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: Nocturnal Animals

4 12 2016

Did I outsmart “Nocturnal Animals,” or is it just a fairly surface-level psychological thriller? Both – or neither – may be true. But the longer I sat watching Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow taking in the manuscript of her ex-husband, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Edward Sheffield, the more I wondered if this was really it.

Director and adapter Tom Ford names both Kubrick and Hitchcock as influences on the film, and it shows in his meticulous attention to the organization of the frame and the calibrated cutting between them, respectively. He deftly cross-cuts between three storylines: the events leading up to the relationship fissure between Susan and Edward, the visualization of Edward’s novel that blows up the essence of their acrimonious split into a Western revenge tale centered around the taunting and torturing of an emasculated family man, and then Susan reading the text and carrying the weight of those words through her jaded days as a Los Angeles art dealer in decline. When the biggest problem is selling the 36-year-old Gyllenhaal and 42-year-old Adams as old enough to have been split for 20 years, that’s a good sign that a lot is working correctly.

But once the connection becomes clear that the novel is a roman à clef about the effects of the divorce on Edward, the pressure mounts for “Nocturnal Animals” to do something more with its intertwined narrative. For the most part, Ford keeps it fairly straightforward. The beautiful surfaces do say so much about the characters, particularly Susan’s sterile, well-coiffed home and wardrobe that reflect the belying calm facade she presents to the world.

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REVIEW: Loving

21 11 2016

I’m of the mindset that historical dramas and social issues pieces, often derided as self-important and grandiose, are getting better. Films like “Spotlight,” “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” have dramatized America’s past with unflinching honesty and aesthetic rigor. Yet there is still a straw man of the prestige picture that looms in the critical imagination, and Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” seems to exist in stark contrast to this imagined bundle of clichés.

Nichols runs counter to so many impulses dominating filmmaking that historicizes the contemporary. Without belittling the importance of belaboring the significance of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose arrest led to a Supreme Court case overturning bans on interracial marriage, he moves the political steadfastly back into the realm of the personal. The simple elegance of “Loving” is evident in every scene of Joel Edgerton’s Richard returning to lay bricks and every disapproving gaze from their provincial Virginian neighbors. Society is slow to change, attitudes are tough to dislodge, but sometimes unsuspecting individuals like the Lovings can help turn the tide in our culture with their radical ordinariness.

Perhaps one of Nichols’ boldest casting choices was selecting Nick Kroll (yes, The Douche from “Parks & Recreation”) as Bernie Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who helps guide the Lovings’ case all the way to the highest court in the land. It’s more than stunt casting or going boldly against type like Seth Rogen did in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” Kroll’s instinct to play his scenes with the Lovings as incredulity underscored with comedy helps tremendously to enhance the realism of the moment. Richard and Mildred were not dying to become star defendants in a landmark case. They find themselves, reluctantly, at the center of history after Mildred (Ruth Negga) writes what she assumes is a throwaway letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Their naïveté about the role they can come to play in American racial dynamics is almost ridiculous, both to Cohen and to a present-day audience.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 9, 2016)

9 06 2016

Young OnesThe recent hiring trend for studio tentpoles has been to pluck indie directors from obscurity, combining their strong imaginative knack with their weak negotiating power and strong incentive to roll over and obey for the career boost. Some of these moves make a lot of sense (Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) while others still feel strange, like transitioning Colin Trevorrow from “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World” or Marc Webb from “(500) Days of Summer” to the “Spider-Man” reboot.

I find it rather shocking that Jake Paltrow is hitting the press tour this week touting a new documentary about Brian De Palma (co-directed with the venerable Noah Baumbach) and not talking about some massive franchise flick. His prior film, 2014’s sci-fi/western “Young Ones,” plays like the perfect audition tape for a hit factory. The way he conjures an entire desert world on a small budget recalls some of Tatooine from George Lucas’ original “Star Wars.”

But this economy of scale and maximizing of impact alone is not the reason for choosing “Young Ones” as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” (As is customary at the beginning of the month, I’ll remind you that “F.I.L.M.” is a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.) Neither is it because the film features odd flourishes of De Palma-esque style, if you know to look for it – particularly during exciting or charged moments.

No, it’s because Paltrow takes the time to craft an intriguing human story in an environment where the dystopian agrarian society might overwhelm character. “Young Ones” puts interpersonal conflict first and foremost, pitting parents against children, families against outsiders, and even siblings against each other. Protection and survival guide most actions from Michael Shannon’s patriarch Ernest Holm and his son, Kodi Smit McPhee’s Jerome.

The real attention-grabber, however, is Nicholas Hoult as Flem Lever, who makes a deceitful journey from boy to man at the Holm family expense. He assumes the role of a patrician in a manner befitting “The Godfather,” although the frequent slow pushes Paltrow has director of photography Giles Nuttgens executes does recall Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” Flem seizes power far more frequently than he earns it, which puts him at odds with the more earnest Jerome.

But rather than devolve into shouting matches or stylized fighting, “Young Ones” simply lets their struggles play out naturally. Paltrow relies on the cut and the implication to convey what an action set piece would otherwise show. As blockbusters get noisier and more frenetic, executives ought to give this film (and filmmaker) another look if they want to appeal to a pendulum potentially swinging back the other way.

 





REVIEW: Elvis & Nixon

18 04 2016

Elvis and NixonDirector Liza Johnson has a tendency not to go for the easy laughs, perhaps even to the detriment of the films. In 2014’s “Hateship Loveship,” she almost never allowed Kristen Wiig’s pathetic protagonist to become the butt of the joke, even as she gets mercilessly pranked by a child half her age. Similarly, in “Elvis & Nixon,” the first name mentioned in this meeting of the minds seems ripe for humor at the expense of his larger-than-life persona.

Yet the comedy never really comes out of what feels like an easy farce. Johnson opts for a tone more dramatically oriented where the laughs feel incidental, not the very foundation of the film itself. She deserves a certain amount of respect for taking a more difficult path, but the question of “why?” does loom rather large. “Elvis & Nixon” is a glorified made-for-TV movie (perhaps not coincidentally, Amazon Studios is handling the film and giving it a relatively half-hearted theatrical release) which goes for entertainment value over thematic articulation each chance it gets. Her will for the film seems to clash with its essence.

Johnson seems to genuinely care for the characters, particularly Elvis Presley, played by Michael Shannon in the same way Michael Fassbender portrayed Steve Jobs: conceptual over essential. Sideburns and sunglasses might be his get-up, though Elvis is a walking meditation on celebrity more than anything else. For reasons that seem partially out of genuine concern and partially out of a “Make America Great Again”-style quest for greater societal repute, Elvis decides he wants to become a Federal Deputy At-Large to crack down on the drugs messing with kids’ minds. To do so, he feels the need to engage President Richard Nixon, performed by Kevin Spacey as a variation of Frank Underwood that spent significantly less time on the row machine.

The film is essentially just the lead-up to their meeting and then the meeting itself, nothing more or less. It’s simple and to the point, which proves both a strength and a weakness. Strong when considering how streamlined the whole operation is (“Elvis & Nixon” runs a slender 86 minutes) yet weak when contemplating all the threads of minor storylines that never get the development they deserve.

This is mainly disappointing for Alex Pettyfer, an actor in the midst of mounting a comeback after on-set drama with “Magic Mike” got him blackballed in the industry. As Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ right hand man, he must learn the consequences of his loyalty as they place a great strain on personal relationships. Too bad the film grants him such second fiddle status that his struggles feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of the narrative. B-2stars





REVIEW: Midnight Special

9 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine at SXSW comparing “Midnight Special” to Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Midnight Special” owes a great debt to widely recognized commercial filmmaking styles of the 1980s – chiefly, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Nichols makes no secret of his artistic touchstones for the film, even ribbing before the SXSW premiere screening that the poster “shamelessly rips off Spielberg.”

The film has many thrilling and breathtaking moments that deserve recognition as creations of Nichols’ and his creative team in their own right. Several crew members stuck with him through many projects for the past decade, which saw the director make the leap from $250,000 indies to $20 million studio fare. In his fairly unsubtle homages to films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which was released in 1978, to be fair), “E.T.” and “Starman,” Nichols grants them a kind of aesthetic supremacy in his yearning for the paradise lost of this post-New Hollywood era.

This very specific window of studio filmmaking, after the “Movie Brats” took power but before the dawn of nonstop CGI interference, found a satisfying balance between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction. Nichols employs his post-“Mud” goodwill to attempt a return to such a happy median, injecting the American indie sensibility into Spielbergian conventions of storytelling and presentation. He favors suspense over scares and restraint over excess, in everything from Adam Stone’s measured cinematography to David Wingo’s affecting score.

These interventions revise – and perhaps even formalistically improve upon – the foundations of ‘80s commercial cinema. But the vague plot and characterization, along with the more complex tonalities, are to “Midnight Special” what the non-animatronic monster was to J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” That is to say, these aspects appropriated from modern filmmaking belie the original films being referenced and just throw into stark relief how the new creations are not like their forbearers.

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INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.