The Great Villain Blogathon: Michael Jackson in Leaving Neverland (2019)

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My contribution to the The Great Villain Blogathon, May 24-26 2019. The rules are simple:
Just pick any evildoer, outlaw or monster, from any era, country or genre. From creeps to cads to criminals, sinners and psychos, all movie villains are welcome.

 

Even in death singer Michael Jackson can still create headlines. There will always be doubt and speculations about his behavior, and in some respects he invited the controversy with his use of masks, make-up, and friendships with children. But was he a villain or not? Leaving Neverland is a controversial, presumptuous four hour documentary that premiered at Sundance in January 2019. Airing on TV in March, the documentary has caused much debate and (as of April 2019) is already the second most watched on HBO in the past ten years with 7.5 million viewers for Part 1.

 

In the film, an idol becomes a monster. It’s as disturbing as watching a horror movie, because (if he is guilty as it is suggested) I was deceived by someone I trusted and admired. A great musician and dancer who gave millions to charity but behind closed doors a man who allegedly ruined those boys he molested.

 

The documentary highlights the complicated relationship between the abused and their perpetrator. Nadia Wager, Forensic Psychology, University of Huddersfield, and expert in child abuse, claims after watching the documentary Michael Jackson’s grooming technique is believable.
Some argue Michael Jackson not only groomed young boys and their families, but groomed his fans into believing he was a child-like, innocent man. For example in public settings he changed his voice to sound high-pitched, so was he putting on a performance the whole time?

 

There’s still doubt in my mind if he was a monster or a naive man-child who was unsuited to the harsh world. The problem with the documentary is it aims for shock value but isn’t as clear-cut as presented. Director Dan Reed should be impartial and question Robson’s and Safechuck’s motivations. There’s no direct proof so Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s word against MJs. The accounts they give are so similar. You see the trauma has caused them and their families. Truly heartbreaking to watch. A relief for the two men to finally tell their stories. Still, it’s obvious that the star-struck parents didn’t do enough to protect their children and were seduced by Jackson’s celebrity and wealth.

 

Michael famously never had a childhood and his way of dealing with it was to spend a lot of time with kids and according to Dan Reed’s film rob some of the young boys of their innocence.
Safechuck’s mother: ”He took my son’s childhood away. He took the man he could have been away”
But just because you are an eccentric who went too far with plastic surgery, dangled your baby over a balcony to please your screaming fans, and enjoyed the company of kids, doesn’t automatically mean you are a child abuser. The documentary pushes the guilty card a little too strongly, not showing the full facts so the viewer is unable to make up their mind unless you do your own research. Child abuse is unforgivable, but it’s not forbidden to be inspired by the innocence of children, animals and nature. MJ explains in interview footage from 1983 that these are his greatest inspirations. The way the media and the documentary force the anti-Michael Jackson message on us is disturbing. If the man is innocent, which we still don’t know for sure, it’s a savage, exploitative witch-hunt.

 

It’s no coincidence Jackson has named the Oscar-winning Sling Blade (1996) among his favorite films which depicts a small-town man-child out of touch with reality who is released from a mental hospital as an adult due to committing murder as a child. As a free man he befriends a 12-year-old boy. Not that MJ necessarily behaved as innocently towards children as the character but the movie is a window into Jackson’s mindset.
As described in Leaving Neverland, Take Two, MJ experienced a very strict, controlled childhood with a domineering father. But as an adult he developed a defiant side, when people said stop sharing your bed with kids he’s all over the TV saying I’m going to keep sharing my bed with children. His motto seems to have been a reaction to his childhood, whatever you tell me to do, I’m going to do the opposite, because I don’t have to do what you tell me to do.

 

The Daily Mail reported on March 8 2019 on the iron-clad NDA contracts Michael Jackson used to keep his employees from divulging details of his intimacy with young boys – demanding staffers report concerns to the singer’s team – not the police – or be fired. This looks suspicious from that controversial headline.
But Jackson showed signs of paranoid behavior during his life. You only have to look at the lyrics for his album HIStory (1995) and songs such as Money, Tabloid Junkie and D.S. (a KaiMakesMusic 2019 remix surfaced with new lyric “Wade Robson is a cold man”) These 1995 songs were Jackson’s responses to the 1993 Jordan Chandler case. Probably Michael’s paranoia extended to his employees and it’s no secret he had trouble trusting people. So is it really that surprising his employee contracts were uncompromising with people trying to take advantage of his fortune. The New York Post even ran an article entitled Michael Jackson was the king of paranoid.

 

#MeToo is not going away and giving a voice to survivors and a platform to talk about victims. Be it this HBO documentary, the recent Surviving R. Kelly, Shirkers (2018), The Tale (2018), Queen of Hearts (2019), Holiday (2018), Revenge (2017), or Elle (2016). And if you look back there are other examples such as The Accused (1988), The Color Purple (1985), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), or Compliance (2012).
Perhaps Abducted in Plain Sight (2017) is the documentary Leaving Neverland has the most in common with in terms of inattentive parenting and gullible kids. You could also draw parallels with 1980 TV-episode Tales of the Unexpected: The Flypaper and its chilling line “It’s the sweetness that attracts them, you see, and then the stickiness prevents them from getting away”. 

 

The reaction to the Leaving Neverland documentary has seen Jackson’s music pulled from some, but not all, radio stations. It is tempting for the media to tie Jackson into a larger narrative about sexual misconduct. Yet that is a dangerous leap, as noted by Jackson defender and biographer Joe Vogel. He argues Leaving Neverland decontextualized what happened. Michael Jackson has always been a target for litigation. In the 1993 Jordan Chandler case, Chandler’s father subsequently committed suicide and is heard on tape admitting it was for money and Jordan has later confessed he was told to lie by his father. Jackson was found innocent in the 2004-2005 trial. Robson’s mother, Joy, testified in 2005 about dropping her son off to stay with Jackson, saying she wasn’t concerned for Wade’s safety. 

 

In 2017, Joe Vogel agreed to write a new edition of his influential 2011 book about Michael Jackson Man in the Music,  to be released this summer for the 10th anniversary of the singer’s death. Recently, Vogel told the New York Times the new documentary “complicates things in ways that are just really, really challenging,” “Not only are you thinking about how do you deal with this on a personal level, you’re also thinking about how to handle it professionally.” Three authors are revising their books about the singer and will release new editions this year.

 

 

Some have commented the late 80s classic Man in the Mirror takes on a whole other disturbing meaning now and that is a valid reading. But what those critics fail to remember is it’s one of the few songs on the Bad album MJ didn’t write himself. So it’s unfair to bash Glen Ballard’s and Siedah Garrett’s wonderful lyrics. Same with Pretty Young Thing (PYT), it may be difficult to enjoy now after the accusations, but the lyrics were penned by Quincy Jones and James Ingram.

 

The documentary encourages you to empathize with the victims but Jackson is also given opportunity to defend himself via a statement he made in 1993. Strangely not included in the documentary, Robson and Safechuck sued the Jackson estate, claiming that Jackson’s business associates knew he was molesting underage boys but turned a blind eye. Robson sued Jackson’s estate for £1.2billion over the abuse.
If true, awful what happened to both men yet they are hardly unimpeachable since they committed perjury by defending a child molester in 1993 and 2004-2005 (not James Safechuck in 2005) and could have potentially prevented more abuse if they had spoken up then.
Wade Robson states in Leaving Neverland that he had perjured himself because he could not bear to see Jackson, the man he loved, go to jail. 
A problem with their cases is there’s a statute of limitation on child abuse (they are currently on appeal). In other words, the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. So he and James Safechuck wanted to get their story out in other ways. Robson’s and Safechuck’s lawsuits were dismissed by the court though the judge did not rule on the credibility of their allegations.

 

The Jackson estate have sued HBO and defended Michael. Saying Wade Robson is trying to make money, and there is evidence Robson has been shopping a tell-all book but failed to get a publisher. The Jackson’s also point out Wade Robson and James Safechuck lied under oath and therefore are not to be trusted now.

 

I can definitely see why fans would have issues with the documentary, as abuse victims paying tribute to their molester for many years, and then turning on him suddenly, is very odd. Yet as we hear, it’s not uncommon for victims of child abuse to come forward many years later as adults due to shame and love for the perpetrator. Not realizing the acts were wrong when they were children.
Hard to come to terms with your idol of many years may not be what they seem.
Some fans prefer to shelter themselves from the allegations as it could tarnish your happy memories of listening to Michael Jackson’s music and I completely understand those who avoid the documentary. Jackson was never found guilty in a court of law so it makes sense he still has supporters. As said on Good Morning Britain, the documentary is devastating if it’s true, and equally devastating if it’s not true.

 

A tweet that nephew Taj Jackson, Tito Jackson’s eldest son, sent of what appears to be a screenshot of Robson requesting tickets for him and his family to attend Jackson’s memorial is often used by fans as alleged proof that Robson’s relationship with Jackson was always great and he concocted his abuse story when he was cash-strapped. In 2011, Robson was dropped as choreographer from MJ’s Cirque du Soleil show and a letter Robson wrote exists where he begs for the job. So the timing fits in terms of needing the money and accusing Jackson in a 2013 lawsuit.
But Robson could be looking for personal gain while also a victim of abuse. One doesn’t rule out the other.
Of course, the Jackson family including Taj, Brandi and others have a financial agenda of their own as it’s in the family’s best interest to keep Michael innocent since he is still the top earning deceased artist in the world according to Forbes 2018 list.

 

According to biographer Mike Smallcombe, Safechuck’s story of being abused in Neverland’s train station cannot be true as it was built two years after he said the assaults stopped. However, quotes found in the books of Jackson’s bodyguards have called this into question, as they describe in detail a train station structure that existed in 1990. Turns out Jackson built it without a permit.  Michael Jackson’s personal photographer @harrisonfunk said in a January 2019 podcast that the train station was already complete before the 1993 construction permit was approved, but Funk doesn’t provide an exact date. 

 

Smallcombe also pointed out Wade spoke inaccurately in Leaving Neverland. In Joy Robson’s 2016 deposition, she confirms her whole family including Wade went to the Grand Canyon. Wade claims in Leaving Neverland he stayed at the ranch while his family went to the Canyon. Wade Robson can’t seem to keep his story straight as he says the abuse started when he was seven yet an audio interview has surfaced with his mother Joy revealing Wade was almost nine when the Robson family traveled to America.

 

If you watch the video Revealed! Why Safechuck is REALLY suing Michael Jackson!,  the family appear to have a motive for suing Jackson’s estate in 2013 due to financial problems in their company Sea/Sue Inc/Anderson Rubbish Corporation and a lawsuit against them of $840.086. Safechuck’s parents are named  in the court documents as co-conspirators. So if they are facing bankruptcy makes sense to try and get money from Jackson. Yet as with Wade Robson, he may have been abused while also trying to get a portion of Jackson’s money. It is not illegal to seek financial compensation for child abuse. If it’s matter of pretending you are abused then Safechuck and Robson are hoping to achieve a check in the way Jordan Chandler’s family did in 1993. In Leaving Neverland, James Safechuck says MJ asked him to testify in the 2005 trial but James refused and MJ became angry with him. However Safechuck wasn’t even allowed to testify as he was regarded by the judge as “non-entity” in the trial.

 

In a similar fashion to the rebuttal following Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson, Taj Jackson has started a GoFundMe to finance a documentary rebuttal series that, he says, “will conclusively destroy decades of salacious myths which have been told and sold about Michael Jackson ad nauseum.”. There is already a teaser trailer for a  rebuttal documentary titled Michael Jackson: Chase The Truth

 

I’m not defending Michael, but the one-sidedness of the documentary has distorted the truth and left facts out that would show Robson differently. The images in the end credits say more than words as Wade Robson burns his MJ memorabilia. After watching, I think a few people will do the same and throw their Michael Jackson albums in the trash.
But no mention of Wade cashing in on his most valuable MJ memorabilia a few years earlier without wanting his name disclosed in the sale, which lessens the impact of the aforementioned ending where Robson is seen burning a replica Thriller jacket and other items. Robson says he sold the memorabilia to afford therapy at the time.

 

MJ helped Robson with his rap group Quo in the mid 90s whereas the film portrays Robson as put to the side in the early 90s as MJ moved on to other boys. Also not mentioned is Robson cheated on his girlfriend Brandi Jackson with Britney Spears, splitting up Britney and Justin Timberlake. So the documentary presents Robson and Safechuck as better guys than they are by only showing them as victims and not revealing their questionable behavior.
Another problematic aspect in Leaving Neverland is Jackson is accused of manipulating the boys to dislike women, yet Jackson’s niece Brandi said in Neverland Firsthand: Investigating the Michael Jackson Documentary that MJ set her up with Robson and they dated for seven years as teenagers.

 

You could say the one-sidedness of Leaving Neverland doesn’t give Jackson’s relatives or friends a chance to tell their side of the story. And it’s also unfair the man himself cannot defend himself now. Brett Barnes (who as a young boy went on tour with Jackson in the early 90s) tweeted a defence of the King of Pop: “So people are getting their facts from a movie now? I wonder how they feel about the documentary showing the great alien invasion of ’96. I think it was called Independence Day.” Although the validly of the twitter account is uncertain as could be a fan impersonating Barnes(who disappeared from  public view).
Other aspects missing in the documentary include testimonials from Jackson’s former staff members (who Robson and Safechuck claim in their lawsuit were enablers), and the lengthy FBI investigation into the child molestation allegations.
But as a speaker on WGBH News noted, you don’t have to include friends defending Michael in the documentary, as “it would be like saying I knew Ted Bundy and he didn’t kill me so therefore he’s not such a bad guy, those testimonies (Macaulay Culkin and Corey Feldman) I find to be irrelevant”.

 

As detailed in Comodin Cam’s YouTube video The Lies & Facts, fans have found other problems with the documentary, such as the dinner scene not matching the timeline, which was subsequently omitted from the shorter UK version of Leaving Neverland. Another inconsistency is Safechuck’s mother says she was glad Michael died in 2009 but it’s not until 2013 James Safechuck admitted he had been abused. The Comodin Cam video also looks at other flimsy parts, such as the shocking wedding ring scene which would be far more plausible if there was a signed marriage certificate (there isn’t but maybe it will turn up eventually?). The bells and alarms at the Neverland ranch to allegedly warn the singer of anyone catching him doing something inappropriate may not be as creepy as suggested, because if you are that famous it’s not unimaginable you would be worried about your own safety so could be an innocent security measure.

 

It’s complicated for the consumer when an artist’s legacy intertwines with unacceptable behavior. We haven’t cancelled Elvis who dated a minor (Priscilla was 14 and Elvis was 24), Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page had an underage teenage girlfriend in the 1970s, Bill Wyman (bass guitarist of The Rolling Stones) scandalously dated Mandy Smith when she was underage and married her in 1989 when he was 49 and she was 18. We still watch films by Alfred Hitchcock who behaved inappropriately towards actress Tippi Hedren.
Should we discontinue using the light bulb because its inventor Thomas Edison was a horrible person who publicly tortured animals to discredit AC power. Or stop publishing important feminist Simone de Beauvoir who seduced a minor and was suspended from her job as a teacher. Pablo Picasso was a serial abuser in psychological and physical ways towards women, which hasn’t stopped museums displaying Picasso’s art. Wagner was promoted during the Nazi era as one of Hitler’s favourite composers. Historical perception of Wagner has been tainted with this association ever since, and there is debate over whether Wagner’s writings, operas, anti-semitism and purported Aryan-Germanic racism might have influenced the creation of Nazi Germany. Woody Allen has come under fire again in the #MeToo era despite passing a lie detector test and being cleared of all charges. Roman Polanski won an oscar for Best director for The Piano in the 2000s despite raping a minor and fleeing the US in the 70s, facing the possibility of prison if he returned to America. The list goes on and on.
Enough time has passed so many of these stories have died down. Yet is it fair to ban one artist and let the others get a free pass? When is the misdeed bad enough to warrant cancelling them, and should a musician never convicted be banned based on a documentary? I think  Michael Jackson’s music will probably stand the test of time.

 

Should be up to the individual if you want to listen to music or watch films by morally questionable artists. The documentary is not fact, it is an opinion. Critical thinking is important and someone shouldn’t be labelled a conspiracy theorist if you question the documentary. Everyone should be entitled to form their own opinion by doing their own research into the matter. To many he is now a villain, but to his children, he was a loving father who is being dragged through the dirt again. I feel sorry not just for Wade Robson and James Safechuck, but for MJ’s daughter and two sons. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t know for sure if MJ is guilty or innocent. I tried to look at both sides in this post and be as impartial as I can. There are reasons to doubt Robson’s and Safechuck’s accusations while also reasons to believe the boys were abused. We need more evidence. A lie detector test (polygraph) for Wade Robson & James Safechuck would come in handy right now! Fans have already demanded for this to happen. It’s possible Jackson could have been predator and victim on separate occasions. So the simplistic either/or debate may not hold up. Impossible to know for sure as we weren’t in the room. What we do know is Jackson never tried to hide his friendships with children and he saw nothing wrong with it. However most would agree spending so much time with children you are not blood related to is inappropriate however you try to justify it. Sure, kids were (and still are) inspired by Michael’s  music and he could likewise be energized by them, but you have to set boundaries. In his autobiography Moonwalk Michael is quoted on page 274: “That’s what I love about being with kids. They notice everything. They aren’t jaded. They get excited about things we’ve forgotten to get excited about any more. They are so natural too, so unself-conscious. I love being around them. There always seems to be a bunch of kids over at the house and they’re always welcome. They energize me-just being around them. They look at everything with such fresh eyes, such open minds. That’s part of what makes kids so creative. they don’ t worry about the rules. The picture doesn’t have to be in the center of the paper. The sky doesn’t have to be blue. They are accepting of people too. The only demand they make is to be treated fairly-and to be loved. I think that’s what we all want. I would like to think I’m an inspiration for the children I meet. I want kids to like my music. Their approval means more to me than anyone else’s. It’s always the kids who know which song is going to be a hit”.

 

The most ambiguous quote from the 1988 Moonwalk autobiography is when MJ says on page 104: “I’m certainly no angel, and I may have my own bad habits, but drugs aren’t among them”. He doesn’t go into his flaws in the book and this quote is very general and non-specific, but there is no indication if the bad habits could be criminal or non-criminal, so I am none the wiser. MJ doesn’t feel comfortable writing about his girlfriend’s so that is at a minimum. He prefers to keep that private and you can’t blame him. He confesses on page 254 that he “believes in love – very much so – how can you not believe after you’ve experienced it?”. Yet at this stage at his commercial peak he acknowledges he is married to his work: “Right now, my work still takes up most of my time and most of my emotional life”.

 

While journalistically unsound, ignoring Robson’s and Safechuck’s financial goal to reach a payout via their lawsuits, and ignoring Jackson’s side of the story, Leaving Neverland is still an important documentary. It has a bigger scope than the people involved, by depicting how a grooming process potentially happens, and hopefully can educate parents (and children) to look for signs of wrongdoing, and be courageous enough to speak up. Jackson’s reputation is in tatters, yet the bigger picture is the documentary could help change the statute of limitation laws for child abuse. This is already taking place in various US states. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last on Michael Jackson.

 

 

 

 

 

Any thoughts? Can you separate an artist’s legacy when intertwines with unacceptable behavior? Do you think Michael Jackson was framed or was he guilty? As always, comments are welcome.

Film review: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

 

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Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. Has its memorable moments such as the argument between the families, when the mother comforts her adult daughter when she’s in bed, the situation by the store, and the Puerto Rico sequence. The narrative consists of mostly platitudes such as ‘you are not alone when you have a family’, ‘love makes you see the world anew’. Yet the acting and presentation transcends the clichés.

Besides the love story focuses on the hardship of the blacks, harassment on the street by whites, treatment during a criminal case, trouble renting a place to live, etc. The last act may frustrate some viewers as the story feels unfinished.
The blaxploitation movies from the 1970s tended to present whites as the villain without much nuance. In contrast, Baldwin’s/Jenkins’ universe is more realistic by including sympathetic white characters.

So why not a higher rating? To me, great art allows for multiple interpretations and I don’t see that here. The message of injustice towards blacks is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s but the storytelling forces its opinion on you and playing the race card feels a bit obvious. A good watch with a touching story about the communal bond between members of an oppressed minority though I’m not the biggest fan of one-dimensional message movies. As Alissa Evans wrote in her review, the characters’ personalities feel secondary to their circumstance. The lead Stephan James has kind, gentle eyes which might be the reason he was picked. KiKi Layne is likeable as well while Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry shine in supporting roles. The jazz score is accomplished and is incorporated well.
Jenkins told The Los Angeles Times on the subject of films based on black literature. “I don’t want to sound as though every novel by a black author should be translated to the screen, but I’m damn sure many more of them should be.”

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) is important and competently made yet didn’t quite manage to rock me to the core in the way Moonlight did. The characters lacked the deeper, emotional weight of Jenkins’ 2016 film. A sense of wretchedness was missing. Perhaps better captured in Baldwin’s book.

6/10

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Film review: The Favourite (2018)

 

 

 

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Spoiler-free review. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer was my #1 of 2017 and I consider Dogtooth (2009) among the most original foreign films of the last ten years, so on that basis I was obviously looking forward to what the Greek filmmaker would do next.

Strong performances,  elegant costumes, and witty dialogue are the best things going on. Set in the 1700s, a fictionalized account of life at the court in England with an unhinged, ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the manipulative cousins (Rachel Weisz & Emma Stone) who vie for her favor. It’s been written there is no evidence Queen Anne was a lesbian though no way to rule this out categorically. The Queen is affected by grief, as she has lost a number of children and adds a rabbit to her collection each time to comfort herself. The story is also about jealousy and abuse of power, hardly new territory, but themes that still hold true and are presented in an entertaining, comedic way.

 

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Lots of talent involved in front of and behind the camera, new screenwriters are brought in, and a bigger budget for the director, but I prefer Lanthimos’ previous films he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou which leave room for the viewer to interpret. His latest, while well-acted and fun, is a performance-driven period comedy-drama that is style over substance. Worth a watch yet feels oscar-baity and not as dream-like compared to Lanthimos’ earlier work. A crowd-pleasing comedy and pretty straightforward.

 

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As another blogger noted, The Favourite is “born out of real world misogyny – a time and place where women had few options“. Yet there are echoes of #MeToo as well according to the director. Lanthimos has said it’s a modern story but set in the past. Imagine Harvey Weinstein in Colman’s role and the movie takes on a new meaning.
As timely as it may seem, the original screenplay for The Favourite was written 20 years ago, but was easier to get made now where films with female casts are regular occurrences.

I’m not the biggest fan of period films so that may have played a part in my middling enjoyment. What we get is an edgy arthouse filmmaker attempting to appeal to the masses with a mainstream oscar contender. A few scenes amused me though such as the wedding night and returning from hell dialogue, and who could forget the love and honesty speech.

May have been more enjoyable if I’d seen it with a packed audience. Perhaps on rewatches I’ll grow to love the humorous exchanges? Isn’t a bad film yet not something I connected to on a personal or emotional level. He is a director who made his name by creating original concepts and the inventiveness is what drew me to his work in the first place. Not a total sell out by Lanthimos as the film is still quite weird, but the storytelling is certainly not as bold and surprising as his previous work and may slightly underwhelm those fans who loved the director’s darker, challenging tales. If Lanthimos’ smaller arthouse films were too strange and disturbing for you, The Favourite, which subverts gender roles and is the director’s funniest, might be exactly what you want.

7/10
What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

 

Film review: The House That Jack Built (2018) (spoiler-free)

 

 

 

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This is a review of the unrated “director’s cut” version. Love him or hate him, Lars von Trier’s latest is a venture into psychological horror and displays a dark sense of humor. Lacks the emotion of 2013’s Nymphomaniac, a film it has a few things in common with, in terms of shocks and the lead in a lengthy dialogue with another character. Takes you inside the mind of psychopathic serial killer Jack, played by Matt Dillon in his best role in years.

The story is entertaining but uncomfortable and one of the most disturbing scenes to me could be when the blonde talks to the cop. With these type of violent films, I hope there are no maniacs who are inspired to copy the images on screen although what we see could also be viewed as a deterrent. It’s possible the film is a response to the controversial Melancholia press conference at Cannes in 2011, by reinforcing that Lars von Trier is interested in when art clashes with evil, and that he has a pitch-black, easily misunderstood wit, which is not for everyone. For example the hilarious OCD cleaning or Uma Thurman’s “you look like a serial killer” conversation with Jack in the van. This is really a horror comedy even if it really shouldn’t be a laughing matter. I’ll get back to that.

Serial killers (like filmmakers) display their creativity through their acts, and the film has unforgettable visuals. Is this a masterpiece by Lars von Trier or a pretentious, self-indulgent ego trip? Hard to say and I haven’t really decided how I feel about it. Important to discuss murder in society through art, and I wouldn’t want the director to censor his vision, although I felt he went too far in some sequences. Just because you have the power to put things on film doesn’t mean you should. In a similar vein to Haneke’s Funny Games, The House That Jack Built addresses the audiences enjoyment with horror. Encouraging laughs and thereby reminding us we are uncomfortably “enjoying” the events. I guess you could argue humor can be located in everything and I feel Lars von Trier is manipulating with the audience. The contradiction of spending time with a despicable character you would never want to meet in real life. That is what movies can do, take you to a place that is completely different to your own experience. So as to try and understand the thinking of even the most evil minds.

But is the film saying anything new? Certain elements did feel familiar to other films in the genre such as American Psycho, though I will say there’s certainly a discussion about art and evil which appears to fascinate von Trier, and the film will undoubtedly be analysed in every way moving forward. Complaining that the film is cold and sadistic I think is missing the point because it’s designed that way. I wouldn’t recommend to all, but if you appreciate his prior films you’ll be wanting to watch. Divisive, daring cinema, as you’d expect from the Danish auteur. As with the director’s other horror Antichrist (2009), excluding viewers with its unpleasantness.

 

 

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Film review: Suspiria (2018) (spoiler-free)

 

 

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A “cover version” of  Dario Argento’s horror classic from 1977. The story is more ambitious than the original, which back in the 70s went for atmosphere over story. The dance sequences are expanded on and the violence is definitely more graphic and off-putting. There’s a bit more depth in regard to the seduction and control of dance choreography, comparable to the manipulation of the Germans by Hitler or the loss of self in a cult. Set in late 70s Berlin, some reviewers wrote about national guilt in post-WW2 Germany, this aspect wasn’t that apparent to me. You could argue denial, guilt and trauma was embodied through various characters but I won’t spoil this here. Argento’s film was evasive about revealing what was wrong at the dance academy until the end, whereas Guadagnino’s Suspira is a different kind of mystery by giving up its secret half way through with explanatory dialogue, yet still offering other surprises.

 

 

 

What the new film wants to do (but to me doesn’t fully manage) is humanize these women and probably that’s the reason we see them laughing and enjoying themselves in the restaurant. The scenes with the old man have some emotion but needed to be edited down and at times are too removed from the central narrative. By the conclusion, I couldn’t tell dream from reality, and maybe that was intended, who knows, to make the audience feel we too were cast under the spell. The music and sound design is good, especially Thom Yorke’s haunting song Suspirium, although I think Goblin’s 70s soundtrack is far more eerie. A passable re-imagining, but not particularity emotionally involving and tonally it has some big shifts from quietly touching to gruesome all within a short space of time. I cared about the old man (I wasn’t distracted by Tilda Swinton in heavy make-up) and Sara (Mia Goth) yet felt almost nothing about the leads Susie (Dakota Johnson) and Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). That said, Madame Blanc is arguably the most interesting and complex character. There are 2-3 sequences which I’ll remember for a long time, such as the emotionless stare, the laughing women and the detective, and the shocking opening dance. Unfortunately, the violence is needlessly unpleasant. But I guess it’s not a fault because the filmmakers were obviously going for uncomfortable.

 

 

 

The original is style over substance. But in terms of style there are few that can top it, with fantastic camera work, production design, music, and suspense. The 2018 film is thinking man’s arthouse cinema with a completely different approach to visuals and story. Because plenty is going on beneath the surface, one viewing is probably not enough to unpack everything. I’m happy tries to be different to the 1977 film and from what I’ve read is a labor of love for Italian director and horror fan Luca Guadagnino. There’s been talk of a new film category “elevated horror” or “post-horror” and Suspiria I assume belongs to this new bracket because it (in the vein of Get Out or Hereditary) features strong performances, works as a drama, and has substance to go with the blood. However, some have complained the term is disrespectful, an elitist label which implies horror needs elevating. Of course, you could make the case smart horror dramas have been around for decades (Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) and these are just fancy new categories for journalists to write about.

 

7/10

 

 

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome