Monday, October 26, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

It’s no secret around these parts that Guillermo del Toro and I have had something of a parting of the ways when it comes to his most recent films. I’m a staunch admirer of his Hellboy films, and I think Pan’s Labyrinth is about as good as it gets when it comes to stylized magical realism. But Pacific Rim (at the risk of reopening that can of worms) left a bitter taste in my mouth. Fortunately, Crimson Peak is a bit of a return to form for del Toro, even though it suffers through a bumpy opening act or two to get there.

A modern woman in the fin de siècle mode, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls for the dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) while finishing her first novel – not a ghost story, but “a story with a ghost in it.” Though her stern banker father (Jim Beaver) disapproves, Sir Thomas courts Edith with everything he’s got. When the two marry and move to Allerdale Hall with Sir Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith discovers that there are skeletons in the Sharpe closet, ghosts in the ancestral home, and a bevy of other gothic tropes imperiling her very life.

It’s probably better to start with the bad news, because the effect Crimson Peak had on me did something very similar, tempering my exuberance for the film’s climax with a middling-at-best first hour. The problem with Crimson Peak is that it isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be a satire of the Gothic or a wholehearted revel through the genre. We can tell that del Toro is extremely well-read in the Gothic; the film carries with it a virtual checklist of tropes. (Moody castle? Check. Uncomfortably close siblings? Check. A murder/inheritance plot? Check.) But there is at the same time an accompanying sense that the performers are playing their parts a little too earnestly, working perceptibly too hard to convince the audience to play along with the fiction.

Take, for example, one of the worst things a film can do – a long and brutally on-the-nose expository monologue. Crimson Peak has such a one, in which Edith’s father chastises Sir Thomas for his effete and privileged upbringing, something that the coarse hands of a true American could never know. Now, this is a fine subtext, and it’s been played often enough that the audience could probably glean it from a well-crafted scene or two. But del Toro, for reasons that escape me, verbalizes these sentiments with painstaking precision, turning a subtle character motivation into a blunt instrument. This is to say nothing of the unsubtle parallels between Edith’s novel and the film we’re watching, both of which take great pains to tell us that “it’s not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it.” Yes, we know, but why does del Toro feel he needs an apologia-cum-apology to enter the genre?

The truth of the matter is that Crimson Peak is at its best when it surrenders wholeheartedly to the Gothic genre and turns into an unapologetic haunted house of horrors. del Toro’s ghosts, grotesquely gory skeletons, are genuinely terrifying, and the jump scares they elicit are first-rate fare for Halloween. What’s more, there’s enough left unspoken, communicated solely by the mood of the film, that Crimson Peak is a fine discussion-prompter once you’ve left the cinema. (And if it’s a dark and chilly night, so much the better!) I am more convinced by Edith’s efforts at detection as she pieces together the myriad mysteries of Allerdale Hall than I am by a comparable effort on the part of her physician (Charlie Hunnam), who extemporizes at length on the Sherlock Holmes books which sit in his office.

Cinema is a medium of showing, not telling, and del Toro proves in the back half of Crimson Peak that he’s a master at it. But it does very much feel like the first hour of Crimson Peak was made by the same man who made Pacific Rim, not Pan’s Labyrinth. Where the former was all sound and pixelated fury, signifying nothing but an orgiastic self-indulgence in digital trickery, the latter served as evidence of a sophisticated and sensitive cinematic eye. Crimson Peak is of two minds about its own identity, but if you can slog through the first half you’ll love the second.

Crimson Peak is rated R for “bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.” The ghosts are skeletal, gruesomely bloody, or both, and there’s a fair amount of other graphic violence in store. There’s a somewhat intense sex scene in which only a man’s rear end is show (the woman keeps on her gown, which is somewhat ridiculous for the number of petticoats it contains). One F-word appears.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Monday at the Movies - October 19, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

Whiplash (2014) – Look, do you need me to be one more voice in the litany of praise for JK Simmons’s tour de force role as a jazz band instructor who pushes his students to the brink of madness? If so, consider yourself adequately informed; Whiplash features a can’t-miss performance from the man you may only know as the newspaper editor from Spider-Man. Equal parts mesmerizing and terrifying, Simmons’s Terence Fletcher is the stuff nightmares are made of; think the Sgt. Hartman of jazz. In fact, at a brisk 100-some minutes, Whiplash might be the most intense film about jazz ever made, leaving me physically shaken in a way that I honestly can’t recall another film doing. I kid you not; I had lingering jitters for at least fifteen minutes after putting the DVD back in its case. I single out in particular an extended drum solo, which sounds far less compelling on paper than in its execution, to which I credit the frenetic editing and Damien Chazelle’s tight directorial work. The unsung hero of the film is Miles Teller, who plays the drumming prodigy protagonist, who appears noir-style in every scene of the film and who does such a credible job of bringing Andrew Neimann to life that you’ll forget all about Fant4stic (as should we all). And without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Whiplash ends in a place of open-endedness, not on a question of fact but one of meaning, one that is guaranteed to provoke discussion and stick with you for at least a solid weekend. Chazelle has created a think-piece disguised as a jazz film with all the ambience of a David Fincher thriller, and if nothing else you’ll appreciate JK Simmons in a whole new light.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

After something akin to an allergic reaction to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I very nearly gave up on this review series. Equal parts uneven and uninteresting, Order seemed decidedly disorderly – a pun I wish I’d thought up last month. Instead, I forged on; I’ve consumed a lot of lackluster media solely in the name of completionism, but fortunately returning director David Yates seems to have learned his lesson with Half-Blood Prince, which is on the whole much more engaging and unified than its predecessor.

Now in his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes a closer confidante to his headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who brings Harry along when incoming Potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) is hired. Harry soon learns, though, that Slughorn has been hired because he knows valuable information about the dark lord Voldemort. While Harry’s friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) wrestle with their feelings for each other, Harry and Dumbledore pursue the last bit of hidden knowledge needed to defeat Voldemort.

Right off the bat, Yates demonstrates a much stronger command of the visual language of film, establishing in the film’s opening shot the central theme – Dumbledore, having seen firsthand the consequences of keeping Harry in the dark, elects to trust his star pupil. After much of the confusion of Order, wondering what the central throughline was, there’s a pleasant “Aha!” at the beginning of Prince. And indeed, throughout we see Yates communicating silently with his audience, allowing us to glean from the visual that which we need to know. We have very few ponderous monologues or, at the other end of the spectrum, moments of ungraspable speculation; the film tells us what we need to know in a way natural to the medium.

It helps that you have wonderfully expressive yet subtle performances, first by the teenage cast who have really come into their own. Last time I reviewed this film, as a younger man I bemoaned the “angsty teenage romance” that pervades the film. Now that I’m older, wiser, and fresher on the franchise, I see what’s actually happening here is that the actors are (perhaps for the first time) allowed to humanize their characters and give them a few emotions besides stock tropes of “stoic,” “goofy,” and “brainy” (respectively). Furthermore, it’s a treat to see Alan Rickman as Snape and Broadbent’s Slughorn given stretching room for those fine thespians to vivify their characters.

It’s Michael Gambon, surprisingly, who ends up being something of a scene-stealer. Though I’ve never been sold on Gambon as a replacement for the late Richard Harris (I’ve always wondered what Peter O’Toole could have done with the part), he does pretty impressive work with Dumbledore, who’s nowhere near as stern and shouty as he’s been. Instead, we get a pretty close approximation of the Dumbledore from the books, much more contemplative and compassionate, which Gambon layers on as a natural role-reversal from his earlier interpretation of the character. This is the Dumbledore I wish we’d gotten all along, but in light of the way this film ends (I’m being cautiously vague, even though I’m sure this “spoiler” is right up there with Rosebud in terms of a statute of limitations) it’s a much more sobered and thoughtful performance than we might have been led to expect.

The film is overall more focused than the last one, and even though the book split its attention between flashbacks and present-day movement toward the seventh book, the film finds a much more confident identity in its present, giving Harry something very tangible for which to fight while deepening the mythology of the universe. Even the last-minute cliffhanger of sorts, which teases the narrative center of the final film(s), ties into the main theme of friendship and trust (which, actually, links up with the major twist of this film as well). What you have, then, is a much better organized Harry Potter film in which each element is deeply integrated into the main storyline and theme. It is, in short, a much more successful penultimate feature film than I’d presumed possible from Yates. Half-Blood Prince is a full-blood success.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG for “scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.” Spells and their occasionally bloody after-effects, as well as a few creepy creatures and a looming sense of peril at every turn (including one spectacular jump moment near the film's climax), could be objectionable as far as "scary images [and] some violence" are concerned. The snogging in this film ("mild sensuality") isn't much to write home about, though it dominates a lot of the main characters' focus.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Top 10 Return of the Jedi Musical Moments

In the wake of my most recent semimonthly rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy (that’s the Original variety, naturally), and in anticipation of The Force Awakens this December, I present another Top Ten list.  No, not a Top Ten ranking of the films in existence – the correct answer, by the way, is 5, 4, 6, 3, 2, Clone Wars, 1 – but a more musically minded listing.

The task was arduous, though, and I couldn’t bear to throw that many children to the wolves. Rather than rank the ten best tracks from 797 minutes of movies, I’m going to break this down by film. Here we present the third in an ongoing series of lists, “The Top 10 Return of the Jedi Musical Moments!” (Look at it this way, you’re getting more posts – one for each movie!)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m using both the 1993 four-disc “Anthology” box set and the 2004 two-disc “Special Edition” reissue editions, so track listings may vary for those playing the home game.

10. “Han Solo Returns”
 We start the list off with a track that would have been higher, if only more of it had been used in the film. Williams composed a divine tuba motif for Jabba the Hutt, though you won’t hear much of it in the film. What was used, though, sets the mood well for the slimy gangster’s slovenly den of miscreants, with a nice reprise of “Han Solo and the Princess” when everyone’s favorite scoundrel is rescued by “someone who loves [him].”

9. “The Emperor Arrives”
 Williams is the master of the musical leitmotif, and in this piece we see is skill at blending the old with the new. In an amazing piece of musical storytelling, he begins with a brassy rendition of the Imperial March, which surrenders – as its on-screen embodiment kneels – to the Emperor’s theme (about which, more later). For an introduction to the Emperor, it’s perfect, telling us that he’s scary in a different way than Vader is, but it doesn’t do as well out of context because of its brevity on the soundtrack releases.

8. “Fight in the Dungeon”
The first action cue of the film is a great example of what Williams can do with a small piece of music not oriented around particular motifs. Instead, he turns in a delightful one-off track to score Luke’s battle with the rancor, conveying the creature’s shambolic motion and the carnivorous peril of the scene. Let’s be honest, the original rancor special effects were a little bit dodgy, but Williams’s music, as ever, carries the day.

7. “Victory Celebration”
 For all the changes from the original 1983 release through the Special Edition and beyond, here’s one I genuinely don’t mind and indeed prefer. The “Yub Nub” track, though viewed with nostalgic glasses, is a little hokey even for Star Wars. Williams’s second try, though, paints a musical landscape as the Special Edition cut shows us a more galaxy-wide approach to the end of the Empire. It’s a more world-music finale, one that crescendos nicely into the End Titles.

6. “Parade of the Ewoks”
 Say what you will about the Ewoks – characters made to sell toys, teddy bears that make the film too juvenile – Williams weaves them into the musical tapestry of the universe perfectly. Recalling also his work on the Indiana Jones films roughly contemporaneously, “Parade” introduces the playfulness of the Ewoks with a melodic versatility that fits equally well in an action cue.

5. “The Emperor’s Death”
 For the climax of the film, Williams throws it all against the wall – the Imperial March, the Emperor’s theme, the Force theme – and at least for those of us who grew up playing X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, this track is indelibly imprinted on our minds. It fits brilliantly with that arresting image of the Emperor’s electrified fingertips and with Darth Vader’s final decision in the battle for his son’s soul – and, ultimately, his own.

4. “Luke and Leia”
 Lest anyone think that Williams phoned it in for the trilogy’s finale, “Luke and Leia” might be considered his last great original composition for the Star Wars universe (until, that is, 1999). It’s a soft melody that reminds me of the high romances of the 1940s, only it’s applied to the tender moment when Luke divulges that he and Leia are siblings. It’s reprised when Leia breaks the same news to Han, and it’s one of the more underrated pieces in the film.

3. “Into the Trap”
 Speaking of underrated, this track often gets overshadowed by Admiral Ackbar’s sloshy “It’s a trap!” Undeservedly so – its recent appearance on Star Wars: Rebels (which, by the way, has been doing a phenomenal job of remixing Williams’s work) speaks to its potency as a piece of space action music, its militant opening foreboding the titular track and paying off the much slower rendition as heard in... you guessed it, #2 on this list.

2. “Main Title/Approaching the Death Star”
 It initially surprised me that I didn’t have a hard-and-fast favorite opening sequence from the six films: I can name my favorite film (Empire), favorite bounty hunter (Boba Fett), favorite lightsaber duel (Luke vs. Vader at Bespin), but I hadn’t given much thought to “opening scene.” Hands down, though, it’s this one, which opens with a majestically confident version of the Imperial March, showing us all the pomp of the Empire at its peak in the austere yet incomplete Death Star II.

1. “The Return of the Jedi”
Also known as “Sail Barge Assault,” there’s no question that this is the strongest piece from Return of the Jedi. I mean, it’s in the title! In all seriousness, though, it’s a rousing action track that emblematizes the best of Star Wars – the hopeful triumph of the forces of good against overwhelming odds, a wonderful warm-up for the last great battle of the Rebel Alliance, but a confident and well-choreographed reunion of old friends amid the most celebratory rendition of the main theme. It’s no coincidence that the trailer for The Force Awakens evoked this moment with its iconic bum.... bum... BUM, which I daresay is to Star Wars what that iconic first chord is to “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Return of the Jedi musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss my move into the prequel trilogy!