‘Moby Doc’ is Not Your Average VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ Documentary, Thank Goodness

After a year and three months, I finally got the opportunity to sit in a movie theater, in this case the Nuart in West Los Angeles. While many seats were taped off as social distancing rules are still in effect, it was nice to sit down in one of my favorite places to be as I have been away from it for far too long. Furthermore, being able to take my mask off to enjoy buttered popcorn along with a Barqs Root Beer made the experience even more special as I had ever reason not to indulge myself in these things as I am trying to lose a few pounds to say the least.

The movie which finally brought me back into a movie theater was “Moby Doc,” a documentary about, and I quote IMDB’s description here, the “trailblazing electronic musician and animal rights activist” whose music we hear on the radio, in TV commercials and in movies, several of them directed by Michael Maan, every day, Moby. But while I went into this documentary thinking it would be the average kind of its genre, both Moby and director Rob Gordon Bralver have given us one which is intentionally defiant of normal documentary rules, and what results is something which goes far deeper than the average episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”

“Moby Doc” starts off with Moby in the present day talking directly to the camera about how we think if we have “the right amount of money, the right amount of recognition, you will find perfect human happiness. But I tried, and it didn’t work.” Not many artists who have been through what he has experienced in terms of finding fame and then suffering a precipitous drop from it can say this as their lives often get cut short at such a young age. Moby, however, has come out on the other side a humbled human being who has found a peacefulness and happiness in life which, as we learn, has often eluded him.

Through the use of animation, crude stick puppets and a troupe of actors Moby has cast to portray his parents, we learn about traumatic his upbringing was as his father ended up committing suicide by driving his car straight into a brick wall, and the relationship he had with his mother was dysfunctional at best as he could not always reach out to her the way he wanted to. What’s even worse is how years later Moby missed her funeral because he slept in after an evening filled with drugs and alcohol. Judging from the animated images shown to us in the aftermath, lord knows if he has yet forgiven himself for this transgression. Heck, I still am haunted by a memorial service I wanted to attend but didn’t as the dates got mixed up in my head. As a result, I still have yet to find any closure on it.

One thing I really liked about “Moby Doc” is how it shows the importance of the arts in a person’s life. Moby freely admits how the act of making music was like a “form of self-healing” to where I believe how it saved him. When it comes to things like music, acting and writing, they really do lift the spirits of those who feel out of place in a society which does not automatically welcome them. I hope those school districts which are considering cutting art classes from their curriculum will watch this documentary and think second thoughts about doing so.

Seeing Moby discover music and how to mix music together is done through the use of home movies which feature him during a time when he had hair. The time when he lived in an abandoned factory seems frightening as he recounts all the horrible things which happened there including people getting murdered, but we also see how he evolved as an artist and a musician in this space to where it makes sense how it provided him with some of his happiest memories in life. This is especially the case when he compares these memories to the times when his ever so famous, and those times cannot compare despite all the wealth and attention fame brought him.

When it comes to “Play,” which is still Moby’s best-known album, its success remains astounding as it came after one of his biggest failures, “Animal Rights.” He was on the verge of quitting the music business and getting a real job, something many artists would be quick to consider as a permanent defeat to their ambitions. But while “Play” started off as a slow seller, it emerged as the equivalent of the Energizer bunny as, while that one kept going and going, the album kept selling and selling and selling…

As Moby delves into the amazing success “Play” gave him, he also is quick to describe how his follow ups did not sell anywhere as well, and this led to an increased desperation in him which many of his friends came to see as a case of complete narcissism. There’s even a scene where we see Moby getting tortured as if he were like Bruce Campbell at the beginning of “Army of Darkness,” and a lyric from Eminem’s “Without Me” song keeps getting said over and over; “Nobody listens to techno!”

Throughout this documentary, Moby and Bralver keep pulling the rug right out from under us as they want to keep the audience off-balance, and it is like John Cleese whenever he is on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and saying at any given moment, “And now for something completely different.” Things move from one scene where Moby discusses his problems with a female therapist to another visual of him standing in a desert or some other isolated place to where we are reminded of how lonely fame can be. 

Some may find the use of the various visual motifs and the non-linear style distracting or perhaps too artsy fartsy, but I found it to be extremely effective in digging deeper into Moby’s life as his work as a musician takes him out of his depressive depths to extreme success and then to devastating lows which made him consider suicide even at the height of fame. Thank goodness for us and him that windows in certain upscale hotels are not big enough for a human being to fit through.

But what really hit me hard about “Moby Doc” is when he talks about how he felt much happier creating music in the abandoned factory than he was when “Play” was selling millions upon millions of records. His point of how we strive for certain things like fame and fortune, thinking it will bring us the happiness which we believe is constantly eluding us, proves to be fruitless is something we cannot deny as he has seen it all and has come out of everything as a relatively sane human being, or as sane as anyone can hope to be in this day and age. It is this state of mind which not everyone gets to as many would be, as Paul Williams once put it, asking for a second cup of fame.

These days, Moby fights for vegans and has recently released the album “Reprise” which, as Peter Gabriel did with “New Blood,” contains orchestral and acoustic arrangements of songs from his long career. Some of those arrangements are featured here in this documentary, and they force you to look at his songs in a different way as not everything about them could have been seen on the surface.

It is nice to see an artist like Moby get a second chance in life. Some get so caught up in the realm of fame and fortune to where they cannot connect with any other human being in life, and this constitutes a tragedy which I hope people in general avoid. But while some artists like Amy Winehouse met a tragic end, he still lives on doing what makes him feel happiest and most fulfilled. Here is hoping others like him can see through the clouds and not get caught up in the shallowest of things.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979)

The original “When a Stranger Calls” from 1979 is a horror movie I am tempted to say I have seen many times already. This is because the scenes with Carol Kane playing a babysitter who is menaced by an anonymous caller who taunts her endlessly as he constantly asks if she has checked on the kids are scenes I have watched from time to time. It’s those scenes which keep getting presented on shows which celebrate the scariest horror movie moments, and it was featured in the documentary “Terror in the Aisles.” Even Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson paid homage to it in the “Scream” movies, and they did to such a powerful effect. Those scenes were enough to frighten me to my very core as being alone in the house was always deeply frightening to me when I was young, and the sound of silence can make things seem even more unnerving as it can get punctured at any given second.

Truth is, I never watched “When a Stranger Calls” until now. I finally took the time to watch it when I found it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. Like many movies I watch on this particular streaming service, I figured I would just watch it for a few minutes and then turn it off, perhaps hoping to watch the rest of it later. But in the end, I found myself watching it to its brutal conclusion, and this proved to be for better and, especially, for worse.

“When a Stranger Calls” starts off with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) to babysit their children while they are at a party. Everything starts off fine with Jill relaxing at the residence and speaking with her friend about the latest gossip at school. But while working on school assignments, she starts receiving phone calls from a man who keeps asking her if she has checked on the children. As the calls keep coming at her with the volume of each ring getting increasingly louder, Jill hears the man saying he wants her blood all over his body. To her credit, she does the smart thing by calling the police who attempt to trace these calls to their source. Of course, then they discover that the caller is actually inside the house…

The opening 12 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” have long since become iconic as it does provide audiences with one of the most terrifying scenes in a horror film, and it does so without any blood or gore. Director Fred Walton does a brilliant job of setting up this babysitter in a normal home environment which is no different from the ones we have lived in, and the silence of them when the stereo isn’t on and playing the top 40 hits proves to be quite deafening. With scenes like these, we are reminded of how what we don’t see proves to be more infinitely terrifying than what we do.

But therein lies the problem with this film, it peaks too soon. Once Jill’s horrifying predicament comes to an end as she runs straight into private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), the story then moves to a number of years later when John is obsessively pursuing the man on the other end of the phone line, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who has just escaped the insane asylum he was committed to. What results from there is frustratingly dull as “When a Stranger Calls” wastes fine actors in a movie which looked to promise so much more than it ends up giving.

It really sucks to say this as this film features a very talented cast who do give the material their all despite it being so lackluster. Durning gives us a fully realized character who is ever so obsessed about capturing the man who laid waste to a family in the worst way possible. Beckley, who died six months after the film’s premiere, does a strong job of inhabiting such an insane and unstable character in Curt to where I never caught him overacting. We also have Colleen Dewhurst on board as Tracy Fuller, a person who comes into contact with Curt in a rather ambivalent fashion, but once she does, things become far too predictable.

“When a Stranger Calls” does eventually return to Jill’s life years later when she is married and has children of her own, and this does result in a much-needed increase in suspense and tension as we are reminded of the hell she went through. We even get one highly effective jump scare, but it all leads to a conclusion which proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

When it comes to Kane, she is the best thing this movie has to offer. She has long since proven to be a tremendous comedic talent in movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Princess Bride, the TV shows “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and she was fearless in her portrayal of one of John Munch’s ex-wives on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Here, she goes from playing a young student and babysitter to a woman still dealing with the trauma and guilt over a horrific event. Kane looks like an ordinary person here which helps to make her terrifying ordeal feel even more real, and she inhabits Jill with an unshakeable fear as the phone rings louder and louder and the calls get more and more threatening. Her performance is tremendous as she made me feel Jill’s fear and desperation throughout.

Now as much as I try to view a movie for what it’s trying to be instead of what I want it to be, I cannot help but think of how much better it could have been. Frankly, I think it should have focused more on Jill and how she deals with all she has been through. It could have been something along the lines of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot which catches up with Laurie Strode 40 years after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers. This would have been more enthralling as Kane is so good here, and watching her trying to process all she has been through is far more interesting than following a cop obsessed with catching a killer.

It also would have helped if Curt had been kept in the shadows, like the alien in “Alien,” the thought of him proves to be more haunting than his appearance. Some people want to see the monster right away, but like the anonymous truck driver in “Joy Ride,” a strange voice can be far more unnerving. The fact the filmmakers give Curt a face within the first half hour just killed much of the suspense and terror they thought this movie would have.

Having finally watched the original “When a Stranger Calls,” I can see why it still resonates strongly with horror fans, as those first 12 minutes are truly terrifying. While the rest of it doesn’t hold up, the opening has long since enshrined the movie as a classic scary flick in the eyes of many. It even got a sequel, albeit a made for cable one, in 1993 with “When a Stranger Calls Back,” and both Kane and Durning returned to reprise their roles. And yes, there was an inevitable remake of it back in 2006, but judging from its trailers, the thing looks like a Noxzema commercial disguised as a horror flick.  

But seriously folks, 12 great minutes does not a good movie make, and this one had the potential to much better than it was. The more I think about “When a Stranger Calls,” the more a certain question comes to mind; Is this film a cinematic example of premature ejaculation? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

* * out of * * * *  

‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

In the interest of full-disclosure, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is not usually the type of film I’m known to seek out.  While I try to keep an open mind about every film, which I believe is one of the most vital parts of being a film critic, there are certain genres that are not my cup of tea.  On paper, however, this film had a lot of good things going for it: Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” “Blair Witch“ and “The Guest”) as director, a stellar cast, and a concept which was ripe for a 21st century upgrade.  In the end, I’m glad I watched it because I can say I’ve seen it, but my feelings about most big blockbuster science fiction movies remain unchanged.

The major problem with the film lies in the severely unwritten and undeveloped characters we are spending time with here. With five writers attached to the film in some way, I’m not quite sure how they overlooked such an important aspect.  Perhaps they were too focused on the main event stars of Godzilla and King Kong.  When you have actors like Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Demián Bichir and even Kyle Chandler, they need to be more fleshed-out.  There is a lot of talk in this movie, but not a lot of it means anything or amounts to much.

Keep in mind, I barely remember any “Godzilla” or “King Kong” films, so I can’t vouch for how it holds up compared to older versions or how faithful it is.  I know it is big with a lot of genre fans. In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” King Kong is being watched very closely by Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), an expert on all things Kong, linguistics and anthropology. She has an adopted hearing-impaired daughter named Jia she looks after who is played brilliantly by Kaylee Hottle. Much like Ilene, King Kong feels a special bond with young Jia.  Jia and Ilene Andrews sign to one another, and Jia is able to describe when Kong is scared or angry. Kong takes care of Jia in his own sweet, fatherly way.

There is also another side-story which is completely unnecessary and all over the map involving a conspiracy theorist podcaster played by Brian Tyree Henry.  He’s a tremendous actor with great range, and he is a true force on the hit FX show “Atlanta,” but here he’s unfunny and just silly.  While comic relief can be necessary at times, in a film like this it feels so forced by the screenwriters. It’s not his fault the dialogue written for him is flat out lame. He’s doing the best he can with a really bad script. Two young teenagers played by Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison join him in his quest to find out why Godzilla is acting so strangely. It just seemed a bit odd to have a grown man running around with two teenagers. In today’s day and age of children being safe on the Internet, it’s just not a good idea to put in a film.

There is also Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), another Kong expert much like Ilene with vast experience in maps and geology. He’s a bit of a goofball, and at times his performance feels goofy and like he’s hamming it up.  Once again, I’m going to blame the writers.  Of course, there are evil mustache-twirling villains in the film who are once again overplayed, and they just ruin the film.  Even though I’m putting a lot of blame on the writers, as actors can only deliver their lines as written, maybe they could have brought something a little extra to the proceedings.  It would have been nice if the actors at least tried to make something out of this mess.

As for the battle scenes with Godzilla and Kong, they are pretty forgettable.  While I’m a huge fan of director Wingard, I can’t help but wonder if he was really the right guy for this project.  He’s mostly known for horror films, and this is not to say he can’t branch out and try different genres. Visually and stylistically, I don’t think he brought a whole lot to the film. It has a lot going on from start to finish, but it jumps back and forth between characters, stories and events. There are things to like in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but they are few and far between.

* ½ out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Godzilla vs. Kong” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The combo pack also comes with a digital copy of the film as well. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language.  It has a running time of 113 minutes.

Audio and Video Info: The film is presented in 1080p High Definition.  The audio is Dolby Atmos True HD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, Spanish, and French.  It also has subtitles in English, Spanish and French.

Special Features:

Kong Discovers Hollow Earth

Kong Leaves Home

Behold Kong’s Temple

The Evolution of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World

Godzilla Attacks

The Phenomenon of GŌJIRA, King of the Monsters

Round One: Battle at Sea

Round Two: One Will Fall

Titan Tag Team: The God and the King

The Rise of MechaGodzilla

Commentary by Director Adam Wingard

Should You Buy It?

I’m so disappointed to have to give this film such a negative review and rating.  I don’t think you should buy it, and I don’t even think it’s worth a rental.  Maybe I’m not the audience for this film.  I can recognize and acknowledge that.  If you like these types of films, maybe you will enjoy “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but I found it laborious and quite tedious.  I received very little enjoyment out of it.  I will say there are plenty of special features on this Blu-ray Combo Pack.  So, if you did enjoy this film and are a fan of Godzilla and King Kong, maybe you will see in the film what I didn’t. I’ll say this, if you were not a fan of these two superstar monsters before watching this movie, I don’t think you will become a fan after watching it.  There isn’t much to hang your hat on here.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Stalking Laura’ – A Better Than Average Made for Television Movie

In my review of “The Assistant,” I wrote about how the Human Resources department is the place people should go to if they feel threatened or uncomfortable in their working environment. The fact HR failed the film’s main character of Jane proved to be a devastating moment as the company she works at had long become knowingly complicit in its boss’ sexual harassment of aspiring actresses. But on Reddit, some schmuck called this scene accurate as he felt HR’s job is to protect the company above all else. I felt this was crap as they should be responsible to the needs and concerns of the employees as a healthy working environment is more beneficial than a toxic one. Then again, I have worked at companies where employee concerns were not always taken as seriously as they should have.

I bring this up because I found myself watching “Stalking Laura” (a.k.a. “I Can Make You Love Me”) on Amazon Prime which has just been given a 4K restoration. It features a scene in which Laura Black (played by Brooke Shields) goes to HR to report on one of her co-workers, Richard Farley (Richard Thomas), who has been endlessly harassing her. Instead, the HR director informs Laura of how her smiling at Richard may have invited such harassment and that she should watch how she acts around him. As the movie goes on, we see how the company is keen to protect Richard even after it has terminated his employment and given him a letter of recommendation to other workplaces.

“Stalking Laura” is a 1993 television movie which is, yes, based on a true story. Richard Farley was a software technician who worked at ESL Incorporated in Sunnyvale, California, and he became infinitely smitten with Deborah Black upon first seeing her. Richard asked her out many times, but Deborah felt any relationship the two of them would ever have should be professional more than anything else. For one reason or another, he believed Deborah was destined to be the love of his life, and he was determined to make her see this no matter what.

Deborah eventually filed a restraining order against Richard, and a court date was set for February 17, 1988 to make it permanent. But a day before this, Richard drove up to his old office loaded with a huge arsenal of weapons and bullets, and he laid waste to it and killed seven people and wounded four others including Laura. Richard eventually surrendered hours later and was later convicted of first-degree murder and has been living on death row at San Quentin ever since. As for Laura, she managed to make it out of the building after being shot in the left shoulder, and it took several surgeries for her to regain even partial use her shoulder.

“Stalking Laura” starts off with Laura leaving her family in Virginia and driving out to her new place of employment, Kensitron Electronics International (KEI, renamed for obvious reasons) in Silicon Valley, California. During a tour given to her by Chris (William Allen Young), she comes to meet Richard who is immediately smitten with her. After a nice lunch, he invites her to attend a sporting event with him as he just happens to have a couple of tickets on hand. Laura politely declines as she just met him, but this does not deter him from pursuing her further.

We watch as Richard spies on Laura during her aerobics class where she takes off her shirt to reveal the leotard she is wearing underneath, and we cringe as he continually tries to forge an undying connection to her even while she rejects his advances at every and any given opportunity. But when Laura appears to laugh at Richard as he watches her during a softball game, that’s when he really starts going off the rails.

Look, I have never been a big fan of television movies as they seem inevitably burdened by cliches and a formula they can never escape from. “Stalking Laura,” however, proved to be much better than the average TV movie as it does not present this true story in a shallow way. We see and understand just how brutal the harassment Laura is forced to endure. At one point, Richard gives Laura a small remote-controlled tractor as punishment for laughing at him as he feels the need to treat her like a child as a result. This makes Laura’s first scene with HR all the more infuriating as she is made to believe by the department director how she was the one who exacerbated the incident.

When it comes to Brooke Shields, her career as a model for a time seemed far more laudable than her work as an actress. While she received acclaim for performance in Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” her work in “Endless Love,” “Sahara,” “The Blue Lagoon” (a film best appreciated with the sound turned off) and “Brenda Starr” were loudly disparaged. But in “Stalking Laura,” she gives a strong performance as a bright-eyed new employee who is forced to stand up for herself when a male co-worker harasses her to an endless extent. You cannot blame Laura for getting in the HR director’s face when the moment calls for it, and Shields makes it count for all it is worth.

Many know Richard Thomas from his work on “The Waltons,” but I remember him best for playing Bill Denbrough in the miniseries version of Stephen King’s “It.” Regardless, Thomas inhabits his character, also named Richard, with a frightening enthusiasm as he pursues Laura relentlessly even after she makes it perfectly clear she wants nothing to do with him. While Richard looks innocent and friendly at first glance, Thomas makes us see the cracks in his psyche which worsen to where his desperation leads him to resort to violence. The actor is especially chilling when he tells the HR director he is prepared to kill himself and his co-workers if he is fired from the company. Thomas makes you see how far Richard is willing to go, and it is infinitely chilling to watch him purchase 2,000 rounds of ammunition for his shotgun. Even the gun store owner is freaked out at this request, and someone like him is always looking to make a big sale.

The last half of “Stalking Laura” deals with Richard laying waste to his former place of employment while armed with a barrage of firepower. Being this is a television movie, the blood and gore are kept to a minimum, but the rampage is still pretty terrifying. Director Michael Switzer keeps the tension running high up until the last scene where we can finally take a breath as this desperate situation comes to a conclusion. The most unnerving moments come when the characters stuck in the building hear loud gunshots from a distance. This should give everyone an idea of how terrifying it is to be stuck in a school shooting or something equivalent as you cannot tell if it is safe to stay or go. Seeing your co-workers lying dead under fluorescent lights is brutal enough, but hearing guns going off close by is enough to make one hide under a desk, any desk.

Other things worth pointing out here are how the police characters introduced to deal with this shooting are given various dimensions even though they are not given much screen time. While they want to resolve this violent situation, they all know it may involve a sniper eliminating the shooter at any given opportunity. There is also a nice score composed by Sylvester Levay, and I say this even though his main theme to this film sounds like something out of a Cinemax skin flick.

We do not see many movies like “Stalking Laura” these days as shootings like the one portrayed here have become far too commonplace in America. The only other movie I can think of which covered a shooting like this was Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” which served as a meditation on the events at Columbine High School. Watching something like this should serve as a reminder of how senseless shootings like these are as they accomplish nothing. But with these violence occurrences still happening at alarming numbers in America, one has to wonder if enough people will listen.

But hey, at least HR did the right thing by firing Richard. Of course, this was after Laura made them do something about her problem. And yes, the HR director did describe his termination as the result of poor work performance, and that’s even after he told the director he has weapons and would kill people. When it came to the restraining order, Laura had to get it herself as the company no longer had to deal with the situation since Richard was fired. So seriously, HR did attest to the needs of a certain employee, right? RIGHT?!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Christine’ Starring Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck

The tragic tale of Christine Chubbuck is one which many, including myself, cannot help but be morbidly fascinated by. She was a television reporter who, on the morning of July 15, 1974, reported on three national news stories and a shooting which occurred at a local restaurant named Beef & Bottle. When footage of the restaurant shooting jammed and could not be played, she said, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.” She then pulled out a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver, placed it behind her right ear and pulled the trigger. She died of her self-inflicted gunshot wound 14 hours later.

Many have tried to seek out the footage of Christine’s final moments, but those closest to her have done their damndest to keep it out of everyone’s’ hands as they never want it to be seen on any television screen ever again. With the 2016 film “Christine,” audiences will get a chance to see how this on-camera suicide went down, but neither director Antonio Campos or screenwriter Craig Shilowich are looking to exploit this sad death in any way, shape or form. Instead, they are far more interested in looking into what could have led this talented young individual to take her life ever so suddenly.

We are transported back to Sarasota, Florida in 1974 where Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works at a local television station at which she reports on human interest stories that present a positive look at the world in general. She appears to get along well with her colleagues which include camera operator Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia), and she has an unrequited crush on fellow reporter George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall). When she isn’t reporting, she’s performing puppet shows for mentally handicapped kids. But while she may appear happy on the surface, we quickly see she is suffering. Moreover, she is suffering in ways not everyone can easily see.

While Christine is determined to report on human interest stories, her boss Michael Nelson (the great Tracy Letts) demands she focus more on crime stories as they bring in bigger ratings. She protests as such stories seem purely exploitive to her, but the term “if it bleeds, it leads” has long since entered Michael’s lexicon, and neither he nor any other television station manager can get themselves to look away from this especially when it comes to ratings. Christine acquires a police scanner to find grittier stories, but her intention to please Michael comes up painfully short as what she comes up with is not nearly enough.

As for Christine’s personal life, it’s not fairing much better. She still lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), but they appear a bit distant from one another. This distance grows even stronger when Peg finds a new boyfriend whom Christine has a hard time warming up to. Even when she gets a much-needed hug from Peg, it is not enough to comfort her during the perfect storm of her depression.

And then there’s the issue of the stomach pains she has been feeling for a while. Christine is eager to find a husband and have children, but she is dealt a vicious blow when her doctor (played by Morgan Spector) finds one of her ovaries may have to be removed, decreasing her ability to bear a child. It was at this point I kept waiting for the song “Born Under a Bad Sign” to start playing on the soundtrack as if she didn’t have bad luck, she wouldn’t have any luck at all. Of course, pointing this out would have been obvious and cruel.

At the center of “Christine” is Rebecca Hall who gives one of the most definitive performances of a character suffering from depression and borderline personality disorder. She makes you feel her character’s deepest longings as well as her visible discomfort in being around big crowds of people. I can relate to her wanting to get close to someone and yet suffering a fight or flight moment as she suddenly wants to get away from a situation she has long since become uncomfortable being in. It’s like you desperately want to belong, and yet you also find yourself wanting to run away. Depression is a serious disease which has those afflicted with it suffering from irrational fears to where making certain decisions can be much harder than it ever should.

Another performance worth singling out here is Michael C. Hall’s as George Peter Ryan. When I first saw Michael here, I figured he would be playing George as the average egotistical reporter who would be quick to spurn Christine’s advances at any given opportunity, but the “Dexter” actor instead plays to where he takes her to a place where she can be heard. This leads to one of the most unexpected scenes in the film as I figured things would lead to an inevitably heartbreaking moment, but the filmmakers were not about to give us something predictable.

In some ways, I wish “Christine” dug deeper into its main character and her sadly crippled state of mind. While it does not just skip over the surface, I wanted it to examine other elements of her life which may have led her to make a permanent solution to what we all should see is a temporary problem. We never get to learn of her life as a child or of previous relationships she had with others, and this may have given the audience a broader understanding of her state of mind.

But when all is said and done, “Christine” is a thoughtful portrait of an individual whose life deserves to be known for more than her final and fatal act. While her deadly decision to end her life in a very public way may make her existence a study in morbid curiosity, the filmmakers are intent on making us see the individual at the center of it all. No one should simply be remembered for one act they committed as there is more to a person than meets the eye.

When I think of Christine Chubbuck, I am reminded of a couple of songs by my favorite artists. One is Sarah McLachlan whose lyrics for her song “Black” left quite the impression on me:

“If I cried me a river of all my confessions

Would I drown in my shallow regret?

As the walls are closing in

And the colors fade to black

And my eyes are falling fast and deep into the sea

And in darkness all that I can see

The frightened and the weak

Are forced to cling to mistakes they know nothing of

At mercy are the meek.”

And then there’s Elton John’s title track from the album of the same name, “Too Low for Zero:”

“I’m too low for zero

I’m on a losing streak

I got myself in a bad patch lately

I can’t seem to get much sleep

I’m too low for zero

I wind up counting sheep

Nothing seems to make much sense

It’s all just Greek to me

You know I’m too low, too low, too low for zero

You know I’m too low, too low, too low for zero.”

It can be far too easy to fall into the state of depression before you know it, and my hope is you will never be afraid to ask for help. Christine’s problems happened during a time where I cannot help but think the world at large was unaware of how serious mental illness can be. For those of you watching this film today, I hope you know how serious it is and that there is no shame in asking others to assist you in lifting you out of an emotional dark hole. Christine deserved such assistance, and you do as well.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Stepfather III’ – A Truly Pathetic Horror Sequel

It is only with a surprising amount of free time that I found myself watching “Stepfather III.” Its reputation is so bad that it did not even merit a theatrical release. Yes, it was made for television, but it looks too cheap even for Cinemax. Even Terry O’Quinn, who was so terrifying as Jerry Blake in the previous “Stepfather” movies, bailed on this one. Still, curiosity overtook me as I sat down to see how Jerry’s quest for the perfect family could continue even after being stabbed more times than any mortal being can possibly endure. Plus, it was free to watch on IMDB.

When “Stepfather III” begins, Jerry (played here by Robert Wightman) has already escaped the psychiatric institution in Puget Sound, Washington. This is the same place he was imprisoned in and escaped at the start of “Stepfather II,” and it makes me wonder why anyone would bother sending him back there after he stabbed a psychiatrist who thought he was making progress with him. Why not just send him to prison? Well, in horror movies like this, everyone gets a second chance, and then a third, and then a fourth. Just like Sideshow Bob from “The Simpsons,” there are idiots out there willing to give him a free pass.

Whatever the case, the filmmakers decided to skip over the escape part and cut straight to the chase. Jerry meets up with a back-alley plastic surgeon (played every so shamelessly by Mario Roccuzzo) who proceeds to alter his face while smoking an endless number of cigarettes. Yes, this is how sterile he keeps his workplace. This leads to one of the few interesting moments as director Guy Magar ended up filming an actual plastic surgery procedure which is more unnerving than what any makeup effects professional could have come up with. And again, this sequel has a ridiculously small budget, so filming the real thing must have saved Magar a few pennies.

With his new face, Jerry does what some would do to keep from going bankrupt due to high medical costs; he kills the doctor. Hey, medical insurance in America doesn’t cover everything. Besides, some companies would say being psychotic is a pre-existing condition.

Yes, yes, I know, this is a back-alley doctor who doesn’t deal in paperwork, but let me have some fun here.

Anyway, Jerry makes his way to Deer View, California where he lives under the alias of Keith Grant and works at a plant nursery. This makes sense as he has previously shown just how good he is with gardening tools and other sharp instruments. It’s also no surprise to see how good he is with a shovel.

While at a church dance where he dresses up as the Easter bunny, Keith ends up meeting Christine Davis (Priscilla Barnes), a divorced school principal with a son who is psychosomatically paralyzed. Surprise, surprise, the two quickly fall in love and get married because, you know, why wait in a movie like this? As you can imagine, there is a jealous ex-boyfriend who is quite possessive of Christine, and Christine’s son is busy doing detective work because kids are smarter than we think and are always cutting through their parents’ bullshit.

If there is an interesting angle in this dreaded “Stepfather” sequel, it’s that the story has a bit of a twist. Keith ends up meeting the widow Jennifer Ashley (Season Hubley) who has just moved into town with her son, and he begins courting her. So instead of one potential bride to start a family with, there is another for him to consider. From there, this sequel could have turned into a far more suspenseful motion picture as you wonder which lady will live and die. It’s like a demonic season of “The Bachelor” where a contestant gets a knife in the heart instead of a rose, or perhaps this more resembles one of the many twisted reality shows which aired on Fox back in the 1990’s.

Whatever the case, “Stepfather III” is a horrible waste of time for everyone involved and people like me who made the mistake of watching it. Moreover, this movie drags its way to a pitiful conclusion which utilizes a wood chipper in a way nowhere as memorable as what the Coen brothers did with one in “Fargo.” At least, the filmmakers here gave Jerry/Keith a more permanent conclusion. While he may have survived a dozen knife wounds, I imagine he has as much luck of being put back together as Humpty Dumpty ever did.

Speaking of dragging, this sequel has a running time of almost two hours. Whereas the original “Stepfather” ran a mere 89 minutes and “Stepfather II” is only 93 minutes long, someone decided they could get away with adding another 20 to 30 minutes of footage. On top of “Stepfather III” being boring and terribly made, it feels like it lasts forever. Towards the end, I couldn’t care less about who lived or died. I just wanted this awfulness to be over and done with.

In regards to Robert Wightman, I don’t know whether to pity him or feel sorry for him. Stepping into a role which O’Quinn handled ever so brilliantly was never going to be an easy feat, and Dylan Walsh didn’t have it any better when he starred in the inevitable “Stepfather” remake. O’Quinn brought both a real pathos and a humanity to Jerry Blake, and this made the character all the more frightening. While Wightman does get Jerry’s old-fashioned mannerisms down well, and lord knows this man is far too old-fashioned and polite on the outside, he is unable to make the character the least bit terrifying. In fact, he comes off looking quite harmless even after impaling a man with a rusty shovel.

What else? The music score sounds like it was done on one of those Casio pianos from the 1980’s (understandably, this movie could not afford any orchestra), the acting is terrible, the story is mostly predictable as we have been down this road before, the cinematography particularly at the beginning is bizarre, and the bloody effects look even worse than what Bob and Harvey Weinstein forced Jeff Burr to add to “Stepfather II,” and those efforts looked ridiculously fake.

While I’m at it, what are Priscilla Barnes and Season Hubley doing in this trash? Barnes played a Bond woman in “Licence to Kill,” Rob Zombie made great use of her in “The Devil’s Rejects,” and she was on “Three’s Company” for crying out loud! As for Hubley, she had an unforgettable scene opposite her then-husband Kurt Russell in “Escape From New York,” and she held her own opposite George C. Scott in Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Surely their agents could have gotten them something better than this dreck.

Look, I did not expect much of anything from “Stepfather III” as any movie in this series lacking Terry O’Quinn is just asking for a severe round of bitch slapping. But still, I have seen many horror movies with worse acting and writing, and they proved to be far more entertaining and scarier than this one. Was anyone involved in this sequel’s making the least bit interested in making something the least bit thrilling, or were they more interested in making a quick buck? All we get here is a pathetic excuse of a motion picture which still has not gotten a DVD or Blu-ray release in America. I bet even Shout Factory doesn’t want to touch this one.

Okay, I have wasted enough time on this one.

½* out of * * * *

‘The Assistant’ May Be The Most Horrific Film of 2019

The Assistant” features a music score by Tamar-kali, an American rock singer-songwriter and composer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. The interesting thing is, we only hear her score at the very beginning and the very end of this film. Truth is, “The Assistant” does not need a music score to highlight the endless tension of the working environment these characters we see here work in as the feeling of suffocating intensity is intensely palpable throughout. This is saying a lot because some filmmakers thrive on a music score to make the unbearable seem even more so, but like “The China Syndrome,” this film does not need it as writer and director Kitty Green shows how certain workplaces can be so toxic to where no further illustration is required to make this point clear.

“The Assistant” follows Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a film production company, through a single day at her job which has arriving at the office before the sun comes up, and leaving long after it has set. We watch as she performs numerous tasks which are menial at best, and it is no surprise to see the job leaves her endlessly stressed and exhausted as it consumes her life to where anything and everything outside of it plays a very distant second. She even forgets her father’s birthday, and her mother chides her for it. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this scene is how Jane manages to get the smallest amount of free time to make any personal calls while at work. During this moment, I kept thinking her boss was wondering where the hell she was and why she was not at her desk. Seriously, I have worked jobs which were similar to this one.

We quickly learn Jane has been working this job already for five weeks, so she has since been initially and brutally humbled by her boss who runs his company with an iron fist. Still, there is a bit of humanity left in Jane as we see her barely maintain her composure after her boss verbally abuses her for talking to his wife. From there, she is forced to apologize to him via email for her behavior, and her male colleagues (played by Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) instruct her in the best way to write such an apology. Through scenes like this, it does not take much to see these guys have long since been schooled by their bully of a boss, and they feel obligated to help Jane out when she is in a tough position.

Not once do we ever see the face of Jane’s boss as he is quick to pass by her on the way to his office, and we only get to hear his voice either behind closed doors or through the unsparingly vicious phone calls she has with Jane. There is no doubt this boss is meant to represent Harvey Weinstein, the man who ruled Miramax and The Weinstein Company through endless brutality and intimidation and is now in prison for his horrific offenses which include sexual assault and rape. Just the thought of this boss is enough to keep Jane and her fellow colleagues on edge throughout as any mere mistake can cause him to fall into a full-blown rage. He’s like the creature in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” as what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. Besides, this boss probably looks as appealing as Harvey ever did (that’s to say, not at all).

But the most brutal scene in “The Assistant” comes when Jane speaks with the company’s Human Resources director, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), about a new girl who has just been employed. Her name is Sienna (Kristine Froseth), and she has been put up in a room at The Peninsula, a high-end hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills. Jane never got this kind of treatment when she was hired and cannot help but wonder if Sienna is in some kind of danger. But instead of being taken seriously, Jane is instead berated by Wilcock for bringing this to his attention, reminding her of how many people she beat out to get the job she has (the number is in the hundreds). But as Jane leaves, Wilcock assures her she has nothing to worry about as, in a line which has long since been spoiled by the film’s trailer:

“You’re not his type.”

It is in this moment in which Green shows how the safeguards designed to protect employees from horrific abuse have long since failed them as those with all the power rendered them useless. As a result, you realize in a very depressing way how someone like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away with so much abuse for decades. Yes, karma did come around to kick him in the buttocks, but the fact it took so long to do so does not speak well of the world at large.

Green also shows how those employed in such a suffocating working environment get by even as they are micromanaged to such a blistering degree. Every character we see here has long since been indoctrinated into a situation which they have been led to believe will eventually move them up the show business ladder.

At the center of “The Assistant” is the unforgettable performance by Julia Garner. As Jane, she fully inhabits this character to where you see how she has since been indoctrinated into her position to where any abuses and humiliations from her boss have long since humbled her in ways no one should ever be humbled by. Still, the “Ozark” actress makes us see there is still some humanity left in her. The question is, will she have any of it left by the time the end credits begin to roll? We watch Jane as she observes a certain silhouette in her boss’ window, and her resignation to the things she is unable to control shows how this film was destined to end with a depressing climax. And in the end, how else could it have ended?

“The Assistant” would make an unforgettable double feature with “Swimming with Sharks,” George Huang’s 1994 film about a naïve young writer named Guy (Frank Whaley) who, just out of film school, gets a job as an assistant to influential movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), who quickly turns out to be the boss from hell. Both films show how this abusive behavior has been normalized for far too long as many industry hopefuls have been cruelly led to believe this treatment is a rite of passage into a realm which seemingly promises both wealth and power. It came out just after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predatory acts were revealed for all the world to see, so it plays like a documentary which has been smothered from public view for far too long. Now that people like Harvey are out of the picture, I wonder if things will change for the better. The sad fact is, this kind of behavior has been seen as acceptable for far too long, so who knows?

While “The Assistant” is a fierce indictment of Hollywood, it would be a mistake to think this abusive behavior is relegated to one industry. While Hollywood may be one of the main epicenters of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the abuses they address do not start and stop there as other business we know and have been led to believe are morally superior are as vulnerable to such abuses. Political commentator Tomi Lahren went out of her way to shame Hollywood for enabling Weinstein and people like him, but she did this from a news channel (in this case, Fox News) which went out of its way to pay millions to those who accused Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of horrific abuse.

Simply put, judge not lest ye be judged. If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You will hit someone guilty.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Little Things’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

There are good/great movies out there, and then there are bad movies.  With a good or great movie, it is a dream come true for a cinephile.  There is also a category of movies that are disappointing.  Those are probably the hardest ones to digest.  With a bad movie, it’s simply bad and you move on with your day.  With a disappointing movie, it leaves behind a lot of “what ifs.” With “The Little Things,” it is a film which is filled with possibilities and even individual moments that really shine on screen.  However, when it’s all said and done, having watched it twice now, it is very forgettable and run-of-the-mill.  It’s disappointing because you expect more considering some of the participants involved.

Denzel Washington leads this cast, and he’s stellar as always in the part of deputy sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon.  This is someone who used to be higher up on the police department food chain until he had a heart attack, a divorce, and some personal problems.  He let the job consume him and eat away at his soul.  His replacement, Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), has more of a calm, cool and collected approach in his role as lead detective. Their paths cross because Jimmy realizes he can lean on Deke for advice and wisdom. Deke sees it as a win-win because a case Jimmy is working is quite similar to a case he has never been able to let go of in his personal and professional life. Those around Jimmy warn him not to become like Deacon, as he is a cautionary tale of what happens when a detective gets too caught up in his work.

They are both hot on the trail of suspect Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a crime buff who seems to enjoy toying with both Deke and Jimmy. Jimmy has a hunch that Albert checks all of his boxes, and Deacon feels the same way.  They begin to follow him and look into more of his personal life.  This is where I felt the film started to fall apart.  While I think Jared Leto is a fantastic actor, his performance here is very showy and over-the-top.  He’s an Academy Award-winning actor, which is also the case with Washington and Malek.  Washington can do this familiar role in his sleep.  I’ve never been a huge fan of Malek, and he didn’t do anything in this film to win me over.

As far as the story, we have seen an uptick in popularity when it comes to stories involving murder mysteries and crime.  It is all the rage on a number of streaming platforms.  People are fascinated by their motives and what makes them tick.  While I can understand the fascination with these stories, they are a little overdone at the moment. With “The Little Things,” it doesn’t really take any chances or add anything new to this genre.  It is your standard crime thriller.  There is only one other suspect in the film, and he’s not at all memorable or interesting.  This is a film that was solely relying on the fact it has three Academy Award winners headlining it. This story has been done before in the past with a lot more weight, depth, and intensity.

The film is also too long as it runs at 128 minutes.  It would have been just fine at one hour and forty-five minutes.  I will say I did enjoy the ending, and it’s an interesting look at the emotional trauma and stress which detectives endure when they are struggling to solve a case.  It works on that level, but it is not enough to recommend this movie as anything more than a one-time Redbox rental.  Once again, I had high hopes for “The Little Things,” but in the end, the little things here made the difference in this film being an average one instead of a good or a great one.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info:

“The Little Things” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray which comes with a digital code from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 128 minutes and is rated R for violent/disturbing images, language, and full nudity.

Video and Audio Info:

The 1800p high-definition transfer really brings out the eerie and moody look of the film.  This is a dark and bleak looking film, which you would expect from a film with this type of subject matter. The audio formats are DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

The Little Things-Four Shades of Blue

A Contrast in Styles

Should You Buy It?

A lot of critics and film fans have compared this film to David Fincher’s “Se7en,” which is probably one of my top 25 favorite films of all time.  This film does not hold a candle to “Se7en.” Again, there were moments which really clicked and scenes that really stood out. However, for the most part, it is long, tedious and rather bland. As far as special features are concerned, we only get two of them, and they are rather quick and to the point.  The first one focuses on Washington’s work in cop films for Warner Brothers.  The second talks about the differences between the characters played by Denzel Washington and Rami Malek. I can’t recommend you go out and buy this film as I watched it on HBO Max and now on Blu-ray, and it did not improve with a second viewing. As a Redbox rental on a rainy night, it’s worth your time.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-Ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Judas and the Black Messiah” is certainly a timely film with all of the issues that exist in the world today regarding racism.  Even though some strides have been made, we still have a long way to go until things are where they need to be in this world.  Systemic racism is a serious issue, and it doesn’t seem like there is a day that goes by where we are not hearing about a black man or woman being killed by someone in a position of power.  It is why films like this one are so important.  Many people do not watch or read the news.  When they see it in a major motion picture, it can sometimes raise their level of awareness.  That is the power of cinema at its finest.

Our film starts off in the late 1960’s when we meet William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a small-time criminal who goes around waving a badge in order to steal cars.  As he says in the film, the badge carries more weight than a gun because everyone knows there is an army behind that badge. When he is caught, he is forced to enter into a deal with Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to work undercover for the FBI.  If William does not accept this deal, he is facing eighteen months in prison for stealing a car along with five years for impersonating an officer.  He has to go undercover to keep an eye on what is happening with the Black Panther Party in Illinois, which is run by the charismatic and powerful Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya in an Oscar-winning performance.

Both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their work here, but I would have to say that I’d give the edge to Stanfield as he has to play a dual-role as a member of the Black Panther Party while also trying to keep Roy and the FBI happy.  While Kaluuya had to give more of a boisterous and in-your-face performance, Stanfield has to balance all of the moral dilemmas his character has to endure throughout the film. He wears all of this on his face and on screen with his stunning performance.  That being said, I understand it can be difficult to compare performances in different films let alone the same film and the same category.

As soon as Fred Hampton starts to gain some steam and bring people together to form the Rainbow Coalition, which is all-inclusive and a real threat to the infrastructure, greed, and abuse of power which is happening all around Illinois, he is sent to jail on some phony ice-cream theft charges.  This is when William O’Neal starts to have more responsibility put on his plate with the Black Panther Party.  He is up for the task, and he holds his own especially when it comes to security.  There is another element for Fred to consider and that is his budding romance with Deborah (Dominique Fishback).  She gives a vulnerable yet commanding performance as a young woman who is not afraid to have Fred’s back.

When Fred is finally released from prison, things get even more complicated with the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).  They are starting to see that Fred Hampton is a real threat and is bringing about real change for people.  The fact he is able to unite so many people of different races and cultural backgrounds is nothing short of amazing. He’s a true hero. At this point, William O’Neal is forced to make some difficult decisions for himself.  He has the Black Panther Party, which is, at times, suspicious of him.  He also has the FBI, which wonders if he really believes in what Fred Hampton is fighting for, each and every single day.

I’m a huge fan of the adult drama that is inspired by true events in Hollywood.  I think whenever a film can entertain and educate an audience, it’s really something to behold, and this film really stayed with me long after it was over.  It’s a powerful piece of filmmaking that is one of the best films of 2020. It features fantastic performances from top to bottom.  I mentioned the two supporting actors earlier, but to me, they are both the leads in this film.  I just feel as though Stanfield is on screen longer and has a meatier role than Kaluuya in this film.  There also must be credit given to Plemons.  Even though he is the bad guy in the film, there are a lot of layers to him.  It’s not a cardboard cutout bad guy. It must also be noted from a historical point of view, this was the first film with an all-black producing team to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.  This is a well-acted, well-written, and supremely intense film from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Special Features:

Fred Hampton for the People

Unexpected Betrayal

Blu-Ray Info:

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray with a digital copy from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The film has a running time of 126 minutes and is rated R for violence and pervasive language.

Video/Audio Info:

The film has a 1080p/2.39:1 High-Definition transfer which really enhances the look and feel of the late 60’s into the early 70’s.  The audio is featured on the following formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and English Descriptive Audio with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the kind of film which reminds me of why I love moves in the first place.  This is not a feel-good movie if you are familiar with the story at all, which I was not prior to watching it, but it proves a serious point that needs to be made.  It creates conversation, and it shows off some of the best acting I’ve seen in a very long time.  As mentioned earlier, I’ve always felt film is at its best when it tells stories which are worth telling and can open minds to what others in the world and are going through in their day-to-day lives.  The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but I would have enjoyed a few more special features and maybe a detailed documentary on the real-life story.  Still, this is a film that you should add to your collection for the phenomenal acting and storytelling which is on display throughout.

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ is a Truly Baffling Remake

I have to admire the hutzpah of any filmmaker who dares remake Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” The 1977 horror classic remains one of my favorite movies ever as well as one of the most beautiful films, let alone horror films, I have ever seen. Having just purchased and watched it on 4K Ultra HD, I love it even more as the lavish and exaggerated colors Argento utilized now feel more orgasmic than ever. Who would dare step into the shoes of Jessica Harper who portrayed Suzy Bannion? Is there an artist or a band that can create a music score as original and haunting as what Goblin gave us? Is there a cinematographer, other than Roger Deakins, who can match the incredible lighting design of Luciano Tovoli? And, most importantly, is there a filmmaker who take this material and make it their own?

David Gordon Green, who hit horror gold with his reboot of “Halloween,” was originally set to helm this version of “Suspiria,” but it ended up falling into the hands of “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino who was determined to make something which was more of an homage than a remake. It certainly has its own look, a terrific cast, an original and haunting score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Tilda Swinton among other things. But long before the end credits came up, this “Suspiria” became one of the most perplexing motion pictures I have sat through in a long time. And as this two hour and 32-minute horror film lurched its way to a rather baffling conclusion, I found myself impatiently waiting for Jessica Harper’s cameo to come up as I had given up trying to make sense of everything going on in the story.

This “Suspiria” takes us to 1977 Berlin which was at the height of German Autumn, and here we find Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) auditioning for the Markos Dance Academy. Unlike Harper’s Suzy from the original, this Susie proves to be far more confident in her dancing abilities as she wows the teachers almost immediately, especially Madame Blanc (Swinton). Meanwhile, another student, Patricia Hingle (an unrecognizable Chloe Grace Moretz) confesses to her psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (I’ll let you figure out who plays him), that the academy is run by a coven of witches who worship the Three Mothers – a trio of witches who once roamed the Earth (Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum), and we all know this cannot be good. Once the main players have been established, we wait for hell to boil over and students to die the most painful of deaths because a story like this cannot have a happy ending. Or can it?

The first thing I should note about Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is its visual style as he, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, has gone out of his way to go in the polar opposite direction of the visual palate Argento gave us. Perhaps this is because it was the only real way for Guadagnino to make this film his own without it seeming like a copy. He uses little in the way of primary colors and instead opts for a winter-ish approach to highlight the bleakness of the setting and time period the story is situated in. But as unrelentingly bleak as this approach is, both Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom do give us some striking images as they delve deeper into the lives of the characters and the academy’s strange history. Still, I wonder if the cinematography was much bleaker than it ever needed to be.

The screenplay by David Kajganich delves into themes involving motherhood, the nature of evil and matriarchies, but neither he or the director ever seem clear about what they want to say precisely about them. A friend of mine attended a Q&A with Guadagnino, and he described the director as looking like a deer caught in the headlights when he asked questions about the themes. In retrospect, I wonder if everyone involved with this remake succeeded in making it so abstract to where even they could not describe what they intended.

There is also the inclusion of real-life events such as hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, bombings, and numerous kidnappings perpetrated by the Red Army Faction, and they feel like unneeded distractions as they are brought up. The terror of real life doesn’t quite mesh with the terror at the dance academy, and it would have been better for the filmmakers to focus on the academy instead of adding historical elements which deserve their own movie.

It’s all a real shame because the cast of this remake makes many scenes worth watching. Dakota Johnson, completely unrecognizable from her role in those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, who gives everything she has physically and emotionally to her performance as Susie Bannion. I read she spent two years training in ballet in preparation for her role, and it shows from start to finish. Watching her enter the academy with such elegant confidence as she goes through a violent period of self-discovery is something I could never take my eyes off of.

The other cast members include Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, and Fabrizia Sacchi who succeed in throwing themselves completely into their characters with complete abandon. And then there is Tilda Swinton, one of the few actresses my dad would pay to read names from the phone book to him. She remains a stunning presence in each project she appears in, and this film is no exception.

And yes, the dancing, which played only a small part in the original, is brilliant in the way it is staged. Like I said, these actresses didn’t just inhabit these characters, they threw themselves into them both physically and emotionally. For what its worth, this remake does boast quite the ensemble.

Still, I have to be honest and say, despite its positives, this “Suspiria” proved to be a great disappointment. I did not go into it with a mission of comparing to Argento’s original as Guadagnino as made something which stands on its own, but none of it ever struck me as being the least bit scary. Sure, there are some shocking moments like when a young dancer finds her body forcibly contorted into excruciatingly painful positions Ronny Cox would never have been able to pull off in “Deliverance,” but one or two scenes does not a horror film make. Instead, this remake proves to be a meandering mess which never quite knows how to deal with its numerous themes in a satisfying or truly fulfilling way.

There is no doubt in my mind that Guadagnino and everyone else here will bounce right back from this misguided film, and I look forward to what he has in store for us next.

Oh, and just one more thing: I just love how these movies involving dancers always have teachers who smoke an endless number of cigarettes. Here they are mentoring these passionate students to keep their bodies at their peak and make sure they remain healthy throughout their training, and yet they do nothing to hide their intense nicotine addiction. I have seen this in so many movies to where I wonder if being a dancer or a dance instructor is as stressful as it looks. The drinking I get, but the smoking? Hopefully someone will be able to explain this to me someday.

* * out of * * * *