Krampus (2015)

Krampus


 

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Dougherty. Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields. Produced by Alex Garcia, John Jashni, Michael Dougherty, Thomas Tull. Music by Douglas Pipes. Photographed by Jules O’Loughlin. Edited by John Axelrad. Production designed by Jules Cook. Costumes designed by Bob Buck. Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Conchata Farrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler.


 

Krampus, the new Christmas horror film about a demonic spirit of the holiday tormenting a suburban family, will not be everyone’s cup of Yuletide cheer. But there are some moviegoers who treasure the occasional lump of coal with their holiday entertainment, and Krampus will be right up their alley. This is slick, well-made Christmas comedy-horror, with its dark heart in just about the right place. Imagine something along the lines of another Christmas classic, Gremlins, and you’re on the right track. Besides, if you think that Christmas movies should refrain from the spooky and supernatural…well, tell that to Ebeneezer Scrooge and George Bailey.

The opening of Michael Dougherty’s picture, however, grounds everything in different Christmas movie traditions. The spirit of John Hughes hangs over these early scenes. After a cheerfully cynical title sequence of violent shoppers, we move to an affluent Midwest suburb that sits with growing dysfunction. We can imagine that Griswolds living down the street from our hero family: Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), and their kids Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony). Tom is a workaholic, Sarah is overstressed. The family seems to be anxiously inching towards divorce. Beth, like many teenage girls, is a professional eye-roller who would rather be with her boyfriend for Christmas. Max is a thoughtful, bullied kid prone to fits of anger. Into this mix come the antagonistic and lower-class Aunt Linda (Allison Tollman) and Uncle Howard (David Koechner), and their brood of mean children (Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel). Plus, boorish Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Farrell) and Tom’s Austrian mother Omi (Krista Stadler), who seems to know more about Christmas than she lets on.

Max, who just wants his family to be happy again, rips up his letter to Santa one night in frustration. This turns out to be a mistake, because it summons the vengeance of Krampus, a real-life subject of endless, unsettling folklore. He is referred to as “St. Nicholas’ shadow,” and he specializes in punishment of the wicked. Those who seriously betray the Christmas spirit don’t just get a pass-by from Santa; they get a visit from Krampus. Krampus has goat hooves, a burly, towering figure and a stitched-together face. His howl is bone-chilling. His assistants include murderous gingerbread men, demonic toys, hungry clowns with three-pronged jaws and a small army of dark elves who wear pagan masks. Warning to parents: despite the PG-13 rating and festive iconography, this movie is very scary. Not PG-13 scary. Scary scary.

That said, it’s an absolutely splendid premise for a horror film, and Krampus runs with it while keeping a sly comic tone, which rises in pitch as the movie’s threats rise to delirious levels. Scott at one point has a line that recalls one of the memorable moments from John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, signaling a similarly terrifying descent into sheer absurdity. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, this kind of tonal toggling, and all I can say about Mr. Dougherty and his co-writers (Todd Casey and Zach Shields) is that they know exactly what they’re doing.

It’s also an intriguing wrinkle in that the movie humanizes everyone. Uncle Howard is smarter than he looks. Beth is a better sister than she lets on. Tom is presumed to be a milquetoast, but he keeps his own options open. Sarah and Aunt Linda both show that they can rise to the occasion. This isn’t your everyday slasher setup where everyone wears a tag indicating how much they deserve to die. This is important, because Krampus’ target is actually, exclusively, Max, who has lost his faith in Christmas and must be punished.

Mr. Dougherty also directed 2007’s Halloween-themed cult classic Trick  ‘r Treat, also about a spirit doling out twisted–but consistent–justice on a holiday. Dougherty is an excellent filmmaker, able to stretch tiny bugets (15 million here) with superhuman skill, and he’s able to season his horror with real suspense and characters we care about. His movie has the cheeky, wicked sincerity of a tale from the Cypt, right down to its ambiguous ending, which will probably inspire debate, but we can all agree old Scrooge was probably happy he didn’t get that one.

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Creed (2015)

MV5BMjEyNDQ2MzI0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODkzMDEyNzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Here’s the surprise about Creed: it’s a movie that would be just as great even if the original Rocky never existed. Not that Creed is shy about its lineage. It’s an official sequel to the six-part Rocky series, which last visited theaters with 2006. It draws from the continuity of several movies in the series. It has Sylvester Stallone reprising his role as the iconic Italian Stallion. And Creed‘s structure will be familiar to long time students of the series: training, romance, and periods of self-doubt leading to up a climactic big fight. But Creed also is fresh and exciting, with a vitality all of its own. Rather than being complacent to ride the coat tails of Rocky, Creed, like its eponymous hero, wants to stand proudly on its own two feet. It does.

It’s also a star-making role for actor Michael B. Jordan. He brings fierce intensity (and a subdued, rocksteady intelligence) to a role that could be pure melodrama. He plays the illegitimate son of Balboa’s frenemy Apollo Creed (who died at the start of Rocky IV). Adonis (or “Donny”), was taken in by Apollo’s wife (quietly no-nonsense Phylicia Rashad) and grows up a privileged and angry kid. The street boxers have no respect for his upbringing, and that pushes him into distancing himself from the family name. He moves to Philadelphia (richly photographed by Marysle Alberti) and seeks out Rockyas his trainer. Their growing friendship forms a big piece of the movie’s beating heart.

Because make no mistake: like the best of the Rocky films, Creed‘s heart is big and warm. Despite the jabs, pummels and crunches that come with each boxing match (which Jordan handles with jaw-dropping athleticism), this is a movie about love, friendship and proving one’s self-worth. The scenes between Jordan and Stallone are much more than callbacks to the original Rocky, with Stallone now in the trainer’s role. They are emotional and true: they touch on real pain and loss, with this kid representing a new chapter in life for an aging boxer whose best years are behind him. They’re a late plot development with Rocky’s character, and the touching way that he reacts to it and justifies a crucial choice proves once again that Stallone can be a fantastic actor when given the chance.

Stallone’s performance is supporting, however. The real star is Jordan, who is electric. Despite the presence of real antagonists in the movie (Tony Bellew plays the climactic opponent, Pretty Boy, who isn’t exactly a bad guy but is fine with making himself look like one), it’s mainly about a kid fighting against himself: his doubt, his temper, his fear of not living up to his father’s legacy. Donny’s character, and Jordan’s performance, distinguish Creed from being a cheap Rocky cash-in. The role is just that rich and well-acted.

There’s also a love story between Donny and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who works small-scale Philly venues. Their scenes are well-observed, and the two actors’ chemistry is real. It’s a great, rare privilege in the movies to watch two characters fall in love and believe that they are. Here, you see the unspoken things they like about each other, how smart they are, and that they’re following their own script. Even their fights, when they happen, seem peppered with things and lines that seem like they would actually happen.

The director, Ryan Coogler, made the wonderful low-scale drama Fruitvale Station, and here, with a larger budget and working within a legendary series, he delivers amazing filmmaking. He finds ways to add texture to every scene, whether it’s through telling, quick cutaways (two black kids watching Donny in awe) or ambitious camerawork (note the mid-movie bout conducted in one astonishing take). Coogler also co-wrote, and it’s a mark of how high Creed‘s quality is that even though it ends as it must, with an epic fight, it’s one executed with such attention to character and such visceral punch that it’s as rousing–in its way–as anything you’ve ever seen. Creed isn’t just one of 2015’s best entertainments. It’s one of its best films, period.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

the-hunger-games_mockingjay-part-2_stillSo, why did Mockingjay, the final installment of The Hunger Games, need to be split into two movies? Last fall’s pokily paced Part 1 didn’t answer the question, and now here is Part 2, a disappointing movie that’s terribly padded and all too lacking in urgency. The split-a-movie-in-half technique has worked in franchises past (see the last two Harry Potters), but with The Hunger Games there seems to have been no reason to bisect this story other than to honor the studio accounting truism that four Hunger Games films are better than three. Taken in totality, Mockingjay is a curious beast: a five-hour, all-too-faithful adaptation of the weakest novel in Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy, with plenty of time given to iffy love triangles, weak plot logic, clumsy world-building and anti-climaxes. Up until now, the films have been triumphs over their novel counterparts, and there was plenty of room here to improve Collins’ lumpy finale, but this opportunity has not been seized.

That’s unfortunate, because Mockingjay is a narrative that admirably wants to be about something. It’s a meditation on the differences between symbols, heroes and martyrs. It adds some welcome grown-up realpolitik to the series’ recipe of acidic media satire. It’s key narrative trajectory, that of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) discarding her role as the rebellion’s public mouthpiece and joining with a squad of soldiers on a fabricated suicide mission to assassinate fascist President Snow (Donald Sutherland, delightfully evil) is nicely fatalistic. The story cleverly conceives the trek to the Capitol as a series of futuristic IEDs that work like deadly, diabolical booby traps–the hunger games all over again, in other words. When Mockingjay remembers to have action sequences, like during a virtuoso set piece in a sewer tunnel populated by murderous mutants, it really does a good job. And the plot deliberately dares to conclude a story of rebellion with knowing and cynical dissatisfaction.

But Mockingjay is also too much an unremittingly dour movie that muscles Katniss out of her own story by making her passive and emotionally hollow. The point here is that Katniss is becoming a mere propaganda tool of an untrustworthy dissident movement, and the only agency she secures for herself is through deceptions that have fatal repercussions for those around her. But so much of Mockingjay is about an emotionally distant Katniss being told things after the fact, and of having reactions so muted they sometimes ultimately fail to register. If the previous movies were about a person wrestling with becoming a symbol, then Part 2 is about a symbol who has forgotten how to be human. It possesses a mostly unengaging air, made worse by flat staging (especially in a ludicrously signposted climax).

It doesn’t help that the series’ lively MVPs (Elizabeth Banks as the pretentious Effie Trinket, Stanley Tucci as the oily TV journalist Caesar, etc) are given mere bit parts, and the untimely death of principal actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman is awkwardly worked around. Indeed, the most important side roles here are the two sides of her prerequisite Young Adult Fiction love triangle, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Gale is a brooding nonentity, while Peeta, even in the brainwashed state that he was found in at the end of Mockingjay I, lacks all manner of charisma. Lawrence is arguably one of the best actresses of her generation, and in a way that’s the problem: she and the franchise’s directors (Gary Ross for the first, Francis Lawrence for all others since) have successfully created such a capable and forceful heroine (stronger than the book Katniss) that it defies all reason she would settle for either of these dullards. She doesn’t seem to need them. This matters most during the unconvincing denouement, which tries to touch the poetic, and it doesn’t work.

For such an important franchise that the Hunger Games turned out to be (and it still runs circles around the Maze Runners and Divergents of the world), it’s a shame this one fizzles as much as it does. Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire, but she deserved an ending that’s more than a pile of wet leaves.

Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight_film_2015Spotlight, the new film by Tom McCarthy, isn’t just an engrossing piece of cinema, and it isn’t just an Oscar contender. It’s also one of the best movies about investigative journalism since All the President’s Men. Both movies are tightly-focused narratives about intrepid reporters that task themselves with exposing corruption inside systems that are supposed to trade upon supreme trust. In Spotlight, instead of Woodward, Bernstein, Watergate and Nixon, it’s Boston Globe journalists who discover the horrifying fact that the Boston Catholic Church covered up numerous acts of child sexual abuse within their own clergy for decades. This is based on a true story, of course. And it is a film single-minded in its devotion to chronicling the nuts and bolts of hardcore reporting. Like Woodward and Bernstein, the Spotlight team (which operates out of the Globe basement discreetly and is unburdened by deadlines) eventually pound the pavement and navigate through an endless thicket of notes, documents, clues, interviews, suspects, victims, breakthroughs, frustrations, informants, stonewalls, assurances and threats.

The movie is a dedicated and poignant ode to that type of job. It enlists no silly subplots, and no extraneous characters. When Spotlight digs into the personal lives of its central reporters, it is to reflect on how the story directly affects them. How could it not? The 2001-era Boston shown in Spotlight is a tightly-knit town, one where church is completely intertwined with community, secrets are well-kept, and betrayals are keenly felt. The four Spotlight reporters uncovering this corruption were raised Catholic, and they went to the same schools and masses as the growing list of victims. Some of our key players are now lapsed Catholics, but it barely matters: to learn these truths is to experience a crisis of a faith they forgot they had. When Spotlight team lead Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) visits his old elementary school and a teacher hides behind cold lawyer-talk, Robby’s bitter final line says it all: “I guess we were the lucky ones, huh?” At one moment, an informant estimates that six percent of Boston clergy (ninety priests) are guilty of abuse, and his figure is proven to be staggeringly, incredibly accurate. And as we know, this story continues to grow to this day.

Boston is so clandestine, argues Spotlight, that this story only revealed itself because Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), an outsider both by geography (Miami) and religion (Jewish) took over as Globe editor and saw a thread he couldn’t help but tug. The Spotlight team knew about abuse stories and saw a possibly bigger conspiracy, but Baron, coming in as the threat of layoffs hang in the air, saw potential and pushed the team into a devastating piece of journalism. Another outsider, a cantankerous Armenian lawyer named Mitchell Garebedian (Stanley Tucci) supplies crucial information. It’s eventually revealed that some of this information was shared before with the Globe, to no avail. Some of it is, shockingly, public information. Some of it involves lawyers and suspects that can’t even keep their mouths shut. And soon enough the Spotlight team must choose between running an incomplete story that will summon the church’s damage control, or sitting on it and risking another paper running the same information and butchering it. The story’s momentum is persuasive and thrilling.

Spotlight is refreshingly even-handed. It sees the church as an institution that can do good, but simply has not done so here. During one staggering sequence, we cut between two separate interviews detailing graphic sexual abuse, with editing carefully used to exercise restraint (without making things too vague). The other Spotlight team members (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) gradually become aware of the scope of this story and have to contend with what it does to their lives. McAdams knows it will destroy her religious mother. Ruffalo loses his already-strained faith. James, a father, is shocked to learn that a church’s halfway house for recirculated priests is two blocks from his home. And Keaton’s Robinson wrestles with unimaginable guilt and provides the movie’s emotional lynchpin.

It’s so rare these days to see such a well-made film for adults. Spotlight is one of the year’s very best.

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

The-Peanuts-Movie-2015Good grief, they got it right. That’s the main takeaway of The Peanuts Movie, an animated refresh of Charles Schulz’s classic comic strip and TV specials that resists the urge to muck with Schulz’s endearing legacy. Sure, there’s a Meghan Trainor song in the end credits, and some moments that experiment with the new possibilities of what animation can do in 2015. But the tone and characters are just perfect, and loving reverence for Schulz comes through in every frame of this movie, directed by Steve Martino with a script co-written by (in a telling detail) Bryan and Craig Schulz. It may be 2015, but in Peanuts-land, Snoopy still daydreams about battling the Red Baron, Sally still swoons over blanket-loving Linus, Schroeder still worships at the altar of Beethoven, Vince Guaraldi’s classic jazz score can be heard, and the adults are still all invisible trombones. And poor old Charlie Brown is still a loser with big dreams: he can’t get a kite to fly, he can’t pitch a good ballgame, and his regular trips to Lucy’s psychiatrist booth (five cents, please) typically end with Lucy giving precociously bleak prognoses.
This is exactly the Charlie Brown universe that Peanuts fans remember, in other words, with no truly inappropriate attempts made to gussy up the material. The animation style had been upgraded to glossy 3D, which means the environs have been rendered with more vivid detail than in the past. But it’s a hybrid style with some charmingly retrograde touches, like the imperfect stop-motion feel, or the thick pencil squiggles that make up Linus’ hair, the hearts around Sally’s lovestruck head or Charlie Brown’s uneven mouth. Peanuts has historically always embraced a low-fi aesthetic, (even the previous four animated films, starting with 1968’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, were in a minor league of design compared to what was happening over at Disney) and the new film feels decidedly slicker and more expensive, without dishonoring the legacy. Even the audio choices are right: both Snoopy and his bird pal, Woodstock, are voiced via archival audio of TV producer Bill Melendez, who created the twosome’s indelible repertoire of chirps and cackles. And the voice cast (Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Alexander Garfin and others) is mostly made up of child actors, lending line readings more sincerity than phony polish. The sole exception to that is Kristen Chenowith as Snoopy’s imaginary (and not exactly verbose) love interest, Fifi–it’s casting that merely exists as an in-joke (she once played Sally on Broadway). But no matter.
The story, which centers on Charlie Brown’s attempts to impress the new red-haired girl who moves in across the street (she herself an important figure in Peanuts canon) becomes mainly a series of tests for Charlie as he tries to balance attempts at success and honesty. Then he’s saddled with some newfound popularity when he unexpectedly aces a standardized test, and so he becomes a school hero, to his discomfort and to Lucy’s unbridled consternation. Meanwhile, Snoopy has his own humorous side adventure in his Red Baron-powered imagination, but checks in frequently to Charlie’s story, as the heartfelt relationship between the two has always been a key piece of Peanuts lore.
Sometimes the movie is perhaps almost even too faithful, as if ticking off a checklist while making sure no cherished Peanuts trope goes unused: a scene where Snoopy dresses up as Joe Cool, a scene that shows Lucy at peak levels of fussbudget, jokes about perpetually filthy Pig Pen, etc. And the series’ most philosophical soul, Linus, is a little underutilized in this outing. These are minor complaints, though, because the gentle, fragile soul of Peanuts remains astonishingly preserved. It should satisfy adult fans and probably make new younger ones, because it wonderfully captures Schulz’s ability to tap into real, potent childhood anxieties (counterbalanced by dollops of sheer whimsical entertainment). And if The Peanuts Movie’s ending is perhaps a tiny bit too hopeful than typical for Peanuts, we should remember that even Schulz broke his own rules every so often, and that a small dash of encouragement is what keeps a good blockhead going.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.
‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, is a movie that feels like it could have been made decades ago. That is a compliment. It is old-fashioned in its approach and technique, and it possesses a wry, handsome integrity. In form, it is the story of a decent man compelled to do the right thing, a favorite theme of Frank Capra, who is as good a representative of classic Hollywood as you can get. Spielberg, who seems to be following a Capra line of thought at the moment (2012’s Lincoln shares similar DNA with this one), bestows this well-pedigreed material (a screenplay co-written by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen) with his typical brand of exemplary craftsmanship. If Bridge of Spies ends up feeling like a minor work within the impressive filmographies of those involved, that shouldn’t be a mark against it, because it is a terrific piece of work all the same.

Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who in 1959 is selected by the US State Department to prepare the defense of one Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is accused of being a Russian spy. There’s no doubt of Abel’s guilt. We see that in a nearly-wordless opening sequence in which the FBI inexorably closes in on the man, who is indeed trading in stolen secrets and manages to dispatch some of the evidence even while entering custody. What Donovan is needed for is to provide a legal opponent for the state, which will create the appearance of due process, making whatever happens to Abel nice and tidy. Donovan reluctantly takes on the case, and by actually taking it seriously, he summons the ire of his fellow citizens, who see him as standing in the way of letting a traitor hang. But it is not that simple at all. And Abel is also a quiet and likable man, a reserved fellow who doesn’t like unnecessary gestures. At one point, Donovan asks him if he ever worries. Abel’s succinct reply: “Would it help?”
The case of Rudolf Abel raises questions, then, of what the line is between citizen and traitor, and whether those on one side of that line deserve the same protections as those on the other. As far as Donovan is concerned, the US has a responsibility to give the man a fair trial, one that forwards a non-lethal outcome, for ethical and moral reasons. And his appeal, when it comes, strikes a key note of practicality: wouldn’t it be best, he argues, to keep Abel imprisoned and safe, so that if we ever need to retrieve one of our own spies we can afford to make a swap? And indeed, when a U2 pilot named Powers (Austin Stowell) goes missing in East Germany, Donovan’s warning becomes eerily prescient. All of this is based on fact, including the part that happens next, where Donovan is sent to Berlin (just as the city is building the wall) to negotiate a swap, and soon finds himself trying to secure the release of both Powers and an innocent US student, who has been detained deliberately by the East Germans in order to sabotage American interest in the spy exchange.
This is a good solid story, told with clarity and precision by Spielberg, and also with more than a little humor. This is a dialogue-driven film, especially in the second half, and it is dialogue written  with intelligent wit as Donovan has to conduct obtuse conversations with both Soviet and East German officials. These are discussions cloaked in veiled threats and persistent lies, sometimes told with skill, sometimes less so, and always seeming part of some Byzantine strategy. Eventually, Donovan has to buck his CIA handlers in order to do what he feels is right, and his conclusions draw parallels to present-day events, as well as leading to one of the tensest climaxes in a film this year. The cast, which is uniformly superb (also showcasing Amy Ryan and Alan Alda), make a meal of this strong story, which is told with such effortless skill by Spielberg and the Coens that they make it look impressively easy.

Pan (2015)

IMG_1779.DNGWarner Brothers presents a film directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Jason Fuchs; based upon characters created by J.M. Barrie. Produced by Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Paul Webster. Music by John Powell. Photographed by John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey. Edited by William Hoy, Paul Tothill. Production designed by Aline Bonetto. Costumes designed by Jacqueline Durann. Starring Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara.

Pan comes billed as “the untold origin of Peter Pan.” Well, they got the untold part right. I somehow doubt that Scottish writer J.M. Barrie envisioned the boy who never grew up as an orphan rescued from the 1940 London blitz, given the simple fact that Barrie died three years before it happened. I also don’t believe he imagined Peter’s first days in the enchanted world of Neverland involved working in a mine alongside thousands of enslaved children, under the iron fist of the time-traveling, pixie-dust-huffing, contemporary-pop-song-loving villainous pirate Blackbeard. Nor do I believe that upon arrival, Peter Pan befriended a young, pre-amputation scalawag adventurer named James Hook, or that together with a Caucasian version of Native American princess Tiger Lily, they fulfilled an ancient prophecy about a Chosen One. I can believe in fairies, but I do not believe in this.

What I do believe is that, in collaboration with his production team and actors, and with the freedom of $150 million dollars, director Joe Wright has made a grave error with Pan, an exhausting monstrosity so comprehensively miscalculated that not a thing about it works. Not the garish production design that excises all magic. Not the endless and oppressive special effects completely devoid of wit or wonder. Not the screeching, shrill pantomime performances, nor the parade of storytelling cliches, or the unpleasant tone or the flat direction or the just plain bizarre stylistic choices. Wright is a good filmmaker (Atonement, Hanna), which makes sense. You have to be talented to make something this stubbornly wrong-headed.

It’s a movie far removed from the legend of Peter Pan, because J.M. Barrie created this story as more of a cautionary fable than a heroic epic. Pan’s existence, though seductive to frustrated Victorian preteens, is actually a sad and lonely one, and his adventures in Neverland are, in the end, poignant, dreamlike emblems of the important things we sacrifice if we surrender to arrested development. P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan understood that, but few other adaptations have. This one imagines Peter’s origin as an empty, run-of-the-mill fantasy swashbuckler, replete with wholesale pilfering of plot points from successful blockbusters (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar and even Mad Max are shamelessly thieved). You have to wonder what the point was, if this is all they were going to do with it.

In Pan, Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) is an orphan under the care of corrupt nuns who hand off their charges to Cirque de Soleil-style bungee-jumping pirates so they can be whisked away to Neverland on their flying pirate ship (after dogfighting, pointlessly, with the RAF). There, Peter is enslaved by Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman in a grating and aggressively bipolar performance. Peter’s salvation comes from his new friend Hook, a misdirected Garrett Hedlund. Hedlund is a fine actor, but so mannered and over the top here, as if he’s channeling Daniel Day -Lewis playing Han Solo for Saturday Night Live. With Peter revealed to be a (sigh) Chosen One, they search for his mother with the assistance of Indian princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, looking as uncomfortable as we are to see her in this part). After much running around and sword fighting and obnoxious nods to Peter Pan lore (sample dialogue: “The boy was lost?” “Yes, he’s a lost boy.”) the movie ends with a rote promise of sequels, because of course.

Then there’s the really weird stuff, like the way Hook’s followers rally themselves by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and later, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,”) as if Baz Luhrman stepped in as guest director.  Or the way Tiger Lily’s tribe members, when killed, poof into colored smoke. Or the sloppy green screen photography that makes every CGI backdrop look like one. At one point, Peter and Hook have a conversation on the deck of a pirate ship barreling through the sky, as if they could even hear themselves. Wright shows discomfort here with making a crowd-pleaser, probably because given the aggressively unpleasant tone, it’s very tough to determine what audience Pan is actually for, aside from collectors of expensive movie disasters.

Crimson Peak (2015)

crimson-peak-photo-54aaabbd194a0Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Produced by Del Toro, Callum Green, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull. Music by Fernando Velázquez. Photographed by Dan Laustsen. Edited by Bernat Vilaplana. Production designed by Thomas E. Sanders. Costumes designed by Kate Hawley. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam.

Crimson Peak, the new film from director Guillermo Del Toro, is a gothic horror tale in the classical sense. “It’s not a ghost story,” our heroine says at one point. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” Yes. She, a budding novelist, is describing her new manuscript, but she is also describing Crimson Peak, which hews closely to cherished gothic traditions. In such stories, the supernatural is used judiciously, overlaid onto narratives of disturbing human behavior in order to enhance them without overtaking them. The spirits are important, but they are not the point. These stories often feature distraught female protagonists. There is sincere romance. Social conventions of the day are strictly observed, serving as counterpoint to joint themes of sexual repression and perverse secrets amid the upper class. And crucially, there are reserved key roles for haunted, eerie landscapes and architecture that uncannily conjure silent dread.

Crimson Peak is nothing if not dutiful in deploying these tropes. But Del Toro, a gifted fantasy storyteller with an unerringly rich cinematic eye, has embroidered every frame of his love letter to this genre. And he has cherry-picked a bevy of influences, some literary (Poe, Collins, fairy tales, both Bronte sisters), some filmic (half the back catalog of the UK’s Hammer horror studio) and yet has filtered it through his distinct sensibilities without making it a bloodless pastiche. Crimson Peak is a marvel: a gorgeously-crafted work that thrums with vision and unity of purpose. How rare it is to see a genre picture of this kind made on this scale, let alone this well.

Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, a debutante and frustrated novelist in 19th century Buffalo, NY. She is a free-thinker who chafes against the limited options and high expectations the era places upon young women, but everything clicks for her, momentarily, when she meets the mysterious, mesmerizing Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who speaks of vague industrialist ambitions. His sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is cold and unpleasant, and she eyes the lovestruck Edith like a spider. Thomas soon offers his hand in marriage to the girl, just as a family tragedy leaves her most in need of such an arrangement. Together, they retire to Thomas’ family home in the English moors, a decrepit mansion that becomes a stage for ghost sightings, ones that Edith soon perceives as warnings. As Edith begins to investigate her new husband’s past, Lucille becomes more cruel and vicious, and Thomas seems poignantly caught between the two women.

The mansion is a superbly-realized movie location, a baroquely-designed nightmare of rich, sickly dilapidation: a hole in the ceiling spills leaves and snow perpetually into the foyer, while the clay mine below causes red ooze to seep through the floorboards and coat the grounds like a bloody blanket. The house is literally, slowly, sinking into the earth and the surrounding moors are chilly and bleak. Dan Lausten’s cinematography captures ornate and beautifully intricate spaces that have succumbed to disease and corruption; shots caress Edith’s face as a sole source of warmth in these ghastly interiors, while her two cohabitants (or captors?) are lit more like porcelain dolls. At one point Thomas and Edith make an unscheduled stay at a ramshackle inn, and the ensuing night slakes multiple hungers in Thomas, who basks in Edith’s glow as his inner conflict worsens. Colors are splashed on the screen in gorgeous fashion. Iconography comes into play: cauldrons filled with ooze, iron bars and keys, snowfalls that envelop the country like a malicious cloak. Del Toro, a master visual storyteller doesn’t “make” movies. He paints them, marshaling an army of cast and crew to make it all seem effortless.

This is rich, dark and rewarding filmmaking, bolstered by strong performances that refuse to get lost. Wasichowska makes a fine receptacle for the story’s air of tragedy, Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the morally complicated Thomas, and Chastain is in exquisite form as Lucille, walking an actor’s tightrope with absolute ease. In lesser hands, Crimson Peak would become laughable. But in the hands of absolute masters, it creates an experience so vivid and rare that many filmgoers will be grateful to have it.

The Walk (2015)

  
Sony and Tri-Star Pictures present a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne; based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit. Produced by Jack Rapke, Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis. Music by Alan Silvestri. Photographed by Darius Wolski. Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Production designed by Naomi Shohan. Costumes designed by Suttirat Anne Larlab. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine.

In 1974, a French magician and acrobat named Philippe Petit wanted to make a name for himself. He was as skilled a tightrope walker as the world had ever seen, and he became fueled by a singular, unshakable obsession: to suspend his wire between the two newly-constructed World Trade Towers in New York and walk across. This is, of course, crazy. But what’s crazier is that he actually did it. He assembled of team of specialists and engineered a plan of brazen ingenuity to break into the towers with his equipment, assemble his rigging undetected, and then perform his stunt at dawn to the gasping crowd below. For many New Yorkers, Petit’s stunt was a defining moment in the life of the newly-minted towers, a touch of magic bestowed upon what had been dismissed as flat, “giant file cabinets.” In one single morning, Petit had helped usher them into iconic status.

Robert Zemeckis’ new film The Walk tells the story of Petit’s incredible stunt, using the canvas of IMAX 3D to render each moment in teeth-chattering detail. But Zemeckis’ aim is not to tease us with nausea, it’s to summon our wonder. It’s a joyous and whimsical picture, and touched with some of the same mad genius that ran through Petit, and also Zemeckis’ best films (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump). Zemeckis has always been a bit of a tightrope walker himself, making projects that are huge gambles supported by intricate, unmistakable precision. With Petit, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he has found his uncanny avatar: a man who, with his exaggerated accent, devotion to magic and superior craft, walks the fine line between ridiculous and sincere. It only makes sense that Petit narrates the movie, sometimes talking right to his camera. This is his and Zemeckis’ joint magic trick.

The movie takes its time getting to the top of the towers. We start in France, where Petit is a young street busker with visions of fame. He learns the art of the tightrope at a traveling circus run by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who is wise in many things, especially in knowing what an audience will let an artist get away with and what it won’t. In Paris, Philippe meets a lovely street singer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who becomes both the chief ally for his schemes and the primary apologist for his worrisome madness. Upon flying to New York, the emboldened lovers enlist a team to help them in their quest, which includes a loyal photographer (Ben Schwartz), a slick French immigrant (James Badge Dale) who has achieved maximum New York assimilation, a banker (Steve Valentine) who actually works in one of the towers, and a brilliant engineer (Caesar Domboy) who is–wait for it–petrified of heights.

The film’s second act is a heist picture of distinguished caliber. We see the colorful team devise a plan with split second timing and then must execute it with a degree of improvisation that surprises even themselves. We experience tension, excitement, intrigue, doubt and a tangible sense of yearning. The blueprint of these sequences, it must be said, comes from James Marsh’s exceptional 2008 documentary about the same events, Man on Wire, which included so many reenactments it practically served as a trial run for this film.

But while a documentary can tell you how it happened, only the power of drama can best communicate how it felt, and that’s where The Walk excels, especially in its closing half hour, as Zemeckis succeeds in putting us on that wire with Petit–letting us feel every gust of wind, every twist of cable, and–crucially–every stirring in Petit’s soul as he performs for a growing sea of New Yorkers (and a group of gobsmacked cops on each tower roof, with whom he plays with as he retraces his steps more than once). It’s all nail-biting, but it’s also a lovely and magical payoff, made all the more poignant in closing moments that pay heartfelt tribute to the World Trade Towers that Petit, who soon after became a New Yorker, loved so much. The Walk is one of the year’s best entertainments.

The Green Inferno (2015)

The-Green-Inferno-2015Say what you will about Eli Roth’s new horror film The Green Inferno: it’s not politically correct. Most horror films give a cursory nod to the current cultural zeitgeist, but this one is a cheerfully regressive throwback to cannibal barf-bag grossfests. Here, a group of naive college students venture into the South American rainforest to save an endangered tribe, and then unfortunately find themselves terrorized by the natives, who are consumers of human flesh. And eyeballs. And tongues. And anything else you could imagine, although thanks to Roth’s penchant for delivering buckets of gore, you don’t have to imagine very much. Stories about The Green Inferno‘s unremitting violence have been circulating for years now–the film was made in 2012 and was pulled from distribution last fall. It’s now finally been released by Blumhouse Pictures. Was it worth the wait? Not really.

Roth is the shock-jock DJ of the horror world. He has a geek’s love of movie culture, and he adores slamming genres and tones together, and pilfering from his influences. He’s like a low-rent Quentin Tarantino (they’re friends). Tarantino, however, likes to internalize his inspirations, polish them, and create something altogether new. Roth prefers to just regurgitate, and he compensates by feeding a compulsive and juvenile need to offend. Tarantino, also, is incapable of writing boring characters, and that’s all Roth can do. The setup he bestows on Green Inferno is endless, and yet so perfunctory and stiff that it’s impossible to care at all about the characters he’s lining up to be hot lunches.

One character sort of stands out, and that’s Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman who means well but has a thimbleful of knowledge for how the world works. When hearing about atrocities in other countries, she says in class that a call to her father, a UN ambassador, could fix everything. She takes a shine to student activist showboat Alejandro (Ariel Levy), and eventually she’s tagging along for a weekend excursion to the Amazon, where the students will stage an anti-deforestation demonstration, against the firepower of armed militia (a detail that escapes their notice until it’s too late). Things go well enough, I suppose, until a plane crash strands them in a hostile jungle full of hungry natives.

What happens next–I’m warning you–is some of the most repellent and graphic violence you’ll see this year. This is especially true in one grisly centerpiece of horror that spares no details; the makeup work is quite excellent, if you like that sort of thing. A series of impalements, beheadings, flayings and dismemberments become the norm as the cast dwindles down, leading to a climax where a naked heroine is threatened with castration and then cannibalism, as hordes of villagers lick their chops and leer.

Does this all go too far? Absolutely. Without question. It also kinda doesn’t go far enough. Roth’s aim is to make a slick, updated exploitation picture, but he takes forever to get started (every character, even Justine, are woodenly-acted ciphers, and their setup lasts an hour), and once he delivers that disturbing set piece, his script devolves further into pointless runarounds and misjudged tonal shifts (his idea to top the horror of watching a friend be eaten is to throw in jokes about explosive bodily functions). There’s an effort, in the script, to satirize those who indulge in outrage tourism (ignorantly caring more about photo ops at an injustice instead of the injustice itself), but the film’s politics are confused at best. It’s a grisly and plotless mess, and the whole effort only serves to prove that if the violence in this film can’t get the dreaded NC-17 rating, then absolutely nothing can. Why even bother pushing the envelope, then?

Roth doesn’t help himself by shooting the film in digital video. With a story like this, we want photography that touches the mystic, and bestows a terrifying aura. Instead, the clumsy (and incessantly shaky) aesthetic flattens the wonder of the rainforest and distances us. Despite the tries at intensity, the film is not consistently scary, just gross. And if you’ve seen a cannibal horror film before, this one will just taste–sorry–stale.