Category Archives: ★★½

Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

For most of its runtime, Suspiria builds. It increases suspense, it increases terror, it increases discomfort. Director Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot these long shots with slightly fish-eyed backgrounds. Combined with Giuseppe Bassan’s jawdroppingly awesome production design, the film gives the impression of having no depth. No perspective. The actors move in front of these flat backgrounds, which they may or may not interact with. It’s beyond creepy; it controls the narrative distance but also the narrative possibility. How can lead Jessica Harper interact in three dimension space if the shot is her in the foreground, but the background is flat.

Then she does and the discomfort increases. Not in the narrative, not through the off-putting Goblin (and Argento) score, but because she’s moving into a space where she shouldn’t be able to move. It takes time, each time, to readjust. Just a couple seconds, which is more than enough time for Argento to move on to the next discomfort acceleration.

He also plays with depth a little in the first half of the film. Foreground is sometimes less important than background, even though foreground takes up most of the frame. Then there are all the colors. Harper moves through a world of color, most often red (though blue eventually becomes big); red is, of course, the color of blood. It’s also the color of danger in Suspiria, something Harper doesn’t recognize, but the viewer does. It’s all about unsettling the viewer and Argento succeeds at it, scene by scene, frame by frame, for more than half of the film.

Then he gets impatient. He also relies way too much on Stefania Casini, who plays Harper’s friend. Casini is an inexplicable busybody, something Harper can’t quite acknowledge because it turns out she’s being doped into tranquility. They’re both students at an elite German dance school. Harper has just arrived. The film opens with her getting to school and seeing another student run away, out into a torrential thunderstorm.

That student (Eva Axén) ends up brutally murdered, something the viewer sees (along with a lot of Argento and Tovoli’s perspective flattening and a lot of blood), but Harper doesn’t. She’s just slightly bewildered by Axén’s behavior. Slightly. She’s got the intense dance school to deal with. There’s strict instructor Alida Valli (in an awesome performance) and abrupt headmistress Joan Bennett (in a decent, but certainly not awesome, smaller part), not to mention possible love interest Miguel Bosé. The non-teaching staff of the school is all peculiar Eastern Europeans (Harper’s a New Yorker) and Harper’s classmates range from snippy to downright vicious mean girls. Casini is the only nice one. But she too has her secrets.

Instead of returning to a calm after Axén’s murder, weird occurrences keep getting weirder and more deadly around the school. It’s one of the problems with Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script. It makes no sense how the place could function without incident. Especially if Bennett is going to keep letting in busybodies like Casini and Axén.

More problematic is how Argento’s style changes as the film moves along. His composition is always strong, Tovoli’s photography is always good, Franco Fraticelli’s editing is always good, but once the film starts into exposition, Argento stops relying on the visuals. Harper’s story–getting to this weird school, being a fish out of water, getting sick–doesn’t have anything particularly ominous about it. Argento’s direction–and the narrative distance, which reveals quite a bit to the viewer (though not everything–like why does the creepy little German kid force an altercation with blind staff pianist Flavio Bucci’s guide dog)–they make Suspiria creepy. The music makes Suspiria unsettling. Not Harper’s story. She’s just naive.

When the film does shift its focus, just for a while, to Casini, things start going off track. Repeated, inexplicable stupidity mars an otherwise solid chase sequence. The pace changes. The script’s calls for suspension of disbelief get bigger; Argento has no time for gradual. Contrived becomes good enough.

He still lets Harper have a good performance, he and Nicolodi just don’t care about giving her a good character arc. The third act is a breathless race to the finish line, with Suspiria stopping instead of ending. It goes out on a shrug, Goblin and Argento’s score no longer one of the film’s greatest assets but its primary encumbrance. The film never recovers from making Casini the lead, even for five or ten minutes. Suspiria’s all dubbed–Harper, Bennett, Valli doing their lines for the English version–and it’s unclear if Casini’s performance is the fault of her or her voice actor. Even if she were better, her material’s all crap. After forty minutes of precise filmmaking and writing, Argento lets it go to pot.

The film does recover somewhat and, with a stronger finale, it would’ve been fine. But the finale’s not strong–and gets weaker as it progresses–leaving Suspiria a phenomenal exercise in filmmaking. And a disappointing contrivance as a film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on a book by Thomas De Quincey; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Franco Fraticelli; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; production designer, Giuseppe Bassan; produced by Claudio Argento; released by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.

Starring Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Miguel Bosé (Mark), Flavio Bucci (Daniel), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Jacopo Mariani (Albert), and Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE HORRORATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDYLOVESHERCLASSICFILMS.


RELATED

Advertisements

Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi)

Seven credited writers on Sleeping Beauty and none of them could figure out any dialogue to give the prince. Though, notwithstanding some cute banter between the three fairies, there’s not much good dialogue in Sleeping Beauty anyway. Villain Maleficent doesn’t even get any. Eleanor Audley’s great in the part, but it’s not because of the dialogue, it’s because of the visuals. Sleeping Beauty is all about the visuals, which is why it can usually get away with not having great–or any–dialogue.

The film opens in prologue. There’s a new royal baby and she’s about to be blessed by three fairies–Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy contribute the voices–only then Audley shows up, a magnificent, malevolent “mistress of all evil.” She curses the baby then disappears. It’s up to Luddy to cast a spell to save the baby best as possible (Audley’s too powerful a mistress of all evil to just invalidate the curse).

The story jumps forward sixteen years, to when the curse is supposed to take effect. Mary Costa is voices the grown baby–though, frankly, Costa’s semi-sultry voice is a bit off for a teenage girl. Well, maybe not for Sleeping Beauty since the other part of turning sixteen is her parents to get marry her off to a prince, thereby bringing peace or something.

The only visible clash between Costa’s father (Taylor Holmes) and the prince’s father (Bill Thompson) is Thompson wants Holmes to get drunker than Holmes wants to get. Sleeping Beauty isn’t great on logic. When a movie looks like Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t need to be great on much else.

The film starts in live action, a dolly into a storybook (Sleeping Beauty), which opens and the illustrations become the animation, the book’s text becomes the narration, and so on. But from the start, the animation is lush and wide. Sleeping Beauty is “Technirama,” a widescreen frame, and Technicolor. Supervising director Geronimi plays a lot with depth, as the fairies are raising Costa in hiding. The great palace is only visible in the background, something Costa has no interest in. Instead, she sings with the adorable forest wildlife and meets a dashing young man.

Sadly, she’s promised to a prince. There’s some drama, but not a lot. A lot of drama would mean less songs and more dialogue. I’m not sure Costa has any dialogue after she gets to the palace to celebrate not having fallen victim to Audley’s curse. Except Audley’s smarter than everyone else, maybe because the fairies are more adorable than they are smart, and the royals are all idiots.

Sorry, back to the visuals. The depth is amazing. The forest goes on and on, filling the frame, with jagged plateaus and endless trees. Geography doesn’t really matter in Sleeping Beauty. There’s apparently only one house in the whole forest, because when Costa’s young man comes calling, he finds the place right away. Too bad she’s off at the castle to meet her prince and Audley’s waiting to capture… someone. It’s never clear. Logic, like I said, isn’t Beauty’s strong point.

The evil stuff is evil, even when it’s amusing–Audley’s got some Gamorrean guards she zaps with force lightning when they’re dumb, which is all of the time. In her first scene to herself, it turns out the only reason Audley’s in such a pickle trying to get her curse to work is because her lackies are all complete idiots. No one’s very smart in Sleeping Beauty, except Audley some of the time and Costa’s young man’s horse more of the time.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful. The character designs are exquisite. When Costa and the prince stop talking, their expressions are still phemonenal. The animation’s not incredibly detailed on the faces–the fairies get expressions, Audley sort of gets them, no one else–but there’s so much visible emotion. The music, which has its ups and downs (just like the songs), gives the film its progression. It all takes place in a day and a half so there needs to be something to soothe the halty plotting. The music, often adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, does the trick. George Bruns handles that adaptation.

There are some okay songs. The one with Costa in the forest with her animal friends and then the young man is great. But because of the way the young couple dance their way through the frame–Sleeping Beauty loves to play with reflections and there’re lakes in the forest. The fairies don’t get songs, they get banter. Luddy gives the best performance, mostly because she’s the only one to get any characterization.

The third act, which is a narrative mess, is also a breathtaking action sequence. Geronimi and editors Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday create this phenomenal sequence. It’s not entirely successful–it’s a little rushed and there’s not really any nailbiting–but it’s breathtaking. Even when Sleeping Beauty is uneven, it’s gorgeous to behold.

It’s a beautiful film. Also one with a lot of problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta and based on a story by Charles Perrault; edited by Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday; production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi; released by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.

Starring Verna Felton (Flora), Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), Barbara Luddy (Merryweather), Eleanor Audley (Maleficent), Mary Costa (Princess Aurora), Taylor Holmes (King Stefan), Bill Shirley (Prince Phillip), and Bill Thompson (King Hubert).


RELATED

The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


RELATED

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, Carl Franklin)

Devil in a Blue Dress is almost so much better. Director Franklin gets easily distracted and follows tangents, both in the script and the directing. The latter makes sense–he’s always too enthuastic about the (excellent) production design, recreating late 1940s Black Los Angeles. With Tak Fujimoto’s warm but vibrant photography, the “regular life” part of the film is breathtaking. Sadly, Franklin’s too loose on the mystery side and he can’t bind the two.

The script’s the same way. Franklin has devices for lead Denzel Washington, including the narration, but also just how Franklin directs the scene. How he visualizes the space Washington occupies with the people he comes across. Washington’s a Black WWII vet turned amateur P.I. tracking down missing rich white guy’s white girlfriend Jennifer Beals. Franklin and Washington pay a lot of attention to personal space and what it reveals about character relationships, race relationships. But when they get the most ambitious, the narration fails. Or just isn’t present.

And Washington’s biggest character development arc is out of nowhere, introduced over halfway into the movie, with Don Cheadle’s arrival. Franklin desperately tries to forecast Cheadle through dialogue, narration, even one of the film’s ill-implied flashbacks. Yet when it comes time for Cheadle to get called up, Franklin botches the narration. Franklin sets up Devil in a Blue Dress to need narration–even though he and Washington could easily get away without it, Washington’s great and Franklin’s great with his actors–but he sets it up as an essential, then botches it.

It’s really unfortunate.

There are stops and starts throughout the film–scenes transitions are usually awkward, either too heavy or too light. Fujimoto’s photography on the investigation stuff is bad, which is an additional problem given the first act visual tone doesn’t match the rest of the film. But Franklin doesn’t know what to do with those scenes either. Devil in a Blue Dress tries to avoid film noir tropes so bad it ends up putting its back out.

The acting is either good or great. Washington is great. His performance has a sadness Franklin the director focus on, but Franklin the screenwriter ignores. Cheadle’s phenomenal as Washington’s loyal, unrepentent murderer sidekick. Tom Sizemore’s good as Washington’s mysterious client turned nemesis. Mel Winkler and Jernard Burks are real good in smaller parts. Lisa Nicole Carson’s good.

But then there’s Beals, who’s just okay. Some of it is Franklin’s direction; she’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but Devil in a Blue Dress doesn’t believe in femme fatales and she’s written as one. She’s another victim to Franklin’s indecision.

And Maury Chaykin is just bad. He’s only in a couple scenes, but they’re important ones, and he’s just too much. Same thing. Written as a noir villain, but Franklin doesn’t want to engage it.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is oddly half on, half off. Either way, it lacks personality, which is a no-no for Devil in a Blue Dress; everything else about it exudes personality. Except, obviously, Fujimoto’s “noir” shots.

Devil in a Blue Dress features some wonderful possibilities, some great photography, some great direction, some great performances. It should be amazing. It’s sad it isn’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Franklin; screenplay by Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Jesse Beaton and Gary Goetzman; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Jennifer Beals (Daphne Monet), Don Cheadle (Mouse Alexander), Tom Sizemore (Dewitt Albright), Terry Kinney (Todd Carter), Mel Winkler (Joppy), Jernard Burks (Dupree Brouchard), Lisa Nicole Carson (Coretta James), and Maury Chaykin (Matthew Terell).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE COLOURS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


RELATED