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Crimson Peak – I’m not that Innocents

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Goth chic: Mia Wasikowska and her poofy nightdress in Crimson Peak

I have this thesis on Guillermo del Toro. It stems from enjoying most of his films, but rarely loving any of them. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I flat-out adore, and there’s Pacific Rim, a big dumb movie that shamelessly tickles all the happiest childish parts of me. Otherwise, I can take or leave his work. Parts of the Hellboys delight, and The Devil’s Backbone is a beautifully put together if frustratingly simplistic fable. His TV series The Strain, adapted from his trilogy of airplane novels, is the sort of trash I greedily ingest between episodes of HBO-or-similar shows, but still find myself half-watching my phone the whole time. Because let’s face it, Guillermo del Toro is a great designer, but he’s rarely a great storyteller. Scratch that. He might be the best designer.

If Guillermo del Toro wanted to be a production designer full-time, he could be the Edith Head of production designers. He could be the Paddy Chayefsky of production designers. He could be the Sven Nykvist of production designers. Look at the elven guards of Hellboy 2, or the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, one of the few things that kept Peter Jackson’s regrettable Hobbit trilogy watchable was the unexpected moments of bizarre design that clearly stemmed from del Toro’s latent role in their production.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, expectedly, del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, is a gloriously designed spectacle, but it is also in so many other ways a farce. Its DNA spliced from the core strands of gothic romance, the film begs to be given the dues of a Rebecca or The Innocents, but is really just a subpar Dragonwyck rolled in a tasty supernatural burrito.

So here’s the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the bookish daughter of a successful self-made Albany businessman and widower in the waning days of the Victorian era. Edith has aspirations of becoming a romance writer and a curious and unexplained tap into the netherworld that allows for occasional ghostly visitations. Tom Hiddleston is Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting English aristocrat whose vast family riches have been depleted, with a stately manor that has fallen into Money Pit levels of disrepair. With his caustic and pernicious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he’s in town desperately seeking capital to help mine the valuable supplies of blood-red clay that sit beneath their hilltop home. A few swoons and a murder later, Edith is off to England to see her new husband’s home.

If that bloody goo oozing up through the ground and the mother-shaped wraith warning her to keep away from some place called “Crimson Peak” weren’t enough to make Edith run for it, the house’s state of decay should have. Cartoonishly gothic, with a hole in the roof that Disney’s Haunted Mansion would blush at, the Sharpe Family home is as unwelcoming as its owner is dashingly handsome. Soon enough, del Toroan leaking ghosts are clambering through the walls, and someone is definitely trying to poison poor Edith.

On paper it’s the perfect project for the Mexican minstrel of the macabre. He has wildly elaborate sets to play with, drenched in saturated colours of dark hues, CGI-makeup-hybrid ghouls, poofy turn-of-the-century costumes, and even complex steampunk mining equipment to indulge his concerning clockwork fetish. As so often with his films, it’s a flimsy screenplay, co-written with Matthew Robbins, that leaves the film struggling at the best of times, and fails to attach any emotional or conceptual resonance to some finely realised imagery.

What the film does have, however, and all too rare in the del Toro canon, is a sense of camp. The film regularly simmers with it, and Jessica Chastain’s frantic performance spits it out in clots thicker than that visceral clay. If anything keeps the film aloft, it is the camp value (see the portrait of the late Mother Sharpe), but even this is abused by del Toro. Upon first arriving at Crimson Peak, Thomas advises Edith to take a bath, but warns (in the film’s most humourous moment) that the tap will briefly run red. It’s a wonderful play on an old horror cliché, but it’s undone moments later when, as Edith turns on the tap, del Toro plays its spluttering of bloody water for a scare, complete with Wasikowska gasp and musical sting. The director wants to have his cake and eat it too, and to watch the jam inside ooze everywhere as well.

On top of this, there’s surprisingly little tension to be had, nor mystery. The clumsily handled murder scene early on leaves no question as to whether the siblings can be trusted, and the underlying eroticism of Thomas and Edith’s romance flounders under his blatant Monsieur Verdouxism. Two achingly predictable last act twists are handled completely upside down – Edith takes the revelation that she is to be murdered with preposterous calm, and flees for her life upon learning a secret that should only add up to a serious breach of trust and an uncomfortable fireside chat. Any chance of going full Turn of the Screw and letting us wonder if our heroine is imagining things is mangled by the opening lines of the film; narrating from a position of post-film survival, Edith assures us “ghosts are real”. Well then, that’s that then. (The line seems all the more grating and unnecessary given how attractively inessential the ghosts actually are to the story).

The dialogue goes little better, often feeling jarringly twentieth century. Speeches about carnivorous moths and ghosts stories (or, stories with ghosts in them, hint hint) are the wrong kind of unsubtle. ADR (post-production over-dubbing) is evident throughout, especially whenever characters talk about Victorian-era technology, planting thoughts that the script as written was even more troubled than what has ended up in the finished film.

Despite itself, Crimson Peak is never quite boring (despite tertiary love interest Charlie Hunnam’s most valiant efforts to bland it into submission). Wasikowska is misguidedly directed, but she throws a good deal of energy at it, and Hiddleston is always modestly electrifying. Chastain, hamming it up to the nines, casts away her full house of Oscar-worthy performances and just goes for it with all the gusto she can manage.

An English-language triumph still evades del Toro, but he has once again produced a hauntingly beautiful, if painfully unsatisfying film. Too shallow to be high art, too confused to play as shocker, it will simply act as a stand-in film in his career while he searches for a truly personal project worthy of his talents. Perhaps, if we’re truly lucky, he might turn to design full-time and help make another director’s work look the very best it could.

2/5

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Godzilla – Terror without character

King of the movie by the guy who made Monsters: Godzilla makes a move on San Francisco

King of the movie by the guy who made Monsters: Godzilla moves on San Francisco

Godzilla turns 60 this November. The King of the Monsters had a great run between 1954 and 2004, when Japan celebrated his golden anniversary by having him squash the life out of almost every monster in his rogue’s gallery in Godzilla: Final Wars; including dishing out a veritable curb-stomping to the mutant iguana beast of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 would-be reboot.

But looking back on 1954’s Godzilla (or Gojira), it’s easy to forget how important a film it was, reclaiming the monster movie from the B-movie bin where Son of Kong dumped it only nine months after King Kong(1933) became the genre’s first masterpiece. Gojira balanced strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization with a highly political but not overwrought metaphor for nuclear destruction in the atomic age.

So where does that leave us in 2014? A Godzilla reboot with state-of-the-art digital effects is where; featuring strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization. But it’s not all it could have been, and it so easily could have been great.

Gareth Edwards’s take on the colossal lizard is a mixed bag. Opening with flashes of historical drawings of mediaeval monsters, there is an air of pretention to this project which is quickly rinsed away. Images of A-bomb tests in the Pacific from the 1950s are shown to apparently destroy Godzilla (the Godzilla? A Godzilla?). Cut to the late 1990s and some Japanese nuclear facility (let’s just call it ‘Fake-ashima’) comes under attack from an apparent earthquake caused by some burrowing beastie – the white guy (Bryan Cranston) saw it coming, but could not prevent it.

In the present, Cranston looks to his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to help him prove that something unnatural happened at Fake-ashima, and that a cover-up has taken place. Soon soldier Ford, scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins and the U.S. military are chasing creatures across the Ocean towards a final showdown in San Francisco.

Breaking Dad: Bryan Cranston with Aaron Taylor-Johnson

All the components of a best-of Godzilla franchise are in place. The design of Godzilla is sublime. The drama is very much in check (Ford’s wife and son are in San Fran). The action sequences and monster fights are choreographed with balletic composure. Alexandre Desplat’s bombastic score is a noble successor to the work of Akira Ifukube. So then what’s wrong? The answer mostly lies in characterization, but not where you might expect.

Edwards rose to notoriety in film circles when his 2010 film Monsters managed to tell an engaging human drama against the backdrop of a semi-apocalyptic monster attack; all for $500,000. Here, working with a budget nearly 500 times that size, the monsters are infinitely more satisfying, but the human drama hasn’t succeeded. That falls largely on the fact the central romance, Taylor-Johnson and wife Elizabeth Olsen, only get one scene together. It’s a strong scene of married life marred by military duty, but it’s not enough to hang the emotional core of the film on. Secondly, looking back on the entire Godzilla oeuvre, there’s a reason the heroes of those films are regular scientists and journalists and never soldiers – soldiers are only interesting characters when they’re forced to go against the orders they’ve dedicated their lives to follow through, but here Ford is actually the good little soldier boy throughout, and it’s not exactly endearing.

Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen are given far too little to work with, acting only as emotional fulcrums for a weight Taylor-Johnson still can’t lift. David Strathairn struggles to fit into his role as a top-tier general worse than he struggles to fit into camos a size too big for him. Ken Watanabe, that ever-reliable token Japanese star, is given the preposterous exposition section of the script; you’ll buy everything he’s selling, but when he’s not telling you what to believe, it’s hard to believe in what’s happening.

In an awkward (ex)position: Ken Watanabe

In an awkward (ex)position: Ken Watanabe

And that’s because of Godzilla. What is Edwards’s Godzilla? The film never seems certain. Certainly no product of the nuclear tests as in 1954 or 1998. More curious still, having a bomb dropped on him in 1954 has not left him with any vengeance towards mankind (in fact, like last year’s Pacific Rim, the film seems oddly unconcerned with nuclear power as a danger at all – an awkward Hiroshima reference gets briskly swept aside). The rival monster has far more explanation of where he came from; Godzilla comes off as an awkward plot-device, “addressing an imbalance in nature”, if we can excuse such hippy nonsense coming Watanabe’s mouth, and hunting that monster because… because. A line of dialogue from the trailer where Watanabe calls Godzilla “a god” has thankfully not made the final cut, which would have dumped even more confusion into the mix.

But the real shame is not the “what is he?”, but the “who is he?” Godzilla over his 50-year Toho run has been wrathful, vengeful, arrogant, proud, delighted, caring, even overtly sarcastic. Here the monster ranges from angry, to sad, to kinda tired, to kinda happy. He’s been reduced from a complex monster to a bland array of Seven Dwarf names. He has less characterization than the average Taylor-Johnson.

Which is not to say that when he unleashes his classic roar, or stomps defiantly on his opponent, that he isn’t clearly a worthy version of the classic monster. He’s just not quite there yet. Despite inherent problems, Godzilla is assertively satisfying, with a finale that rewards wholeheartedly after 100 minutes of monster foreplay. There’s enough innate craftsmanship on show to demand more appearances by this version of Gojira, but some proper fantasy world-building is required before we can buy this monster wholesale. Edwards has a lot to learn as a filmmaker (his reliance on Spielbergian child-shots to sell his disaster scenes proves this), but he is well on his way to becoming a force of nature himself. Should he return to Godzilla, there may no stopping the pair next time.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Pacific Rim – Monsters Brawl

Battletech: Raleigh's Jaeger 'Gipsy Danger'

Battletech: Raleigh’s Jaeger ‘Gipsy Danger’

With the major exception of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has always excelled at style over substance, producing gorgeously imagined films with tiresome scripts, clichéd stories and cardboard cut-out villains. This time, for once, this is the kind of film del Toro is actually trying to make! The bottom of the ocean aside, there is no depth to Pacific Rim, and no one making it seems to care about that. Why should they? Pacific Rim has monsters! Giant monsters! And robots! Giant robots! And the giant monsters, and the giant robots? They fight!

Opening with a barrage of exposition that could’ve fleshed out a whole trilogy, Pacific Rim rapidly tells us how alien mega-beasties, named ‘Kaiju’ for the Japanese subgenre that gave us Godzilla and Mothra, emerged from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific and began destroying major seaboard cities. Quickly responding to the attacks by increasingly larger creatures, mankind rallied and built giant robots, ‘Jaegers’, to do combat with them. As the film begins the war is being won, but as the Kaiju evolve to tackle everything the Jaegers can throw at them, things soon turn nasty, and the Earth’s last line of defence begins to run out of pilots and steel.

PTSD-riddled Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) gets re-drafted as desperate times call for desperate soldiers. Under the command of no-nonsense boss Marshal Stacker (Idris Elba), he joins a tiny team of remaining Jaeger operators to launch a final assault on the rising Kaiju threat. In a subplot, goofy biologist Newton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day) and flamboyant boffin Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, doing a bizarre impression of Lee Evans from There’s Something About Mary) try to discover the truth behind the Kaiju, with the help of black marketeer Hannibal Chou (a scene-chewing, golden-shoed turn by del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman).

Devoid of pretension but equally lacking in good dialogue and characters, Pacific Rim is a big movie for big kids. The characters are all action movie clichés, from the shoulder-raising Ruskies to the young Australian pilot who thinks Raleigh is a renegade and endangering the mission but eventually comes to the understanding that he is, in fact, top robot gun. A romance bubbles between Raleigh and his co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), but whether for sloppy writing or conservative inter-racial reasons it never properly catches fire. Idris Elba shouts lines whenever required to by the drama.

“But what about the robot/monster fights?” you asked a few paragraphs back. Well, for the most part they’re kind of awesome. Kind of really awesome. Keenly choreographed and using all kinds of props (cranes, bridges, ships) to great effect, the punching and clawing and hurling never stops being fun, or very very loud. The Jaegers repeatedly surprise, with all kinds of weaponry emerging from their chassis like an enormous Swiss Army Bot. The “rocket elbow”, which ignites to throw an even more face-crushing punch, is a particular favourite, but only one of many. Sadly we get to see very little of the three-armed Chinese Jaeger Crimson Typhoon. Did somebody say “prequel”?

Massive attack: A Kaiju shows its disdain for opera while attacking Sydney

Massive attack: A Kaiju shows its disdain for opera while attacking Sydney

The problem with the fights is that, for the most part, they are held at night, making some of the visuals difficult to make out in the hurly-burly of metal fists and whipping tails. The endless rain doesn’t help much, nor does the fact a pivotal action sequence takes place underwater. We rarely get a proper look at the constantly moving Kaiju, which is a shame given how remarkably well designed they are. Many of the Kaiju battles shown briefly in flashback occur during the day, and it’s hard not to feel like the best stuff was never actually filmed.

But what you can see of the film looks amazing, and del Toro uses plenty of finely designed sets to accompany the digital effects work. Hannibal Chou’s domain in particular, full of jars of Kaiju organs and assorted body parts, feels truly del Toro, recalling both The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy II’s Troll Market. He may not be much of a writer, but del Toro has an eye as crafty as his imagination, and where the drama dips from time to time, the visuals are never dull.

While the crashing of metal and Kaiju skull is often deafening, one of the big highlights of Pacific Rim is its score, composed by Ramin Djawadi, best known for the booming flurry that opens each episode of Game of Thrones. This score is equally bombastic, as grand and overpowering as the Jaegers themselves, with audible echoes of that manliest of songs, ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel. In its electric and orchestral forms, the main theme with drill itself into your ear and have you humming its main refrain for hours afterwards.

Doing exactly what it says on its hulking robot tin, Pacific Rim is a mindless blockbuster par excellence. Which is not to say it’s a particularly good movie, but it’s sure as hell a great entertainment. I won’t even say “switch your brain off on the way in”; with its blistering visuals and ear-pumping sounds, Pacific Rim wil very much take care of your brain for you.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

 

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