Archive for October, 2015

Crimson Peak

October 17, 2015


Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro, based on a script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins is a haunted house movie set in Victorian times.

When Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is still a child, the ghost of her mother appears to her and warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak”. As an adult, she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his icy sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). She falls in love with Thomas, but her father (Jim Beaver) disapproves of him. When her father is mysteriously murdered, however, Edith is free to marry Thomas. They move to the manor house that Thomas’s family has lived in for hundreds of years. It is a dilapidated structure with holes in the ceiling, which sits on top of more red clay than you will find in the whole state of Connecticut. We’re told that the red clay stains snow red, and Edith eventually learns that because of this, people call the place “Crimson Peak”. (Which doesn’t really make sense, because the house is located on flat ground.) Right away, Edith starts seeing ghosts. Even worse, she begins to suspect that Thomas and Lucille are keeping secrets from her.

Crimson Peak is not a bad film. It kept me entertained for two hours. Yet it left me feeling somehow unsatisfied. In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro took the traditional fairy tale and found a way to make it seem relevant to our times. In Crimson Peak, however, he seems satisfied to recycle familiar devices of Victorian melodrama. There is nothing in this film that seems really fresh or new.

Labyrinth of Lies

October 15, 2015


Labyrinth of Lies, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, from a script by Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel, is a fictionalized depiction of the events leading up to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65. The story begins in Germany in the late 1950’s. Johan Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is a young prosecutor who gets involved in the case of a school teacher who is accused of having been an SS officer at Auschwitz. The case leads Radmann to discover that other former Auschwitz officers and guards are living free. He persuades the Attorney General, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss) to let him begin bringing criminal cases against these people. Radmann encounters resistance, both from the government and from his fellow lawyers against the prosecutions.

The German title of this film, Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, literally translates as “In the Labyrinth of Silence”, which is a more accurate title. It becomes clear that the problem is not so much lies as the fact that people simply refused to discuss what had happened. The film is implicitly critical of the Adenauer government, with its “time to move on” philosophy. (At one point the film suggests that some members of the West German government helped Josef Mengele to avoid capture.) The result of this is virtually a form of historical amnesia. In one scene, someone asks some young Germans if they have ever heard of Auschwitz, and they answer no. During his first interview with an Auschwitz survivor, Radmann is astonished to learn that hundreds of thousands of people died there. “What did you think it was, a summer camp next to a lake?” a survivor sarcastically asks him.

The main problem with Labyrinth of Lies is its heavy reliance on standard storytelling techniques. For example, it follows the time-honored Hollywood tradition of including a romantic subplot: Radmann has an affair with a free-spirited girl, Marlene (Friederike Becht). These scenes are in and of themselves not objectionable, but they seem somehow inappropriate within the context of the film’s disturbing subject matter. There are also some dream scenes in which Radmann is shown following Mengele through the latter’s laboratory. These are clearly meant to be emotionally powerful, but they seem merely trite: we’ve seen these sorts of dream scenes too many times in other films. This raises the question of whether standard storytelling techniques are adequate for dealing with such an enormity as Auschwitz.

Despite its flaws, Labyrinth of Lies is a revealing portrait of post-World War II Germany.

99 Homes

October 12, 2015


I’m not proud of this, but I played a (small) role in the meltdown of the real estate market in 2008. I worked for a few months for the infamous Countrywide Home Loans. It was clerical work, but nonetheless I was a cog in the machine. I remember during one of the training sessions, one of the top executives of the company came to speak to the group of new hires I was in. She told us that the company’s income came entirely from late payment fees on mortgages. (I will never forget the expression of glee on this woman’s face as she told this to us.) Perhaps I was in a state of denial, but it wasn’t until after I left the company that I began to put two and two together. If all their income came from late payment fees, then they had to be luring people into getting mortgages they couldn’t really afford. Such a business model couldn’t be sustainable, and I suspect the top executives of the company knew this. However, when the collapse inevitably came, they all got golden parachutes, and everyone else got the shaft.

99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a script by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, is set shortly after the collapse of the real estate market. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker whose house is foreclosed upon by real estate agent, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Nash is forced to move into a motel room along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son (Noah Lomax). By chance, Nash, who is desperate for work, winds up doing a maintenance job for Carver. Carver takes a liking to him, and offers him a permanent job. Nash is hesitant at first, but the money that Carver offers him is irresistible. Carver soon has Nash carrying out evictions for him. When Nash’s family finds what he is doing, they become upset with him. Nash’s job also increasingly puts him in situations that are morally and legally tenuous.

99 Homes is a condemnation of the moral values of our society: its tendency to value money over people, its tendency to rationalize greed and parasitism. In the film’s most powerful scene, Carver justifies what he does to Nash. He tells Nash that after the collapse of the real estate market, he found that there was more money to be made doing evictions than in selling houses. Carver’s seemingly rational arguments expose the ruthless cynicism of our economic system, a cynicism that Carver has embraced in order to get ahead. In some ways, 99 Homes reminds one of last year’s Nightcrawler, but in a way 99 Homes is more subtly disturbing. Whereas the main character in Nightcrawler is depicted as a sociopath, one gets the feeling that Carver was at one time a decent person, but he has been corrupted by the system he works in.

This film benefits from strong performances. Michael Shannon is brilliant as Carver. 99 Homes is one of the best films of the year.