Sunday, 13 January 2008

Oh Suspiria, so much to answer for...

This review of the Dario Argento movie SUSPIRIA is part of the Final Girl Film Club*.  Its not really part of the Winding Way raison d'etre to blog about classic films, of which surely SUSPIRIA is one, but it is so under-seen by my peers I really felt like I needed to be part of this movement to bring its beauty to a wider audience. Not that my neophyte blog with its one entry every couple of weeks is probably going to have much of an impact on that, but my intentions are pretty pure (that's if you discount my hopes that I may be visited by more than my one regular reader).

* Final Girl is possibly the finest blog around, and a big inspiration for this site. I intend to review the site itself at some point in the future.

Anyhoo, I mentioned beauty earlier, and I didn't use it as a throwaway term. SUSPIRIA is surely one of the most beautiful films committed to celluloid. Certainly the most beautiful horror film I can remember seeing. The art direction is stunning and the sets are almost too perfect -FACT: the red building used for the outside of the ballet school is a real place (check the
Three Mothers entry on Wikipedia if you don't believe me. What?! As if Wikipedia would lie to me!) The moment we see the sliding doors open in the airport and the overstyled woman walking in front of Susie Banyon get buffeted by the wind machine outside, its obvious we are in for a treat (I always feel that the presence of an obvious wind machine has the potential to promote any film to greatness).  But Suspiria isn't just great OR beautiful, its frickin' weird - oh yeah, and damn scary, and it doesn't take any time at all for either of those to get into their stride. Before we can really take in the fact that our heroine, Susie, has been turned away from the ballet academy (we're assuming she's our heroine because she was introduced by voiceover during the titles) we're knee deep into a campily acted scene featuring the girl we have just seen leaving said academy. This situation soon develops into an incredibly violent yet somehow grotesquely gorgeous death scene. I do feel like a sicko for saying that, but I can't not, and if you've seen the film I'm hoping you know what I mean. Its just so terrifying, well-orchestrated, and yes, still a bit camp - especially the close-up of the knife stabbing the beating heart, and the denouement of the scene is just breath-stealing. The first time I watched the film, my friend Sina who introduced me to it, turned to me at this point and asked me if I was sure I wanted to carry on watching, I just looked at him like he was crazy and told him there was no way I could stop watching. 

There is a part of me that feels like the intensity of that opening shocker isn't matched by anything that follows, and I'm not sure that any one scene actually does - there is something a bit anticlimactic about the final showdown between Susie and the 'Black Queen' for example. But there is a lot more to SUSPIRIA than just gore and shocks, although there is still plenty of that to come. The mysterious and plain bizarre atmosphere that perpetuates throughout just doesn't falter. Possibly my favourite scene in the film occurs when our fawn-like heroine is on the way to her first ballet class. Whilst walking down the opulent scarlet corridor the troll-like dinner-lady shines light from a strange triangular object into Susie's eye. The lighting in the whole scene flips briefly and a loud "WITCH" burps out of the muted chanting soundtrack at the exact second that Susie is momentarily blinded by the reflected light. Its a relatively quiet moment compared to some, but for me it clearly demonstrates how Argento pulls together all the weapons in his film-making arsenal to create something unexplainable and fascinatingly other-wordly. 

Before I forget I have to talk a bit about Jessica Harper, who plays the very sweet and almost wimpy Susie Banyon. Although that charge may be slightly unfair as her character is attacked by the aforementioned hideous kitchen help, drugged, and bullied by the statuesque and formidable Miss Tanner. Harper is such a contrast to the rest of the predominantly female cast, mainly because she is the only really sympathetic player. Even Sarah, her friend and sometime confidante, is a bit too intense for comfort and seems to have slightly looser relationship with sanity than is usual. I wonder how conscious this was, and how much it is to do with the acting styles of the different nationalities - Harper is American, most of the rest of the cast seem to be European. My feeling is that it is deliberate. Susie is isolated as a character for most of the film and clearly isn't supposed to fit in. How better to engage the viewers sympathy with her, and therefore draw them into the film than to have her be the only one that acts (and reacts) relatively normally?

SUSPIRIA is one of my favourite films of all time, precisely because of the way Dario Argento is able to masterfully lift the film way above the sum of its parts. I've already mentioned most of these elements, such as the amazing sets and art direction, the evocative lighting and colour which play a huge part in setting the tone, and it would be so wrong of me not to give greater props to Goblin, frequent Argento collaborators whose prog-art-rock soundtrack add such a chaotic mood to the proceedings. Of course there are also the performances, some of which may be too hammy to suit everyones taste, but for me they accentuate the hyper-reality in which they exist. Everything is just that little bit bigger, (see the height of the doors and door-handles) brighter, louder, and just more hysterical than it needs to be. This could be an Italian thing (check out Fellini or indeed any opera if you think I'm guilty of racial stereotyping), I don't know, but whatever it is it works, for me at least. There's so much more that I'd like to say about it, but its late, I'm tired and I also don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it. The less you know, the more there is to enjoy. I would urge anyone who hasn't seen it to at least watch the first 15 minutes (look its on YouTube!) to see what they're missing out on. For horror and fantasy fans especially it is a dense, rewarding and fresh experience that still works even 30 years on.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Stardust versus The Golden Compass

Media: Film
Producers: Meh, they're big and rich enough to promote themselves without my help

For its second instalment proper, The Winding Way is going Hollywood, doing a compare and contrast number on a couple of recent, big budget family fantasy movies. Stardust has been out for a while now, but I only ended up seeing it the week before Christmas, just a couple of days before I took in the Golden Compass, and it seems to me that they work quite well as a double act, as two typical, if not outstanding examples of different styles of film within their genre. 

Lets start with Stardust, which takes quite a surprisingly old-fashioned approach to film-making. Surprising considering it is directed by Matthew Vaughn, he of the flashy but derivative British thriller Layer Cake. As far as genre conventions go it has the following: a predominantly British cast (and those who aren't, make a decent attempt at keeping their accents at least neutral); a whimsical set up involving enchanted princesses and a boy-to-man rites of passage yarn; a 3-pack of satisfyingly hideous witches to provide the threat and push the plot along; a damsel in distress; an eventually noble hero with a romantic quest; and a fairytale kingdom without a ruler. I could go on, but you probably get the point. Essentially what we have here is a proper fairytale, writ large for the big screen. 

The Golden Compass on the other hand has new-school Hollywood blockbuster written all over it. Thus it brings to the table a whole other set of rules: the introductory celebrity voice-over; sumptuous CG landscapes; a "chosen one" style storyline featuring a cute but feisty child; box-office courting adult leads; a cute, fun (and marketable) idea of animal representatives of our souls (daemons) and lets not forget that this all builds up to a multi-player, wide-screen battle scene at the end of the film (see Return of the King and The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe amongst others for the established template). Again, I could go on, but The Golden Compass is clearly, and unashamedly, wooing the same audiences as the filthily lucrative Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises by offering us more of the same, albeit in a slightly different flavour. "The big screen shenanigans you already love. Now with plucky female protagonist!"

Both films boast impressive casts, Stardust especially is bursting at the seams with stars from both big and small screens who blend in well and serve the script rather than their own ego, with the execrable exception of Ricky Gervais whose mugging and self-serving, but mercifully short scenes unfortunately drop-kick the viewer right out of the film, suspension of disbelief be damned. The director seemingly forgot to tell him to act, or give him a script, so he does his usual turn along with at least one of his signature lines. Awful. Robert De Niro plays against type as a gay cross-dressing pirate, which probably sounded like a great coup, but watching him attempt the can-can in women's clothes using some camp mannerisms appropriated from Larry Grayson circa the 70's was uncomfortable, unconvincing and frankly just a bit embarrassing. For him I mean. A friend of a friend of mine took great offence at De Niro's character, finding it incredibly homophobic. I disagree, but I do think with stronger direction it could have been less pantomime. Despite that moment there is a sweetness to his depiction of a closeted flamer especially in his less flamboyant moments and in the way he nurtures the two leads and aids their quest. His final scene is great value too. Charlie Cox makes a pleasant leading man and falls comfortably on the hot side of Everyman while retaining a down to earth charm. He also manages the transition from doofus to rakish romantic lead subtly and convincingly, something that often doesn't work on film as well as it does on paper. Claire Danes, who excels at playing girl next door types is almost too naturalistic to play a fallen star, but she's always watchable whether successful or not, and just about pulls it off. For me, the stand-out performance was given by Michelle Pfeiffer who smashes and grabs all her scenes away from her co-stars, but as chief weird sister and the movies' big bad that's kind of her job. After a slow few years, if this and Hairspray are anything to go by, Pfeiffer seems to be handling that old chestnut of too few roles for actresses of a certain age, by cornering the market on wicked women.

The Golden Compass with its fake cockney accents (Dakota Blue Richards I'm looking at you) and too perfect scenery is miles away from the slightly ramshackle Stardust, it has the feel of a plasticised, airbrushed confection – the perfect place for someone like Nicole Kidman to inhabit then. I did enjoy her performance in this, but I get the feeling that without such high production values surrounding her, she'd look a bit out of place. Okay, yes, the wardrobe department do an amazing job of making her look glamorously other-worldly and unspeakably fatal, but doesn't she always look like that these days? And, no the rent-a-conk historical chick-flick 'The Hours' doesn't count. She needed inches of make-up to even begin to look normal for god's sake! My favourite Nicole moment, in fact my favourite moment in the film was when her daemon had the window slammed on its fingers, and being linked to it she felt its pain, and had to react accordingly. Maybe it says too much about me, but I loved seeing Nicole trying to make third-person pain work convincingly – hey I'm not that sick, she was evil! It seems a bit pointless talking through the cast of this film, because it is so clearly not an actor's movie. The humans all serve the CG for the most part, but for me the times when they are allowed to just be human were some of the strongest scenes. There is a nice soapy plot strand involving Lyra's parents that works well, perhaps better than it should, because of the contrast with the computer trickery and big moments surrounding it. That said, I do love epic battles, and the build up to them. Return of the King, one of my favourite films, appears to be the trailblazer as far as the current crop of wannabes is concerned and I cried like a baby through most of that, and I have to admit I was moved to tears a handful of times here too. What can I say? Something about the larger than life scope, and individuals sacrificing themselves for the good of the many gets to me. 

There are some nicely played moments in Compass but its status as a film of a novel meant too many characters and plot points got too little time for the viewer to understand or really care about their significance. Why were the witches involved? And for that matter why did they all look exactly the same? Ditto the Arctic dwelling guys with the wolf daemons. Despite my complaints, or perhaps because of them (I love picking holes in bloated, obvious, over-marketed targets) I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. As it kept telling us through the staging and dialogue "This is an event!" and flaws and all I was convinced of that and look forward to further instalments. However if I had to choose between the two I would go for Stardust. Its a classic fairy-tale (that's Brothers Grimm not Disney) take on the fantasy genre. Yes, it has its flaws, and yes, there are a few post-modern nods (Sienna Miller as a  shallow, manipulative Jezebel anyone?), but in the main it is played pretty straight down the line and that's when its at its most charming, its like celluloid comfort food and everyone needs a bit of that sometimes, right? By sticking closer to its dusty, British, family-fantasy-drama roots, Stardust manages to be a big budget film that doesn't take the 'tick all the boxes' approach in an attempt to recreate the current successful formula and try to appeal to all sectors of the market. The Golden Compass strays too close to that territory, diluting the inventiveness and integrity of its source material a little too much.