Crimson Peaks

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When I heard that Guillermo Del Toro–director of such masterworks of dark fantasy as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone–was making a new Ghost film, I was absolutely pumped! I mean, if there’s anyone out there who knows how to make a monster movie, it’s him. The level of detail that goes into his sets, costumes, and especially his creature designs, is amazing. Aesthetics are of the utmost importance in horror films, since much of the tension and fear derives from the atmosphere and environment being created, and Del Toro’s visuals are always immaculate. So, yeah, when it comes to horror, he can do no wrong…

…except for when he can’t.

See, in recent years, Del Toro has been making movies that are just as visually striking as ever, but somewhat lacking in emotional depth, or complexity of plot. Take Pacific Rim, his most recent picture. It’s a movie about giant, man-driven robots, which fight giant, man-eating monsters. Yeah, it’s as stupid as it sounds, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that this obvious B-movie had an enormous budget, and several extremely talented actors in it–such as Academy Award-nominee Rinko Kickuchi, and Golden Globe-winner Idris Elba–who didn’t really have much to do. Now, don’t get me wrong, Pacific Rim is a lot of fun to watch–it’s giant robots punching monster’s in the face; how can you not be entertained?–but it just doesn’t have the emotional heft or engaging narrative of his earlier works. That’s why, after I came down from my initial excitement, I was a little bit skeptical of his new project, Crimson Peaks. I knew that it would look gorgeous–that was obvious. What I didn’t know was if it would be more like Pan’s Labyrinth, a touching, narratively-engaging fantasy–or Pacific Rim–a two hour boxing match between Optimus Prime and Godzilla.

Well, having seen the movie for myself, I can tell you right now that it’s actually like both of them at once. Stylistically, Crimson Peaks is very close to Pan’s Labyrinth, lots of big arches, dark shadows, period costumes, and weird, supernatural monsters. Narratively, however, it’s not that far off from Pacific Rim, in that there isn’t much character development, and the plot is rather simple. Basically, it’s the story of this young writer (Mia Wasikowska) who marries this guy (Tom Hiddleston) and moves in with him and his sister (Jessica Chastain) to their really old, really creepy house. And, as you might expect, things start going bump in the night, and Mia embarks on a quest to solve the mystery that’s surrounding the place. The problem is, for a horror film, it’s not really that frightening. It’s actually kind of boring in places. And, for a movie that’s marketed as this creepy, supernatural thriller, the ghosts don’t play that big a part in the picture, and if you really stop and think about it, aren’t really necessary to the plot at all. You could just as easily tell this same story of a young bride uncovering some disturbing facts about her new husband WITHOUT the monsters. Why? Because the ghosts don’t really do anything. They don’t directly tell her anything useful. They just kind of float around, point at stuff, and hiss cryptically. On top of that, some of the dialogue is really corny. There’s this one scene in the movie where Mia has just seen ghosts. She’s really frightened, and really shaken. She tells her husband about it, and what does he say? “Don’t worry. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the post office.” WHAT? What does that have to do with anything? She just told you she saw ghosts. How is going to the post office going to solve anything?

(Sigh.)

But, in the end, I wouldn’t write Crimson Peaks off as a bad film. Yeah, it’s kind of boring. Yeah, it’s a ghost story where the ghost don’t really do anything useful. But, at the same time, you can’t help but admire the enormous amount of effort that went into the costumes, sets, and visuals of this picture. And even though the characters in the film aren’t great, the actors playing them still do their best and deliver fine performances. So, it might not be perfect, but it’s still a watchable 6.5 out of 10. If you’re wanting to give yourself a great visual treat for Halloween, this might be the thing you’re looking for.

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Beasts Of No Nation

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

As much as I’d like to give this film a perfect score, I just don’t feel that I can. And that drives me crazy. I mean, on the surface, this film has everything I’m looking for–an engaging narrative, realistic characters, stellar performances, gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful color scheme. Not only that, it stars an entirely non-White cast, and was written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, a fellow Asian American filmmaker and NYU Tisch alumni. Everything I need is present in Beasts Of No Nation, so why aren’t I crazy about it?

Well, one reason could be the pacing. See, for those of you who don’t know, this movie I’m writing about, Beasts Of No Nation, tells the story of Agu, a young boy in an unnamed West African nation going through a Civil War, who, after his family is killed, becomes a child soldier. In this respect, it is not unlike the Oscar-nominated Political THriller, Blood Diamond. But, whereas Blood Diamond  was primarily an action film, and therefore had quick pacing and high octane thrills, this movie takes its time, and in some places, lingers on scenes and images that aren’t entirely necessary. There are several, rather long, shots of characters playing soccer, playing tag, going to Church, sitting and dancing, and even of completely random things, like bugs on branches, and dripping faucets. I understand the necessity of building up atmosphere and ambiance, but come on! Move the plot forward! Have stuff happen! Blood Diamond has a running time of over 2 and a half hours, a good 10 minutes more than this movie, and yet, it doesn’t feel nearly as long as this. And you want to know why? Because stuff actually happens there! There aren’t any extraneous scenes of people riding in cars or watching the rain fall. Every cut and image in that film is necessary! I never realized how important pacing really was to the success of a picture until I saw Beasts Of No Nation.

Another possible reason why I’m not as crazy about this film as I probably should be is the ambiguity. What I mean by that is, we’re never told what country this is supposed to be, why the war is happening, or even what the moral center of the film is. Now, on some level, I can understand why Fukunaga probably did this. He probably wanted to tell a universal human story with a universal human center, and that doesn’t necessarily require specific details, like a national identity, or a historical backdrop. But, at the same time, if we’re not given a specific conflict or country to latch on to, we’re not left with any real reason to care. I mean, even in completely fictional movies about war, like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings, we’re told where we are, what the conflict is, and who the different sides are. We’re given context. We’re given something to grab on to. We don’t have that here. We don’t know what place this is. We don’t know who the good guys and the bad guys are. All we know is that there’s a kid, some bad things happen to him, he becomes a soldier, and he kills lots of people. What’s the purpose of that? To tell us that war is bad? Uh, I hate to break it to you Cary, but I think everyone in the world already knows that. At least Blood Diamond wanted to educate us about a specific issue–the illegal diamond trade–and give us an insight into the specific problems faced by a specific country–Sierra Leone. The lack of specificity in Beasts Of No Nation was likely done to make the film’s story and themes more universal, but, in the end, only managed to alienate the audience from what was happening, and unintentionally contribute to the homogenization of African cultures in the Western mind.

But, with all that said, I did still enjoy this movie, and have decided to give it a 7 out of 10. Yeah, it drags in some places. Yeah, it’s ambiguity can be a bit off-putting. But, overall, I do still think Beasts Of No Nation is a strong piece of filmmaking that should be watched and admired. If you’re a fan of Mr Fukunaga’s work–True Detective, Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre–or are simply looking to watch a well-shot, well-acted movie, give this film a look. It’s streaming on Netflix right now, and playing in some theaters.