Monthly Archives: October 2015

Gollywhopper of a Ghost Story

Sumptuous ‘Crimson Peak’ is full of deliciously dark surprises

 

Crimson Peak

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston & Jessica Chastain

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Rated R

Released Oct. 16, 2015

Crimson Peak is a ghost story with a capital G—a couple of them.

The first is for writer-director Guillermo del Toro, the acclaimed Mexican filmmaker renowned for the dark-fantasy, supernatural-horror and sci-fi blowout movies Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim. Just having his name attached has kept fans and industry insiders buzzing for months.

The other big G: This ghost story is a real gollywhopper, a voluptuous, sumptuously festooned saga of love, lust, jealousy, money, madness, secrets, ambition and spirits that refuse to let go, all set in a gigantic Gothic manor on a barren hillside in early 19th century England.

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith, a young New York heiress who falls in love with a visiting British baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). An aspiring writer, Edith believes in ghosts, ever since she was visited as a child by the wraith of her departed mother, who ominously warned her to “Beware Crimson Peak.”

“Where I come from, ghosts are not to be taken lightly,” the baronet tells Edith, which is one reason she falls for him over the objections of her father (Jim Beaver from TV’s Supernatural), who tries to send Sharpe and his coldly aloof sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), packing. But a gruesome incident—that wasn’t the “accident” everyone seems to think—leaves Edith to make her own decisions. She decides to follow her heart and marry the handsome Brit.

When she arrives in England with her new hubs, Edith finds his big, creaking, groaning house, Allerdale Hall, with a hole in the ceiling, leaves in the foyer, and gloopy blood-red clay oozing through the wooden slats of the floor. She also finds things that howl, scream, creep, crawl and go bump in the night.

Crimson Peak

And she learns that estate is nicknamed Crimson Peak—and that ghosts aren’t the scariest things inside the house.

Audiences accustomed to the cheap thrills and gutbucket carnage of many contemporary horror flicks might be a tad disappointed that del Toro is much more interested in meticulous, old-school storytelling and creating a spectacular world for his characters to inhabit. Blood does flow and there are moments that will make you gasp, but they jarring red punctuation marks on a much bigger tale, one with horrors on an even grander, more operatic scale.

And in this big, big-looking, super-stuffed spook-fest, the attention to detail is astounding, from rooms, costumes, furniture, jewelry, kitchenware and candelabras, down to the tiniest of trinkets. The haunted house of Allerdale is a thing of wonder in itself, a real-life, three-story-tall cathedral of gloom (constructed especially for the movie) with a rasping, decrepit elevator, a sweeping grand staircase, murky hallways, hundreds of moths on the walls, locked vats of goo in the basement, and some deliciously dark, twisted surprises.

Sometimes everything feels like a phantasmagoric Downton Abbey nightmare knocking around a forbidden section of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

“Ghosts are real,” a battered-looking Edith tells us twice, bookending the movie at its opening scene as well as its violent, sprawling finale—during which she discovers not only the power of her pen, but also the brutal effectiveness of a coal shovel. If you ever get put through the wringer like she does in Crimson Peak, you’ll believe they’re real, too.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Pan’s Prequel

Peter Pan backstory is heavy on effects but light on magic

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Pan

Starring Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund and Rooney Mara

Directed by Joe Wright

PG

“This isn’t the story you’ve heard before,” begins the voiceover narration to this prequel to the tale of Peter Pan, the mischievous lad who never grows up and learns how to fly.

Created by Scotch novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie in the early 20th century, Peter Pan became a hit on the London stage before spreading into even wider fame via a 1953 animated Walt Disney movie, other film adaptations and live TV musical presentations—including one as recently as last year.

But this movie isn’t that story, as it wants you to know right off the bat. Pan is the story behind that story, about how an orphan boy (Levi Miller) came to be the eternally youthful Peter Pan, the scourge of the pirate captain Hook, the champion of the Lost Boys and the airborne companion of the flittering, phosphorescent fairy Tinkerbell, all in a faraway place called Neverland.

Pan is big, loud and full of razzle-dazzle. British director Joe Wright—Pride and Prejudice (2005), The Atonement (2007), Hanna (2011)—obviously set out to make a spectacle. But his extensive, exhaustive, CGI-heavy production and the movie’s darker themes often crowd out the exuberant escapist magic that audiences have come to expect from a familiar tale and its familiar characters.

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Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard

The movie’s most notable new addition to Peter Pan lore is the pirate Blackbeard, played to the malevolent hilt by Hugh Jackman. It’s Blackbeard, we learn, who’s been spiriting World War II-era London orphans away to Neverland to work as his “lost boy” slaves, mining glowing little globs of fairy dust he calls pixem. A source of rejuvenation that offers him the tantalizing hope of eternal youth, pixem is Blackbeard’s obsession, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it—even killing children who slack off in their search for it.

We also meet James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a lost boy who’s grown to lost young-adulthood in the mines—and who’ll grow up even more later, in dots easily connected, to become Peter’s nemesis, Capt. Hook. We meet the princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), a leader of Neverland’s indigenous people, who have a history of tangling with Blackbeard. There’s a trio of luminous mermaids (all played by British fashion model Cara Delevingne), a gaggle of gigantic screeching birds that look like rejected Jim Henson prototypes, and an enormous crocodile that will—presumably—one day chomp off one of Hook’s hands.

IMG_9946.DNGPirates, outfitted as if they’ve raided Broadway prop rooms as well as Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey clown closets, zip up and down from flying galleons like Cirque du Soleil acrobats on bungee cords. There’s a legend that comes to life in a tree stump, memories at the bottom of a dark lagoon, a chorus of raggedy boys singing Nirvana and Ramones songs (yes, you read that correctly), and Peter’s undying quest for his mom (Amanda Seyfried), who gave him a pin in the shape of a pan flute before abandoning him as an infant. The sign of the pan, as it turns out, is a big deal in this realm of fairy dust and flying pirate ships.

It’s all a lot, and really it’s just too much. For this noisy, busy trip to Neverland, Pan relentlessly packs, whacks and attacks the screen. The “boy who could fly” still takes to the air, but this cumbersome, weighty, bombastic bit of backstory feels like an over-crammed, tossed-around piece of movie baggage.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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High Wired

Twin Towers tightrope tale is spectacularly nerve-wracking

The Walk

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley and Charlotte Le Bon

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

PG-13

In August 1974, Philippe Petit did something no man had ever done or will do again—and he did it eight times.

Petit, a 24-year-old high-wire artist, walked across a cable between the tops of New York City’s newly completed World Trade Center towers, at the time the tallest buildings in the world. It was a delirious 1,350 feet in the air, it was totally illegal, and it was deadly dangerous.

Director Robert Zemeckis dramatizes the feat, and the years of obsession and preparation that led up to it, in this dazzler of a movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the fearless Frenchman, a former rascally street performer in Paris who was forever “searching for the perfect place to hang my wire.”

Gordon-Levitt not only learned how to walk a wire, but also how to ride a unicycle, juggle and speak in a flawless-sounding French accent for the leading role. As Petit, he also punctuates the wildly entertaining tale with “asides” to the audience from a “perch” atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Even if you’re familiar with the story (chronicled in the excellent Oscar-winning 2009 documentary Man on Wire), this whimsical, conversational—and oui, somewhat contrived—narration makes it feel engaging, intimate and personal from beginning to end (especially when the movie makes one final, touching homage to the Twin Towers and their majestic pre-9/11 dominance of the New York skyline).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Kingsley

Gordon-Levitt takes us on the journey of his character from a childhood fascination with circus tightrope walkers into his adolescence, as he learned the rudiments of high-wire artistry from Czech maestro Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Then inspiration strikes: a grand scheme to stage “the artistic coup of the century” across the ocean in New York.

Director Zemeckis, whose hit movies include the Back to the Future franchise, Castaway and Forest Gump, has fun building to what we know is coming. We watch as Petit meets a beautiful girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) who becomes his biggest cheerleader, and begins to gather his motley crew of loyal accomplices, which includes a photographer, a math teacher who’s afraid of heights, and an eager American fan who works at the World Trade Center.

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shares his dream with Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK.

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shares his dream with Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in TriStar Pictures’ THE WALK.

A sequence in which Petit finally arrives stateside and infiltrates the Towers, in various guises, to take photos, make measurements and scope everything out, adds to the tension. Soon he and his team will be topside, in darkness, setting up, running cable and making preparations for the Walk.

And when it happens—well, hang on. Modern moviemaking technology, combined with Zemeckis’ mastery of narrative, imagery and emotion, makes you feel like you’re out there with Petit, on that wire, in between those buildings, stepping into the “void,” like no movie has ever done before. It’s the most breathtaking, spectacularly nerve-wracking seven minutes of anything you’ll see on screen this year. It’s dream-like, hyper-real, beautiful and terrifying, lovely and scary all at once, and you know it’s just a movie but you can’t believe how giddy and gobsmacked and vertiginous dizzy-awesome it makes you feel.

Petit staged his “coup.” The Walk is a coup of its own. C’est magnifique.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Hey, Mr. Spaceman

Super-smart astronaut survival yarn will leave you cheering

The Martian

Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Directed by Ridley Scott

PG-13

Super-smart, sharp-witted, funny, dramatic and moving, The Martian is a gripping, gorgeous, geeky, high-tech, big-screen adventure-survival yarn that will leave you cheering.

When a brutal, blinding surface dust storm causes a group of scientist-astronauts to abort their Martian expedition after only a few sols (days, or solar cycles), one of them gets left behind, lost and believed to certainly be dead. But after the Ares III blasts off and heads for home and the Red Planet dust clears, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) revives, wounded but very much alive.

NASA and his crewmates have no idea he survived. He has to find some way to let them know, some way to stay alive, and some way to keep his hopes from fading—knowing that it could take years for another mission to mobilize and reach him.

What to do, what to do?

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his           ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.

“In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m gonna have to science the s— out of this,” Watney says into a camera, in the video log he begins filming as a high-tech diary.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Watney “sciences” how to grow his own food, rig up a communication device, make water and generate heat from radioactive material. One of the coolest things about The Martian is the way it makes knowledge hip and cool, how Watney’s process of discovery and learning and figuring things out are integral parts of its plotline.

Kristin Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Back on Earth, the world becomes transfixed with the man marooned on Mars. NASA officials (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean) race to figure out how to reach Watney before he runs out of time and resources. America’s competitors in the space race on the other side of the world, the Chinese, offer their top-secret technology to help. And once Watney’s crew mates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan) find out they’ve accidentally left him behind, they’re willing to spring into action, even if it means staying in space for another year or longer.

Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to space or the future, from Blade Runner and Alien to Prometheus. But there are no bioengineered androids, ancient astro-gods or acid-drooling space creatures anywhere to be found in The Martian—just real people, working together, using their heads, solving problems, focused on one man 50 million miles away and united in a single goal: to “bring him home.”

And despite its big ensemble cast, gorgeous special-effect space shots and marvelous, desolate red-orange Martian landscapes, this is Damon’s show. He is The Martian, and he sells every minute of it in a bravura, mostly solo performance that radiates humanity and humor, and shows the amazing, odds-defying things that science—and brainwork, and dedication and teamwork—can do.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Drugs ‘R’ Us

Tense, thought-provoking ‘Sicario’ is gripping, gut-punch thriller

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Sicario

Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin & Benicio Del Toro

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

R

A gauzy curtain wafts in the breeze early in Sicario, a gripping, gut-punch thriller about America’s “war on drugs” along our southern border.

The swath of fabric is a membrane-thin divider, its shape is constantly shifting, offering little protection from what’s on the other side, and you can’t really see clearly through it—great metaphors for everything that happens in French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s visceral, thought-provoking saga about an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a task force to track down a brutal Mexican drug lord.

Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro are members of a covert task force tracking a brutal Mexican drug czar in ‘Sicario.’

After informing us in the opening that its title is a Mexican word for “hit man,” taken from a term for zealots in ancient Jerusalem who hunted and killed Romans that invaded their homeland, Sicario starts with a bang—literally. An armored vehicle explodes through a brick wall, and things don’t soften up for the next two hours.

After Blunt’s agent Macer leads a raid on a suburban home just outside of Phoenix that turns out to be a house of horrors connected to a Mexican drug kingpin, she’s all aboard to help a governmental black-ops cowboy (Josh Brolin) and his even shadier partner, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), shut him down.

There’s more to the mission than that, as Macer—and we—find out. Like Blunt’s assignment, and the war on drugs itself, nothing in Sicario moves in a clean, straight line, nothing is really as it appears to be, and no one can really be trusted—or can they?

Director Villeneuve likes working taut, tough and raw; his previous films include the brutal revenge thriller Prisoners (2013), with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and the Oscar-nominated mystery drama Incendies (2010). Here he steers his outstanding cast through a murky maze of escalating tension, ratcheting suspense and ghastly acts of violence. Quickly, Macer’s moral compass starts to spin out of control; she can’t sort good guys from bad, tell right from wrong, or even keep track of which side of which line she’s on.

Benecio Del Toro

Blunt is phenomenal, charging through the movie as the audience surrogate, making us feel every nuance of Macer’s journey from determination to disillusion. In a performance that seethes with mystery and menace, Del Toro speaks volumes with simmering silences—and can inflict pain with only his finger. As the gum-smacking, flip-flop-wearing special operative, Brolin may not always play by the rules, but he sure knows how to “stir the pot that causes criminals to react.”

Sicario has an all-star team behind the scenes, too. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins gives everything his meticulous master’s touch, and a haunting soundtrack by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson pumps, prods and pushes the drama along like a throbbing electronic heartbeat. In a movie where almost everything stands out, several scenes stand out more, including a freeway traffic jam that erupts in a lethal shootout, and a gripping “night-vision” blackout raid on a desolate desert tunnel used by the cartel. It’s terrific, first-class filmmaking.

How far is too far to go to fight a war that may never be won? Sicario doesn’t have an easy answer, but it sure makes you think hard about the question.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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