Period piece horror films are very hard to pull off. First you have to pull off the period piece. Everyone has to look like they come from that period, and they have to sound like they do. The mannerisms, the demeanor, all have to line up. Then, it has to have horror elements, atmosphere, and mood. If you can pull these off simultaneously, it’s quite an achievement.
As hard as Guillermo Del Toro works to execute this, the film falls short. I did believe the period, and I did believe the atmosphere. That is helped by a handsome cast including Jim Beaver who can always belong to the turn of the 20th century, rounded out by Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. It looks like it should work, but something didn’t for me. The first thing I can point to, is when the horror elements are introduced for the first time. The CGI, to put it bluntly, simply clashes with the sets. Told in flashback, Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), tells the story of when she was a girl, was visited by the ghost of her mother. Her mother, who looks like a cross between a creature from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the smoke monster from “Lost”, warns her about “Crimson Peak”, a mysterious place we know nothing about. This all should have the makings of a fun spooky horror film. But because the ghost is so obviously computer generated, and so unconvincing as a “scary ghost”, I was already out of the mindset necessary to enjoy the film.
It somewhat started to pull me back in with the introduction of Thomas Sharpe, played by Hiddleston, who is always a joy to watch. Sharpe is a young inventor of affluent means trying to persuade Edith’s(who is now grown up) father Carter (Beaver) to invest in a clay mining machine. I was a bit curious as to the idea of clay needing to be mined so much as to warrant a machine–but it’s a moot point, since Sharpe can’t really get it to work. He had tried in other parts of the world, and failed. So, Carter turns him down. Carter, who is a successful but “blue collar” businessman, is not endeared to Sharpe, especially because his daughter soon becomes so. A family friend, Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnan), also does not particularly trust Sharpe. It’s not just because of Sharpe coming from across the pond to introduce such a strange machine–but his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is a bit strange and glowers whilst playing piano to entertain everyone in one scene.
But, Edith does fall in love with Thomas and she goes with him to England to live in his mansion, which is on top of a very large amount of clay. And, because the mansion is ancient, it has a typical horror movie gothic look. You already know it’s going to creak and leak and most likely be haunted.
The ghosts haunting this mansion frighten Edith, trying to persuade her to leave. These ghosts, like the ghost of her mother, are also computer generated and not at all frightening. They look a little creepy, and the hollow screams are sometimes chilling–but still, the film never made me feel “a part” of its world.
Edith begins to discover some dark secrets pertaining to Thomas and the mansion, and his sister–and the plot unfolds so transparently that you figure out what’s going to happen very quickly. But the film’s pace is so slow and plodding that it is almost like Del Toro thinks you won’t figure it out. If that’s the case, it’s a miscalculation at best. Insulting at worst.
Also, Chastain’s performance of Lucille is so over the top and obnoxious that it clangs like the seemingly collapsing house. The film’s climax, too, is very gory to an unnecessary degree, and feels like it belongs to another film.
Most of the other performances are good, especially Hiddleston who plays off of Chastain’s overindulgence well. Mia Wasikowska also is a credible and sympathetic character. But the structure of the film just doesn’t work very well, and in the end it feels very empty.
Guillermo Del Toro is a very gifted filmmaker, and a good storyteller as well. Perhaps they all got caught up in trying to tell a gothic romantic horror story, and forgot to actually show us one.
This film was originally called “There And Back Again”–but Jackson changed it, with the justification being that Bilbo was already ‘there’ in the second film, “The Desolation of Smaug”. So it’s now “The Battle of the Five Armies”, and it is extremely aptly named since almost the entire film is literally just one long battle. It is breathtaking to watch, however, and serves to be a very satisfying ending to a somewhat bloated trilogy that probably should’ve been one film–or, simply left as the opening of “Fellowship of the Ring” in “Lord of the Rings”.
But, Jackson makes the most of his budget here, and takes us on one final journey into Middle Earth–for the time being, at least. The film opens with Smaug attacking the city of Laketown. Smaug is taken down by Bard (Luke Evans) with the “black arrow”. With the end of Smaug, the dwarves take the Lonely Mountain. Thorin (reprised by Richard Armitage), is not satisfied. He is looking for the Arkenstone, a royal jewel of the Dwarves. Bilbo has actually taken it, keeping it from Thorin as he is suffering from “dragon sickness” as Smaug did–being crippled by greed and driven to madness. The Arkenstone is basically like the ring of power, and has similar effects. And after all, Smaug does sound like Smeagol.
But there are other problems. The Orcs have finally built up their armies and want to attack. The humans and elves try to reason with Thorin to claim their gold within the Lonely Mountain’s treasure. Thorin thinks they have stolen the Arkenstone, or thinks one of his own dwarves has betrayed him. But Bilbo thinks he can barter with Thorin and reveals it was he who stole it. This does not go over well, as now Thorin lashes out at Bilbo as well.
It looks bad for the Dwarves initially until Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly) appears with a big dwarf army. So there’s your five armies, and let the battle begin.
The elves, humans, and dwarves end up allying with each other as the orcs attempt to kill all of them. Azog the orc chief is intent on killing Thorin especially, and Thorin goes after him to do the same.
You’d think with all of the fighting, it would just be one big noise, the way “The Matrix Revolutions” ended. But this is quite a spectacle to see, perhaps aided by seeing it in 3D.
The story is still strong, with the characters of Tauriel (reprised by Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aiden Turner) falling deeper for each other, and Legolas still coming in to break it up–while shooting arrows like a machine as usual. And also, as usual, Legolas pulls a miracle out of his legs by being able to step on falling stones before falling to his own death. It’s these kinds of shenanigans that are going to either have your eyes rolling in your head, or popping from them in wonderment.
But if you’re in the right frame of mind (maybe not 48 frames though), you can still enjoy this film for what it is. It’s certainly more thoroughly entertaining than “Smaug”, which really fell short of being anything more than a hammock film. It brings the story to a nice close, and it’s good to see that Peter Jackson took us there and back again, and didn’t totally ruin it.
Guillermo Del Toro always fascinates me as a filmmaker because he’s one of the most joyful visual expressionists I’ve seen in my lifetime. He seems to have a knack for creating interesting looking creatures and putting them in colorful and sometimes dangerous worlds, and it’s always intriguing. He had wanted to film an adaptation of the classic H. P. Lovecraft short story “At The Mountains of Madness”, possibly one of Lovecraft’s most beloved stories. Unfortunately, I don’t know that the film will ever be made, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites. Though we get tastes of it in movies like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, I don’t know we’ll ever really get the actual story in motion picture format. With Del Toro at leas you know it’d be visually stunning.
Instead, Del Toro teamed up with screenwriter Travis Beacham, writer of the 2006 remake of “Clash of the Titans”, and made what’s called a “kaiju” film–a movie about giant monsters–and I think some of the creatures were meant to be “similar” to Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu mythos universe. Well, I’m probably reaching, because what they came up with to fight these Kaijus are giant robots. I don’t think Lovecraft really wrote about those.
This is a very odd film. It’s saturated with a backstory that’s crammed into the first act as if we’re just supposed to be able to inhale decades of destruction and feel like the earth has been under attack and in a state of peril and understand where the technology came from to create mega robots. On top of that, we are supposed to care about characters we barely know and have complex backgrounds that aren’t given many payoffs or consequences. For instance, the main protagonist, a young strapping Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who loses his brother in a battle with one of the Kaijus. Jaegers, by the way, are the name given to the giant robots. Apparently two pilots must lock in to be able to absorb the power that Jaegers have in order to operate. There’s basically a “mind meld”, which means the two pilots must have things in common physically and emotionally and can lean on each other. In an ill fated battle, Raleigh loses his brother and is sent out of the program, doing construction work which looks pretty dangerous, but not very fulfilling.
Enter Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), five years later, tracking down his maverick pilot for another showdown with the Kaijus, who are continuing to destroy the earth and all our cities and ports. Apparently they come from under the sea, rather than outer space, but are considered “aliens” I think. If you’re following all of this, by the way, that’s good. Try and keep up. There’s more.
He is eventually partnered with a novice pilot but accomplished student, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a sketchy past that still haunts her but she is considered a perfect match for Raleigh, much to the chagrin to Pentecost. I’ll spare you the subplot that the United Nations decide to temporarily shut down the Jaeger project in favor of some sort of defense wall because it is imminently destroyed and serves as nothing more than a waste of about 10 minutes of screen time. The point is, Mako and Raleigh are meant to be Jaeger pilots.
But there’s a problem. She can’t let go of her haunting past, and that creates a rift in what’s called the “drift”, where the two minds meld before the Jaeger is fully operational. Pilots have to control their memories and feed them into their co-pilot in a way that isn’t aggressive or detrimental. They need to understand themselves in order to share them. So basically, if you ever happen to find yourself in a Jaeger mecha robot program, and your co-pilot is Amanda Bynes, you may as well jump out of the cockpit as soon as possible, and take your chances with gravity.
On top of all this, there’s another maverick cocky pilot (but he’s no Iceman) named Chuck (Robert Kazinsky) who doesn’t like Raleigh and thinks he’s bad news. But Chuck’s father Herc (Max Martini) has respect for Raleigh and knows the pain of losing his brother, even if Raleigh really doesn’t show it that much…because Charlie Hunnam isn’t that great of an actor. Sorry, Charlie. Loved you in “Undeclared” though.
Speaking of Charlie’s, there’s a miscalculated “humorous” subplot for comic relief I suppose with two nutjob scientists that come into play, trying to understand the Kaijus. One of them, Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), wants to find new ways to destroy the Kaijus. The other, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who resembles Louis Tully, wants to study the Kaijus and understand them. He also comes up with the idea of mind melding with part of a brain they captured from one of the Kaijus. Of course Gottlieb and everybody else thinks that Newton is crazy, and he turns into Vinz Clortho and sends the giant Slore against them to kill them all.
Just kidding. However, I realize these two scientists are supposed to be funny; but the comedy kind of clangs instead of amuses. Charlie Day literally looks like he came in from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” solely to crash the set. The only part of the comic sequences that work are with Ron Perlman who plays a black market Kaiju enthusiast, Hannibal Chau. Perlman is always good, even though his character is an unnecessary semi-villain.
Are you still with me? OK, so what Newton finds out is that the Kaijus are only sending their “soldier ants” and are actually preparing an even larger scale monster war, something beyond their “Categories” (Category 5 is the highest on their scale). He does this by mind melding with the brain of the Kaiju, of course, as he wanted to, and of course he’s right and knows how to destroy the Kaijus.
So let’s go back to Raleigh and Mako, who are given an old clunky Jaeger that runs on its own power, which comes in handy when they start facing some more technologically advanced Kaijus, and we find out that Mako’s backstory involves watching her family be destroyed by a Kaiju. But there’s a connection she has with one of the main characters that turns out to be one of the strongest and most emotional parts of the movie, and it works very well.
It took me a while to decide whether I liked this film, because as you can see, there’s a lot I have problems with. It’s very ambitious, it’s so chock full of backstory and exposition that sometimes it hulks around like a Jaeger itself. The battle scenes are tough to describe. In some ways it’s like watching an arcade video fighting game in slow motion. There are some dazzling effects, however, when these battles wind up destroying major (hopefully evacuated) cities.
Apart from some of the hackneyed “science” and major plot holes, I think I liked the main characters enough, and the relationships they develop, that it carried the film for me overall. You can lose all the other stuff and the film would be much shorter and probably more enjoyable. I think that Mako may have actually been a better central character, or Pentecost. Both actors respectively are incredibly strong and give top notch performances.
On balance, I did enjoy the film enough. But I really think that this being simply a movie does the story a disservice. While I’m sure there will be Mangas or comics that will go more into the backstory, I think this would’ve made a very entertaining Saturday morning cartoon series. It reminded me of shows like “Voltron” and “Transformers”, and even “G.I. Joe”.
I’d recommend seeing this film on the biggest possible screen to really get the idea of the scope of the battle sequences. Something like IMAX would be a great experience. I’m not sure whether the whole film will entertain you, but you will at least get your money’s worth of destruction. And for a summer popcorn movie, I guess that’s all you really need. Del Toro can do better, but this works enough for me.
This isn’t about the BEST 10 movies of the past 10 years. I probably haven’t seen the best 10 movies of the last 10 years. I’m sure I’ve missed out on some great obscure foreign film I’ve never heard of, or some documentary that I skipped over or something…this is just my list of 10 movies that I could watch over and over again and that I adore personally. Your lists will differ, I’m sure. But mine’s clearly the best.
#10: The Descent (2005)
Written & directed by Neil Marshall
I start off with a horror movie, and I think it’s one of the finest horror films of this age. It’s not as well known as movies like “The Strangers” or “The Ring” but it’s far better than either of those because it’s not only a creature feature–it’s also a psychological horror film where you’re not really sure if what’s going on is real or not. That might sound cliché and stupid; but Marshall handles the balance exceedingly well and you never feel cheated either way. It’s an all female cast of spelunkers who find that there are these nightmarish “Silent Hill” looking things that only compound the problem they have of being lost in a large cave that they don’t know how to get out of. But there’s also a subplot of the main character who lost her husband and child in a single car accident; and one of her friends may have had an affair with the husband. The thing I like about this subplot, too, is that it never overshadows the main story with melodrama. It’s very nicely put together by Marshall and is by far his greatest achievement in filmmaking so far.
Written & directed by: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s career has been a little more up and down than I thought, especially around this time when he already had “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” under his belt. And this movie was even better than both. Combining family drama with offbeat comedy, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a very strong film. It never goes too far in either direction, although some of its quirkiness may turn some people off. But I think it’s Anderson’s most accessible film. And the soundtrack, once again, is outstanding. Nick Drake, John Lennon, Elliott Smith, this one captures the feel of the movie so well. I think it’s Anderson’s last great film; he’s made a few good ones since…but I still haven’t forgotten “The Life Aquatic” and boy do I long for a lobotomy for that one. Very strong performances by Ben Stiller and Gene Hackman especially, who contributes a lot of humor to this story of pathos. It’s Anderson at his best.
Written & directed by: Quentin Tarantino
I wasn’t sure to expect with this movie, because all we saw from the previews were the scenes about the Basterds, a rag-tag group of Nazi hunters that are all Jewish. It was a plan of vengeance, that was obvious. What I got, though, was probably my favorite Tarantino film of all time. While I thought “Pulp Fiction” was fantastic, and probably one of the most important films ever made, there’s something about this movie that I just can’t get enough of. I love that he doesn’t make his foreign actors speak English. For an American made film, almost half of it looks like a foreign language film. I also like that for a movie that’s as bloody and war-related as it is, it begins extremely quietly and slow-paced. But I love what Tarantino does with the quiet conversation scenes. There’s always tension in the room, and you know something is going to happen, you just don’t know when. It’s incredibly suspenseful. The opening scene, for instance, has a Nazi commander searching a French farm house that has been known to harbor Jews. Instead of interrogating the man of the house, however, they simply talk. Meanwhile, the Jewish family he’s harboring is underneath the floor. The camera dips once and shows us them hiding, and then it pans back to the room. And the talking goes on, and on. But you’re clinging to your chair, waiting to see if he knows. My favorite sequence takes place in an underground bar where a game is being played, and there are Nazi imposters in the bar that could be figured out to be infiltrating. You’re just waiting for a moment where things break out. The use of suspense is outstanding, and the theme of vengeance being all-for-naught is also refreshing. You’d think this is just an anti-Nazi fun filled movie. But the lesson to be learned is far more poignant.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan / Written by: Christopher Nolan/Jonathan Nolan
This movie will be on a lot of people All-time Overrated List I think in the coming years rather than All-time Best Films list. But I really think if you step away from the hype, it is still a very solid film. It’s dark, it’s sleek, it’s intelligent–yes, pretentious too. I forgive it in this case because the plot moves quickly enough that I never felt bored. Obviously the strongest thing about the movie is Heath Ledger as the Joker; but there are some other things about the movie that I liked–I still like that Batman is a more tortured soul, and that he makes decisions in this film that he ultimately regrets and has to live with the tragic results. I like that a heroic character becomes a villain–even if it was rushed a bit. Two-Face certainly could have been given his own film. But I didn’t think it was a total waste. Besides the Batvision subplot, I think most of the film works extremely well. As a superhero flick, it’s epic. But even more, as a character drama it’s very complex and endearing. It’s my second favorite Batman movie, besides “Batman & Robin”. Just kidding. “Batman & Robin” was better.
Written & directed by Stephen Spielberg
Here’s another one that gets a lot of bad word of mouth; it got mixed reviews, and Spielberg was accused of destroying a possible Kubrick project and wasting it. I can’t disagree enough with the detractors of this imperfect masterpiece. I think it’s one of Spielberg’s most personal films, along with it being a love letter to Kubrick himself. Most of the negative comments are directed at the ending; they all thought it should’ve ended with the boy finding the Blue Fairy at the bottom of the ocean that at one point had been Coney Island. While that would have been dark, and cool–it would not have been an ending. The film’s theme is about getting what you want too late, and not being able to move on. Finding the Blue Fairy as something that was just a symbol of the past was not a true resolution to the plot. The boy still had to find his parents. The movie is two halves: the first half is about a set of parents that want to covet a relationship with a child, and yet something’s always missing because the child is synthetic; and there‘s something to be said about the fact that their biological kid is a sniveling brat. The second half is about a synthetic child that wants to covet a relationship with his mother, who is real. At the end, they are long gone, as well as all of humanity. It’s the complete opposite of the first half of the film. And in the end, the day he spends with his mother IS synthetic, which turns him into a real boy–and he finally dies. Now that, to me, is far more beautiful, far more bittersweet and even tragic in a way; and it’s far more POWERFUL than if the film ends with the boy finding the Blue Fairy. So that’s my defense. Is it perfect? No. It probably could have been a bit shorter. It probably could have had a stronger handle on its theme. But it holds true to everything that Spielberg is all about as a storyteller, and adds an element of Kubrick that makes it dark enough to be less conventional than the typical Spielberg film. It’s all about loss and grieving and broken families, and that’s where Spielberg thrives.
Directed by: Peter Jackson / Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens
I have to include all three films and treat them as one here, although I’d probably watch “Fellowship” over “Towers” and “King”; but all three are part of the same story and to me is one of the strongest adaptation of a book in the history of film. It breathes new life into the “Lord of the Rings” and does so with such a command by Peter Jackson, it will have to go down as his greatest accomplishment. His career was delightfully progressing from his bloodspattered early days of “Bad Taste” and “Braindead” to the more mature but still off-the-wall “Heavenly Creatures” and then the fun, weird “The Frighteners”. All of these seemed to lead up to a perfect storm of creativity, expression, imagination, and…fun. The look of this film is magnificent. The performances by Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, and Vigo Mortensen are fantastic–but one I really thought was special was Sean Astin’s. While there was all the homoerotic talk between Frodo and Sam–the story really is about a friendship that is very deep. This film is epic fantasy but it is also a story about relationships. All of it is well handled by Peter Jackson. He took all of his best elements and put them forth in this trilogy that I think will go down as the best film trilogy besides the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino / Written by: Frank Miller
If you ever wanted to see a comic book truly put to film in its total essence, I don’t think there’s a better example than “Sin City”. It combines the talents of two gifted filmmakers along with Frank Miller, whom you could tell had a lot of fun with his own material, adapting it to the screen. This collection of talent on one film is as great as the Romero/King/Savini holy trinity that made “Creepshow” in ‘85. The movie is just a bunch of vignettes, but all of them are woven together so well that it feels like one big story. There are some sickening things going on in this film, but it all looks so good it’s hard to be reviled. It’s more than just an exercise in style; it’s got nice, fleshed out storylines and some really strong performances by Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis. And who can forget a Jessica Alba pole dance? This movie, again, takes joy in its excess violence and nudity, and because it revels in it…we can’t help to follow its lead.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron / Written by: Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
I think what I liked most about this movie is how bleak it is, and how much it really builds this dystopian world in which no children exist. For some people, maybe this is the best world you could ever live in. But it is utterly depressing to think about, with no future, nothing to look forward to. In the film, there’s even a suicide drug that’s so popular, there are ads littered everywhere on streets and on TV. Clive Owen stars in a very strong role as a man who joins a group of rebels that actually have a woman who is pregnant. They have to protect her, but there are many bloody realistic battle scenes that have you on the edge of your seat, hoping she can get to safety. This movie pulls no punches, and even kills off one of its big stars early, and still somehow ends in a satisfying manner. It’s very taut at times, and it’s very engrossing. I like that it’s a kind of nativity story, too; about the protecting of life, whether you’ve conceived it or not. It was one my favorite films of 2006.
Written & directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
If you haven’t seen this movie, and are a fan of fantasy/horror/storytelling…stop whatever you’re doing and see this movie. And PLEASE see it in its native language, subtitled, and NOT dubbed. Not because the dubbing job is bad; but because dubbing itself is lame. And it would take away from a great dramatic story. Del Toro is Mexican but he has a fascination it seems with Spain, and more precisely, the Spanish Civil War. So that’s the underlying theme and backdrop to this otherwise fairy tale of a girl who is brought to meet her stepfather, who is a captain of the Spanish army, trying to quell a rebellion. Her real father is dead, and her mother is a dutiful wife to the captain. The girl, though, embarks on a fantasy journey that can be as dark and deadly as the real life war that’s going on. The way Del Toro uses visual horror is amazing. Every one of his creatures comes to life and while some are more terrifying than beautiful, they are all wonderful to look at. It’s a sad story for the most part, because we know it’s not real. We want to believe in the fantasy, as little Ofelia does, but reality comes crashing down as it always does. It’s a very sweet story as well as it is tragic, and it’s terrifying at times, too. Just a brilliant film, and one of the best of the decade.
And now…my number one movie…is something a bit different. But I couldn’t think of anything that makes me smile more than…
Directed by Trey Parker / Written by: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady
Maybe this film suffered from bad timing (Roger Ebert didn’t find it amusing at all) but as time grows on, this movie becomes more and more dear to me. During the reign of W, America always seemed to be butting into foreign affairs that were revolving around terrorism, as it was called the War on Terrorism. Well, because there’s no known true villain (besides Osama Bin Laden), we started a few wars just to sort it all out. Parker and Stone are at their best when they’re angry and anarchic, and this is their best execution of their satire that I’ve ever seen. Not just because it satirizes American foreign policy and its flag-waving jingoism; but because it savagely satirizes every single thing about America that is oversaturated and over the top. What makes it fun is that it uses the typical Hollywood Action Movie as its conduit. A beautiful overproduced score is a great contrast to the shoddy production values of the sets, and of course, the marionettes. Everything is done cheaply, but loudly. And everything is done on purpose. All of the songs mock all the sugary sweet top 40 Billboard genres that we’re forced to listen to on the radio (including an hilarious one about film montages), and all of the dramatic dialog is so stupid, you can’t help but laugh because you KNOW it’s been in a Michael Bay film sometime (“Maybe feelings are feelings because we can’t control them.”). This movie had me howling with laughter; but meanwhile, also nodding my head to how stupid this country can be when it’s so simple minded. It ridicules the so-called patriots in this country who don’t understand our true enemy, and who are more of a detriment to our society than even the enemy that we’re attacking. The point of this film is that WE are the true terrorists. And at this time in our history, it couldn’t be more spot on. I call this the “Dr. Strangelove” of our generation. At the time, that movie perfectly satirized the present day America that was also insecure about the Cold War and communism and so in love with war. This movie does the same, but adds the sweet touch of making fun of Hollywood as well. And the most brilliant thing is that this could have been a movie that Hollywood would’ve taken seriously had it not been for the puppetry. In fact, it already has. It was called “Armageddon”. As much as I love “South Park”, and most of what Parker & Stone do–this is their greatest accomplishment, and this film belongs in the discussion of greatest comedies of all time.
That’s my list! Fuck yeah