Crimson Peak (2015)

Poster for Crimson Peak

I’ve had a hard time getting in synch with Guillermo del Toro, although that may be changing, because I liked Pacific Rim (2013) and I liked Crimson Peak, although with reservations in both cases.

Let’s start with the reservations. Del Toro has a fanboy aesthetic, meaning his major influences seem to be from pop culture. This leaves his films feeling glib and shallow even when he’s being serious. (There’s nothing more painfully twee than the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).) In Crimson Peak, one of the main places you can see the fanboy aesthetic is in the design of the ghosts, which seem to come out of Ghost Busters or one of Peter Jackson’s movies. They look too familiar and generic, and they’re just slightly goofy looking, even at their most grotesque. There’s nothing particularly eerie or uncanny about them, although that actually ends up probably making the film safe for the adolescents and squeamish adults like myself who really ought to be seeing it, so maybe it’s intentional.

A little more troublesome is the approach to romance in the film. When Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston) lights into the romantic ghost story written by Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) for being a pale imitation of real love written by a bookish, out-of-touch girl, it could just as well be a critique of the romance in the film. One of the nice touches in Crimson Peak is that the story Edith is writing can be understood to be the story of the film, but given that Thomas is lying when he criticizes Edith’s story I don’t think del Toro was actually being meta or self-critical of his own efforts. Basically I didn’t feel much sizzle or passion between Thomas and Edith, which is problematic both for her motivation in marrying Thomas to begin with and also when motivations switch in the end. This seems to be a case where del Toro is referencing the romantic obsession of other films, but can’t quite evoke it himself.

With those reservations stated, I’ll return to the fact that I enjoyed Crimson Peak. The main thing, of course, is the production design, which has always been the thing that I unequivocally liked  about del Toro’s movies. Other than the ghost designs, everything else seemed quite magnificent, and most importantly for what is a Gothic story, the house is a masterpiece. To be honest, given my ambivalence about del Toro’s films, the thing that sold me on this one was seeing the house in the trailers. It’s a wonderfully elaborate multi-level pile of filigree, ornamentation, decay, shadows, gooey walls, and forbidding doors. A brilliant touch that doesn’t come out in the trailer is that it has an enormous hole in the roof, letting in beautiful cascades of dead leaves, rain, and snow. It really is everything you’d want in an old dark house.

Beyond the creation of a compelling character in the house however, the film also does a nice job of melding the romantic and the grotesque. It reminded me of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, in fact, in the way that it connected blood-letting and love, love and death. This isn’t a film that rewards asking, “Why?” Like many of the favorite films here at the Dreamland Cafe, it’s a dream movie — and a fever dream at that. It slowly builds to an eruption of madness, and when the madness arrives it has a hallucinatory quality. It’s irrational, wild, and weird. Lucille is a nightmare character, and Jessica Chastain’s porcelain features suddenly look cold and hard in this film, where so often they make her seem fragile. This is a great role for her, and she probably steals the show. While it’s the opposite of grotesque, I also loved how Wasikowska’s character looked like something out of an Edward Gorey drawing when she had her long hair down as she drifted through the house in a white nightgown. Again, this is primal Gothic imagery.

This feels like a very personal film for del Toro, despite all the references to other films. Or maybe that’s what is personal for him: his devoted love of other films. It’s as if he’s taken all his favorite bits of his favorite old movies and remixed them into a new romantic nightmare. As much as the result is still something that at least on first encounter feels a little superficial, it nevertheless has an edge brought by del Toro’s own cinematic obsessions. They’re fanboy obsessions, but they have their own kind of beauty.

Eréndira Ikikunari (2006)

Like a lot of people I add DVDs to my Netflix queue as they cross my radar, and as the queue grows ever longer it takes longer for me to finally watch something I’ve added. So I no longer remember what triggered the addition of this film to my queue, and when it arrived in the mail I had no idea what it was. Now that I’ve watched it, however, I can well imagine why reading about it, wherever I read about it, would have captured my interest.

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This Mexican movie is based on the legend of a young niece of the monarch of the Purépecha people at the time of the conquistadors’ invasion, and she was said to have led the Purépecha  in a war against the Spanish. In the film the monarch of the Purépecha surrenders to the Spanish, and the Purépecha are divided between those who ally themselves with the Spanish and those who choose to fight. Eréndira wants to join the resistance, but it’s not considered a woman’s place to fight wars. Eventually she captures one of the Spanish horses, and her uncle, who leads the Purépecha in the absence of the monarch, allows her to participate in the war, not as a warrior but as a messenger and, eventually, a symbol or perhaps even a religious icon of resistance.

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Director Juan Mora Catlett says the idea for the film had its genesis in a mural by the Mexican painter Juan O’Gorman, which depicted Eréndira amongst other characters out of Mexican history. Catlett had never heard of her and started doing some research. This process led him to the Códice de Michoacán — a sixteenth-century codex written and illustrated by a Franciscan monk that gives a history of the Purépecha from pre-historic times (based on their legends) up to the advent of the Spanish. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t mention Eréndira, who probably wasn’t a real person, but amongst other things Catlett used illustrations from the codex as graphic elements in the movie. Sometimes pages of the codex are used as something like title cards for transitions in the story, and then pieces of the artwork will remain on the set with the characters walking through them.

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This usage of the codex artwork is part of what gives the film a sense of taking place in a non-naturalistic setting. It doesn’t feel like a normal modern narrative, but like something both archaic and avant garde at the same time. It’s almost like a pageant, full of static tableaux and ceremonial statements. The acting style is very formal, as opposed to naturalistic. That mixed feeling of archaic and avant garde reminded me of Pasolini’s Medea (1969) and Rohmer’s Perceval (1978) — the latter of which also uses graphical elements that seem to be from an illuminated medieval text, somewhat similar to Catlett’s use of images from the codex. Another fascinating non-naturalistic effect in the film is the way the Spaniards wear masks when the natives first see them and confuse them for gods or demons. Only as the natives begin to understand that they are human do their real faces appear.

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Catlett also used non-actors from Michoacán who spoke the native language to play the characters. (The film is in the native language, not Spanish, except for the parts spoken by Spaniards.) They acquit themselves extremely well, probably both because they were so enthused about performing in a film about their ancestors and because they aren’t required to act naturalistically.  The pageant style served them well. The making-of documentary on the DVD shows how the striking face and body painting used in the film was taken from native pottery and artwork. There’s also quite a bit of commentary in the documentary about how stories about pre-Columbian history are relatively rare in Mexico, let alone stories from the point of view of the natives rather than the European invaders.

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Eréndira Ikikunari is notable for the way it seeks to stay within the point of view of the Purépecha, including the way they interpret the coming of the Spanish in terms of their own theology. The Spaniards are initially seen as new gods who have come to attack the Purépecha gods. Later, when Eréndira learns to ride the “hornless deer” (as the Purépecha call the horse), she herself is seen as an avatar of the a Purépecha goddess Xaratanga. But the film doesn’t present the Purépecha deities as real. It depicts the people’s beliefs and perceptions and visions, rather than the gods and goddesses themselves. This was the part the reminded me most of Pasolini’s film.

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Likewise it doesn’t present Eréndira as a superhero. She is a remarkable woman within the norms of the Purépecha, because she challenges the tradition that women can’t lead or fight. But while the women are shown as capable of banding together to protect themselves from male violence, they don’t actually become warriors. Eréndira is literally manhandled at a couple of points, both by her own people and by a Spaniard, but she stubbornly persists in her attempts to help the resistance against the invaders. If anything, her stubbornness, not her strength or intelligence, is her most exceptional quality (the title means ‘Eréndira the untameable’), although it’s implied, perhaps, that her gentleness with the horse is what allows her to gain its trust and therefore learn to ride it. What’s also interesting is how from a tribal point of view, her remarkableness is perceived as a form of divinity.

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Again, Catlett neither confirms nor denies the divinity, he just prints the legend, as it were. From what I’ve read on the internet the legend of Eréndira has a number of variant endings, but they are all variations on Eréndira’s disappearance, which can be interpreted as a way for the legends to explain her invisibility in histories such as the codex. The ending of Eréndira Ikikunari is fittingly ambiguous, as she seems to move into a realm beyond the human world. Is it the realm of legend? Whatever the case, this film is a unique approach to a rare story. It almost has an anthropological feel to it, but the grassroots approach of using the Michoacán actors and the pageant style give it a personal, homegrown, lived-in feeling as well. The film is just as remarkable and nontraditional as its protagonist.


Victoria (2015)

Poster for Victoria

Victoria is a bit of a gimmick. Basically it’s presented as one long handheld take as it follows a young Spanish woman named Victoria, who is living in Berlin for three months and stumbles upon four German men who invite her to join their birthday party. Victoria is a free spirit, and she lets herself get swept away, eventually finding herself in a very dangerous, even deadly, situation.

I had mixed feelings about the film as it unfolded over two-plus hours. It’s a bravura piece of work, no doubt about it, moving around the city and through a lot of different story situations without any obvious breaks. No doubt it was carefully planned out and rehearsed, but there are still some surprising and impressive moments, as when one of the characters suddenly starts playing Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” on the piano. However, there’s also quite a lot of what feels like ad libbed dialogue (although possibly it’s written dialogue imitating the repetitive nature of real conversation) that I found pretty boring. Most of the characters didn’t seem all that interesting, with the exception of Victoria and the troubled Boxer. The main male character and love interest, Sonne, was too much of a cypher. That may have been a comment on Victoria’s questionable choices, but it ended up making it difficult to care.

The film takes a long time to get to the crime thriller part of the story, and I’m honestly not sure why. If it’s trying to establish characters and the fact that carefree choices can lead to an existential crisis, I’d say it could have been done in a far shorter time. So I guess over all it felt flabby to me, even though it kept hitting interesting notes. The piano piece and the life story that follows it are great, and I wouldn’t have wanted to lose that, for sure. Some of the flabbiness was probably the result of everything happening in real time as they move from place to place, creating a need to fill that time with something, which ended up mostly being a lot of idle, meandering, pointless chatter.

Still an interesting experiment, even if what it proves is that it’s hard to tell a strong story on film without editing. I was struck a number of times by the idea that it was the film equivalent of a live play, but even live plays almost always have breaks and transitions in the stories. Birdman used a similar gimmick, but it did have several points at which the camera stopped and the action jumped over a passage of time.

Swordsman (Xiao ao jiang hu, 1990)

Screencap from Swordsman

Tsui Hark had made wuxia films before Swordsman, but The Butterfly Murders was an offbeat blend of genres, including horror and science fiction, and Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain was an unorthodox attempt to merge wuxia with Western-style special effects fantasy films. Swordsman, which is an adaptation of a classic wuxia novel of the ’60s written by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) and which was originally meant to be directed by the classic wuxia director par excellence, King Hu, is a much more old-fashioned, traditional affair. Compared to Chor Yuen’s wuxia films of the ’70s and ’80s it looks more naturalistic, with abundant use of location shooting, although at the same time it pushes the development of wire-enhanced flight to new and more fanciful levels. It’s also true that while this film isn’t the genre-blender that some of Tsui’s other films are, it contains a heavy enough helping of Tsui’s usual populist, slapstick comedy to make it a far less sober , literary version of wuxia than, say, Patrick Tam’s anguished The Sword (1980) or Ann Hui’s Jin Yong adaptation, The Romance of Book and Sword (1987).

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The original title of the film, which is also the title of the Jin Yong novel, literally means “smiling and proud in the martial world,” at least according to Calvin McMillin at Love HK Film. (I know that “jiang hu” is the term for the martial world, or underworld, of wuxia, where swordsman and other outlaws and outsiders live.) Sam Hui plays Ling Wu Chung, the “laughing swordsman” who likes to drink and sing. He and his sidekick, Kiddo (Cecilia Yip), who is disguised as a boy, are members of sect of swordsmen sent by their master to deliver a message to another swordsman. They thereby get entangled in a multiplex struggle to find a scroll that purports to hold the secret to supernatural powers. As typical in the wuxia genre, this is no clear cut good vs evil struggle, but rather a welter of conflicting factions and agendas in which allies and enemies shift from one side to another. If there’s a moral division explored, it’s between those who pursue power in the form of the scroll and those like Ling who attempt to remain carefree, but while Ling is the sympathetic hero, his attempt to remain free from the struggle for power is more of an ideal than a practice.

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Swordsman is famous for having had multiple directors work on it after King Hu left the project. IMDb lists six directors, including, in fact, Ann Hui. It is also famous, therefore, for having a wildly mixed tone, which I suppose is true, although not actually all that unusual for Hong Kong films of the era. More problematic to me is Sam Hui as the protagonist. Hui was a very popular comedian (thus the “laughing” part, I guess), but I haven’t seen any of his comedies, as far as I know, so I don’t think it’s that he feels misplaced for the genre. I just find his performance unconvincing for some reason, and his martial arts ability certainly pales compared to Jet Li, who took over the role for the sequel.

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One of King Hu’s strengths was his depiction of warrior women (cf Golden Swallow in Come Drink with Me and Yang Hui-ching in A Touch of Zen), and in my no doubt simplistic understanding of Chinese film history I’ve always understood Tsui Hark to be one of his disciples on that front. Swordsman has three main female characters, starting with Ling’s sidekick, Kiddo, who is (like Golden Swallow) a woman who disguises herself as a boy. This is a common trope in wuxia, as in Shakespeare, but Tsui often plays it in a very modern, gender-bending way. Here, however, I find Kiddo kind of annoying, perhaps because she’s meant to be an annoying younger sibling sort, but also because the slapstick around the danger that her gender will be revealed feels tired. More interesting are Sharla Cheung as Ren Ying Ying, who is the leader of the Sun Moon Sect who eventually sides with Ling against the factions pursuing the scroll, and her lieutenant, Blue Phoenix (Fannie Yuen), who wields snakes and bees as weapons. Both are effective warriors, although Blue Phoenix is also liable to screw things up through her disobedience. There is more than a hint of romantic feelings between Ren and Ling, and Ren performs one of those poison-removal rituals on Ling that are so common in wuxia (see Come Drink with Me) and so weirdly erotic.

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There’s something slightly off about the Swordsman, but I don’t think I can put my finger on what it is. Maybe it’s just too many cooks spoiling the stew. However, most of the ingredients of the stew seem just fine, with the traditional evil eunuch who schemes for and against the imperial court, nice secondary roles for favorite actors Wu Man and Lam Ching Ying as old friends who oppose the evil eunuch and perform the title song together with Ling, and a wonderful old beggar in the forest who turns out to be more than he seems. Tsui and his collaborators would go on to create something altogether more powerful in Swordsman II, and then something altogether weirder and wilder in Swordsman III: The East Is Red. Swordsman is somewhat disappointing compared to those two, but it’s a step in Tsui’s development.

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The Martian (2015)

Poster for The Martian

I haven’t read the novel by Andy Weir that this film is adapted from, so I don’t know how good of an adaptation it is. What it made me think of was other films, perhaps most whimsically Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which as the title implies is also about a man stranded on Mars. This one lacks the aliens, however. It also made me thing of Contagion (2011), which is much different in tone but also valorizes science and international cooperation. It was also hard not to see some similarities to Gravity (2013), which is another tale of an astronaut surviving one life-threatening crisis after another, although Gravity has a much more spiritual tone to it. But The Martian actually seems unique in a number of ways, perhaps most notably in the way it presents itself as a series of puzzles to be solved scientifically and without a lot of melodrama or dramatic or psychological tension. The thing that surprised me a little bit is how emotionally effective it was without some of the standard dramatic suspense.

The story is how one crew member on a manned expedition to Mars is left behind when the mission is aborted due to an unexpected storm. He’s left with minimal supplies, and he has to find a way to survive until a rescue mission can come for him. The bulk of the movie is an exploration of the problems he faces (how to supply himself with food, how to contact Mission Control without a radio, etc) and the solutions he comes up with. One of the ways the film creates an emotional investment in the story is through its evocation of the human ability to solve problems. This probably won’t appeal to everyone, especially since it’s not character-driven and thus is pretty abstract, but it’s safe to say that a lot of science fiction fans find this kind of thing extremely appealing. When it becomes a matter of all the greatest scientific minds on Earth working on the problems in a cooperative way, it’s a very powerful evocation of a kind of internationalist idealism and optimism. That’s the part that reminded me of Contagion, but The Martian is completely lacking the darker acknowledgement of human paranoia and irrationality and selfishness found in Contagion. It may not be as overtly spiritual/redemptive as Gravity, but it’s just as much a feel-good, can-do movie. Although I have to say, on that front, that the wise-cracking sense of humor in The Martian didn’t always work for me. It seemed a little forced at times.

Visually I found it splendid. I saw it in 3D, and I loved the way it used that technology to create a sense of the vast, majestic emptiness of the landscape. There was a curious shot early on in which the camera seemed to be moving slightly sideways and the features of the landscape seemed to be flattened into shifting layers like those of a scientific pop-up book, which I found quite strange and beautiful. What is perhaps most remarkable about the movie visually is that it doesn’t look like any other science fiction film I can think of, possibly because it’s the first film to try to capture the Mars we’ve seen in photographs from various probes. It’s a very realistic look that’s unusual in a science fiction movie, giving it an almost documentary look that seems fitting for the procedural nature of the story. You can almost imagine that it’s a PBS show about growing a garden on Mars.

Because I didn’t always connect with the sense of humor and because of the lack of suspense/thriller tropes, there was a part of me that was surprised by how powerful I found the climax. As I said earlier, I’m not completely sure how Ridley Scott and his merry crew pulled that off. There are some acts of heroism, but for the most part it’s a celebration of ingenuity rather than heroism. That seems unusual, and maybe that’s the secret ingredient that made this one surprisingly appealing.

Sicario (2015)

Poster for Sicario

I’m not sure what to think of Sicario, and maybe that’s because I identify with the befuddled FBI agent played by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s character, Kate, has been working on trying to bust Mexican drug cartel gangsters who are operating in Arizona, but as the movie begins the atrocity level rises. The violence is getting out of hand. She is recruited to work with a shadowy government operation run by a Matt (Josh Brolin), who offers her the chance to go directly at the leadership of the cartel rather than wasting time on small-timers. As she is whisked off to a raid in Ciudad Juarez, she is introduced to the mysterious Colombian, Alejandro (Benecio del Toro), who works with Matt using methods that are morally questionable.

As a thriller that’s part mystery (in the sense that we don’t understand what Matt and Alejandro are up to), this is a pretty effective film. It looks great, and it moves with great assurance and competence. It reminded me a bit of Zero Dark Thirty in the subject-matter (the moral question of what tactics are allowable when attacking immoral people), the desert locations, and the military-procedural elements. There are several set-pieces that involve tense attacks of heavily armed agents or soldiers on enclosed spaces like houses or tunnels, and these set-pieces are very well handled.

What was less successful for me was Kate’s character and the handling of the moral conundrum of the story. Kate is a largely passive character, who is a kind of stand-in for the audience as she slowly learns what’s really going on. Perhaps she is also intended as a stand-in for an audience that abhors the drug cartels but really have no skin in the game and thus no willingness to do anything about it. As for the moral conundrum, the film is admirably resistant to black-and-white, good-and-bad formulas, but I ended up feeling dissatisfied with how it approached the moral questions. If we are meant to identify with Kate’s passivity and lack of skin in the game, shouldn’t her choices in the end seem more painful? Or shouldn’t that pain be dramatized more concretely? As it is, it feels as though the moral conundrum results in nothing but passive guilt rather than any sense that Emily herself is implicated in the harsh realities. Isn’t that a cop-out?

The other Denis Villeneuve film I’ve seen is Incendies, and looking over my review I see I had a similar problem with that one: the characters who investigate the mystery are basically just passive witnesses who have little impact on the story themselves, just like Kate. That said, Incendies seemed more successful to me dramatically, because the central character of Narwan Marwal embodied the moral conundrums of the story. The cognate character in Sicario is Alejandro, and although he’s a fascinatingly ambivalent figure, he’s very different from Narwan in that his behavior is much, much darker and more cold-blooded than Narwan’s. The climax of his story is also nowhere near as powerful as Narwan’s, perhaps because hers is practically mythological in nature.

I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about Sicario, but I found it riveting as I watched, at least up to the climax, and am still wrestling with it the next day. It definitely strikes a nerve. I’m just not sure whether it channels the resulting pain into a fully effective story.

Phoenix (2014)

Poster for Phoenix

This German film has been compared to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the story of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who returns to the ruins of Berlin in 1946, where she looks for her husband. When we first meet Nelly, her head is completely wrapped in bandages, and she soon has reconstructive surgery done on her face. Her husband, Johnny, when she finally finds him, doesn’t recognize her but thinks she looks enough like his (as he thinks) dead wife that he asks her to impersonate the wife in order to help him get his hands on the money his wife inherited when the rest of her family was killed in the camps. He takes it upon himself to train Nelly to look and act like his wife, and thus he is doing pretty much the same thing that Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak in the second half of Vertigo.

Of course, one big difference between the two movies is that Phoenix is from the woman’s point of view, and while there’s an element of Nelly wanting to remake Johnny into the dream Johnny whom she believes has always loved her, it’s more a story of how his desire to remake her into a simulacrum of his wife for his own purposes gradually reveals the truth to her. It’s the truth that her friend Lene has been telling her all along, but it’s an inconvenient truth.

It’s also not the whole the story, which is equally about how Nazi Germany treated the Jews and how German gentiles faced or did not face their moral culpability after the war. Lene wants to move to Palestine with Nelly, and she’s looking at apartments in Haifa and Tel Aviv. Nelly, however, has no interest in Palestine but only in finding her gentile husband. So I guess the movie is also about the urge to forgive and forget and forge new bonds with one’s persecutors. It’s about the difficulty of facing the painful truth that those we love and trust can betray us.

This is not a thriller, but more of a psychological study. There is an element of mystery to it, because we don’t fully understand the history of Nelly and Johnny until the end. It’s also a kind of crime story, but the crimes all happened in the past. Mostly it’s about Nelly becoming herself again — or perhaps for the first time — and not the person Johnny wants her to be. The irony of identity in Phoenix is in some ways just as perverse as that in Vertigo, but it isn’t so wrapped in a sense of tragic romanticism. Indeed, what it’s wrapped in is more a tragic nationalism, as a German Jew tries to regain her sense of German identity in the face of Nazi history. That it manages to achieve a feeling of liberation in the end is a small miracle, if only of story.