CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

October 19, 2015

crimson peak Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts.” Leave it to writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to make this distinction. The line is spoken by our lead character Edith, who is striving to write like her literary idol, Mary Shelley. She is explaining her most recent writing effort to a publisher, but the line also represents the movie we are watching … ghosts appear (some grisly ones at that), but they certainly aren’t the focus.

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century as young Edith has just experienced her first family tragedy, the passing of her mother. She grows into an independent young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) being raised by her successful self-made-man father Curtis Cushing (played by Jim Beaver, “Justified”).  Tip of the cap to del Toro for his tip of the cap to the horror film great Peter Cushing.  Edith has remained steadfast in her independence despite the advances of her lifelong friend, the handsome Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”).  Things change when a mysterious stranger sweeps into town. Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investors for his “clay harvester”, a machine he designed to automate what now takes many men and much hard labor.  The elder Cushing senses something is “off” about Sharpe and his sister and travelling companion, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but the strong-minded Edith soon finds herself waltzing and blushing with Sir Thomas.

It would be pretty easy to recap the balance of the story, but that is actually the film’s weakness. It plays like a re-imagined script from one of those old 1940’s or 50’s movies that I watched on Friday nights as a kid. In other words, it’s not very frightening and the viewer’s enjoyment is totally based on the atmosphere. Fortunately, that’s where del Toro and his team excel. The set design (Tom Sanders) and costumes (Kate Hawley) are truly spectacular and among the best ever seen, especially for a horror movie. Dilapidated Allendale Manor features a hole in its roof allowing the elements to freely enter the colossal entry foyer. The furnishings and fixtures, as well as the layout of the house are perfection as a setting. The costumes for all characters are superb, but pay special attention to the fabrics and frills of Edith and Lucille. Camera work from Cinematographer Dan Lausten ties it all together for the eerie feel.

The film is so stunning and interesting to look at that it’s actually quite easy to forgive a story that has little to offer, and often … and I do mean often … relies on horror film clichés in what should be moments of difference-making. Having five such talented lead actors, who each go “all in” for their characters, help us overlook the script weakness, and it’s really the look and atmosphere of the film that make it worth watching … not words I have written many times over the years. For del Toro fans, you should know that Doug Jones does play the creepy ghost that inspires Edith’s first words (as narrator) … “Ghosts are real, that much I know”.

watch the trailer:

 


LAWLESS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gangster and family crime dramas are always a favorite film genre, especially when “based on a true story”, as this one claims. The story comes straight from the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of Jack Bondurant, portrayed in the film by Shia LaBeouf. The screenplay and direction come courtesy of the latest collaboration from Nick Cave (alt-Rocker) and John Hillcoat (The Road).

The cast is deep and talented. The three Bondurant brothers are played by Tom Hardy (Forrest), Jason Clarke (Howard) and LaBeouf (Jack). The brothers are moonshiners who also run their own bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition and the great depression. They are assisted by a moonshine savant named Cricket (Dane DeHaan as a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). A beautiful former Chicago dancer played by Jessica Chastain stumbles into their café while inexplicably searching for a quieter life. Mia Wasikowska is the preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak who gets courted by Jack. Gary Oldman is terrific, though sadly limited in screen time, as the notorious gangster Floyd Banner, and Guy Pearce plays Special Detective Charlie Rakes. Rakes is a corrupt, outlandishly colorful character out of Chicago who is on assignment to either get a cut of the business or kill everyone in the process … all while smelling like a “nancy” and keeping blood off his tailored suits. He does this with the worst movie haircut since Anton Chigurh. Pearce plays him like a mix of a Christoph Waltz villain and Willem Dafoe’s detective in The Boondock Saints. Quite a visual.

 With this cast and a very stylistic look provided by wonderful camera work, color scheme, and costumes, it’s a bit confounding that the movie isn’t a little better than it is. The war between outlaws and crooked lawmen, splashed with minor love stories and interesting characters seems to have a gap. Apparently there are too many vying for too little screen time. Gary Oldman’s character has a stunning and violent screen entrance, but then is wasted and ignored for the balance of the film. Chastain’s Maggie is carrying a back-story that is clearly very intriguing, but all we get is a few pouty looks.

 Since the novel’s author is the grandson of Jack, we can assume that’s why LaBeouf gets so much attention and screen time. He is the family runt, and can’t wait to prove his worth to his brothers. Even if this is true, this story line is nowhere near as interesting as that of Forrest, Floyd Banner, Detective Rakes, or Maggie. Whenever LaBeouf came on screen, I felt like I was watching an actor. When Hardy or Clarke were featured, it felt like real hillbillies were trying to protect their moonshine business. Speaking of Hardy, he dominates the screen again … just like in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises (as Bane). So anxious to watch his career continue to develop.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis combine on the excellent score, as well as some of the fine songs performed by The Bootleggers. The music adds even more to the film’s feel. With all of the characters here, this might have taken a step up as a mini-series. As it stands, it falls short of The Untouchables or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. While entertaining enough, it leaves us with an empty feeling and a hokey shootout finale.

** RECOMMENDATION: for an excellent movie about a family criminal group, see Animal Kingdom (from Australia)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the gangster/outlaw/bootlegger genre and relish the violence and street justice OR you want to see another powerful screen performance from rising star Tom Hardy, grunts and all.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the obnoxious, near-constant screen presence of Shia LaBeouf is enough to ruin whatever potential a hillbilly bootlegger movie might offer

watch the trailer:

 


ALBERT NOBBS

January 30, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are accustomed to movies with men posing as women for comedic effect … Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie come to mind. Watching an extremely serious, even bleak, film with a woman (Glenn Close) posing as a man is quite rare, and I will say, downright uncomfortable. When Albert Nobbs is described by his co-workers as a strange little man, they have no idea!

The film is based on a novella by George Moore, and has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she starred in the off-Broadway play in the 1980’s. Her dream has been realized in this film directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film has an extremely talented cast including Brendan Gleeson as a doctor, Bronagh Gallagher as Mrs Page, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and Brenda Fricker as hotel staff, Pauline Collins as the hotel proprietor, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a frequent hotel guest.  The song over the closing credits (co-written by Ms. Close) is sung by Sinead O’Connor.

Beyond that fabulous cast, the only thing that really makes the film worth watching is the curious performance of Ms. Close as Albert Nobbs and the much more colorful and lively turn by Janet McTeer as Mr. Page … the only one (we know of) who can understand what Albert is going through. Both are nominated for Oscars. During the film, we get the personal story from each of these characters on why they made their choice, but Albert’s story is a bit muddled. He/she seems to have just fallen into the life and been unable to stop for the past 30 years. Now, Albert has a dream that can only be achieved through the wages earned as the non-descript, efficient waiter in an 1890’s Dublin hotel.

 There are many painful scenes to watch, but none moreso than Albert courting Helen so that he can have a partner for his new business. He has no idea how a real relationship works or why people are attracted to each other. Albert just sees Helen as a means to an end, and is following the blueprint set by Mr. Page.  Some will enjoy this much more than I, as the thought of pretending to be someone you aren’t for 3 decades is just more than I can even comprehend. When Gleeson’s doctor spouts that he has no reason why people choose to lead such miserable lives, I concur whole-heartedly.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see how little joy would be had spending one’s life pretending to be someone else OR you don’t want to miss two Oscar-caliber performances (Close, McTeer)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: misery in 1890’s Dublin holds no more interest for you than misery in any other era or locale

watch the trailer:


JANE EYRE (2011)

March 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. For a film to rate highly with me, mass appeal is not necessary. The requirements are an interesting story that is well cast, well acted and well directed. Though it is often required reading in high school, the novel by Charlotte Bronte is a timeless classic and among the most popular of all time. The key roles in this latest film version are played well by Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax), Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane). Cary Fukunaga directs. He was also responsible for the powerful 2009 film Sin Nombre (highly recommended).

There have been numerous film and TV versions of this classic over the years, with the 1943 version being the most famous. Orson Welles starred as Rochester and Joan Fontaine was Jane. While that version still works, this year’s model is the first that I believe surpasses that one in quality. The two keys are the performance of Mia Wasikowska and the direction of Mr. Fukunaga.

 The film surprises a bit with it’s flashback approach, but it works well in linking the older Jane with her early struggles. This version really rests heavy on Wasikowska’s shoulders and she does not disappoint. You will recognize her from her recent turns in Alice in Wonderland, and The Kids Are All Right. She quickly jumps to the head of the Jane Eyre class. Very impressive.

Fukunaga’s direction relies on art direction and spectacular lighting. He draws in the viewer to this dark and mysterious world where much goes unstated, yet so much is communicated. The good girl/bad boy battle is always fun and moreso when the good girl is a remarkably independent and brassy girl, while the bad boy is very dark and dangerous. Of course, this is Hollywood so the novel’s unattractive Rochester is played by the strapping Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds).  I even thought the “reveal” was well-handled and the fall-out simple enough to follow.

 What always attracted me to this story was the strength and perseverance of Jane herself. To find a girl with such fortitude and moral stamina despite her upbringing and longings means the central character is both fascinating and easy to pull for. She is what we would wish of our own daughters … self confident, full of character and observant of what is fair and just.

If you aren’t the literary type, don’t expect to enjoy this film. Watching it is truly like the visualization that occurs when reading a top novel. I was completely drawn into life at Thornfield Hall and the life of Jane Eyre.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the classic novel OR enjoy strong female characters OR appreciate an atmospheric approach to literary subject 

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the nuanced courtship of two polar opposite characters does not provide enough action, gun play or explosions for your taste


THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010)

August 5, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Laurel Canyon and High Art are two of director Lisa Cholodenko’s previous best films. She seems to have a knack for exploring interpersonal relationships and observing human emotions. Here she co-wrote a very good and insightful script with Stuart Blumberg.

The story centers around a married lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. They play the moms’ to Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabitha). Turns out, each of the ladies gave birth to these kids with help of the same sperm donor. The kids decide they want to meet the donor dad and it turns out he is uber-cool Mark Ruffalo: owner of an organic garden and restaurant, rider of awesome motorcycle, wearer of stylistic leather jacket, and master of hippie-type language that connects with teenagers. In other words, he is a parents’ worst nightmare.

The story examines real life issues such as marriage, family life, mid-life crisis and self-fulfillment. It wraps those things brilliantly around an unconventional family, each with recognizable personality types.

The weakness in the film is two-fold. An important storyline develops between Ruffalo and one of the moms that just seemed out of place to me. The point was made, but could have been made in a much more realistic way. Worse though is the performances of two wonderful actresses – Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. With a couple of exceptions, I thought they were both over-the-top in just about every scene. They were almost caricatures of their character types. My gut feeling is that one or both will receive Oscar nods because of the “risky” roles, but the histrionics should not be rewarded.

Interesting tidbit: daughters of Steven Spielberg, David Mamet and Michael Eisner all have roles in the film. Wow … that’s some parental firepower in Hollywood! This one is worth seeing for the script and for Ruffalo’s best performance, but it’s really not as funny as it tries to be. Probably would have worked better as a straight drama.


ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

March 6, 2010

(3-6-10) 

 Greetings again from the darkness. A sequel?? How dare they? When I first heard that Tim Burton was taking on Lewis Carroll’s story, I was very excited. What better director to take on this most peculiar work than the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice, Batman Returns and others? The man is a visual genius. But a sequel??

Early in the film, we find an almost 20-year-old Alice being proposed to in front of a large crowd of Victorian high society types. She spots a rabbit in the bushes and excuses herself, chases the rabbit, and quickly falls down the rabbit hole. The wild ride begins.

Mr. Burton’s visual feast takes Alice (Mia Wasikowska) through many of the situations we (and she) are familiar with. The main difference is this is her “return” trip to Wonderland and she is no longer a little girl. She is told her destiny is to defeat the Jabberwocky so that the evil Red Queen’s ruling power can be assumed by her sister, the good white queen. This destiny takes Alice through many sites and characters we don’t often see.

Johnny Depp is cast as her friend the Mad Hatter and delivers yet another unique, full-bodied performance.  His “mad” look is achieved through a bird’s nest of red hair, giant yellow saucer-sized eyes and make-up that would make Lady Gaga jealous. The Red Queen, who captures the Hatter, is played wonderfully by Mr. Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter. She has marvelous voice inflections and is as quick with an “off with their heads” as she is a “I need a pig”. Her sister, the White Queen, is played oddly but beautifully by Anne Hathaway. The sibling rivalry is a hoot.

We are treated to voice work from three of the best ever: Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and Alan Rickman. Unfortunately, Mr. Lee and Mr. Gough have VERY limited lines, but it was nice of them to contribute. Also contributing are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Matt Lucas.

Once I adjusted to the fact that this was not a re-imagining of the original works, but rather more of a sequel or next step, the film worked fine for me. What I did miss was the amazing word play of the great Lewis Carroll. Of course, anyone who actually understood his writings will probably be a bit bored with this version. Luckily, that affects very few!

Mr. Burton’s visuals are successful and will probably appeal to most ages. The 3-D seems to have been an after-thought and is most effective with the really cool Cheshire cat. The youngest kids will struggle to follow the Mad Hatter’s accent-heavy dialogue, but the pictures and characters (Tweedle-Dee and Dum) should be enough to keep them entertained.