Saturday, October 24, 2015

Review: "The Assassin"

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Runtime: 107 minutes

There's nothing quite like The Assassin in the filmography of Taiwanese veteran Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and hopefully there won't be any more. Yes, Hou's film (his first in seven years) ponderous and protracted tale is awe-inspiringly beautiful. But the director's attempt to create a refined wuxia tale is so painfully restrained that everything feels thoroughly vacuum-packed. Any given still frame from The Assassin is a visual masterwork, but god at what cost?

Set in 7th century China, The Assassin's opening title cards establishes a world of warring dynasties and fragile alliances. And it's in the Weibo province that we meet Yinniang (Shu Qi), a formidable assassin sent on a mission to kill the man to whom she was once betrothed. Throw in some palace intrigue surrounding the ex and his wife, and you've got a fairly canvas to work with. And I do mean canvas, because from the opening shots, Hou makes it clear that his images, above all else, will captivate. 

But just as quickly as The Assassin announces its dedication to its imagery, it also gives away its dire lack of pacing. Hou has always been a practitioner of "slow cinema," and there's nothing wrong with that. However, as Hou defiantly refrains from melodrama, he overcorrects by a staggering margin. As beautiful as Hou's compositions are (and some are absolutely incredible), most are perilously in need of a heavy trim. 'Glacial' doesn't even begin to describe the pace, which mistakes long shots of minimal activity for atmosphere. The least Hou could have done for the audience would have been to get meta and include a scene of someone actually watching paint dry.

That would likely be preferable to the vacant performances Hou extracts from his cast. For all I know, these could be some of the best actors in the world, but you'd have no way of knowing based on how little the film actually explores them. The actors spend more time posing that crafting characters. This isn't exactly helpful, especially given the film's habit of turning the straight-forward story into a series of tenuously fragments. Did I grasp the story of The Assassin? Yes, even as I fought to stay alert. The more pressing question is, why didn't I care?

Because the great squawking albatross around The Assassin's neck is that, for all of its exquisite craftsmanship, it never delivers a real point for its existence. The themes are boilerplate, the aforementioned characters little more than sentient mannequins, and the grip on the atmosphere so limp that it all deflates within the first 20 minutes. It's appropriate that Hou repeatedly shoots scenes through layers of silk curtains: pull the fluttering fabric away, and you'll find nothing of substance on which to linger.

Grade: C

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: "Room"

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Runtime: 118 minutes

Rooting an entire movie in the perspective of a 5 year old is one hell of a risk, which is why director Lenny Abrahamson and his collaborators deserve countless hosannas. Last appearing with the oddball music dramedy Frank, Abrahamson has taken a gigantic leap forward with Room, working off of Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel. Both a tense psychological drama and a moving mother/son, Room finds Abrahamson graduating to a whole new level as a director.

Like most kids, 5 year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) loves when his birthday rolls around. He eats cake, gets extra attention from his mom, and gets to feel like the center of the universe. But the center of Jack's universe is terrifyingly small. All of his life, Ma (Brie Larson) has told him that Room - a soundproofed shack with only a skylight for light - is the entire world. Outside of Room is space, and then beyond that is heaven. Dogs and cats and other people, the ones the pair see on their TV, don't really exist. Ma's behavior would sound disturbing and cult-ish were it not for the fact that her placement in Room was anything but voluntary. Her lessons about the worlds outside of Room may be lies, but they are lies told out of love, in order to keep the awful truth at bay. There isn't much in Room, but at least mother and son have each other while cramped inside their four walls.

Even with a first half set almost entirely in a single space, Abrahamson shows remarkable dexterity behind the camera. Working with cinematographer Danny Cohen, he turns Room into a visually dynamic space. The camera moves and swings, and at times captures space at angles that make everything appear much bigger. The Room may not be big to us (or to Ma), but it's literally the entire world to Jacob, and Abrahamson and Cohen do a striking job of conveying this notion. The grim reality remains at the fringes, but is only palpable when Ma is significantly present in a shot. 

Young Mr. Tremblay is effortlessly believable in his role, neither grating nor overly coached. He never hits a false note, and Abrahamson ought to be commended for guiding the young actor through some tricky material. Having the film so strictly grounded in his mindset pays off in spades. Jack is allowed to be both our window into Room's world, while also functioning as a protagonist with agency. W.C. Fields is famously quoted as saying, "Never work with children or animals," but Tremblay makes a compelling case as evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Larson adds another wrenching performance to her resume as Ma. She plays the character's complexities with great restraint, keeping one on edge as to what her next move will be. Ma loves Jack, but she's also an adult who has had her life irrevocably altered, even if a day comes when she can escape from Room. Despite a few disappearances during the story, Room is just as much about Ma's shattered psyche as it is about Jack's experiences with the world (both the one he knows, and beyond). Room is about emotional imprisonment, but it spends just as much time dealing with recovery from trauma, which is hardly an easy journey.

Despite the eventual appearance of the outside world, Room remains anchored in Tremblay and Larson's beautiful performances. Under Abrahamson's watch, their story never gets lost even as the scope of the narrative widens. Room puts the bonds of mother and child through the wringer, but always with tasteful distance. Abrahamson and Donoghue present some harsh realities and harsh questions, but their concern for their characters mirrors Ma's treatment Jack: sometimes it's abrasive, but it ultimately comes from a place of profoundly moving love that refuses to be shaken.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: "Crimson Peak"

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Runtime: 119 minutes

In an early flashback in Crimson Peak, a ghost whispers to young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) that she should beware of the titular location. A similar warning should be given out to those going to see Guillermo Del Toro's latest film under the wrong impression. If you want to be either scared witless or grossed out by blood and gore, look elsewhere. But if you want to see a film that gorgeously translates the themes and tropes of gothic romance to the screen - albeit with flashes of the supernatural and R-rated content - look no further. Mr. Del Toro courted mainstream appeal with his last film, the glorified machines vs. monsters B-movie Pacific Rim. Let his newest endeavor, despite being made in English and through the studio system, sees the Mexican auteur returning to his roots, with sumptuous and haunting results.

The first ghost appears only moments into Crimson Peak, and past that point, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the wrong theater. The amber-tinted images the capture the hushed romance of Edith and the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) feel more in line with The Age of Innocence than anything remotely connected to the horror or supernatural thriller dramas. Despite the increased appearance of ghouls and ghosts later, the romance portion of the film is where Mr. Del Toro's attention really lies. Wasikowska's Edith is an aspiring novelist, and in one scene she is met with confusion from an editor who tries to pigeonhole her short story as a "ghost story." "I like to think of it as a story with a ghost in it," is her reply, and the line doubles as Del Toro's mission statement for Crimson Peak as well. 

It's fitting that Wasikowska plays the story's hero, seeing as she's already proven her worth playing the eponymous role of Jane Eyre, subject of one of the most revered Gothic romances in literature. In this new venture, Wasikowska and Del Toro have created a protagonist who remains fiercely independent and inquisitive, even as her situation deteriorates. The reasons for Edith's eventual endangerment are best left unclear, but - quite obviously - they stem from the presence of Thomas and his standoffish sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). 

Del Toro has melded a variety of influences (Jane Eyre, Hammer horror films, Rebecca) that could have proven unwieldy. But even when the influences are obvious or expected, the delivery is fresh when filtered through the director's vision. Del Toro, working with a wide range of new technical collaborators, has put his visual stamp on every inch of Crimson Peak, and it's often ravishing to behold. Even if the mix of genres fails to fully convince, you can always get lost in the immaculately designed sets. In typical Del Toro fashion, Crimson Peak's settings, clothes, and even people, are simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque.  

Equally impressive is how elegantly Del Toro and co. keep the story moving. The director's English-language films, to date, have all been his weakest from a pacing standpoint. Crimson Peak, thankfully, bucks that trend. Enough time is given to Edith and Thomas' courtship to make it convincing, yet the film is never bogged down by the period details. There are moments of visual wonderment, but they are often captured through smoothly edited passages and informative camera movements that never allow Crimson Peak's atmosphere to stagnate. 

Fantastic sets are one thing, you may ask, but what about the people inhabiting those densely designed settings? Crimson Peak's characters are largely meant to evoke other iconic roles, meaning they lack a true specificity. But that doesn't stop the cast from have a grand time vamping it up, all while staying sincere. Wasikowska does the wan intelligence bit superbly, keeping Edith sharp(e) even when she (and the audience) are left in the dark. Personally, Hiddleston is the biggest surprise of the cast. As somehow who has repeatedly left indifferent by his work, I was delighted by how well he captured Thomas' Byronic facade. The role could have called for nothing more than a handsome face, but the actor does some splendid work opposite his co-stars. And speaking of co-stars, he has two excellent ones in Wasikowska and Chastain. The latter is ultimately the film's MVP, despite a misleading one-note approach at the outset. Lucille's raven hair, like her psyche, comes unraveled over the course of the story, and to watch Chastain (affecting a mostly solid British accent) play such an overtly creepy (and later menacing) character is another testament to her range. 

The three central characters are tasked with charting a psychological game that is constantly shifting gears, and Del Toro does a marvelous job of subverting audience expectations. Crimson Peak's eventual payoff is not immediately impressive when compared to, say, The Sixth Sense. But it is a rewarding all the same. Del Toro's script prepares to go big, but then pulls the rug out from under the viewer in favor of a twist that plays more on ideas than plot developments or supernatural gotcha moments. Ghosts may be real in the world of Crimson Peak, but they, like Thomas and Lucille, a far from what they seem. The film's opening warning specifies what Edith should beware at Crimson Peak. It never specified whom...

Grade: B+/A-

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review: "The Martian"

Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 141 minutes

For a movie about terrifying circumstances, Ridley Scott's The Martian has something you wouldn't normally expect: a sincere, deeply-entrenched air of optimism. Without straining too hard for 'feel-good' moments, Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling novel is an exhilarating adventure because it refuses to get bogged down in existential crises. Seeing as how many of Scott's films are laced with either fatalism or downright nihilism, there is something truly invigorating in seeing the 77 year old make a movie that is basically a love letter to human ingenuity. 

Set several decades in the future, The Martian wastes no time in dropping us off on the Red Planet and getting the ball rolling. Hardly a few minutes have gone by before a high-spirited NASA team is forced to abandon their mission and set course for Earth. But in the chaos of their escape (the cause of which is a colossal Martian storm), astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris, and left for dead. Which, of course, he isn't.

There are so many points in the first act of Drew Goddard's screenplay that look like gateways to despair. Will we anguish with the NASA crew over their inability to rescue their colleague before take off? Will Mark Watney spend his final days on Mars pondering the meaning of life millions of miles away from home? The answer to both prompts is a resounding and triumphant 'No.' From the moment Watney drags himself back to base camp, he's on the go, thinking of what he has to do to survive long enough for the next NASA mission to reach Mars. 

Scott -  along with editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski - plunges headfirst into Watney's enthusiasm, to the film's great benefit. For a director who has long been regarded as a visual craftsman, he has scaled back rather marvelously. This is not a pretty or lush film, even with all of the sleek sets. It's an immersive, get-your-hands dirty endeavor that, like Mark Watney, likes to simply get the job done. The film may lack obvious moments of cinematic innovation or poetry, but it still thrills as an expertly calibrated and engagingly old-fashioned crowdpleaser. 

Better yet, it's a crowdpleaser with actual smarts. The Martian is a tribute to human perseverance, but it's also a gushing ode to the unifying power of scientific progress. Characters throw around plenty of technical talk, but the smooth editing and dynamic performances (even the smallest roles are filled by actors who seem thrilled to be involved) erase the possibility of the film turning into a NASA training video.

First and foremost, The Martian would not work as well as it does without Damon's performance. Mark Watney can be a bit of a smart ass, but Damon keeps the character grounded, and nails all of Goddard's one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks. Even when facing life or death odds, the characters in The Martian still have room for laughter. Damon's co-stars all bring their charisma, ranging from Jessica Chastain's guilt-ridden commander to Kristen Wiig as NASA's prickly head of PR. 

Yet none of these characters are especially well-rounded, and that includes Mark. And yet The Martian proves to be such rousing entertainment because it balances a cast of one-note characters with a smart sense of its story's stakes. There isn't too much to write about any of the individuals on screen, but we can sense their intelligence, their drive, and their desire to succeed and survive. Scott's latest cinematic foray into space hasn't produced another Ellen Ripley, and that's perfectly fine. What matters is that he's assembled a cast of charismatic actors who make for solid stand-ins for humanity as a whole. The Martian may start as Mark Watney's story, but it ends as joyous statement of what humanity is capable of when the lines between individuals and entire communities vanish in the name of survival. The dangers of space are terrifying, but The Martian reminds us that in the face of overwhelming odds, sometimes the perfect antidote is just a touch of optimism.

Grade: B+