Monday, October 19, 2015

Crimson Peak, Bridge of Spies, Goodnight Mommy Reviews

Crimson Peak
Dir. Guillermo del Toro
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If the quality of a film was solely measured by its production design, costuming, and cinematography, Crimson Peak would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Guillermo del Toro's throwback to victorian-era haunted house movies a la The Innocents covers up its generic story and lack of suspense by throwing as much visual flair and style at you as possible. While his Spanish-language features like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone employ this excessive style alongside dark and complex stories, his recent American productions like Pacific Rim, del Toro's ode to Japanese monster movies, and now Crimson Peak feel more like straightforward, "fanboy" love letters to genres he grew up with, without realizing their full potential beyond their aesthetic qualities.

The film introduces us to aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), whose namesake is a not-so-subtle homage to Hammer Horror icon Peter Cushing; instead of writing the typical romance novels that was expected of women, Edith plays more to the tune of Mary Shelley, writing ghost stories. Her stories catches the eye of a rich, charming aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who after a quick waltz and a few bats of the eye later whisks Edith away to his mansion, Allerdale Hall, because who wouldn't immediately marry a tuxedoed Tom Hiddleston after just a couple days worth of interaction? It becomes obvious very quickly however that this "romance" is founded on false pretenses, and the film suffers from being simply a waiting game until we know things will turn out ugly for everyone involved (something also broadcasted to us within the first 30 seconds of the movie in a pointlessly included "moody" shot from the end of the film). Also living with Sharpe is his piano-playing, black-dressed, so-evil-it's-campy sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who you just know is bound to have a mental breakdown at any moment.

This triage of actors doesn't have much to work with. Wasikowska essentially becomes a vacuous damsel-in-distress as she encounters one CGI ghost after another within the painstakingly crafted halls of Allerdale, turning the film into an on-rails haunted house ride. Chastain plays the only character that seems to embrace the over-the-topness a film like this deserves; you've never seen anyone slam down a pot filled with scrambled eggs with such menace before. In a film promising many revelations and secrets (like a re-telling of the Bluebeard tale), Crimson Peak sets them up but never knocks them down. Details like Edith not being able to open certain doors, Thomas's clay-mining invention, or the clever notion that the house is "alive" and bleeds red clay through the snow, never pay off in a meaningful way - it's all just eye candy.

Guillermo del Toro is clearly in love with the "Gothic Romance" genre, but I don't think his style necessarily gels with a story with a romance at its center. None of his other films have much in the way of romance (other than perhaps Liz and Hellboy in the Hellboy films), and none of the relationships in Crimson Peak rang true for me - even the "steamy" sex scene in the middle of the film (in which audiences can collectively swoon at the upper half of Tom Hiddleston's posterior), felt relatively tame and unromantic. Del Toro is so interested in the intricate universes he creates that sometimes the human aspects suffer as a result. While it's not as outright silly as Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is similarly a genre homage that gets lost in its sensational style.

Rating: C

Bridge of Spies
Dir. Steven Spielberg
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It's a spy for a spy in Bridge of Spies, the continuation of Steven Spielberg's late-career "mellowing out" period of historical dramas, rather than the huge action blockbusters that made him a household name.  The film depicts the real-life story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York insurance lawyer who's first given the thankless task of defending a known Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), at the height of the Cold War, and as if that weren't enough, is then ordered by the government to spearhead a very tense negotiation in Berlin to swap two of their own US prisoners in exchange for Abel. While the film is beautifully shot and directed, features some nice performances, and does a swell job at what it sets out to do, I have to say that I found myself dozing off a bit. Centered almost entirely around conversations, Bridge of Spies is one of the most restrained Spielberg pictures I remember seeing, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, personally I found it to be a slog.

With a script written by the Coen Brothers, there are some nice quirky character moments sprinkled throughout. Hanks is definitely channeling his Capra-esque "everyman" here, proving once again why we like him, and the Russian dude has a very subdued, strangely funny personality, non-reacting to major setbacks simply touting, "would it help?" It wouldn't surprise me to see a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination for Rylance if only because that category likes "fresh faces." The biggest waste here though is Amy Ryan playing Donovan's wife - she literally has less to do here than as the mom in Goosebumps. Donovan's family represents the worst of "classic" smaltzy Spielberg and exists just for Hanks to have some emotional support back home.

Bridge of Spies is effective at what it does in terms of craftsmanship, but for me personally, it lacks that cinematic magic of Spielberg's best films (other than the magnificent dialogue-free scene that opens the film), and falls more into line with his fact-based well-crafted-but-slightly-boring period pieces like Lincoln. So I don't have much bad to say about the film - it's just not really "my thing" and I have little desire to re-visit it.

Rating: C+

Goodnight Mommy
Dir. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
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Austria's official entry into the Academy Awards this year may also be one of the most violent, uncomfortable, downright unpleasant films I've seen in a long time. Goodnight Mommy brings an arthouse flavor to the horror genre (aka, people don't really talk or act like they would in "real life"); the film follows a set of twin boys and their mother who's recovering from cosmetic facial surgery, bandaged in the creepiest manner possible. Living in a house isolated in a corn field, the two nine-year-olds start to doubt whether or not the woman they're living with is their mother at all. That set-up leads to some incredibly disturbing scenarios that I would guess would not make for a good "date movie."

Reminiscent of Funny Games, the movie repeatedly bashes you over the head with its violence, though unlike the aforementioned film, I don't think Goodnight Mommy upon closer inspection is really that complicated. Its "twist" at the end should be fairly obvious to those paying attention to the beginning of the film, and at the end of the day, if you take away the beautiful compositions and foreign-language mystification us Americans bring to these types of movies, it feels similar to any other given "torture porn" movie like Hostel or Wolf Creek. I did not have a pleasant time watching this, but there are images in this film that will be burned into my brain for a long time, so for that I give it credit.

Rating: B-

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