Tag Archives: Tilda Swinton

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and they script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended  to connect, but puzzling it out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WAR ZONE (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, ,

PLOT: After moving to North Devon from London, Tom finds there’s little to do but wander the rainy countryside to avoid his family’s stifling cottage, until he discovers something dreadful is going on between his father and his sister.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inarguably well made, it is also inarguably hard to watch. The War Zone plays a subtle game at the beginning, but the unrelenting melancholy mixed with something much, much worse isn’t weird so much as harrowing.

COMMENTS: For those who may have been wondering what a Lifetime movie directed by might be like, look no further than The War Zone. Tim Roth’s directorial debut (and, as of this review, only directorial effort) is unceasingly dreary and rainy right up to the point when it gets truly disturbing. An overcast aura permeates the movie—inside, outside, and tonally—soaking the characters and narrative with an altogether melancholy atmosphere that, like the rains of North Devon, never lets up.

Matching Devon’s somber disposition, young Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) mopes through the movie. A sullen teenager, he barely interacts with his seemingly pleasant family. When his mother (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor shortly after their move, the whole family takes a frantic trip to the not-so-nearby hospital. A car crash immediately followed by the miracle of birth seems to bring them closer together. However, Tom discovers that his older sister (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone) may be continuing something inappropriate that began in London. Their cottage’s isolation and unpopulated countryside provide the two with opportunities to continue the tryst. Upon Tom’s suspicions being confirmed, things get even more awkward, and spiral into a nasty climax.

Bleak, bleak, and then some. Tom’s only escape from his life is bicycling around outdoors and spending time on the beach, invariably in the rain. He loves his sister, but hates her for what she’s doing. His sister hates herself. The father, given no name (like the mother), is an oddity. Until we know what’s going on, he seems an altogether swell guy—and even after the truth is revealed, Ray Winstone does us no favors by contriving a sympathetic performance. Shot by shot and muddled conversation by muddled conversation, Tim Roth puts misery on parade, never stopping for a break. This movie is dark stuff; straightforward, depressing dark stuff.

Having been among the few to catch this in theaters when it was released eighteen years ago, I remember it as being bleak; re-watching it the sensation was compounded by the DVD’s awkward display. Released as widescreen in the days of square televisions, my newer TV put a box around the film: its claustrophobia magnified by the black bars on all sides. And there’s some unhappy history involving its production and release. Ray Winstone nearly left shooting after having to perform a particularly wrenching scene. During the Toronto Film Festival screening, a man left shouting he couldn’t take it any more, and Tim Roth had to talk him down from pulling a fire alarm. The War Zone is very well shot, very well acted, and very well scored; this generally isn’t a problem, and isn’t one for this movie, per se. However, it does mean that anyone thinking of watching it needs to realize it will grab you forcibly and not let go until it slams the door in your face.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I generally have little patience for this brand of art-conscious dragginess, but Roth, there’s no denying, creates considerable suspense out of our desire to confront the forbidden.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “skunky.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Created by Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange was an authentically odd character in the Marvel universe of the 1960s. Aptly, he debuted in the “Strange Tales” comic. The character almost perfectly encapsulated Ditko’s idiosyncratic, surreal pencil work, even more so than his better known co-creation, Spiderman. Complementing Ditko’s art, Stan Lee scripted the character as a hybrid mixture of Jungian archetypes with a theosophist cocktail of Eastern mysticism and Egyptian mythology. When other artists took over Doctor Strange after Ditko’s departure, it never had quite the same texture, and quickly became bland before descending into parody as the good doctor could be found in superhero team-ups with the likes of Hulk and Spiderman (!)

A pulp mystic, the character hardly seemed like a viable nominee for big screen treatment, and when Doctor Strange (2016) was announced as the next Marvel movie, the prospects didn’t look hopeful, considering director Scott Derrickson’s execrable resume.  Surprisingly,  Derrickson and his co-writers went straight to Ditko and Lee’s original source material, delivering an entertainingly psychedelic production, which is helped by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, , the ever reliable , and .

Still from Doctor Strange (2016)As much as embodies Iron Man, Cumberbatch does the same for this surgeon with the Trump-sized ego. However, an accident leaves Doc’s precious surgical hands mutilated, prompting him to seek enlightenment via the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, filling in for ), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Before you can say Expecto Patronum, Strange sees the light and transforms into Chandu the Magician heading to the next Hare Krishna meeting. Despite the here-we-go-again St. Paul conversion myth, it plays out much more uniquely, viscerally, and tongue-in-cheek than one might expect.  As Strange perfects his new metaphysical trade, the CGI actually enhances the narrative, as opposed to distracting us from it—and, yes, see it in 3D, because that’s the best route for trippy 60s symbolism. Derrickson and company faithfully recreate and expand upon Ditko’s peculiar brand of surrealism and the havoc they wreak with illusionary imagery from the mirror universe is refreshingly off-kilter.

In a rarity for something churned out by Marvel, the director and team have been given room to play outside of conveyor-belt dictates. The fun they have is contagious, but such a subject can only be as good as its villain. Fortunately, they have one in the outlaw mystic Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) who engages in a phantasmagoric battle with Strange on the streets of New York (aided considerably by Michael Giacchino’s galvanizing score). Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius could very well be his astral, Dark Dimension, bony version of Hannibal Lecter (and shame on those who missed that late series, which rendered the /Jonathan Demme version obsolete), delivering his hocus-pocus dialogue with such aridity, he scares the hell out of you just by speaking. Mikkelsen is cast well (although underused) against Cumberbatch’s in-the-know remote wit. Likewise, McAdams is smartly cast as Strange’s ex-girlfriend who literally assists in his physical and metaphysical healing. The actors, coupled with visuals blatantly inspired by MC Escher, give Doctor Strange an all too uncommon individuality. This is not the Avengers taking turns pounding away at big shiny black, metallic thingamajigs. Rather, the good doctor, with his cloak of levitation, takes his battles to the realm of pop nightmares, which makes the late hint to an inevitable Avengers tie-in all the more disappointing. Is it weird? Nah, but it’s an empyrean burlesque and, for this studio, that is a surprising treat.

CAPSULE: THE ZERO THEOREM (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mélanie Thierry, , Lucas Hedges, , Matt Damon

PLOT: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is a gifted but troubled programmer (or “cruncher” as they are referred to in the film) who is assigned a seemingly impossible task: to calculate the “Zero Theorem” and thus prove the lack of meaning in anything. The only problem is, Qohen is convinced that there is meaning to everything, and that it’s just a matter of time before he finds out what it is.

Still from The Zero Theorem (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gilliam alleges that The Zero Theorem is a tragedy and that has fared poorly with critics due to assumptions that it is supposed to be a comedy. But the honest-to-God tragedy is Gilliam’s decision to essentially rehash one of his finest films (Brazil) with a more contemporary slant regarding technology and our current sense of isolation. This is a film that has plenty of fine moments, and it’s something of a must see for all the weird fans out there, but it’s a footnote in Gilliam’s cinematic career that puts more pressure on the now 73 year-old auteur to complete the long gestating “Don Quixote” project that has dragged him through Hell (and Spain) and back over the last two decades.

COMMENTS: For all the Gilliam aficionados out there, please don’t despair! The Zero Theorem is lots of fun, and demonstrates just what a criminally overlooked talent Gilliam is behind the camera. The movie looks superb, especially given its extremely modest budget, and many of its imaginative flourishes are a joy to behold. A film needs to be more than just the sum of its parts in order to truly succeed, however, and The Zero Theorem cannot escape the shadow of its far superior filmic sibling Brazil in terms of quality and vision.

The two movies are simply too thematically similar in terms of subject and presentation, and particularly in terms of David Thewlis’ performance which directly channels ‘s turn as the terrifying Jack Lint. The update of modern society is viewed through Gilliam’s eye: the blaring in-your-face nature of technology and the personal detachment it encourages. All this is all well and good, but this is all ground that is well-trod, and in better boots, by the earlier and superior film. Zero Theorem is simply too derivative of his past work to have any lasting merit.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the film is the performances of the main cast. Mélanie Thierry’s eccentric allure is charming and garish at the same time, and Lucas Hedges gives a star turn as the teenage genius Bob, a role he leaps into with such abandon that he is surely an actor to watch out for in the future. Let’s just hope that Gilliam pulls one last truly great masterwork out of his thoughtbox before he dies, as this minor film would be an unworthy epitaph for such a great director.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s weird and there’s Terry Gilliam weird, and his latest exploration into the fleeting nature of humanity, The Zero Theorem, may as well have been watermarked with his name… weirdly enjoyable”–Blake Howard, Graffiti with Punctuation (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Anton Yelchin

PLOT: A reclusive composer living in a cluttered house in a decaying neighborhood of Detroit is actually a vampire suffering from severe ennui; he reunites with his undead wife, who flies in from Morocco, and is visited by her troublemaking younger sister.

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: No Jim Jarmusch movie is ordinary or normal, but this languid vampire romance/drama, while intoxicating, doesn’t quite make it all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: I’ve always wondered how vampires keep from getting bored with eternal undeath. I occasionally find it hard to find something to do to fill up a few hours on a rare free Saturday afternoon; how in the world would I pass the endless nights of dozens of strung-out lifetimes?

Only Lovers Left Alive starts from that very premise, with vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries-old composer who now collects vintage guitars and composes feedback-laced funeral dirges, bored and contemplating offing himself with a new twist on the old stake-in-the-heart methodology. The only thing that keeps him from retiring to the coffin for good is his love for fellow walking corpse Eve (Tilda Swinton, who in an albino wig looks oh-positively undead, as well as slightly resembling a transgendered Jim Jarmusch). The mood of luxurious, decadent idleness is a fit with Jarmusch’s patient style of filmmaking. The vampires here are wan intellectuals, disaffected Romantics, above the common run of the living (whom they refer to as “zombies”). There is a reference to some recent corruption of the human world, in the idea that human blood is now largely contaminated, and it’s hard for the vampires to find “the good stuff” without a connection at the blood bank (the only truly funny moment in the movie comes when a bloodsucker feels sick after sipping at the veins of a poorly-chosen victim). The script is peppered with English-lit jokes (one of the vampires is a famous Elizabethan writer), and the soundtrack is largely dark psychedelia that give off a decadent, hashish-y vibe. The commonplace hemoglobin-as-a-dug motif further reinforces the film’s Bohemian aura. Some of the best moments are the blood on the teeth montages, when the undead each down a cup of red stuff and throw back their heads in ecstasy, looking for all the world like hopheads getting a fix. Later, disheveled, wearing sunglasses at night as they wander the streets of Tangiers looking for a score, Swinton and Hiddleston might as well be staggering in the footsteps of .

Even though a couple of characters die, it seems that not much actually happens over the course of two hours, or that there is much new that can happen to these jaded walking corpses. Though not as abstract and punishing as his previous experiment in stripped-down spy fiction, 2009’s The Limits of Control, Jarmusch’s latest is bound to alienate many viewers with its lack of action and highbrow references that sometimes seem self-congratulatory. Still, if you get on its arty wavelength, you’ll find euphoric moments that hit you like a rush of fresh blood to the cerebral cortex. Colorful, arabesque, and throbbing with a melancholy drone, the purpose of the movie is not to tell a story so much as to enfold us inside of these vampires’ immortal languor. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film to soak in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…part spot-on Detroit travelogue, part pop culture satire and part fish eternally out-of-water anxiety exercise. Somehow it’s all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SNOWPIERCER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chris Evans, , Kang-Ho Song,

PLOT: The film takes place eighteen years after a global extinction event has plunged the world into a new ice age. The only survivors are those who managed to board the Snowpiercer, an enormous self powered train that now continually loops around the Earth on a journey with no end or purpose, in time. There is a class system, working from the front to the back, in place to keep social order. But dissent brews amongst the passengers between the haves in the front and the have-nots by the caboose.

Still from Snowpiercer (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s the weirdness, which goes beyond the central science fiction conceit, that actually makes the film unravel. Following an extremely tight and gripping first hour, it’s as if Bong is unsure where to take his film, so he halfheartedly offers a series of -esque impersonations set against increasingly flawed narrative logic. These slips distance and distract the viewer from what could have been an excellent addition to the canon of “great science fiction movies” (a list which in and of itself is a long way away from being 366 movies long).

COMMENTS: Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film generated a lot of buzz in Europe following its popular reception in his home country of South Korea. An ongoing argument between director and the stateside distributor (The Weinstein Company, as usual) over subtitled scenes not being cut means that the film may be sinking without much of a trace in the U.S.A., however, which seems a shame given Bong’s track record. The director of The Host and a segment of Tokyo!, amongst others, Bong is a director with good work to his credit. Snowpiercer, however, doesn’t stand up to critical attention. Without giving anything away, the opening section sets a very tense situation of confined spaces that are a certain class of people’s entire universe. Tired of the same food and the lack of windows, a revolution takes place with the intention of getting to the front of the train, and from here on in the film moves at a breakneck pace which is both tense and exhilarating. Particular kudos must go to Tilda Swinton, who is unrecognizable as a character based on Great Britain’s iconic Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, and is a scene-stealer during her underused screen time. The film works as a high octane action movie, and it works in this manner for quite a while; but as the lower classes gain access to new carriages the dynamic of the film changes for the worse.

Snowpiercer‘s overall fault is that its enormous plot holes are impossible to forgive against its pretensions of an intelligent subtext and analysis of modern class issues. Entertainment-driven popcorn viewing that makes up the mainstay of the Hollywood summer slate can be forgiven for saying things badly, given that it has so little to say; but Snowpiercer has a brilliant central plot device, yet Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterton’s increasingly obscure and irrational narrative comes across as a desperate distraction to take the viewers’ minds off the fact that the writer and director have no clue of where their film needs to go.

Ultimately, despite being a lot of fun at certain points, and certainly being considerably more cerebral than a most Hollywood action films can boast to be, Snowpiercer is a noble failure. More irrational than weird, and with an allegorical political subtext that doesn’t bear close scrutiny from either the left or the right, Bong’s English language debut disappoints, despite the praise being heaped upon it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off.”–Wesley Morris, Grantland (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nigel Terry occasionally narrates. There are no characters or speaking parts, and no actor can be said to be “featured” in this film; a pre-fame  appears prominently in it, however.

PLOT: An abstract, impressionistic view of Britain in the late 1980s, contrasted with nostalgic memories of simpler times.

Still from The Last of England (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A mysteriously personal and poetic meditation on themes of decay, The Last of England is too restlessly strange to ignore. If anything, its biggest challenge to earning a spot on a list of weird movies may be that it actually strays too far from reality. By abandoning narrative entirely and mucking up the image until it becomes impossible to tell what we’re looking at, Jarman’s film becomes almost completely abstract, the movie equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

COMMENTS: Among other odd offerings, The Last of England features men having sex on the Union Jack, terrorists in black ski masks rounding up prisoners, and a wedding where the bridesmaids have full beards. Each of these images has been manipulated three times: the color correction has been toned down to monochrome or amped up to day-glo, the footage has been sped up or slowed down, and the camera’s conventional stability has been abandoned for a deliberately jittery style that is indifferent to conventional framing. As if the welter of abstract scenarios wasn’t disorienting enough, Jarman edits back and forth between two scenes—say, a naked hobo eating cauliflower in a junkyard and a man in a neck brace pouring corn over his head—according to peculiar rhythms, as if he’s alternating rhymed lines of verse. Naturally, the soundscape is an equally convoluted collage, consisting of snippets of poetry combined with Jarman’s own prose ruminations about the decline of England and “found” sounds (football fans, jet fighters, soldiers accepting medals from the Queen). Although the visuals never let up, at times flickering back and forth too fast for the eye or mind to properly process, an eclectic selection of musical recordings occasionally provides some aural respite. The movie even turns into a music video sometimes, as when naked pagans dance in front of a bonfire while highly synthetic club dance music pulses in the background; there are also classical music selections, acoustic guitar interludes, and songs from Barry Adamson, Marianne Faithfull, and the terrifying wailing of Diamanda Galas. Although it makes no disciplined case (juxtaposing clips of English drill instructors with Hitler’s speeches is not a political argument), the movie does have a generically strident leftist political tone. The film’s provocative progressive politics—come on, it’s got two guys doing the nasty on the British flag—contrasts with its elegiac tone. With its bitter disillusionment and nostalgia for a mythically idyllic pre-World War II England—Jarman includes happy home movie footage of his childhood and describes the bombing of London as if it ignited a series of firestorms that were still raging in 1988—England is reminiscent of a more intellectual (if even less coherent) version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and one suspects that the loss of innocence Derek Jarman bemoans belongs more to Derek Jarman than it does to England. Obviously, this obscure and often frustrating farrago is not for everyone, but those willing to patiently pick through the visual rubble will find scraps and relics of sublime beauty. Jarman’s intellect and passion come across on film so powerfully that you leave feeling more impressed than entertained or enlightened. And, at eighty-seven rambling minutes, the movie can become a chore to watch; The Last of England‘s lasting impact may be to remind us why the short format has become the preferred vehicle for non-narrative experimental films.

In conjunction with the film Jarman also published a (now long out-of-print) book entitled “The Last of England“; reportedly, it dealt mainly with the director’s relationship with his father, who Derek believed was scarred by his experiences as an airman in World War II.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its inconsolable rage and bitterness is protean, chafing at the absurdities of Thatcher’s England, but also at the wider dome of existence, man’s inhumanity to man, and so on.”–Jaime N. Christley, Slant (DVD)