2 (Halloween) Trips To The Movies (One Current, One Back): “Crimson Peak” (2015) and “Street Trash” (1986) 10.17.15

Guillermo del Toro sure has had his share fair of both hits and misses throughout his now 20+ year career making movies. He started off making films in his original country of Spain with his debut film — 1993’s “Cronos” — still my second favorite of all of his movies but more importantly the very first film that caught the eye of many people and put him on the international filmmaking spectrum. Then came his first English language film — the mostly lousy and disposable “Mimic” in 1997. Only for him to follow it with a film that found him going back to his native country, and what’s still tied for my favorite of his — 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone” — which, for those of you who have seen it, would know that it was and still is a very solid entry to the horror genre. Then del Toro followed up another hit with another miss by coming back again to America to make the second entry in the “Blade” series (2002). Following this he put out his first of his two what I like to call “superhero” movies in “Hellboy” (2004) which, despite my unlikeness of the genre, was actually pretty entertaining with Ron Pearlman (a frequent del Toro collaborator) breathing new life into a somewhat unconventional superhero. Then came “Pan’s Labyrinth” which was his biggest box office and critical success yet – again, which had the writer/director shooting in Spain, and brought to audiences an incredibly unique and visually stunning film that wound up going on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Oscars. “Pan’s Labyrinth” catapulted del Toro into legendary status, and if you look at almost anybody’s list of “best films post-2000”, you’ll find it on there. Then he returned back to America like most foreign directors do following an overseas hit and he made the second film — “Hellboy 2” — in his “Hellboy” series. A film, again much like the first one, which wasn’t necessarily the typical kind of film I like as it incorporated superheros but like the first one that I found myself having a lot of fun with. Then came 2013’s “Pacific Rim” — again another film I was apprehensive to see at first but because it was a “del Toro” film, I wound up seeing and that surprisingly impressed the shit out of me, and wound up on my Honorable Mentions list (10-20) of that respective year. Then came this film, which admittedly I thought looked like something that looked like a true visual feast for the eyes, similar to something like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, combined with a Gothic horror vibe that immediately caught my eye and piqued my interest. So I decided to see it opening weekend, like I do with most directors who have put out a couple or more works that I admire. Because I find myself chasing and hoping that I’m going to find something almost or equally as good as their best work.

The story revolves around Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist; who in an early impressive scene, is warned by her dead mother to beware of ghosts (or better put – “Crimson Peak”). The film then jumps 14 years later, to where Edith is now an adult, and she meets a young Aristocrat Thomas (the still relatively unknown but always impressive Tom Hiddleston), who’s visiting her father seeking investors, and whom she eventually falls for despite her father’s disapproval. You see the father thinks the young Thomas is a hack, and as with most wealthy families, particularly in the 19th century in which the film takes place, he forbids Edith from marrying Thomas. Thomas’ sister Lucille (played by the lovely but increasing “hi I’m in every movie” Jessica Chastain) is also seemingly against their relationship, but for reasons unknown except that they appears to have an almost incestual-like relationship. Completing this triangle of disapproval is Edith’s childhood friend now doctor, Dr. MicMichael (“Son’s of Anarchy”‘s Charlie Hunnam), who’s gut tells him there’s something sketchy about the relationship between Edith and Thomas. Despite everyone’s warnings, Edith moves to England and marries Thomas, and winds up in their rather mightily impressive mansion living together under the same roof as Thomas’ sister Lucille. This house is built on the red clay that Thomas, the investor, was initially trying to sell to gain investors. And well, at this point forward in the story, nothing really is as it seems.

“Crimson Peak” winds up reflecting many ideas, styles, and tones that are lifted from some of del Toro’s earlier works, particularly that of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and is simply without a doubt his most “impressively looking” and shot film to date. I found myself in full on jaw gape mode as I looked at the many astounding set pieces and designs (both Edith’s own house that she’s shown living in as a child into adult and the house she moves to with Thomas in England) reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Almost as if they were a separate character of their own. The stark use of vibrant colors with the “red clay” motif shot against the white snowy wintertime is a visual feast for the eyes. As was the creature makeup, which I personally found to wholly original and genuinely scary when we get the several sites of the ghosts in which Edith encounters throughout. It’s probably del Toro’s most visually impressive film to date, even more than “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and contains a visually arresting Gothic flair in both its production and costume design.

However, where it ultimately fails is in allowing much more for the story other than its technical components. Some of which I’ve listed above. The story is bogged down by a slightly weak and wooden sounding script co-written by del Toro. The actors themselves – Wasikowska, Hiddleston, Chastain, and Hunnuam all do their best but sound like their pulling too much weight off of their acting talents to try to elevate an otherwise weak script. As for the story, it’s a bit predictable as soon as the young investor Thomas courts the wealthy industrialist’s daughter Edith, the viewer will most likely be able to predict what direction it’s going to head in. It’s also a bit of a slo-burner, and takes much too much time overdeveloped story in which we can already predict after about the first half hour where it’s headed in.

In summation, it winds up being an exercise in style over substance. But if you, like me, like to look at the technical side of things and enjoy del Toro’s visually stunning set pieces, design, and costumes. Then you just might find it worth it for those reasons alone. It also retains a pretty nice “creep factor” throughout, and as mentioned above, the film’s creatures and ghosts are genuinely pretty scary and there’s quite a few well shot and executed “jump” scenes. And even despite a strong ending, where the naive Edith begins to learn the real story about her husband’s house and relationship with his sister and takes matters into her own hands, it still all comes at just a little too late. This is a worthwhile effort from del Toro simply because its most technically impressive film to date, but which barely makes up for a lack of a good story, plot or character development, and weak script. For diehard del Toro fans, this warrants a recommendation. But for others, they just might find its exercise in style over substance to be just a tad bit underwhelming.

[B-]

Guillermo del Toro’s – Crimson Peak

Saturday, Oct 17, 2015, 1:30 PM

St. Johns Twin Cinemas
8704 N Lombard St Portland, OR

9 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind Crimson Peak. From the imagination of director Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy”, “P…

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The second film of the day I caught as part of one my local $3 theatres in town – who are doing a welcomed tribute of horror Grindhouse films leading up to Halloween. These films, otherwise known at the time as being labeled “Exploitation” flicks, are known to be the cheap, artsy, made on a shoestring budget crop of films from decades ago. They’ve been described as the “gross”, “mean-spirited”, “ugly”, and “distasteful” films of their time. But along with that, there’s always been a very large underground demographic or resurgence of people (evidenced by the almost sold out showing I caught in Portland late Saturday night) who gravitate towards and really get into this type of thing. I for one have admittedly never been a big fan of the genre, but in trying to keep up with and being as much of a well-rounded student of film as possible, I try to keep myself interested in any and all types of films. And in the case of this film – I went out on a bit of a limb and took a chance in a type of film that I’m normally not used to. The kind of interactive, so bad it’s good, “B” film, that you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into, even if you’re even if like me, you’re slightly familiar with what to expect. These were and still are the types of midnight independent horror films you get together with your not for the faint of heart friends for while over a pitcher of beer and hoot, holler, and laugh at the grotesque and deplorable display of images that are being projected onto the screen. To give you a better idea of the “type” of film I’m talking about here was the more commercialized (if you even want to call it “commercial”) film that came out a few years back — Jesse Eisener’s “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2011) starring Rutger Hauer — a direct homage and paying tribute to pretty every “Grindhouse” picture to have come out before it. It’s maybe that I owe this picture some gratitude of debt in that it familiarized myself with and became interested in these lost hidden gems from a time long ago where people liked their films cheap, violent, and uncompromising. It’s like being a part of a movement, like the film equivalent of punk rock, where you think you may know but you never really do wind up knowing what to expect.

“Street Trash”, a picture I was previously unfamiliar with, wound up being a great late night Grindhouse feature that expertly blended elements of horror and comedy. It’s the type of film whose main purpose is to get the crowd interactively rowdy. The story itself is totally off-the-wall, as it involves a group of homeless people who inhabit the back of a junkyard (yep) and whose favorite liquor store owner happens to stumble upon a seemingly ancient crate of liquor which he dusts the cobwebs off of and sells the bottles each for a mere dollar. Creating a sort of buzz around the homeless community in where people start to buy the magical elixir in droves (a scathing commentary on Reagan-era American consumerism). And once said elixir is drank, it melts its victims into a gooey mess (yep, again). Which pretty much sums up the gist of its plot.

Like the title suggests, this is a trashy, grotesque, and vile affair. But one that does exactly what it sets out to do – which is to completely gross out the audience and make them both laugh and cry like the many of us who were in attendance did. So in this sense it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. This film had more violence, gore, gratuitous sex and nudity, and underlying humor, in almost anything I’ve seen in a while. Along with the crowd “interactive” aspect which is half of the fun. It wound up being a great slice of trash from the eighties which I’m sure was just as offensive then as it was now. Though this is not the type of film to be analytical about, it’s simply a film to have fun with, and if you can find it at the bottom of your going-out-of-business video store’s bargain bin, it might just be the most fun with a film you should feel bad for having had such a good time with. I know for me personally it’s a film and an experience that I will both never forget.

[B/B+]

Weekend Recap (Part 1): A New-To-DVD Release – “Tales From The Grim Sleeper” + My First of Two Trips To The Movies – “About Elly” (6/5-6/6)

It was exciting news to me when I heard that documentarian Nick Broomfield had a new film out.Having alfeady seen many of his previous documentaries and liked; the Kurt Cobian/Courtney Love documentary – “Kurt and Courtney” (1998), his probing look into the life, work, and deaths of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac in “Biggie and Tupac” (2002), and finally, one that he is probably the most known for – “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (2003) about the trial of the Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos which that same year later whose story was made into and released as a feature film in the Charlize Theron Oscar-winning “Monster”.

His newest documentary, commissioned by HBO films, “Tales of The Grim Sleeper” (which first aired on HBO in late April and continues to weekly, so get out your TIVO) brings the British documentarian to Los Angeles to try to uncover the truth about the infamous case of the serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper”, otherwise known as Lonnie Franklin, who terrorized one small corner of the city for almost 25 years and is on trial for the murder of 10 women, but who was believed to be responsible for the death and or various other crimes against 170 more. The question the documentary poses is how could a man, who at the time of his arrest at 60+ years of age, manage to go on a killing spree for twenty five years without having ever been investigated into in all of that time? However many people in the very poor section of his lower, working class neighborhood (if you even want to call it that – 50% of its inhabitants are unemployed) and moreover why almost the entire community knew about it for most of his long 25-year run but never spoke up about it. And in turn asks questions about this section of L.A.’s local police force and why they stayed away and turned a blind eye for so many years to what was actually going on, while on top of that asking us as viewers should they have even cared. You see, Lonnie Franklin aka “The Grim Sleeper” focused solely on capturing, having sex with, and most likely killing young women, most of whom were prostitutes and addicted to crack cocaine. At the risk of sounding apathetic and for someone who values human life, no matter what their place and function within society is, are we talking about “disposable” lives here? That’s just one of the many questions the documentary poses (indirectly as it certainly doesn’t take the stance that the killings were somehow warranted). In typical Broomfield fashion this is another rather impressive, though bleak and at times difficult to watch viewing as we hear countless interviews from ex-prostitutes who encountered the man but somehow managed to get away. If you, like me, are into the “crime” documentary genre, this is something you should eat up as it’s thought-provoking, gripping, and does what only the best documentaries do – show a 2-sided argument that raises many questions, those of which you should be pondering over well after its final credits have rolled. [B+]

Next up we have the latest film, “About Elly” (or shall I say “re-release”, as the film was originally made in 2009 but not released theatrically in the States until just recently), by one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers – Iranian born Asghar Farhadi, who wowed critics, audiences and the Academy alike with his Oscar winning 2011 Best Foreign Language film – “A Separation”. A film many critics consider to be the best foreign film of the past 15 years (and rightfully so). I was almost equally impressed by his follow up, 2013’s “The Past”, another film about the devastating effects on what pivotal life decisions can have on all others involved in them. What I enjoy so much about Farhadi’s work, which admittedly was limited to just the two prior aforementioned films, is that they bring back the true essence of “family drama” and everything that the genre used to do so well. In fact, before being introduced to Farhadi I can honestly say the last high quality family drama that probeed into similar territory, which also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time, was way back in 2001 with the release of Todd Field’s Academy Award-winning “In The Bedroom”. A brilliant and breathtaking film with a deep emotional core that I find myself revisiting almost yearly in the past 15 years or so. Like, “In The Bedroom”, Farhadi’s films, again with the addition of his newest (or again shall I say re-release) mostly exists inside its own universe, tackling a single act and the tragic set of events that follow. As said events transpire in each film each of his characters are revealed, motivations, and agendas are exposed. But many of them are decisions that are steeped in moral values, ethics, and each person’s beliefs, many deeply rooted in a cultural code which permeates throughout each of Farhadi’s films. “About Elly” draws comparisons to “A Separation” and “The Past” in this respect, but rather than focus on a single family, as the other films do, here we find him exploring these same themes but within a much larger group of people consisting of college colleagues who visit the seashore and bring along one of the women’s children’s teachers, the titular character, Elly, who winds up going missing after a critical incident that takes place, and in its examination of events that transpire following, shows the effects it has on each of its characters. Like with all of Farhadi’s films, it depicts how we as people, tend to want place blame on any one other than ourselves, and shows how this can have devastating effects on everyone involved. It’s another impressive, yet minor addition to the Farhadi oeuvre, and while at times it felt a bit slight and overlong, it always was engaging and compelling enough to allow me to recommend it. Particularly because of the flawless acting on display and deep themes in which it chooses to explore. Yet, as someone who considers themselves to be a huge admirer of the director’s work, overall if felt a bit more like a precursor piece to his more recent work, the latter of which ranks among the best that international cinema has to offer. [B]

Review: “The Drop” 2.15.15

“The Drop” is the first English language film by Belgian director Michael R. Roskam of the Oscar nominated film “Bullhead” (2011) which garnered a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 2012 Academy Awards. “Bullhead” was a great character study that featured a phenomenal breakthrough performance by Matthias Shoenaerts. The type of actor who after watching that film I just knew it was just going to be a matter of time before the call of Hollywood came coming. Which is interesting because that’s almost the exact same way I felt after I was first introduced to the main actor in this film, Tom Hardy, a relative unknown until he was introduced to the film world in 2009 in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson”. Both are foreign (Hardy’s from the UK, Shoenaerts from Belgium) who have recently started to show up in a lot of American films (though Hardy being introduced to us here stateside much earlier in 2010 in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”). When I first heard of this film I heard while it was in development that it teamed Tom Hardy with another foreign actor who has gained quite a bit of notoriety in the United States this past couple of years and who I happen to like – Swedish born Noomi Rapace (who first played Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish trilogy of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in other high-profile films like “Prometheus” (2012). Then I found out that it was slated to be directed by none other than Roskam himself, in his English language debut. What sealed the deal for me was that it also reteamed him with “Bullhead” star Shoenaerts, and was based on a screenplay from novelist Dennis Lehane, most notable for his book to screen translations like “Mystic River” (2003), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), and “Shutter Island” (2010). So with a pedigree of this kind I figured I would be in for something special.

The film introduces us to Bobby (played by Hardy) who in an opening montage explains to us how this “drop” concept works in that basically all of the local bars in Brooklyn are run by the Chechen Mob, who scheduled certain deposits of money at any given bar on any given night. Bobby tends bar at his cousin Marv’s (in the great James Gandolfini’s last performance) who used to own the place until the Mob took over. It becomes clear early on that the Chechen Mob and its messenger, Chovka, pretty much run the entire territory. Especially when on one unsuspecting night 2 men visit the bar in hoods and masks and rob Bobby and Marv of $5,000. Except since the bar really isn’t “owned” by Cousin Marv anymore the money needs to be paid back. It seems like a mere coincidence that Bobby should happen to stumble upon a whimpering puppy in a garbage can shortly after, and is introduced to the woman who owns the home Nadia (played by Rapace), who he forms a sort of bond with after the both discover the pup and both decide to take care of it. That’s until the ex-con, recently released out of prison, mentally ill nutcase Eric comes into the picture (played ruthlessly by Shoenaerts) and claims the dog to be his demanding 10 grand from Bobby or else he will report it being stolen. It is through these many relationships and interpersonal dynamics that as each character is revealed, we are shown a much different side to them as well as their real motivations with one another, than we’re lead to believe up to that point.

While this was another solid entry into the crime-drama genre, it felt a little bit all too familiar to other films of its kind that have come out of the genre (David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” (2007) comes to mind). The story itself is involving enough, as we’re presented with a decent enough story and an above average script. With all the actors involved doing serviceable enough jobs but nobody really sticking out with the exception of maybe Hardy’s character, who’s restrained, solemn, quiet character who we first are led to think might be a little naive, only to change faces about two-thirds of the way into the film in where we’re finally (after much waiting around) able to see his true self. Second to that would be Shoenaerts, who is always a pleasure to see pop up on-screen, and who plays both ruthless and menacing pretty well here. Gandolfini plays well, Gandolfini, who following his work on the hit TV show “The Sopranos” I always felt like it was unfortunate as being typecast into these kinds of roles (similar to how I feel about someone like Ray Liotta post-Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990)). Rapace does a good enough job in the barely fleshed out character she’s written as. As for the story, I felt like it did a fairly decent enough job juggling a number of different characters in the story and for the most part did a clever enough job keeping the audience second guessing, which had my attention until it came to the last half hour or so, at which time I started to get the feeling like it was going to have a predictable outcome to the story. And it did, at least for me anyway. There are character’s involvements into the shady going-ons in the story that are supposed to come as a surprise that really weren’t all that surprising to me. Except for when Hardy’s character Bobby reveals himself to show his true colors. But at that point it all came at just a bit too little too late. This was a fairly good, though as mentioned predictable entry to the genre that I would recommend to fans of it, but I think a lot of other people might be turned off by its familiar storyline and script. Certainly worth a rental but not something that you’re going to want to write home about once its through.

[B-]