Tuesday, October 27, 2015

REVIEW: "Crimson Peak"

At the turn of the 20th century in Buffalo, New York, young aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) meets the dashingly mysterious inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come aboard to pitch a business proposal to Edith’s father (Jim Beaver). When tragedy strikes, the forward-thinking Ms. Cushing quickly finds herself married to Sharpe and gets whisked away to his home in England. The newlyweds arrive at Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family’s beautiful, yet ramshackle estate. With red clay bubbling up from the foundation of the property and mixing with the snow, the outside grounds appear to run red with blood, hence the nickname “Crimson Peak.” The scenery isn’t the only thing foreboding here. Edith is met by Thomas’s unwelcoming sister, Lucille, who despite Edith’s kind efforts refuses to warm up to her brother’s new bride. Things take a turn for the worst as gruesome apparitions of former inhabitants appear to Edith at night. Desperate to discover the true history of the house, she soon uncovers something far more horrific—the buried truths that affect her very life.

Just as in Pan’s Labyrinth, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro continues to weave paranormal elements into his stories that revolve around the very real evil of this world: the human condition. Upon reflection, it’s also impossible not to draw parallels between Crimson Peak and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Both were widely advertised as “horror” films, when in fact they were that of the romantic variety…albeit, Crimson being a much darker one. Trailers and TV spots would convince you that ghosts and chilling atmosphere reign supreme at the title manor, but as the protagonist herself states about her own work, “It’s more of a story with a ghost in it.”

You can argue that a movie shouldn’t be judged on the merit of its advertising, but when it’s misleading to moviegoers who fork out ten bucks a ticket, you can’t simply chalk it up as a trivial error. Universal Studios Hollywood even adapted the film into one of their mazes for their annual Halloween Horror Nights event this year, further marketing it as a blatant horror piece. This issue aside, the movie still falls short of expectations even when properly placed in the gothic romance category. At the height of the film, Crimson Peak delivers on all cylinders. The grandiose, gothic scope of the manor is one of the best sets put to film in recent history. Oscar worthy production design brings this dilapidated yet beautiful estate to life, and the cinematography captures its intricacy with flawless depth.

Del Toro proves himself as a visionary director, but the same cannot be said about his storytelling. Given the magnificence and originality of its set design, along with del Toro even stating during filming that he wanted to subvert the conventions of the gothic genre, the movie charms you into thinking that the entire production is just as innovative. What we get instead is a collection of recycled plots from various gothic renderings, ranging from Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Flowers in the Attic. The script is relatively weak, and the plot “twists” can all be deduced within the first act of the film. The greatest pitfall rests with the Sharpe siblings’ interactions. Their motives are made perfectly clear right out of the gate, killing the supposed blossoming romance between Edith and Thomas, not to mention robbing the audience of a cleverly crafted cloak and dagger back story. And despite Del Toro professing his film to be a gothic romance, there is in fact little romance to be found.

The interpersonal relationship between the main threesome fails from a lack of character depth, and the chemistry between Hiddleston and Wasikowska isn’t all that convincing. Why might that be? Edith’s character suffers from the “Bella Swan” syndrome, as I like to call it. At the start of the film, everyone in Ms. Cushing’s life repeatedly makes mention of her forward thinking and profound sense of individuality. These qualities are supposedly what affect Thomas’s inner most being. 

“You’re different,” he says.
“From what?” questions Edith.

Yet, Edith herself doesn’t ever really display any of these inimitable traits. Calling a pigeon a “flamingo” doesn’t change the fact that it’s still simply a pigeon, no matter how many people say it. If anything, Edith is incredibly na├»ve, especially for a twenty-four year old. Plus, Mia Wasikowska has a rather enigmatic quality to her, showcased wonderfully in films like Jane Eyre and Stoker. Putting her in the shoes of a friendly heroine that the audience should be rooting for on the other hand…it’s apparent that she’s miscast. Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) also seems out of place with his turn as Edith’s pining and polite childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael. Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain prove to be the true scene stealers here, despite them having to chew up the sometimes clumsy dialogue.

The untapped potential to this film is enough to make any gothic fan gnash their teeth with frustration. Despite the impressive sets, gorgeous costume design, and talented cast, Crimson Peak sadly proves to be magnificently mediocre.

3 out of 5 Stars    

"Crimson Peak theatrical poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

REVIEW - "American Horror Story: Hotel"

AHS’s TV teasers are always frighteningly weird and oddly wonderful. They’re essentially works of distressingly beautiful art. This time around with Hotel, it appears showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk aimed to produce a full 90-minute commercial and decided to slap the label of “episode one” on it. This anthology series is notorious for pushing the envelope, but it seems that the creators threw everything but the kitchen sink into the chaotically paced, aimless premiere.

The plot revolves around Homicide Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) who finds himself at the center of a series of grisly murders committed by an unknown assailant simply labeled as the Ten Commandments Killer. Asides from him, we’re introduced to a slew of societal misfits all suffering from a variety of addictions. Sarah Palson’s hypodermic Sally, Kathy Bates’ obsessive Iris, Matt Bomer and Lady Gaga’s blood lustful Donovan and the Countess, and so on. Is it an interesting set of characters? Definitely. Their purpose in relationship to the main storyline? Seemingly nothing. And therein lies the rub. The grandiose scenery of the Hotel Cortez is undeniably glorious, but it’s not enough to sustain viewers’ interest when there’s virtually no plot or purpose behind most of the characters.

Everything’s essentially all shot and no powder, in the most disturbing, self-indulgent fashion. American Horror Story is no stranger to disturbing content, and neither are its loyal viewers. Previous seasons gifted us with plenty of nightmare-inducing images, like Asylum’s murderous St. Nick, Freakshow’s killer clown Twisty, and Murder House’s school massacre. What made these scenarios so effectively terrifying was the realistic fear behind the individual stories. Hotel handles its horror factor a bit…differently, to say the absolute least, and it can leave even the most permissive viewers uncomfortable for a variety of reasons.

The erratic storytelling jumps nonsensically from one bloodcurdling scene to the next with no rhyme or reason. We see a woman being pushed out a window at high heights, two female tourists being held captive to be drained of their blood, a creepy guy climbing out a sewn up mattress…for whatever reason, children being abducted, a man’s eyes and tongue being removed, graphic crime scene images including men being strung up by their innards, and a sexual graphic foursome that ends with two participants having their throats slashed open as the other pair drinks their blood.

But AHS makes sure to scar its audience right out of the gate with its most painfully gratuitous display to date when a wildly foppish heroin addict comes strutting through the Hotel Cortez’s lobby. All the man wants is a quiet little place for him to ride out his high, but that plan goes to hell after he shoots up in his recently rented room. He’s attacked by the apparent brother of that eye monster from Pan's Labyrinth, who proceeds to rape the addict with a large drill-bit tipped metallic dildo. As they’d say in Battlestar Galactica, “What the frak?” I’m no prude when it comes to the horror genre, but honestly, the premiere feels like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk accidentally aired their showcase of sexual fetish snuff film fantasies instead of an actual episode.

As far as the cast is concerned, with the exception of Wes Bentley’s John Lowe, not a single character is the least bit likeable. For anyone curious as to Lady Gaga’s acting chops, just check out her “Telephone” music video. That’s honestly the fullest extent. Her physicality works in her benefit, but whether she has any real emotional range remains to be seen. It’s not until episode two that we get someone truly captivating. Yes, as always, Evan Peters steals the show. This time, in the form of the charming, campy, and utterly psychotic James March, the hotel’s builder and original owner. Despite this bright beacon of hope, the rest of the episode falls flat. As Hotel’s premiere suffers from having virtually no plot, “Chutes And Ladders” fails from having almost nothing but pure exposition. Any creative storyteller knows that it’s always more effective to show rather than tell, so it’s a wonder why Murphy and Falchuk decided to have every plot point discussed verbally by means of literal guidelines and lengthy explanations.

What makes Hotel even more cringe worthy is its blatant lack of originality. You can argue that the show is simply paying homage to other horror projects, but in essence, that’s all the show is. Nothing is organic. The biblically inspired central crime is a rip-off of David Fincher’s Se7en where it’s the Ten Commandments instead of the seven deadly sins. James March’s back story comprises of H.H. Holmes and Sweeny Todd, with the body disposal system and the grisly throat slashing. Countless The Shining references can be spotted everywhere from the creepy children in the halls to a cryptic room number to the similarly shaped patterned carpets. Yes, it’s obvious. And there’s a transparent imitation to 1983’s The Hunger. It’s clear that this season favors style over substance, yet remains unclear as to whether it will ever have an identity of its own. If you dare to place a reservation for Hotel, don’t be surprised if you find yourself checking out prematurely.

American Horror Story: Hotel Rating: D+

"American Horror Story Hotel Teaser" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.