Saturday, January 19, 2019

2018: The Best and the Rest

Movies: Best of

Y'all, 2018 was an...underwhelming year for movies. Unlike 2017, where my top three of the year (Get Out, Ladybird, and Call Me by Your Name) were movies that I have and will watch over and over and made me feel all the feelings, most of the movies this year struck me as good, but not great. Ironically, I have a top 12 this year, whereas most years I have a top 10 or 11. I think that's because, as far as I'm concerned, numbers 2-12 feel pretty equally good (while my #1 of the year is truly unique and stands apart).

That's not to say that the movies on my list are "meh"--they're quite good and for very different reasons. But compared to 2012-2017, there are just fewer films that really blew me away (2011 was also a crappy year for movies, in my opinion). There are also a few movies that I haven't seen yet that may or may not have made the list if I had seen them in time. Specifically: Eighth Grade, Cold War, First Reformed, and Roma.

But without further ado, here are my personal favorites of 2018:

12. Isle of Dogs
I had to include Wes Anderson's beautiful (if perhaps culturally problematic) stop-motion film because not only is it lovely to look at, it gives the ol' heartstrings a great, big tug. With an excellent voice cast, led by Bryan Cranston (who was born to voice a mangy mutt with a heart of gold), Isle of Dogs takes a simple plot--a boy looks for his missing dog--and elevates it into hipster art in the way only Wes Anderson can.

11. A Star is Born
Speaking of heartstrings, holy shit! When I first saw the preview for the fourth (!) adaptation of the classic tale of a washed-up, alcoholic musician who mentors (and marries) a younger ingenue, I assumed the film would be hot garbage. But I, like anyone else with a heart, got sucked in during Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's goosebump-inflicting performance of "Shallow", which was (rightly, in my opinion) named the "Best Scene of the Year" by the A/V Club. And, ok, I guess I like Bradley Cooper now? I tried to resist him for years, but he's really good in this movie! Look, A Star is Born isn't breaking any molds, but it made my cold, dead heart feel something and for that, it gets a place on this list.



10. Tully
Tully takes a common, but deeply misunderstood phenomenon--post-partum depression--a spins a fairy tale of sorts out of it. Charlize Theron, teaming up with director Jason Reitman for the second time, plays Marlo--a mother of three who is not just stressed, but burned out to the point of apathy. He rich brother pays a night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis, an absolute delight), to help Marlo and the two bond is surprising ways. Tully's message that "it takes a village to raise a child" shouldn't be controversial, but in a culture where women are supposed to be able to "have it all" (with a shameful lack of paid time off from work and--if the woman has a male partner--an unequal division of labor at home) it still seems taboo to suggest that when it comes to parenting, sometimes the exhaustion outweighs the joy.

9.  Black Panther
With a talented director, a glorious cast, a Kendrick Lamar-heavy soundtrack, and the best villain of the year, Black Panther was destined to be great. And as the first Mavel movie to have a nearly entirely black cast, it couldn't afford to fail. And fail it did not. It currently sits as the 9th highest grossing movie of all time, and the highest grossing film by a black director of all time. Clearly, audiences wanted this movie and director Ryan Coogler did not disappoint. It helps that the central conflict of the film is one where you can understand both sides. Killmonger is not a two-dimensional bad guy--he's a bad guy who has a really fucking good point.

8. Won't You Be My Neighbor?
The only movie to make me actually cry this year, Won't You Be My Neighbor? proved that Fred Rogers was too good for this world. Rogers' approach to reaching children on their level and not condescending to them or acting authoritarian over them was both radical in its day, and still radical to this day. His emphasis that not only is it *ok* to feel feelings, but that it's good to feel feelings is a message that makes sense intellectually, but that so many children and adults struggle with because our culture has so many ways of squelching our humanity and encouraging us to buck up (and buy shit--capitalism is invested in no ever feeling whole). While Rogers would be the first to denounce being treated as a saint, he definitely came close in his important and eventful life.

7. Searching
Hey, remember that movie where John Cho's daughter goes missing and he has to navigate websites like Tumblr and Venmo to discover her whereabouts? Probably not, since the film slipped in and out of theaters in late summer, but I'm here to remind you that it was a damn good movie! In fact, it might be the most purely entertaining movie I saw this year. Filmed entirely through POV screens (and using FaceTime and Skype heavily), Searching could have been gimmicky and dumb, but it succeeded for two reasons: 1) Cho's lived in performance as a single dad desperate to find his missing daughter and 2) the power and mystery of THE INTERNET. As someone who loves to google stalk, this movie got me, and I was right there on the edge of my seat with Cho the whole time.

6. The Favourite
In 2016, director Yorgos Lanthimos directed my favorite film that year (The Lobster). In 2017, he directed my least favorite film that year (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). This year, he directs a solidly good film that puts scheming, witty, wicked, and ambitious women front and center (relegating the foppish men to the sidelines) in this story about Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and two women (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) fighting over her favor. The Favourite is dirty and edgy--not what you'd expect from a period film. It's similar to Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, only sexier and meaner. A delight for people who love costume dramas...or DRAAAMA of any type.

5. If Beale Street Could Talk
In 2016, Barry Jenkins directed Moonlight, the film that famously ousted La La Land for Best Picture. That glorious paean to growing up black and gay in America turned out not to be a one-and-done for Jenkins. His follow up, based on the novel by James Baldwin, is just as lovely and just as gentle in the face of equally harsh--if not harsher--realities of the black experience in the United States. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) are *just* starting out in adulthood--they're in love and looking for a place to live--when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and jailed indefinitely. And then Tish finds out they're going to have a baby. Jenkins takes a devastating situation and infuses it with integrity, love, and beauty--not to fetishize suffering but to take back the narrative. Complete with the most beautiful cinematography and musical score of the year, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film worth celebrating.

4. Hereditary
Take all the feels you felt while watching Won't You Be My Neighbor? and go in the complete opposite direction and that's what you feel during Hereditary, which is the best horror movie of 2018. Emotions like pure, unadulterated terror; a gut-feeling of wrongness; devastation; shock...you might ask why the hell I would recommend such a film, and all I can say is that it's cathartic as fuck. Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, who is trying to hold her family together after a series of devastating events. The film is about how grief and resentment can murder relationships and how parents, as much as they try to avoid it, can pass down nasty legacies to their children. Hereditary has some issues, especially in the back half, but if you love horror you owe it to yourself to experience this rollercoaster of a nightmare.


3. Border
Despite 2018 being a so-so year for movies (in my humble opinion), there were a lot of films that made me say "wow, I've never seen anything like that before!" and Border is one of those films. A Swedish film, directed by Ali Abbasi, Border almost flew under my radar until I kept seeing reviews of it pop up on body positivity websites. The film follows Tina (Eva Melander), a Swedish border security agent with a keen sense of smell and a face only a mother could love. Tina believes she has a rare birth disorder that gives her a heavy brow, "ugly" features, and makes it unable for her to have children. But then she meets a man who has the same "disorder" as her...and her life and perception of herself radically change. That's all I'll say--other than, seek this unique film out! 

2. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
This criminally underseen film which features Melissa McCarthy in an excellent dramatic role as Lee Israel, a writer who forged letters to make some extra money, really snuck up on me. It's a film I would describe as "autumnal", which its laid-back feel and cinematographic palette of browns and grays. I love autumnal films--Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Wonder Boys. They're movies that feel cozy, lived in, and give you all the *feels* even if they aren't showy about it. Directed by Marielle Heller and co-starring the hilarious Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes a couple deeply unlikeable characters and makes you empathize with them.

1. Sorry to Bother You
No other movie on this list surprised me as much as Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You. The film, set in a slightly alternative universe version of Oakland, CA, is funny, shocking, political, and outrageous. With extremely good performances by Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, and Steven Yeun as well as voice acting by David Cross and Patton Oswalt, STBY satirizes the struggles of black people to get ahead in a white-dominated society and how capitalism is essentially evil and eats up everything and everyone in its sight. But STBY manages to do this critiquing with a deft hand and balls-out audacity at the same time. It avoids being heavy-handed while also punching you in the gut (and tickling your funny bone along the way). I don't think I've seen a movie about racism that's this funny. It takes inspiration from films such as Spike Lee's Bamboozled and Jordan Peele's Get Out but remains uniquely its own thing. If there is one film to capture the feeling of nightmarish dystopia and ironic humor that *is* 2018, it's Sorry to Bother You.



murder murder murder the white patriarchy










***

Honorable Mentions:

The Hate U Give, Thoroughbreds, Mandy, Suspiria, Disobedience, A Quiet Place, Beautiful Boy, BlacKkKlansman

***

Coulda Been Better:

Annihilation
Did director Danny Boyle bother reading Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy? Because over half the plot seems to be missing from his adaptation. This is definitely a situation where the book is waaaaayyy better than the movie.

Crazy Rich Asians
I wanted to like John M. Chu's film more than I actually did. But rom-com tropes and bad-boyfriend behavior made me roll my eyes one too many times.

***

Worst of the Year (that I saw, anyway):

Apostle (last movie reviewed in this entry)
Don't bother with this Netflix film about a man (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens) who travels to a remote island to rescue his sister from a cult. Sounds really interesting, but a total mess and a snooze.


That's all folks! See you in 2019!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Holy Love

Movies: If Beale Street Could Talk

I recently read a review of Barry Jenkins' transcendent film If Beale Street Could Talk that said the film "carves a holy place in a hard, hard world". Indeed, just like Jenkins' deeply humane portrait of a gay, black man in 2016's Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk seems too good for this terrible world.

Set in 1970s Harlem, Beale Street follows 19 year old Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and 22 year old Fonny (Stephen James, who wowed in Sam Esmail's Homecoming earlier this year). Tish and Fonny are childhood friends who grew into lovers. "There was no cause for shame between us" Tish narrates. The two are planning to find an apartment and get married when Fonny is accused of rape, despite having a solid alibi. He is jailed and the trial date keeps getting pushed back when the woman who accused him leaves the country. Meanwhile, Tish finds out she's pregnant.

The plot weaves back and forth between the present (Fonny in prison) and the not too distant past (the lovers struggling to find a place to live in a city that won't rent to two black people). Much like Moonlight, Jenkins is able to infuse suffering and injustice with beauty--not because there is something inherently beautiful about suffering, but rather because love and family and beauty keep happening despite suffering. It's really remarkable what Jenkins has created in his portrayals of black life in the United States. Even I can't fully quantify it in words.


Beale Street is heartbreaking, though not devastating. It shows that life goes on despite hardships. People fight, adapt, and step up to help each other--in particular, the black community of families around Tish and Fonny do what they can to give help, or at least hope, to the two young people who are forcibly separated for no reason other than the authority of a racist cop (Ed Skrein) who claims he saw Fonny at the scene of the rape. The audience knows that Fonny is innocent and that the cop went out of his way to fuck Fonny over, but it doesn't stop the injustice from happening.

A group of white women sitting in front of me visibly bristled during a scene where Danny (Bryan Tyree Henry, in a brief but powerful role), a friend of Fonny's who was recently released from prison after serving two years on a false car theft charge, says that after being in prison he understands why Malcolm X called the white man "the devil". This scene, more than any other, is deeply upsetting due to Henry's acting--his haunted, sad eyes as he insinuates the violence he faced in prison without giving details. But the audience knows, or at least the smart ones do. Pair this film with Ava DuVernay's 13th and you'll be ready to step up for prison reform.

That's all there is to say about Beale Street. The acting is out of the world, particularly Byran Tyree Henry, but also Regina King as Tish's mother, Sharon, who goes on a heartbreaking journey of her own. The cinematography is sublime and dreamy. The soundtrack is gorgeous. The plot is simple, yet profound. Just go see it.

Grade: A

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Court Intrigue

Movies: The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos continues to intrigue me with the range in his filmmaking. Last year, his film The Killing of a Sacred Deer was my personal "worst of the year". I found it pretentious and annoying to the point where I was laughing at it (and not with it) in the theatre. But in 2016, his film The Lobster was my *favorite* film of the year! I found it both heartfelt and bizarre in a "if Wes Anderson directed a horror movie" kind of way.

Lanthimos is back with another winner, perhaps not to the caliber of The Lobster, but still very strong with The Favourite. Taking place in Queen Anne's court in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession, The Favourite focuses on a war of a different kind: the war for the queen's (played with a beautiful lack of vanity by Olivia Colman) affections by cousins Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. Sarah (played by the captivating Rachel Weisz) is a Duchess who was also childhood friends with the queen. She is fiercely intelligent and capable and is all but running the country behind the throne. But when Abigail (Emma Stone, playing up her wide-eyed innocence), once a highborn lady but fallen into disgrace who also happens to be Sarah's cousin, arrives on the scene, Sarah's place as the queen's favorite is no longer secure.

Abigail proves to be an amoral schemer who slowly but surely usurps Sarah's place as Queen Anne's confidant...as well as Sarah's place in the queen's bed.

According to a Google search for "queen anne lesbian?", it was rumored that the queen had lesbian affairs, though never substantiated. The Favourite puts lesbian love center stage, for better or worse, and it works because it reveals the depth of love between Anne and Sarah, as well as the false flattery Abigail pays the queen for her own personal gain.

But the gender politics don't end there. The Favourite has been noted to be a unique film in that the women are front and center while the male characters are relegated to the sidelines. They still play a role, but it's what we would normally see as "the girlfriend" role or "the bitch from the office role". They also look like fops in their early 18th century wigs, makeup, and heels. Two male roles stand out: Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, a scheming member of Parliament who forges a "friendship" with Abigail in exchange for political information, and Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, a Baron who falls for Abigail. It's clear though that these men only serve to further the women's stories...and that is quite refreshing.

I didn't like The Favourite as much as I thought I would, but I liked it a lot. It's funny, it's dark, it's beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted. It's a period film with zero stuffiness that shows what disgustingly indulgent lives royals lived long ago. Hell, you can even read parallels to modern politics into the film with the way Queen Anne is portrayed: lazy, incompetent, and bought and sold with flattery (although apparently she was actually a much stronger leader than Lanthimos gives her credit for). But even when she is brought low by heartbreak, tragedy, and a stroke to boot, she's still 100 times better than--to use a word bandied about quite a bit in this film--the cunt currently in charge.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Ladies Heist

Movies: Widows

This review is wayyyy overdue (I saw Widows on Nov. 17th), and I think that's because, for better or worse, I found Widows to be an ok movie rather than a great one, so I didn't have a burning desire to share my opinion with the world as quickly as I did with, say, Border.

That said, Widows has its charms. It certainly has pedigree: directed by Steve McQueen, whose last film 12 Years a Slave rightfully won Best Picture in 2014; adapted for the screen by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects; starring a women-and-POC-led cast including Viola Davis, Brian Tyree Henry, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, and Daniel Kaluuya.

The cast and crew elevates Widows above a mediocre genre flick, but not quite enough for my taste. I can't help but compare it to Gone Girl, which was just so acidic and sadistic and tense and rewatchable. Widows is...ok. Like, it was entertaining while I was watching it, but now I can barely remember it and very few moments stand out to me as thrilling or surprising or scary.

Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, the pampered--but smart and tough--wife of Liam Neeson's career criminal, Harry. After a heist turns deadly, Veronica finds herself widowed along with the wives of the men who worked under Harry. It turns out that Harry and his crew robbed another crime boss, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry in an understated and terrifying performance), of 2 million dollars. Manning wants that money back, as he is running for the position of alderman in the South Side of Chicago against strong front-runner Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).


What exactly is an "alderman" you ask? Good question. The movie never really explains it, but Wikipedia defines it as "a member of a municipal assembly or council..the title is derived from the Old English title of ealdorman, literally meaning 'elder man', and was used by the chief nobles presiding over shires." I find this definition intriguing since the gender and racial dynamics of the film are complex. Mulligan is a wealthy white man who is basically inheriting this job (that he sorta doesn't want) from his racist old bastard of a father (Robert Duvall). He's up against Manning, a black man from the South Side of Chicago who wields his own power--through threats and violence instead of inherited money and privilege. But both of these men are about to be challenged and taken down by a group of women--mostly nonwhite and mostly in dire financial straits. More than anything else, Widows is about power: forms that power can take (money, sexuality, violence, blood ties), who has it, who wields it, and how they wield it. By carrying out a heist their husbands planned before their deaths, the titular widows of the film take back power from men who did hurt them (in the case of Debicki's abusive husband) or will hurt them (as with Veronica, who faces an upsetting late-night visit from Manning where he aggressively picks up Veronica's little dog by the scruff of its neck in the movie's most tense scene).

Widows has twists and turns galore, as well as shocking violence, vans full of money, car chases, and more. Fans of heist films will likely enjoy this elegant take on a genre that is so often paint-by-numbers. For me personally, I don't care for heist films and though Widows is by far one of the best I've seen...well, it's still a heist film. But that's just me. Your mileage may vary!

Grade: B-

Friday, December 14, 2018

Life of Grime

Movies: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Directed by Marielle Heller and starring Melissa McCarthy in rare dramatic role (and one of her best performances yet), Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a movie not afraid to focus on people who are unattractive and unpleasant, inside and out.

Based on true events, Melissa McCarthy plays writer Lee Israel, a biographer of women such as Estee Lauder and Fanny Brice. Struggling financially because no one wants to buy her biographies, Lee begins to forge private letters written by famous folks such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker and sell them to collectors for outrageous sums. It's clear that Lee is a clever writer, and she feels she's finally found her niche in faking these droll and gossipy missives.

Her bad behavior is spurred on by an old friend who pops back into her life (and onto the barstool next to her at the dive they frequent to drink their troubles away). Richard E. Grant is hilarious as Jack Hock, playing the drunk devil on Lee's shoulder and quickly becoming her partner in crime when rare bookstores and collectors catch on to Lee's forgeries.

You would think that Can You Ever Forgive Me? would be a depressing and unpleasant film, given that the main characters are depressed and unpleasant. But the film is surprisingly forgiving and understanding of its misfit protagonists. It reminded me a bit of Sideways, in which Paul Giamati's grumpy, arrogant oenophile and Thomas Haden Church's adulterous horndog groom-to-be won our hearts despite engaging in embarrassing and bad behavior. Likewise, you can't help but root--on some level, at least--for McCarthy's nasty loner Lee and Grant's lascivious, ne'er-do-well Jack.


When the two are finally caught (Jack cooperates with the FBI and testifies against Lee in exchange for a lighter sentence), it's a relief that Lee is only sentenced to probation and house arrest (especially since house arrest is barely a punishment for a woman who only leaves her house to go a bars). She gets a measure of redemption and, we hope, a kick in the butt to take control of her life (I mean, she wrote the memoir this movie is based on, so that's pretty cool).

Another thing that's really cool about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that's it's very queer without being about being queer. Jack Hock is gay and flirts openly with young, attractive men but that's only part of his character, not his defining trait. Likewise, Lee casually mentions a woman she used to live with, but who dumped her when Lee wouldn't open up emotionally. At the end of the film, it's clear that Jack is suffering from AIDS, although the word is never mentioned (context clues and the time period let the viewer know). I just find this really revolutionary because usually films where the main characters are gay tend to be all about being gay rather than about the people's lives outside of (or in addition to) their sexuality.

But that's the thing about Can You Ever Forgive Me? --it's, in a word, low-key. It's honestly a great film that never feels like it's rubbing its greatness in your face, and that's what I liked about it. Unlike so many movies that come out the gate begging for an Oscar, Can You Ever Forgive Me? feels like it couldn't care less if it won any awards or not. Like that well-worn brown sweater in your closet, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is unpretentious, unglamorous, yet comfortable as hell and oddly soothing.

Grade: A

Monday, December 10, 2018

Of Monsters and Men

Movies: Border

Ok, I am waaayyy behind in my reviews, but I'm pushing this review to the top of my list because it's a film that is unlike anything I've seen before. I'm honestly not sure I'd recommend going in knowing nothing about it because it might freak some viewers out. I'll write a quick, relatively spoiler-free synopsis for those who want a basic summary and the a more detailed review below for those who want to know what the fuck this movie it actually about.

So, Border is a Swedish film directed by Ali Abbasi and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist who also wrote Let the Right One In and Let Me In. The film centers on Tina (Eva Melander), a security guard who works at the Swedish border agency. Tina has an unusually strong sense of smell--she can literally sniff out guilt and shame--which helps her detect contraband. Tina also has facial deformities which give her a heavy brow and rough, masculine features. Despite this, she is respected at her job, has a live-in boyfriend (whom she doesn't have sex with and who is kind of a deadbeat, but keeps her company) and has a good relationship with her father, whom appears to be in the early stages of Alzheimers. In short, life is ok, though not great, for Tina.

But then one day and man passes through customs who has the exact same facial features as Tina--she is shocked and fascinated to meet a person who looks like her. He introduces himself as Vore (played by Eero Milonoff) and is amused by Tina's shock. Vore reveals that he is a traveler staying at a nearby hostel, and Tina invites him to stay at her guesthouse (much to the chagrin of her boyfriend). Vore and Tina grow closer and discover similarities beyond their facial features...

Now, if you want to go in with a relatively blank slate, stop reading now! But please be aware that there is VERY explicit sexual content in this film, so don't bring Grandma to see it, mmmkay?

***

Spoilers ahead!


***




Ok, so Vore reveals to Tina that they are not human, but in fact belong to a nearly extinct race of trolls. Yup, trolls. Like, the kind that live under bridges. In the world of Border, trolls have heavy facial features, eat insects, love the outdoors, are born with tails, and attract lightning (both Vore and Tina have been struck by lightning as children and have scars on their lower backs where their tails have been removed). Tina is, of course, shocked and incredibly upset. After all, her father never told her this information. She was raised to believe that she had a chromosomal issue, which also meant she could never have children.

Uh, turns out, she can...just not in the way you would expect. In an earlier scene at customs, Tina tells a fellow security guard that Vore is definitely hiding something. After he examines Vore privately, the security guard tells Tina that *she* should have been the one to examine Vore, as he has a vagina instead of a penis. Well, during the inevitable love scene between Vore and Tina, more secrets about her body are revealed: it turns out that when she is aroused, she grows a penis (and we get to see this happen in full, technicolor glory. There was an elderly woman sitting in front of me in the theatre who couldn't stop laughing during this scene). We learn more about the reproductive lives of trolls when Vore births what appears to be a troll baby, but is actually an unfertilized egg that just *looks* like a troll baby.

Now, if all this makes you think "this movie sounds terrible and ridiculous", you'd be 100% WRONG. Border is...well, is it a great movie? I don't know. It has a very upsetting and triggering subplot involving a child pornography bust that Tina is working on at her job. Vore also hides things from Tina and manipulates her, so this isn't exactly an ugly ducklings find true love story either. In fact, Border manages to upend your expectations at every turn. Wherever you think it's going, it's not. And that can be upsetting when you think it's going in one direction and then veers sharply in another direction.

But the sheer creativity and fantasy of Border, as well as the devastating, but beautiful arc of Tina's self-discovery, pushes the film into the realm of remarkable, at least for me. The film is about an "ugly" woman who finds out that not only is she not a freak, she's in fact something stronger and "better" (as Vore states) than human. But that doesn't make life any easier for her. Rare is it to see a film where an ugly duckling doesn't transform into a beautiful swan, but instead finds a sense of dignity and self-acceptance right where she is. Is Border a love story? Yes--but not between Vore and Tina. It's a love story between an empathic, open-minded viewer and Tina, and one of the best of the year so far.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Too Spooky!

Movies, TV: Suspiria, Overlord, The Haunting of Hill House, Apostle

Those who read this blog regularly know I have a horror-boner. I gleefully wait each year for the weather to get colder, the leaves to change color, and all the **~spoopy~** pop culture to ramp up around Halloween. This year, I've had the pleasure of seeing some really interesting--albeit not perfect--movies and TV shows within the horror genre and I'm doing an extra-long entry to review them all.

***

Suspiria (2018)

Ever since I found out that one of my all-time favorite horror films, Dario Argento's blood-soaked Suspiria, was being remade by Luca Guadagnino, the director of my favorite film of 2017, Call Me By Your Name, I was waiting with baited breath. I knew that even if Luca fumbled the remake, it would no doubt be visually stunning.

I was not wrong on that count. 2018's Suspiria, clocking in at a hefty 152 minutes, is a visual feast--some of it yummy and some of it so very yucky. Set in 1977 Berlin, the film takes place at the Tanz dance studio where a group of "mothers", including Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) oversee a dance company of talented young women. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is the latest little swan to join the group. Susie has essentially run away from her strict Mennonite family in Ohio and banks on her untrained, but raw, natural talent to get her a spot in the company and when Blanc sees her dance, she's in.

She quickly makes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), who tells her that one of the students, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), recently left the company under unusual circumstances. The official story is that Patricia joined an underground group of political radicals. But the audience knows that, in fact, she became convinced that the dance studio was run by a coven of witches. She reveals her paranoid fears to a therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton).

As Susie's incredible talent becomes apparent to Madame Blanc, she is offered the leading role in a production of a piece titled Volk. Blanc takes a special interest in Susie and trains her outside of normal hours. She also "transmits energy" to Susie (and other dancers) by laying her hands on them. Susie also experiences intense, bloody nightmares filled with images of the feminine: naked female bodies, panties, and blood alongside things like worms. The way the dreams are filmed reminded me of that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when they're riding the boat through the tunnel.



Suspiria is a maximally creepy, art-house flick up until its climatic final act when it goes from pleasurably Sadien (think: a bloody ritual involving naked women in a dungeon), to over-the-top, to silly in about 10 minutes. And then there is an epilogue that focuses on Klemperer, whose subplot never truly meshes with the main plot in a meaningful way. The final 20-ish minutes of the film made me lower the grade from the whole movie from an A- to a B. Which I know is still a good grade: Suspiria is bold, creepy, and atmospheric enough that even if aspects of it were ridiculous, the overall product was enjoyable and very "on brand" for the kind of movie I like.

Would I recommend the film? Maybe. Folks who like horror movies, feminist art, and/or slightly pretentious art house films will likely appreciate what Guadagnino was going for here. If you think of cinema as a form of "art" rather than "entertainment", you'll probably be willing to give it a shot. If you're a fan of the original film, you *might* like how Guadagnino has expanded the plot to encompass contemporary political events in 1978 and also the haunting legacy of Nazism. Or you might think he ruined an otherwise good thing. Personally, I felt that it was 2.5 hours and 12 bucks (plus popcorn) well spent, but it's not a movie I'm going to rewatch.

Grade: B

***

Overlord

Speaking of Nazis...

Have you ever wanted to watch a movie that had the revisionist WWII history of Inglourious Basterds with the nasty torture of Hostel and a dash of The Re-Animator, but not as good as any of those movies? Well, I give you...Overlord.

I would have never paid attention to this movie if it wasn't for its exceptional trailer, which showed American soldiers infiltrating a secret Nazi laboratory to the screech-singing of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" (seriously, watch it. It's a good trailer!). And also the title on the poster and all the promotional materials is in a really creepy, Nazi-esque font. So, I chose to see this movie based on a font, is what I'm saying. I'm very well-adjusted and normal.


Overlord is...not great. But not terrible either. Basically: right before D-Day, a bunch of American soldiers are dropped into France and tasked with blowing up a Nazi radio tower housed in a church. Along the way, they find a woman who is trying to protect her younger brother while also being forced to sexually gratify a commanding Nazi officer, Dr. Wafner (played by Pilou Asbaek--the dude who plays Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones). Lead by the slightly foolish, but good-hearted Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the crew beats the shit out of Wafner and infiltrates the church, only to discover, uh, "unchristian" things to say the least---like sacs of blood and guts and a still-alive head/spine with no body.

Now, I feel like Overlord had a TON of potential: Nazis, medical experimentation, a squad of racially diverse soldiers who overcome differences to do the right thing when it really matters. But the movie just kind of blows it on every count. None of the feelings you would associate with such a film--fear, disgust, irony--stick. Like, I'm watching a fuckin' head unattached to a body beg for death and I'm tempted to look at my watch. Something just isn't right about that.

All I can say is--if you want to see some Nazis get the shit beaten out of them, this is your movie. It's entertaining, kinda. But if you're looking for Nazi-murder catharsis and a good movie to boot, stick with Inglourious Basterds or Green Room.

Grade: B-

***

The Haunting of Hill House

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about this Netflix original series which has scared the poop out of many viewers, including this one.

Created by Mike Flanagan and based (very loosely) on the novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House is a 10-episode series that starts out very strong and kind of peters out near the end. In the summer of 1992, the Crain family moves into Hill House. Olivia and Hugh Crain (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) are house flippers, excited to flip the hell out of this old, creepy-ass house and make a ton of money. What they don't plan on is RUINING THEIR CHILDREN'S LIVES FOREVER. Jesus! You move into a haunted house, what do you expect?

There are five Crain children because mom and dad Crain don't use birth control, apparently: Steven is the oldest (played as an adult by "hot Daario" from Game of Thrones, Michael Huisman). Shirley (I see what you did there) is second oldest (adult = Elizabeth Reaser); then Theodora (Kate Siegel--the director's wife!); and then the twins, Luke and Nell (Oliver Jackson-Chen and Victoria Pedretti). All of the Crain kids are affected by Hill House and the eventful final night there (the tragic events of which are slowly revealed over the series). But some are more affected than others...



The twins, Luke and Nell, suffer the most. Nell is plagued with sleep paralysis and mental illness as an adult--haunted by visions of a "Bent-Neck Lady" she saw in the house as a child. Luke is a heroin addict struggling to get clean and followed by a floating man in a bowler hat. The older Crain kids, Steven and Shirley, are haunted by different demons: skepticism and resentment. Steven never believed his younger siblings' stories of ghosts, yet wrote a book and made a fortune on their stories. Shirley, a control freak with martyr syndrome, opened a funeral home and made a living "fixing" dead people because she couldn't fix her family (or accept them as is). Middle child Theo (my fave character) is truly in the middle--she is a skeptic who struggles to take her more sensitive siblings seriously, but is also "touched" herself: she wears gloves all the time because she is able to sense emotions and information by touching objects and people with her bare hands.

So, like Hereditary earlier this year, The Haunting of Hill House is as much about family trauma, rage, resentment, and mental illness as it is about ghosts. But there are also a fuck-ton of ghosts.

The show got this horror aficionado to jump out of her seat (and scare her cat) multiple times. This show is no fucking joke: there are jump scares, as well as children in peril, suicide, animals dying, and tense family confrontations. I don't care who the fuck you are, you will be triggered. But that is why I love this show, in spite of its imperfections: it is relentless. It's not afraid to go there--into the deepest parts of your animal brain and fuck around with the machinery there.

Episodes 1-5 are excellent, especially episode 5. 6-10 are...less so. 10 especially is confusing and disappointing. But the overall package is pretty intense and legitimately scary. At least I thought so. I recommend this show highly, but with extreme caution: it's not easy for people triggered by jump scares, family drama, or dead kittens. You've been warned...

Grade: B+

***

Apostle

No, not The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. Just plain Apostle is a desperately mediocre Netflix film which *sounds* super interesting--a man infiltrates a cult at the turn of the 20th century to find his sister, whom he believes has been kidnapped by said cult--but actually sucks. Starring Dan Stevens, who honestly is terrible in this role as a man trying to "fit in" to a creepy-ass cult, and Michael Shannon (pretty good as the charismatic leader), Apostle is just...ugh. It promises so much and delivers so little!

Stevens is Thomas Richardson, who travels to a remote island where a religious community has set up shop. He believes his sister, Jennifer, has been taken for ransom. He notices some creepy shit, such as the fact that the residents of the island leave bottles of blood outside their doors every night to be collected.

There's some dumb cult drama when one of the leaders finds out the son of another leader impregnated his daughter and straps the kid to a torture table and literally drills into his brain with a hand-crank. Believe it or not, this is one of the few *good* scenes of the movie.

When Stevens discovers What's Really Going On (tm) it's underwhelming and silly, throwing a supernatural curveball into a film that didn't really need it (cults are scary enough as is--you don't need otherworldly beings to make them scarier).

Sadly, I can't recommend this film unless you are morbidly curious. I found it to be a waste of time, made more disappointing by how cool the plot sounded.

Grade: C

***

Well, that's it for now! Horror lovers: Check out Hill House and Suspiria...if you dare! Everyone else: it's about that time to rewatch Home Alone or Elf, isn't it?