LFF 2018 – Suspiria, The Old Man and the Gun

I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. It’s a mixed bag today, with the gentle and the unhinged…

Dakota Johnson takes on the lead role in Luca Guadagnino's new take on Suspiria
Dakota Johnson takes on the lead role in Luca Guadagnino’s new take on Suspiria

Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino‘s much-heralded reimagining of Dario Argento‘s lurid 1977 masterpiece Suspiria starts with a pretentious declaration that the story will entail “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin”. If there has ever been a less spooky way to open a horror movie, I’d love to hear it. In many ways, it’s a cinematic flourish that sums up this entire project in a nutshell – convincing horror scuppered by huge dollops of pretension, like an enormous helping of mayonnaise on a lush salad. Some people will love it but, for others, it’s enough to ruin the entire meal. And at more than two and a half hours long, it’s a portion big enough to feed the five thousand, and their extended families.

Much like in Argento’s original movie, the plot centres around a mysterious dance academy that is allegedly run by a coven of witches. The movie opens with a very distressed and bedraggled Chloe Grace Moretz, telling psychologist Jozef (Tilda Swinton under a tonne of prosthetics and credited as Lutz Ebersdorf) that the elite academy is run by witches, including the icy head honcho Madame Blanc (Swinton again, without the facial gunk). When a new dancer (Dakota Johnson) fills a vacant slot in the roster of dancers and catches Blanc’s eye, she quickly becomes central to something dark and ultimately more macabre than Guillermo del Toro and Eli Roth on a cannibalistic dinner date.

The plot, though, is very much a side dish here because Guadagnino’s movie is all about atmosphere. Unfortunately, that atmosphere is largely one of empty cinematic calories and tedium. There are scattered moments of truly mad energy – not least in the delightfully claret-soaked, ritualistic finale and one scene in which a character’s primal dance grotesquely mutilates the body of another – but they’re spread far too thinly to keep the narrative moving – like a single knob of butter on a footlong baguette.

Performance-wise, this is very much a case of hugely talented women doing their best with subpar material. Johnson is as impressive as usual, combining ingenue innocence with an undertone of slightly unsettling sensuality, while Swinton’s turn is so good she even manages to eat meat off the bone in a sinister way. Unfortunately, Guadagnino is more interested in the story of Jozef and trying to do some half-baked historical commentary than he is in using these performances to craft real scares.

It’s a movie weighed down by its gimmicks, with red-bordered subtitles and chapter headings that rob the story of any narrative momentum it might have had. When the dial is cranked up to pure horror for the final movement, Guadagnino delivers something truly memorable and destined to wow genre fans, but it’s a very long, winding and often not particularly exciting road to get there.

(Dir: Luca Guadagnino, 155 mins, UK Release: November 16)

Robert Redford has said The Old Man and the Gun will be his final acting role
Robert Redford has said The Old Man and the Gun will be his final acting role

The Old Man and the Gun

It’s not often that we get to say goodbye to a screen legend while they’re still alive. This year’s beautifully written Lucky, for example, served as a farewell to the late Harry Dean Stanton – a year after the star’s death. In a similar vein is The Old Man and the Gun, which is a thoroughly charming and delightfully wry send-off for the very much alive Robert Redford, who has said that he intends the movie to be his acting swansong. This is another film that showcases director David Lowery, reteaming with Redford after Pete’s Dragon, and his mastery of gently beautiful, melancholic filmmaking.

The story, described in the opening as “mostly true”, follows geriatric bank robber Forrest Tucker – played with a delightful excess of Twinkly Redford™ – as he robs his way across the American South with a pair of comrades. He’s described as a “gentleman” by the bank tellers he steals from and he crackles with old school cool as he woos equine-loving country girl Jewel (Sissy Spacek) over coffee and pie. Soon, cop John Hunt (Casey Affleck) joins the dots between all of Tucker’s heists and vows to track him down. Their first meeting – a very funny face-off in a diner bathroom – is a show of mutual respect more than anything else. It’s less Heat and more Comfortable Warmth.

Lowery’s movie is endlessly gentle, but finds the beauty in that, largely thanks to Redford’s boundless charisma. His chemistry with the equally brilliant Spacek works very well and the contrast between him and Affleck is one built on intrigue rather than a deadly cat and mouse battle. Even the final car chase is set to Jackson C Frank’s folksy ‘Blues Run the Game’ rather than a propulsive, dramatic score. Affleck and Redford are both framed as seasoned players who enjoy the thrill of the game more than the glory of the victory, and that’s refreshing in a crime thriller.

This is absolutely the charismatic old dude’s movie, though, and Lowery gives Redford the perfect screen farewell. It’s a very handsome and engaging movie that constantly sparkles with Old Hollywood gloss, even as it maybe glorifies its criminal protagonist a little too much. When you’ve got a screen icon in the lead role, however, it’s difficult not to love him.

(Dir: David Lowery, 93 mins, UK Release: December 7)

BFI London Film Festival 2018
BFI London Film Festival 2018

Are you excited to see either Suspiria or The Old Man and the Gun? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you keep coming back for the next few weeks for reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.

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