Tag Archives: Pan’s Labyrinth

2017 in review – Faces, Places, and Much Needed Changes

best of 2017

I found 2017 taxing. It was a taxing year. I think it was for most people. Of course this isn’t a politics blog, so let’s not even go there, but even at the movies I did not find my usual escape. As often happens, it was late in the year before I found anything close to a list of favourites. But beyond that, just shutting out the stresses of the world has been harder, making sinking into a movie more mentally trying. It doesn’t help that I am noticing myself getting older, and staying awake through film after film is no longer a case of sheer willpower and enthusiasm. Oh for the days when two cups of well-timed coffee could get me through six features between bedtimes.

But at the same time, 2017 was actually somewhat of a landmark for cinema. After 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite scandal, who could have foreseen Moonlight take Best Picture over the charming but inferior La La Land, and in the way it did? Watching a livestream that was about a minute behind “live”, I could see panic and shock breaking out on my phone before anything had signalled La La Land was not the winner on TV. My Twitter feed was freaking out, and for a few moments I had to wonder what was about to unfold (a fainting filmmaker, a fight on stage?) – who’d have believed it? The shock has died down, but the Best Picture debacle of 2017 will go down as one of the greatest single moments in both film history and live television. What a time to be alive.

If 2016 had been a major year for Black cinema, 2017 shifted the focus to women. While it’s not a film I am especially in awe of, Wonder Woman hit with an undeniable impact, and moments like Gal Gadot strutting into No Man’s Land, or Chris Pine electing to be a handsome honeytrap to woo information from a female villain, completely rewrote the book on how Hollywood must view gender roles. (The huge success of the hilarious Girls Trip proved these changes were not solely going to benefit white women.) There’s more good work to do, but it feels exciting to be standing here while the sands are beginning to shift. And where representation behind and in front of the camera – and at the box office – showed extraordinary progress, an even bigger shift came as the rotten husk of Harvey Weinstein dominoed into his fellow abusers throughout Hollywood. Enough has been written by many greater talents about the #MeToo movement, but suffice to say the horror of hearing these stories come to light is regularly overcome by the swift victory of victims newly heard and perpetrators’ careers tumbling.

Before we get to the movies, let’s talk a little about what a year it was for TV. Since the dawn of True Detective and Black Mirror, TV has moved into EVENT territory, with individual seasons or episodes of far greater social (and artistic?) importance than tracking the fate of characters over too many years of one show. New shows like Legion, The Good Place, The Handmaid’s Tale, and American Gods stood out, but it was limited revivals that showed what TV could really do when focused artists expressed themselves through serialised storytelling – Twin Peaks: The Return and the belated final season of Samurai Jack (which oddly paralleled Peaks) truly stood out. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, an astonishing metaphysical exploration of identity in 21st Century America through avant-fantasy and soap-operatic extremities, was such a remarkable achievement it triggered much fevered and pointless debate as to whether or not it was a “film”. The discussion is irrelevant, what matters is that it is. Purely to keep in check with previous years’ best-ofs, I have not included it on my list here, although with some reflection I wonder if it would have come out on top. I have subsequently seen the entire series on the big screen, and I can assure you, whether it’s a movie or not, it works as one.

Laura Dern in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Not a movie

Professionally 2017 was a good one – I began as Festival Manager of Doc Fortnight at MoMA, which had a tremendously successful year, and wrapped as a film consultant at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. I continued to write and edit at Cineaste (especially pleased with my broad review of Rebecca), while picking off some smaller projects. In my spare time, I continued a quest to watch every Palme d’Or movie, begun in 2016, and got up to the 2000s, so will finish that off this year. I also dedicated myself to watching one movie exceeding a four-hour runtime per month, which allowed me to pick off some exhausting cinematic must-sees, including Shoah, Out 1, Sátántangó, and Histoire(s) du cinéma. If I’m not going to make myself watch these things, no one else is going to!

On the big screen I saw some terrific rep screenings, from Don’t Look Now and Tokyo Drifter at Metrograph, Monterey Pop and Stalker at IFC Center, The Fireman’s Ball and Pelle the Conqueror at Film Forum, The Old Dark House, Hello, Dolly!, and Funeral Parade of Roses at Quad Cinema, and Strange Days, Husbands, and, err, Manos: The Hands of Fate at MoMA. Elsewhere, my home viewing ranged wildly from The Colour of Pomegranates to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s remake of Christmas in Connecticut. I have a range. Too much so.

As for the new releases of 2017, well there were many highlights and lowlights. I was left cold by Haneke’s Happy End, and thought the much-lauded A Ghost Story collapsed in the second act. The always-reliable Hirokazu Koreeda’s After the Storm hit me in the gut, but lacked the simple visual ambition of his better works. Okja did much the same for Bong Joon-ho, another favourite. The summer was riddled with flopbusters, but a few almost made my best of the year list, including Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Other close calls included Risk, The Big Sick, Personal Shopper, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Columbus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, and, until Phantom Thread dislodged it from the list-in-progress, Lady Macbeth. I’d have included the spectacular World of Tomorrow – Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, except it’s a short, and then I’d have to defend putting a short on my best films list, and, well, you know.

WOT2-0

Not a movie

Major releases I missed that might have featured include Coco, Song to Song, T2 Trainspotting, Raw, and I, Tonya, among many others. But as of early 2018, these are the 2017 films that have not left my mind…

20. Mudbound

There’s a well-trodden feel to Dee Rees’s racial melodrama, a sense that the toxic poverty and discrimination of the American South have been told before, and so well as to reduce further efforts to redundancy. And yet, here, through guiding a great ensemble, and with an exceptional rising cinematographer in Rachel Morrison at her side, Rees finds a balance between two complex family dramas, rebirthing the Mississippi landscape (Louisiana standing in) in remarkable, rich brown tones.

19. Molly’s Game

First-time director Aaron Sorkin brings his distinct writing style and energy to a one-of-a-kind story of a go-getting secretary-turned-underground-gambling-house-diva. Jessica Chastain brings her A-game, blasting out Sorkin’s buzzy dialogue, with plenty of fun sparring partners (Idris Elba is terrific as her attorney, following her bust by the Feds). It keeps character the focus, without letting the poker overcomplicate the drama. The final act devolves briefly into nonsense, but it’s not enough to slow it down. The screenwriter-auteur seems to understand the collaboration great cinema requires, and smart editing and handsome cinematography make this a memorable debut.

18. A Quiet Passion

The inimitable Terence Davies made his first (and only?) misstep with 1995’s The Neon Bible, a Georgia-set period piece that felt outside the range of his very British working class viewpoint. Having honed himself as a master of period tone in the decades since, Davies’s second American tale reveals the depth of his maturity as an artist. With beautiful imagery matched by splendid pacing and often caustic wit, the lives of poet Emily Dickinson and her family are realised thoroughly. If it at times ventures away from the historical truth, it does so only to keep things lively, and Cynthia Nixon is the cornerstone of a terrific cast.

17. Nocturama

One of 2017’s boldest pictures, French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s anarcho-thriller Nocturama is a Parisian-set genre smorgasbord. Beginning as a heist movie, in which a gaggle of misaffiliated teens sets off a series of bombs in order to topple the economic status quo, it shifts to satire, bordering on farce, as the young antiheroes hide out in an abandoned ultra-bougie department store. It ends in horror. The first act shows the deftest filmmaking, as Bonello intercuts between his characters at various points in the timeline, but the lengthy central act unveils a bolus of social commentary as the youths interact, often joyfully, with the elaborate trinkets of a society they profess to despise.

16. The Shape of Water

There are few visualisers of the fantastic working in Hollywood today with the skills of Guillermo del Toro, but his screenplays (especially the English ones) rarely match his remarkable imagery, with strained dialogue and comically heavy-handed metaphors. But here, working with Vanessa Taylor (whose major credits include a handful of Game of Thrones episodes and a Meryl Streep romcom), he has produced his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth. A complex character study, loaded with wit, and a truly out-there love story borrowing from 1950s B-movies and Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water shows tireless craft (amazing, rust-encrusted sets, plays with light, splendid music), and is held aloft by the quality of its performances, particularly Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a government research lab who rescues, and falls for, a South American fish-man creature. Michael Shannon’s villain is as under-baked as all of del Toro’s villains (although the actor, as always, acquits himself admirably), but otherwise the writing is stellar, and builds to a beautifully realised finale.

15. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh has always revelled in being an outsider – his most famous works, plays set in the West of Ireland, derived from his visiting his extended family as a youth, observing the peculiar and exciting linguistic flourishes that he magnificently retooled into hilarious, mean-spirited tales like The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Here he has bitten off more than he can fully masticate, with a Midwestern setting that he is perhaps too much removed from to fully capture. But what he’s done remains an exceptional entertainment, darkly imagining the war of printed words between a bereaved mother and a well-intentioned sheriff, who she holds responsible for the failure to capture the brutal killers of her daughter. The characters and situations are larger-than-life, with performances (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell especially) to match. Its contemplation of redemption for racist, Red State caricatures feels ill-timed in an angry, polarised America, but the strength of the dialogue and the crisp texture of Ben Davis’s cinematography make it a film difficult to deny in its quality.

14. Marjorie Prime

Yes, yes, yes, it’s just a play I hear you say, but when a play is this good, when it’s this well-written, this cogent and timely in the issues it addresses, the medium feels irrelevant. Adapted from Jordan Harrison’s stage drama with minimal flourish by Michael Almereyda, Marjorie Prime looks at a near-future where the grieving process is aided by memory uploads of the departed, appearing as interactive holograms of them at whatever age the customer chooses. Too introspective and quietly sad to be a Black Mirror instalment, it’s a heart-rending look at memory and regret, acted superbly by its four stars, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins.

13. Your Name

A record-smashing success both at home in Japan and around the world, writer/director Makota Shinkai’s Your Name is a romantic fantasy comedy that pushes in every direction – a huge emotional impact; shocking supernatural twists; big, silly laughs – while even challenging the likes of Studio Ghibli in the quality and richness of its animation and colours. Billed as a teen body swap tale, initial gender gags give way to a deeply satisfying romance and ethereal revelations. If the many subplots seem tired or convoluted, they all wash away in the image of two star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time across the flare of a setting sun.

12. Dunkirk

The sort of cinematic grandeur that Hollywood has forgotten in the wake of CGI city explosions, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is simultaneously experimental and defiantly old-school. Recreating the famous naval escape of WWII in breath-taking 65mm IMAX, Nolan’s film is a triptych edited out of sync, revealing days on the beach, an afternoon on the sea, and one terrifying hour in the air. Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score ticks with intensity as time runs out for the soldiers. The pressure builds in all three stories as they meet at the day’s end, culminating in a cathartic welcome home, accompanied by Churchill’s most famous address. This is the war movie at its most ambitious, even if the characters’ screentime is too diluted to ever truly feel in the thick of it with any of them.

11. The Florida Project

Following his impressive Tangerine, a film famously shot entirely on an iPhone, Sean Baker’s Florida Project is mostly crisp, bumblegummy 35mm. An affecting look at childhood in poverty, and a savage critique of the selfie generation’s self-absorption being anathema to parenthood, this is a minor triumph of humanism, with Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe as neighbours, decades apart in age, neither of whom allow the minor tragedies of daily living scuttle their enthusiasm or hopefulness. A finale that dips into magical realism both looks and feels out of place, but it barely leaves a dent in this dramatic and regularly hilarious work.

10. Blade Runner 2049

Few were more sceptical than me at the idea of a new Blade Runner sequel/reboot/anything. But on the heels of the splendid Arrival, Denis Villeneuve had more than proven his sci-fi chops. What we got was a shocking success, building on the mythology of the Philip K. Dick universe, while somehow reinforcing the mystery around Rick Deckard’s humanity, questioned at the close of Ridley Scott’s original, leaving it satisfyingly unanswered. The exquisite production design and imagining of future technology that both aids and alienates made it a new dystopia, not a rehash. The cast, from Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, to exceptional supporters Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Sylvia Hoeks, brought more than could be expected to a thought-provoking, largely action-free sci-fi gem.

9. Get Out

If any film could vie with Wonder Woman for the title of “most important film” of 2017, it was Get Out. The icing on the cake is what an incredible achievement Get Out is, even before its socio-political satire and revelations are taken into account. The tale of a young African-American man lured into the welcoming abode of an over-eager white family who, secretly, don’t so much want to kill him as be him, latches on to numerous under-spoken-of issues bubbling beneath the surface of post-Obama culture. First-time director Jordan Peele impresses hugely from the get-go, but its his script that dominates, fluctuating with ease between social commentary, brilliant black comedy, and nightmarish horror; apparent throwaway lines of dialogue early on whip back as ingenious foreshadowing of gags and grotesqueries. Star Daniel Kaluuya offers a performance that horror cinema hasn’t seen the likes of in a generation.

8. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos continues to revel in his highly personalised brand of faithlessness in humanity, and the results remain inspired. Here suburban inanity is punctured by Barry Keoghan’s intrusive oddball Martin, who forces himself into a pretentiously happy family’s home life, blaming the patriarch, a doctor, for the death of his own father. Lanthimosian performances are emotionally wooden as always, played with bitter somnambulism by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. The moral dilemma at its core is played as a cunning, tormented thought experiment, shifting the movie suddenly from darkly comic to spine-cringingly horrific.

7. Lady Bird

On the surface a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama from first-time director Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is encased in a study of daughters and mothers, and the generational misunderstandings that can blind loved ones to others’ needs. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf merge with their characters – the shared frustration with one another is written in every movement of their faces. Unshowy production design keeps the story grounded, while Gerwig’s script and the exceptional editing of Nick Houy make the film as unforgettable as the drama.

6. BPM (Beats Per Minute)

As the AIDS crisis has diminished in the West, it can be hard for some to remember the terror it incited in the early ’90s. In my youth it seemed the greatest threat to humanity in a pre-9/11 world. But for those who feared it, nothing could compare to the experiences of those who lived with it, unsupported, unheard, uncared for. Robin Campillo’s award-winning BPM is a sensational dive into the world of French AIDS activists 25 years ago, gently and caringly listening to their stories and hopes and fears in intimate love scenes, while also making clear the incredible work and organisation done by ACT UP in fighting for the rights and humanity of those living with HIV/AIDS. The acting and writing capture a unique energy with exceptional passion, while the film features perhaps the most outstanding scene transition of the year, as specks of dust caught in the wavering lights of a nightclub morph into human cells, under attack from within.

5. The Teacher

One of the most overlooked films of 2017, Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher is one of the finest works studying abuses of power in recent memory. Borrowing a concept from 12 Angry Men, it is set at a PTA meeting called to question the future of school teacher Mária Drazdechová, in the closing decade of communist Czechoslovakia. Drazdechová is accused of using her position of authority within the Party to manipulate parents into doing copious favours for her, and bullying her students so severely that one even attempts suicide. Using flashbacks to show their interactions with Drazdechová, while intercutting children and parents to reveal generational (dis)similarities, one by one the parents are convinced to come forward. It’s an astonishing piece of storytelling, and in the title role Zuzana Mauréry dominates the screen, making her one of the most memorable villains of the 21st Century so far.

4. Faces Places

As she approaches 90, but appears to come nowhere near to slowing down, Agnès Varda once again hits the road to traverse France and find the most interesting people she can interview and shoot. Her companion/co-director/partner in crime is 30-something graffiti artist JR, whose portrait photography is blown up to enormous sizes and plastered in the most aesthetically pleasing and surprising places. As Varda’s eyesight fades, the trip and film become a metaphor for what might be her last chance to truly see the world and its people. What begins as a sweet, charming journey, documenting the towns and faces Varda and JR come across, expands into something far greater, about lives lived and not lived, as the duo attempt to confront Varda’s past with two towering male legends of French cinema, her late husband Jacques Demy, and long-time friend turned hermitic curmudgeon Jean-Luc Godard. At her impressive age, Varda continues to push the boundaries of the documentary arts, never losing hope or faith in the real, human magic of the world around her.

3. Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a bad film, but his best work always comes with narrow focus; direct character studies rather than sprawling, Altmanesque ensembles. Phantom Thread is his smallest film since Punch-Drunk Love, and features barely more than three characters: fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, his young muse Alma, and his commanding sister Cyril. What begins as a straightforward melodrama about a woman unable to crack the eccentric brilliance of her much older lover – echoes of Rebecca abound – morphs into a stranger, sexlessly kinkier story about emotional domination. It looks luscious, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is as seductively brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock. Vicky Krieps is strong as Alma, but much of the film is stolen by Lesley Manville’s divinely snarky Cyril.

2. Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino undoubtedly had a masterpiece in him, but it wasn’t clear it would come so soon. His fifth fiction feature, adapted from André Aciman’s novel by the iconic James Ivory, is a quiet and powerful love story set in Northern Italy. Elio, aged 17, meets Oliver, 10 years his senior, his father’s assistant in excavating artefacts from Roman antiquity. What begins as a resistant friendship between two men whose only common trait is a shared Jewish ancestry, erupts into romance through a succession of spoken and unspoken moments – glances of the eyes and the hand against skin. Superbly paced to create the feel of a summer spent falling in love, the story beats with the pain and beauty of first love. Shot in extraordinary sunswept frames by Uncle Boonmee’s Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and accompanied by the delicate bombast of Sufjan Stevens’s music, it is never less than gorgeous. Lead actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer offer up their impressive bests, but it is Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s calmly caring father who leaves the most powerful mark, connecting one boy’s heartbreak to a legacy of unexpressed emotion.

1. The Square

No movie in 2017 dared to tackle as many issues as Ruben Östlund’s The Square, and few movies have ever aimed for so many targets without spreading themselves thin. Whereas his breakout 2014 darling Force Majeure focused squarely on fragile masculinity, The Square encircles that issue in addition to commentaries on homelessness, the immigrant crisis, the incompatibility of art and commerce, the Americanisation of Europe, and casual sex. It is a ruthless satire on the art world that sees Claes Bang’s curator Christian struggling with the titular artwork, which professes to be a sanctuary in which all are equal. But none are truly equal within or without, as power shifts from person to person, from Christian to the thief of his smartphone to the vengeful child inadvertently accused of the crime. A self-revolved artist is overcome by a peer who has turned to animalistic performance, and bourgeois society is at first delighted and almost instantaneously outraged. Christian, perceiving himself a demi-celebrity, argues with a woman he has slept with who won’t let him dispose of the condom they have used himself, convinced she is out to steal his sperm, in surely the year’s most hysterical scene of awkward comedy. The film has so much to say about 21st Century living, and our inability to comprehend much or all of it. It is ruthless and hilarious, ceaselessly entertaining, and a consistently startling work of cinema, pristinely shot, tremendously executed.

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An artist’s interpretation of me telling you how good The Square is

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Oh, and of course, there’s the worst movies. These were works from 2017 that either bored me beyond redemption, entertained me in ways they were never meant to, or left me simply stupefied by their outrageous, unearned out-there-ness. I didn’t see The Emoji Movie, while Justice League was too run-of-the-mill to even bother feeling negative towards, and Transformers: The Last Knight gave us the gift of Cogman, without whom it would surely have made this list.

5. Ghost in the Shell

Narrowly beating Death Note for the misguided anime remake of 2017, Ghost in the Shell brought nothing new to the table, and in keeping a Japanese setting placed a target on its chest for accusations of white-washing. Audiences and critics justifiably struck. Borrowing all its finest images from the source material, its mot inventive creation was to have the Caucasian hero and villain be secret Asian people. In what feels like a lazy Saturday Night Live sketch, characters repeatedly pause to use the terms “ghost” and “shell”, which mean, in this context, as they make very, very clear, “soul”… and “body”. It is agony.

4. Lemon

Another study of an anxious intellectual struggling with the emotional and career success of those around him, Lemon is a mean-spirited, aimless film, relying too much on the muted charisma of its stars. The story reaches no conclusions (nor a reason for there to be no conclusion), while the blown-out yellowed palette exhausts after the first few minutes. There’s much talent here, but all of it is misdirected.

3. The Book of Henry

Behold a child smarter than his mother! Cringe when you should be weeping as he dies suddenly of a brain tumour! Thrill as his mother follows his instructions from beyond the grave to murder their neighbour who is abusing his daughter! Gasp as that abuse is made clear through interpretive dance! That rare example of a movie that simply should not exist.

2. The Mummy

Universal’s self-immolating attempt to create a shared “Dark Universe” of their famous monster characters began (and ended?) with this dour-looking action film which follows Tom Cruise’s uncomfortably quippy hero from the Middle East to London, pursued by a sexy zombie and her army of unspectacular CGI. Tonally scattershot, impossibly dull, mercilessly sequel-thirsty.

1. Baywatch

The lowest point of ironic media repurposing, this painfully unfunny comedy has the audacity to tease a television show that showed more impressive cinematic craft in its opening credits montage than this can in two hours. Smothering the natural charisma of stars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, this bounces from comic set piece to comic set piece with awkward scene transitions and a threadbare drug-smuggler plot failing to hold it together. An extended scene in which Efron’s character must fondle the genitals of a corpse feels like the perfect metaphor for this film: ugly, gross, determined to insult, but just cold and flaccid.

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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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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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Byzantium – All boob and no bite

"Eh, my eyes are up here": Clara (Gemma Arterton) is interviewed as a vampire

“Eh, my eyes are up here”: Clara (Gemma Arterton) is interviewed as a vampire

Neil Jordan returns to cinemas for the first time in four years with this neo-gothic vampire tale, just as that particular genre begins to sink below the zeitgeist waves. We are now post-Twilight, with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries in their second death throes.
But there’s life in the undead dog yet. Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist vampire art-house romcom Only Lovers Left Alive just received deserved praise at Cannes, and while Jordan’s work is flawed, it’s an admirable piece of cinema nevertheless. And why shouldn’t Jordan latch on at the last moment? – his 1994 take on the myth, Interview with the Vampire, is as much responsible for the vampire boom that flowed from Buffy to Twilight as any film.The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.

Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began some 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.

A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over. In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.

Child of the night: Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor

Child of the night: Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor

One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidating presence it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.

Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.

A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.

2/5

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

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Review

In 2004 Hellboy made a ripple on the ever-growing superhero movie scene that was swallowed up in the wave of larger fare such as Spiderman 2. It was somewhat of a shame, as Hellboy featured one of the comic world’s more interesting and most entertaining of protagonists; one third repentant demon, one third Dirty Harry, one third moany teenager.

What Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy should be admired, particularly in light of the fact that the film is essentially a big amusing failure. Part of the agreement in casting the ideal Ron Perlman in the lead role was that the budget ended up slashed. As a result, demon-hunter Hellboy ends up fighting the same monster over and over and over. And over. It wasn’t even that interesting a monster (on a barely related note, Sammael in fact looked far more like the hybrid of a Predator and a xenomorph than that monstrosity that turned up in AVP2 did). Also, the introduction of the character of John Myers, who was meant to be the awestruck human who eased us into this not particularly alien world of demons and whatnots, managed to weigh the film down more than any number of budget constraints could.

But due to an abundance of style and wit the film was crowd-pleasing enough to take a decent handful of cash and run for the hills. Combining that with the numerous Oscar wins and noms for del Toro’s stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, and a sequel to Hellboy was almost guaranteed.

So comes Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an embarrassingly colour-by-numbers sequel. Oh sure, they’re pretty spectacular colours (gone is the obnoxious dark blue tone of Hellboy that made the film too dark at times to even see – yes, it was nearly as obnoxious as that nauseating green hue from the Matrix sequels). But as I will continuously point out here again and again, production values cannot excuse a bad film’s badness.

Hellboy II has much of what you could ask from a sequel (and what many sequels nowadays fail to cash in on): the best of the cast return, the worst character has been written out and the action and spectacle have ante-upped considerably. Ron Perlman is so perfectly comfortable as Hellboy we could imagine he never took the make-up off in the last four years. Selma Blair sexes up her goth image from the first film to a far more pleasing degree. And while Doug Jones’s Abe Sapien still fails to crossover from comedic support to central character, his own voice is actually far more suited to the character than David Hyde Pierce’s over-stuffy re-dubbing for the first film. Best of all, Agent Myers is gone, although the fact that the film should even take a second to explain where he has gone (Antarctica) shows a level of compassion for the terrible character that he does not even deserve – no doubt audiences would have been happier to be left imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to him since the last film and be done with it.

What’s missing is the sense of doom from the first film. Here an embittered elf is determined to reap his revenge on mankind. Hellboy has to stop him. But the first film (and the comics as well, I understand) spent so much time highlighting how Hellboy himself was the doom of the world, that this plot seems bizarrely secondary, like an episode of a Hellboy TV show, or one of the admirable but similarly ignorable animated Hellboy movies, Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. There are a few references to Hellboy’s greater (evil) purpose, but by in large the plot of this film seems to wish to overshadow it, which it simply cannot.

So yes, there’s evil elf (Luke Goss), and he has a trollish henchman, and they try to control a giant mechanical army. And Hellboy tries to stop him, by going largely against the book, and against his new father figure, ghost-in-a-suit Johann Krauss (whose very existence raises far too many questions). And all the way along it’s very very pretty. And Abe falls in love with evil elf’s twin sister. And it’s utterly unbelievable.

The fairest way to continue this review is to completely tear the film apart and then talk for a time about how pretty it is. Cause then we’ll all feel much better.

Hellboy was a funny film. There was wit, and an underlying sense of fun and joy in the subject, but that is largely gone here. Hellboy’s quips have become so stock that the film asks us to laugh purely based on the delivery. “And stay down” shouts Hellboy as he slams his bulky opponent to the floor. Ok, why not? Maybe there is no more suitable line available, but I’m certain anything would have been funnier. Even the cleverest line of the film, delivered by a disturbing infant growing out of some monster, is delivered with clumsy gurgling. It’s quite a shame really.

There are numerous other things to nitpick at, such as the sequence battling the tooth fairies in which the “red shirt” agents are boringly picked off one by one, or the Men in Black-stolen scene at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense where Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI chief stumbles through his lines so awkwardly it seems he never saw the script (oh yes, it’s clearly meant to look like he’s flustered, but it makes for terrible cinema).

But Hellboy II’s biggest failing is it is patronising – oh so patronising. Perhaps more so than recent Spiderman or Superman films. And it’s a tragedy coming from the same filmmaker who broke so many rules with Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Agent Myers looks like a helpful narrative construct compared to some of the scenes in this film. For example, the emphasis on the connection between the two elf twins could not be any more heavy-handed. By the time we reach the film’s climax only two people in the audience don’t know what’s going to happen to the villain and neither of them are expected for another five or six months. Speaking of babies, the baby plot adds almost nothing to the film bar a bone of contention between Hellboy and Liz. So Hellboy has to grow up now; well he always did – that was the point of the first film, why does he need a baby (babies) to change that?

Countless parodies have been done in the last few years of how to make a sequel to a superhero film, and disturbingly it is Hellboy II, a film that could have been groundbreakingly (or at least tremoringly) different, that hits almost every single clichéd note. The superhero is unveiled to the public (in a slow-motion musical explosion sequence that is simply terribly executed), the villain implies that the hero is more like the villain than those he protects (queue Willem Dafoe-style cackling), the people he protects turn against him, he is left mortally wounded but saved by love, etc. It’s so by-the-books it could bring you to tears. It even concludes with Hellboy triumphantly “quitting the force”, only to leave himself and his team stranded in Northern Ireland (they strut triumphantly in the opposite direction of their plane). There are no excuses, not from a director who has become such an icon filming a source material that has been considered so out of the ordinary. He co-wrote the script with Mike Mignola himself!

All that considered, it is very pretty, and in the end this was always going to be a test run for del Toro’s shot at The Hobbit. And the clockwork-fetishist has undoubtedly impressed, with his team creating some remarkable visualisations. The Troll Market, although perhaps not as grand in scale as it might have been, is so brilliantly laid out, and populated by such bizarre and interesting beasties that one doesn’t know what to admire most. Make-up, puppetry and animatronics create creatures that are as much Uruk-hai as they are Skeksis, a wonderful combination of available technologies – further hinting at what joys The Hobbit might bring.

Most enjoyable of all is the film’s opening, in which the story’s prologue is narrated in a marionette-style fashion that recalls Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s 2004 film Strings. Charming, if far too early a peak for the film.

The sequence in which the elemental god covers the city in glowing grass could not have been done better without flying Miyazaki in to show them how it should be done. Character designs, such as the legless goblin (with a surprisingly authentic Northern Irish accent), the elf king and Death (truly noteworthy) are all the signs of a master filmmaker, who is simply slumming it with an incomplete script. The final battle against the clockwork army in the clockwork palace atop a clockwork floor is notable not just for the impressive choreography but also for being a CG action sequence which never really feels confusing. It’s a sign of just how far the technology has come and the good it can do in the right hands.

Alas these were the right hands at the wrong time. A beautiful experience does not a good film make. While del Toro is clearly still learning – he has admittedly created here a villain who is not just evil for the sake of it as in his previous films – we certainly should have expected more from this, and it goes to show that in terms of storytelling he is still far behind his compatriots Cuarón and Iñárritu. It had been such a strong summer in terms of blockbusters, it’s somewhat of a tragedy that a director so reliable should let himself down so greatly.

2/5

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