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The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight: Horror in the Wild West

"The Hateful Eight" with Cowboy Font
“The Hateful Eight” with Cowboy Font

I will follow Quentin Tarantino’s lead, and like this movie, “The Hateful Eight,” I will allow this review to be indulgently long. And like Tarantino, I will break it into “chapters,” using titled headers.

Prelude: It’s dreadful and wonderful

 “Damn. Tarantino never fails to amaze,” I wrote in my book, breathless (having just gasped my heart into my lungs). It was only intermission, and I was already getting high off the crazy-violent depravity-fumes that Tarantino was releasing into the theater. I was glad for the break, to get some fresh air. But hey, he went more than an hour and a half (the running time of most other films) before a shot was even fired. He (and Samuel Jackson) made us wait. And it was hot-blooded, high-tension waiting – like the most highly-charged sexual foreplay that brings you right up to the edge of the cliff, and then, still not giving what you crave, hangs you perilously over the side, where you are clutching for your life and consummation. It’s dreadful and wonderful.

Part One: The Eighth Movie by Quentin Tarantino

First there is an orchestral overture. This movie is being presented as an old-fashioned 70-mm cinematic roadshow, complete with overture and intermission – in limited release. (Only about 40 venues will get this added razzle-dazzle, which adds up to 3+ hours. Most theaters will show the 35mm version, without the intermission, and slightly shorter.) The grand-opening music is by , the legendary Sergio Leone collaborator and the iconic master of scores for the most famous old Westerns (including “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Fistful of Dollars”). The much-discussed twist of the movie is its underlying mystery plot, but the biggest mystery might be how Tarantino got this musical giant, who is now pushing 90 years old, to create a score for one of Tarantino’s unabashedly bad-taste, gore-fest films. For this alone, Tarantino is amazing.  

The film opens big – a sprawling view of snow-covered mountains as wide and vivid as you’ve ever seen. And a six-horse stage coach is racing across the white, barren landscape, trying to outrun the howling blizzard that pursues it. Tarantino got at least this one epic shot from his much-touted, Ultra-Panavision 70-mm format camera. (“These are not the same kind of lenses used to shoot “Ben-Hur“; they are the same lenses,” Tarantino has boasted.)

Click: More about the 70-mm format, from Tarantino, including, “Man, that is going to the movies, and that is worth saving, and we need to see more of that.” – interview with Mike Fleming Jr. at “Deadline Hollywood” (paragraph 2)

Click: What Is 70mm Film, and Why Is It Worth Seeing on the Big Screen? by Sarah Gorr

When the opening credits are plastered up on the screen – static, not scrolling, they are bold red and black, vintage, cowboy-movie lettering against a bright white background, like an old-style movie poster. “The Hateful Eight” (nod to Leone), along with an intro line: “The 8th Movie by Quentin Tarantino.” Wow. This guy is proud of himself, and in addition: This guy loves movies! He is putting himself all-in and relishing every classic going-to-the-movies moment. And it works; I start off excited, like I am going on a cinematic adventure, led by someone who definitely knows the way.

"The Hateful Eight" with Tarantino
“The Hateful Eight” with Tarantino

So: The dazzling, white-snow wide-shot is held for a long time – plenty of time to take it all in, and then he cuts to a tight close-up of an old, rotting skeleton hanging from a wooden cross (in 70mm vibrant enormity). Snow blows across the skull as Tarantino pulls the camera out very, very slowly, finally showing the cross standing isolated against the immense, empty landscape. “Think about it,” I can almost hear him saying. “It’s a skeleton, and a cross, and snow – primal.” (Tarantino does actually take to narrating his own film in the second half, which is surprising and quirky.)

"The Hateful Eight," wide-shot
“The Hateful Eight,” wide-shot

Part Two: The Door is Nailed Shut

What follows the grandiose and traditional opening is a crazed mash-up of Wild-West cowboy-hats-and-shotguns (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) and an Agatha Christie whodunit-mystery (“And Then There Were None”), an over-the-top blood-spattered horror flick (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), plus another blood-soaked film for good measure (the revenge-horror classic, “Carrie”), lines of dialogue as witty and well-crafted as Shakespeare (let’s go with “Titus Andronicus,” his bloodiest tragedy), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play “No Exit.”

About the latter: Characters are punished by being locked in a room together for eternity. The original title of this 1944 French play is actually the French equivalent of the legal term “in camera,” referring to a private discussion behind closed doors. English translations have also been performed under the titles “Behind Closed Doors,” “No Way Out,” “Vicious Circle,” and “Dead End,” all of which would have been appropriate titles for this movie.

“Hell is other people” – Sartre

The movie begins vast and spacious, as I have described, and then quickly goes indoors and claustrophobic. The travelers from the stage coach take shelter from the storm in a remote, one-room roadhouse, which already holds some questionable characters and is now filled with a motley assortment of killers (some outlaws, some lawful). The beloved owner of the roadhouse is suspiciously absent, and the only door is literally nailed shut. (The latch has recently been broken, so wood planks must be nailed across the door and the wall, to keep the blizzard winds from blowing in.) No one can enter or exit without breaking the boards away from the door. And it’s a full house. Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people” might as well have been painted on the cabin wall in blood – Charlie Manson-style.

And this is the brilliant and evil genius of the film. It starts as a customary, wide-screen Western (with what one would wrongly assume are stoic and laconic cowboys) and converts to a theatrical, dialogue-driven parlor drama (with a sadistic twist). And that spectacular 70-mm camera, made for the broad, epic outdoors, is used to create a small, interior, human-face epic, depicting a brutal, cabin-fever-dream that is sweating with saturated details.

Does this story offer an insightful socio-political look into the heart of America – then and now? Is it saying, as Matt Singer writes, at “Screen Crush,” that America is “a melting pot where everyone gets burned”? Or is it a giddy, gruesome mess full of miserable mayhem, that goes on for way too long? Yes. And Yes. And toss in a few more theories, and it’s those as well. It’s a gluttonous feast of rich genres and saucy conceits– just in time for the holidays, where gluttonous feasts are the way we roll.

Click: Tarantino talks about how TV Westerns were his inspiration, more than movies, especially in terms of the guys-trapped-in-a-room storyline. – interview with “Deadline” (paragraph 4)

Part Three: Abraham Lincoln is a BFF

Introduce Samuel Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you need not even mention any of the other excellent cast members (although they all kick ass); these two steal the show. One highlight is when Samuel Jackson delivers a long, slow (+ slower, + longer) monologue that is increasingly horrifying and devastating and ultimately beyond-beyond shocking and unbearable. And it is magnificent. I don’t think I can reveal the big, shocking element without spoiling it. But I will say that it is a deadly monologue. Jackson literally destroys a man with these words. And you see that man – a one-time great Confederate Army General, melt down in front of Jackson, like the Wicked Witch melted and burned when Dorothy poured the lethal bucket of water on her. It’s one of the most astonishing speeches I can remember hearing – masterfully written and masterfully delivered.

Samuel Jackson in "The Hateful Eight"
Samuel Jackson in “The Hateful Eight”

I don’t think I will be spoiling anything by revealing that Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, a Civil War ex-Union officer turned bounty hunter, is a brutal and pitiless man. We learn early on how he burned down an entire jailhouse where he was imprisoned, killing both his captors and his fellow soldiers, so that he himself could escape. And this Major Warren carries with him, throughout this Civil War interbellum (turmoil-continues) story, a letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln. That letter is reverently kept inside Warren’s breast pocket, close to his heart.

During the course of the film, the letter is admired, spit on, chased through the snow, and so on. And at some point in the film, after Warren has completed yet another bloody, ruthless act, the letter is read aloud. And as I watched Jackson’s face – silent and listening, I felt myself tear up. Minutes before, Jackson had wreaked ferocious havoc, and with a quick shift, I was deeply moved by and for him (and by Tarantino’s poetic writing). That’s the way this movie goes; it is savage and then touching and then hilarious. And Samuel Jackson plays a major role in all of those emotional leaps and pirouettes. It is a stunning performance.

“It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride.”

And then there is Jennifer Jason Leigh. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this role (and she won’t), there is simply no justice in the world (a truth that Tarantino woefully keeps telling). She plays Daisy Domergue, a spitting, snarling, murderous outlaw-turned-prisoner who begins the movie with a swollen eye that has been punched purple. Kept in chains, she continues to be arbitrarily and mercilessly beaten and abused throughout the movie; her teeth are knocked out, her nose is broken, and her jaw is fractured. Eventually, she is covered in blood – both her own and the blood of others, and even has some brains splattered on her, yet she remains magically (black-magically) defiant. She can take a punch and come back seething. She is terrifying, she is sympathetic, and she is funny.  And no, I don’t believe that because Tarantino makes the only female character the punching bag of the movie, he is a misogynist. Daisy is the smartest character in the movie. And the most fascinating. And Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the Hell out of her.

Just for fun: Compare Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Hateful Eight” to Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.” below:

Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Hateful Eight" and Sissy Spacek in "Carrie"
Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Hateful Eight” and Sissy Spacek in “Carrie”

Click: There is an actual thing called Quentin  Blood! Fake movie blood is a niche specialty. Ethan Sacks at “New York Daily News” explains the range of colors and viscosity that different directors want in different films and for different purposes.

Click: A Brief History of Fake Blood, including a pro’s movie-blood recipe, plus Tarantino asking for “Samurai blood” in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” – Forrest Wickman, “Slate”

Part Four: The Bull Doesn’t Really Die

The details of who kills whom and when and how and why… it’s Quentin Tarantino. Why say more? People will always argue about the issue of gratuitous violence in Tarantino’s movies, no matter what. Nonetheless, I want to add: It’s no spoiler alert to say that far more people die in the new “Star Wars” movie than in “Hateful Eight.” But no one will ever accuse “Star Wars” of being overly violent.

Yet, more-criticized, the violence in “Hateful Eight” is better, because it is cathartic. It’s stylized and perverse and comically outrageous, but still – you feel it, and deeply. (That’s why it’s so repulsive to so many people.) Spaceship battles in the sky may be entertaining, but they are not cathartic. In Tarantino’s film, blood gets on you. And that redeems it. It elevates the film (despite its apparent depravity).

"The Hateful Eight" have trails of blood.
“The Hateful Eight” have trails of blood.

Let’s review our Aristotle: Catharsis is an emotional purge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress. By watching an exhibition or imitation of fear and violence the audience is able to cleanse themselves of their own repressed fear and violence. Aristotle used the term to explain the impact of tragedy on audiences, saying that catharsis was the ultimate end of a tragic artistic work and marked its quality.

For me, Tarantino is like a watching a bullfight. Consider the bazaar, stylized reality of a prized bull being stabbed for mass entertainment, and bleeding and falling and dramatically dying. And yes, bullfights are controversial too, largely because there is never any doubt that the bull will die; it doesn’t have a chance. It’s the same. There is never any doubt that people will die in a Tarantino film; it’s only a matter of how and when. And it may indeed be unfair to the bull, and inappropriate for modern life, but I don’t think a solid argument can be made against the tragic catharsis that the audience experiences at a bullfight. It’s something that people have felt and acknowledged for centuries. However, the wonder of art is that you can imitate violence and get the same emotional cleansing. In a movie, the bull doesn’t really die.

“There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood!”

And no one understands this better than Quentin Tarantino, who is constantly reminding his audiences that they are watching a movie; what you are seeing is not real. It is a make-believe game that nonetheless has powerful effect. And Tarantino loves to play with that paradox – the tension between what you know is not real and what you really feel. And he takes that to the most extreme and extraordinary places he can go. He’s outrageous, but he’s mindfully so; he knows what he’s doing. And that’s what his fans love about him. He’s smart. His movies are smart, even when they are low and dirty and ugly. (And yes, even because they are low, etc.)

Plus, in modern American life, we have “evolved” to a point where we are numb to so much ordinary and expected violence. It has lost its potency. So we need something more frightening and more terrible to help us achieve that catharsis. And art can offer that, while still being safe.

"The Hateful Eight" is Violent
“The Hateful Eight” is Violent

So, when Tarantino stages a bullfight, you feel as if you are right there, watching the real thing, and then, just as the bull is about to die… suddenly the most unpredictable and terrifying and absurd thing – the thing you could never imagine… happens. And that’s when you get that crazy, horrifying-and-also-satisfying shock; that’s when you gasp your heart into your lungs. And I challenge anyone to watch “The Hateful Eight” and not gasp in full at least twice.

Conclusion: It’s Sexy

HelenHighly: I'm just saying.
HelenHighly: I’m just saying.

I’ll go one step further and say, not only is it cathartic…  it’s sexy. This is not late-breaking news: sex and death go very well together. And even though the movie has no actual sex in it whatsoever, I think it’s a turn-on. It’s hot. And, btw, there was nothing sexy about “Star Wars” – romantic maybe, but not visceral. I’m just saying.

Epilogue: Killer Coffee Pot?

HelenHighly is Highly interested in the things in movies. I love it when an object becomes a key part of a film plot, or when it makes such an indelible impression that it changes the way people think of or feel about that thing.

Click: See my commentary on “Holiday Shopping in the Movies: Where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive,” in which I write about iconic Christmas gifts that were defined by movies.

In “Hateful Eight,” there is an object that is central to the plot – the blue-speckled cowboy-style coffee pot, and investigation uncovers an amusing irony. I won’t say exactly how the pot enters into the film’s intrigue, but I will wonder aloud if the pot’s infamous history was an inspiration for that detail of the story (and I’ll give a small clue).

“People started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients.”

Cowboy Coffee Pot: Enamelware
Cowboy Coffee Pot: Enamelware

The type of pot used in the movie, which was historically accurate, is called enamelware. It was invented in the mid-1800s, when people wanted a way of coating iron to stop metallic tastes or rust from getting into food – something acid-resistant and easy to clean without laborious scouring, and something more durable than the tin linings used inside copper. So, manufacturers of kitchenware started coating everything from cast iron to steel with enamel. When fired, the enamel glazed, creating a non-porous surface that was easier to clean than exposed metal. Plus, it had a smooth, glossy finish that looked appealing. Traditionally, enamelware was bright white because it looked most sanitary. Then, speckled blue became popular because it was more cheerful.

But: Were enamel-lined pots really as clean and safe as they seemed? After a while (actually, Helen is Highly amazed at how many years it took) people started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients leaching into their food. Unfortunately, it turned out, enamel surfaces were prone to cracking, which would expose the metal beneath, causing it to rust. Ultimately, consumers were scared away from both the metal and the enamel, due to claims of lead, antimony, and arsenic turning up in their food and coffee.

Today, modern science has solved the poison problem, and enamelware is still used in country kitchens and vintage-chic homes. And because they can handle a direct flame and don’t require electricity, enameled coffee pots are still a staple at well-equipped camp sites. (Just don’t ever let Quentin Tarantino anywhere near your coffee pot.)

Finally

Yes, we have just crossed the three-hour mark. And I will stop writing. But Helen Highly encourages YOU to drink some strong coffee (maybe with a shot of booze in it) and high-tail it over to your local theater and see “The Hateful Eight.” It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride. 

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News: The Hateful Eight opens with $1.9 million on Christmas Day

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When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Best Film of the Year Review: Carol vs Brooklyn

HelenHighly Critiques the Film “Carol” and Compares it to the film “Brooklyn”

Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett in “Carol”

The movie “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett, is a lesbian romantic drama that is based on the book “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, and it’s getting named Best Film of the Year by just about everyone, it seems, and making all the award short-lists. And Helen is Highly disappointed. I’m going to compare it to the movie “Brooklyn,” to explain why. But let me add up front that the film was costumed by Sandy Powell, art directed by Jesse Rosenthal, and filmed by Edward Lachman, who will all likely (and deservingly) receive awards for their work here. But I have issues with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.

Mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

I saw “Carol” at the 53rd New York Film Festival, where just about every film was more interesting than this gigantic slice of Boring. After watching the film, I assumed most people would dislike it as much as I did, so I was shocked when I did a quick Google search and saw the Variety review pop up saying “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol, exquisitely drawn, deeply felt…” No way! (I usually like Justin Chang, but I disagree with him and nearly everyone else about this film.) My first order of business is to change Variety’s intro line: “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for”: the slow emptiness of this mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

Listen, I adore Cate Blanchett as much as anyone. And no one can say she is not gorgeous. At one point in the film – at a party, her estranged husband concedes to her that she is the most beautiful woman in the room. Well, that never changes. She is the most beautiful and the best dressed and best accessorized and best groomed person in every scene. So, let’s all agree to put Cate Blanchett’s face in the dictionary under the word Perfection, and then we can all go home and save ourselves two hours of lifeless artifice. And if Cate were selling lipstick, or stockings, or fur coats, I would buy them all. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone.

I’m happy for Blanchett that she got such a glamorous star vehicle in which to show off. But why is no one else stating the obvious – that this is essentially a vanity project for Cate Blanchett? Unfortunately however, in this movie, we cannot see Cate’s rich inner life through the heavy cover of makeup and fur.

Cate Blanchett bathed in fur, as Carol.
Cate Blanchett bathed in fur, as Carol.

Remember the final season’s opening episode on “Mad Men,” where Don Draper is trying desperately to find the ideal,  alluring model to put in his fur coat ad? Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett should get that job! She is precisely what Don was looking for – an impossibly beautiful fantasy of aspirational glamour and exquisite opulence. Women want to be her and men want to have her, exactly because she is so flawless and empty; you feel nothing for her or from her as a character – no complicated emotions to ruin the high-gloss facade. And honestly, Cate, you are better than this; you don’t need to advertise your quintessential (surface) beauty. That Don Draper gig, and this movie, are beneath you; you can act.

The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal.

This brings me to the lesbian theme of the story. Helen Highly objects to the portrayal of Carol and her younger lover (played by Rooney Mara) as a Hollywood male fantasy of woman-on-woman sexuality. Due to Haynes’ decision to maintain the look-and-feel of a 1950s flick, the movie refrains from overtly explicit sex scenes, but still it has the tone of cheesy pin-up porn – made for men, and not about real-life women who have ambiguous thoughts and difficult feelings. Highsmith’s 1953 book, “The Price of Salt,” became a lesbian-romance cult-novel, due largely to its being the first authentic expression of lesbian love that did not have the punishing ending that was prescribed by 1950s morality. Highsmith was a lesbian herself (a fact she denied throughout most of her career), and this story is semi-autobiographical, telling the tale of when she was a shop girl who fell into a romantic obsession over an older married woman who was a customer at the store. But let’s stop there for a moment. (Well, there’s not much else to tell; the movie mostly repeats variations of the first scene.)

Cate Blanchett gazes as "Carol"
Cate Blanchett gazes as “Carol”

Part of Helen being Highly annoyed is that so many people are eager to say how this film is “important for women” – as if it were still the act of sexual bravery and social revelation it was in the 1950s. And that is simply not the case. Today, the storyline reads as old news and naively obvious. The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal. And this is the fault of the screenplay and the direction, which do not capture the emotional intensity or poetic eroticism of the book. (Watch Dec. 19th’s “Saturday Night Live” and see their skit about how a male director is ruining an otherwise good 1950’s movie about two lesbians. Ha.)

The book meticulously detailed the inner lives of these two, passionate yet confused women; the film, instead, meticulously (and ploddingly) details a story that was only loosely referenced in the book (because Highsmith was interested in tortuous desire and fearful loneliness, not a who-gets-the-kid divorce case). In the movie that Nagy and Haynes made, the tale becomes a simplistic, self-righteous, politically-correct after-school-special. Haynes attempts, it seems, to depict the women’s emotions with an endless series of long, silent gazes. The film becomes tedious quickly, as we see the same posed, passive expressions played over and over – against a range of sumptuous backgrounds. And so it seems that Haynes cares more about his visual style than he does the psychology of his characters.

Todd Haynes is no Hitchcock.

Now, because of all the unwarranted hoopla about this movie, it becomes important to discuss Highsmith’s other books, several of which were made into highly successful movies, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train” among them. Highsmith published “The Price of Salt” under another name and disowned the book for many years, not wanting to derail her career as a successful mystery writer. Other than this one-off erotic lesbian tale,  Highsmith wrote thrillers. Margaret Talbot, at the “New Yorker,” recently wrote a fascinating article about the background of the movie, in which she explained: “In 1952, Coward-McCann published ‘The Price of Salt.’ Harpers & Bros., which had released ‘Strangers on a Train’ two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller.” So, all you devoted Highsmith fans, just be aware: this one is not like the others — not the book and definitely not the film. By the way, The “New Yorker” article is very worth reading and includes many quotes from the book, which are strikingly different from the minimal, stilted language of the film.

 And to my smart-yet-in-this-case-incorrect friend, and others, who like to say that “Carol” is comparable to the brilliant and classic “Strangers on a Train,” I say two things:

1) Haynes is no Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock and Highsmith shared an affection for frosty blondes (and perhaps Todd Haynes does as well). But Hitchcock was a master. He knew how to make an ice-queen come alive on the screen.

2) “Carol” is no thriller. Hitchcock also understood plot; he knew what was a compelling story and what was not. “Carol” is not.

So, Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes can wish she were Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all day long, but she’s not going to touch a hair of their blonde locks with this script and this director.

It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie!

The other night, taking a break from writing this review, I went to Joes’ Pub at the Public Theater to see a wacky Christmas cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, called “Angels We Have Heard When High” (HelenHighly was highly intrigued.)

Justin Vivian Bond
Justin Vivian Bond

To my surprise and delight, much of the comic element of the show was based on the movie “Carol.” It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie! Bond smartly comments at one point, “’The Price of Salt’ was at least based on something real.” Bond scoffs at the notion that there is anything true or sexy in the film and hilariously explains that despite the director’s meticulous efforts to create 1950s verisimilitude, he neglects the important detail of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails.

Bond says that it’s clearly apparent that Carol has a gel manicure – something only recently invented and very different from the nail polish the character would have worn in her day. Ha! That is so true! (Gel “no-chip” polish and processing essentially bake the color onto the nails and have been a game-changer in the world of manicures. The color lasts for weeks instead of days and is a major 21st-century advancement, which would have been nothing but a sci-fi fantasy to any 1950s woman.) Bond goes on to insist that at least during the several-day-long road trip, where Carol is living out of a suitcase, she would have had a couple chips in her perfect nail color. But Haynes did not allow that, keeping Carol a phony character instead.

Bond also bemoans the film’s false portrayal of the “May-December romance” (which is important in the book). She says she is all for older men or women getting it on with young, hot things, but alas she was once the May and is now the December part of that equation. And she knows what that feels like and looks like (and so does HelenHighly), and there is no way that “December” looks like Cate Blanchett’s perfection. Bond resents now having to live up to Todd Haynes’ unrealistic depiction of a December lover. Once again: Helen Highly agrees!

In “Brooklyn,” the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them.

While watching the screening of “Carol” at the New York Film Festival, I made very few notes in my book, because there was nothing interesting to write down (IMHO). But soon after, there was a screening of the film “Brooklyn,” another historically-accurate, sentimental love story that was adapted from an acclaimed book (screenplay by Nick Hornby). I made quite a few notes about that movie. Remarkably, the two films take place in the same year and in the same city (New York and its environs) and both generally deal with the problems of pulled-in-two-directions love and related family pressure. The big difference: I care about the characters in “Brooklyn”!

"Brooklyn" movie poster.
“Brooklyn” movie poster.

 In the movie “Brooklyn,” the main character is Ellis Lacey (played with heart by Saoirse Ronan), and like Carol, she struggles with a love dilemma and is nearly torn apart by it. Both stories also include a theme about secrets and spies who reveal those secrets, plus the themes of betrayal and nasty gossip. Watching Ellis, I ached for her. Carol’s plight left me cold.

Both films have been critically applauded for their lush cinematography and vivid, vintage design. But in “Brooklyn,” the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them. Interestingly, in an interview after the screening, director John Crowley explained that he wanted the film to seem “artless,” and he did not cast the roles “for looks,” but rather for “inner truth.” And that inner truth is indeed expressed in the film, which rises above its sentimentality by letting the characters earn their emotions. Crowley brings the audience close and lets us follow the inner workings of the characters. Haynes maintains a cool distance throughout.

"Brooklyn" feels real.
“Brooklyn” feels real.

There is a scene in “Brooklyn” where Ellis takes her first trip to the beach at Coney Island, and when she comes out from behind her towel and reveals her “swim costume,” it is a glorious moment. I felt myself beaming for her. I wrote in my notes, “rapture!” And the feeling of rapture is exactly what was needed and missing from “Carol.” When Ellis’ sister dies, I was devastated. I felt her pain. For Carol, I could only yawn (and sneer at suffering that seemed so fake).

Todd Haynes, I know you are a skilled and well-regarded filmmaker (and thank you for the movie “I’m Not There,” where Cate Blanchett is put to much better use, btw), but Helen Highly suggests that you watch the movie “Brooklyn” and take a few notes.

NEWS: See exactly what awards and accolades Carol has received.

Vote: What do you think? Is Carol Best Film of the Year is Brooklyn better? Carol vs BrooklynClick here to cast your vote.

Or: Didn’t love Brooklyn (or haven’t seen it) but would like to stop the craziness over Carol? Click here to vote for Carol vs ANY OTHER MOVIE as Best Film of the Year.

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When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Spoiler Heavy Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoiler Heavy Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WARNING! You will only get to see the new Star Wars movie for the first time once. So go see it. And if you want spoiler free reviews than you can find a bunch on the internet here, here, and here.

Once you’ve done that come back here for a spoiler heavy review and analysis. You’ve been warned.

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. When Disney bought Star Wars three years ago and announced that an Episode VII was being fast tracked into development fans around the world freaked out. One year ago the first trailer dropped and kicked anticipation into lightspeed. The hype and positive buzz surrounding the film only grew from there as the film inched closer to release.

So how does the first Star Wars film in ten years hold up against the biggest hype train we’ll all never see the likes of again?

In many aspects it holds up quite well. Exceptionally well actually considering the impossibly high expectations and circumstances surrounding it.

But in others it falls as hard as Darth Vader did to the dark side.

darth vader burnt mask

Before we start, I will say this. Given the immense hype and the smattering of trailers and TV commercials that’s bombarded the public in the recent weeks, J.J. Abrams and Disney did an amazing job dangling the movie in front of the public without ruining it. The film has some really great moments and surprises for everybody that the trailers never hinted at or showed. Even if you’ve seen them all a hundred times by now, you know who you are, the film still entertains.

And the Force Awakens does this on the strength of it’s characters. The new main characters are all spectacular, well developed and fun to watch. They were my favorite part of the film by far and will be for most viewers as you can tell the writers put a lot of thought and care into their development.

John Boyega’s Finn is one hundred times funnier than Jar Jar Binks ever wished he was. By the end of the film, he was really nothing more than a dense stormtrooper with a big heart and a conscious who got himself in way over his head. Finn’s best qualities come out when he puts himself into the greatest danger like escaping from the First Order, or on the Millennium Falcon, or in his two great lightsaber duels.

The Rebels, now the Resistance’s, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron had the smallest part of the new cast but always seemed exuberant and eager. I would have liked to see more of him  in the cockpit of his slick black X-wing, but then again I would have liked to have seen more X-wings in the film as well.

BB-8 is a scene stealer throughout the entire movie. Maybe it’s wise R2-D2 was shut down through most of the film as there’s no way he can compete with that adorable soccer ball of a droid.

Kylo Ren Force Awakens Trailer

Kylo Ren was also quite a surprise, but not for the reasons that are the most apparent. As much as he strives not to be, his character is the anti-Vader in almost every way. Emotional, witty and surprisingly funny he is also full of doubt as he finds himself pulled to the light side, something which he struggles to find the strength to combat. What a great way to flip not only Darth Vader comparisons but also the whole dichotomy of the Force and how it’s perceived in general. It’s not just the dark side that can pulls and seduce anymore, the light side is just as tempting it seems. What a great twist that takes what’s come before makes it new and interesting again. I also got quite a kick of his synthesized voice which sounded a lot like Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men and his lightsaber temper tantrums. What better way to show Kylo as the spoiled brat he is than to have him slash everything with his lightsaber. It was also a nice touch I thought that under his mask he is quite the pretty boy which made for a nice visual contrast with Vader’s scared and ruined face.

Rey The Force Awakens

The last great revelation was Daisy Ridley in her role as Rey. Like Luke, she begins the movie as a lost youth stuck trying to make ends meet on a backwards desert planet. Adventurous and resourceful, she braves the derelict ruins of Star Destroyers spelunking  for scrap she can sell for food. She waits patiently on her seemingly adopted homeworld of Jakku for the family she can’t remember to one day return to her. It’s very endearing and gives Rey some vulnerability while also keeping her tough as she needs no one to protect or rescue her in a welcome change of pace. She is also quite plucky and scrappy when she needs to be and develops a great father daughter chemistry with Han Solo that the film never quite wants to awkwardly acknowledge. She has a lot in common with Luke on the surface but I was reminded more of the good qualities she shares with Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. What does that mean, if anything? I have no idea as the film seems dead set on revealing Rey’s backstory in a “I am your father” moment in Episode VIII. Seeing her escape on her own in the Starkiller base instead of being rescued was a great  touch, and it was about time we finally see a girl kick ass with a lightsaber in a Star Wars film.

Han Solo The Force Awakens

The other main character that’s worth mentioning is Han Solo and his huge role in the film. I was worried that age would have caught up to Han Solo as it had Harrison Ford but those fears all flew out the window quickly. The Han Solo in the Force Awakens is still the lovable scoundrel he was in the original trilogy. He’s still down on his luck and constantly facing long odds with only Chewie, his blaster, and his quick wit by his side.

It sucks he had to die.

Part of the fun of watching The Force Awakens is to identify all the callbacks to the previous movies, there are many, and how director J.J. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kashdan play with them. The Force Awakens does stay awfully close to the main story structure of A New Hope. Secret plans are hidden in a droid that must be returned safely to the good guys before he falls into enemy hands. Before the plans are delireved a cantina is visited, a new planet destroying super weapon is tested and some talk about the Force’s role in all this is explained. Eventually the plans are delivered but not before our female lead is captured and rescued while a small fleet of X-wings launches a desperate attack on a looming threat.

By the time Han Solo walks out to confront his son who he’s failed to raise on the straight and narrow in front of Rey and Finn on the Death Star 3.0 you know he’ll soon be following in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s footsteps. It’s a powerful scene that hits hard because it’s so connected to A New Hope.

But it could have been amazing if the film had done anymore than wink about Han’s and Kylo’s father-son relationship. As far as the films go, (I know in the Expanded Universe this is all old hat) it’s a lot for audiences to take in that not only did Han and Leia have a child named Ben, but that he was trained to be a Jedi and eventually turned to the dark side. If we were never told these events took place we’d be hard pressed to believe them as the film never really develops their relationship to a point that’s believable.  Even cold hearted Leia treats the loss of her son to the dark side in the same stoic way as when she lost her home planet. The whole father son reveal falls flat as it seems rushed and loses any of the poignancy required for a death of this magnitude to truly resonate.

Which is another problem the film has in that the second half comes off as too rushed. Too much is happening with the X-wing attack, Rey’s rescue, the destruction of the shield generators, Kylo Ren, Han’s death, and a great lightsaber duel for any of it to stand out.

Compare that to the film’s first half which though brisk, was expertly paced and kept things interesting and moving forward. The first half is pure joy and Star Wars nostalgia as The Force Awakens fills in the gaps of the last thirty years since Return of the Jedi. Seeing Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters back on the big screen is a thrill as is reintroducing the Millennium Falcon and learning what Han and Chewie have been up to in the years since. It also helps having BB-8 around as he’s a much bigger player in the first half than the second. Actually whenever BB-8 was around the movie seemed stronger. He’s that good.

Force Awakens X-wings

A major complaint I have with the film is that it seems too interested in leaving a trail of story related bread crumbs into Episodes VIII and IX. There is a lot of blatant mystery the film sets up but flat out chooses to ignore, at least until further sequels. For instance, how did Luke’s lighstaber get into that wooden box? Who was the old man at the beginning? Who are Rey’s parents? Han and Leia? Luke perhaps? How was she able to become so proficient in the Force in such a short matter of time? What was the relationship between Luke and Ben Solo? How exactly did the Force Awaken?

There were a few small things that really bugged me. Captain Phasma got the true Boba Fett treatment in that she looks cool but doesn’t really do anything and gets taken out like a punk just the same. I didn’t like Supreme Leader Snoke though I am getting a Wizard of Oz vibe from him and his huge holographic projection. The new Death Star was taken out waaaay too easily with only a handful of X-wings and despite the hope of some kick ass space battles, my favorite, the dogfights here were over much to quickly for my liking. And Luke. It would have been nice if he would have said something or if not then at the very least end the movie right after his reveal instead of holding on his straggly beard for what seemed like an entirety in the wind.

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Don’t get me wrong, The Force Awakens was still a good film and I really enjoyed it. It’s the funniest Star Wars film by far and had great action pieces. Seeing the scale of everything filmed with actual actors and props was so effective in making the film seem as real as the originals were. I liked the final duel in the snowy woods where the trees replaced the bamboo groves of old samurai movies. Watching Rey climb the long and winding stairs towards Luke at the end for some good old fashioned Kung Fu training was fun, and seeing her wear the pistol Han Solo gave her, slung low on her hip like Han made me smile.

The acting was top notch all around and it’s clear the franchise is in good hands with this new core group of actors firmly established to take the franchise into the future for many many more years to come.

I can’t wait to see it again. The Force is strong with it.

“Heart of a Dog” by Laurie Anderson

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In her poetic film collage essay, “Heart of a Dog,” Laurie Anderson is more beautifully and thoughtfully herself than ever.

“It seems the movie is often shedding its own tears… as if life itself is crying.”

Anderson has had a long career, but was most well-known in the 80’s as an experimental performance artist, composer, and musician who especially explored the mix of spoken word and music. Those who know her albums such as “Big Science” and “Home of the Brave” will appreciate the return of the fragmented rhythm and quizzical tone of Anderson’s speech, opening with voice-over sentences such as “This is my dream body – the one I use to walk around in my dreams,” and “It’s like one of those old movies…” It’s like one of Anderson’s old albums, only … Much, Much, Better (to quote Anderson in “Language is a Virus”).

Despite the film’s seemingly stream-of-conscious, no-plot, hodge-podge approach, Anderson has meaningful ideas to express, and she’s woven together an elegant and smartly structured tone-and-picture poem. The movie combines her personal stories and musings with quotations from renowned philosophers, ink drawings on paper, printed words, animation, scratchy old 8mm home-movie clips, new footage of landscapes, surveillance camera footage with time codes, graphic images such as computer icons, and her ingenious use of music.

As always, Anderson excels at language, and here she combines various types of on-screen text with her own lyrical voice-over. I often leave a movie wanting to run home and download the soundtrack, but in this case I am yearning for a transcript. These are words worthy of reading and contemplating. “Try to learn how to feel sad without being sad,” is just one of the many sentences that could use more time to resonate than one viewing allows.

But one of the surprises of this project may be Anderson’s sophisticated and inventive cinematography. As the film explores a variety of deaths – the death of Anderson’s dog, the death of her mother, the death of her husband (Lou Reed), and the mass deaths of 9/11 in New York, it seems the movie is often shedding its own tears. Many sequences are shot through a pane of glass that is dripping with water, like life itself is crying. And then she turns footage of an ocean upside down, with the foreground still raining, so the sea that has become the sky is weeping too. In front of everything, Anderson seems to be saying, is a gentle, pervasive sadness.

And yet, the movie is not even remotely maudlin. It discusses 9/11 in way that actually adds fresh insight, which seems impossible after so many anniversaries full of remembrance ceremonies, and so many other films that have also integrated that tragic event. In fact, this movie would have made a much better selection for the Opening Film of this year’s New York Film Festival than “The Walk,” which is ostensibly about the man who walked a tightrope between the world’s tallest pair of buildings, but is mostly a sentimental homage to the Twin Towers, complete with golden reflected sunset footage of the Towers and seemingly endless talk about their dramatic importance. For all the “The Walk’s” telling us how we should feel, and trying so desperately to rouse emotion, it fails in that regard. Laurie Anderson is a long-time New York resident and artist, and this film speaks so sincerely to New Yorkers in particular, that it would have made an intensely appropriate opening for the New York Film Festival, which took place so close to 9/11. (Of course, the film is also relevant to all Americans, and all human beings, at any time of year.)

Perhaps the strongest moment in Anderson’s film is when she takes her dog outdoors in a big field and enjoys watching her run and play in tall grass and aromatic dirt, as dogs do. And the camera pans up to the bright blue sky; it is such a beautiful day. And then we see pretty white trails in the sky, moving in circles. Anderson tells us they are birds. And then she sees that they are hawks. And she describes the look in the eyes of her dog, Lolabelle, as the dog peers up and realizes that she… is prey. The dog understands that these birds have come for the purpose of killing her. And Anderson bemoans the new reality that now the dog must not only be aware of the ground and the grass and the other earthbound creatures, but also that huge, untouchable expanse of sky. The sky is now a danger. And the dog will never view the sky the same again.

Cut to footage of 9/11 as Anderson compares her dog’s feeling to hers, and ours, when we suddenly understood that “something was wrong with the air”; the sky brought danger and those flying planes were there for the purpose of killing us. And “it would be that way from now on.”

Anderson goes on to talk about the strangeness of living in a post-9/11 surveillance state, where we are always being recorded. But she does not take the obvious path of complaining about the social injustice. Instead, she takes a clever twist and points out that all your actions are now data. And that data is always being collected, but it will not be watched until after you commit a crime. Then your story is pieced together, in reverse – footage of where you went and what you did, being viewed backwards from the most recent moment. And then she throws in a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward.”

And intermixed with philosophy, Anderson keeps her wry sense of humor. At one point, she talks about a dream in which she gives birth to her dog. She illustrates the tale with bizarre comic drawings, and then she tells us that the dog looks up at her and says, “Thank you so much for having me,” as if it has just been invited to a tea party. Ha.

“This film has heart.”

Later she talks about her own childhood memory of a trauma and reveals how our minds naturally clean up memories, leaving out certain details, and in that way you are holding onto a story and every time you tell the story, you forget it more. Cut to the computer icon of Missing File. The associations keep piling up, and they do indeed add up.

The unfortunate irony is that “Heart of a Dog” will be classified as conceptual filmmaking, and dismissed by those who won’t see it as too cerebral, while it actually uses a complex and intellectual style, very astutely, to access emotional and intimate realities that are difficult to reach through overt methods.

This film does tell a story, in its own subtly layered way. It is sometimes a meditation on how to go on living despite despair – “the purpose of death is the release of love,” but it is also clearly Laurie Anderson’s own personal tale. This is a tender memoir.  It’s Anderson’s love story, about her dog, her mother, her husband, and her city. In the most uncommon and evocative way, this film has heart.

***

The complete soundtrack recording of “Heart of a Dog” is available from Nonesuch Records. The Nonesuch album is the full audio recording of the film, including all music and spoken text.

News: “Heart of a Dog” short-listed for Oscar

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When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

 

Spectre Review

A cluster of goosebumps ran up my arm the moment the legendary gun-barrel sequence crawled across the screen at the opening of the latest James Bond film Spectre. That iconic moment, paired with the equally iconic music, can only mean one thing. James Bond is back. Daniel Craig returns to the role that made him a household name, with director Sam Mendes returning as well after his successes with Skyfall. While not as great a film as Skyfall that came before it, Spectre manages to still entertain despite some glaring problems.

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The movie starts with a cold open, as is tradition with the Bond films. We’re dropped smack dab in the middle of the Day of the Dead festival in a well worn, but beautiful Mexico City. Bond, dressed in typical Day of the Dead garb, walks through the crowd with a beautiful woman on his arm. They make their way to a hotel room, but rather than a whirlwind Bond romance breaking out 007 is out the window and on to his mission. It’s a run of the mill assassination for Bond that goes downhill after a building collapses. What follows is a high octane helicopter sequence that, however improbable, is still just as thrilling.

After the Mexico City misadventure Bond returns to MI6 and is scolded for his mess. We’re told MI6 is merging with MI5 and that a new surveillance program will allow all governments access to each others intel and spy networks. It’s the kind of government overreach that’s mirrored by current affairs.

Bond is grounded for wrecking Mexico City, but you can’t keep a good secret agent down. After the death of Judi Dench’s M he’s given clues to follow that lead him to the discovery of the super secret evil organization Spectre. Apparently this organization has been behind all of the conflicts that have transpired in the Daniel Craig Bond films. It’s a bit far fetched, but I went along with it. The leader of this group is an old childhood frenemy of Bond’s named Franz Oberhauser, played with an eery calm by Christoph Waltz. After being outed in a meeting full of these cackling, multicultural evil doers Oberhauser’s menacing henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) chases after Bond in a remarkably dull car chase. While both men are driving at top speeds there’s no real danger and neither man seem phased by what they’re doing. It just feels like an 80MPH morning commute. Low stakes don’t make for much excitement, and after the helicopter sequence in the opening this car chase feels limp.

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With our villain revealed we next are introduced to our Bond girl Madeleine Swann who’s given a strong portrayal by Lea Seydoux. Swann is the daughter of Mr. White, a man we met in Casino Royale and later in Quantum of Solace. It was nice having some closure for the Mr. White story, but in the end it felt somewhat forced. We didn’t really need the connection to the past films, but it didn’t hurt the film either. It had much bigger problems.

With all the players revealed the movie unfolds in a typical Bond fashion. There’s a monologue by Oberhauser in his suitably over the top evil lair. There’s a bombastic final showdown with plenty of action, and in the end Bond gets the girl. The Bond formula is alive and well in Spectre, but I genuinely feel it’s not a good thing this time around.

Lea

The past Craig Bond films have been hinting at the traditional Bond ways. Skyfall gave us Moneypenny, Q and a new M with a handful of gadgets but it was all done with a wink and a nod. Specter doesn’t seem to know what it wants. It neither goes all the way into the classic Bond pool, nor does it maintain Skyfall’s subtleties. It’s a shame because a perfect melding of the Casino Royale style mixed with the classic Bond tropes could be really fantastic, but Spectre just isn’t it.

The biggest problem with this film is the writing. Oberhauser is the weakest villain we’ve got in a Bond film since Mr. Green in Quantum of Solace. At least Mr. Green had a clear motivation and reason behind what he was doing. It was all money for Mr. Green. Oberhauser is motivated by petty childhood squabbles. His main motivator is that his father took a liking to Bond and Oberhauser was jealous. To start a giant criminal enterprise with far reaching governmental influence over a grudge seems just plain stupid. There’s also a torture sequence where Bond is strapped to a chair with little drills lined up to puncture his skull. Oberhauser tells him of the grievous affects this will have on Bond. The drills go in, Bond screams in pain, then nothing. There’s no ill affect. There’s no explanation for this other than I assume it would be inconvenient for the rest of the film for Bond to be blind, or unable to remember and recognize faces. There was absolutely no reason for that scene and it instantly pulled me out of the film. I knew something would be amiss when during the opening credits I saw a total of four “written by” credits. Can’t have four writers without something getting lost in the shuffle.

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Ultimately this is a solid Bond film. It’s not the worst of them, but it’s not the best. It’s better than Quantum of Solace, but fails to reach the highs of Skyfall and Casino Royale. As a standalone film it’s not good at all. I think that’s an important distinction to make. Bond has a lot of wiggle room for inane plot problems and overall dopiness. For fans of Bond this is right in 007’s swing zone. All the usual Bond elements are there. I just wish they did more with them.

Truth Review

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The Truth about CBS 60 Minutes drama, Truth

There’s a always a fine line to walk when it comes to adapting any true story into a fictional medium. The further back in the past the story takes place the easier it is to fudge on some details. Dramatizations of modern events are always trickier. Portraying events that many in the audience lived through, saw and experienced makes for an uphill battle, even more so when the subject matter is divisively political. Truth, directed by Zodiac scribe James Vanderbilt, tells the allegedly true story of the 60 Minutes Team at CBS News’ investigation into former President George W Bush’s time in the Air National Guard and the fallout that came with the investigation.

The movie begins with a very agitated and tense Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchette) being asked some tough questions by a lawyer. She’s asked if she has a substance abuse problem, or considers herself a radical feminist. The opening minutes set the tone of the film. There are going to be tough questions ahead for Mary, both asked by and asked of. The movie then flashes back to Mary and her team airing their eventual Peabody award winning report on the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal. Her team is plucky, close knit and described by Mapes as “crack.”

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Shortly after the airing of the Abu Ghraib report she receives a tip about a damning memo that would reveal President Bush went AWOL during his time in the Air National Guard and lied about his military service during Vietnam. This comes during the Presidential Election cycle and could very well sway the election. With veteran reporter Dan Rather at her side Mary sprints ahead with the story, despite some very suspicious and cloudy circumstances regarding the memos.

In the end it seems as though the memos were faked and in Mary’s headstrong pursuit of the truth she fumbled along the way. She’s fired, her team asked to resign and Dan Rather retires shortly thereafter. It’s not a happy ending for our truth seeking heroes, but honestly I walked away feeling as though it was a deserved outcome.

Whether the team at CBS was right or wrong never really enters into the equation. At the end of the day you look at what they did and wonder what they could have possibly been thinking. It was sloppy journalism. We’re supposed to root for a character that steadfastly pursues a flimsy story. When told that the evidence doesn’t hold water they ignored it and kept marching. They took people at their word, believing that was all the evidence needed. It didn’t matter if Bush did or did not go AWOL. What mattered was this team really didn’t do a great job investigating it.

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As a film I enjoyed it. Removing what I know of the actual events surrounding I was able to have a good time watching. Cate Blanchett is superb, as per usual. I believe she’s one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the silver screen. Robert Redford disappears into his role as Dan Rather. Its inspired casting. Denis Quad and Topher Grace fill the supporting roles with plenty of charisma as well.

James Vanderbilt has not directed much, though he’s written some great films. It’s surprising that this script feels kind of clunky at times. There’s a few too many overly melodramatic and downright cheesy moments. Most of these happen during some kind of exposition, and are usually accompanied by a swell of over dramatic music. It’s unfortunate because we rarely need such sloppy storytelling. We don’t need to be told a characters motivation, we can understand it through their actions. What’s worse is most of these moments are centered around Cate Blanchett’s character, and she’s such an amazing actress that we don’t need this extra info on her character. She’s giving us everything we need in spades through her performance. Why tell us that she views Dan Rather as a father figure, when the performance between Redford and Blanchett makes that clear as day. A tighter script would have certainly elevated the film to greater heights, there’s no denying that.

At the end of the day this probably won’t be an award winner. It’s a serviceable film, but the actions of the heroes are largely unsympathetic and it makes it hard to root for them. Couple that with the knowledge of actual events that most audience members bring with them makes for a middle-of-the-road kind of drama. Neither great nor bad, it simply is.

Crimson Peak Review

Crimson Peak

If you’re looking for spooky, look no further than Crimson Peak.

Guillermo Del Toro is somewhat of an anomaly in the world of Hollywood. He’s regarded, rightfully so, as one of the most creative, inventive and visually engaging directors to ever grace the medium. His masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, won armfuls of accolades, awards, and forever cemented his imaginative place in the world of cinema. The tricky thing about Mr. Del Toro’s career, however, has been his lack of a box office success. The word “decent” is often used to describe his best box office grosses, while flop is used for the rest. What I find interesting is that in light of his middle-of-the-road financial successes he was able to make a film like Crimson Peak. It’s a haunted house film to rival the eeriest of gothic romance tales ever committed to film or otherwise.

The film starts off with Mia Wasikowsa’s Edith Cushing exclaiming that ghost’s are real. She tells of the death of her Mother when she was very young, and the haunted happenings that followed. Her deathly apparition of a Mother appears to her with a warning: Beware Crimson Peak. With an ominous light cast on this Crimson Peak very early on we then jump forward into Edith’s adulthood. She’s an inspiring writer of spooky fiction and gothic romances. Her works are scoffed at as tacky ghost stories, though she reminds her critics that they aren’t ghost stories, they’re stories with ghosts. That’s an extremely important bit to remember, and a line that played over in my mind as a left the theater. I’ll get to it in a second.

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From there we meet the Sharpe twins, played magnificently by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. For the viewer it’s clear from the get go that something’s just not right about this two strangers clad in black. The characters in the film seem to share the audiences misgivings, with of course Ms. Cushing being the exception. She falls madly in love and moves to the Sharpe estate in England where the bulk of the film takes place. Once there the creepy happenings pick up the pace and continue on until the end. The ghosts are unsettling to behold, and the atmosphere Del Toro places them in only enhances their spooky factor. Spoiler warning for those who care to remain fresh, but the ghosts are ultimately inconsequential to the plot. The evil of Crimson Peak is not of supernatural origin. The twist and finale of the movie can be seen coming from a mile away and unfolds as we’d assume it would. The plot isn’t really why one would see this film, however. The magic lies in the visuals.

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My biggest problem with Crimson Peak was how little impact these truly exciting and terrifying apparitions had on the story. If you took the ghosts out the plot would remain nearly unaffected. The mystery of the Sharpe twins is uncovered largely without the assistance of anything supernatural. The ghosts are not even integral to the climax of the film, even after their connection to the Sharpes is established. That felt like a huge missed opportunity. Like I mentioned earlier Edith Cushing states that her story is not of ghosts, but rather featuring ghosts. It’s curious to me that Del Toro would tell us what kind of film we’re getting, and that the impact of that line wouldn’t hold it’s full weight until after the credits roll. I guess this is one man’s opinion, but I would have liked to have seen the ghosts have a larger effect on the overall plot.

Guillermo Del Toro has a visual eye unlike any filmmaker I’ve ever seen. Nothing looks like a Del Toro picture. He takes every influence he’s ever had and mashes them together into something that feels truly original. Crimson Peak is no different. It’s dripping with his unique aesthetic. It’s a shame his story telling elements never line up with his visuals. Each English language film he’s done is masterful in it’s design. They look phenomenal. The stories and characters always leave something to be desired, however. These troubles aren’t found in his Spanish language movies. The story and visuals match up and make for really great films. Something about the English language holds Guillermo Del Toro back, and I hold my breath for the day he returns to Spanish cinema and delivers another masterpiece.

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At the end of the day I absolutely recommend Crimson Peak. It’s a perfect Halloween film. It’s a perfect film to turn the lights off and behold some spooky happenings. The plot and characters don’t hold up under scrutiny, but if you’re looking for some delicious eye candy, or rather what Del Toro would call eye protein, then watch Crimson Peak. If you like looking at cool stuff then this is the movie for you. Forgive the plot contrivances and weak characters and you’ll have a good time.

The Martian Review

The Martian Review: Ridley Scott and Matt Damon find their movie magic again. On Mars of all places.

Ridley Scott has confused me somewhat over the last few years. His output has been steady to the point of releasing a film at an annual basis. His last handful of movies left me cold and underwhelmed. He seemed to be chasing quantity rather than taking the time to focus on quality. Understandably, I went into The Martian with some trepidation. Was this going to be another critical flop from such a prolific director, or would all the pieces at play come together to give us a fun, entertaining, and thought provoking movie? I won’t leave you sitting in suspense. The Martian is a very good film. Ridley Scott seems to have found some magic left in his bag of tricks and delivers a heck of a good time. This is a movie review, however, so I can’t simply leave it at that. Let’s take a closer look at what The Martian had going for it.

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The movie plops us right into the middle of the action. We’re instantly treated to the wide, dusty red vista’s of mysterious Mars. A team of astronauts are diligently performing their duties gathering soil samples and other scientific duties. It’s not long after (and I do mean not long) that a massive storm derails the mission and they’re forced to evacuate. While on their way back to the escape craft astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and left for dead. That entire sequence makes for an attention hooking, exciting opening, but I do wish that there had been a little more with the team as a whole. Sure, prior to the accident we get tons of witty banter and a clear picture of the camaraderie between them all, but a little more of that would have perhaps given us a larger emotional investment into Watney’s ordeal and his team’s determination to get him back. Nevertheless the crew returns to their ship and heads back to Earth, unaware that Watney is alive.

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The rest of the film details Watney’s survival attempts. Though in a dire situation he’s in good spirits, which helps the audience have fun. Intercut with Watney’s chores are the actions of NASA who must walk the line between risking a mission to save Watney and keeping public approval high while understanding that Watney is in a no win scenario. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, and while he does a fine job he’s a little too unnecessarily villainous at times. It’s hinted at and perhaps mentioned in passing that the future of the entire space program could lie upon what the public, and more importantly, what the Mars crew know of Watney’s situation. Eventually they break down and inform the Mars crew about Watney’s survival and naturally his team wants to rescue him. Using some fancy space maneuvers and a little bit of Chinese intervention the team manages to get back to Mars and perform the daring rescue of this plucky astronaut we’ve grown to love. It’s a suitably happy ending for a film the maintains an optimistic point of view it’s entire run time.

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The Martian is a film with all the necessary pieces for a cinematic classics. By and large everything fires on all cylinders and it’s a rip roaring good time throughout. As mentioned above I felt like Jeff Daniels character needed a better spotlight on his motivations to avoid just being a weak villain, which that character wasn’t. He was a big picture bureaucrat who’s interest centered on the entire space program rather than a single life. Speaking of life there were times the stakes didn’t carry the gravity they should have. Though Watney was in constant danger I never felt like he was ever truly at risk. It was a little too easy to sit back, watch, and know Mark Watney will make it home safe and sound. Spoiler warning: There are zero casualties in this film. Everyone gets to go home to their lives and families no worse for wear. I feel like a zealot calling for blood, but perhaps if one of the more background crew members had perished in the rescue attempt the heavy stakes I was looking for would have been there. The Mar’s crew brought a lot of warmth and character to the film, but I would have liked more of them. Still, all that said, I had a great time watching this movie. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to get some fun, well made entertainment.