Greta (2019)

The camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a dual career revival for its two stars – Bette Davis & Joan Crawford – who had aged out of Old Hollywood’s cruelly small window of use for the in-their-prime actresses, despite their incomparable talents. While the surprise high-profile success of Baby Jane did lead to more roles for the two late-career titans, though, it also typecast them for dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level, all because Hollywood deemed them too old to be fuckable. Davis & Crawford spent the rest of their careers as sadistic nannies, axe-wielding maniacs, and black magic hags – creepy old ladies who were literally, lethally demented. Baby Jane spawned an entire subgenre later coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the ”Grande Dame” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation.” Other notable actresses got roped into the genre as it continued to make money on the drive-in circuit: Shelly Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? & Who Slew Auntie Roo?; Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling; Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; etc. If there’s anything the once-respected British director Neil Jordan accomplishes in his recent cheapie Greta, it’s in reviving the psychobiddy genre for the 2010s, allowing his titular star Isabelle Huppert to chew scenery the way Davis & Crawford had in similar relics of hagsploitation past. The cultural context around Huppert’s casting has changed drastically since the days of the post-Baby Jane psychobiddies; the actor has been allowed to be complex, compelling, and sexy in plenty of better projects in recent years in a way Davis & Crawford weren’t at her age. Still, it’s crystal clear that Huppert is working within the hagsploitation paradigm here. She’s not even emulating the classier end of the genre like Baby Jane or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte either; Greta is more on the level of the Bette Davis pic The Nanny or Crawford’s Strait Jacket: the really trashy shit.

While I am overall positive on this picture as a campy delight, I should be clear upfront; Isabelle Huppert is Greta’s only saving grace. In the film’s earliest scenes, before Huppert’s old-biddy cruelty enters the frame, goings are tough. Between Chloë Grace Moretz’s non-presence as a naïve country bumkin in the big city (even though she’s originally from the small podunk town of Boston?) and Neil Jordan’s severely unfunny misestimation of how young women talk & think, the first half hour of place setting is a cringey bore. Even the early scenes of Moretz & Huppert forming and unlikely intergenerational friendship (and surrogate mother-daughter dynamic) after a chance meeting in the vast anonymity of NYC are alarmingly limp. It isn’t until Moretz discovers that the pretense of their initial meeting – a luxury purse Huppert “accidentally” left on a subway train, luring strangers to return it to her – was a deliberate scam that Greta finally comes alive. The remainder of the film is exponentially more fun as Huppert gradually escalates from clingy grifter to creepy stalker to kidnapper to full-blown murderess. The dialogue never improves as the stakes are heightened, but Huppert brings life to the material through the stubborn will over her over-the-top performance. Watching her flip tables, menacingly “teach” piano as a form of torture, get carted away on a stretcher like Hannibal Lecter, and shout disciplinary epithets like “This is a bed of lies!” to her Misery-like victim is a perverse, persistent pleasure that overpowers the dialogue’s more glaring shortcomings. If nothing else, there’s a whimsical little dance she does – like a child’s improvised, freeform ballet recital – in her violent showdown with veteran Neil Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea that is A+ delirious camp and alone worth the price of admission. I don’t know that I would readily describe Greta as a great movie so much as a great performance, but like with Tom Hardy in Venom, Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, or any number of over-the-top psychobiddy performances in its own genre’s spotty past, the film is the performance. Thankfully, nothing else matters here, because Moretz & Jordan could have easily dragged the material down if Huppert weren’t such a spectacle.

The trick of appreciating Greta as a psycobiddy revival is in affording Huppert’s performance enough time to fully heat up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing during the film’s fun-vacuum prologue, but those who leave the film early will miss out on the joys of watching one of our great living actors indulge in some over-the-top cartoon villainy once she’s afforded the space. There’s even comfort in the fact that, unlike with hagsploitation titles of the past, Huppert has not been locked out of landing more substantial work in better pictures because of her age, which is how the psycobiddy was born in the first place. This is more of a trashy detour for her than a professional dead end, which makes it all the more fun to watch her indulge in a bit of vicious camp at the expense of her wet noodle collaborators, as opposed to feeling embarrassed for her the way we were when the great Joan Crawford was typecast as an axe-wielding maniac despite her legendary cinematic pedigree.

-Brandon Ledet

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

As a shithead atheist teenager, I always made an obnoxious show out of not participating in the Catholic rituals my parents dragged me through. This bratty rebellion reached its pinnacle when I was enrolled in Confirmation classes in high school, which I agreed to complete as a final favor for my family before never stepping foot in a church again (wedding & funerals excepted). I was a total ass in these Confirmation classes, joining forces with the few fellow over-this-bullshit weirdos who had gotten pulled into that orbit to just generally disrupt the process in a way I’m sure annoyed the more earnest participants around us. I recognized a lot of that same dynamic in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s just that the film’s gay “conversation” camp (read: emotional torture camp) setting makes for much higher emotional stakes than whether I could shut my bratty suburban mouth during a lecture about the sins of abortion or masturbation. The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers a sympathetic eye to that kind of bratty camaraderie in the face of religious evangelism, using the setting of gay conversion “therapy” (again, torture) to frame that snotty attitude as an essential act of political rebellion. It even goes a step further to offer the same sympathy to the counselors on the other end of the dynamic, lost souls who do not know the extent of the damage they’re causing to the teens in their “care.” If I were a mature, well-rounded adult I would praise the radical empathy of that approach. The truth is, though, that a large part of me is still a shithead teenage atheist who wants to see the piss taken out of those evangelizing counselors. I much prefer the glibber takes on this same material like Saved! & But, I’m a Cheerleader!, because at heart I’m still a combative brat.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular brat of this particular religious battle, sent to conversion therapy when she’s caught smoking weed & having sex with her closeted girlfriend in the parking lot outside their high school prom. I’ve always had a difficult time taking Moretz seriously as a dramatic actor, but her casting here leans into her strengths as dazed, confused participant in a culture she doesn’t believe in. From her awkward body language when trying to fit in as a straight girl with a boyfriend to her puzzled expression at the sermons of her God’s Promise prison, her visible discomfort fits the character & script here, when it’s often distracting in other projects (this year’s Suspiria, for one). The Christian instructors at God’s Promise are just as confused & uneasy, using “stern love” (abuse) and reinforced gendered roles to attempt guiding hormonally-rattled teens back to a Godly, de-sexed lifestyle. The truth is that they don’t have any more idea what they’re doing there than the kids do, and there’s a humanizing vulnerability in that lack of confidence. They’re essentially attempting to erase identities that haven’t been fully forged yet, as teenage years are a time of transformation & self-discovery. They push our protagonist to admit who she is (gay) and why that’s wrong (it’s not), but she struggles with the exercise because she’s too young to be sure of the answers. For fellow campers who take the Christianity portion of the therapy dead seriously, this forced, unnecessary identity crisis can lead to volatile, life-threatening results. For our more dismissive, out-of-place POV character it’s more a disorienting haze of psychobabble & mixed messages. She holds onto the other non-Christian weirdos in her vicinity (including American Honey’s Sasha Lane) for life support as she resists “the treatment” offered by God’s Promise. The resulting US vs. Them battle of stubborn wills unfolds in a mature, even-handed, tender drama; it’s an admirable search for kindness & understanding when what I really wanted was for the kids to lash out & burn it all down.

There’s a highly-specific version of queerness bucking against religious conservatism in Akhavan’s debut, Appropriate Behavior, that feels like it’s largely missing in this follow-up. The entire film has a kind of sanitized YA sensibility that feels entirely foreign to the NYC hedonism of Akhavan’s particular POV. The times when her wilder, more passionate depictions of queer sexuality do crop up (mostly in the protagonist’s nighttime sex dreams & erotic memories) it feels like an out-of-nowhere intrusion on an otherwise delicately told story. The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have used some of that rebellious hedonism in its daytime drama, whether or not it would have been faithful to its source material novel. The closest we get to an open act of bratty rebellion is in the inclusion of a so-bad-it’s-good Christian workout video titled Blessercize, a real-life found object that offers some much-needed levity to the film’s soundtrack & imagery. Mostly, our bratty non-Christian rebels restrict their resistance to hushed eyerolls, hikes to smoke ditch-weed in the woods, and smuggled copies of The Breeders’ Last Splash on cassette (to be fair, it’s a really good album). There’s a brief moment when they stage a forbidden singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” but the less I say about that tragically corny coup the better (it may be my least favorite scene of the year?). As someone who was lucky enough to escape any indoctrination worse than a few (hundred) Catholic masses and a mind-numbing Confirmation course, it’s not my place to say if anything more than those minor, hushed rebellions would have been appropriate to the story told here. I can only report that I was personally much more pleased by the cathartic, disruptive, over-the-top rebellions of Appropriate Behavior, Saved!, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. This is a well-staged, well-performed, admirably empathetic drama mired in a subject I love to see treated with a snottier attitude unconcerned with those qualities.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Nothing can sink a film faster or more thoroughly than the viewer’s misplaced expectations. I know it’s not fair to judge a film based on what you expect it to deliver as opposed to what’s actually on the screen, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Clouds of Sils Maria is a good movie. It’s visually stunning, hosts a handful of excellent performances from greatly talented actresses, and doesn’t have any particular scenes that fall flat without impact. Still, I can’t help but feel like the movie let me down in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was good, but I was expecting it to be great, an unfair expectation or not.

As far as the film’s performances go, most of Clouds‘ emotional weight rests on the shoulders of Juliete Binoche & Kristen Stewart, who play an aging actress of stage & screen who’s struggling with an ever-evolving industry & her young, no-bullshit assistant, respectively. Having never seen Stewart in a single Twilight movie (okay maybe I drunkenly heckled the first one), I’ve only ever had positive experiences with her work, so her success in Clouds of Sils Maria comes as no surprise to me. Juliet Binoche’s immense talent is another no-brainer, but it’s her unlikely chemistry with Stewart that makes the screen sing. Whether the two are tensely conducting business across a series of electronic devices, tensely rehearsing lines for Binoche’s latest role, or tensely enjoying an alcoholic beverage, there’s a great push & pull to their relationship that unfortunately proves to be a well-played non-starter. Chloë Grace Moretz also cashes in on some long detected, but rarely seen acting chops here in a role as a Lindsay Lohan/Miley Cyrus archetype, but there’s no mistake that this is Binoche’s & Stewart’s show.

The other significant element in play is the movie’s play within a play structure, which of course comes with an avalanche of meta context. As Stewart’s & Binoche’s characters discuss acting as a craft, it’s difficult to separate their words from the real-life actors speaking them. As they rehearse lines from a script about an older executive seducing a younger version of herself, it’s difficult to separate the-play-within-the-movie’s sexual power dynamics from their characters’ relationship as intimate coworkers. As they discuss the current state of tabloid culture & celebrity gossip it’s difficult not to think of the dialogue as the actresses venting on camera. Clouds of Sils Maria has a lot of fun playing with audience perception, blurring the lines between fiction & reality in an admittedly catty, but intricately layered fashion.

There’s also a lot of simplistic, but effective visual majesty derived from the location of the film’s title. The clouds of Sils Maria’s mountaintops are flowing, river-like washes that add a drowning sadness to the separation, death, and axiety that plague the opening of the film. At one point the clouds & mountain roads overwhelm Stewart’s character in a psychedelic cacophony that suggests a drastic change coming in the film’s structure (à la Bergman’s Persona) is imminent, but alas very little changes & the film silently rolls along, just like the clouds that decorate it. There’s so much commendable about Clouds of Sils Maria that it pains me to admit that I wasn’t fully satisfied with the entirety of what was delivered. I left the film with a mind full of pleasant sentiments & images, but still feeling empty-handed, as if I had tried to grasp a passing cloud, only to watch it dissipate between my fingers. It’s a difficult reaction to describe, but I also doubt I’m the only one who felt it.

-Brandon Ledet