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Indie Focus: Reclaiming history with 'Suspiria,' 'Shirkers' and 'Border'

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The Times just published a package of stories on how politics is being depicted in pop culture. Amy Kaufman looked at docs in the Trump era as films such as “Fahrenheit 11/9,” “American Dharma” and “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” specifically examine how we got here.

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Kenneth Turan also wrote about recent political docs, their popularity at the box office and their personal, emotional intimacy, noting, “The making of politics personal has led not to partisanship but citizenship. Motivated perhaps by the chaos in Washington, documentarians are looking at what is wrong with society, with issues that impact America as a whole.”

Josh Rottenberg wrote about recent fiction features such as “The Front Runner” and “BlacKkKlansman” that likewise grapple with depicting politics. The upcoming “On The Basis of Sex” centers on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s role in legal battles over gender discrimination in the 1960s and ’70s, and as director Mimi Leder said, “The movie was important before but now it was more important than ever.”

On Nov. 1, The Times is putting on a screening of the 1992 film “Sneakers,” a comedy of politics and technology, followed by a conversation between writers Roxane Gay and Ben Loory and Times journalist Mariel Garza. I’ll be there strictly as an audience member, so feel free to say hello if you’re there too.

We’ll have more Indie Focus screening and Q&A events coming up soon. Check events.latimes.com for updates.

Tilda Swinton as Madam Blanc stars in "Suspiria"
Tilda Swinton as Madam Blanc stars in "Suspiria" (Alessio Bolzoni / Amazon Studios)

‘Suspiria’

Among the most anticipated, and now divisive, films of the year is Luca Guadagninos’s remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic “Suspiria.” In the film, Dakota Johnson plays an American who goes to study at a dance academy in 1977 Berlin, where she encounters an instructor played by Tilda Swinton and fellow student played by Mia Goth. And it turns out the academy is a front for a coven of witches, who are in the midst of an internal power struggle. No less sensual that Guadagnino’s previous films, his “Suspiria” is dense, visceral and overwhelming.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “By the time the phantasmagorical finale arrives, you are flooded with blood and viscera, yes, but also something even more unsettling — a sudden onrush of feeling, a deep, overpowering melancholy. It’s the most startling of the movie’s transfigurations, and it returns us to the primordial theme of motherhood, as ‘Suspiria’ remade suddenly becomes ‘Suspiria’ reborn.”

Jen Yamato spoke to Guadagnino, Johnson, Swinton and Goth for an article that will be publishing soon. As to what he and screenwriter David Kajganich brought to Argento’s original, Guadagnino said, “Dario’s movie was a sort of self-contained box of fleshy delicacies, which was not in relationship with the moment it was made. It was too much of an opportunity for me and David to actually say, it’s 1977 — deal with it, let’s make it the center of the story.”

At The New York Times, Manohla Dargis skewered Guadaginio and his film, writing: “What precisely he wants to say amid all the carefully choreographed bloodletting and disembowelment chic is unclear, other than some women are beautiful and erotically beguiling but also mysterious and murderous. (It’s a story women know by heart and is dustier than even Argento’s shocker.) … Mostly, the new ‘Suspiria’ is an exercise in grindhouse genre, a seeming departure for a director whose work is usually, at times to its detriment, calibrated for art-house consumption.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote: “‘Suspiria’ won’t be for everyone. It’s drawn comparisons to last year’s polarizing ‘Mother!,’ another gonzo horror movie (of a sort) from a celebrated filmmaker. … But it’s nonetheless a far richer experience, a holistic journey into the witches’ den that prods at the dark seams of our world. It titillates and startles and, perhaps most disturbingly, inspires.”

At ScreenCrush, Britt Hayes added: “On a very basic level, ‘Suspiria’ is a stunningly-crafted film with remarkable performances from Swinton, Mia Goth, and Dakota Johnson. … But ‘Suspiria’ is also willfully divisive, and its understated color palette is merely the antithetical surface of its many rebellions against form — whether by re-contextualizing Argento’s heavily-visual work as a thematically-dense exercise, or by deconstructing cinematic and psychiatric archetypes.”

Sandi Tan, writer, producer and director of the documentary "Shirkers. The film, which won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance, will debut on Nextflix.
Sandi Tan, writer, producer and director of the documentary "Shirkers. The film, which won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance, will debut on Nextflix. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

‘Shirkers’

A rare commodity, “Shirkers” is a film you can genuinely say you have never seen the likes of before. Filmmaker Sandi Tan won the directing prize in the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance for her story of how she tried to make a movie as a teenager in Singapore in 1992, only to have the footage stolen by a collaborator and mentor. Tan now attempts to discover what really happened back then and to reconstruct the movie that might have been.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film a “knotty detective yarn, a funny valentine to Singapore and one of the year’s most ardent expressions of movie love, it tells a story of cinematic theft, and in the process, becomes an entrancing feat of cinematic reclamation.”

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Sonaiya Kelley interviewed Tan for a feature that will be publishing soon. Tan said, “Making this film was like rediscovering my confidence in my voice, my passion for making films in the 21st century, knowing that you can use the same kind of DIY methods where you're basically going it alone in your garage. And I find that really exciting. It's very empowering to realize that you're not the sorcerer's apprentice anymore, you're the sorcerer.”

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At Vulture, Emily Yoshida wrote passionately and personally about the movie, calling it “a strange, engrossing, and often ravishingly beautiful auto-documentary” before adding: “Even in its most joyous moments, there’s a melancholy to ‘Shirkers’ that catches in the back of one’s throat: It sends you wondering at all the wild creativity and genius of young irrepressible women lost to time, held up or buried by the domineering egos of men.”

Writing for rogerbert.com, Monica Castillo added: “There is a sense of relief at the end of the documentary that feels like the first big breath of fresh air after stepping out of a therapist’s office. Cardona may have taken something from them they will never fully get back, but Tan’s documentary returns the narrative back to her and her friends. He no longer has the last word on ‘Shirkers,’ they do. And isn’t reclaiming our stories what this cultural moment is all about?”

Eva Melander in the movie "Border."
Eva Melander in the movie "Border." (Neon)

‘Border’

An uncanny mix of genre filmmaking and folklore, “Border” is directed by Ali Abbasi from a screenplay by “Let the Right One In” writer John Ajvide Lindqvist and is Sweden’s entry for the best foreign language Oscar. In the film, an unusual woman named Tina (Eva Melander) works as a border guard and is particularly adept at uncovering smugglers. When she meets a man named Vore (Eero Milonoff), she learns more about not only her latest case but also herself. The film won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition earlier this year.

In his review for The Times, Robert Abele wrote: “Without Abbasi ever giving up the character-study realism and bolstered by the leads’ tangibly demonstrative and unforgettable portrayals, Tina’s remote forest home slowly transforms from the setting for a fractured fairy tale of belonging into a thorny Nordic noir on the pitfalls of identity.”

Reviewing for The New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote: “As cold as possible is a good way to see it. This is a movie that aims to startle in overt and subtextual ways; the less known before viewing, the better.”

Writing for his own website, Leonard Maltin added: “This Swedish Oscar contender is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Yet it grabbed me from the opening scene and never loosened its grip.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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