“Crimson Peak”

“Beware… Beware of Crimson Peak.” We hear this line several times throughout Guillermo Del Toro’s gorgeous, violent, and redundant haunted house picture, “Crimson Peak”.

“Crimson Peak” has a line at one point that a character’s novel isn’t a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it. That sums up the movie well. Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) plays Edith, a young aspiring writer who marries Thomas (a brilliant Tom Hiddleston), a charismatic engineer. They move Edith into Thomas and his mysterious sister Lucille’s (Jessica Chastain) mansion where Edith discovers her marriage with Thomas isn’t perfect. And why is Lucille insisting Edith drink her tea? Why is Edith constantly woken up in a cliche horror movie fashion by ghosts?

I love Del Toro’s work. I loved both “Hellboy” movies, “Blade II” is my favorite installment in the trilogy, “Pacific Rim” is a criminally underrated monster flick, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a damn masterpiece. “Crimson Peak” is still as stunning and bizarre as his previous works, but it doesn’t feel like Del Toro’s heart is in this one.

The basic plot structure of “Crimson Peak” goes something like this – girl has a romantic afternoon with her lover and a standoffish encounter with her sister-in-law. Girl wakes up in the middle of the night and has a disturbing encounter with a ghost who leads her to a secret. This happens at least four times in “Crimson Peak”, and leads to a predictable conclusion.

Wasikowska gives a charming performance as Edith, Hiddleston easily has the best performance and character, giving Thomas a level of complexity, and Charlie Hunnam of “Sons of Anarchy” fame is enjoyable as a hopeless romantic doctor. Jessica Chastain has the weakest role in this movie. She’s wonderfully crazy, but she’s just there for the most part. We don’t get to know what drives her madness.

“Crimson Peak” is worth watching for the visuals and Hiddleston alone, but don’t go in expecting another “Pan’s Labyrinth”.

Grade: C

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“Knock, Knock”

Eli Roth must have learned the meaning of the word “restraint” in between making the horrendous “Green Inferno” and the surprisingly entertaining “Knock, Knock”. I wasn’t bored once in this ridiculous ride.

“Knock, Knock” is an erotic thriller combined with a home invasion movie, starring Keanu Reeves as Evan. Evan is a likable and handsome family man who’s left alone for a weekend to work on his architecture project while his family is away at the beach. Evan soon meets two young damsels-in-distress named Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife, who was also in this year’s “Green Inferno”) and Bel (Ana de Armas) who show up asking to use his phone. Evan quickly regrets being polite after they seduce him into a threesome and won’t leave.

Roth trades in his gore and juvenile humor trademarks for mind games and dark humor, proving he has some range. The mayhem doesn’t occur until the 50-minute mark, but even prior to that, “Knock, Knock” is still a surprisingly tense movie in the first half. We get to know Evan and both femme fatales in the first half, seeing that Evan is clearly putting on the nice guy act and misses his youthful days. Genesis and Bel see this in Evan and use it against him from the beginning.

SPOILER ALERT

Genesis and Bel are very innovative and twisted in screwing with Evan’s life and do the following – vandalize Evan’s home, smash his wife’s sculptures before her exhibit, trick him into thinking he’s a pedophile, steal his dog(the dog lives, FYI), and post a recorded sex tape between him and Bel on his Facebook.

All of this above gives the movie a dark comedy vibe in its execution, but the acting and dialogue give it an unintentionally slapstick tone. Reeves is on par with one of Nicolas Cage’s sillier performances here and yelling lines like, “DON’T DO IT, THEY’RE CRAZY,” and “YOU SUCKED MY ****! IT WAS LIKE FREE PIZZA,” earn unwanted laughs.

Roth still has a bad habit of writing homage scenes that come off like a hack job, including one very obvious homage to “Fight Club”. But I can forgive Roth’s absurdity due to his restraint and craftmanship with “Knock, Knock”. It’s definitely a well-made guilty pleasure.

Grade: B-

“The Martian”

I almost lost faith in Ridley Scott after seeing “The Counselor” two years ago. I’m so glad that “The Martian” restored my faith in the man because this is not only one of the best movies of the year, but also one of Scott’s best movies ever.

“The Martian” stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars after a mission goes wrong. After his second day of being stranded, he says, “I’m not going to die here,” and immediately begins an epic fight for survival. He finds an innovative and scatological way to grow food, entertains himself with disco music and “Happy Days” reruns, and eventually communicates with Earth, letting his superiors know he survived. NASA, Watney’s team, and eventually the whole world want to help bring Watney home.

What surprised me and charmed me the most about “The Martian” was its cheerful attitude and witty sense of humor. I was expecting something grim and tragic like most of Ridley Scott’s previous works, but this was a nice change for him. It’s also Scott’s most restrained film to date due to his focus on the characters instead of scenery. Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is beautiful to look at, but it’s a rare space odyssey (or Mars odyssey) about characters.

Matt Damon delivers one of his best performances of his entire career. I’ve always liked him, but he reminded me of how charismatic and funny he can be. With his likable personality, he portrays Watney as the most levelheaded and optimistic hero this year (Mad Max would hate him).

This isn’t “Cast Away” on Mars because we spend time on Earth and in space getting to know everyone else involved. And everyone in this movie are just as likable, sassy, and charming as Damon. We have the great Chiwetel Ejiofer as the protagonist on Earth, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Kate Mara as Watney’s team, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels as clashing NASA superiors, and Donald Glover from “Community” as a mad genius engineer.

It’s Drew Goddard’s (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Daredevil” (2015)) confidence and sharp wit that make “The Martian” work so well. We do get a few too many “We can’t do this in X time,” banters, but it’s forgivable. Scott’s grounded direction and change in tone paid off and made me wish I paid more attention in science class.

Grade: A

“Sicario”

Sicario

Emily Blunt’s Kate with her gun ready to fire.

“Sicario” states with a nihilistic tone that the war on drugs will never end and that you have to fight evil with evil. It’s also a very convincing look at how crippling cartel activity is in Mexico.

Emily Blunt stars as Kate; she’s the idealistic cop we’ve seen several times before, who grows cynical and horrified over a case she’s been given. Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are a pair of mercenaries who act as Kate’s superiors; Brolin’s Matt is a smart ass calculating individual whilst Del Toro’s Alejandro is cold, mysterious, and trigger happy. These men are prepared to use Kate to wipe out all cartel leaders while Kate questions their morals.

“Sicario” is the third film I’ve seen of director Denis Villeneuve’s (“Prisoners” (2013),  “Enemy” (2014)), and after seeing “Sicario”, Villeneuve is here to stay. “Sicario” is a cynical masterpiece filled with endless suspense, masterful directing, and excellent performances.

Blunt is Oscar worthy as Kate, delivering a hardened and vulnerable performance. We know she’s going to become jaded by the end of the movie, but we so desperately hope she sees the light. Del Toro is the scene stealer in this movie. He uses his expressive face to bring the morally ambiguous hitman much more depth. And of course, Josh Brolin is always enjoyable to watch.

The execution of “Sicario” makes it look like a dreadful maze. Between the aerial view shots of suburban Arizona and war-torn Juarez, Mexico, we know we’re following Kate into Hell and back. She thinks she’s going into this war for the right cause, not realizing she’s aiding anarchy.

That’s the most haunting part of “Sicario” – there isn’t hope in the war on drugs and the movie perfectly states it in the final act. In season one of “True Detective,” there’s a great line about time being a flat circle and how we’ll always do the same things. This applies perfectly in the final scene of “Sicario”, demonstrating the war on drugs will never end and will only open more doors for it to continue.

Villeneuve continues to handle moral ambiguity very well and the drug war is a perfect topic to practice this storytelling style with.

Grade: A