REVIEW: Crimson Peak

17 10 2015

Crimson Peak” presents an unfortunate irony for most reviewers like myself.  The movie is essentially what we clamor for day in and day out: the chance for a great auteur like Guillermo del Toro to work on a sprawling canvas with a large budget of $55 million.  Yet, at the end of the day, the end product feels lacking in substance.  So how to respond?

If it felt like an ambitious endeavor in pursuit of a singular vision that just never quite finds its footing, I might be inclined to judge it more kindly.  While del Toro’s exercise in merging the Gothic romance with haunted house horror is interesting, “Crimson Peak” does not derive its strength from such a union.  In fact, most of the film’s memorable moments come from well-placed homages to classics like “Psycho” and “The Shining.”

del Toro’s immaculate eye for costume and design keep “Crimson Peak” stunning to look at, even if the events that unfold in this milieu are boring enough to encourage some shut-eye.  The film shows its hand far too early as two eerily close British siblings, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), arrive in Buffalo, NY, to seek a capital injection.  Thomas conveniently falls for the main financier’s daughter, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, and takes her back to their family estate known as Allerdale Hall.

“Crimson Peak” manages to elicit the odd thrill or chill here and there, but a moment where the Sharpes are seen plotting some unknown scheme towards the beginning of the film robs the experience of suspense.  There is not nearly enough heat between Hiddleston and Wasikowska to enliven the stale romantic beats they are doomed to hit.  Only Jessica Chastain, in a delightfully demented turn, manages to really excite when the final act finally allows her to come unhinged.

She’s almost too good for the movie.  While it’s hard to fault her for wanting to collaborate with a director like Guillermo del Toro, I can’t help but wish all this wrath was channeled into a more exciting work.  C+ / 2stars

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REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

28 02 2015

MapsI have spent extended periods of time in Hollywood, and I really wish I had David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” by my side then to confirm all my suspicions and misgivings.  Director David Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner do not merely depict the shallowness and the narcissism dominant in the local culture so much as they diagnose it.  The film pinpoints a number of endemic ills in a town built on deception with the accuracy of a pathologist.

This saga of shameless self-promoters caught in a tangled web of ego bashing may not quite cohere in its explosive third act, yet it hardly detracts from the pleasure of simply watching them exist for an hour or so.  Cronenberg gets his cast to deliver performances tuned to the perfect channel: exaggeratedly hilarious without ever veering sharply into parodic or burlesquing territory.

Nowhere does this approach find better expression than in Julianne Moore’s brilliantly demented Havana Segrand, which – all due respect to “Still Alice” –  is the kind of work that should have netted the actress her first Oscar.  Nonetheless, she has the statue now, and we have this performance to relish forever.

Havana is Moore’s Norma Desmond, the fading and aging screen icon vividly realized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  In an obvious attempt to jumpstart her career again, Havana tries desperately to land a coveted part in a remake of a movie that originally starred her late mother.  To settle her neuroses and ease her pain in the meantime, she hires a new “chore whore” at the suggestion of Carrie Fisher (playing herself, in a brilliantly ironic insertion by Wagner) – the mysterious burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who recently arrived in town.

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REVIEW: Tracks

23 09 2014

TracksLondon Film Festival, 2013

Maybe this is something I will grow out of as I get older, but I have always identified most with the wandering protagonists of the cinema.  From Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” to Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air,” these perpetual seekers seemed to forge the strongest and longest-lasting connection with me.

So I seemed predisposed to click with Robyn Davidson, the protagonist of the film “Tracks” who perilously treks with camels through the Australian desert just to learn something about herself.  I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the film’s epigraph from Davidson, “Some nomads are at home everywhere.  Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”

Yet once the film began in earnest, I related to Davidson’s journey with mild intensity at best.  I felt distant from her the entire way, kept at arm’s length by Mia Wasikowska’s generic performance.  She and the film meander towards no particular destination, although that wouldn’t be a problem if the journey yielded any significant personal developments (and “Tracks” really doesn’t).

The film is still interesting to watch, even if it doesn’t inspire reflection at the level suggested by its opening quotation.  The cinematography by Mandy Walker captures all the sweeping beauty of the inhospitable outback, and Adam Driver (from “Girls”) makes for some amusing comic relief as Rick Smolan, a National Geographic photographer who sporadically documents her progress.  But sadly, “Tracks” never satisfyingly captures the psychology of its subject.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Stoker

22 09 2014

When I left “Stoker,” I was not entirely sure whether I liked or loathed it.  The sentiment was distinct from the normal ambivalence that I feel about rather bland, unremarkable films.  Rarely had such conflicting emotions about a work of art seemed so passionless to me.

Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut certainly has a cool neo-Hitchcock vibe to it, particularly in its impressive editing and heavy dependence on atmosphere.  Very little happens in “Stoker,” which revolves around an odd teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), once her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in to “comfort” her recently widowed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  They interact in cryptic ways, which are often so vague that only the language of the camera gives any clue as to what to make of it.

At first, this indistinctness is chillingly beguiling.  But after a while, “Stoker” just starts to feel like a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  I had no idea where the movie was going until the last 30 minutes, largely because it lacked a firm narrative.  And when there is little story to follow, all attention shifts to aesthetics.  With all that extra attention, Park’s style reveals itself as rather empty.

Perhaps “Stoker” can approximate a Hitchcock thriller in terms of finesse. But Hitch had compassion for his characters, which is such a crucial X factor that has led his work to retain such a foothold in the public imagination.  Park, on the other hand, builds such a distance between us and the characters that I found myself retreating into my own imagination to think about the next movie on my agenda.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Double

25 08 2014

The DoubleIt’s always interesting to see how two different filmmakers approach the same text and wind up with completely different interpretations.  Richard Ayode directly derives his film “The Double” from a novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky, while Darren Aronofsky drew heavily from it to create his Oscar-winning 2010 masterpiece “Black Swan.”

These films are not cinematic siblings, so to speak, but they are blood relatives of sorts and provide a fertile ground for analysis in tandem.  The same blood runs through their veins, but they manifest its influence in divergent fashions.  At the very least, anyone who has seen “Black Swan” will come away from watching “The Double” with an appreciation for the many choices facing the artists tasked with adapting a text.  (And I make the assumption that the majority of people interested in the latter are the kind of moviegoers who made a point to see the former.)

Aronofsky’s take on the doppelganger tale results in a horror film replete with corporal anxieties, while Ayoade finds just about the opposite in the Russian yarn.  His film is a dark comedy that often times veers into the absurd.  Its bizarre flavor regarding the humor regarding the humdrum mechanisms of the workplace  is about as far from the werewolf-swan movie as one can get.

And yet, there’s still the same underlying fear of being replaced by a better version of yourself that resonates in “The Double.”  It’s somewhat clouded by the fog of Ayoade’s peculiar funnybone, but it’s nonetheless there.  Jesse Eisenberg, essentially playing the same stammering character that won him an Oscar nomination for “The Social Network,” is an inspired choice to convey this paranoia to an audience.  He begins the film as the timid Simon James and then later appears as the supremely confident James Simon to steal all the thunder in the world of work and romance with the alluring Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).

It’s too bad we’re used to seeing Eisenberg play this character because “The Double” comes off as a bit old hat for the actor.  Either James or Simon could pop up in any of Eisenberg’s other movies as a doppelganger to induce a similar identity crisis in the native character.  He’s really doubled down, so to pun-nily speak, on this bumbling neurotic everyman.  Once or twice more, and he may very well veer into the perilous grounds of self-parody.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Only Lovers Left Alive

18 08 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive posterCannes Film Festival – Official Selection, 2013

I’ve listened to countless interviews with James Gray about his film “The Immigrant,” so many that I can’t pair a quote with a particular interview and thus cite it correctly.  But in one talk about filmmaking in general, Gray talked about how great directors are effective at conveying mood.

I haven’t seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography to make a definitive statement about whether or not he is a great director.  But I have seen his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I can say that simply because it has control of mood does not make it a great film.  Jarmusch favors ambiance over story development to a fault in his film that probably had its proper title, “Modern Vampires of the City,” stolen by Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The film comes from an original screenplay by the director, and it certainly earns points for being clever.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” runs in a different direction with the current vampire fad,  portraying the bloodsuckers as hipsters hiding out in the latest haunt.  When we catch up with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s immortal lovers, wittily named Adam and Eve, he has shacked up in Detroit while she’s hanging in Tangiers.

It’s undeniably entertaining to get immersed in the distinctive universe Jarmusch has them inhabiting.  Watching them figure out how to get the blood they need to survive is cheeky fun, as is the creative ways they choose to consume it.  Not to mention, their demeanors and attitudes are so unexpected that it can’t help but be attention-grabbing.  (Hearing them name-drop some of their famous friends makes for a good chuckle, too.)

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REVIEW: Jane Eyre

2 09 2013

Jane Eyre” is not a movie in my wheelhouse, I’ll just go ahead and declare.  I am generally not a fan of Victorian-era literature adapted to film, even the ones that people think are good like “Pride and Prejudice.”  In general, I find period pieces and costume dramas to be stuffy and boring.

This “Jane Eyre” is a movie I was predisposed to hate, and while I wouldn’t go that far in my dismissal of it, I certainly didn’t enjoy watching it.  Cary Joji Fukunanga’s latest reincarnation of Charlotte Bronte’s heroine is at least a step up from the unwatchable “Sin Nombre,” but that’s about the brightest praise I can bestow upon it.

“Jane Eyre” is dull and low-energy from the start; I could feel my limited interest evaporating quickly within the first ten minutes of the film.  I kept watching mainly out of my own stubborn reluctance, but I should have stopped myself out of common sense.  I was hoping it might redeem itself (or my $2 on Amazon Instant Video), or perchance I could get a more thorough review out of it.

However, I saw everything I needed to see within a few scenes.  The costumes and sets are well-crafted, sure, but that’s to be expected.  Everyone would balk if the production values weren’t impeccable because that’s practically why these movies are made.  Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as her Mr. Rochester are suitably poised but as melodramatic and unentertaining as the rest of the film.

This “Jane Eyre” was a flat, boring experience for me … but again, this is not my kind of movie.  It wasn’t made to please people like me, so maybe it’s better that it did nothing for me at all.  C2stars