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BY JACOB OLLER

Crimson Peak
Rated: R / Runtime: 1h 59m

One of the first things Crimson Peak does, other than establish that ghosts are real and very present in this story, is namecheck Mary Shelley. Leave your preconceptions at the door, it says, and prepare to embrace the heightened Gothic ghost story in this film’s delightfully romantic bloody waltz.

Director/Writer Guillermo del Toro has always had a penchant for macabre visual flair, but his films have never felt like traditional horror. And, to be fair, this movie may not be the horror many contemporary viewers expect. This is no found-footage, shaky webcam, haunted doll shlock. This is the hyper-crafted, meticulous, grand creepiness of films like The Shining or The Exorcist.

Drawing from Juan López Moctezuma’s 1970s Mexican horror – the bloody bathtubs of Alucarda and the flowing petticoats of The Mansion of Madness – del Toro weaves his influences together with the visual flair we’ve grown to expect. His smoky, gory wraiths have a creepy, messy gravitas lost with the invisible jump-scare machines found in other films. These aren’t special effects, they’re characters that melt before your eyes. They drip and scream, writhing with an anguishing psychic pain that immediately tempers our fear with sympathy.

These horrors come filtered through the eyes of Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring writer, Edith Cushing. Edith quickly sets herself apart from her catty socialite contemporaries with her drive to publish her horror manuscript, masking her handwriting to disguise her gender. This leads to her chance encounter with dark, mysterious baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston in one of his finest performances). He and his sister (the brilliantly unhinged Jessica Chastain) eventually lure Edith back to their mountaintop manor where the blood-red clay seeps and stains the landscape like Lady MacBeth’s unwashable hands.

Something, you may ascertain at this point, is not right about this whole situation.

The escalating anxiety and tension dovetails with Edith’s burgeoning curiosity and Sir Thomas’ growing uncertainty. Wasikowska coats Edith’s tough core with a dainty, prim padding, much like the fluffy shoulders on her gowns. That the character is never written as a pushover, but as a gaslit mark slowly uncovering the depth of her own deceit, does wonders for our affections for her. She’s as tough as any horror protagonist – an Ellen Ripley in lace.

Hiddleston secretes so much oily charm that it feels like you should wipe him off with a cloth. His darkness, somehow linked to his past, glints sharply below the surface of his expertly crafted, Victorian pickup artist veneer. Chastain’s wild-eyed desperation makes me want her to stick with horror films: she’s just so riveting. She captures you with the smallest movements, holding you hostage to squirm in her unbearable yet inescapable presence. Later in the film she becomes a beautiful whirling nightmare, as terrifying as any creature concocted in del Toro’s imagination.

Unfortunately, the miscast Charlie Hunnam seems out of his depth surrounded by such wonderful performances, his accent and charm wavering on the side of high school Shakespeare.

That aside, the film’s atmosphere makes up for any weak spots. More romance than horror, no jump scares or tongue-in-cheek sex romps, Crimson Peak builds on the feeling that something is wrong. It eats at you, an atrophying cholera slowly burning away at any feelings of comfort or safety.

Aside from the excellently perverse and intelligent script, the visual storytelling demands your attention. Edith’s investigations into the mysteries of the Peak contain several visual setpieces – a trunk and keyring, tea trays and wax phonograph cylinders – that resonate with meaning even as they serve as key plot devices. The production design of these items, the mansion, and the rest of the film perfectly captures the heightened decorative masquerade disguising the brutal truths beneath the surface.

Cyclical violence and manipulative relationships lurk as thematic horrors, embracing the Gothic adoration of sexual cynicism with clever commentary. Love, while not abandoned or scorned, floats out of reach, dangerous but worth reaching for. The inevitability of most fairy tales, in which being warned of danger often lead to being embroiled in it, culminates in the full-circle finale. After a cathartic chase and showdown that will go down as one of the most heart-pounding, gorgeously-shot, and passion-fueled horror endings in modern memory, the audience releases their collectively held breath not with a sigh, but a cheer.

Beautiful and horrible, Crimson Peak has the discordant panache and meaty substance to be an instant horror classic and perennial Halloween favorite.

Spectre
Rated: PG-13 / Runtime: 2h 30m

Despite collapsing into clumsiness near the finale, Spectre’s James Bond dovetails in a perfect combination of Craig-era romantic irony and classic 007 cool.

Daniel Craig may not ever have a lot of plot to work with, but he’s crafted a nuanced James Bond who’s evolved from the violent meat-weapon of Casino Royale to the smug, distant, romantic Bond in Spectre. That he does so in a standoffish, almost thuggish way speaks volumes to his melding of damaged lover and aloof assassin. From the opening moments, we realize Bond has regressed even further into himself since Skyfall: suave as ever, but with his panache directed towards the efficient completion of his mission, not a one-night stand.

The opening sequence is a doozy. Director Sam Mendes and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar) follow an extended tracking shot (that ends with Bond strutting atop a parapet like a runway) with a combination of ’70s noir, throwback Bond set pieces, and modern Wes Anderson-style centered symmetry. This is a very pretty 007, with the opening titles possessing a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-level of black, dripping, dangerous sexuality. Colors flip between the cold blues of London and the rustic browns and oranges of Rome and Africa, while each frame is composed with such care that even the uninitiated or unobservant can identify the intended focal point and manage to ascertain some deeper meaning.

As Bond attempts to investigate and thwart a scheme somehow involving the surveillance state and his own tragic backstory (the plot is drivel), he stumbles into enough car chases, train fights, and building demolitions to excite the most jaded action fan. Car chases look like violent commercials, all impossible gliding turns and glossy exteriors. Luckily, humor is routinely injected into the action to compensate for its partial delves into intangibility. This may be Craig’s lightest Bond yet, in terms of cheeky winks and visual gags. Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) helps those along as a perfectly overwhelming henchman, bulldozing his way through obstacles, scenery, and Bond himself with the showmanship garnered through a career of pro wrestling.

And where would 007 be without a new Bond girl? This iteration’s offering, Léa Seydoux (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inglorious Basterds) as Madeleine, slays as a counter to Bond. Equally funny, sultry, and poignant, Seydoux counters Craig’s hardened casing with a delicate veneer of her own. She and Eva Green will go down as two of the best.

For all the cheek Spectre gives you, as soon as it turns to the plot, it immediately becomes broadly no-nonsense and jumbled. If you meshed all the Mission: Impossible plots into the newer Fast & Furious storylines, you’d have an approximation of why following along with Spectre’s plot is pointless. Andrew Scott rehashes his Moriarty performance from BBC’s Sherlock into the head of the merger between Britain’s intelligence forces. Pompousness is a good look for Scott, but his monologuing gets old quickly, especially when we know we’re not watching the secret agent do something much, much cooler.

The final third of the film, as soon as they disembark from the aforementioned train, becomes a fan-made Austin Powers parody. For all the self-seriousness of the surveillance politicking, its culmination feebly echoes the dangerous utilitarianism of Watchmen and our own NSA. The superficial commentary can be boiled down to the opposing sides of the argument: invasion of privacy vs. preemptive prevention. That’s as far as we get. But juxtaposed with Christoph Waltz’s maniacal performance as the main villain, the limply relevant plot surrounding and supposedly supporting his character feels completely insufficient. Not to mention his beef towards Bond seems totally foreign to the generically convoluted logic of the rest of the plot. We go from point A to point B and suddenly Waltz has tied us to some railroad tracks, twirling his mustache and cackling.
The romantic developments inside Waltz’s evil lair come fast and unmotivated, finishing with a literally handheld escape that looks as goofy as Mike Myers in a frilly shirt stopping to pick off a few henchmen with a pistol as the building explodes around him.

After those zany theatrics, the main plot must be resolved in the lamest, easiest, least dramatic way possible. Bond runs through an on-the-nose metaphor for aging while M and the rest of the crew hack a computer. Yes, this is basically the same final act as Furious 7. And yes, Furious 7 does it much, much better. Which is saying something.

I walked out of Spectre thinking one thing: I should buy a black turtleneck. When you walk out of a James Bond movie thinking that, you know it’s done something right. For as much as this movie tries to make being a professional killer seem like a painful, distancing, lonesome profession, Spectre and Daniel Craig succeed in bringing Bond back to basics. And that means it nurses your inclination to covet. Not necessarily the gadgets or the cars or the ability to take a life, but the confidence that goes along with them – or walking away from them.

Martinis shaken, widows of your enemies seduced, supervisors cheekily chastised, and girls gotten, Craig’s Bond reaches peak 007 in his own unique way. From brutal, brooding warrior to a man hiding passion behind a blank facade. Bond movies are never about the plot, they’re about the Bond. Spectre finally sees its star join the ranks of classic 007s by spitting in the face of the series’s misanthropy and misogyny with the emotional indemnity of a romantic hero.

Spectre sets you up with the conventional coolness of James Bond, complete with a fanatic’s plethora of homages, only so you have a reference for exactly how much Bond is willing to sacrifice for love. For all the chases and fights, Bond really just has some romantic and psycho-sexual issues to work through, and the best thing about Spectre is that it allows this Bond to unfold before us in the context of a conventional action movie.

Even if it’s not perfect, the fact that the ride we go on with this Bond is almost as cheeky and self-assured as its star is consolation enough.

The Night Before
Rated: R / Runtime: 1h 41m

The Night Before, a holiday Hangover, a spectacle comedy of man-children and pop culture riffs, rises above its raunchy reference humor thanks to its consequence-driven character exploration.

Not to mention this is one of the only R-rated comedies I’ve seen where the supporting female cast gets arcs of their own. Lizzy Caplan (as Diana, the girl Joseph Gordon-Levitt couldn’t commit to) is coy, sexual, and adamantly set in her values – all while fan-girling over Miley Cyrus. It’s just a nice bonus that her chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is off the charts. Thanks to the honesty of the characters, their responses, and their teasing, sharp dialogue, their collective ten or so minutes of conversation resonate like every wannabe star vehicle rom-com in the last ten years has not. Jillian Bell, as Seth Rogen’s pregnant wife, explores maturity and maternity with heart, even as she’s providing Rogen’s character with a boxful of “every drug”.

Thankfully, the character-centric surprises don’t stop there. Gordon-Levitt plays Ethan, an orphaned thirty-something clinging to the gimcrack traditions built with his friends in their early twenties. His friends are his family and they’re growing up, leaving his arrested development behind. Rogen’s Isaac is on the brink of fatherhood, and much like his character in the excellent Neighbors, he struggles with accepting domestic responsibility at the expense of unlimited, reckless freedom. Anthony Mackie completes the trio as newly minted football star Chris, social media whore and steroid abuser. Each expresses symptoms of the Peter Pan syndrome sweeping through R-rated comedies, though more thoughtfully than The Night Before’s contemporaries.

Even if this film doesn’t ask you to think hard, it’s progressivism still finds root in its open-mindedness. Religiously, familially, and sexually, The Night Before posits that everything is in shades of grey. Chris’s mom, played by the excellent Lorraine Toussaint, is shown as a good mother and Christian that gives dinner leftovers to the homeless while swearing at Ethan for losing the girl of his dreams. This isn’t a sassy grandma or a saintly mother; she’s just nuanced enough to stay with you and seem real. A shrooming Isaac receives dick pics thanks to an accidental phone-swap, and his increasingly open replies to them are the opposite of the standard bro-comedy’s gay panic. The movie isn’t making fun of him, or the fact that he may not be 100 percent heterosexual, but rather the absurdity of the situation. Surprisingly enough, those penises are the only nudity in the film, which is absurdly refreshing in its own right. No topless Christmas elves just because, only the equity of male nudity.

But that’s not the only way The Night Before subverts expectations. From the grand musical number ending in a dramatic gesture that is soundly rejected to the corporate sponsorship whose product is the butt of jokes, The Night Before knows how dumb you think it is and surprises at every turn. Bolstered by amusing cameos by Miley Cyrus and Nathan Fielder, spectacle comedy and ubiquitous product placement roast on their skewers alongside emotional immaturity. Michael Shannon, as a drug-dealing riff on about ten holiday classics, has the most Oscar-worthy supporting performance in a comedy since Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Gruff gravitas and stoner humor have never found a more perfect conduit.

Although the film could’ve been much improved, not to mention about 20 minutes shorter, if it cut the five or six musical numbers, The Night Before rises above its raunchy competitors thanks to its understanding of consequential storytelling.

I’m not talking point A to point B plot road-mapping, but a story in which the actions and responses of its characters create noticeable changes. I don’t want to end up with the same happy-go-lucky bar-hopping losers that we started off with. They’re presented as a problem.

Other comedies with similar veins would keep the ending open for the possibilities for a sequel, but here it’s impossible. The very notion of a sequel, of seeing these same characters do more of the same, undermines the very premise.

The emotional closure, the growth – too honest to be hokey, even if the writing often has a laser target on the proverbial nose – pushes its characters into adulthood through their close friendship. The closer you are with someone, the harder it is to tell them they need to change. Inside this, The Night Before nests the notion that these are often the only people that CAN say these things. And of course, the outermost nesting doll is the one caked in weed, tacky sweaters, and hilarious jokes.

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