Monday, January 22, 2024

Suspiria (2018)

It feels like just about every classic horror film has been remade, usually for the worse. For every Fly, Thing, or Blob, you have absolute dreck, existing solely as cash grabs. The same was almost true for Suspiria, with talk of an American remake going on for years. Mercifully this all fell through, but a remake would soon be in the cards anyway, courtesy of recent talent Luca Guadagnino. Does it live up to the original, or is it just another bad copy?...

Young American Suzy Bannion has just arrived in Berlin, 1977, to join the prestigious Markos dance academy. She's allured by the city, and enigmatic instructor Madame Blanc. But strange things are afoot. The spectre of domestic unrest looms over all, one girl has gone missing, and a psychiatrist's investigations prove dangerous. It becomes apparent this school is led by a coven of witches, who have sinister plans for their students...

Suspiria 2018 is a film with a lot to admire and criticise, with my feelings skewing towards the latter. Firstly, this is a 2-and-a-half hour arthouse horror film. That alone should serve as a warning sign, but also show that Luca at least had the merit to try something new and unique, instead of just a safe lazy retread. It also helps that this technically isn't an American film.

As a remake this is...mixed. It makes a conscious effort to be different, which I applaud! It's not just a play-by-play of the original with updated effects. Instead it takes the base of the original to create something new. However, I felt it went a bit far in the opposite direction at times, having so little to do with the source material at times you wonder why they bothered. I also wish there were some recreations of familiar scenes, just to see Luca's version of the opening double murder!

Luca himself has distanced himself from calling his Suspiria a remake, preferring to call it a homage instead...A homage using the exact same name, plot, and characters as the original. Riiight. I get annoyed when people try and argue their film isn't a remake but a reimagining (same thing, assholes!), but this is really pushing it. Of course Suspiria is a remake of Suspiria. Luca should just own that (very obvious) fact, rather than hide it.

As its own film, I found Suspiria 2018 to be crushingly slow! It's far too long, and very little happens. It takes forever for anything of note to occur. For example, there's no opening murder, and the first death scene is 40 minutes in! That's almost half the original film! It doesn't even take advantage of this time and introduce us to anyone, or explore/expand the characters. We may not know a lot about the girls in the '77 version, but at least we know they are SSNNAKESSSS. Half an hour into this film I knew one girl (as to yet unseen) was named Olga, and another Sara, and I couldn't have told you a thing about them, even what they looked like.

The story here isn't particularly epic. Instead each scene feels like it goes on far too long, and many are unnecessary. There are also particularly unwelcome bits like seeing our heroine take a piss (without even taking off the leotard, ewww!). Like, I get why, they're witches, and collect stuff like that, but dialogue can do plenty! The dialogue also feels a little...gratuitous at times? I don't mind swearing period, but it feels like instead of saying something like a normal person, characters here say stuff like 'They're going to eat my cunt!'. It also feels like very modern swearing too, although that might be nothing.

The film is divided into chapters (as well as a prologue and epilogue), which can be obnoxious when done wrong. Nothing about Suspiria feels segmented, and the titles waver between pretentious and dull. Boring like 1977, or Borrowing, neat like The Palace of Tears, then the frankly obnoxious Inside the Mutterhaus (All the Floors are Darkness). None of these titles make much sense either.

Suspiria 2018 is rich in themes...allegedly. There's been a lot from the director and others about themes of motherhood, fascism, communism, terrorism, national guilt, and more. That all sounds a bit of a hodgepodge to me, and much of it is barely touched upon. It almost feels like it's just throwing ideas at the screen and inviting us to figure out. Which can work, but other times it just feels lazy, like an artist who couldn't be bothered finishing the job, and wants us to do all the hard work.

This leads into one of the film's biggest elements, bafflingly-Politics! Luca felt it was a missed opportunity that the original Suspiria took place in a turbulent period of Germany's history, and his film rectifies that by giving us constant history lessons about local politics before anything scary has even happened. Much of it amounts to basically namedropping. We hear chatter on the TV/radio, graffiti, characters talking about it. This never amounts to much but background window dressing, yet it dominates so much of the film, to the detriment of other things, like the story itself.

Luca should've realised this wasn't The Little Drummer Girl, and known what to leave out. This makes me admire the restraint of the original, which wasn't just set during a turbulent part of Germany's history, it was made during it, yet doesn't focus on any of this stuff. Because it simply has nothing to do with the story. And it goes to show how life goes on during such times, as well as how the troubles of the outside world doesn't penetrate the boundaries of the magical Black Forest.

I'm not saying having a political connection to the witchery is a bad idea, and it could've been interesting thematically. There's a single line from a skeptic about magic meaning to perpetuate chaos that could've been expanded on. Instead we just get constant reminders that German terrorists exist, Berlin has a wall, and that's it.

The characters here are pretty dull and one-note, and there are so many people here with so little to do. Suzy is a little passive. She has a decent Mennonite backstory, which plays well into her character. The film verges on overexplaining her desires. In the original she just wanted to study at a German academy because. Not everything needs a reason (although admittedly the one given here is a good one). She also didn't choose Berlin next to the Wall during terrorism season!

She quickly develops a connection with Madame Blanc, even having a confusing telepathic convo, with no real precedence before or after. Susie also seems to know things we haven't seen her learn.

As in the original film, it's Sara who investigates the academy's weirdness, reluctantly at first. She does ok, before her death. The other girls barely get any dialogue, even the few important ones.

Dr. Josef Klemperer is the other lead, and a good presence. And old man, and survivor of WWII, he tries to help, not believing in witches at first. But they believe in him, and he's smart enough not to keep doubting when they're rocking up on his doorstep. Given his age and frailty he's not much of an action protagonist, but more of a thematic one, carrying guilt for being unable to save or find his wife, or stop the nazis.

The instructors are ok. Madame Blanc gets the most depth, neither good or evil. Tanner is as unnecessary as she was in the old film, and I keep getting their names mixed up. The others are just there, with the odd crazy moment every now and then (like the police...encounter). We see too much of the coven, and it loses mystique. It also doesn't help that they rarely do any magic. Helena Markos only appears in the last act, and does next to nothing. Consistent with the old film, but we felt her presence more there, and there was a connection to the titular character this version lacks.

One area the film really lacks in is having anything to do with the Three Mothers! Beyond some brief lip service, hours apart, there's nothing to go on. I feel that separating Markos and Mater Suspiriorum was a mistake, as it means she wasn't orchestrating the whole film's events, and only has a presence in the last few minutes. Not enough is explained about the Three Mothers or why Suspiriorum was locked away. Was she even locked away? There's being mysterious and then there's genuinely having no idea what's going on. I do find it interesting though how benevolent she's presented! Makes me wonder how sequels would go.

An area the old Suspiria may have lacked in is dance. This update seeks to change that with a much bigger focus. I'd say a little too much, but I appreciate the thought. I wasn't much of a fan of the style. In the original they were just a normal dance academy, but here they're avant-garde weirdos! But then again this is Europe in the 70s. I can totally buy that. The dances themselves are surprisingly good. The big performance is a great setpiece, even if the make-up and nude red ribbon costumes are laughable.

I have to say, by the hour and 50 minute mark things finally start picking up a bit. I'm still not loving it, and this obviously doesn't make up for everything before, but it was nice to actually be entertained. This leads to the last act, which is where the movie goes all out in witchcraft and violence, and the plot finally become clear.

The final reveal, where there's more to Susie than meets the eye, comes a little out of nowhere. There's no explanation, but I think it's an interesting idea. The climax is a little basic. Mater Suspiriorum shows up, then kills everybody. Not the most dramatically satisfying on paper, but it's handled well onscreen though.

The ending is a grueling 10 minutes long. Klemperer and Susie have a nice exchange, as they discuss the final moments of his wife. It's sweet, despite the tragedy of the story. Although the scene is nullified when Susie immediately wipes his memory of everything. The film ends on a quiet note, then we get a post credits scene that doesn't add much, even as a sequel hook.

The acting here is a highlight! In a way. I wish everyone would speak up, but they otherwise deliver very good performances! Dakota Johnson is a strong lead, with a lowkey but effective performance, which really shines in the last act. Mia Goth is a nice presence. Elena Fokina doesn't have a huge part, but is a real trooper in the parts she does get! Chloe Grace Moretz is ok in a disappointingly small role.

While Tilda Swinton is her typical self, weird and ethereal, with a commanding tone. However in Suspiria she pulls triple duty, also playing Helena Markos, and Dr. Klemperer. Her turn as Markos is fun though nigh impossible to understand, and doesn't get enough time. And she also plays the male role of the Dr. under the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf. She does well, and the illusion is mostly seamless, though there are times when you can tell. Not sure what prompted this idea beyond a general fancy, and it never plays into the story, but it's a good addition. Swinton's German has gotta be complimented too, although it's not surprising someone as artistic as she would fluent in continental tongues.

This is a very bilingual film, switching between English to German (and even a smattering of French) at random. Films like this can work, but here it just felt distracting. Nothing is accomplished beyond ultra realism, but there is a reason characters only ever speak one language in movies, despite the unreality. At several moments I was thinking "English, motherfucker! Pick a language and stick with it!". The subtitles are decent, and come with snazzy colours, as well as captions at times.

[The audio is a weak area in the film. I was having such a hard time hearing a lot of the dialogue! It got to the point where I heard what I thought was 'patrician', and I strained my ear to hear what I thought was a conversation about the ills of patriarchy...before realising they only said Patricia.

The direction in Suspiria is another high point. Luca has a great eye for visuals, with some abstract imagery too. The dances are captured well. The editing gets a bit too frenetic for my tastes at times, but the worst of it is in dream sequences that are meant to be chaotic.

Less stellar for me was the colour. While the original is renowned for its garish appearance, Luca wanted to distinguish his own version. A good call! He gives his Suspiria a more muted colour palette, intended to evoke a wintery feel. It's not bad, but my issue with it is the same issue I have with most films nowadays. There's no colour! It's like watching gray sludge. I wish he had've found a better middle ground than making the film look drab. The finale gets to stand out with some good red light, though it does make seeing who dies and how a little difficult once things kick off.

I really liked the end credits. I dig the colour of the background, which is cooler than just a routine black screen. The title font is neat, as are the skewed credits (even if it does make them a little hard to read). And I like what it credits too! Things like the artists for the portraits. Stuff that usually doesn't get specific credits.

The effects are a mix of practical and CGI. The big death scenes all look good. One gets pretty gnarly, though at a certain point it stops resembling something even human, and just an effect. But that could be a positive for some, so I won't nitpick. Some bits in the climax look a little fake, but there's some ok gore, and the 'chest opening' is a neat image! The prosthetics for old man Tilda are pretty convincing, and Markos is suitably grotesque.

The music here is...different! Composed by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, it's pretty lowkey and muted throughout the film, not going out of its way to be scary. Instead it builds more of a moody atmosphere, and includes actual songs performed by Yorke and his odd falsetto voice (he didn't used to sound like that, did he?). While your mileage may vary on his voice, and the style, I mooostly liked them. I wish he'd taken more pages out of, say, Goblin or Keith Emerson's book, but I admire the experimental touch.

While Suspiria acts as a standalone film, Luca did intend on crafting a sequel, and presumably a third entry to follow. This makes sense on paper, since he is adapting a pre-existing trilogy. But given his handling of Mater Suspiriorum I'm not sure how he'd even go about the other two Mothers. I'd be interested to see, and even if his version of Lachrymarum was on par with this effort, I can still say it'd be better than Mother of Tears! The film didn't do well enough at the box office for this to happen though. I totally get this, since a near-3 hour arthouse horror was never going to do gangbusters. I kinda wish Luca could've done this for a smaller budget, to make the possibility of a sequel easier. Although I'm kinda glad this exists on its own.

Suspiria 2018 is liked or loved by some, but not me, and I don't understand those who say it's better than the original. It did too much wrong for me to feel that. I admire it for a lot of things it is, or tries to do, but the execution and runtime just killed it for me. I barely enjoyed a second, and would've much rather watched the original or its sequel...

God of Cookery (1996)

Stephen Chow is a celebrity chef, known as the God of Cookery. He passes judgment on many other cooks, always negatively. He's not what he seems though, and the truth is exposed by a scheming assistant-The so-called God of Cookery is actually a fraud! Chow is sent tumbling from grace, and finds himself in a poor neighbourhood, where he gets to know the food sellers. At first things seem bleak, but their humble skills and a brainwave of his own lead to the means to make a comeback. Can Stephen reclaim his title of the God of Cookery? And will he truly deserve it this time?...

God of Cookery is another film by HK comedy madman Stephen Chow, and a fan favourite. It speaks volumes about his filmography that something this fun and beloved isn't considered his best only because of how greater his later works are.

This is basically a kung fu film where the fighting is replaced by cooking (for the most part), and it really manages to work. It's an absurd comedy where anything goes. There's an unmistakeable style, and at times it almost feels like a live action anime.

The humour is very Chinese, as expected, with Chow having a particular love of lowbrow jokes. Full of absurdity, slapstick, and toilet humour. Although 'pissing shrimp' really is called that in real life! This kind of comedy might not appeal to everyone, and I'm a bit hit or miss on it, but generally it works here. There was the odd moment I scrunched my nose at, but nothing serious. And when it hits it's really funny! The funniest moment for me was the 18 Bronze Men of Shaolin! I love how it builds each time, with the actors, directing, and music all going hand in hand to hilarious effect.

The dialogue is also wonderfully kooky, with the things coming out of these characters' mouths perfectly matching their over-the-top world. A highlight is the judge during the climax, who spouts wisdom such as: "Good flying skills! The secret of flying skills is that it can make a man who's as heavy as steel fly up high in the sky and make ghosts cry!"

Then there's the film's presentation of cooking. It's exaggerated to the nth degree, but also rooted in reality, and there's a lot on display. Many ridiculously extravagant dishes, from fish sewn together and steamed on one side, deep fried on the other, to exquisitely carved bean curd in the shape of Buddha. And of course there's the film's signature 'pissing meatballs', which look messy and sound disgusting by name, but I'd love to try! The film satirises crazy reality cooking shows, as well as superstar chefs. There's a clear message of 'Keep it simple, stupid', but it's never mean or scathing, only gently mocking. After all, nevermind the creativity, without some of these crazy dishes there'd be nothing to give us a good laugh!

The characters here are a great bunch! The creatively named Stephen Chow starts out as a real asshole. He's rude, brash, arrogant, and treats others around him like dirt. He's harbouring a secret though, and when it's exposed he can't cook worth a damn, he's sent packing. But it's not long before he's got a new idea to get back to the top.

What's interesting though is that Stephen isn't automatically redeemed just because he's an underdog. He's been improved by his new circumstances, but his old instincts are still there, like they've only been dialed back instead of switched off altogether. It takes a greater tragedy (or so he thinks) before he truly begins to change, and attains inner purity, signified by his hair changing colour. The film does a really good job of showing the protagonist's bad side without either sanitising it, or going too far, and we really feel it when he changes for the better.

Bull Tong starts out as a lowly dogsbody, but soon proves himself to be a nasty piece of work. He turns on his master, exposing Chow and taking his title. He fancies himself a good person, but he's far worse than his predecessor.While Stephen was a ratbag, he really only cared about himself. Whereas Bull is full-on abusive, and malevolent. His lowest moment comes when he hires an assassin to finish Stephen once and for all, unknowingly spurring on his enemy's final redemption.

Street cook Turkey is a rough tough girl, with crooked teeth and a big scar. She has an unexpected soft side though, and turns out to be a real fangirl for the God of Cookery! This adds a nice depth to her character, and she really goes the extra mile to help Stephen out, almost to the ultimate degree.

I liked the ending to their romance, but not the plastic surgery bit. It's probably only meant as a laugh I'm sure, but it makes the outcome a little superficial. Although the actress doesn't actually look that different. She still has her unique face, just cleaned up a little, and sans the scar and teeth.

The supporting cast includes a few other street cooks, who are decent though blend together a bit. Then there's the...interestingly named Shaolin master, and the 18 Bronze Men of Shaolin, who are a riot!

The final act is the film at its best. Everything has built up to this moment, where everything the film has done is at its best, from the comedy, to the action, the heart, etc, all making for a great climax. The heavenly intervention comes as a perfect treat, as a homage to Chinese cinema and culture, as a testament to the bizarre, and a satisfying way to conclude things.

The cast in God of Cookery is over-the-top in a mostly fun way! Their performances don't just chew the scenery, they demolish it! At times it can get a bit much, but it's all part of the style, and it mostly works. Chow is a great lead, while Vincent Kok is perfect as the villain, along with Ng Man-tat. Karen Mok makes for an unconventionally looking romantic co-star, helped with some 'ugly' make-up.

Chow not only acts well but pulls off the direction, along with frequent colleague Lee Lik-Chi. Together they make a very good looking film, with great framing, stylish angles, and scenes shot in an energetic and chaotic way. All in an off-the-wall reality TV way, without ever being too jumbled.

God of Cookery has plenty of effects, but without ever letting them dominate the picture. We have people flying about, doing wild cooking moves, blowing up, etc. These moments are accomplished with wirework, some computer effects, and plenty of practical too.

The music is fitting and enjoyable. I particularly liked the track accompanying the 18 Bronze Men, which perfectly captures the film's goofiness. Less fun was when Turkey sings, which I just found grating. And last is a fun Christmas track, which is nice to end on.

The movie ends with a blooper reel, and it's pretty good. There's not a lot, and the last one is a bit weird, but they're nice enough. And seeing Karen Mok cracking up while trying to do the annoying song made it more endearing than in the movie itself.

God of Cookery isn't for everyone, but I found it to be a great time, and it's a perfect introduction to Stephen Chow! You'll either love him or...