Friday, October 30, 2015

Crimson Peak Review

Crimson Peak
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast Headliners: Mia Waskiowaska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Original Release Date : October 16th, 2015
Seen: October 2014 (Test Cut)

(Note: I saw this in a test audience screening in October 2014 where I had the honor of meeting Mr.Guillermo himself so this review reflects the state of the film at that time. However, from what I have heard the changes came to visual fidelity of the VFX and minor cuts so this review should stay valid.)  
Ghost stories are often a dime a dozen. There’s a house, there’s some unknowing residents who get spooked, and there’s the audience who gets spooked by that spooking. But they often fall into a similar pattern. Enter Guillermo Del Toro who brings his magic touch with him. Crimson Peak isn’t just a ghost story as much as it is also a period piece but also something a bit more.
The period element to this film comes in that it takes place primarily in 1901 in some elegant place in the United States. Edith Cushing (Mia Waskiowska) soon becomes swooned by the mysterious businessman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and in time they move to his old family home in England with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).  It’s no surprise that things don’t exactly stay at this level of romance and the film isn’t just mere mystery. But it’s an interesting premise which makes it every bit as gothic romance as it is a horror film.

            While it’s theme is unique, its heroine is not so much. Edith’s responses to the mystery and drama make sense for the character but as a performance she is lackluster. Luckily there’s stellar performances by both Hiddleston and Chastain as the Sharpe siblings. If one has seen some of his other characters in films they can see once again how Hiddleston can be so charismatic in unique way. Chastain is a bit out of character but great in what she does.   There’s also solid if slightly sparse appearances by Edith’s friend Dr.Alan MicMichael (Charlie Hunnam).
            The movie has a large part of its quality within some of its characters but of course when one watches a Del Toro film the takeaway is in its spectacle.  Things are more Devil’s Backbone than Pacific Rim here however.  It’s a slow, subtle burn with moments of supernatural terror but never really jump scare. The director accomplishes this through nuanced scary sequences and a overall existential dead . This is aided by beautiful sets, quality (at the time of seeing a bit rough though) special effects on ghostly creatures, and tight camera work.   It’s definitely a Del Toro film and his craft gives it a special level of quality.
            However, for his more “traditional” horror films its solid if slightly unambitious. It’s his smallest scope in his career with the meanings behind things telegraphed a mile away where he usually keeps things more subtle.  Even the least shining Del Toro film is still solid however.
            Much like the mysteriousness of its plot and English manor hiding terrifying secrets, there’s some solid performances and moments in here if something doesn’t feel a bit off. But  a fan of the director will enjoy the experience, or of the neat overlap of horror and romance period piece fans. 8.65 out of 10

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Martian Review

The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast Headliners: Matt Damon, Chiwefel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain , Jeff Daniels
Original Release Date : October 2nd, 2015

               The Martian is in some ways Ridley Scott trying to make the least Ridley Scott science fiction film he can. Whereas Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus where dark and very fantastical this film literally shines with color and is more “hard sci-fi” with its fact. Where those films either focused on a single character or an crew but never both at once, this one mixes all manner of perspectives. He uses humor and optimism which have not often been found in his work. Its different, but this adaptation of the Andy Weir novel works very very well for many reasons. It's much more than a guy stuck on Mars.
The film introduces the Ares III mission to Mars in an undetermined point in the future consisting of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Vogel (Aksel Hennie), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Martinez (Michael Pena). Its not surprise from the promotional material that their mission goes awry and Mark is left behind to survive.
In a way its as if there's two films here. Watney must make do with what he has on desolate Mars. The film is absolutely one of Matt Damon's finest pieces in his career. He makes the viewer laugh, cheer, and cry through his triumphs and failures. He manages to have all this happen with no one else around and this is a testament to both Damon and Ridley Scott. He used his directorial prowress to make us afraid in Alien and here its used to make use hope so much for Watney's well being sense he's a hero who is worth having around.
This optimistic humor is the film's big surprise. Its used as a remedy to a very scary situation. That's not to say there aren't sequences of intensity and dread but for the most part the cold void of space is filled in with snappy writing and charming humor. This is true in both sides of the film.
The other film here, besides the “Cast Away in space “ of Watney is the events happening on Earth at NASA. This includes a team of director Teddy (Jeff Daniels), Mars Mission head Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor), PR lead Annie (Kirsten Wiig), and many more. It's an all star cast and everyone gets a chance to shine. Whether its in snappy planning at home or seeing the rest of the Martian crew in orbit theres not a single character that feels not fleshed out. Strong writing gives a reason to like everyone as a character and strong performances are their to match.
The story is something filled with surprises as well, and the prime appeal is seeing how things unfold in both locales. This is a strong story and the science is also never too hard to understand. Perhaps one of the few slips is that sometimes large gaps of time will pass that maybe would have been interesting to see.
This is a Ridley Scott film so of course the visuals were guaranteed to be impeccable and they are as beautiful as ever. Its as if this was actually filmed on Mars with landscapes being beautiful as they are. Every prop and item in the world seems as if it is somewhere out in a lab right now. Everything is well shot and edited. With everything being so pretty its another small downstep in that some sequences, notably the end, have moments where the visuals seem to drop in quality compared to the rest of the film but for the most part its galactic goodness.

The Martian is unique sci fi . It brings a fancy visual feast for sure and some good drama. But it stands out as being remember able for its characters and humor and optimistic . For a planet so dead, its a very human film. Ridley Scott has once again showed another side of what the science fiction genre can be and while it can be said to have a simple premise it is certainly a fun ride. 8.65 out of 10

Pawn Sacrifice Review

Pawn Sacrifice 
Director:  Edward Zwick 
Cast Headliners: Tobey Macguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard
Original Release Date: September 16th, 2015

Seen: October 2015

     Who would think that a chess player could be a rockstar? Who could think that one could turn the story of chess god Bobby Fischer into a Rocky 4-esque cold war thriller? Who would think that Tobey Macguire would be in a historical drama? Well all this and more happens in Pawn Sacrifice, the story of Bobby Fisher and his key games against Russian players.
The movie is a staple biopic in that it follows Bobby Fischer (Tobey Macguire) from his young childhood and onwards. The early sequences with his Cold War involved mother Regina (Robin Weigart) are alright notwithstanding his interest in chess since the actors chosen for his younger selves are not exactly cohesive or effective. Luckily things much improve when it jumps to his critical years in the 1970s as his climb to fame happened.
Macguire gives an interesting performance as Fischer. He ranges from cool and calculating in matches to delivering paranoid delusions to his sister Joan (Lilly Rabe). While it certainly shows Fischer's descent to madness, its unfortunate that Macguire appears to over-act a bit at times and thus he's not the highlight of the film.
The supporting cast luckily makes up for him. His assistants in priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and manager Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlberg) are great in their roles and the film is at its strongest when these three interact and have standoffs as the stress mounts. Lombardy and Marshall provide a nice contrast in the different personalities, and the film feels at times to be their story as well.
But how about those Russians. Well they are for the most part shown as generic evil chess villians, but of course his opponent in the 1972 is Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Schreiber is an a unique facet of the film in that his perspective is under-utilized and that he barely has any lines of dialogue. Perhaps it is fitting for the real man but one feels wanting to have seen more or perhaps it is a feeling of being underwhelmed instead.
The other, and perhaps tragic, underwhelming facet of Pawn Sacrifice is... the chess matches. There are many occasions where Fischer will start a match and it will skip to its conclusion. Even in pivotal ones that are shown the action isn't focused on the bored leaving a viewer confused at times unless they are paying attention. The film ends up being more about everything BUT the actual chess. What is shot nicely though are some occasional landscapes from the world tour Fischer goes on.

Pawn Sacrifice is an attempt at being a great biography that hits some good notes but falls short of that greatness. Its side characters are good, but its protagonist isn't. The world around chess can be nice to look at or intense to witness, but the matches arent. Its a decent shell with a hollow core. Much like Fischer himself. 7.65 out of 10