The Screening Room | Stunning 'Suspiria' a glorious mess

The Screening Room | Stunning 'Suspiria' a glorious mess

Horror aficionados were up in arms when the news was announced that director Luca Guadagnino ("Call Me by Your Name") was going to remake Dario Argento's classic giallo "Suspiria." Considered the high mark of the director's career, the film is considered the "Citizen Kane" of the European genre, a work revered by many and understood by even less.

I'm in the minority where this movie is concerned. Admirers applaud the nightmarish quality of the film in which logic takes a backseat to rendering elaborately executed death scenes in which beautiful women are horribly mutilated and slain. Just not my cup of tea.

Guadagnino has referred to his film as a "cover" of Argento's movie — not a remake — and that's a good way to look at his production, a work that takes the minimal plot of the original and expands upon it in an ambitious and dynamic way that improves on the source material.

Taking place in 1977 (the year the original was released), the basic plot remains the same. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is a young American dancer who's traveled to Germany to become a member of the Markos Dance Academy headed by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). It becomes clear that she's a prodigy and soon she's cast as the lead in the troupe's centerpiece.

While she's being groomed, psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton, again) is investigating the company as Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a dancer he's been treating, has fled the troupe and made wild accusations about them, claiming that they are actually a coven of witches armed with malicious intent and grandiose plans.

There's a great deal to unpack here as political and social subtext abounds. Taking place during the German Autumn of '77, Guadagnino refers again and again to a hijacking that occurred during this time by a terrorist group that was ultimately crushed by government forces. This proves to a reflection of strife that occurs within the coven as rival factions are subtly vying for power, with one of them ultimately vanquished with hideous cruelty. Also at play is the specter of the Holocaust, as Klemperer's haunted by the loss of his wife (Jessica Harper) during World War II.

Acknowledgment of the atrocities and the inherent peril of ignoring the past is a central theme of the movie as is the importance of memory and denial. Klemperer personifies this struggle as he's confused and paralyzed when faced with the evil the dance troupe represents, a reflection of the inaction many experience when confronted with an overwhelming threat.

Gender and sexual politics are at play as well and there's no question Guadagnino's reach exceeds his grasp as not every item on his agenda is fully explored or examined. With so much to cover it's ironic that far too much of the film drags, at times slowly limping from one scene to another.

That being said, this is a gorgeously shot film despite its bland palette. The dance sequences are enthusiastically executed and while the scenes driven by violence are extreme, they're shot with an artist's eye that creates compositions that beg to be analyzed.

Guadagnino's "Suspiria" requires multiple viewings in order to appreciate how its many themes are examined and connected. And while the film is not fully successful, its ambition and scope must be applauded. It's a work that will stand the test of time, not simply because it's been made in an artful and thoughtful manner but because the evils it examines are bound to occur again, which will lead to a re-examination of this grisly, cautionary tale.

'Suspiria' (★★★1/2 out of 4)

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Doris Hick, Malgorzata Bela, Alek Wek, Ingrid Caven and Jessica Harper.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino; produced by Brad Fischer, Gabriele Moratti and Guadagnino; screenplay by David Kajganich.

An Amazon Studios release. 152 minutes. Rated R (disturbing content including ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters:

Great performances save "Book" (★★★). Whenever a film is based on a true story, certain liberties are taken for a variety of reasons. Events are compressed because of time considerations, two or three people may be combined into one fictional character and a bland ending may be shaped into something a bit more dramatic and palatable.

Whether they be "incredible," "inspiring," "triumphant," "touching," "untold," or "unbelievable," these "fact-based," "based on," "inspired by" or "suggested by" true events, these stories are a version of the truth that hopefully adhere to the spirit of what happened as it engages and entertains.

"Inspired by a true friendship," Peter Farrelly's "Green Book" compresses, alters, tailors and manipulates just as much (maybe a bit more) than any other film in the fact-based genre, sometimes going so far to provide a spoonful of medicine so that its obvious message can go down that it may elicit an eye-roll or two from the more discerning (cynical) viewer. Still, there's no denying the story at its center is an intriguing one driven by dynamic performances from its two leads.

In 1962, bouncer Tony Lipp (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself between jobs when the club he works at is shut down for renovations. Realizing he can't make ends meet by constantly engaging in eating contests (the guy can really put it away!) he interviews for a unique position. Jamaican-American musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) has decided to tour the Deep South with his trio and requires a driver. Though it's never said, what he's really asking for is protection over the six-month period as their stops in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi are libel to draw attention.

It comes as no surprise that the duo runs into trouble and Lipp's brawn and brazen attitude is handy in getting them out of one tough jam after another. And I doubt anyone will be stunned when the two men's differences are broken down and they become friends. These events happen like clockwork and the script by Brian Hayes Currie, Nick Vallelonga (Lipp's son) and Farrelly ensures these moments occur in a gentle, obvious manner.

And yet, there's something compelling about the film that keeps you engaged despite its predictability. There's a sincerity between the two leads that makes the most hackneyed moments seem genuine. A scene in which Shirley pulls a Cyrano and helps Lipp write his wife Dolores (a very good Linda Cardellini) a love letter is sweet and not overplayed, while a sequence in which the musician laments his frustration over not being sure of his place in society due to his race and sexual orientation proves a dramatic highlight.

These scenes and a few more are expertly executed by Mortensen and Ali. The actors, each playing larger-than-life characters, know that restraint is the proper approach. They're both experienced enough to realize there are moments where you have to step back, trust the script and simply let the drama play out. It's wonderful to see these two in action, their scenes a tutorial on effective screen acting.

The film's ending is a bit too much to swallow but by that point, Farrelly & Co. have established so much good will that you allow it. This moment may not have occurred but you wish that it had and there's something to be said about leaving your audience happy.

In the end, despite the historical alterations and gentle approach, there's no question that ultimately "Green Book" succeeds in delivering its message.

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