As you may or may not have noticed I’ve been falling rather dramatically behind on reviews this past month or so. All I can say to excuse it is that I’ve been busy and I’m still trying to figure out how to slot all my various commitments into the time I have in a day. I have no plans to stop doing this anytime soon, you’ll just have to bear with me as I begin to sort this all out. My sporadic writing has meant I’ve fallen way behind on reviewing new movies. This is especially a shame because I’ve been keeping up with seeing them. Now I want to eventually do one or two end of the year lists, and to do that I want to make sure I have corresponding articles to link to. So this article is going to be one big game of catch up that will see me covering a ton of stuff I’ve recently seen in theatres in a slightly abbreviated way. Cool? Cool.
The Martian seems to have been a big hit, both critically and otherwise. It’s easy to see why. It’s in some ways a refreshingly small film. Which isn’t to say the stakes aren’t high, or that the budget is minuscule. It’s just that from a script point of view the movie is fairly simple and direct. There aren’t eight different half-fleshed out characters trying to save the world, there’s no clumsy globetrotting plot, no twists or gimmicks. It’s just a popular star given a meaty enough role in a movie that’s fairly populist in tone, despite being an optimistic ode to science and problem solving.
In a lot of ways this is a movie that would most appeal to science geeks. Those people drawn to XKCD and news stories about the newest discovery or break through in a given area of expertise. Which isn’t to say The Martian is completely scientifically accurate, because it’s not, it’s just scientifically minded in that vague Star Trek way. The people involved like science more than they understand it. But that’s okay, because it keeps the movie from being prohibitively technical or complex. The Martian is less about actual science than it is about the power of science, and the power of the human mind. All this combined with the movie’s optimistic (Are we fully sliding into a more optimistic film landscape now? One that’s leaving The Dark Knight and its kin farther and farther behind?) tone and approach to a fairly bleak subject matter makes the film feel effortlessly inspirational and engaging.
Plus the execution is wonderful. The cast is great, although Childish Gambino snuck on set and somehow got a job. The visuals are every bit as lovely as you’d expect from Ridley Scott. His gift for space imagery is well proven at this point. I would watch “Ridley Scott’s Shots of Planets” for a feature-length runtime. The 3D was also surprisingly effective. Ridley Scott is nothing if not a wonderful craftsman, and The Martian does little to dissuade that impression.
If The Martian is a refreshing burst of optimism in the big-budget landscape, then Sicario is its antithesis. Sicario is a movie that breaks its main character piece by piece. It presents the viewer with uncomfortable and tense tableaus, disturbing violence, and morally grey areas. It’s also absolutely fabulous.
For one thing Roger Deakins is back working with Denis Villeneuve, and the results are breathtaking. This film employs more helicopter shots than I’m used to Deakins using, and it’s brilliant. There’s a shockingly lengthy series of shots following a convoy of black SUVs snaking their way through Mexican highways, looking like some sort of intrusive animal forcing its way through the landscape. I can’t think of any time that shots of a bunch of driving black trucks have been that hypnotic and fascinating.
Then there’s the cast, which is universally fabulous. Emily Blunt is perfect as the film’s abused and confused moral centre. I read a great article about how Blunt’s character arc could be viewed as a metaphor for rape, which is actually a perfect encapsulation of the film’s tone to me. At the very least, Blunt’s sense of right and wrong is violated and broken by the events of the film, and she sells this perfectly. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in this role after seeing her in it, and in many ways she’s the least viscerally impressive performer in the film.
There’s also Josh Brolin, who is typically a wonderful actor. This film is no exception to that rule. He plays this far too goofy and relaxed character for the events he’s engineering. When we first get a glimpse of the guy sitting in a meeting with a mass of high ranking police figures, he’s wearing flip flops, and the camera (and Emily Blunt) take them in. We know right away something’s wrong. This guy is powerful, and maybe even unhinged, if he can get away with that. Brolin completely sells this idea, the fact that this character is powerful and menacing beneath an overly comfortable surface.
Then there’s Benicio Del Toro, who completely steals the show. Benicio Del Toro almost becomes the main character as the film goes on and, even before that happens, he’s impossible to ignore. His physicality in the film is brilliant and he’s given several of the film’s most scarring moments – like the most frightening wet willy you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Benicio seems almost minor as the film begins, but as the movie continues he and his character wake up, and it’s a truly award worthy performance. He’s absolutely captivating.
These three performances at the centre of a film this technically good makes for an amazing viewing experience. Right from the start the film is bluntly disturbing and violent. The film opens with Emily Blunt riding a tank through the wall of a cartel affiliated home. There’s a tense shoot out that ends with the team tearing the house apart looking for hostages. What they find are bodies, and a bomb. There’s a terrific explosion and one of Blunt’s men get killed. Then they find more bodies. Dozens of them, wrapped in plastic sheets and stored in the walls. It’s a series of precisely tense and nauseating beats that starts the film off on a great note.
This film has serious Cormac McCarthy overtones, reminding me both of McCarthy’s prose and of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Ridley Scott’s underrated The Counselor. Those films both draw on McCarthy for their look at the disturbing and monstrous practices of the Mexican cartels. This film covers much the same topic, in a similar way both narratively and visually (Roger Deakins all over the place). Add it to the list of works I love that also make me never ever want to go to Mexico.
Let’s continue this happy trend and talk about yet another new movie I loved. It’s been a good fall for me. I saw Crimson Peak opening night, because I could, and because Guillermo Del Toro. I saw it again because Flixster lied to me about the times Spectre was playing. The audience the second time was pretty obnoxious, in case anyone was interested; I think they’d wandered in looking for a proper horror film.
Crimson Peak is definitely not a horror film. The main character says very early on (in reference to a novel she’s writing), “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it.” Which is actually a very accurate heads up for what’s coming. Sure there are some unique looking ghosts (although maybe not quite as unique as some of Guy Davis’ wonderful designs for the film) and some jump scares, but really Crimson Peak is a gothic romance in just about every way possible. It looks like the best Hammer Film ever made, deals in gothic romance, and regularly uses effective irised shots in 2015. There was no way I wouldn’t love this movie.
Which I guess gives my opinion away pretty early on, even more effectively than this mini-review’s first sentence did. Everything about this movie is great. The cast is perfect (even Charlie Hunnam actually works this time around). The ghosts are fairly unusual and interesting. The story and characters are strong and rich in a way that Pacific Rim couldn’t manage.
I really, really loved this film, actually. Much like Sicario it scratches personal itches in an incredibly satisfying way. Also like Sicario it meets some of my personal tastes while being really rather good (unlike Godzilla or the last Planet of the Apes film, which did the same thing while being a shade more flawed). In fact as much as I like the Hellboy films, I would go so far as to say that Crimson Peak is Guillermo’s best English language film. Despite a series of stumbling projects (the fact that Junji Ito was also involved in Silent Hills should make you sad), Del Toro managed to pick himself up and come through with one of his best films in a while. Filled with the sort of recurring symbolic imagery the best of his films have, filled with rich characters, wonderful visuals, and wonderful references, Crimson Peak is a movie I expect I’ll find endlessly satisfying.
On a final note if this movie doesn’t win an Oscar for set design then the Academy will have officially lost all credibility. The sets in this movie are unbelievably gorgeous.
Well the good times had to come to an end eventually, and unfortunately the newest James Bond film arrived on the scene to do just that. There are certainly great moments in Spectre, don’t get me wrong. That opening single take is a lot of fun. The train fight is a pretty satisfying punch-up. Just about everything else falls flat, however, which is disappointing.
The biggest problem is definitely the script. This is the kind of blockbuster that completely fails to invest any effort in characters. This sort of movie could either hang on the neck of a satisfying plot (think The Dark Knight) or it could be driven by character drama (think of the best Marvel movies). Spectre’s plot is nonsensical, and it leaves the film in the hands of its characters. Its characters are kind of garbage. No interaction feels earned, or built from anything. Bond and Blofeld are meant to have this great offscreen history, but instead their scenes feel like two cardboard cut-outs of great actors interacting. Bond’s connection with his new lady friend feels utterly unearned. Nothing feels like it has any weight. This, naturally, leads to one of the film’s biggest crimes, wasting the opportunity that is Christoph Waltz playing Bond’s most iconic villain. That alone is a criminal offence.
Waltz shouldn’t take it personally though; this film wastes everyone, including Monica Bellucci, which shouldn’t even be possible. So Spectre takes these few fun moments, and few fun interactions (Bond and Q mainly) and drowns them in abysmally emotionless chaff. Most of the action isn’t even good, as it’s crippled by slack and shoddy editing. Actually a good editor might have gone a long way to injecting the film with some pacing and dynamism. Instead beats fall uncomfortably flat, landing with an echoey thud amidst too much breathing room. Other scenes just fall apart due to illogical flow and incoherent geography. This coupled with the utter lack of characterization leave the whole movie feeling like one long bland note. Even now I’m struggling to remember chunks of it.
On the upside the way the movie is laughably uncomfortable bringing up Quantum of Solace is pretty damn funny.
Spectre is kind of the worst sort of blockbuster. Too good to be entertaining, too bland to be good. It’s like a filmic sigh.
Wow no one is going to see this Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle collaboration. Even film fans have told me that they can’t understand why we need another Steve Jobs biopic. Is the Ashton Kutcher vehicle so definitive we can’t see something new? Do they not realize the quality of the creative team or the cast? It’s kind of surreal that this quite good movie has actually been pulled from a number of theatres due to poor performance.
I’ve given away my feelings in the opening again, but seriously this is a pretty good film, and it’s certainly an interesting watch.
Writing about Spectre has already eaten away my capacity for negativity today, so I want to get my biggest complaint out of the way. Steve Jobs has a pretty rocky ending. Like, a cut to black less then a minute earlier would fix it too, which makes it all the worse. I’m such an ending stickler, because I find endings to be one of the most fascinating aspects of any narrative, but even a normal person would, I think, be let down by Steve Jobs’ slow motion happy light thing. Such a weird choice.
However the rest of the film is filled with the right kind of weird choices. The whole film is three shades more unusual than I expected, especially some of the visual flairs Danny Boyle brings to the movie. These, coupled with Aaron Sorkin’s unique structure, make the whole film feel like a really interesting departure from the normal biopic formula. The movie takes place over the preamble to three different press conferences for three different releases of Steve Jobs driven products. The story fibs and coagulates all these aspects of Jobs’ life together to tell as much of his story as possible in these periods, but in a way that still comes across as graceful and organic. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone who’s not Aaron Sorkin pulling this off.
Danny Boyle then brings these odd stylistic choices to the mix and the whole film feels so different, a far cry from the standard Oscar-grubbing biopic (this is the part where I unfairly preemptively mock Concussion). Steve Jobs is an interesting film, one deserving of a larger audience.
Now on to a smaller, arthouse, film – The Assassin, basically a similar exercise to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in regards to the attempted elevation of Chinese martial arts movies. You know how people frequently describe movies as hypnotic? I’m sure I’ve done it a number of times in the past. Well The Assassin is hypnotic. Unfortunately the first step in any hypnotist’s act is putting you to sleep. I don’t sleep in movies. I’ve never done it. I still haven’t. The Assassin brought me closer to slumber than any other film I’ve ever seen. Yet I still can’t find it in myself to actively dislike the film. Somehow it hurts a little to actually say a bad word about it.
Particularly because the movie is absolutely beautiful. The film was shot on 35mm and presented in a 16mm-style aspect ratio (1 x 1.33). This gives the whole movie an unusually square format. Compounding this immediately tangible difference is the film’s soundtrack. The Assassin largely eschews non-diegetic sound, leaving large portions of the movie muted and scored only by natural noises. Also almost all the dialogue is whispered. So the entire movie is hushed and enigmatic in presentation. Shots are composed fantastically, with warm candlelight and swaying translucent curtains shimmering when they’re disturbed. The silver birch forests, mountain peaks, and still lakes collected from a variety of Chinese provinces are gorgeous too, and provide the movie with more stunning visuals.
One of the biggest problems is the characters, who are all mysterious and quiet and unexplored. Especially the titular assassin, played by Qi Shu. Qi Shu was charismatic and entertaining in her role in Journey to the West, but in this film her character is kept at arm’s length from the audience. Maybe even a few arms’ lengths. She rarely appears on screen, and when she does it’s normally briefly and quietly. There are whole scenes where she appears, but we never see her face. Having what is ostensibly the main character be this much of a non-entity leaves the movie without a strong centre to connect to, a vacuum resolutely unfilled by the other characters or story.
The Assassin is also barely a martial arts movie, which I expected going in. The fights are brief and kept a long way away from the camera’s shallow focus. Fights are short, sometimes in the background, and often over before you can fully wake up and admire them.
It was roughly the middle of the film that I found most soporific. The movie utilizes many long takes, and a few incredibly hushed takes in the middle came dangerously close to lulling me to sleep. These scenes were beautiful, so I didn’t want to look away, and there was a little bit of story being explored, but it was mind-bogglingly long and quiet.
The first half and last half of the film didn’t relax me nearly as much as the middle portion, but it still never grabbed me. There’s just nothing to grab hold of in the film. There are no stand out characters and there’s barely a plot. The whole film technically revolves around Qi Shu’s character’s moral dilemma, but her character appears so little that the film never really even attempts to dramatize her arc.
The whole film just falls flat, despite looking so incredibly lovely. It’s hard to criticize something that sounds this cool on paper (there’s even magic at one point) and is so lovely, but it is so narratively drab. There’s just nothing from a story-perspective that lands properly. Even the parts of the story that do kind of work, that are kind of gripping, are undone by their swiftness, and by the absence of effectiveness either side of these moments. The Assassin is so close to being an amazing movie, but as it is I could only really recommend it as a visual experience.