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: Miss Sloane

9 12 2016

“Lobbying is about foresight,” observes Jessica Chastain’s high-powered Washington lobbyist Liz Sloane at the outset of “Miss Sloane.” It’s a statement she delivers in direct address to the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. Such a revelation recalls a magician movie like “The Prestige” or “Now You See Me” more than a garden-variety political thriller.

Indeed, the intrigue in “Miss Sloane” plays like an inside-the-Beltway tale of congressional arm-twisting, fundraising wizardry and reality manipulation through the media. We’re very well aware of the fact that the movie is working one step ahead of us, that another shoe is always ready to drop in the next scene. For those willing to accept that each conclusion will be overturned by a future development, the film plays like a snappy tale of intrigue.

While the heightened political gamesmanship can lead the film to some hammy acting and some soapbox script moments, “Miss Sloane” is a remarkably grounded film about the cost of principles in the sludge of the system. Chastain’s Sloane is a remarkable figure – a pro-business conservative with a George W. Bush photo on her mantle who, for a complex web of reasons, decides to take on a challenging job lobbying for common-sense gun safety measures. With a Blackberry as her third hand, she chips away at the Senate deadlock on the issue until she very nearly fractures it.

Chastain is one of the industry’s most vocal feminist activists, now working behind the scenes to put the stories about women she wants to see into the culture. “Miss Sloane” is probably her most successful work to date in this regard (perhaps excepting “Zero Dark Thirty“). The film portrays an environment controlled by crusty old white men and the effect it has on limiting the roles available to women and tailoring the expectations they set for themselves. There’s no need to declare “FEMINIST” in bold letters, much less #ImWithHer. The understanding of gender is baked into every scene of Jonathan Perera’s script.

That extends to Sloane’s final speech, a contemporary Capra monologue that coats American idealism in the appropriate cynicism of the moment. Gone are the innocent outsiders of old affecting change by holding onto their flyover-state romanticism. Instead, the film suggests, we might need someone entrenched in the slime of the Hill to bring about the will of the people. In which case, the fits of Sorkin-esque shine in “Miss Sloane” make perfect sense. B+3stars





REVIEW: Arrival

13 11 2016

Fantastic Fest

Sometimes great films do more than change our thoughts. They change our way of thinking. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is one such film, reorienting our relationship with time and communication to jarring, enlightening effect. The only other recent comparison possible is a Christopher Nolan film: “Memento” or “Interstellar.”

The film attempts an ambitious coup that should be experienced, not described. But it spoils little to say that the ingenious storytelling from Eric Heisserer, adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, disorients a viewer to a point where entire sections of the film can come under reconsideration. By way of Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with figuring out how mysterious aliens express themselves, “Arrival” engages the brain while also raising questions about how that same organ processes information.

Much of the film unfolds rather plainly – Louise and a team of military personnel, including Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, insert themselves into the belly of a “heptapod” that has landed in a Montana meadow. (Many others also situate themselves across the planet.) Through a series of experiments, Louise attempts to crack an extra-terrestrial Rosetta Stone of sorts. Picture the climax of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” stretched to feature-length, and that is somewhat akin to “Arrival.”

Louise has few luxuries as she carries out her work. Time, of course, is of the essence. Many of her collaborators consider linguistics a pseudo-science, dismissing the seriousness of her mission. And with each successive trip into the heptapod, the world moves closer to the brink as media blowhards push a campaign to save the species.

With stakes this high, the average moviegoer might anticipate a massive shootout or intergalactic battle as “Arrival” heats up. Nothing of the sort happens. Villeneuve never relies on spectacle to sell the film; instead, he patiently lays the groundwork for a finale that reveals the firing of synapses in our brains as something worth celebrating and considering. This science-fiction tale has an optimism rooted in humanism, and that is something to celebrate. B+3stars





REVIEW: Miles Ahead

4 04 2016

Miles AheadNew York Film Festival, 2015

Biopics, particularly those chronicling musicians, tend to follow predictable patterns surrounding a rise from obscurity filled with pitfalls and setbacks. With judgments of quality momentarily tabled, Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” deserves some credit for avoiding the traditional structure. The film, which captures the spirit of jazz great Miles Davis, does not resemble the jagged line of the normal genre piece. Instead, it feels like a series of jagged glass shards, presenting themselves for reassembly.

The form matches the subject quite nicely; Davis, in the film’s later timeline, appears wonked out from drugs and chronic pain. The shifting back and forth with little straightforward logic reflects his mental state. But the freeform flow of the film also mirrors Davis’ craft. “Miles Ahead” recalls the riffing and improvisation of jazz – or, as Davis himself was prone to call it, “social music.”

Content-wise, however, Cheadle’s film is not nearly as impressive. Davis says, “Change it up!” Ironically, “Miles Ahead” rarely heeds that advice and shows history repeating itself again and again. Per usual, the cross-cut stories do ultimately manifest their similarities. Yet along the way, the film somehow dabbles in a heist film-cum-buddy comedy as Davis and Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) track down a stolen session tape together. The arrangement may not be familiar, but the notes played in the film certainly are. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Steve Jobs

27 12 2015

I have no qualms in saying that, in high school, the discovery of Aaron Sorkin’s writing completely changed the way I thought about how people could talk in fiction. Here were characters that spoke with purpose in every line, both illuminating their inner thought process and highlighting the themes of the work. (If you doubt its influence, just read the play I wrote my senior year that falls somewhere between a love letter to and ripoff of Sorkin.)

The more I rewatch “The Social Network,” however, the more I realize that the heft of the content is the real star of that script. The delivery in “Sorkinese” – as many have come to call it – serves to enhance, not replace, that treasure trove of insights into class, status and social structure in contemporary America. The hyperexpressive dialogue feels justified practically by the bulk of commentary that the characters must convey – and, remarkably, tomes are still left unsaid.

Sorkin’s latest script, “Steve Jobs” (adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the same name), narrows its focus from the revolutionizing of society to a man with the vision to spark such revolutions. As the man whose inventions shook up telephones, personal computing, animation, publishing and music, Jobs feels like a natural subject for Sorkin given his obsession with grandiloquent geniuses. Even his work on the script for 2011’s “Moneyball,” which praised the empirically driven philosophy of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, evinces his fascination with people who innovate in spite of steep institutional pressure to maintain an inefficient status quo.

Yet, at the same time, choosing Jobs as someone to speak Sorkinese fluently smells a bit like a man trying to cast God in his own image – and not the other way around. The stylized dialogue flies rapidly in “Steve Jobs,” which is not entirely dissimilar from “The Social Network.” But here, the metaphors and arcane cultural references are delivered in a continual walk-and-talk, not in such visibly formal settings.

Sorkin chooses to stage his drama within the confines of a backstage drama (as opposed to the courtroom drama of Zuckerberg’s saga), a style which generally portrays characters with their guards down and speaking with their guards down. Jobs was undoubtedly smart enough to talk as Fassbender’s portrayal of him does, though it feels somewhat stilted and artificial.

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REVIEW: Trumbo

30 11 2015

TrumboThe potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.

No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.

The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.

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REVIEW: Pawn Sacrifice

21 09 2015

Pawn SacrificeThe tortured, abrasive genius has gotten a lot of play recently – the 2014 Toronto Film Festival alone saw the premiere of “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” all of which played with these tropes to some degree.  The final of the three is the last to see release because it is the most conventional of the bunch and thus the most boring.

Picture “A Beautiful Mind” sans any beauty and you’ll arrive at Edward Zwick’s biopic on Bobby Fischer.  So, in other words, just “A Mind.”  Tobey Maguire stars as Fischer, a chess whiz who also happens to harbor serious mental health issues that convince him the Jewish people are conspiring to bring him down.  (Never mind that Fischer himself was Jewish.)

After some obligatory introductory scenes that set up Fischer as a prodigy from his youth, the majority of the film concerns his 1972 match against Soviet heavyweight Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber).  Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight want you to believe that this is the thinking man’s version of the 1980 Miracle on Ice – “World War III on a chessboard,” as one observer calls it.  Yet for something supposedly so important, “Pawn Sacrifice” feels like it has remarkably low stakes and tension.

Part of that comes from investing so much energy in Fischer’s supposed mental deterioration, which Maguire plays like a histrionic marionette.  We can see the strings, so nothing can really surprise us about the turns Fischer takes.  Any more exposition would have made the film intolerable, but it might have been necessary to contextualize his genius.  Without that, the whole film feels played at the intensity of an emotional meltdown in “Spider-Man.”

But a lot of the film’s dullness is due to Zwick’s direction, which is so tasteful that it forgets to entertain or engage.  It’s hard to believe “Pawn Sacrifice” comes from the same man who directed great historical films like 1989’s “Glory” and 2006’s “Blood Diamond.”  This film just feels remarkably drained of any intensity, something it desperately needed in order to make a convincing case that the man and the event depicted are worthy of our time and attention.  C / 2stars