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 * * * *

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ Unveils its First Trailer

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Like it or not folks, a remake of “Suspiria” is officially on its way. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film remains one of the most unforgettable ever made as the Italian filmmaker turned the act of murder into a work of art, and he gave us visual set pieces which were things of incredible beauty. Surely no director, however talented, could top what Argento gave us 40 years ago, could they? Well, with the now-released teaser trailer for the remake of “Suspiria,” it turns out the filmmakers are not even attempting to try.

According to its director Luca Guadagnino, who last year scored a critical triumph with “Call Me by Your Name,” this “Suspiria” is meant to be an “homage” to Argento’s film and reflect the “powerful emotion” he felt upon first seeing it. But what is especially striking about this teaser trailer is how muted its color palette proves to be. Guadagnino has described his film’s look as being “winter-ish, evil, and really dark,” and this certainly comes across here. As before, the story is set a renowned dance academy in Europe where Suzie Bannion, now played by Dakota Johnson, enrolls at to study dancing. But considering how bleak the setting is here, it makes me wonder if the students, once they arrived there, said out loud, “This looks nothing like what I saw in the brochure!”

I don’t mean to make this sound like a criticism as the lack of primary colors shows, among other things, how Guadagnino is attempting to make this material all his own. What especially pleases me is how this trailer makes his take on “Suspiria” look like much more than the average horror film, something I always feared a remake like this would end up being. With its scattering of images featuring Johnson, the infinitely cool Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf and, if you closely enough, original “Suspiria” star Jessica Harper, this does look to be an unnerving motion picture which deals more with the horrors of real life than in the realm of fantasy.

In addition, I enjoyed the Kubrick-like stares Swinton and others exhibit throughout as, like the ones in “Full Metal Jacket,” they appear to go on for a thousand yards. It also looks like a scythe will be the weapon of choice instead of a shiny razor this time around, and we do get an image of a female student levitating in her room, something I don’t remember seeing in the 1977 original.

Whether or not this “Suspiria” equals the original or comes close to doing so, I admire how Guadagnino has given us something which looks strikingly different to where it appears more like a trailer for the next Lars Von Trier cinematic opus. Then again, the trailer for “The House That Jack Built” had far more color in it.

“Suspiria” is set to arrive in theaters on November 2, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ Features Tilda Swinton at Her Most Devastating

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I think “We Need to Talk About Kevin” would make an interesting double feature with “Rosemary’s Baby” as both prove to be cautionary tales for prospective parents. But unlike Polanski’s classic film which dealt with the occult and supernatural, the horrors of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” are rooted in real life. Stories of kids going on murderous rampages at their schools have gotten far more media coverage than they deserve, but Lynne Ramsay’s film is not out to exploit this subject but to explore what could have triggered such a massacre.

Acting goddess Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian (good luck trying to pronounce that last name), a successful travel writer who is picking up the pieces of her life after a tragic event people have come to blame her for. The movie shifts back and forth in time as we see Eva finding happiness with her husband Franklin (the always great John C. Reilly) to becoming pregnant with her first child, and then back to present day where she tries to make sense of the crimes her son committed. We see her as a pariah of the community, and everyone constantly stares at her as if to say, “How do you live with yourself?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character look less forward to motherhood in a movie before this one. Eva’s face of happiness is wiped away almost permanently by her new role in life, and while her husband is thrilled at being a parent, she just looks on despondently as if her life just came to a shocking end. Without words, you immediately get the impression she has no interest in being a parent, and she never really forms an affectionate bond with Kevin. Eventually, Eva sees the parts of herself she doesn’t like in Kevin’s cold, dark eyes as he glares at her as if to say she resembles everything wrong in the world.

Swinton has never been an actress content to fall victim to overly emotive acting or chewing the scenery for an Oscar moment. She inhabits her characters more than plays them, and her performance as Eva ranks among the very best of her career. She creates such an unforgettably human portrait of a mother whose superficial behavior towards her son isn’t fooling anyone, especially him. But at the same time, Swinton makes you feel deeply for Eva as she forces you to confront what you would do if you were in this unimaginable situation.

While we see Eva losing her temper at Kevin when he does bad things, we also see she’s the only person who realizes something is seriously wrong with him. Franklin, on the other hand, is either completely oblivious to his son’s nastiness or just doesn’t want to see the truth of how troubled he is. To everyone else, Kevin is just a boy doing boyish things, and this leaves Eva feeling even more isolated as she feels completely helpless in her attempts to repair the fractured relationship she has with him.

Kevin is played by three actors at different parts of his life: Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller. All do great work in making Kevin the kind of child none of us ever hope to have, and each manages to perfect the wicked glare Kevin gives off to where you would think they were auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick movie, hoping to outdo Vincent D’Onofrio’s piercing glare in “Full Metal Jacket.” But of those three actors, the one who deserves the most praise is Miller as he makes Kevin into one of the scariest sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Damien from “The Omen” has got nothing on this guy, and it’s tempting to think he could give Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” a run for his money. Miller never portrays Kevin as a simple one-dimensional villain, but as one whose meaning in life has been corrupted to where he doesn’t see much good in anything.

Director Ramsay previously made “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” and her work behind the camera has been justly acclaimed. With “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she shares in Swinton’s fearlessness in delving into subject matter many would choose to avoid if they could. Not once does she judge the characters here, and she leaves their actions up for us to judge. She is not out to provide answers to a situation like this because none are ever easy to come by.

The movie’s opening shot has Eva participating with dozens of people in some Italian tomato festival to where it looks like they are all bathing in blood, and it symbolizes what will eventually become of her life. Ramsay makes great use of the color red throughout as it acts as a stain on Eva’s conscience which cannot be washed away. The movie is beautifully shot to where the sterile setting Eva and her family lives in is just asking to be forever dirtied, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood, who composed the score for “There Will Be Blood,” illustrates the violence just underneath the surface that will eventually explode for all to see.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” could easily have been an exploitive feature, but it never falls victim to that. There’s actually very little violence shown as Ramsay is far more interested in the aftermath of what has happened, and the movie ends on a surprising note of possible redemption for some of the main characters. Having seen it, I can now safely say Tilda Swinton was most definitely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her performance here. What she does is truly astounding as well as completely brave. Not many actors would easily venture into a topic which hits too close to home, but Swinton is never one to back down from a challenge.

Coming out of this bruising film experience, I kept thinking about this line of dialogue said by Augustus Hill on the HBO series “OZ:”

“One of the last things Jesus did on Earth was to invite a prisoner to join him in heaven. He loved that criminal. I say he loved that criminal as much as he loved anyone. Jesus knew in his heart it takes a lot to love a sinner. But the sinner, he needs it all the more…”

* * * * out of * * * *

Seven Marathons For One Benjamin

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It’s that time of year again! The time where I get up at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning, put on my running shoes, venture out to Griffith Park in Burbank and not get into any car accidents (none of which would ever be my fault) along the way, and arrive to join up with veteran and newbie runners for another season of training for the Los Angeles Marathon. And as always, I will be training with the great people of Team to End AIDS, a training program and fundraising group which benefits AIDS Project Los Angeles.

And in addition to putting on my running shoes, I will be wearing clothes as well.

For those new to my Los Angeles Marathon exploits, this marks the seventh year in a row of me training for it with T2EA. Yes, you read it right, SEVEN YEARS. After running the last one, I began to wonder if it was time to take a break as the last one was more of a struggle than ever before. Despite it being a tiny bit cooler than 2015 and with a nice breeze to aid us, the 2016 LA Marathon had me wondering why I allowed myself to listen to the coaches and not take any Tylenol during it. As I made my way up and down San Vicente Boulevard, I had to stop and get into a crouching position because my legs could not take much more abuse. As for my knees, they gave up arguing with me during year three.

Each year I have trained for the LA Marathon, I found myself doing it for different reasons be it emotional, physical or weight related. Among my goals for LA 2017 is to continue with my weight loss as I joined Weight Watchers a few months back, and I would like to be rid of my spare tire which is my belly once and for all. Also, I want to improve on my time from my last marathon which, in retrospect, was pitiful. I don’t want to say the 2016 LA Marathon was a disappointment, but it was in a sense because it felt like I dragged my ass to the finish line instead of crossing it triumphantly. I did finish the marathon, but I came out of it feeling like things could have gone much better.

But the main reason which finally got me to sign up for another season of marathon training is this is T2EA’s last marathon training season ever. With their fundraising focus now shifting to other areas, they have decided to discontinue this program following the 2017 LA Marathon. As a result, missing out on this particular season would be, as Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, a “BIG MISTAKE.” Unsurprisingly, this first day of training proved to be bittersweet, but it will be quite the adventure all the same.

And once again, I will be raising $1,100 for APLA, and I encourage you, my fellow readers, to donate a few bucks to help me reach my fundraising goal. Please click here to find out how you can make a TAX-DEDUCTIBLE donation.

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While JC is back and still hating pickles, he has stepped down as the marathon coach and has passed the baton to a new coach, James Hawthorn. He is a 17-time marathon runner, and he has finished the Boston Marathon in under three hours. Learning of this makes him seem rather intimidating, but he assured us he wasn’t expecting anyone to run LA as fast as he ran Boston.

Kerry, T2EA’s Director of Endurance Events, told us they were changing things up this season as he found everyone was getting a little lazy with training these past few years to where we developed bad habits like arriving at Griffith Park late. I myself got to Griffith Park this morning at a quarter to 7 a.m. which is when we start. Have I ever arrived late in the past? I don’t have to answer that.

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Coach James started us off with a crouching stretch which served to loosen everyone up, and he told us to make sure we lead with our butts and not our knees as we pretended to sit down in an imaginary chair. I did lead with my butt, by my knees wanted in as they wanted some kind of feeling for themselves. The way my knees see it, why should my butt have all the fun?

Today’s run gave us two options: we could run 5 miles or 3. When it comes to these choices, my gut usually tells me to run the longer distance. C’mon, I have run the Los Angeles Marathon six years in a row. I’ve got this training thing down. 5 miles is a piece of cake to me! So yes, I only ran 3.

The truth is I haven’t kept up with the running since the 2016 LA Marathon, so once again I feel like I’m starting over because, well, I am. As I ran from Griffith Park to the Gene Autry Museum, which is 1.5 miles, my legs felt like concrete bricks which I dragged over the asphalt. I used to run like I was light on my feet, but I haven’t been svelte in such a long time. But the good news is I did use Runkeeper to keep track of my time, and I finished the 3 miles in forty minutes.

In past years I have run in the 13-minute pace group, but today I ended up in the 15-minute group. It feels like I’ve been downgraded, but then again I haven’t run on a regular basis in some time. Still, as my fellow veteran marathoners pointed out, it gives me something to work for. As the training season progresses, I can always move up to a faster pace group if I put in the effort. This is only the beginning, and I have nowhere to go but up.

Coach James concluded our first day by conducting a stretching clinic. It involved stretches I am not altogether familiar with, so I hope I did them correctly. If I didn’t do them correctly, I still hope some part of my body got stretched out (and not just my knees).

Despite whatever problems arose, this training season has gotten off to a strong start. The weather was perfect in that it was not too hot and not too cold, and we have yet to feel the full force of the fall and winter seasons (assuming they will ever arrive in Southern California). And when all is said and done, Scott Boliver’s tree continues to grow beautifully in Griffith Park.

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HELP A BROTHER OUT: Like I said, I am doing this marathon to raise money for AIDS Project Los Angeles, a renowned non-profit group which has spent many years helping those who have been afflicted by this terrible disease we will one day conquer. I invite you all to make a tax-deductible donation to this group so that they can continue to help those who can no longer help themselves. Just click here to find out how you can help. By the way, check out the video below.