Friday, October 16, 2015


Jessica Chastain in CRIMSON PEAK
Here are two lavishly produced, stunningly photographed revisitings of iconic narratives. PAN is the most inventive of the two, a reinvention of the “Peter Pan” story CRIMSON PEAK is simply a retread of the standard-issue ghost story. The former is set in a spectacularly confused Neverland, a mashup geography of forested regions, mermaid lagoons and icy grottos. The latter is a ghost story set in the Old Dark House to end them all, with the requisite haunted attics and cellars, grisly specters, and a surrounding snowfield that turns crimson due to the clay-ey soil.

James M. Barrie

For some reasons, pirate ships prefer to sailing in the air to navigating in the waters. And likewise confusing are ghosts that don’t really do anything but stand around and shriek and scrabble a lot. Both seem rather out of their element, so to speak.

Levi Miller’s earnest Pan, Hugh Jackman’s wicked Blackbeard, Garrett Hedlund’s swashbuckling Hook , and Rooney Mara’s especially bewitching Tiger Lily move the Peter Pan story along, thank you very much, although just what is happening eludes me most of the time. Inventive special effects and gorgeous cinematography overwhelm the confusing storyline. Tom Hiddleston’s conniving seducer, Jessica Chastain as his murderously sexy sister, and Mia Wasikowski’s wan Damsel in Distress obligingly move through the paces of a storyline that, despite suitably creepy architecture, never rises above the paint-by-the-numbers Gothic tropes. Mother-love fuels PAN and incest-is-best powers CRIMSON PEAK.

Joe Wright (ANNA KARENINA, ATONEMENT, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE) falls hostage to the effects and second-unit work. Guillermo Del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH) is likewise a captive, in this case to care-worn spectral formulas that badly need a, er, fresh blood transfusion. This is simply not up to the standard of his classic THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

Guillermo Del Toro
Both are object lessons in what goes so often awry in Hollywood: Either you deconstruct a story property to the point that its essential identity is lost (PAN) or you merely copy and recopy a story property so much that it grows stale and repetitive.

I conclude with an observation about PAN. James Barrie’s tale is about a boy who’s lost his mother and spends his eternal youth searching for a substitute. Here we have a boy who reunites with his mother and is perfectly content about it. The tragic edge is replaced with a cozy comfort. At least, Peter at last attains lift-off in the final sequences. Nice effects.

But for my money, the flying scenes in Disney’s PETER PAN still excite the child in me.

Monday, October 5, 2015


Directed by Ridley Scott from the book by Andy Weir.  Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Egiofor.

When John Carter stood on the rim of an Arizona cliff and held out his arms toward the Red Planet, he was yearning to “go home.” Now, in the new Ridley Scott Martian Odyssey, The Martian, astronaut Matt Damon stands on the sands of Mars and also yearns to “go home.” The trajectories have switched. In little more than a century, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars in 1912 to Scott’s The Martian in 2015, the concept of “Home” has changed.

John Carter and Dejah Thoris in A Princess of Mars (painting by Tibbetts after the frontispiece by Frank Schoonover)
Going home to Mars was one thing; now we’re already coming back home to Earth.

And this on the same day that NASA has announced a promise to have a man on Mars by the early 2030s!

Has Mars already lost its allure, that we’re more concerned with returning than going?

At least The Martian, regardless of its trajectory, is as whole-hearted an endorsement of faith in progress and faith in humanity as any film we’re likely to see all year. No apologies, no qualifications, no doubts. Seat-of-the-pants Ingenuity, stubborn persistence, and good old knowhow win the day. Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut is a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, alone and surviving by his wits. “To dig, to bake, to plant, to build,” wrote Virginia Woolf of the Defoe classic, “—how serious these simple occupations are; hatchets, scissors, logs, axes—how beautiful these simple objects become!” Never have the basic actions of breathing, eating, and coming and going been so carefully itemized, so vividly depicted. Our castaway Robinson Crusoe scaled down his world to its essentials. And now Matt Damon has to do the same, albeit with tools considerably more advanced that what was available to Crusoe.

Leaving Home and coming Home are merely two sides of the same compass course. Maybe The Martian will encourage a return to John Carter’s perspective. Maybe, ironically, it will “bring home” to us the necessity of going there...