Crimson Peak (2015)

★★★★

Crimson Peak PosterDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; Horror

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

The fact that Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering is a carnival of visual ebullience probably won’t come as a shock to anybody out there. A 19th century Gothic nightmare with lots of frothy verbiage, every last word enunciated to the nth degree, Crimson Peak delivers in most of the areas we would expect but not all of the areas we would like. Granted, this is not a horror movie nor does it try to be anything of the sort, but its fleeting moments of fright never quite amount to the haunted atmosphere del Toro covets. The narrative also takes some time to explode into life, eventually doing so with menace. At least until then we have a bedazzling aesthetic to keep us company.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman who seeks to carve her own way in the world without relying on her father’s (Jim Beaver) wealth. She writes (stories with ghosts, not ghost stories), though Edith’s professional hopes are initially dashed under the guise of superfluous reasoning when a superior decries her “feminine handwriting” and the lack of romance in her tale. Crafty and stubborn, she swaps pen strokes for typing but remains steadfast on narrative content. Matthew Robbins co-wrote the film with del Toro and, in Edith, the pair have concocted a female character whose determination to evade tradition is at odds with the prevailing social structure.

She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when the latter shows up looking for funds to support his clay processing invention, and the duo fall in love. From dad to would-be muse Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), everybody is wary of Thomas’ intentions: “There’s something about him that I don’t like”. Everybody except Edith, who really should have taken the hint upon seeing Thomas converse with his mischievous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the shadow beneath a large, looming tree.

Crimson Peak’s technical prowess is there for all to see, its rich texture and engrossing visuality arguably on a par with del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. But it lacks that film’s beating heart, perhaps because it is tougher to empathise with Edith here than it was Ofelia there. Pinpointing exactly why the Edith’s plight doesn’t translate as well is difficult; Wasikowska is perfectly fine in the role and her character is not disagreeably construed. It is true that her words are often quite gushy, certainly more so than those spoken by Lucille, and at best on a par with Thomas’ dialogue.

The film isn’t excessively melodramatic but its swirling air of grandiosity can hinder the credibility of characters’ actions — from where, for instance, is Edith’s insurmountable trust in Thomas born? To align grand romantic gestures and sap-filled exchanges with Gothic fiction would be a fair assessment, though I’d argue the genre itself is in that case flawed. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned traits don’t meet the screen with enough grounded authenticity in Crimson Peak, and definitely don’t fit a character who is trying to break free from cultural the norm.

Edith’s mother appears in ghost form, an apparition cut from the same ocular cloth as the spectre in another Jessica Chastain outing, Mama. Chastain has more to sink her teeth into here; as Lucille she is very mysterious, her movements icy and her stare searing. She often dawns extravagant gowns but unlike the bright, undiluted garments worn by her sister-in-law, Lucille’s attire often reflects her dark interior (deep rose-coloured and sharply defined). Her undulating poise sets a tone of torment and, as it transpires, Chastain is a terrific passive-aggressive tormentor. But Lucille is also on the verge of mental collapse — her composure, fake, could come unstuck at any moment.

Tom Hiddleston is also very good, though his role commands a different shade of mystery. He must be both a schemer and a sympathiser, and the actor finds the correct balance between the two. You feel his conflicted plight, yet you still can’t fully trust his crow-esque demeanour. In a sense the film is crying out for more interactions between the siblings, especially during its less compelling first half. A word too for Burn Gorman who is superbly cast as a sly detective of sorts, slinking around in the much the same vein as Metropolis’ Thin Man.

At times del Toro’s film is exceptionally violent. One bathroom-set murder harkens back to Casino Royale’s pre-title brawl, only this one is much blunter and probably much bloodier too. It is part of an effervescent production design that somehow straddles the line between realistic and dreamlike: marvellously crafted sets, eye-catching costumes, piercing sounds (just wait for Lucille’s ceramic-screeching monologue).

Enshrouded in a bleak snowy mist, Allerdale Hall — the mansion that hosts proceedings — could pass for a miniature Voldemort-led Hogwarts. Dan Laustsen’s camera swoops around torn halls and through once-noble doorways as if flaunting the Titanic. When it comes to housing, del Toro is decorative master and he incites every moan, groan, and grumble from Allerdale Hall as possible. Blood red clay seeps from floorboards and bleeds down the walls in Evil Dead II fashion; it’s as if the building is literally sinking into hell.

Crimson Peak benefits from the process of time, with each passing second coaxing greater momentum and a rise in intrigue level, until the film reaches its barnstormingly gory finale. But it also benefits from boasting a cast who collectively prescribe to the mood of the piece, and a director who knows this genre — his genre — better than most.

Crimson Peak - Tom Hiddleston & Mia Wasikowska

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Midnight in Paris (2011)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (US); October 7th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Romance

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

As images of modern Paris caressed by romanticising tones that blare heartily from a trumpet fade in and out of vision, we are made aware of perceived idealism and hereditary sentiment. The French capital has forever been associated with society’s most esteemed virtues; desires of art and literature and fashion and love, a variety of tropes that amalgamate together as one in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You may find yourself all at sea, or at least caught by the tide as events unfold on screen if, like myself, you’re not a quintessential artiste, or a fashionista, or a literary encyclopaedia. Perhaps some form of salvage anchor exists for those who have experienced the aura of Paris. For this artless dodger though, Allen’s highly nuanced nostalgic whim certainly paints a beautiful picture, but ultimately fails to connect.

For Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), achieving success as a Hollywood screenwriter isn’t enough. He wishes to expand his artistic portfolio by penning a novel, but is unfortunately struggling to gather any inspiration. That’s where a wander to Paris offers respite, therefore off the back of a vacation funded by his wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) parents, Gil sees hope. Only, hope isn’t all he sees. Having escaped both the drones of an obnoxious family friend and his other half’s party manifesto, Gil finds himself slap-bang amongst the dazzling costumes and enigmatic personalities of an era he vociferously admires, the 1920s. It could be the wine, or perhaps Gil’s quest for inspiration has genuinely uncovered the Lost Generation.

Illuminated by quarantined nostalgia, Midnight in Paris firmly sinks its reels into a refined foundation. Gil champions the past, whereas others are either sceptical over his ambition or simply put-off by his tendency to reminisce. He lusts over the 1920s, wishing nature had granted him a spot at the dinner table of said time period. The main character in Gil’s novel works in a “nostalgia shop,” essentially reflecting the writer’s non-peripheral outlook on life. For 15 minutes, the presentation of a man who seemingly has everything going his way — affluence, a beautiful wife and a prosperous career — but remains unable to shake the cobwebs of a non-romantic reality, carries some weight.

Unfortunately the narrative somewhat spontaneously retreats a century backwards and kick-starts a conveyor belt of the intellectual. We meet Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dalí and a whole host of other scholars, artists, and fanciful knick-knacks. As Gil interacts with his heroes the problem is never clearer: these people are his heroes, not the audience’s — that would be to assume all Woody Allen outings are observed by a precise denomination, a notion that’s simply untrue given Midnight in Paris made over $150 million at the box office. Traits that may be recognised by artistically knowledgeably viewers otherwise play unsuccessfully to puzzled minds. Perhaps this is not a fault on the filmmaker’s end and an issue that instead lies squarely with those, like myself, who are less well-versed in the lives of Hemingway and company. Not every film is shot through a universal lens. Sadly for us common folk, much of Midnight in Paris renders superfluous as more vague faces appear spouting diatribes that are relayed with concealed significance. The phrase “we should quit the idle chatter” reverberates without implementation.

Allen formulates a familiar whimsical tone that brims full of quirkiness. Abiding by this eccentric slant on proceedings, the highbrow collection of 1920s (and earlier) historical figures are all portrayed without too much sincerity. The actors take to the screen like a hungry herd of cattle, displaying enough scenery chewing to clear any field of its green sheen. Everyone seems to be having a blast and although the various classical persons fluctuate in terms of how decipherable they are, an infectious joviality often washes over proceedings. Tom Hiddleston couples with Alison Phil as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda respectively, and both are undoubtedly enjoying playing dress-up; Phil in particular accentuates those vowels. Kathy Bates shows up as Gertrude Stein, delighting as ever on cue. Adrien Brody hams it up more than any other as Salvador Dalí in a truly humorous display that overrules any notion of personal ignorance.

The film plays up the juxtaposition of modern American consumerist Paris versus romantic Renaissance-laden Paris, a contradiction embodied emphatically by Gil and his wife Inez. Owen Wilson is very good as the inspiration deprived writer turned wide-eyed child in a candy store, whose dream to live in Paris is far from the mind of Rachel McAdams’ Inez. Inez is the typical tourist who sees Paris merely in its present day form as a temporary drop-out zone, and not for its natural inbuilt beauty — unlike her husband, she hates how the city looks in the rain. McAdams is fine in her role too, but struggles for breath at times given the nature of her one-dimensional character. The pair’s relationship is never really believable, a sentiment raised by Marion Cotillard’s Adriana in between escapades of Basil Exposition (“I dropped in from 2010″… “You DID?!”).

Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film basks in a wonderfully rich texture that is quite the opposite of the quaint plot which invariably ducks and dives. Too many on screen presences mean a few are lost in the shuffle; antiques dealer Gabrielle feels like a character without conviction, and Inez’s mother, other than manifesting as a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine a decade on, has very little to do. After traipsing through party after party full of observant pundits you begin to wonder why nobody is picking up on Gil’s 21st century fashion sense.

Midnight in Paris’ admirable intentions are there for all to see, but perhaps only a few will fully comprehend. That is not to say the film is lacking in watchability, for a host of energetic performances alongside a narrative that accommodates more than a trace of intrigue through its humorous comparison in culture certainly offers delight in small doses.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alan Taylor

Release Date: October 30th, 2013 (UK); November 8th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman

After Iron Man 3’s failure to ignite Marvel: Phase Two into top gear, Thor: The Dark World signals a brisk return to form for the franchise king as the film quenches any Mandarin-shaped spectres. Regardless of a few questionable plot elements, the second instalment of Thor brims with fun and is the epitome of rip-roaring cinematic entertainment, perhaps even bettering much of Marvel’s pre-Avengers universe.

With the impending arrival of the evil Alien-inspired Dark Elves — led by an utterly unrecognisable Christopher Eccleston — Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian hero Thor must put aside much of the loathing he is entrenched in and team with his imprisoned brother Loki in order to save the Nine Realms.

Tom Hiddleston returns as the devious Loki and is a joy to watch when he is present on screen (which is certainly not enough) in another scene-stealing performance. There is a slight shift in the central relationship this time round: from the son of Odin and his mortal love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), to the natural-yet-severed dynamic between the brothers, and this certainly amps up the tension. Portman doesn’t have as much to do this time around and, much like Thor in the previous film, finds herself in unusual surroundings. The novelty of seeing Foster wander around Asgard doesn’t quite reach the same level of playfulness as bearing witness to the God of Thunder eating breakfast in a New Mexico diner.

The film simultaneously manages to be darker, wittier and more enjoyable as it rises above the satisfying level set by that of its predecessor. Director Alan Taylor takes a slightly different approach than Thor’s (2011) Kenneth Branagh, as he powers every nuance of the film with Mjolner and tongs. Taylor, who has recently worked on the hit television series Game of Thrones, delves into the fantasy world even more with encapsulating Lord of the Rings-esque costumes and landscapes aplenty. Stir in Brian Tyler’s grandiose score — which haunts as much as it packs a punch — and you’ve got the perfect concoction of post-Middle Earth entertainment.

Even the very occasional influx of sap quickly evaporates by way of some creepy imagery and a brooding underlying tone which was missing previously. Genuine danger manifests around the Dark Elves spearheaded by Eccleston’s Malekith — the villain’s name boasts a snake-like quality as it slithers off the tongue.

Proceedings threaten to boil over into mind-boggling territory come the final showdown, but a frantic pace and exhilarating action mesh together successfully as a means of retaining the audience’s attention.

The direction of Thor: The Dark World is set early on as action engulfs events (“Is that why everything is on fire?”) and by the time the realm-interchanging plot starts to confuse a little, the aesthetically supreme film has already delivered in pure enjoyment.