Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak (2015) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 10/24/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I like Guillermo del Toro.  I’ve been with him since Cronos (1993) and have seen him craft an interesting career between beautiful art film horror (The Devil’s Backbone (2001) & Pan’s Labyrinth (2005)) and Hollywood science fiction comic book nonsense (Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II (2008), & Pacific Rim (2013).)

Why list all his feature films?  Because if you look at his body of work, you can see that he’s gone back and forth with regularity between artsy stuff and more commercial fare.  Heck, he might even have another one on his resume by now if he didn’t squander a number of years with Peter Jackson on that Hobbit (2012) monstrosity.

Heck, he’s on Twitter these days, sharing his breadth of passions and facinations.  He does his own design work, probably at most well-realized in Pan’s Labyrinth, but I give the guy credit.  And double heck, I was probably a total outlier myself because I actually enjoyed Pacific Rim.

Crimson Peak looks fantastic.  It’s beautifully designed and shot.  Victorian Gothic horror story with lush colors and featuring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain, all very sumptuous themselves in their own ways.

It’s an earnest and devout throwback of a ghost film, hearkening of the days of Hammer horror or classic terrors like The Innocents (1961) or Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).  It’s also an original screenplay, if not the most original of ideas for the story.  All of the loving details are all onscreen.  Vividly.

But it’s not spectacular.  It’s not haunting (to me, at least).  It was enjoyable enough, but not the least enthralling.  My kids enjoyed it.  I liked it.  I’m not saying I didn’t like it.

For my money, the best ghost story film of this century has been Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 film, The Others.  There is a film with less showy designs and more creepy creeps.

But I will continue to like del Toro.  And I’ll look forward to his next films.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Maps to the Stars (2014) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 05/10/2015

You had me at “David Cronenberg”.  I’ll still watch any new David Cronenberg film.  Doesn’t really matter what it’s about.  Well, actually, after Cosmopolis (2012), maybe I should temper that.

And, that said, Maps to the Stars is the second feature in a row for Cronenberg to feature Robert Pattinson, largely ensconced yet again inside a limo.  This time, though, he’s the driver and the subject isn’t Wall Street but Hollywood.  Cronenberg’s first film ever shot in the United States also features Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, and Olivia Williams.

It’s a funny, sordid affair.  I’d argue that the film’s ability to skewer Hollywood and Hollywood types is a bit more tin eared than other aspects of it.  Mainly, it’s a very dysfunctional family horror show, with a heart in Mia Wasikowska, who plays the scarred mystery girl who hunts the celebrities like a world-class stalker, but whose motives are more mysterious and bizarre.

It’s kind of weird but I liked it.  In fact, I think I liked it more than I expected I would.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) movie poster

director Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 09/07/2014

Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, takes a spin on vampire mythos through a typically Jarmuschian lens.  The age old vampires here are Tilda Swinton with long, tangled locks, sexy beast Tom Hiddlston looking pure rock star, elder statesman John Hurt is Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Christopher Marlowe), and Mia Wasikowska as eternally precocious vixen.  They live by night, of course, have lived for centuries.  Hiddleston in a derelict district of Detroit, Hurt and Swinton in Tangier.

The are aged, ageless hipsters, not the shallow ones that everyone disdains, but the old school hipsters who don’t go out anymore because it’s too much effort and too much the same.  They stay cloistered with their aging analog technologies.  They can stroke an object and tell its place and date of creation.  To them, non-vampires are “zombies,” you know, wannabes, poseurs, humanity.

Hiddleston’s Adam and Swinton’s Eve are old souls, still much in love, though growing so tired of living.  It’s tedious, you know.  Swinton flies to Detroit to meet her man.  But the trouble arises when Ava shows up.  She’s still a party animal, likes the nightlife, loves to boogie, drinks way too much blood.

Acquiring the liquid of life is typically done through underground connections at hospitals, to ensure purity.  People aren’t usually preyed upon.  And blood is somewhat like heroin, though the effect is brief and also nourishing.  Most blood is tainted these days, you know.

I actually enjoyed the movie more than many of Jarmusch’s more recent films.  It’s been described as “languid” and “droll”, which are both apt adjectives.  These vampires are hipsters, but original hipsters, the artists, the rock stars, the people who knew all the “great ones” in their day.  And wouldn’t it be great if we all looked so well as we aged and rued the changes in the world.

Stoker (2013)

Stoker (2013) movie poster

director Park Chan-wook
viewed: 07/29/2013

Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first American film, a dark Hitchcock-inspired thriller, sounded like a real cool thing.  I’ve been a fan of his since his fantastic Oldboy (2003).  His other films have varied in quality but have all been good, all worthwhile.  So, I have to say that Stoker really surprised me.

It’s awful.

Arch and pretentious, it’s beautifully shot.  It’s shooting for something artful and clever.  But it’s freaking goofy bad.

I really like Mia Wasikowska.  She’s awfully cute.

But this movie.  It’s just really, really, really bad.

Lawless (2012)

Lawless (2012) movie poster

director John Hillcoat
viewed: 12/16/2012

Based on the non-fiction book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Lawless is a prohibition era crime film in which the outlaws are the heroes.  Adapted by Nick Cave, who played a similar role in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), it’s a proven team of collaborators dealing with the gritty, bloody type of story that they’ve been successful with before.  Cave also helped score the film, which is never a bad thing either.

On the semi-bad side, the film stars Shia LaBeouf, as the youngest of the Bondurant brothers, the most squeamish and least brawly.  He’s kind of the center of the story.  Luckily, it also stars Tom Hardy , Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Guy Pearce.  Most significantly Mr. Hardy, who is one of the better actors coming into his own of late.

The film’s got some brutal moments, most intensely with Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant wields brass knuckles into a couple of fellows’ throats.  The film isn’t lacking on impact in that sense, nor is it lacking of an interesting, engaging story.

It’s hard to say exactly what it’s lacking, but it’s lacking something from managing to be more than it is.  It has a lot of good things going for it, but as a whole, the film doesn’t pack the punch that Hardy’s steel-coated fist does.

LaBeouf isn’t terrible by any means.  In fact, maybe he’s more likable here than in other films.  Still, not one of my favorite actors.

The soundtrack is very good, featuring that “old timey” music, though interestingly, Cave has taken a lot of more contemporary songs and re-situated them in the style of the folk music of the time of the film’s setting.  My recommendation is to check out the soundtrack and my inclination is to read the book, The Wettest County in the World, which I think would have been a better, more colorful title for the film itself.

The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Lisa Cholodenko
viewed: 08/14/10 at the UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA

The Kids Are All Right is more than alright, it’s pretty darn good.  A “dramedy”, if you will, about a contemporary family, a modern conundrum set with easily recognizable characters and issues.  Very funny, at times painfully awkward and awkwardly painful, this is one of those films that will doubtlessly be around come Oscar time. 

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple on the verge of an emptying nest.  They have two children conceived through artificial insemination (each mom carried one of the children) from sperm from the same donor, the older of whom, their daughter Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska), is about to go away to college.  Their son, Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson, is a typical 15 year old, bumming around with a friend who is not the best influence, but yearning a bit for some male presence in his very female-heavy life.   It’s Laser who prods Joni to secretly seek out their biological father out of curiosity.

Their father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a local organic restaurant, rides a motorcycle, and exudes an easy laid-back cool, which belies his otherwise rather never fully matured adulthood.  The kids, who are very “all right”, with Joni as a high-scoring scholar and Laser as a successful team sport jock, are very clean-cut and innocent, and are taken with their biological father.  And he is taken with them.  It’s a part of his life that has never come to fruition and these two lovely, intelligent kids bring a great spark to his life.

All the performances in the film are very strong, helped in no small part by the fact that co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko gives all the characters depth and believability.  They are all charming and lovely and flawed, and more than anything, they ring true.

What happens next, I’ll warn you, is a mild bit of a spoiler, so if you want to just go see the movie, you need not read on.  But I want to discuss a thing or two about the full scope of the story.  What happens next is that Paul is accepted into their world, a little begrudgingly by Bening’s character, the more serious of the two moms.  Unfortunately for all involved, Moore’s character accepts him a little too readily, all the way to his bed and into a rather passionate brief affair.  And this, as it’s discovered by Bening, forces the nuclear family to pull together to survive this threat to its health and to reject Paul and send him packing.

The beauty of the story is that all the characters have their issues, but those issues are not crippling typically.  Bening’s Nic is a bit controlling and she drinks too much wine.  Moore’s Jules is a little flaky and insecure.  Ruffalo’s Paul is sweet, kind, and charming, but follows his masculine Id, when he should know better.  The kids…, well, the kids are all right.

The point is that the film tells the story of a contemporary, perhaps modern version of the nuclear family, a real, recognizable group of characters, who represent a healthy and “normal” American family.  And yet, like any family, they are vulnerable to the challenges of life, of enduring the marathon of marriage, of insecurities, mistakes, short-comings.  And the story arc makes utter sense, even in their utter rejection of Paul after the affair and their attempt to heal and draw together again, even as Joni is off to university.

It’s a little hard not to feel kind of bad for Paul.  He gets some pretty harsh treatment from Nic when he tries to apologize to Joni and Laser, hoping to maintain something with these biological offspring.  He needs it.  His life, as happy-go-lucky as it’s been has been lacking this element to give it meaning, which is something he has come to realize.  But, at least as far as the movie follows the story, he’s lost it.  And the rejection, as I said, makes sense, even in its harshness, particularly from Nic, but it’s still a bit of a bummer to see him unresolved and unhappy.  He’s no villain.

But that’s part of what gives the film its “truthful” or “believable” character.  While I wouldn’t call the style “naturalism”, I would say that it has a true sense of the world.  Cholodenko’s characters are fully rounded and the story has poignance, particularly one might say in the present given the battle over gay marriage going on not just in California (but particularly in California).  The poignance is perhaps in that this film isn’t at all “about” gay marriage (doesn’t mention it once), but rather in that it portrays the story of a family unit, not simple and idealized, but shown with its cracks and fissures as well as its strengths.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 03/07/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

There are a lot of “Alices” out there and a lot of “Wonderlands” too.  My personal favorite has tended to be Jan Svankmejer’s 1988 Alice, which is largely stop-motion animated and not exactly true to the source material, so I’m not a purist when it comes to adaptations.  But it should be noted that this is not your classic Alice in Wonderland.  Far from it.  Alice winds up in a suit of armor slaying a dragon.

You know, if you take the story and go off the road with it, that’s one thing, but when you take a story that is off the roadway to begin with and pick it up and put it onto a much more commonly trodden path, you end up with a real irony.  It’s ironic that a work that appeals to Surrealist sensibilities, fantasy, and subversion is adapted by a director known for visual style and a gleamingly dark eye and it ends up being far more conventional in the end.

I mean, it looks fantastic.  But the story is a weakness, unimaginative, derivative, and not really too clever.

Tim Burton is a director that I’ve long had a like/dislike relationship with (not strong enough for love/hate).  He’s got a fantastic eye for design, whether it’s his own or it’s the other collaborators with whom he works.  He’s attracted, largely, to pretty interesting material, but really most frequently comes across as a great visual stylist, with occasional flairs for highly appealing stuff, but one whose weakness is in the level of story and ultimately originality, as he is also most often “re-booting” old ideas or adapting pre-existing popular stories or characters.

That said, I had quite enjoyed his last two films more than I had anticipated, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), so I’d had a growing hope that this film might wind up on the more positive side of the fence, too.  I’d been quite attracted by the trailers and the designs and aesthetics of the world of Wonderland.

Did I mention that it’s also in Disney Digital 3-D?

In the opening and closing parts of the story, which place Alice in her Victorian world, initially the child of the classic version, but now a 20 year old, an independent girl, who doesn’t want to wear a corset or marry a dullard Lord.  She’s a proto-feminist, you see.   The film doesn’t really matter a whole lot in those segments.  It’s really tiresome.

It only gets fun the moment she falls down the rabbit hole and the vision becomes that of a hyper-hallucination, depicted through the latest in digital animation/effects.  And it’s something.  The talking flowers, the Cheshire cat, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the queen of hearts (Helena Bonham Carter with an enlarged cranium), each figure as it emerges is highly pleasurable and vivid.  There is a point as this segment begins, that you almost think to yourself, “Wow, this could be awesome!”  And that feeling carries on for a while.

Up through her meeting with the Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp in a bright red wig, whitened face, and glowing googly eyes, varying between yellow and green, depending on his mood.  His face alone is almost worth the price of admission.  But his performance is not.  Depp may well be one the most appealing leading men in Hollywood, with a litany of entertaining if not very entertaining films to his name, but how many “characters” can you come up with that are just “so unusual”.  And beyond that, his character, the Mad Hatter, is not as mad as he could be.  He’s quite likeable, fun while he’s there, but like the rest of the film, largely a visual pleasure.

Ultimately there is this, well, feminist would be too strong of a word, but this aim at female empowerment.  Give Alice the sword, the role so often handed to the young boy who needs to become a man.  Clad her in shining armor and have her slice the dragon’s head off.  It’s not hard to get the point, nor is the point deep enough to really cut.  The whole film is just a beautifully rendered, visually enthralling, yet flaccid effort, not unworthy of seeing, but a squandered opportunity at least.

There are a lot of Alice’s out there, and doubtlessly, this will not the the end of the list.  I loved the character designs.  But give me the far more bizarre and creepy Svankmejer Alice.  Maybe it’s not half so colorful, but it’s a lot more complex.

Rogue

Rogue (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Greg Mclean
viewed: 08/09/08

It’s amazing that there are so many movies out there in the world that something as odd and specific as a horror film genre of giant creatures of the order crocodilia could exist, but I am proposing that it does.  Most recently, there was the film Primeval (2007), about a real life killer crocodile in Africa.  There is the earliest one in the genre that I can think of, Alligator (1980), which had the critter in the sewers of Chicago rather than its native habitat.

Well, the latest in the genre is the less campy and far more earnest film, Rogue, from Australian writer/director Greg Mclean, whose previous film, Wolf Creek (2005) also was a cautionary tale of the beautiful Outback of Australia for tourists and pleasure-seekers.  In Wolf Creek, it was a madman serial killer (also allegedly based on a true story).   In Rogue, it is a massive male rogue crocodile, enormous and angry, who doesn’t like his very isolated territory invaded.

The film does truly have an earnestness.  A lot of Australian films seem to take great pride in the weirdness of the Aussies of the bush, whack-jobs, yet colorful.  Mclean does use quite recognizeable character types in his film: the gorgeous, tomboy tour boat operator, the English family with a crippled, ailing mother, a colorful Irish hippie frump, the bad boys of the swamps…  But the characters are less “stock” than is often the case.  It feels like they were chosen more for a purpose than simply to get eaten up.

Mclean shows great love for the Northern Australia visually depicted in the film.  It’s stunning, and according to comments that they made, some landscape that has literally never been captured in cinema before.  It’s isolated and ancient, like the rogue crocodiles, the living dinosaurs who have not needed to evolve for a long, long time.  There is a small hat tip to the Aboriginal mysticism, noting that part of the river is sacred, marked with native art.  There is an attempt to show the beauty and the age of the largely unbefouled Outback.

And Mclean shows lots of shots of actual crocodiles as well, peppering the narrative with facts and factoids, showing that this story really isn’t meant to be as far-fetched as one might think.  Mclean even relates back to a specific crocodile that in real life attacked many a boat to protect its territory, and he notes that there are crocodiles that have been reported that are even bigger than the digitally animated Rogue of our story.

It’s earnestness is admirable.  But I think I was expecting more outlandishness.  The camp value is smaller, but the film is still a fairly intense thriller, one that will certainly have me thinking more than twice before taking a river boat ride up the crocodile-infested waters of Northern Australia.