Movie Review: “Crimson Peak” (Guillermo del Toro, USA/Canada 2015)

You’re probably going to be surprised by my description of what this film is actually about: a young woman attempting to recover from the pain of her mother’s death years earlier by using it to fuel her artistic expression. She says of her novel, “It’s not so much a ghost story as a story with a ghost in it–the ghost is really a metaphor for the past” twice, and it’s not difficult to figure out that statement is as much about the film as it is about her novel.

The film is structured as a novel-within-a-film but without making it clear that’s what it’s doing. We are introduced to Edith Cushing as a ten-year-old whose father has just died. She is visited shortly thereafter by the ghost of her mother, who warns her to avoid “Crimson Peak,” with no further explanation as to what/where “Crimson Peak” is or why she should avoid it. We then cut to her as an adult, meeting an old friend of hers who clearly has romantic interest in her but whose interest she does not even seem to recognize. She is currently attempting to sell a novel to a publisher who responds by saying that she needs to add a love story, much to her horror. And so her love interest immediately gets introduced and we get a quick “love story” sequence that includes her adding the requested love story to her novel in just a few chapters in the middle of the book. At this point, we’re really in her novel, but the film doesn’t tell us that until the credits start to roll.

The entire film from that point on becomes a fairly predictable modern horror story. It pretends to be a ghost story but then it turns out that the ghost is trying to help Edith survive her new husband’s murderous psychopath sister/lover. It’s clear quickly that Thomas and Lucille Sharpe are either a husband and wife pretending to be siblings or an incestuous couple and that Lucille has some sort of strange coldness within her, so it’s quickly clear where the rest of the story is going.

However, what’s really good about Crimson Peak is that it really doesn’t care that we know where it’s going. It comes up with a rather bizarre setting of a house on top of a clay mine slowly sinking into the ground and missing much of its roof so that liquid clay can seep into the house like so much blood, the ground can be bright red and alien, the snow can turn red as though soaked with blood in the film’s winter climax, it can be cold and unsettling inside, there can be snow inside the house, and there is a need for the fireplaces to run at all times The setting is an excuse for the visuals, but it makes enough sense to work. And it doesn’t give us any surprises or even try to. It just does exactly what it looks like it’s going to do and hopes we’re going to accept it.

What makes this film as good as it is, though, is the visuals. del Toro and Dan Laustsen fill the entire film with beautiful mixes of colors and absolutely stunning sets. Everything adds to the sense that we’re watching a traditional horror story play out, so that when we see the book close as the credits begin rolling, it ties everything together. Are Edith’s yellow dresses and the red snow obvious and over-the-top? Yes, but they still just look pretty, and that makes the film fun to watch even when its obviousness should make it dull.

del Toro also cast his film well. Jessica Chastain is the real star. I always love her, but part of what I always love about her is the way she simply radiates a warmth and likability at all times, which makes her an odd choice to play a psychopathic killer. And yet, she is somehow able to dial away that warmth and project a cool, controlled evil (until the last half-hour, when she goes completely crazy, but that’s within the story) that could easily have been Bond villain hokey but really wasn’t. It was a fantastic (and surprising) performance that again shows just how great Jessica Chastain is. Nobody else really gets a chance to do anything, though there are a few characters who could have come across horribly in the wrong performers’ hands. Even Mia Wasikowska, who is in nearly every scene in the film, doesn’t get anything to be able to do. Jim Beaver plays her father with a humanity and decency that many actors would have missed, but it still wasn’t any kind of amazing performance.

As a whole, Crimson Peak is a really enjoyable, if a bit slight, film. Its message that art comes from pain is pretty simple and it doesn’t really have anything in particular to say about that, but it does present its message. The plot is predictable, but it really doesn’t matter and the film never tries to hide that predictability. Most of the film really exists as an excuse for how beautiful it is, but it at least completely succeeds in being one of the most visually arresting films you can see. And while Jessica Chastain may not have had one of the deepest or most complex characters in the world to play, she was fantastic in a way that was such a surprise that it really has to be seen.

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Thoughts on the Previews: October 30, 2015

Krampus (Michael Dougherty, USA 2015)

  • Adam Scott is showing up a lot since the death of Parks and Recreation (two years too late)
  • About the first 1/3 of the trailer looks like a rather fun comedic take on the type of idea Supernatural would have made a fun holiday episode out of six years ago, and then it looks completely serious after. So I don’t know what to make of this thing–is it a self-aware, comedic horror film, or is it taking a really stupid idea very seriously? Either way, it may be worth a laugh. And that first 1/3 really is pretty funny.

The Forest (Jason Zada, USA 2016)

  • I made enough fun of this concept earlier, but something I forgot to mention about the stupidity of this trailer: this idea of “twin telepathy” is nonsense. It’s been studied. It does not exist. Most people think (even though they wouldn’t admit it) that people who look alike must be alike and be connected, but it is not true.

Victor Frankenstein (Paul McGuigan, USA 2015)

  • It’s been 21 years since a major Hollywood version of Frankenstein, which was the excellent Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, USA 1994), so maybe it’s time for a new one. It’s difficult to tell whether this has any kind of a new take on the story, but I for one hope for it.
  • Daniel Radcliffe has been a very, very inconsistent actor. Even in Harry Potter films, he would veer wildly between being quite good and being awful beyond words.

Star Wars: Episode VII–The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, USA 2015)

  • Nothing happened in this trailer. Seriously nothing. I laughed.
  • However, the images of the destroyed spaceship on the desert and the melted Darth Vader mask were extremely effective.
  • Much has been made of the fact that Luke Skywalker has been absent from all promotional material. I for one do not care.
  • The trailer was more effective than it should have been.
  • I want to find somewhere to bet $100 right now on this being the highest-grossing movie of all time. And if I could also bet on it not being very good, I would do so.

Movie Review: “The Walk” (Robert Zemeckis, USA 2015)

A Frenchman stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the twin towers of the World Trade Center behind him, and says, “Forever.” It’s all rather obvious CGI and doesn’t look very good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is trying his best to keep us interested and the background has just enough movement that it looks “alive,” though it’s also so obviously CGI that the idea of its reality is laughable.

Everything you need to know about The Walk is in that image. It’s a political allegory about immigration that could easily bear the subtitle “why Donald Trump is wrong.” It’s obvious to the point of being a bit forced and there are ways in which it seems to be on the right track, but its execution is quite simply lacking, leaving behind a film that isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing.

In 1974, Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, secretly placed a high wire between the recently-opened twin towers of the World Trade Center and proceeded to perform on the wire, without permission, for 45 minutes. Thirty-four years later, a documentary about the act, Man on a Wire (James Marsh, UK/USA 2008), sparked renewed interest in the stunt, and I will be honest that I had no interest in it then or now. I was willing to go because of Gordon-Levitt, whose taste in projects has been as reliable as any director outside of Rian Johnson in the last decade, but I really didn’t know what Zemeckis could be doing other than telling a story that for some reason that eludes me holds interest to many people.

But Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne did something smart that most people would not think to do: they used the story as a vehicle to tell us something that the story itself isn’t about. They made an allegory. Fundamentally, this is a film about immigration. This is a film that says that immigration leads to a melding of cultures that makes everyone better and brings them together.

The shot of a Frenchman standing on the statue that the French gave to the United States to welcome immigrants in front of not just any tall buildings, but the Twin Towers, is a clear enough point on its own, but the film doesn’t stop there. Before Petit’s walk, we hear that the towers are hated throughout the city and we get the idea that the city itself is fractured. After, we are told directly that the city has come to accept the towers as a result of his walk. When we see Petit working in France, the score is French-language versions of American music of the time, referencing a kind of cultural emigration that the United States has engaged in without any concern throughout much of its history. There is constant discussion of language and how people who speak both languages are present in both countries.

The problem is that the film doesn’t do anything visual to advance its point. It’s full of awful CGI and those silly “oh no it’s coming at us!” 3D shots and matte paintings. There’s so little that’s real in the film that it’s easy to think that Zemeckis and Dariusz Wolski made an animated film more than a live-action work. It all looks very, very blue (though the colors are brighter in some scenes in France, particularly when Petit is discovering the wire that he so loves) and cold. And none of that adds anything to the point.

There is one other problem, though it’s hardly an objective one: I was bored through most of the film. I really wanted it to end about 40 minutes before it did. Your mileage may vary on that point, but I really did find it boring.

Gordon-Levitt’s accent had a few bad moments but otherwise he was just as excellent as he usually is. He didn’t have much to show–really just a mixture of exuberance and arrogance–but he did everything Zemeckis asked of him as well as anyone could. Charlotte Le Bon had to do a bit more, and had to do it subtly, and she was also capable. Ben Kingsley returns to his general role of grumpy old artist dude and is generally fine, though sometimes his grouchiness felt so fake that when he reveals himself to be a more caring person than he has otherwise admitted it falls a bit flat. (It’s also predictable from scripting, but Kingsley could have made it work better.)

The Walk was surprising in that I didn’t expect a political allegory out of its story. It was surprising in that Robert Zemeckis’s checkered career has not included things with even attempted depth, let alone having some success at it. It was surprising in that Zemeckis, long one of the more technologically-adept directors in Hollywood, made something that looked so silly and cartoonish. However, I’m not sure it was any more successful than I would have guessed. It was rather dull and it didn’t look good, leaving Gordon-Levitt trying to carry a film that wants to be deeper than it is. It wasn’t a waste of time, but it just didn’t reach the heights Zemeckis seemed to have planned.

Notes

  • Without looking, name a Zemeckis film since Forrest Gump (USA 1994). Harder to do than you would think, isn’t it? This is the ninth film he’s made since then and really only Cast Away (USA 2000) made any kind of ripple in the public consciousness, and even that ripple was focused on Tom Hanks.
  • I don’t care enough to look up the reality of it, but why didn’t he even bother to ask for permission to do the high wire act? It’s possible that they would have seen it as a good promotion for the WTC.
  • They put up signs that say not to mess with his concentration or touch the wire, but the helicopter flying overhead doesn’t affect Petit at all? That seems ridiculous. Maybe if I watched the documentary I would find out that a helicopter really did fly overhead, but that seems like it would almost definitely kill him.
  • I’m also incredulous about Petit needing to tell the police to release the tension instead of just cutting the wire that’s inches away from them. Maybe they’re not used to seeing something like that, but it seems intuitive to me that you wouldn’t want just to cut it.
  • Petit comes across as a total dick. I was rooting for Annie to leave him before they even came to the US.
  • I’m just curious why Zemeckis made this decision: time passes behind Petit while he’s describing what happened from the Statue of Liberty. It just seemed odd enough that I kept wondering why he did that.
  • It was kind of interesting that the film is structured like a heist movie. And yet, where heist movies are so often fun, this one just felt so long.
  • No, I did not watch it in 3D. I still hate 3D.