing a simple but highly effective hallucinatory quality to much of the film. The intensity always flirts with your limits, without ever crossing them. The result is a film which I enjoyed both casually and from a more artistic perspective, and one which I’m already itching to watch again.

Those Primary Colours

Suspiria (2018)

I thought the remake was just a bit bland, aside from Tilda Swinton’s great performances (her main one, the secret one, and the even-more-secret one) and some fantastic synchronous contortions in the numerous dance scenes. The director, Luca Guadagnino states that rather than a remake, it is a homage to a film he first watched as a boy. He wanted to pay tribute:

“To the incredible, powerful emotion I felt when I saw it”

Whilst impressive that he has sculpted his own original take on the 1977 screenplay, and it is a very different film, I didn’t feel the movie really was a simulacrum of the sentiments he describes. Suspiria (2018) just didn’t convince me in the same way that the original did, despite a morereal-world aesthetic.

The ballet scenes in Suspiria are finely choreographed

Everything is dulled down — the pace of the film, the colour palette, the soundtrack and the suspense. There were some dream sequences which were laboured and unconvincing. And for a film made in 2018, some of the CGI was worse than some of the cheesy grotesqueries of the original. This made a potentially nauseating early flourish of disfigurement not as realistic as it could have been, although a later fracture did get the cinema audience wincing.

Dakota Johnson stars as Susie Bannion in the 2018 remake of Suspiria

There are hints of some interesting themes, though. In particular, post-war guilt is treated in an interesting way which drew my attention throughout the film. There were also some nice metaphors about aspects of the human psyche. Maybe they were intended to be subtle, but I was just wishing for more of them.

The plot of the original is changed quite drastically, which isn’t a negative point per se. It was just frustrating that the original’s reveal was given away early in the first few minutes of the remake, and I felt this impacted on the movie’s suspense factor. Still, there were a couple of odd mysteries and surprises which almost made up for this…

“Lutz Ebersdorf” plays Dr Klemperer

It’s not a bad film, the dance choreography is bewitching at times, it just isn’t memorable enough compared to the original.

Final Rating:

Suspiria (1977): ****½

Suspiria (2018): **½

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Tehran Taboo – Film Review

Tehran Taboo is released 5/10/2018 in UK Cinemas

Tehran Taboo, the debut film from Iranian writer-director Ali Soozandeh, is released today (5th October) in UK cinemas.  This rotoscope-animated film presents a hyper-stylised portrayal of Tehran with an emotional poignance that this technique of animation, when combined with an atmospheric and sometimes chilling soundtrack, can deliver in spades. Films like Waltz with Bashir, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly have already experimented successfully with this method of drawing and colouring over material.  Indeed, it appears to be tailor-made for this film which could of course not be made, nor released, in the country in which it is set.

Before watching the film, I was very interested in the director’s quote:

“I get a lot of positive feedback from Iranians living in Iran. The feedback from Iranians living outside Iran is rather negative. They are usually angry with the film. Because the film damages the image we present of ourselves to the West.”

Pari

Perhaps this reflects the fact that life for many in Iran is riddled by contradictions and hypocrisies, and the hyper-real portrayal in this film packs a visceral punch for those who live in the country, whereas those who have left Iran may choose to default to a more rosy-tinted nostalgic view.

Tehran Taboo starts with a bang. Immediately, you can tell why this film could not be made in Iran, as a taxi driver who claims he is “not Bill Gates” haggles with prostitute Pari whilst her mute son Elias is chewing bubble gum in back seat of a taxi. This sets the stall for a murky, often shocking, noir exploration of the idiosyncrasies in contemporary Tehran through multiple strands. One of these is a  young musician’s quest to “fix the virginity” of a girl he had a one-night-stand with at one of Tehran’s notorious underground raves, a week before the woman is supposedly due to get married to a faceless thug.

There are moments of dark humour, such as the protagonists’ search for an artificial hymen:

“This is the original model, 100% Chinese.  You know it’s good because the Westerners copied it”

Elias

Later Elias provides a funny moment when asked if he knew sign language and proceeds to mimic a highly offensive gesture he had just seen some children do.   The mute boy is the only totally innocent character in film drowning in various shades of grey, quietly observing the Machiavellianism and the tragedy around him.  Conversely, one of the film’s antagonists is an adipose cleric who sets up an arrangement for Pari to provide him intimate favours in exchange for allowing her to divorce her drug-addicted husband.  Themes of patriarchy and societal misogyny permeate throughout a film in which every man and woman has to look out for themselves, and everything and anyone can be bargained for. The separate narrative threads become progressively entwined during the course of the film, and the tight structure calls to mind films such as Pulp Fiction and Amores Perros.

Rotoscoping seems to accentuate emotional moments, and facial expressions are highly framed, such that even the most nuanced of eyebrow raises become much more obvious.  One of the lead characters is portrayed by Arash Marandi, the go-to guy for genre-hopping films set in Iran but filmed abroad such as Iranian Vampire-Western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and socio-political supernatural horror “Under the Shadow”.  In this film, his distinctive large and innocent eyes are emphasised to an aptly cartoonish intensity.

Pari speaking to her neighbour Sara

The background art is detailed and atmospheric, from the vistas of the never-ending sprawl of Tehran, to the vehicles and alleyways which are explored through the multi-layered narrative.  They are also very authentic, impressive given that the film has been made abroad.  Even if the bleak narrative itself does not necessarily beg for repeat viewing, the detailed and intricate backgrounds which are a very realistic portrayal of today’s Tehran, do.

Overall, the film is a stark and pessimistic portrayal of Tehran itself, which provides fascinating viewing for even those who have never even heard of Jafar Panahi or Abbas Kiarostami, let alone seen their films. Certain aspects of the film are slightly outdated, such as the morality police, less prominent now than is portrayed in the movie.  At times, the pace of the film’s consecutive punches renders the viewer overwhelmed, and I was begging for a little respite towards the end.  

Nevertheless, it remains an apposite metaphor for the ongoing psychological corrosion in the city’s collective psyche.  The film may not quite get the traction required to deliver the social change which is the aim of the film’s creator, but it is another seed on top of a mountain waiting to be sown. We can only wonder what Ali Soozandeh will do next.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower Spoiler-Free Review: The Birth of Studio Ponoc

Last week I caught a preview screening for the debut feature from Ghibli heir Studio Ponoc at the fantastic Cinema City Picturehouse cinema in Norwich, UK. I had consciously avoided any review of this film, apart from chancing upon a somewhat disappointing missive a few weeks before.

The cinema was packed to the rafters with cinephiles, and it was a rare pleasure to witness flawless etiquette amongst the audience (which spanned all ages). The only test for the latter was a slightly overlong, nevertheless interesting, behind-the-scenes documentary which preceded the film itself, explaining the birth of Studio Ponoc. Founder Yoshiaki Nishimura was brutally honest in his statement that the creation of a new studio was deemed necessary for several Ghibli staffers after Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement that he would not be making any more feature films. “We have young families” stated Nishimura in his explanation of the rationale behind the new studio.

Studio Ponoc

Studio Ponoc was founded in April 2015, and Nishimura brought several other Ghibli members of a similar age to himself, with the goal being the birth of a new Japanese animation dynasty. Indeed, Ponoc is a Serbo-Croatian word which means midnight or the beginning of a new day. The pedigree of Ponoc’s crew is not in doubt — its lead director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, has already been a key animator of Spirited Away and Ponyo, before taking the reins completely for The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Other animators have had roles in a number of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces over the years.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the debut feature for the studio, and is scheduled for a UK-wide release on the 4th May 2018. It is based on “The Little Broomstick”, a children’s novel written by Mary Stewart in 1971. The version I saw was in Japanese, with English subtitles. The dubbed version features some stellar voice cast including the likes of Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet. However, my personal experience is that there is always some magic lost in the dubbed versions of japanese animated films.

Film Synopsis (No Spoilers apart from those already in the Trailer)

The film starts with a bang, with a chaotic battle scene which only reveals its significance towards the end of the film. We meet Mary, a well fleshed-out young red-haired girl who does not like her hair and is inquisitive about the world. She gets annoyed easily, particularly at her own quirks, but she is caring and empathetic in her interactions with others. As a lead character, she is excellent and deserves to be the early symbol for Studio Ponoc in the same way that Totoro has been for Studio Ghibli. Indeed, our empathy for her transcends some of the finest Ghibli protagonists: Kiki, San, perhaps even Spirited Away’s Chihiro.

Mary’s world is upended following a visit into the woods, which is clearly inspired by the studio’s heritage, and the rest of the story has a magical theme (as implicated by the title) with segments which do resemble Ghibli’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service. Mary meets a Headmistress who appears inspired by Zeniba from Spirited Away, enters a world of the arcane arts and encounters a perilous situation which threatens all that she loves. The plot is somewhat formulaic and, perhaps, lacks the flights of whimsy and depth from Ghibli’s finest works which could elevate it to a true masterpiece. However, the formula is, like a perfect witch’s potion, brewed perfectly and did not feel derivative.

Visuals

The film is mainly set in Rural England, and the behind-the-scenes featurette described how the animators travelled to England and made sketches of the countryside. Their meticulous research has paid dividends in some breathtaking English scenery, from forests filled with mist to verdant countryside. Later scenes have a psychedelic appearance which seem inspired by The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and have so much detail that it is impossible to appreciate them in just one viewing. To put it simply, the beauty of this film rivals anything that Studio Ghibli has done.

BBFC Age Rating

The film is rated “U” for very mild threat. Whilst I agree that the feature warrants a U rating for children to have the optimum chance to be bewitched by this film, it does actually have some intense moments, including emotive scenes involving animals.

Overall

The spirit of Ghibli permeates this film, and a tight plot is complemented by stunning visuals which rival any of the works of the studio’s progenitor. Despite a fantastical narrative, the magical whimsy of Ghibli’s finest works doesn’t quite make it over to Ponoc’s debut to forge a true masterpiece. However it is an immensely strong debut feature which Ghibliholics, fantasy fans and many more will wolf down faster than Spirited Away’s No-Face.

This kind of film needs to be championed, as a world without the beauty of Miyazaki’s legacy, would be a dark world indeed.

My rating: 

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Isle of Dogs Review: A Ruff-around-the-edges treat for humans of all breeds

No Spoilers in this Review

Isle of Dogs is a surreal treat for humans of all breeds. Could this stop-motion dog-themed movie set in a future Japan be the flick to get the mercurial Wes Anderson some long-awaited mainstream adoration?

I saw this film at a Preview Screening at a local Picturehouse Cinema, the fantastic CinemaCity in Norwich.

Isle-of-Dogs-1.jpg
A cute canine cast – from Metro Weekly Full Link

Plot and Themes (No Spoilers)

The plot, as already outlined in the trailer, centres around a young boy called Atari who arrives on an island full of junk to find his lost dog Spots. It’s not a simple boy-and-dog story, however as Wes Anderson and his writing collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwarzmann have created a pacy critique on contemporary political lunacy set 20 years in the future. The underlying premise is that a disease called Dog Flu forces a Japanese provincial government to quarantine and remove all canines from the mainland. Atari ends up befriending a group of dogs on this Trash Island, including a lovingly characterised antihero called Chief, a stray voiced by Bryan Cranston. The rest of the story mixes broadish political commentary brush-strokes with heartstring-tugging momentsin a beautifully-realised world which left me itching to stay in my seat for another viewing.

The dogs speak American English, though the humans in Megasaki speak Japanese using simple expressions (and no subtitles) which are designed for the viewer to “get the gist of”. This is a fascinating idea which almost works, though there just doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason for it. I do wonder whether Anderson could have predicted the social media uproar about stereotyping Japanese culture, however well-intentioned his homage appears to be.

Cultural appropriation aside, it is hard to avoid the word “quirky” when describing a Wes Anderson flick, and yes the film does have an eccentric narrative. But this is the closest I’ve ever felt emotionally engaged with a Wes Anderson film, where often I find his style and worldview a little too idiosyncratic to fully embrace the immersion his worlds entreat. In this offering, however, the emotional core of the film is studiously crafted, from the relationships between the human characters and between human and dog. There were a few sniffles in the theater.

Visuals
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A panorama of Megasaki – from It’s Nice That Full Link

The stop-motion visuals are, predictably, stunning to look at. Anderson brought over a sizeable portion of the visuals team from his first animated effort Fantastic Mr. Fox to create a fictional Megasaki City using 240 sets and 130,000 stills. The result is a beautifully handmade-style film, and even the piles of garbage in Trash Island conjure a minimalist beauty. Together with more standard cartoon animated elements used for television clips and intriguing takes on classic Japanese artwork seen in various backdrops, this film really is gorgeous to look at.

As with Anderson’s previous work, everything on screen has been meticulously selected for inclusion. Even if the amount of content on the screen is often Spartan, there is still not enough time to take in all the little screen delights, so most viewers will be looking forward to DVD and Blu-Ray releases in order to ingest all the delicious treats that Wes Anderson throws.

Performances
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A typically stellar group of actors for Wes Anderson – From Foxsearchlight.com Full Link

This director knows a lot of people. The cast-list for Wes Anderson films can be farcically imposing, and this film is true to form. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton… you get the picture. Special praise must go to young Canadian Koyu Rankin for his performance as 12-year-old Atari. As with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the voices of the actors resonate through the animated characters they portray and each role appears to be hand-crafted for the voice talent.

Soundtrack

If I’ve made it clear that the first star of this film are the visuals, the second is the music. There are classic tracks from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel films, together with psychedelic rock and swing jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. These are the dressing for a stunning original score from Alexandre Desplat, who just won an Oscar for his work on The Shape of Water. If you’ve heard his name prior to that, he also won an Oscar with another Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Taiko Drumming provides the centrepiece for the score, although there are some whimsical forays into dreamlike electronic music and more jazzy interludes. It is a triumph

Quirks
wes-anderson-isle-of-dogs-040.jpg

Pro-Dog protestors in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki – from technobuffalo.com Full link

The oddities in Wes Anderson films often provoke reactions similar to those toward a yeast extract spread. This film gave me moments of intense pleasure and annoyance, with the balance strongly in favour of the former. His labelling of items on the screen was pure pleasure for a cataloguing aficianado. As were the bizarre moments when characters wistfully looked into the distance. This happened once in the Fantastic Mr. Fox film when Mr.Fox suddenly stares at a wolf for no solid narrative reason. Why not? Similar scenes exist in this film, though not as indiscriminately.

Less successful was the reliance on sudden camera movements in the early parts of the film, whereby the only angle in which characters’ heads could move was 90 degrees, and usually in the direction of the viewer. It was the cinematic equivalent of the non-existent word überkook.

Overall
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Atari looks back at Rex, Boss and King – from thatericalper.com Full link

Anderson’s second animated offering is a cut above his first. It is a genuinely beautiful film which provides a lot of treats, though is ruff around the edges. The clumsy cultural tourism is outweighed by stunning visuals, fantastic performances and a beautiful soundtrack. Barring an upset, this ought to win the first Academy Award for Wes Anderson in 2019.

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Book Review – “Leaving Megalopolis”. What happens when superheroes turn bad?

After reviewing the fantastic graphic novel The Beautiful Death here I thought to continue with another 5-part comic I read two days ago called Leaving Megalopolis, a 2014 book from Gail Simone.

Leaving Megalopolis: When heroes turn bad. From: Dark Horse Comics

Superhero comic books, when told from the perspective of the ordinary civilian, can be outstanding work like Kurt Busiek’s Marvels series which followed photographer Phil Sheldon as he documented this brave new era. However I do find the additional hook of superheroes turning evil a guilty pleasure, and Leaving Megalopolis follows this theme.

The benchmark for me is the plot, though not the execution, of the Injustice book from DC, a comic series which was spun out of a computer game. The central premise of Injustice is that that Superman loses his head when Gotham’s Joker destroys Metropolis with a nuke and kills Lois Lane and his unborn son. Superman sets up a totalitarian state to bring about order and the story features the rebellion against his fascist rule.

Not all the heroes in that book are “bad” though. Perhaps the most similar comic to Leaving Megalopolis is The Boys from Garth Ennis which portrays a world where superheroes have been corrupted by their celebrity and their increasingly thoughtless and rash actions require a secret taskforce to monitor and deal with. I enjoyed the over-the-top nature of the book though the protagonists were rather stereotyped (The affable Scot, the Cockney geezer, the French one (who was called “Frenchie”) etc….). It isn’t a classic by any means, but it is entertaining fluff.

Heroes of Leaving Megalopolis – Do you recognise any of them? From: Dark Horse Comics

Leaving Megalopolis features even more unhinged superheroes who have unaccountably turned into deranged murderers after encountering an alien. It is unashamedly violent, akin to The Boys, and also sends up popular superhero teams (think Avengers or Justice League) in similarly dark ways. We follow a group of protagonists who want to escape the city of Megalopolis where these superheroes reside. The sense of horror is real, though I did feel that the characters were not as memorable as I might have hoped, with the exception of main protagonist Mina and her cliffhanger leaving the possibility of a sequel. I found the art unsettling in a way that mirrored the palpable tension in the writing, in particular the rage of the superheroes and their glee in causing chaos.

The survivors in Leaving Megalopolis. From: Dark Horse Comics

The main criticism was that I wanted the characters to be fleshed out more. Often certain features of plot were insinuated but there did not seem to be any follow-up, for example there is a hint that one of the band of survivors has done something bad previously, but we never find out what it might be and the book becomes sympathetic towards him. I enjoy mystery and complex characters, but perhaps there was a bit too much shrouding in all but the main character Mina.

Nevertheless, if you do enjoy your stories dark and your worlds dystopic, I recommend that you check this series out, particularly if you enjoy the theme of corrupted heroes.

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Film Review – Black Panther

No significant spoilers in this review

I just saw the latest offering in the Marvel stable in IMAX 3D – Black Panther. Alongside Moon Knight and Hank Pym (who both suffer from inner demons), I’ve found the challenges of Black Panther one of the most interesting in the Marvel comics universe. Chiefly, his turmoil as he struggles with the duties of a king and his own personal values as a person and responsibilities to the world as a whole.

Black Panther from Captain America: Civil War. Source: Marvel.com

This is explored deftly in the new film, which gives us a socio-political quandary right at the beginning – can the isolated secret technology-rich African nation of Wakanda accept responsibility to the rest of the world (and its own continent) and open up, using its resources to help other peoples? It’s a real-life problem that many countries face, and is rendered more stark by the fact that the fictional nation of Wakanda is surrounded by poor neighbours.

Map and Location of Wakanda. Source: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #12 (December 1983).

This is a great popcorn film, full of well-choreographed action sequences, stunning costumes and beautiful cinematography and computer-generated imagery. In particular, the combination of these during the fights in water at a cliff-edge were pure eye candy. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed looking at a film so much, and the key feature here is the balance: there is never too much to see on the screen, but just enough for one to appreciate. I would highly recommend watching this film on an IMAX rather than standard screen, although the 3D elements of the film weren’t particularly crucial to the experience.

Cliff Edge water fight scene. Source: Nerdist.com, Marvel.com

The performances in the film were decent, though not perfect. Chadwick Boseman was very good as T’Challa, as were Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as his warrior queen and general respectively. I didn’t quite find Letitia Wright’s Shuri as convincing, but that may be personal taste as she is a good actress in other films I’ve seen. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi was outstanding, and this actor is quickly showing the range in his performances – from an excellent Black Mirror episode, to Sicario, to Get Out and now this performance laiden with subtleties. He’s come a looooong way since playing a pretty stereotyped London Nigerian parking attendant in Harry and Paul. I’ve loved Martin Freeman since his role in the UK’s Office but I found his Everett Ross performance a bit ham-fisted. Andy Serkis was outstandingly over the top as Ulysses Klaue and you can’t help to think he is wasted in his many motion capture roles, I want to see him on-screen! He reminded me of Sharlto Copley in District 9 except even more unhinged. Michael B Jordan as the thuggist Killmonger didn’t do it for me as a principal antagonist – I never felt invested in the character and why he turned out as he did, and was left thinking “What if Daniel Kaluuya had played this role…”. But this is a minor gripe given the variety of great performances throughout the cast.

Cast of Black Panther. Source: www.facebook.com/MarvelCinematicUniverse

My only other criticism of the film was that the humour wasn’t as up-there as I thought it would be – there was a particularly weak joke about “sneakers” which I’m sure was intended to be funny but the cinema was silent. This could be because I had been spoilt by Taika Waititi’s outstanding Thor:Ragnarok which had me in stitches from the beginning to the end. But the themes in this film are, perhaps, such that comedy isn’t really an important element to the story, whereas the third Thor outing had invested itself in being a comedy showpiece, which is executed expertly. In any case, I can’t complain as both films, and indeed so many of the recent Marvel Cinematic offerings, were pure entertainment. Indeed, this studio is struggling to put a foot wrong, with the exception of the absolutely awful Inhumans series.

I would thoroughly recommend this film as a piece of entertainment with some interesting questions throughout.

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