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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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Only Lovers Left Alive – Blood ties

Immortal beloveds: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve

Immortal beloveds: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve

I know what you’re thinking. “Did the world really need another vampire movie?” The answer is assuredly no. But then, did the world need a vampire movie directed by Jim Jarmusch? Certainly not! Are we better off that we now have one? Actually, yeah, a little.

Jarmusch, one of American cinema’s greatest eccentrics, has dabbled with genre pictures before – his last movie before this was 2009’s esoteric hitman thriller The Limits of Control. Here once more he takes a done-to-death (pun unintended) genre and makes it distinctly Jarmuschian – more so even, in that Only Lovers Left Alive seems to be repeatedly referencing the auteur’s filmography. There are tinges of Broken Flowers in the reunions of old friends and lovers, and a number of extended night-time driving scenes conjure memories of Night on Earth.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play the problematically named Adam and Eve, two vampires married for some 150 years, although Adam is many centuries older and Eve may predate him millennia. As their numbers have dwindled and their race developed a conscience, these children of the night have moved into isolation, despairing at the failure of “the zombies” – what they call humans – to evolve to meet their true potential.

Adam, possessed of the gift to play any instrument (it is alleged he wrote music attributed to Schubert back in the day), lives apart from Eve in Detroit, soaking in the industrially drained city’s music history and releasing it with his own remarkable new alt-rock compositions. Eve, meanwhile, spends her nights in Tangiers, Morocco, absorbing tomes of literature and hanging out with her vampire pal Kit (John Hurt), who is in fact the immortal form of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. While Adam and Eve keep in touch via FaceTime, the distance has begun to grow too much for the pair, and Adam’s increasing despondence at the state of mankind is pushing him towards thoughts of suicide. Eve decides to take a night flight to visit him, and their romance blossoms anew.

The concept of immortality clearly tickles Jarmusch pink and he and his stars have boundless fun with it. Adam and Eve’s anecdotes about great moments in history that they experienced, or regretfully missed, are delivered as deadpan as possible, but you almost want to see Hiddleston and Swinton corpse (pun intended this time) just so they can laugh with you. Their habit of naming all flora and fauna by their Latin genera never fails to draw a smile.  But more so it’s the idea of a literally undying love that gives Jarmusch and his performers the most room to play with. Adam and Eve can ponder their eternity together, or, when things look bad, the impending collapse of that presumed eternity together. Hiddleston and Swinton, with their similarly angular faces, ghostly pale skin and slender bodies look not so much like they were made for one another but rather that they have grown to look like one another over the decades.

The cinematography by Swimming Pool and Carlos D.P. Yorick Le Saux is excellent, capturing the grim moodiness of Adam’s hideaway and making the darkness of Detroit and Tangiers seem unthreatening and even hopeful. The opening shot of the film, a night sky full of stars, spins into a trail of lights that forms a perfect graphic match with a turntable spinning gently in Adam’s apartment.

The music is another standout point of the film; Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem provides an ethereal rock score that, while it may not sound quite as magnificent as characters within the film claim it does, does sound like something very new. Whether through clever camera trickery or impossible talent, Hiddleston is seen playing a wide range of instruments in the film with exceptional skill – regardless of who is playing, it helps sell the idea of this immortal who has had centuries to perfect himself.

The film takes an unfortunate dip in the second half with the arrival of Eve’s sister Ava, played by Mia Wasikowska in a role assumedly written for Juno Temple. She intrudes as much on the film as she does on the lovers, and her feckless attitude to her vampirism contradicts the subtlety of the universe that has already been established.

Perhaps Jarmusch’s most playful film to date, Only Lovers Left Alive is not quite as deep as it often thinks it is. But it is a pleasure to watch for almost all of its two-hour runtime. It will almost certainly be best remembered for how in a world awash with vampire stories it managed to create a number of new ideas. Including blood popsicles. Nothing beats blood popsicles.

3/5

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

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Crisis of the Guardians – Where did DreamWorks go wrong?

Exactly who is this film aimed at?

Exactly who is this film aimed at?

Rise of the Guardians fell under the radar somewhat in late 2012. A family entertainment for Christmas (set at Easter) with some wonderful animation and an undeniable sweetness at its core, it has under-performed hugely for DreamWorks, only now in late January taking in twice its $145m budget, which will elevate it to just a notch above “disappointing”.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Admittedly trying to portray childhood fantasy icons such as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as Avengers-style superbeings is a bit much to ask of audiences, but compared to other US animated films released in recent years this was still a step above the average.

For all its problems, from the basics of its premise to its mismanaged marketing, I for one enjoyed Rise of the Guardians. The animation was as strong as DreamWorks has ever produced, and the story provided a deeply affecting reversal in the final act for the character of Jack Frost that was as good as any moment in How to Train Your Dragon (although Dragon admittedly had more than its fair share of those moments).

But while I liked Guardians, I could not shy away from the fact that the universe it created repeatedly threw up mental roadblocks for me. Overt silliness in the dialogue or subtle visual references to other projects (intentional or not) would grab me by the brain and drag me right out of the movie. I imagine, given the box office returns and lack of word-of-mouth, that I cannot be alone in this.

Here are the issues that troubled me most.

1. Guardians! Guardians! Guardians!

No, you did not see this movie

No, you did not see this movie

It’s not DreamWorks’ fault of course, but my goodness there are a lot of films with “guardians” in the title doing the rounds of late. Back in 2010, Zack ‘300’ Snyder directed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, a CGI owl fantasy movie. If you know five people who saw it, you’re probably lying.

Elsewhere, Marvel have announced their most risky project for “Phase 2” of their Avengers series, Guardians of the Galaxy, which features a brigade of intergalactic superheroes (including a rocket-powered racoon – take THAT magic owls!).

Of course what both of those films have over Rise of the Guardians is that we know from the title precisely what they are guardians of. Rise of the Guardians could be set at a foster home for all anyone can tell.

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2. Guardians Will Rise

Planets full of apes have also been known to rise

It was an unfortunate year to choose “rise” to be the load-bearing noun in your movie title. The Dark Knight Rises was one of the biggest hits of 2012, and laid a flat-out claim to the verb “rise” and all its subsidiaries.

But Rise of the Guardians really is a nothing title. In fact, when we first meet the Guardians as a group, they are already an assembled unit; there really is no rising going on here. It’s just a title for the sake of it; that “rise” could be the most redundant noun in a movie title since Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem.

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3. Where have I seen this before?

Oh what fun Jack Skellington might have had behind the other doors...

Oh what fun Jack Skellington might have had behind the other doors…

I won’t be the first to point out the fact that Rise of the Guardians is more or less the film that happens when you open all the doors in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Far more troubling though is the similarities to the plot of (sorry about this) The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

Seriously, just try and see how much of that trailer you can get through before wanting to jam a fork in your eyes.

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4. Logorama

What if he hooked a person?

In this secular fantasy, the Guardians take their orders from The Man in the Moon – who traditionally appears in all DreamWorks films as a part of the company’s logo. In Guardians, is he a stand-in for God, or an overt advertisement for the company that produced the film?

It’s like having James Bond report for duty, only to learn that M has been replaced by MGM, a giant 80-year-old lion.

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5. Tom Hiddleston!

He even LOOKS like Tom Hiddleston!

What a 2012 Tom Hiddleston had! Riding high from the get-go after strong performances in War Horse and The Deep Blue Sea, he played the maniacal villain Loki in The Avengers before voicing the dastardly Pitch Black in Rise of the Guardians. How could things possibly get any better for… wait. That was Jude Law?! Well fuck me they sound alike!

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6. Santa LOLZ

If there’s one thing kids love it’s Night of the Hunter references

Santa Claus having a Russian accent makes a lot more sense than the English accent he regularly has in films (although it’s not quite the Turkish accent it should be). But seriously, Alec Baldwin does the voice?! That’s the best Russian accent they could dig up?!

Further to the film’s secular standpoint, Guardians moves away from calling him Santa and he is regularly referred to in the film as “North”.

But wait a second, his name is North, he travels all over the world, and his best friend is the Easter Bunny? Where have I see this one before…?

Oh.

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7. Rabbit-proof farce

Is that an Aboriginal tattoo in his fur?

Is that an Aboriginal tattoo in his fur?

Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny gets upset when people get his species wrong and think he’s a kangaroo. “It’s the accent, isn’t it?” he asks in his actual Hugh Jackman voice. Yes, it is. That, and the boomerangs. If you want people to not think you’re a magic kangaroo, put down the goddamn boomerangs.

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8. Oh Guillermo…

Who honestly thought this didn't look stupid!?

Who honestly thought this didn’t look stupid!?

Executive producer and top-tier visual fantasist Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this movie, but nowhere more so than in its interpretation of the Tooth Fairy as a humanoid hummingbird woman. Honestly, I preferred his tooth fairies in Hellboy 2.

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9. I represent the estate of Miyazaki Hayao…

You know, I can handle the fact that Santa’s workshop shares its architectural plan with the bathhouse from Spirited Away. What I can’t handle is that the yetis that populate it look like this:

What does that remind me of?

What does that remind me of?

Goddammit.

Goddammit.

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10. Safe sex elves

Insert additional "horn" comment here

Insert additional “horn” comment here

I get the need to redesign the look of Santa’s elves, but why must they look like they’re wearing festive condoms? It brings a whole new meaning to the term “bell-end”.

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11. Putting all your eggs in one basket case

Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Living eggs that walk were creepy enough in Garfield and Friends. This was the stuff of candy-coloured nightmares.

Yeah, remember Garfield and Friends!

Yeah, remember Garfield and Friends!?

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12. The last three issues, combined

So the film explains where the Guardians come from rather well, but where the hell do all their minions come from?! Are the little hummingbird fairies actually the Tooth Fairy’s children?! This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

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13. Rabbit Hole 2

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, from children's entertainer David Lindsay-Abaire

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, from children’s entertainer David Lindsay-Abaire

Based on the book series The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce, the film was adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire. When he’s not scribbling family entertainment like Robots or the Shrek musical, Lindsay-Abaire is busy winning Pulitzer Prizes for work like his play Rabbit Hole, about family disintegration following the loss of a child. No one else finds this combination jarring?

Is it a coincidence that the Easter Bunny in Guardians has the ability to open magic rabbit holes anywhere he chooses? Does David Lindsay-Abaire shit in the woods?

No.

Probably not.

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The Avengers, by Marvel, who Assemble – Review

Thor and Captain America watching the box office returns

It is now four years since Iron Man was released, a decent superhero movie that still felt a bit like any other. The big difference came once the credits had rolled, and Samuel L. Jackson appeared as comics spymaster Nick Fury to foreshadow The Avengers. This was an unprecedented move on behalf of Marvel, the comics powerhouse behind this almighty band of heroes. Actors crossed over between the ensuing films, and unlike the contradicting X-Men films, continuity was maintained – when one character is called away from the events of Iron Man 2, he shows up in the events of Thor.

And now the superheroes are brought together; Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man 2 support Black Widow and Thor cameo star Hawkeye, all under the watchful eye (singular) of  Nick Fury; to battle Thor’s nemesis, and brother, Loki. And while that sentence is a mouthful, and the idea seems over-ambitious, it works. It really works.

You see this? This works.

Because this isn’t just sandwiching some characters together like Freddy Vs Jason or the proposed Batman and Superman movie of the 1990s. Despite their enormous differences these characters have, they have already been set up to exist within the same universe, so the film can cut to the chase without the slightest hint of being patronising.

The film opens with Loki, now an intergalactic outlaw, being given a chance for revenge by a shadowy otherworldly figure, provided he can summon an alien army to Earth. To do this he needs the Cosmic Cube (the macguffin from Captain America: The First Avenger, a further link), which is in the hands of Nick Fury’s agency SHIELD. Once he has achieved that, Fury has no choice but to call in the big guns, summoning superheroes from around the world to take down the impending threat. Thor, the god of lightning, returns to Earth to help take down his brother.

“Kneel before Zodki.”

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. The characters gel, the dialogue snaps back and forth for the most part, and when things explode they explode in style. Writer/director Joss Whedon, best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless prematurely cancelled TV shows, brings his comic book fascination and expertise to the table, creating a superhero movie that is as silly as can be while also remaining utterly confident in itself.

The incredible star cast are solid across the board. Robert Downey Jr. does what he does best as Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark; it’s a role he has down to a T. Mark Ruffalo takes over the maligned role of Bruce Banner, the rage-riddled man behind the Hulk, and makes a strong effort with it. Chrises Hemsworth and Evans show the same committed passion for the roles of Thor and Captain America that they did in their solo adventures. Scarlett Johansson makes a case for a solo adventure of her own as the super-lithe assassin Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner has some fun as bow-and-explosive-arrow expert Hawkeye, even if he does get Cyclops’d off for half the film (X-Men 2 fans will get that one). Tom Hiddleston continues to charm as the Machiavellian Loki, although his character lacks the Shakespearean drama here that he had in Thor. The side are let down, ever so slightly, by Samuel L. Jackson, who invests every line with the same shouty drama that he did the infamous punchline in Snakes on a Plane. His scenes, by and large, steal energy from the film.

“Quick, this is our only dramatic scene in the whole movie, say something powerful and memorable.”

Fortunately this film has plenty of energy to spare, and much of that is down to Whedon’s witty script. While the drama drags in the first and second acts, there are enough one-liners and moments of superb comic timing that make up for these pitfalls. One gag about the getting of and not getting of pop culture references, involving Captain America and Thor, deconstructs the very idea of pop culture references in the same way that Whedon’s other current release, The Cabin in the Woods, deconstructs the entire horror genre.

Whedon is also careful not to let any two heroes hog the spotlight, à la that regrettable other “superhero” team-up, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the central action sequence that closes the second act, two of the heroes with the potential to steal the film, Iron Man and Captain America, are given the least exciting task, while Thor and Hulk spar, Black Widow and Hawkeye get their martial arts on and even fan-favourite Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) gets to blow stuff up!

The final act, in which the Avengers fend off an invasion of New York City, visually calls to mind the endless finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it is so less cluttered and more focused, giving each character a set objective and a limited space and time to achieve them in. Surprisingly, it is the Hulk who makes this sequence his own, rampaging across the screen in gleeful bounds of carnage. You’d be hard-pressed to hold in a raucous cheer as the Hulk smashes everything in sight!

HULK AWESOME!!!

The Avengers is far from perfect, but it is so much greater than what it might have been. Setting itself up nicely for both a sequel and a return to the solo films, this will be one of the most fondly remembered and rewatched blockbusters of the decade.

Avoid the 3D if you can, and please, stay for the bonus scene in the credits. Because why wouldn’t you?

4/5

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

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