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 * * * *

Exclusive Video Interview with Michele Ohayon About ‘Strip Down, Rise Up’

Pole dancing has long been associated with strip clubs, but it has since expanded from that realm to dance studios where it is taught as a form of aerobic exercise. Still, there is a strong stigma to this form of dancing as it most people refuse to see it as anything other than pornographic and debasing. But with the new documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up,” female instructors use pole dancing as a way to help women deal with traumas and body-image issues which have plagued people for far too long. Through sensual movement, the participants find themselves transforming to where they succeed in reclaiming their self-esteem and sexuality, and they find a power within themselves which can never be lost.

The director of “Strip Down, Rise Up” is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michèle Ohayon, and her cameras capture a diverse group of women from various walks of life. Among them are Evelyn who has lost her husband and trying to deal with her grief, the successful businesswoman Patricia who is uncomfortable in her own skin, and the very brave Megan who was sexually abused and ended up testifying against her abuser. We also get to see instructors like Sheila Kelley, Amy Bond and Jenyne Butterfly whose methods differ from one another in fascinating ways.

Ohayon hails from North Africa, and she has said her films are largely about transformations. In addition to “Strip Down, Rise Up,” her work includes “Colors Straight Up” which is about at-risk youth in Los Angeles who turn their lives around through the performing arts, the hidden homeless women documentary “It Was a Wonderful Life” which had the privilege of being narrated by Jodie Foster, and the docu-comedy “Cowboy del Amor” about a cowboy who becomes a matchmaker. Her inspiration for “Strip Down, Rise Up” came about when she and her daughter attended a pole dancing class as a way to explore a new form of exercise.

I got to speak with Ohayon recently, and this marks my first ever video interview done via Zoom, so please bear with me as the video quality is a bit different from what we are all used to.

“Strip Down, Rise Up” debuts on Netflix on Friday, February 5, 2021. Please check out the interview above and be sure to check this documentary out when it drops.

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

Black Swan movie poster

JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *