Suspiria

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* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Luca Guadagnino follows up his sublime Call Me By Your Name with a bonkers, WTF take on Dario Argento’s 1977 bonkers, WTF dance-school horror classic Suspiria. It’s weirdly entertaining, supremely stylish, and somewhat surprisingly superbly acted, even as it baffles at every turn, until the last, when it manages to draw at least some of its strands together and achieves something like profundity.

Guadagnino shifts the story to a professional dance company in Berlin in 1977, casting his A Bigger Splash actors Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as an incoming dancer and the company’s artistic director, respectively. As with the original, all is not as it may appear on the surface at the institution. Indeed – very minor spoiler alert – it’s actually a front for a coven of witches.

Guadagnino shoots the film, not as a garish freak-out in the style of Argento but with the grainy, semi-documentary 70’s grungy realism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (and has acknowledged the influence in interviews about the production). It is a very different vibe to Call Me By Your Name, all hand-held zooms and strange edits, weird pacing and disjointed storytelling. You’re constantly aware you’re watching a film, a construction, and more than a little aware of it being rather precious, or at least indulgent. It is, for example, two and a half hours long.

And yet, a lot of it really works. Besides the very rigorous aesthetic, which is entertaining on its own, the film has Johnson and Swinton, and that’s a lot. Johnson really engaged me throughout the whole thing; I found her mesmerizing, compelling, endlessly fascinating. Whatever Guadagnino is up to here, she seems to get it, and manages, through a very determined performance – including loads of contemporary dance – to bring us along. Her character, seemingly a naïf from Ohio, is surprisingly complex, and, by the time of the film’s truly demented climax and her part in it, she’s earned it, whatever the hell it is.

Besides the company’s chief artiste, Swinton plays two other parts, each under layers of prosthetics; one is a man in his eighties, Dr. Jozef Klemperer, who is investigating the possibility of witches at the company. She’s uncanny as Klemperer, so much so that no casual audience member would likely suspect the character is not being portrayed by a real old man, and I only reveal it’s her because it makes watching her performance far more fun.

In the end, Guadagnino goes for some hefty and intriguing questions about culpability during the Nazi era that are simultaneously provocative and confusing. I’m sure he knows exactly what he wants to say; I’m not sure he’s said it with great clarity, but I’m equally sure he hasn’t intended to. Suspiria is deliberately disorienting and perhaps deliberately obtuse; it’s never very scary, but it’s often beautiful and always fun.

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Fahrenheit 11/9

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Michael Moore’s new theatrically released feature-length documentary should probably not have been theatrically released. Despite the crying, aching need for Moore’s voice to be heard at this dire moment in the American story, in America itself this film was, relative to the immense success of Moore’s other films, a miss at the box office. This time, when Moore finally spoke, few listened, and I think the medium was the mistake. Moore should have made this film for Netflix.

I’ve sat in a hotel lobby in California and watched US cable news. It’s all Trump, and all rage, all the time. Combined with everyone’s news feeds, which everyone’s constantly swiping down to update, news saturation is a thing. The idea of trotting off to the cinema to get “more of the same” perhaps seemed redundant to the American cinema-going public. Especially to get more Trump. I imagine that people either reckoned they already knew what Moore had to say, or they felt content to get it from the “takeaways” on their feeds.

It’s a shame, because Moore’s film is absolutely worth seeing, impossible to reduce to bullet points, and – the big surprise – not really about Trump. Its call to arms is Trump’s election, absolutely, and its final act is a very persuasive argument for Trump as calculating fascist that puts a terrifying new spin on even his dumbest-seeming acts. But the bulk of the film offers a comprehensive account of a more localised example of sheer, jaw-dropping, morally incomprehensible corruption within the US political system, and holds that up, not only as a mirror to Trump, but as and example – to Trump – of what you can get away with once you’re in charge.

That would be the Flint water scandal – and by scandal, I mean abomination. What was done to the people of Flint, Michigan, by its Governor, Rick Snyder, in pursuit of his and his friends’ wallets and at the expense of his mostly poor black constituents is so unbelievably callous, reckless and obviously criminal that it feels like a war crime. Australian audiences will be aghast; it really does feel impossible that someone actually did this to their own constituents and pretty much got away with it. And that’s part of Moore’s point. He shows that corruption at this hellish scale has not only set up Trump, it has inspired him. When politicians can be as fundamentally evil as Snyder, voters disengage – give up – and shameless sociopaths like Trump can move in and make absolute hay.

By offering a thorough, moving and furious exposé of what happened in Flint, Moore is linking back to his first major documentary feature, Roger and Me, and, later in the film, when he examines the Parkland school shooting and its aftermath, to his second, Bowling For Columbine. This has a profound effect. Both those films highlighted serious flaws in the American system, whereby people were not only losing their jobs and their houses but their lives. By returning to both subjects – Flint and guns – again, with such focus, we see, shatteringly, that not only have things in the USA gotten worse, they’ve gotten substantially worse. Moore’s collective filmography thus charts sustained systemic decline. Oh, for the days when Flint’s only problem was the loss of all sustainable income, rather than the systemic poisoning of its children.

In sympathy with its sober content, the new film has a darker hue than Moore’s previous work. Unlike Roger and Me and Bowling For Columbine, there is barely any humour here; it’s hard to smile in the face of kids drinking lead, and kids eating lead. It’s the stuff of despair, and anger, and the film is full of each. That anger also strikes at the Democratic Party; Moore exposes its hijacking of Bernie Sanders in yet another instance of such brazen corruption as to feel unreal, and Obama comes in for a massive serve for his actions when he finally decided to deal with what was happening in Flint.

So, no. It’s not all about Trump. It’s never about Russian collusion, Comey, the first 100 days, Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Michael Cohen or money laundering, and there is no pee tape, N-word tape, sex tape or other smoking gun. It’s about the system, the prevailing winds, that allowed for all of the above. It’s about a country in serious trouble, and it’s compelling and deserves a massive audience.

It should have been on Netflix. But it’s not, so go see it at the cinema. The last thing we need is for people like Michael Moore to give up, too.

Ghost Stories

* * * (out of five)

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s throwback to the classic British horror anthologies – films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales From The Crypt and Torture Garden, most popular in the 1960s – is most fun as exactly that, not only an exercise in nostalgia but also in quintessential Britishness. This is a film where every sky is grey and where, if a man can wear a tan raincoat, he will. It’s as British as it gets, highly deliberately so, and all the more fun for it.

It’s not particularly scary, but I’m not sure that’s a big problem. Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a professional skeptic or myth-buster who exposes psychics, mediums and other frauds on his television show. When a celebrated skeptic from a previous generation – who is also his idol – tells him there are three cases he cannot explain, it’s up to our cynical hero to investigate.

Cue anxious men telling anxious stories of the time they were spooked by fiendish beasties. The three stories take place in classic locales – including some moors – and include lots of creaks and shadows and a few minor jump-scares. The emphasis is on true ghosts, not human horrors, so everything is kept at an arm’s remove. Like the earlier classic anthology films, Ghost Stories has a lot of resonance with classic creepy comics, though it’s based on Dyson and Nyman’s stage play.

It’s the kind of spooky event you can take your grandparents to, or your nine year old. Fun for Halloween, and certainly an original, at least for this century.

TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.

The Cleaners

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You’ll learn more about Facebook’s devastating relationship to the Myanmar genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the 88 minutes of this incredibly timely German documentary than you will from four hours of Apple News bits, bites and bobs. You’ll also learn more about how fake news spreads throughout not only Facebook and other social platforms but through Google itself than you would if you’d listened to the entire US congressional hearings into those applications.

You do so through the prism of “cleaners”, a work-force of thousands employed in Manila who spend their days and nights approving or deleting flagged images and videos for Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Some have to service 25,000 images or videos a day, and all of them, by their nature, have the potential to be highly disturbing. Violence, pornography, propaganda and terrorist acts all pass the eyes of these front-line curators of the world’s internet experience; they are then expected to be able to sleep at night and view 25,000 more upsetting things tomorrow.

This is stuff from dystopian fiction, it’s happening now, and it’s very disturbing. It also makes this compelling doc a must-see if you care at all about how the internet works.

Westwood: Punk. Icon. Activist.

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* * (out of five)

It’s self-evident that you don’t need to hold a strong pre-existing interest in the subject of a well-made documentary for it to engage you thoroughly. I held as close to zero interest as is possible for the fashion industry, yet I, like many others, was captivated by The September Issue, Unzipped and The First Monday In May. Those trail-blazers have spawned an entire sub-genre, and now feature length docs about designers, fashion houses and events on the fashion circuit come thick and fast. Just in the last few months we’ve had The Gospel According to André and McQueen in cinemas.

As with any trend, there’s a law of diminishing returns, and Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, about British designer Vivienne Westwood, is an example of this, or a victim. It is not told with any particular élan, and the subject herself comes off as grumpy and, worse, uninteresting.

Obviously, Westwood is a great talent, and her career stands for itself. But the Westwood who sits for director Lorna Tucker’s camera doesn’t seem to want to be there and tells her story – barely – with no excitement. Tucker fills out her scant eighty-three minutes with archival footage and interviews with Westwood’s sons, lover and acolytes, but none of the material crackles with the excitement or verve of her designs. This minor film proves that just because you’ve befriended a major artist doesn’t mean you’re ready to make a film about them.