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+]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Never Let Me Go” (2010) 8.23.15

I’ve been anticipating revisiting this film for quite some time as soon as I saw it listed several months back as part of Oregon’s only student run non-profit cinema’s summer lineup. I thought it’d be a perfect choice for my meetup.com movie group as the members of the group have a rather vast taste in cinema and from what I remembered upon seeing it just about 5 years or so ago now, and more than almost any other film that’s come out in the years that have gone by since, admittedly was very little. Though what I do remember was being incredibly moved by the picture and it’s “meta-exercise” in that it blended Science Fiction, romance, and drama all in equal measure. That and it’s directed by the famed British director Mark Romanek, more known in his native country for being a very well-known music video and choreographer, until he delved into the world of film with 2002’s excellent but disturbing “One Hour Photo” with Robin Williams, which showed that he had a deft hand behind the camera in the feature film format as he did in music videos and commercials. That, and it was co-written by the know well-known author turned screenwriter turned director Alex Garland, who recently wowed audiences with his directorial debut – this year’s “Ex Machina”. Featuring a cast of mostly then young British actors Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan (pre-“Drive”), and Keira Knightley (probably the most well-known of the crop upon its release), and supporting turns by Domnhall Gleeson (from “Ex Machina”), Andrea Risborough (Michael Keaton’s mistress in “Birdman”), the oh so very talented Charlotte Rampling, and 2-time Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins (2008’s “Happy Go Lucky” and 2013’s “Blue Jasmine”). It’s a film littered with talent from almost every side – from its screenwriter to director to it’s amazing cast. And one that I was excited to revisit. particularly with a group of people from all age groups, many of whom had never seen it never mind heard of it.

The film takes its source material from the highly acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name. A very loose synopsis as I tend to like to provide with some of these older films for those of you who have already seen it as the plot begins at a prestigious boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in the English countryside. It focuses on three life-long best friends who find themselves wrapped up in a love triangle; Kathy (Carey Mulligan) loves Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Tommy is in a loveless engagement to Ruth (Keira Knightley). But as the film unfolds layer by layer, we come to find out that they may not have as much time left (here’s where the Sci Fi element plays into the picture) here on earth, as they once imagined they might have.

“Never Let Me Go” is easily director Mark Romanek’s best work. From a technical standpoint, Romanek does an excellent job unfolding the tale bit by bit, hinting and leading the viewer in, making them work for it in their understanding of the story. It’s filmed in lush frames and gorgeous shots of the English countryside. And has a sad, melancholy feel that perfectly suits the film’s story about the 3 young leads and their disposition once they find out that they’re merely clones. Or better put, organ donors who were selected at birth to only live into early to mid adulthood, whose life expectancy depends on how many “donations” they’re asked to give before they expire. It’s a tragic story, but whose 3 leads bring a certain authenticity and real raw human emotion to their roles. Particularly that of Garfield, who shows here why he’s become the actor that he is today (remember this is pre-“Social Network” where he was virtually unknown). Carey Mulligan, who I’ve had a soft spot for ever since her strong work in her breakthrough Academy Award nominated role in 2009’s “An Education” and 2011’s “Drive”). Knightley, probably the most “well-known” of the bunch, does a serviceable enough job here and is puts in one of her better performances that’s impressive even if it doesn’t quite match the other 2 leads of whom she plays off of. But what was and is still so interesting to me is how universal and philosophical the film’s story deals with that should tug at the heartstrings of almost any viewer. All of us think about mortality and when it’s going to be our own time to “expire”. But what makes the film so interesting is that each of its characters understand that they’re time is limited to their short lifespan of around 30 years. Sure it’s a theme that deals with the notion of knowing one’s own lifespan and the inevitably of death. But the way in which it handles these themes are done with heartfelt emotion and grace. This is a film that will not please all audiences as its tone may be too melancholy for some and it themes exploring things we often don’t like to think about (i.e. our own mortality). But within it contains great direction and a screenplay by Garland that’s handled with care and sincerity. Never mind it’s 3 leads in Knightley, Garfield, and Mulligan, all of whom bring their A game and who being relatively unknown actors at the time, showcase their talent and prove why they’ve all become sought after young actors in Hollywood. This film moved me more this time than it did upon its initial screening, and in my humble opinion, it’s a master work in it’s 3 major components in the writing, directing, and acting fields. This is one that will linger on with me in the weeks to come and will for ever be remembered, despite it being somewhat underseen and underappreciated at the time of its release, as a stunning achievement and a reminder of what I value about certain films within cinema that are not only relatable but that we can find something ourselves within in it while viewing them.

[B+]

Never Let Me Go – Starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield

Sunday, Aug 23, 2015, 3:00 PM

5th Avenue Cinema
510 SW Hall Street Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The combination of heart-wrenching drama, romance, and dystopian sci-fi that is Never Let Me Go is easily director Mark Romanek’s best work. The film is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly regarded novel of the same name. The plot begins at a prestigious boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in the English countryside. We focus on three l…

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]