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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Movie Review: “Interstellar” (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014)

*Update: Phil Plait has an article up about the science involved in Interstellar. He’s obviously of a very different opinion about the film’s artistic quality than I am, but he really is an astronomer, so trust him about the science. I certainly knew the system orbiting the black hole was wrong and the time dilation didn’t seem right, but he actually knows what he’s saying. He also wrote a book that has a description of what it would actually be like to fall into a black hole if you’re interested. I will add a link if the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe does a review, which I’m hoping for.

I never actually wrote a review of Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013), because I couldn’t really make sense of it–it was so full of religious images that it clearly had some point to make about belief, religion itself, or something related, but I could not figure out what it was. However, something I would definitely have said about it is that it bored the hell out of me because it was just a whole bunch of long chase scenes in space and its extreme over-reliance on CGI made it look like a Pixar film as far as I was concerned. It was also rather a scientific mess. Interstellar plays almost like a response to that film, one that brings back the wonders and other-ness of space as well as using photographic effects and real sets. People kept insisting that Gravity was a visual wonder, but I heartily disagree–this is a visual wonder.

Where Gravity was almost entirely made of digital effects, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema not only focus on photographic effects–they revel in the fact that they are shooting on film and using real lights and sets. Even when they need to use fake backgrounds (a requirement of the story), they are actually projected onto the set behind the actors, so that they become photographic (a trick Kubrick previously used). The film is full of lens flares and overexposures. Is it a bit showy and perhaps even pretentious? Maybe. But it looks amazing. When the starlight glints through the window in the back while the crew discusses which planet to visit next and briefly obscures the view of the scene, then moves slowly out of view and the light slowly fades away, it’s the type of detailed, beautiful photographic effect that Stanley Kubrick would have brought to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968). Science fiction films often have seems similar to 2001, which was a film about how humanity is defined by making mistakes that allow for evolutionary development, and yet they so often seem to want to cover up imperfections and turn everything over to technology (often something they are arguing against in their plots). Kubrick did one of the greatest jobs in history of marrying his point to his visual techniques, and Nolan mirrors him here.

The plot of the film is fairly standard science fiction fare, albeit one that pays attention to its own science: the earth has turned into a giant dust bowl and growing plants is thus becoming increasingly difficult, with crops becoming impossible to grow one by one until all humanity has left is corn and even that will only last so long. So, the government secretly brings NASA back to find a new world for humanity, since this world has turned against us. Cooper was NASA’s strongest pilot but responded to the need for food and shutdown of NASA by becoming a farmer, exactly what the world needed, but then a mysterious gravitational anomaly sends him to what turns out to be the secret base of the NASA he never knew had been brought back. Of course, these things collide and NASA sends him on a years-long mission to scout possible new homes for humanity, away from his children for what could be a lifetime. Meanwhile, his daughter angrily follows in his footsteps at NASA, trying to crack the physics problem that will save humanity and unsurprisingly growing up to be exactly like the father she hates.

The point of the film is pretty simple, bordering on facile, saying that it’s the connection to one another that makes humanity strong. Brand comments that love is “the only force that we know of that transcends all dimensions” (Yeah, it’s a rather gag-inducing line.). Mann says that it’s “survival instinct” and the ability to improvise that makes humanity special. Cooper says that humanity was able to save itself through its love of other humans, connecting Mann’s and Brand’s ideas into the cohesive point of the film.

The acting, with one exception, is excellent, though no one has much to do. Matthew McConaughey, the world’s leading actor du jour, is excellent in his lead performance, having to show a mix of intelligence, selflessness, and caring without letting any one of those things overwhelm the others. He is pretty simply a good man, but in this situation it would be easy to play him as a caricature, and McConaughey, who once did play essentially a caricature in a science fiction film that shares many ideas with this one, avoids that pitfall. Jessica Chastain has a rather thankless task, playing a character who is either ecstatic or angry at every moment and thus could easily be over the top, but she (unsurprisingly) makes it work. Mackenzie Foy, while clearly far older than her ten-year-old part, probably has the most difficult part in the film, and she pulls it off with aplomb, coming across as a very smart kid with some trust issues and an incredible stubborn streak. She also actually looks enough like Jessica Chastain that it’s believable that they are the same person (well, to the extent that it’s believable that anyone can grow up to look like Jessica Chastain).

The one problem is, unsurprisingly, Michael Caine. Christopher Nolan has shown a proclivity for falling in love with actors and just recasting them in every film. When it was Christian Bale, it made sense, because he’s just a fantastic actor. When it was Cillian Murphy, it made sense, because he has such a great face for film. Michael Caine doesn’t have anything that makes him worth casting repeatedly. I know he has two Oscars, but he is one of the worst actors who has ever won even one award, let alone two. Here, in what should have been a very easy part, he’s wooden and annoying, delivering his lines with weird pauses and showing no ability to express anything on his face.

Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly strong. While he was once an excellent composer, he long ago became so standard and repetitive that he started to sound as dated as Alan Silvestri. But here he throws out the conventional playbook, and what he gives us works. Nolan helps by utilizing the same lack of room sound and moments of complete silence that Kubrick used so well in 2001, but Zimmer’s score adds something to the film, and that’s all you can ask of a score.

Interstellar is an excellent film–clearly the best I have seen in 2014. It’s not perfect, but I was much happier sitting through three hours of this film than I have been sitting through two hours of most other films.

Thoughts on the Previews: July 31, 2014

I won’t have time to get my review of Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014) up before I go to work today. If you’re trying to decide whether to see it today, my recommendation is yes, but go in knowing that it’s a silly, nostalgic cartoon. As long as you don’t expect any more than that, it’s good.

Commercial: “Selfie”

  • This actually looks like it might be funny.
  • I’m relieved, because I was going to have to watch it, for obvious reasons.
  • It’s still a bizarre premise that seems more like a movie than a show.
  • I’m afraid that I’m going to convince myself this show is good just because of Karen Gillan.

Commercial: Berocca

  • I’m betting this is bullshit.
  • After looking it up, yes it is. It’s megadosing vitamins.
  • Unfortunately, it’s kind of a fun commercial.

Dumb and Dumber To (Bobby Farrelly/Peter Farrelly, USA 2014)

  • The fact that this exists is reason to die.
  • The first one was horrendous and not funny. Everything the Farrellys have made since is horrendous and not funny. Guess how this looks? Horrendous and not funny.

The Expendables 3 (Patrick Hughes, USA/France 2014)

  • While it probably doesn’t deserve the Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941) comparisons being thrown around in some quarters (;-)), I will give it credit that it doesn’t even bother to pretend like there is any story or anything–just explosions and a bunch of old action stars.
  • I do find it funny that I really don’t recognize anybody under 50 in this trailer–there are some younger people, but I have no idea who they are.

When the Game Stands Tall (Thomas Carter, USA 2014)

  • Jim Caviezel deserves an award for the job he did introducing this “first look at” the film. I have never seen an actor do such a terrible job of feigning enthusiasm in my life.
  • Football movies are never good. When they start trying to take on social/religious themes (which most of them do), they get even worse. Needless to say, this is a film I plan on missing.
  • I know it’s not true, but it feels like Laura Dern makes one movie per decade and disappears. Well, except for her regular forays into David Lynch’s maelstrom.
  • Pretending it wasn’t a trailer was just pretentious.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014)

  • This is one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen. It looks boring, pointless, confused, and visually nothing but blackness.
  • The thing is, it’s a film directed by Christopher Nolan that stars Jessica Chastain (and that McConaughey guy, but Jessica Chastain is far more important to me), so it doesn’t need a trailer to sell it.
  • Unless this trailer is so bad because they handed it off to someone cheap thinking that it didn’t matter, someone needs to be fired.
  • Christopher Nolan needs to stop being so obsessed with Michael Caine. He is one of the ultimate examples that Americans will praise the acting of anyone with a British accent.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall/Chris Williams, USA 2014)

  • I don’t understand it at all, but the trailer is actually funny. The balloon guy putting tape on the holes in his arm was funnier than anything in the Dumb and Dumber To trailer, certainly.
  • Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks this seems really weird even by animated film standards.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA 2014)

  • Peter Jackson’s last four Middle Earth films have used up any benefit of the doubt that he once had for me.
  • This blog’s first ever post was a review of the first The Hobbit–there will be no more Hobbit reviews because Jackson had so clearly failed that there is no reason to watch these other films.
  • This looks like just a five-hour battle sequence. Unsurprising given the title.

Annie (Will Gluck, USA 2014)

  • Why?

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, USA 2014)

  • I knew what this was from the opening “I wish.” I’m not sure if that says more about the trailer, the musical, or me.
  • A running dialogue of my thoughts as the trailer played: Rob Marshall made a pretty good film once in Memoirs of a Geisha, so maybe this will work. Meryl Streep would work of course. Love Anna Kendrick and James Corden. Shit. Johnny Depp. I’m out.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Shawn Levy, USA/UK 2014)