Archive for November, 2015

“Our Brand is Crisis” is a fictionalized version of real events in Bolivia which were the subject of a documentary with the same title that was released 10 years earlier.  The new fictional film is a political comedy with dramatic elements that is clearly seeking inspiration from “Wag the Dog” and “Primary Colors”.  Those earlier films had varying levels of success (“Wag” falls apart as it becomes more dramatic later on, and “Primary” is so unabashedly pro-Clinton that it’s almost an embarrassment), but “Crisis” doesn’t even reach those, probably because it really shouldn’t be a comedy.  The original documentary was not some Michael Moore-esque comedic non-fiction film that viewed horrible events through a comedic lens. No, that original documentary was an indictment of how American political consultants go into a third world country and use their own skeevy tactics to help elect a pro-U.S. asshole because, hey, America knows what’s best for the rest of the world.  The United States has consistently meddled in the affairs of Latin America, propping up despot dictators who are friendly to us even as they’re brutal to their own people, but that level of imperialism these days is reserved for the Middle East.  What the documentary showed is that military imperialism has given way to the imperialism of propaganda, but the United States is still trying to tell the third world that we know what’s best for them and they themselves don’t know what’s good for them.  The condescension is infuriating.

 

A little background may be needed.  In 2002 there was an election for the presidency of Bolivia, a poor Latin American country that really couldn’t be called a democracy until the 1980s.  An unpopular, pro-West and pro-Capitalism former president named Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Goni) was running a distant third behind two other candidates, one of whom, Evo Morales, was a Socialist.  The main issue of the election seemed to be that Goni wanted to have private companies from abroad come in to extract and sell the countries plentiful Natural Gas supply.  Morales, in addition to supporting the coca growers and the disenfranchised indigenous population, wanted to keep private outside investors away, and have the supply of Natural Gas, and the profits from it, in control of the people of the country.  Goni, who grew up mostly in the United States, hired an American political consulting firm and, with their skills, framed a narrative of Goni as a tough guy who was the only one capable of handling the nation’s economic crisis.  Hence, their brand was crisis.  Eventually, Goni was able to get a narrow victory, but his actions as president proved so unpopular that he had to flee the country.  Bolivia is still in dire straits all these years later, but Morales has been president there since 2006.

 

The new, fictionalized film tells these events a little differently.  Goni has been morphed into a character named Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) and two real candidates, Morales and Manfred Reyes Villa, have been morphed into a single opposing candidate, Rivera (Louis Arcella).  The issue n the film is not Natural gas, but rather whether the new president will accept loans from the IMF (not the spy agency from “Mission: Impossible”, but the real life International Monetary Fund) and encourage more private enterprise.  This issue is a bit more modern as the countries in Europe that are growing increasingly leftist, be it Greece or Portugal, are the ones that the IMF bailed out following the 2008 financial crisis and subject to severe austerity because of the terms of those bail outs.  In the film, it’s clear that the people of the country do not want IMF intervention, but Castillo does, even if he won’t admit it to the people.

The film’s major misstep is making this film about a single political consultant, Jane, played by Sandra Bullock.  The real story, of both the documentary and the film, should be about outsiders manipulating a populous into voting against their own beliefs (and, arguable, self-interest) and to vote for the interests of other rich, imperialist nations.  If you can’t control by force, control by manipulation and the illusion of choice.  Granted, the new film becomes a drama in the last 20 minutes and makes an unusually anti-American, anti-Capitalist message for an American film, but for the rest of its running time the film is oddly concerned with a personal vendetta Jane has with another political consultant, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, who played a James Carville stand-in in “Primary Colors”).  In real life, no other candidate except Goni used political consultants, and the new film choosing to give a consultant to the populist makes it seem like both candidates are just as dirty, which undercuts the film’s message of letting Latin America choose its own destiny, but is necessary for the comedic rivalry narrative that the film wants to tell.  Since Thornton reminds us of Carville, both because he played him, more or less, before and because Thornton is bald and looks vaguely like the guy, it can be confusing since it was Carville’s consulting firm that worked for Goni in real life.

 

The rivalry in the film, and the focus on Jane as a flawed and messed up character, is kind of boring.  The film, at the beginning, spends way too much time on an unfunny gag of Jane needing to be on an oxygen tank because of Bolivia’s elevation, and too much time on her addiction to potato chips.  Jane is a character in the obnoxious mold of Julia Robert’s version of Erin Brockovich or Bullock’s own character from “The Blind Side”.  Apparently, likeable actresses with bad blonde dye jobs telling poor people what’s good for them is an archetype we have to deal with now, and it’s grating as all hell.  There are some genuinely funny moments, like when Jane feeds a line to Candy that she claims is from “Faust” so that Candy will steal it for his candidate to say, only for the quote to really come from Nazi Joseph Goebbels. The problem is that the drama, and this story, is far more compelling when the made-up rivalry storyline takes a backseat and we’re just left with this outsiders-forcing-their-will-on-others storyline.  We get some nice moments when young Bolivians are aware of the bullshit Adam Smith concept of “the invisible hand” from “Wealth of Nations” and dismiss it.  We have a moment where the consultants are all waiting in traffic, bored, talking about their next assignments in disinterested fashion as the country erupts in turmoil around them, based on their actions.  There’s some good drama and political messages in the film, and some moments of comedy are funny, but they each belong in different movies, and the comedy should really be about a made up country and made up election, not a thinly disguised version of real events that had disastrous consequences still being felt today in that country.  Remember, Bolivia is the country where Che Guevara was attempting to lead a revolution, only to be executed by the American-backed military dictatorship of that country and the CIA.  This, like many Latin America countries, has been harmed by the United States’ actions towards it, and even if the film is supportive of the people of the country now, making their real life troubles into a joke about two Americans in a rivalry, complete with stupid scenes where a drunken Jane catapults doll heads through Candy’s hotel room window, is kind of disrespectful.

 

The film was directed by David Gordon Green, who started his career making dramas like “George Washington” (not about the president) and “All The Real Girls”, but has lately made his career mostly making dumb comedies with the Judd Apatow reparatory group of actors, such as “Pineapple Express”, “Your Highness”, and “The Sitter”.  He’s made some dramas since, but they’ve largely gone direct to VOD and are unseen by me.  “Our Brand is Crisis” seems to be Green attempting to combine his broad comedy WITH his smaller, often sad dramas, and they are not meshed well here.  This film feels like two different films Frankenstein-ed together, and he does not pull off the tonal transitioning well at all.  The writer, Peter Straughan, wrote the political comedy “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and the British spy drama “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy”, which was based on a novel, so he has written political comedies and dramas before but, again, the struggle between the two different genres wrenches this film apart.

 

Since I happen to like political films in general, and because I appreciate the anti-Capitalist, anti-U.S. imperialism message of the film, I liked “Our Brand is Crisis” more than the film deserves to be liked.  The documentary upon which it is based is excellent and should be required viewing in Political Science courses, but the new film uses an interesting and unfortunate real life story, and turns it into a cartoon about a blonde American lady hating a bald American guy, until the film does an about-face and becomes a drama at the very end.  The problem is, after Sandra Bullock’s butt double has hung her ass out of a bus window, you’ve kind of tainted yourself as a film with a serious message.  C+

 

 

“Crimson Peak” is a visually stunning film. You could pause any single frame of the film and that frame would very likely be worthy of hanging in your living room as a fine art piece.  Like many of Guillermo del Toro’s films, it is a feast for the eyes, and you feel almost exhausted as you watch the film because you can tell an extraordinary amount of hard work went into the production design, art direction, costumes, lighting, color timing, and camerawork.  The problem I have with “Crimson Peak” is the same problem I have with most of del Toro’s films, and that is simply that del Toro is an excellent director, but a mediocre screenwriter, and he seems to insist on directing films he also has a hand in writing. Admittedly, I have not seen the Spanish-language films that are considered his best, “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, so perhaps a lower budget and his native language result in better stories from del Toro, but it’s almost a shame that my favorite film of del Toro’s is “Blade II”, the one film he’s directed that he had no hand in writing.

“Crimson Peak” isn’t what I would call a poorly-written film.  It has an entertaining story, satisfactorily developed characters for the genre, and for at least the first half of the film it seems like del Toro is making a political commentary about class structure.  Specifically, about the dying aristocracy of England giving way to the slightly more work-create Gilded Age of pre-WWI America (the film takes place sometime in very early 1900s).  The film is also attempting to be more gender-forward with a protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) who is attempting to be respected female author and cut her own path in life.  One thinks of Mary Shelley, who is name-checked in the film, who wrote “Frankenstein” and was originally published anonymously in 1818 because a woman author writing such a story was unheard of.  We also think of Jane Austin watching the film, as her works were very much considered with class and land ownership, though we associate her work nowadays more by the romantic aspects.  Perhaps Thomas Piketty’s use of her work in analyzing economic inequality will change some aspects of scholarship of her work.  In any event, “Crimson Peak” for a little while plays as a dark twist on Austin in a more serious way than, say, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” could ever be.  Edith is headstrong and independent, but still falls for a handsome, aristocratic gentleman in Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet who is traveling the world to seek financing for a machine that help him mine the red clay underneath his manor and revive his family’s dwindling fortune.  Despite Sharpe being on hard times, he is still a handsome and somewhat moneyed man, and despite being independent and intelligent, Edith still falls for him for shallow, girlish reasons, perhaps with a tinge of pity toward him.

Thomas comes with more than just financial baggage, however.  He also has a sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who has resting-murder-face and seems like she’s allergic to any emotion beyond anger and resentment.  Her dialogue is constantly underscored with barely masked contempt for all around her and seething with passive-aggressiveness.  In addition, Edith’s rich father, Carter (Jim Beaver) doesn’t respect Thomas for inheriting his wealth as opposed to “earning” it, and certainly doesn’t approve of Thomas’s affections for his daughter.  Then there’s the handsome ophthalmologist, Alan (Charlie Hunnam) who obviously has a thing for Edith, but too much of either fear or respect to explicitly state his affections to her.

By this point in the plot summary, you are probably confused, having heard that “Crimson Peak” is a horror film and not a Victorian Romance.  Well, “Crimson Peak” has certain visual tropes of a horror film, specifically the old haunted house films of the 1950s and the silent horror films of the early 1900s like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, and it does feature some ghosts, but “Crimson Peak” is not really a horror movie.  The script, in a groan-inducing way, actually had Edith speak the line (referring to the novel she’s written) “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it.”  I guess del Toro holds American audiences in as low regard as I do.  The ghosts themselves serve to give vague clues to Edith, pushing her to uncover the mystery of who the Sharpe siblings really are, and where there true motives lay.  As always, we’re left to wonder why, if ghosts can talk to living people, they don’t just plainly state their message, but instead give obtuse warnings dripping with dread?

The plot twists of the film are largely predictable and telegraphed quite early.  While the film attempts to do more than simply tell it’s story, the commentary about class pretty much disappears the second the action movies from New York to England, and the attempts to make a feminist statement are undercut by Edith spending time as a damsel in distress, and Lucille being ultimately portrayed as pure crazy and a force that hurts and subdues the main man in her life (Thomas), and having most of the female characters’ actions revolve around this callow man. Sorry del Toro, but simply having your main female character take charge in a sex scene and ride her man is not enough to make your film feminist when your main character goes googly-eyed over a handsome stranger for no other reason than he’s handsome, and your other main female character is a paragon of feminine insanity.  At least it passes the Bechdel Test.

Del Toro’s most well-regarded film is arguably “Pan’s Labyrinth”, a film in the genre of magical realism that takes place during the Spanish Civil War and fits into the genre of films like “The Tin Drum” and “Life is Beautiful” where kids have a hard time dealing with cruel world events and are sheltered from them or escape them.  While many loved the film, I didn’t think the realistic elements and the fantastical elements meshed very well, and while the film was admirably ambitious, it suffered from the stitching together what should have been two separate films.  “Crimson Peak” suffers because it feels like del Toro is forcing horror elements on a film that should have simply been a dark drama.  If this material had been dealt with a drama, it could have given up trying to make the predictable plot twists hidden from the audience, and just allowed the audience to have full knowledge and kept the twists from the characters.  Also, if del Toro had done more to deconstruct the Victorian novel and/or continued to make the film comment on the erosion of class or the transfer of the power of Capital from one nation to another, there might have been something here.  Instead, we simply have a beautiful-looking, predictable mystery film that fails at some lofty ambitions but is entertaining and pretty while it unfolds.

I wish del Toro’s filmography wasn’t full of films that are almost-great but fail from an inadequate screenplay. The “Hellboy” films are similarly visually inventive but lackluster on a story level.  If del Toro really wants to make a kick-ass horror movie, he should combine his talents with a suitable writer who could dream up the visuals for del Toro to execute, but also write a story that says something. Imagine if Clive Barker wrote a script and del Toro directed it?  Wouldn’t that be the perfect team?  As it is, del Toro did co-write “Crimson Peak” with Matthew Robbins, with whom he wrote the ill-fated “Mimic” with, but having a writing partner wasn’t enough to overcome del Toro’s inherent flaws as a writer.

“Crimson Peak” is worth seeing solely for the visuals.  This is a gorgeous movie.  The script doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the film, but it does drag the great visuals down because if these visuals were combined with a great script, you’d have one of the best films of the year.  Instead, we have a feast for the eyes accompanying an enjoyable but forgettable story that tries to infuse itself with interesting messages and themes, but fails. You can’t blame del Toro for trying, but one hopes he lets someone else write his films for him. B.