Wrapping up 2015: 45 Years
Take your most cherished, important relationship. Draw a line from now back until the day you met. What do you see? Memories. A collection of past events that shape your relationships. The present is fleeting and the future isn’t here yet. We use the past to try to shape what comes next. What if the very beginning of your relationships were suddenly changed? Adjust the angle of any line just a bit and it no longer aligns with what it used to. By the end of the line, it’s in an unrecognizable place. 45 Years, an extraordinary film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is about a couple whose four-and-a-half decade marriage is shaken by an adjustment to that line, a literal unearthing of a tragedy that occurred before they met.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are less than a week away from their 45th wedding anniversary when he gets a letter. It’s in German, but he can make out enough of it to get the news. Fifty years ago, he went to the Alps with his girlfriend, a German woman named Katya. She fell into a crevasse and died, her body disappearing in ice and snow. He moved on, married Kate. They are now living in apparent contentment. Then comes the letter, letting Geoff know that Katya’s body has been found, preserved in the ice.
Over the next few days, Geoff and Kate attempt to reckon with this news. Geoff vacillates between going to see Katya’s body in Switzerland and not. Kate tries to live her life as if nothing has changed until she can no longer. It’s clear that Katya was one of the two most important people in all of Geoff’s life. It’s possible that she is still the most important.
What a stark, human story this is. Its premise is so specific and odd (based on a short story by David Constantine) that it could easily have run off the rails into melodrama. But Courtenay and Rampling deliver such measured, vibrant performances that the film feels like it’s happening in the present moment. Their marriage isn’t suddenly upended by this discovery. The ramifications develop more slowly. Geoff needs time to discover just how much his grief over Katya’s death still affects him. Kate needs time to figure out how much she needs to reevaluate her position in Geoff’s life, and how much what he never told her about Katya matters to her.
Their conversations about the topic are realistic. They feel rooted in the decades of their relationship. Not one word sounds like a writer trying to manufacture drama. Kate tries to be pragmatic at first. Geoff tries to act like the news is only a fleeting worry. Their nightly conversations in bed reveal truths neither wants to acknowledge. Their attic becomes a sanctuary of secrets for them both. Kate realizes that Geoff is looking at old pictures of Katya in the attic while she sleeps, and demands to see them. She looks at a photo, puts it down, and goes back to bed. For a moment, both of them betrayed their true feelings more than they intended, and she seems frightened by that.
45 Years leans heavily on Courtenay and Rampling to carry it, to give us an understanding of their marriage in only a few scenes, and to invest us in it. They deliver. Consider a scene where Geoff wonders aloud if the library has books about climate change. In the next scene, Geoff and Kate are in a cafe, with Geoff reading a large book on the subject, talking about an impending glacial tsunami. You could argue that the dialogue is symbolic about Katya, whose body was found in a glacier. However, my biggest takeaway was how absolutely convincing, even charming these two were as a couple, and how realistic this scene was. Characters are so rarely allowed to talk to one another about the silly little things real people talk about. Their gestures and mannerisms carry decades of understanding, love, and frustration.
Later, there is a stunning sequence when Kate finds old slides with pictures of Katya. She looks at them through a projector while Geoff is out of the house. Rampling’s reactions to the images feature some of the best acting you’ll see in a film this year. Her heart seems to break three ways, betrayed only in slight shifts in her eyes.
The ambiguity of the ending of 45 Years might frustrate some. I thought it worked. The final shot is a stunner, a gorgeous, dialogue-free unbroken take that aims for poetry over definitive conclusions. 45 Years does not attempt to answer if Geoff and Kate’s marriage is forever altered, or even destroyed, by the re-introduction of Katya into their narrative. The story takes place entirely in the days leading up to and during their anniversary party. The full effect of Katya cannot realistically play out in that time. This isn’t a story about the aftermath of a tsunami; it’s about how the ripples of the beginning of the story become the visible crest of a wave at the end.
Wrapping up 2015: The Revenant
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a gorgeous depiction of terrible things happening. I wish there was more to say about it than that. Many harrowing events unfold; as empathetic people we wince and cringe and remember that this is based on a true story, so there’s decent chance some of this awful stuff really did happen. It looks lovely. It’s very well acted. And aside from its intermittent gross-outs, I can’t recall much else that it made me feel.
OK, so I’m a sucker for good visuals. Let’s talk about those for a bit. Emmanuel Lubezki has nature photography down. We knew this ten years ago when he was nominated for an Oscar (which he should have won) for Terrence Malick’s The New World. Look, I’m an unabashed Lubezki fan. Whether he’s working with Malick, Alfonso Cuaron, or Iñárritu, his camera swoops into the scene and skittishly looks around like someone getting their bearings. His wide shots are always painterly but not overly luxe; pretty as they are they’re still doing their job of setting the scene. And when situations call for mud, blood, and spittle, he makes sure we feel caked in it.
I just wish it was in service of a movie that was about something more than its face value. Many things happen in The Revenant, but there’s not much under the surface. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker and hunter and guide for a large hunting party. The group of 40 is reduced to 8 in the opening minutes, when a party of Arikara warriors attack the hunters’ camp. The survivors include Hugh’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald wears villainy like a medal. He repeatedly makes clear that he cares more about making his money from this excursion than any individual’s life. He tries to goad Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, into attacking him with racist diatribes. All of this is before Hugh is attacked by a bear, after which Fitzgerald really gets his evil on.
The bear attack scene has been widely talked about, and rightly so. It is a spectacular set-piece. The Revenant comes alive during its action sequences, and this one is a standout. It’s a harrowing single-take sequence that uses that technique well; it refuses to look away from the horror, keeping us trapped up close as Glass fights for his life. When it’s over, Glass is so shredded we wonder how he doesn’t bleed out in seconds. It seems likely that only the bitter cold keeps him from succumbing to infection.
This sequence, plus the attack that opens the film, are The Revenant at its best. The technical craft is so sublime, the tension so brutal that it’s impossible not to be riveted. The problem is, the film is 2 hours and 36 minutes long.
No amount of time is inherently too long for a movie, of course; a bad 90 minute film feels longer than a good 3 hour film. The Revenant‘s biggest issue isn’t its length; it’s that it doesn’t use that time to amount to much. Once Hugh Glass is abandoned by his men, the film becomes about his survival. He goes through a gauntlet of terrible things. There comes a point where these ordeals are no longer inherently riveting. He doesn’t grow as a character. Nor does anyone else. Fitzgerald, who abandons Hugh for dead and murders Hawk in the process, only grows more brazenly evil as the film progresses. Hardy, to his credit, gives this character his all. He could have gnashed his teeth and wrung his hands and cackled the whole time and it would have been more in spirit with how Fitzgerald is written. Hardy is a very charismatic actor. We reflexively want to assume his characters have depth, but Fitzgerald is maddeningly one-dimensional; his scenes consist of his doing bad things or insisting that those bad things are justified. Are more nuanced antagonist would have done wonders to give this film, and Hugh’s desire for revenge, more weight.
Hugh’s journey does have some interesting moments. He meets a wandering Pawnee hunter who feeds him, builds him a shelter, and helps him recover from his injuries. The film does a decent job of bringing First Nations characters to prominence. For example, the Arikara chief who leads the raid that opens the film is looking for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by white hunters. We also get glimpses of Hugh’s earlier life, how he lived for some time with a Pawnee tribe and fell in love with Hawk’s mother. These interludes are welcome, but feel stretched thin by the long running time.
Unfortunately, for all its beauty, The Revenant simply isn’t interesting. For the most part, it’s not even as harrowing as you’d expect. A series of unfortunate events is not inherently fascinating; we have to be invested in the people going through them. Hugh survives ordeal after ordeal, and once in a while reminds us that he wants revenge on Fitzgerald by carving “Fitzgerald killed my son” into the earth. But we don’t see him grow or change or express much emotion aside from desperation. The third act feels like it should be triumphant or cathartic or something, but it all feels obligatory. There’s been no narrative buildup, and thus no satisfying payoff. It’s not a boring film; it’s just not gripping. It’s always beautiful, and the performances are all strong. This isn’t DiCaprio’s best performance, but it might be his most… well, “most” by itself is a pretty good descriptor. He is asked to portray a man who begins his story already a weathered shell of a person and whose only arc is to slowly transform into leather. He does this as well as I imagine it can be done. DiCaprio has always been best at broad, big emotive acting, and he has ample opportunity for that here. It’s not surprising he’s the Oscar frontrunner; he doesn’t have a killer monologue, but I sense that won’t matter voters when they see him desperately carving out a dead horse’s guts to use the carcass as a shelter. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is much like the horse corpse he turns into a bed; bloody, messy, and pretty hollow.
Wrapping up 2015: The Big Short
I watched The Big Short about 12 hours after I watched Ex Machina. Ever in search of patterns, I looked within this time. Here was a film I enjoyed easily with only a few hiccups. Ex Machina left me exasperated as often as it had me hypnotized. And yet, if pressed to arbitrarily pick one (because hey, sometimes movie watching choices come down to that) I’d likely recommend Ex Machina over The Big Short, despite my numerous frustrations with the former. What gives?
Well, think of it this way: Ex Machina is a film of significant ambition that couldn’t quite figure put its pieces together perfectly. The whole assembly is a bit of a mess, but from certain angles it’s astonishing. The Big Short is much easier to appreciate at first. Its edges are sharp and its surfaces polished. But no particular angle makes me stop and gasp. It’s not particularly more than the sum of its parts either. Its aims are obvious, less starry-eyed than Ex Machina. It is an entertaining story of several men who predicted an impending economic collapse that just about no one else in the world saw coming. It delivers the goods, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
To be fair, in delivering those goods, director/writer Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph have to work around some serious inside baseball. The Big Short is laden with financial jargon that made me appreciate how Moneyball must have read to people who knew as little about baseball as I do about investing. To explain some of the more important, inscrutable terms, the film regularly breaks the fourth wall. A string of celebrity cameos (including
Malin Akerman Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain preparing fish stew, and Selena Gomez playing blackjack) explain mortgage bonds and CDOs in layman’s terms. These moments are actually quite helpful, considering how much understanding at least the gist of the subprime mortgage crisis is necessary to follow the story. But the movie overplays this hand; characters regularly stop mid-scene to deliver monologues into the camera, often to let us in on details that could easily have been provided without interrupting the scene, or that add nothing to the narrative but a wink. It becomes repetitive to the point of monotony; moments like when a character admits that a scene that played out didn’t really happen are too clever by half. Breaking the fourth wall is best used as flavoring, not a course.
Still, The Big Short is far more energetic than not. It’s aided by a set of three lead performances that aim all over the comic spectrum and land on both feet. Christian Bale provides most of the movie’s pulse as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager whose relentless attention to detail lets him see, as clearly as if he’s reading Cliff’s Notes, that the US housing market is doomed to collapse within two years. Burry is single-minded but not unfriendly; he spends days in his office working, reading every word of every detail he can find about the housing market He bets more than $1 billion shorting the housing market, making his clients apoplectic. When confronted, he presents his findings matter-of-factly; they aren’t debatable, he says. Housing will collapse. His boss looks at him like he’s speaking in tongues.
Elsewhere, Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s work and does some digging himself. Dollar signs in his eyes, he goes looking for business partners to short the housing market with; he’s laughed out of room after room, only finding a willing ear in hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell). Baum is in this profession for god knows what reasons; he despises the banks and seemingly anyone who makes any money from them. He’s open to Vennett primarily because he is so unsurprised that bankers would run a sure like housing unto the ground.
Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors who could make Vennett’s unapologetic profiteering work. His character isn’t likable, but he’s so open in his motives and gobsmacked at this opportunity that so few other can see in front of him that his attitude becomes, against our best instincts, infectious. It’s in addressing the morality of profiting off of a worldwide catastrophe that The Big Short gets a bit muddled. This isn’t a film that needs a moral center, but it would help to have a consistent viewpoint. Aside from Vennett’s zeal for profit, there’s Burry’s straightforward practicality (he’s simply doing his job, basically) and Baum’s crisis of conscience (he almost gives up at the end rather than make money off of the misfortune of others). There’s an entire separate plotline involving two twenty-something investors (played by John Magaro and Fill Wittrock) who also cash in on the meltdown, aided by a banker-turned-hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). When they begin to celebrate, he chides them, spelling out statistically how many people will suffer as they’re raking in the money.The film’s coda is essentially a warning about how the banks are going to continue this cycle of pursuing profit at everyone’s expense. It’s a worthwhile message, but it doesn’t feel at one with the film that preceded it.
These characters aren’t the cause of the crisis, of course, but The Big Short seems less than eager to explore the moral conflicts it raises. It uses broad strokes (at one point Carrell literally says “this makes me no better than them” before reluctantly cashing in) or glib winks (when Gosling speaks to the camera one last time to rub in how happy he is with his success, regardless of what we think of him). In not engaging with its characters beyond their place as the pieces in an inherently interesting story, The Big Short limits its scope and narrative impact. I don’t blame McKay. He tells a fascinating tale with a lot of humor and energy. I learned a lot about a subject I might never have otherwise. The film does good work simply in educating a wide audience on a subject we all really ought to know about. This isn’t a frustrating film. But my frustrations with Ex Machina came from a place of love for what it did well and a desire to see more of that. The Big Short goes down easy, but it never compelled me to want more.
Brooklyn’s Mirror of the American Soul
I saw myself in Brooklyn. Not my own story. I am not Irish. I am not a young woman, nor was I alive in 1952. I doubt I would ever be played by Saoirse Ronan. The events in Brooklyn don’t much reflect my own life. But watching the film I felt the warm familiarity of stories told to me by my mother. She was not officially an immigrant (she was born in Georgia to an American father and a Filipina mother and grew up in the Philippines) but her stories were often filled with the same feelings of loneliness and discovery that are at the heart of Brooklyn. Thirty-nine years ago, she was in Montreal with the University of the Philippines classical chorus as they went on a world tour. Their bus had a minor accident. Everyone got off. Seizing the opportunity for a totally new life, she never got back on. I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t done that. If I have any children, they will owe their existence to that decision. At some point in the bloodlines of most of the people who live in this country, someone came here from somewhere else. Brooklyn is a pure and lovely story of a young woman making that decision. In its specificity, its details, and in a magnificent performance by Saoirse Ronan, it finds depth and truth. Like the films of Ozu, it holds a mirror to our souls.
Silence and Slow Time (On Red and Keats)
“Bright Star” was the poem that hooked me on John Keats. It’s one of his best known, of course, but when you fall in love with a work of art, it always seems made for you. I was a sophomore in college, interested in the Romantics, pouring over their work. Here was a poem that captured my interests, my view of the world, my dreams both good and bad, in 100 words. When you’re 19, the world seems open and ready for you to take. And everything that seems to grand about it can be dwarfed by a single moment of feeling. It can be love. It can be despair. Your sense of scope is constantly in flux.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red is among the films I love most of all. I like to say to my friends that I don’t have a favorite movies list. Differentiating and ranking them is too painful. Instead, I have a pyramid. The very top level of the pyramid is where my favorite films reside. Princess Mononoke. Children of Men. The Godfather. A Streetcar Named Desire. It is here that I keep Red.
Red states its thesis in its first moments. This is a poetic film that doesn’t want to be difficult to decipher, because solving it isn’t the point. The magnificent opening shot of telephone cables snaking underground, underwater, across Europe, has the same effect at ground level as the shots of the cosmos in The Tree of Life: We’re all part of this canvas. We’re all connected. Let’s talk.
The film proceeds to be about people who have trouble with talking. We follow them as they run into each other, miss each other, circle each other, and occasionally learn to talk, to communicate, to empathize. The common thread that binds them all? They all dream. And they’re all terrified that their dreams have long faded.
The protagonist is a model named Valentine. On the surface, she is doing well. She has been chosen to model for a bubble gum company’s billboard. Her face towers over the streets of Geneva. She calls her boyfriend in London. Just from the phone calls, we can tell he’s possessive and distant. She reads the paper and sees her brother’s name. That’s never good news. She has a full schedule, but she’s unhappy.
A typical story would have her find someone to fall in love with, and all her problems would magically be solved. Kieślowski is far more interested in poetry than that.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
I was panicked the spring when my sister graduated from college. I was a freshman the same year she transferred to my school. Having been homeschooled through high school, I wasn’t exactly well versed in walking up to and befriending strangers. Thankfully, my sister was. And in the vast swath of friends she made in her time in school, I was all too happy to let her be my comfort zone. I made a lot of friends through her. But they all graduated when she did. I was facing three more years of school and everyone I knew and liked was graduating.
It ended up being the best thing that happened to me. I’m a deeply anxious person, but sometimes living within one of your most anxiety-inducing situations can be a great way of learning to solve them. I took a deep breath and plunged in. Many of my closest friends to this day are people I met in the two ensuing Septembers.
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
The Judge is a strange, bitter man. The particular events of his life seem not to matter so much as their sum. He has no one. His last connection to humanity is his habit of listening in to his neighbors’ phone calls. Kieślowski asks us to believe that Valentine would befriend this troubled old man. Somehow, we do. She may not be a happy person, but she has not yet abandoned all hope of real connection to humanity. For the Judge, happiness and sadness are beside the point; he’s not depressed so much as he is drifting blindly. By choosing to insert herself into his life, Valentine hopes to provide mooring. He becomes part of canvas again.
At some point this year (right around when I wrote my article about Blue Ruin) I fell into one of the worst emotional ruts of my life. I’ll spare you the precise details, but perhaps the one thing that was keeping me going as a freelance- my belief in my ability to write- fell apart. For a few weeks, I was listless and distraught. I had put so much into writing, and I felt as if it had slipped away, permanently. I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was floating through each day aimlessly. I had spent years trying to improve my writing, going to journalism school, loving movies and writing about them, and for a few weeks it all felt pointless. I was 28 years old and drifting, having wasted all my time. I thought my dreams had passed me by. I was ready to give it up. For the first time, I felt completely unmoored.
What got me out of it? Well, I realized I was still very much part of a canvas. I, who had once worried that I was incapable of connecting with people, found myself being pulled back into reality by my friends. One of my grad school teachers reached out to me, talked to some people, gave me some great contacts. My future as a freelancer is suddenly quite promising. The friends I made in those Septembers that I’d once dreaded as a socially anxious 19 year old have been my rocks. My family; so persistently there for me that I can make the mistake of taking them for granted; re-bolstered their support for me. I pulled myself back into humanity, and my dreams came back into focus, back within the scope of reality.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
-“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Every English major thinks they know what this ending means. I think falling in love with Keats involves letting trying to solve this line go. The approach I take now would have infuriated college-me: how does it make you feel?
Well, for me, this line completely humanizes a young man who died at 25, 194 years ago, leaving behind only letters and poetry. It tells me he looked at an ancient object and saw it rife with stories that would never be told. It tells me that he never, never stopped looking for the beauty in all things, whether he was writing about joy, about depression, about death, about love. Keats bled into everything he wrote. He is on the same canvas as I am. I sometimes feel like I owe it to him to keep writing. I will never write as well as him, but he inspired me to write, so I continue to do so.
In college, I remember having a brief debate in a film class about which of the Three Colors films was the best: Blue, White, or Red? My professor was adamant that it was Blue, a deeply moving and sad story of a woman coping with the loss of her husband and child. But it’s always Red for me. Its greatest stroke of genius is its ending, which doesn’t just call back to Blue and White: it pulls them into its canvas and includes them as part of its emotional coda. The characters from all three films appear on screen and we see the judge smile. At the beginning of the film, the sight of them wouldn’t have affected him in the slightest. But by the end of the film, he is not just in Valentine’s orbit; everyone, in all three films, and perhaps the world, is a possibility. It’s never too late to be part of the canvas. You probably never left in the first place.
A Room at the End of the World
The most harrowing passage of Room is also its most lovely. A young boy, attempting to escape a lifetime of captivity sees the full, unobscured sky for the first time. The shot holds for a long time. The boy’s face is expression is something beyond awe and disbelief. It is said that medieval mapmakers would draw dragons to represent locations yet unexplored. For 5-year-old Jake (Jacob Tremblay), the protagonist of Room, everything outside the tiny shed in which he has lived his whole life is dragons.
Room was directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel. They have created a story of remarkable focus and empathy. It opens with Jake’s mother, Joy (Brie Larson), going through their morning routine on his fifth birthday. She wakes him up. They exercise within their tiny space. They bathe together, and assemble a meager breakfast. Their groceries, we learn, are provided by someone named Old Nick. We quickly understand the situation without it being spelled out. They are being imprisoned by Old Nick. And given that Jack believes he dropped into this place he calls Room from outer space, and has no concept of the outside world, we can quickly put together the sinister reality of his conception.
Abrahamson’s commitment to Jake’s point of view almost never wavers. It allows us, people from Outside, to figure out a lot of expository detail. The toilet tank has no cover. They eat with spoons. The one knife they use to prepare food is blunted. This isn’t just a setup; the visual detail tells the story of years of failed attempts by Joy to escape, of Old Nick’s relentless covering of his bases in keeping she and Jake captive.
Larson and Tremblay don’t simply carry this movie; they uplift it to greatness. In the film’s first act, Tremblay is an innocent and Larson a focused survivor, a woman with her focus drilled to two objectives: raise her son, and when he gets old enough, escape with him. There’s an astonishing scene where she, all at once, tries to explain the outside world to him. Her frustration at his disbelief is heartbreaking. Think of a screwball set piece of maddening misunderstanding with all the humor replaced with desperation, grief, and hopelessness.
After escaping Room, Joy and Jake find themselves in a world that is permanently changed for her, and unbelievable for him. The second act, which takes place outside Room, is where Tremblay delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Cynical critics often dismiss child actors as simply being themselves. I can’t fathom Tremblay simply doing that as he begins to explore a world that consists entirely of new things. His performance is physically and emotionally convincing, as he tries to figure out stairs, Lego, and dogs. He never falters even as he is asked to play a character like none I’ve seen before.
Room is not a film that one enjoys. It is at times unrelentingly tense, or overwhelmingly sad. But a week after seeing it I haven’t been able to shake it its power. Its characters go through horrors all too real, all too within comprehension. They emerge together. They are shaken. They are frightened. But they emerge. That in itself is more affirming and affecting than a more sentimental approach could achieve. Jake’s narration imparts no cloying wisdom. He describes things as he sees them. At the end of the film, I was happy simply that he had more to see.
Crimson Peak and Why I Can’t Quit Guillermo Del Toro
One of the side effects of love is an inability to view the actions of those you love objectively. It’s not simply a matter of automatic approval; If they do something wrong you are more inclined to give the ones you love the benefit of the doubt, to see things from their perspective, to not simply assume the worst about them. And when they do something controversial or debatable,you view their actions in the context of how you have come to love them. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s how love works. It’s how humans operate.
What I’m saying is, you might well hate Crimson Peak. But I am incapable of viewing it objectively. Everything Guillermo del Toro has ever done has nestled so perfectly in the wrinkle of my brain that produces delight. Critics adored Pan’s Labyrinth, liked Pacific Rim, and have been bitterly divided over Crimson Peak. I could not begin to tell you how critics see any differences between those three films. I love them all the same.
I suppose if I make a serious effort to separate myself from the material, I can do the math. Pan’s Labyrinth combined a simple and dead serious war story with a tantalizing but not overdone fantasy, and deftly balanced the two, creating a tale that could be seen as either a straightforward fable or the tragic story of a girl desperate to escape from trauma. Pacific Rim was so filled to the brim with simple geeky genre pleasures that could easily be categorized as dumb fun (a categorization I fervently dispute, but that’s for another time). Crimson Peak is the sort of headlong dive into silliness that can only end in either disaster or triumph. Obviously, many see it as clearly the former. But I can’t begin to put myself in a position to understand them. God help me, I loved it. When I hear del Toro is cooking something, I don’t question it. I just shut up and enjoy it.
I admit that I’m a sucker for great visuals. Visual creativity goes a long way for me. Not just special effects of course; in fact, Crimson Peak is weak in that regard. There are a number of ghosts and ghouls that appear in this film, all rendered in underwhelming CGI. As a red rotting skeleton woman crawled across a dark hallway floor groaning for Mia Wasikowska to run for her life, I found myself missing the incredible makeup used for the creatures from from Hellboy 2.
So del Toro’s creature creation was on the fritz this time around. Why did I like Crimson Peak so much, then?
Well, imagine the a movie filled to the brim with ghosts, walls oozing red (it’s just the estate’s unique red clay, we’re assured) where blood comes out of the faucet (sorry, clay), and lots and lots and lots of stabbing and face smashing and extraordinarily bloody violence (or is it clay?). Del Toro knows this material is absurd and he approaches it with glee. I could only hate this material if it was presented with self-serious solemnity. Del Toro takes the opposite approach. This is glum, grim material, made with del Toro’s special sort of joy.
The plot concerns a young writer named Edith (Mia Wasikowska) who falls for a British aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He lives with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in a manor that produces a very red clay that he hopes to sell on the merits of its very redness. Unsurprisingly, he is quite poor.
Edith marries Thomas and moves in with him despite crystal clear warnings from her mother’s rotting ghost to stay away from “Crimson Peak”. Again, consider that sentence. Does it make you want to see the movie? I hope so. It would win me over if I wasn’t already won.
They move into his manor in England. Oh, what a glorious manor it is. When he carries her across the threshold, they are greeted by autumn leaves falling into the entrance hall, courtesy of rot-induced sunroof. Thomas steps too hard on a floorboard, and red ooze seeps up through. Yes, clay. But come on. Del Toro wanted to create a manor that bleeds. He achieves it, and has fun with the “logic” of it all by providing an utterly goofy explanation for it. This isn’t the dumb silliness of a lesser goof. It is a gloriously goofy filmmaker let loose in a toy store of gothic horror. Everything looks magnificent and feels right. The house breathes and bleeds and ghosts crawl through the shadows. For me, that would have been enough.
But hark, there’s a story to go along with the Grand Guignol. Edith can’t seem to get Thomas to consummate the marriage (red flag). She attempts to seduce him in a room full of puppet heads (red flag). Lucille interrupts them (EDITH, RED FLAG). For some reason she seems to want to prevent their physical coupling. Edith’s greatest skill seems to be an inability to see or hear clear warning signs. Or in this case, ghosts repeatedly screaming “GET OUT”, her sister-in-law’s quest to prevent her from getting any, her walls oozing perpetually with, heh, clay, her husband trying to make a living out of the clay, and (I think this is the last one) the fact that he’s into puppets. Edith is undeterred. Edith takes Thomas to the post office to at last have sex with him in privacy.
The post office.
At this point, I remembered Roger Ebert’s review of Pulp Fiction: “I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst. Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one.”
I’m not saying Crimson Peak is as good as Pulp Fiction; it’s the latter portion of that quote that I’m focusing on. Del Toro will never, ever make a boring film, but he could plausibly construct a series of lurid set pieces with no coherence or story to hold them together. But somehow, the story del Toro tells in Crimson Peak coalesces into something perfect for its gorgeous silliness. Lucille and Thomas are, shockingly, hiding Very Dark Secrets. Edith is expressly forbidden to go to certain rooms and, shockingly, finds out some of these Very Dark Secrets.
Guillermo del Toro is not a one MacGuffin filmmaker. Reveals tumble over each other one after another, and the ending is less a single twist than an untying of a simmering, scandalous knot. Along the way, there is ample bloodletting, as Very Dark Secrets threaten to be revealed. Not all the oozing redness can be clay. One character suffers an unfortunate fate in the shower, and you can almost hear del Toro cackling as blood runs down the drain. Hitchcock should never have revealed that his reason for filming Psycho in black-and-white was that red blood running down a drain was too gross. He tempted generations of descendants to see for themselves. He wasn’t wrong.
Charlie Hunnam, a good actor I like quite a bit, has some scenes as Alan, a nice doctor friend of Edith’s. Poor Alan is in the wrong movie. He belongs in Downton Abbey, not here. He has no idea what he’s getting into. I feel compelled to mention him because Charlie Hunnam is a good actor I like quite a bit But Del Toro knows the score. He knows why this movie needed to happen. It needed to happen so Hunnam could sit around helpless and thoroughly stabbed while Jessica Chastain, armed with an oversized meat cleaver, could chase Mia Wasikowska, armed with a butcher knife, around the snow, everyone and everything stained with red. Some of it, I imagine, must be blood by now.
Black Mass, or how I learned to love one of my least favorite movie tropes
Name five soulless, relentlessly evil criminals from the movies.
Characters who are defined by their utter disregard for human life.
Characters who scare the life out of everyone else on screen, usually before actually killing one of them.
It’s not hard.
Here, I’ll do it:
Tommy from Goodfellas
Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs
Nicky from Casino
Mr. French from The Departed
Frank Booth from Blue Velvet
That’s not a comprehensive list. It’s just from the top of my head. The point is that this was not a hard exercise, and I could probably poll ten people and get ten lists with very little crossover.
The allure of the psychotic mobster in crime fiction is obvious: having a character who is nothing but menacing, who might decide to shoot or stab anyone at any time, can create tension in any scene they are in. Which is why it’s one of the tropes that I have long grown tired of. It’s not tension created from stakes inherent to the film’s story. It’s a cheaper sort of tension, a preemptive visceral reaction to bloodshed. Joe Pesci does give an electric performance as Tommy in Goodfellas, but behind the constant boiling is a character who is never fully humanized, never given much to do beyond snapping and killing at random. The brilliance of Pesci’s performance in a scene like this masks that we are never shown why on earth his friends would hang out with him in the first place. Scenes like the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds are more compelling because they begin innocuously and slowly back into an inescapable corner. Characters like this turn every scene into the corner, and not all of them have performances as good as Pesci’s to turn a writing shortcut into a gripping scene.
Walking into Black Mass I prepared myself for a movie chock full of this sort of brutal shorthand. Whitey Bulger’s violent reign over Boston organized crime was operatic in its grisliness. As I settled into my seat, I was prepared for an endless parade of face-stomping, neck-stabbing, and snap judgment executions. All I wondered beforehand was how soon it would be before the film exceeded my tolerance level for such carnage.
Only the barrage never came. And, to my surprise, I think the film was actually worse off for it.
I don’t think Black Mass simply needed more gore. It’s a solid but dry crime movie, elevated by some excellent performances, especially from Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent in cahoots with him. Depp tries his damnedest to create an indelible character in Whitey Bulger. He doesn’t quite succeed. He snarls and seethes but he doesn’t snap. When he kills a longtime colleague, a voiceover explains that he suspected the guy had ratted out a friend and gotten him killed. In the world of mob movies, less frightening characters have done much more frightening things. Nothing Whitey does in this movie exceeds the crimes of Clemenza in The Godfather, and I defy you to find someone who watches The Godfather who doesn’t love Clemenza. Yes, he’s a killer, but he brings his wife cannoli.
Perhaps it sounds like I have developed a sudden and out of character craving for wanton violence. I think (hope?) it’s more complex than that. Black Mass‘s edge is too dull to shock, and its narrative too shallow to derive much emotion from scenes clearly intended to be charged. Consider the scene where Bulger strangles Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), the girlfriend of his enforcer Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). He carries out the hit right in front of Flemmi. The camera moves away from Bulger and Hussey, and focuses strictly on Flemmi’s reaction. Cochrane’s acting in the scene sells it. Through minuscule changes in his expression he conveys the conflict between sadness and loyalty. That, in turn, sells us on how deeply twisted Flemmi must be to be conflicted at all over the horror unfolding in front of him.
However, the performances outshine the writing. We barely know Hussey and Flemmi as characters when she is murdered. In shying away from the violence of her murder, the film, director Scott Cooper seems to be attempting to focus on human emotions. This isn’t unwelcome, but if you are going to humanize this story, you need fully dimensional characters. A tragedy without an arc is simply violence and death. Three characters are in this scene, and only one of them, Bulger, has been given any dimension.
For that matter, the dimension given to Bulger mostly attempts to humanize him. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem; crime movies more often than not ask us to empathize with killers. But the script refers to Bulger as a “sociopath” time and time again, without ever demonstrating why Bulger was so feared. Yes, he is shown killing people. Again, Coppola never asked us to be scared of Clemenza, who carries out the exact same sorts of crimes Bulger is shown committing in this film. But Clemenza was a fictional character. Bulger’s victims were real, and the film owes it to us to treat his crimes with greater gravity. In The Godfather, “it’s just business” is repeated in the face of brutality until we see it’s a lie. Black Mass seems too intent on convincing us that Bulger actually meant it. At best, it’s a copout for Cooper to go out of his way to make each of Bulger’s killings “strictly business”. At worst, it’s callous.
Black Mass wants to be a work of cinematic journalism, and yet the facts of the story it’s trying to tell are far more lurid and grotesque than it’s willing to depict. Which brings me back to my original point: I usually find the “maniac mobster who kills for sport” trope to be tiring and unnecessary. But here was a movie that actually kind of needed it, or at least a shadow of it. Most mob movies are based on fictional or otherwise deeply fictionalized characters, and if you turn their violence up to 11, it can become their only defining characteristic. But with this story, and these characters, you need to capture that unrelenting sense of menace.
It was mid-June, 1993. The perfect warmth San Diego is famous for, mid to high 70s. Don’t ask about humidity. I didn’t know what that was until I moved to Massachusetts.
I was five years old and my life was dinosaurs. Dinosaurs should be a stage of development taught in psych classes. At some point children discover that before there were people, there were massive reptiles, and yes, they were as cool as you hope.
Dinosaurs were my life. I read every book about them in the library, each one with fewer pictures than the last. I collected any and all magazines I could find about paleontology. Dinosaurs had been my main thing for almost a year now. And here was a movie about them, directed by a guy my older sister Mercy assured me was the best and most famous guy who made movies. I didn’t know movies were made by people until this week. I couldn’t comprehend how one would make a movie, as one might make a dinosaur out of clay, or draw a dinosaur with crayons. But Mercy knew things, and I trusted her word: this guy named Steven Spielberg had made other movies I had seen. ET. Jaws. This was a good sign. Mercy also told me that someone named Meryl Streep was the best person at acting in movies. But she wasn’t in this one. I would have to care about Meryl Streep at a later date.
It was the perfect warm. Even in a life lived within constant perfect warmth, this was special. I got a good taste of it, because the line for tickets was all the way around the side of the movie theatre. Edwards Cinema. I wondered who Edward was. It was nice waiting in the sun. My grandmother held my hand tight. She had a vice grip. It was one of the reasons my mom was happy to let her take us places. We couldn’t get free and run loose if we were covered in popcorn grease.
The blast of air conditioning. It’s one of the joyful sudden changes in senses that movie theatres deliver. There are others to come. The overwhelming smell of popcorn. You just can’t get that with an air popper. The sudden darkness of the theatre, the bright orange lights on the floor. It’s a sci-fi experience, walking into a movie theatre at age 5. All this and you haven’t seen the movie yet.
Right. Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs. We see a glimpse of them at the beginning. Scary noises, glimpses of claws. A guy gets eaten. A good start. I didn’t know this was a scary movie, but I’m ready. I know which dinosaurs are carnivores, and so when they are on screen I know there might be something I need to cover my eyes for. Except… my dad’s not here. My Lila never tells me to cover my eyes. What if I just keep watching when it gets scary?
The music swells. That means something. I’ve never noticed that before. The characters, the paleontologist guy and the lady who studies ancient plants (I’ll have my uncle Johnny what that is, he tends to know these things) react to something we can’t see. The music swells and they react. A cold, isolated chill trickles down my spine and through my fingertips. The shot pulls back for the big reveal. Dinosaurs. As real as I’ve ever seen them.
It was March, 2002. I’m a homeschooled, 15 year old theatre kid. I don’t have many hobbies. Movies are starting to become one of them. I’ve started posting on this message board Mercy told me about. Nothing special about it, just a bunch of people who love movies and talk about them and have fun handicapping the Oscars and talking about that and well, I give it a go. TO my shock, they welcome me and my pitiful repertoire of movie knowledge. Lots of the other members are people about my age, eager to learn more about movies, eager to talk about them, wide-eyed at the vast number of movies that already exist, thrilled at the possibilities of falling in love with movies yet unseen.
That’s my problem, I guess. I haven’t really fallen in love with a movie yet.
Not since I was a kid. It almost seems unfair to bring nostalgic movies into the equation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that really bowled me over. One that took me to new places. One that seemed made just for me.
But I watch. I watch endlessly. I’m a homeschooled theatre kid and it’s summer time. No big shows on the slate for a while.
HBO, Starz, and TCM become by companions on my search. I turn them on and watch whatever there is that has just started. It’s not a great way to catch up, but it’s already been paid for, unlike movie rentals. On this afternoon I flip over to Starz and see that a film called Princess Mononoke is on. The title is striking. I turn over to it.
It’s animated. Looks like anime, to be more precise. But lusher and smoother than the handful of anime shows I was familiar with. I try to pick up on the plot. A young man riding some sort of deer is being pursued by warriors on horses. He fires an arrow and one of his pursuers’ heads pops clean off. Another is relieved of his arms. Well, this is charming. But interesting. I keep watching.
It turns out, this isn’t an altogether violent movie. It’s character driven. And what characters. San, a girl raised by wolves, dedicated to killing Eboshi, a ruler as ruthlessly pragmatic in pursuit of power as she is benevolent and loving to her people.
I am hooked. This is unlike anything I’ve seen before. This story doesn’t give me easy answers. A war breaks out, and I want neither side to win, because I like characters on both sides.
And my god, this film is just lovely. I have never been so bowled over by a film’s visual creativity before. A giant boar turns into a spirit that consists of writing, black worms. A benevolent forest god, who looks like a deer by day, turns into a towering sort of kindly kaiju at night, shimmering with starlight.
This is thrilling, courageous storytelling, I think. No easy answers. Flawed characters. The movie ends with everyone having been deeply affected by the conflicts. And the final shot is the film’s loveliest, silently conveying hope after and endless onslaught of conflict. The movie ends. I sit back in my chair, dumbfounded and in tears.
I’ve found it.
I think every movie lover reaches a point where they wonder if they can be surprised. Not if they can fall in love again with a movie. No, that will happen so long as people who love movies continue to make movies. But being surprised, walking out of a theatre with your expectations totally shattered? That’s a special kind of joy.
It’s late August, 2012. I’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately. Not much else to do. I’d gotten some bad news. My application for an academic internship has been denied. I’ll have to leave my university-owned apartment in February, not May. I thought I’d be doing work at a magazine or even a newspaper that Fall. Instead I’ll be working at the library. At least that application worked out.
The job meant I could see movies on the regular now. And that’s grand, because there’s a wonderful theatre that’s walking distance from my apartment. The Brattle is like an new friend you feel like you’ve known for a long time. It gets me. It’s small, intimate. Movie posters are plastered haphazardly everywhere. And their lineup delightfully eclectic. Classics. New classics. Tiny arthouse flicks. Movies they just seem to like. Citizen Kane might show one week, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the next. Tonight, it’s a movie I feel like I should have seen before: Mulholland Drive.
I know David Lynch’s work. It’s… odd. But he’s good. The Elephant Man is a favorite of mine, but it’s also one of his more conventional stories I guess. Whatever. Push that out of your mind, JM. Go into this fresh. I get my job-funded bucket of popcorn and root beer and settle into my favorite seat in the house (balcony, front and center).
The movie opens with a car crash, amnesia, and a creepy turn by Ann Miller. Ann Miller, who got her start at age 15 in You Can’t Take it With You. I wonder what stories she had to tell between that film and this one, 65 years apart.
A scene begins to unfold involving a hitman, whose hit goes wrong in every possible way. I know Lynch doesn’t care for conventional narrative, but I’ve never seen a movie jump around quite like this one. And by god, this scene is funny. I haven’t laughed like this in a theatre in a long time.
A scene begins to unfold involving two friends in a diner. Again, we haven’t seen them before. There’s something off about their dialogue. It’s stilted, kind of soapy. One of them men is describing a dream he had. A recurring nightmare. Slowly we begin to realize that the nightmare is on the verge on unfolding for real. The scene turns unrelentingly terrifying. The best sort of scary: where something cosmically indescribable is happening. I haven’t been this scared in a movie theatre in a long time.
A woman is on a stage, singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. This is one of my favorite songs. It’s, on its own, a spectacular rendition of it. I actually want to cry. The two main characters of the film (played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring) actually do begin to weep. There’s no particular reason for them to do so. But it makes sense. It makes sense the way dreams do when you’re having them. I have never seen a film capture that so perfectly before, not even a David Lynch film. The singer collapses on stage, is pulled off. Her voice continues to sing. It makes sense.
I walk out of the theatre, feeling like I’ve lost time. I realize that if someone asked me to describe this film to them, I would be hard pressed to do so. I don’t care. I feel a buzz in my step, and there’s a smile on my face as I walk back to my apartment in the dark.
Damn it feels good to fall in love.
RIP, Wes Craven
Wes Craven has died. I admit, when I heard the news I immediately checked to see how others in his generation of horror directors were doing. John Carpenter. George Romero. Tobe Hooper. Dario Argento. Morbid? Perhaps. But artistic movements come in generations, and generations age (by the way, all are doing well, as far as I know). Eventually, people whose films we remember seeing in theatres are spoken of in the past tense. And when that happens, it shakes us. Like any celebrity who passes away, I never knew or met or otherwise have any means of judging Wes Craven on any basis than his art. That I feel such a loss today is all that needs to be said about the power and reach of art.
There is no denying Craven’s place on the pantheon of all-time great- and important- horror filmmakers. The Last House on the Left shook the genre to its core in 1972. It has been imitated so many times over that it perhaps has not held up as well as some of the less narratively straightforward horror films of the era (like Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Argento’s Suspiria) but to watch it again today is to peer into a time capsule, when films that raw, that uncompromising, that willing to showcase unfettered evil, were simply unheard of. It’s an unpleasant film, and one that had to be for the genre to evolve.
Few horror directors have been such stylistic chameleons as Craven. When sweaty grim slaughterhouse movies of the 70s gave way to the slicker, post-Halloween deluge of slasher films, Craven stayed ahead of the curve. In a genre of increasingly nondescript villains defined by the body counts in their wake, A Nightmare on Elm Street swooped with and gave us perhaps the most iconic horror villain of all time, and for good reason. How many horror movies characters have been as quotable as Freddy Krueger? Hell, how many non-Nightmare horror movies do you have to come up with to equal the number of Freddy’s memorable lines?
Craven’s sense of humor and ever-increasing skill reached their apex with Scream, a massive hit in 1996 (almost a quarter century after The Last House on the Left). Scream wasn’t just popular; like his debut film, it was a game-changer. Whereas Last House shocked audience’s sensibilities, Scream subverted their expectations. It was a horror film about characters who knew they were in a horror film. It had a blast cracking jokes about the tropes of the genre while still delivering goods with scares that relied on those same tropes. It was a daring tightrope dance for Craven, but he didn’t just pull it off- he excelled. Scream was a cultural touchstone that remains every bit as entertaining almost 20 years later.
I didn’t know Wes Craven. The outpouring of tributes to him from his actors and colleagues are evidence that he was a lovely person. I only knew his art. His art was important to me. And in a genre that I love dearly, he was one of the most important figures ever to work within it. That’s a connection that will never be lost. Rest in peace, Wes.