Dogs, ghosts and that crazy walk

Three films now showing at cinemas across the city

White God.

White God

Starring Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér. Directed by Kornél Mundruczó. At Major Cineplex.

The extraordinary opening sequence of the Hungarian film White God should have you in its claws: a swarming pack of angry dogs chasing a young girl on a bike through the near-empty streets of a deserted city, an image of canine apocalypse at once occult and frightening. It turns out, however, that the girl isn't the target of the charging dogs, honed on bestial revenge, and the rest of the film takes us back to see how man's best friends subvert the hierarchy of the human-animal chain of respect. 

On the surface, this is an anti-Disney film -- an antithesis to Lassie. But perhaps, reading it closely, White God is a refraction of a Disney mythology about noble beasts that end up teaching their human masters a morality lesson -- only that the lesson here concerns poverty, blood, gore and the way civilised society treats its non-human members. Lili is a 13-year-old girl who has a lovely pet called Hagen. But Lili's father doesn't like him, and he forces her to abandon the dog on the street. Reduced to a state of homelessness, Hagen wanders the squalid quarters of Budapest, chased by the city's stray-busters, and captured by a cruel man who trains and turns the polite, tail-wagging dog into a fighting beast.

Through Hagen's journey into the pit of madness, this strange film, directed by Kornél Mundruczó, becomes a thriller, a parable, as well as a tough critique of the way men assume superiority over nature. Hagen becomes a leader of a resistance force made up of stray dogs, which leads us back to the opening scene of the canine stampede and a tale of dogged vendetta. There are scenes of savagery that dog lovers will either recoil from or get fired up by, and while the movie is perhaps too caught up in its own allegorical power, this is a dog film like no others.

The Walk

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

For a full experience, it's best that you watch Robert Zemeckis' The Walk along with the documentary film Man On Wire, which came out in 2008. Both tell the same story of the same man: Philippe Petit, the impish French wire-walker whose breathtaking stunt on Manhattan's Twin Towers in 1974 has to be seen to be believed.

James Marsh's doc, in which Petit's story is constructed from his own recollection as well as from people close to him, gives us an honest portrait of a mercurial, slightly cocky, and yet singular artist with a clear acrobatic conviction, which culminates in his famous (and illegal) walk between the two World Trade Center buildings 41 years ago. Zemeckis' Hollywood film, starring the heavily-accented Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, seems superfluous at first -- a popcorn, affected imitation of a personality -- until the film enters its last act and Zemeckis works wonders with the 3D visual (you should see this on Imax) to give us the stomach-churning joy of vertigo as Petit performs his historic walk.

In fact, the Zemeckis film contains most of the details that we've already learned from the documentary: Petit's teenage interest in the high-wire act; his first spotting of the World Trade Center, then still under construction, in a magazine in a dentist's waiting room; how he meets his lover and accomplice Annie (Charlotte Le Bon); and the best part: the home-made subterfuge of the crew to evade the security and sneak Petit up to the roof for his unauthorised performance. Gordon-Levitt, in that wig and French accent as he narrates his character's life story, can be quite a test if you're not his fan, but between the easy philosophising and celebratory tone, the film has the visual thrill that proves why some movies still need to be seen on the big screen.

Crimson Peak.

Crimson Peak

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddlestone, Jessica Chastain. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak is a pop-Gothic horror. Yes, it draws from old-school masters of haunted-house literature, from Sheridan Le Fanu to Poe to Henry James (The Turn Of The Screw), starched and elegant, and yet it also revels in B-movie gore, in winking self-references and bright-hued hi-trash. It has Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain clad in a dazzling fantasia of late 19th-century wardrobe, and it also has croaking, crawling ghouls dripping with blood. Plus a couple of grisly murders. "Ghosts are real," Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) announces at the beginning. An aspiring writer, the young woman also describes the manuscript of a story she hopes to get published: "It's not a ghost story, but it has ghosts in it." That, you can tell, is what Crimson Peak is about, too.

Daughter of a Boston industrialist, Edith is seduced by a visiting English aristocrat and amateur inventor, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, handsome and pallid). Despite her father's disapproval -- and after a bloodied complication -- the lovers get married and move back to Thomas' handsomely derelict castle in rural England, where they share the space with Thomas' sister, the cold and mysterious Lucille (Chastain). This castle is a ruined splendour, a baroque cemetery of elaborate staircases, murky corridors, and an iron-cast elevator going down to the creepy basement. Most wonderfully, this mansion has a big hole in the roof -- Thomas and Lucille are running out of money for proper upkeep -- through which leaves and snow cascade down like confetti in an endless nightmare.

There's a touch of Bluebeard here, as well as an updated stylisation of the 1930s Hammer films (think Bela Lugosi). But Crimson Peak is not just a cheap pastiche of its many influences; it shows Del Toro's love for unabashed exploitation flicks and his fascination with the things that glitter in the dark. It compensates for its lack of psychological finesse (this is from the director of Pan's Labyrinth, a horror fantasy and a critique of authoritarianism) by the lush visuals that background this grotesque romance. There's a lot of crimson in this delicious tale, and we're happy to savour it all.

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