movie reviews October 2015

the martiansteve Jobsthe walkcrimson peak

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Crimson Peak
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Guillermo del Toro makes monster movies, movies in which visual design, effects and atmosphere are as responsible as plot and acting for telling the story. Over the past 15 years, his cinematic output has alternated between big-budget Hollywood action flicks (Blade II, the Hellboy movies, Pacific Rim) and more personal, lower-budget, Spanish-language fantasies (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth). With Crimson Peak, del Toro combines these two approaches into one big-budget apotheosis of gothic horror that splits the difference between Hitchcock's Rebecca and the decadent late ‘50s/early ‘60s Technicolor horrors of Hammer Films and Roger Corman.

The plot elements are straight out of a Gothic romance: an orphaned spinster with a dowry, a mysterious nobleman with a secret; a pitiless shrew who holds the keys to the manor and to its secrets, and a decrepit family manse in which the heroine finds herself trapped.

Mia Wasikowska, who essayed another Gothic heroine in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, NY, facing a world of male condescension (one publisher commends only her penmanship). Level-headed Edith is uninterested in the society world into which she has been born until she's swept off her feet by charming British baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), whose interest in her may conceal ulterior motives. Sharpe, it turns out, has come to America seeking to secure her father's financial backing for a self-designed steam shovel he hopes will excavate the valuable red clay beneath his family's ancestral estate, thus preserving the family name and fortune.

Although her father (an excellent Jim Beaver) discounts Sharpe as an investment risk and as his daughter’s suitor, Edith is soon enough accompanying her new husband and his creepy sister Lucille back to England and their ancestral digs, Allerdale Hall.

And Allerdale Hall is a doozie. A fanciful invention of del Toro and production designer Thomas E. Sanders, this house is as much a character as its inhabitants. Within the upper stories lie the old nursery and Thomas' toy workshop, both gray and misty, their walls covered with butterfly-devouring moths. A dilapidated roof allows leaves and snow to swirl through the three-story foyer and down long, shadowy hallways lined with spikey ornaments reminiscent of an iron maiden or the dreaded vagina dentata. And because the mansion has been built over the mines, red clay drips down its walls and seeps up through the floorboards, even staining the surrounding landscape when the snow falls (hence, the film's title).

Oh, and it's haunted. Ghosts appear around every corner, suggesting the dreadful secrets these rooms — and the Sharpe siblings — are keeping.

Within this expressionistic setting, Edith finds herself abandoned by her new husband, as he obsesses over his clanking, steam-driven monstrosity, and at the mercy of Lucille, who essentially holds Edith hostage while solicitously offering cup after cup of questionable tea (think Hitchcock's Notorious).

Unfortunately, the Sharpe family secrets, when finally revealed, are distinctly underwhelming, and the script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins is unable to keep viewers from seeing the plot twists coming a mile away. The emphasis here, however, is on mood and metaphor, not plot. Unrestrained by realism, del Toro takes everything over the top — the sets, the costumes, even the acting.

The result is a movie that may seem hopelessly stylized and hokey to some audiences. While Crimson Peak does include some truly shocking violence, one could complain that del Toro's elaborately animated CGI ghosts, all curling smoke and spidery finger, aren't really all that scary.

But as Edith says of her own fiction, this isn't a ghost story; it's a story with ghosts in it. Del Toro makes monster movies. And the film's showdown in the snow between the two women of Allerdale Hall should have viewers asking who the real monsters are. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/27/15)

The Walk
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Walk strolls in the footsteps of James Marsh’s nail biting but strangely beautiful 2009 documentary Man on Wire. Marsh’s film won a well-deserved Oscar because it has a visceral effect that few nonfiction films have.

Director Robert Zemeckis has essentially created a big budget remake of the previous film, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The documentary reveals what kind of person would dream of walking on a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in the mid-1970s. The Walk is worth catching simply because it gives viewers a chance to do the high wire act for themselves.

Thanks to some amazing 3D cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (The Martian), viewers get a sense of the distance (and of course) height of French acrobat Philippe Petit’s real life stunt. The film’s climax offers Zemeckis a chance to return to the stylish, thoughtful approach he brought to Hollywood blockbusters like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He used 3D in his unintentionally creepy adaptation of A Christmas Carol but having flesh-and-blood actors testing an audience’s depth perception instead of mannequin-like CGIs is a huge step forward.

Zemeckis consistently handles the visuals in a subtle and sophisticated way. Simply making viewers feel as if objects are flying in their faces thankfully isn’t enough for him. The novelty of that approach wears out in seconds. By instead working on making sure that viewers share Petit’s unique experience, Zemeckis makes wearing the uncomfortable glasses worthwhile.

As for the rest of the movie, Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne (Zemecikis’ Beowulf) offer a solid but almost stolid recounting of Petit’s life up until his fateful crossing. Having leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrate from the arm of the Statue of Liberty against a 1970’s New York skyline is nice theatrical touch that Petit would probably love. Despite touches like this gesture, we don’t learn much about Petit or the other people who made his conquest of the towers possible.

Despite the uniqueness of Petit’s achievement, Zemeckis and Browne recount his life in a sadly prosaic manner. Petit’s alienation from his parents who didn’t share his obsession with wire walking seems cut and pasted from another showbiz story. It’s almost as if Zemeckis and Browne lost faith in their uniquely captivating subject. Similarly, a fine supporting cast including Sir Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon and James Badge Dale has little room to make much of an impression.

Marsh’s documentary managed to get firmly into Petit’s head, revealing an adult full of child-like wonder but who could also by his own admission could be less-than-kind to the people who assisted him in his jaw-dropping stunts.

The Walk is still an impressive technical feat, but it’s nit-picking to complain that it falls short of the courage and beauty of Petit’s own feat. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 10/20/15)

The Walk

If Zemeckis can’t
get inside Petit’s head, at
least the 3D works.

Steve Jobs
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball) has loosely adapted Walter Isaacson's detailed biography of the fastidious and bullying co-founder of Apple into an “expressionist portrait” in three acts. The script contains plenty of examples of Steve Jobs’ perfectionist tyranny on full parade and in passing, but Sorkin, to much consternation, remains an apologist for the myth over the man.

The film takes place entirely behind the scenes of three of the many product launches — the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998 — Jobs staged in order to further his cult of personality. Michael Fassbender, channeling his natural rangy intensity, plays Jobs. His performance is painstakingly magnetic as ever, but Jobs, by the very nature of his character, fabled or real, remains static. Jobs begins the film as it ends: a blowhard. His only transformation is sartorial, transitioning with the times from double-breasted and padded shoulders to familiar black turtleneck.

But Jobs is merely the Maypole around which members of the supporting cast circle, draping their crepe paper grievances over him. Apple luminaries Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Andy Hertzfeld (Elden Henson) and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) make appearances, as if Jobs is the Ebenezer Scrooge of Silicon Valley and the moment before a product launch Christmas Eve. But Sorkin adds a self-conscious cleverness to this conceit, expressed in the line delivered by Fassbender, “It’s as if five minutes before every launch everyone goes to a bar, gets drunk and tells me what they really think.”

Sorkin also trots out Jobs' daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs (played at three different ages by three different actresses), and her mother; Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) for his proprietary added tension and contrived sentiment. Spoiler alert: the Tin Man gets a heart.

The spirited discussions with Apple’s marketing guru Joanna Hoffman, played by Kate Winslet, give the film favorable credit toward talky intelligence and provide a necessary immediacy. It’s the closest the script gets to revealing Jobs as an untalented mooch, or at least exploring that he was a jerk hiding his ugly side behind a contrived identity as genius. But for all her honesty, Hoffman is still relegated to motherly caretaker, stopping just short of licking a tissue to wipe a smudge off his cheek and then telling Jobs, “Go get ‘em, Tiger” before he steps on stage.

The presence of the film’s director, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting), and his penchant for quirky fantasy, is minimally on screen. Defined by the demands of the script, each act is filmed as a progression: grainy 16mm to 35mm then in high-definition digital. The walk-and-talks, winding through cramped backstage hallways, are uncomplicated by necessity except when Boyle gratuitously projects dialog on scenery and archival footage is awkwardly spliced into scenes, as if representing a character’s thought bubble. A hastily convened meeting of Apple board members, which unleashes Jobs’ wrath, is scored by a thunderstorm rattling the windows of the boardroom, missing only Igor’s cry of “It’s alive!” (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/20/15)

The Martian
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Hard to believe this is a Ridley Scott film.

In The Martian, Sir Ridley — he of the long-standing existential, dystopian bent (Alien, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down, and more recently, the Cormac McCarthy-penned downer The Counselor) — returns to space and delivers a crowd-pleasing paean to persistence, teamwork, and the resilience of the human spirit. All of which would be welcome were it not delivered in some of the hoariest clichés imaginable.

The Martian is Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist with the Ares III manned mission to Mars, who is injured and left for dead when the team evacuates during a tumultuous wind storm (which is inexplicably filled with confetti, albeit in 3-D). Watney wakes to find himself impaled, alone, and short on supplies, his existence unknown to his crew or to Mission Control, 50 million miles away. The remainder of the film follows Watney's efforts to make contact with Earth and keep himself alive long enough to be rescued.

That The Martian succeeds to the degree it does is due largely to a charismatic performance by Matt Damon as Watney. In a series of video log entries, Watney displays a winning mix of self-effacing humor and good-ol' American pluck as he McGyvers his way through disasters and setbacks.

In fact, Watney may be just a bit too plucky. Afraid of turning the proceedings into a downer, the script by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), based on the 2011 self-published novel by Andy Weir, consistently opts for humor over despair, to the point that one rarely seriously considers Watney's demise. Aside from the occasional dire glance and single ostentatious dropping of the F-bomb, he barely breaks a sweat. And what about all those sols (spaceman-talk for a Martian day) that don't wind up on webcam? Such introspection is ignored in favor of cheap jokes about the disco music left behind.

The clichés and feel-good tone multiply once Watney manages to contact NASA. A slew of excellent actors are given stock characters to inhabit with essentially single-phrase personalities: the ethically challenged NASA chief (Jeff Daniel); the nervous PR officer (a one-note, one-facial-expression Kristen Wiig); the old-school earnest science advisor (Sean Bean); and, of course, the wacky, impudent whiz kid with a crazy idea that might just work (Donald Glover). The Ares mission crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña and Kate Mara) is given even less to do.

And what is that crazy idea? Why, the same crazy idea that saved the day for Apollo 13, Star Trek IV, even last summer's Interstellar: the slingshot effect, providing opportunities for not one, but two, montages set to pop-songs — David Bowie's "Starman" as the world comes together to coordinate a rescue mission and Abba's "Waterloo" as Watney prepares for his long trek to the rescue site.

Any question how all this will end? Unfortunately, not.

Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus, The Counselor) create a convincing Mars out of Wadi Run in Jordan; slow, stately shots of Watney traversing the red sand evoke John Ford's Monument Valley westerns. But as far as human beings are concerned, The Martian never gets beneath the surface. PG-13 Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/5/15)

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at
Beck Ireland can be contacted at
Mike Ireland can be contacted at


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