REVIEW: The Shape of Water

4 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

Guillermo del Toro may very well be cinema’s reigning master of monster mythology. Like few others, he understands the way that fantasy can speak to cultural hopes and fears — escapism is important if a filmmaker can locate where people want to escape to and why. “The Shape of Water” certainly helps make the case for his status at the top of the heap as he probes Kennedy-era America, a time that produced both the glimmering beacon of the Space Race and the combustible cocktail of civil rights.

Del Toro’s latest film comes straight from the “Pan’s Labyrinth mold, another fairytale with the look and feel of a cinematic storybook. Del Toro can always be counted on to provide masterful craftsmanship, even when his genre fusion and revisionism does not entirely cohere. Mercifully, it does here … for the most part.

“The Shape of Water” flows most smoothly and beautifully when focused on the primary blossoming love story between Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor Eliza and Doug Jones’ amphibious creature listed in the credits only as “The Asset.” Most characters in the film do not provide such a generous epithet for him, though, with Michael Shannon’s stern security guard Strickland simply referring to the classified experiment as an “affront.” There’s no object in his description, just a noun speaking to his abhorrence.

Eliza finds no such disgust in the swimming mystery from the moment The Asset’s tank is wheeled into her damp, dimly lit government laboratory in Baltimore. Like many a great romance, a sense of shared alienation from society at large draws the two lovers closer together. As entities struggling to be heard and understood — her due to lack of voice, him due to lack of others listening — they forge a bond both spiritual and sensual. Yes, you read that last word right.

As someone still recovering from the bizarre man-genetic experiment sex scene in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film “Splice,” I approach most interspecies couplings onscreen with a fair amount of trepidation. To del Toro’s credit, the pairing never feels gross in the slightest because he approaches their love with a disarmingly tender earnestness. He’s pulling from screen musicals as much as science-fiction in their relationship, a pairing which at first seems odd until del Toro finds the common ground in their use of dream-like spaces to find the fulfillment that escapes star-crossed lovers in reality.

It’s a remarkable change of pace to see a film embracing the idea that love can fear and confront other obstacles without seeming hopelessly naïve. Between del Toro, James Gray and many other unabashed classicists practicing at high levels, perhaps the pendulum can swing back away from the pervasive irony in which our culture is currently steeped. (Although del Toro does display an instinct for dry humor that gives his vintage style an edgy kick.)

If “The Shape of Water” were purely focused on Eliza and the creature with deity-like properties, it would be a pure shot of cinematic ecstasy. But del Toro makes the waters a little choppy by raising what should be subplots to the level of co-equal narrative threads. Shannon becomes the de facto villain of the film as a watchman who develops a fixation on slaying the monster for… no entirely cogent reason. Sure, he loses two fingers in an early altercation with the creation, rendering him mentally cuckolded, yet even the most furious rage of Shannon’s performance cannot distract from the poor character development. A whole narrative thread with Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hoffstetler serving as a covert spy also serves little purpose in the grand scheme of the film, only really establishing the era’s geopolitical stakes.

None of this negates the delicate power of Eliza’s love story. It does, however, hold the film back from achieving the purity and simplicity of the folkloric ends to which it strives. B

NOTE: This review originally ran on Vague Visages.

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REVIEW: Breathe

2 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

“Breathe” is pretty much everything you’d expect of it – little more, little less. If you love stately, mannered British period dramas, you might enjoy it more than I did. In my opinion, the main highlight is Andrew Garfield, perhaps our greatest working humanist actor. He just breathes (pun fully intended) so much life into a character with such intense restrictions on his performance that it’s remarkable to observe, quality of movie aside. As I said in my review…

Unsurprisingly, Garfield nails the immediate micro-level specificity necessitated by portraying someone with such a debilitating condition. He’s robbed of so many key acting tools: the scope to take in an entire scene, the ability to react in full, the emphasis in his extremities. Yet within this tightly proscribed frame, Garfield still manages the full expressive capabilities for which has garnered great acclaim. In Breathe, he captures that same moving range from elation to depression.

For Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson, the real story of Robin Cavendish is not a tale cut in the mold of a “Great Man” biopic. Robin does not strive to achieve the extraordinary. He merely wishes to reestablish the ordinary, a feat practically unthinkable in the mid-20th century. People in his condition simply did not exist outside of hospitals. Plugged into a respirator that does all the breathing for him, Robin always remains no more than two minutes away from death were the machine to stop operating. Rather than resigning himself to waste away on a stationary cot, he enlists his devoted wife Diana (played by Claire Foy) and many other ingenious friends to invent the tools necessary to enable the life few imagined was possible.

It’s also intriguing to think that while this is technically Andy Serkis’ debut feature, he directed it after his take on “The Jungle Book.” I might have to reassess “Breathe” in light of that film when it comes out. B-

Read my full review on Slashfilm.

 





REVIEW: Battle of the Sexes

1 10 2017

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

Battle of the Sexes

One aspect of “Battle of the Sexes” getting lost amidst the gendered 2016 election comparisons is the film’s queer storyline. It was important that Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King was a woman facing Steve Carell’s misogynist Bobby Riggs, but as the 1973 public did not know, it was important that she was a queer woman. King was living a lie to herself and her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) because the world was simply not ready to accept a prominent lesbian athlete. (It’s used against King by one of her pious teammates as blackmail, another sad reminder that not every woman abides by the tenets of feminism.)

As I wrote in my full review, “It’s important ‘Battle of the Sexes’ included Marilyn [King’s lover, played by Andrea Riseborough] – to reduce her role or eliminate her altogether would have been nothing short of erasure.” But while their love story might not function smoothly as a romantic subplot, it does open a window into the quiet dignity of a still very underground LGBT community. (Most notable among them is Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the women’s costumer.) In particular, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pick up on the incognito communication they use to keep each other safe and covered. These observations are perceptive, and they seem like just nice moments until a surprisingly walloping emotional coda that I dare not spoil consummates them into something more.

Also, Sarah Silverman should only play sleazy promoters/publicists moving forward. Between this and “Popstar,” she’s found her perfect type. B+

Read my full review on Slashfilm.





REVIEW: Gook

19 08 2017

Justin Chon’s “Gook” is a film brimming with insight, energy and anger – but ultimately one without the resources or the know-how to make the Molotov cocktail of ideas combust. The story of understanding across generations and races as the 1992 Los Angeles riots come to a head has undeniable sincerity and good intentions. It also bears the marks of a novice filmmaker, veering wildly between the poles of undercooked and overwrought.

In addition to his roles behind the camera, Chon also stars as the protagonist of “Gook,” shoe store owner Eli. Over the course of a sweltering summer day, he must deal with his lazy brother, a bitter cashier across the street and the 11-year-old black girl Kamilla intent on hanging by his side. The film is best when it simply allows his harried day to play out, giving us a look into the overstretched Eli’s attempts to please everyone around him while still making enough money to keep his business open.

But everything else in “Gook” gets a little sloppy, including the incorporation of the riots that give the film its gravitas. These tense conflicts loom in the background and bear on the plot, yet the way they made an entire city combustible doesn’t quite seep into every nook and cranny of the film. It’s little more than a nice backdrop, in other words.

Chon’s film includes highly stylized moments that feel ripped out of a Kendrick Lamar music video, most notably the scenes where time seems to stand still – and Kamilla dances with the abandon of someone who has just learned the true meaning of freedom. His script also works in plenty of on-the-nose dialogue exchanges between Eli and his elders. He’s got talents in both fields, but their juxtaposition in “Gook” simply doesn’t work. The solution? Let Chon make two more movies where he’s allowed to explore each side of his filmmaking persona to its logical end. B-





REVIEW: Marjorie Prime

18 08 2017

Jon Hamm is just sitting on the couch when Michael Almereyda’s “Marjorie Prime” begins. There’s something wooden about him in an intentionally uncanny valley kind of way, like an automaton Don Draper. As it turns out, he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter – kept at a much riper age than her current 86 years young.

Walter simultaneously assists in the psychological comforting of a fraying Marjorie (Lois Smith) and assuaging of guilt for her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). They must still tend to her physically, of course, but Walter can perform some heavy emotional lifting to ease their burden. Among the science-fiction genre, this speculative future looks like it could be closer to fact. With a population of Baby Boomers quickly graying, the promise of AI could free their offspring from providing extensive care through the ultimate act of outsourcing.

The twist in “Marjorie Prime,” though, is that Walter is only as good as Marjorie allows him to be. His technology depends on her willing disclosure of memories, which may not even be entirely accurate. At many points in the film, it’s unclear whether Walter is wrong or if Marjorie’s own mind has failed her.

Most of these tricky contradictions come from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jordan Harrison which Almereyda adapts into little more than filmed theater. “Marjorie Prime” plods along patiently with the deliberate pacing of a stage show but sorely lacking the human connection normally provided by live actors moving through a space. On screen, the main value of Almereyda’s film seems to be the democratization of the ideas contained within the play through the mass medium of cinema. The over-literalization brought to the text through the magic of cinema removes some of the abstraction, and thus some of the mystique. C+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 17, 2017)

17 08 2017

Sean Baker might be our most essential contemporary humanist filmmaker. He locates the beating heart of his films not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His works start in one place and end in someplace altogether different and unexpected, leaving us all the better for having walked two hours in his characters’ shoes.

His 2012 feature “Starlet” is no different. While my first impression upon encountering the film back in 2013 was that the film was sweet but a little slight, a second watch recently convinced me otherwise. This is more than just a May-December platonic friendship between two women in Los Angeles. It’s a moving journey of how people can clear away the calcified numbness in their hearts.

The central character of this selection in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column is Dree Hemingway’s 21-year-old Jane, an actress down on luck and short on cash. She gets a welcome snap out of her boredom when she unexpectedly stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman, Besedka Johnson’s Sadie, at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself – but also makes attempts to befriend Sadie to assuage her guilt.

The two initially take to each other like oil and water, but each has a cloistered part of their identity that leaves them with a void in their day-to-day existences. Gradually, and heartwarmingly, they begin to fill that space. We see more of Jane’s alternative world, as she’s the protagonist, and Baker finds a visual schema that represents the two discordant spheres she inhabits. Her home life is filled with hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, while her visits with Sadie are comprised of more stable shots and longer takes. I won’t spoil what exactly makes Jane’s personal struggles so turbulent and simply let the film reveal it. Baker drops a detail that would define any other character so casually about halfway through the film; it’s a refreshing change of pace for this type of figure who traditionally never amounts to anything other than the work she does.





REVIEW: The Wound

16 08 2017

At least for now, it’s taken as an assumption that most queer cinema will take place against the background of a heteronormative society. Few visualize it like John Trengove’s “The Wound,” a drama set in among a South African tribe participating in a male circumcision ritual. The first love scene between two men is shot from a dispassionate distance where thrusting is but the motion of a few pixels, and a scene of fellatio shortly after takes place in such dark silhouettes that individuating features are not discernible. These actions is so forbidden and their pleasures so taboo that what we see is little more than bodies in motion.

When we’re closer to two men’s physical intimacy, Trengove shows us the effects of a hypermasculine culture on the lovers. Two people who feel a deep emotional bond do not always feel comfortable enough in their own bodies to express that, so we see a lot of uncomfortable and awkward groping, grasping and grabbing. It’s like watching a surrender to primal urges, stripped from any kind of notions of romance or sensuality.

“The Wound” is less compelling when these characters try to awkwardly integrate in with their more macho companions in the tribe. Trengove does astutely observe the ways that homoeroticism thrives in homophobic spaces; for example, several young men expose their genitalia to each other from behind towels to compare unit length but throw around anti-gay epithets at will. Yet his film operates better with themes than it does with people. The central love triangle is poorly defined, and the other characters are mere caricatures. B-