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.


REVIEW: The Hollars

23 08 2016

The HollarsSundance Film Festival

With a tender blend of comedy and drama, solid work from a big ensemble cast comprised of some surprising players as well as an acoustic-heavy soundtrack, John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” more or less epitomizes the kind of film that put Sundance on the map. And yet precisely because Krasinski earnestly embraces just about every indie cliché, the film manages to move and delight.

Sure, we could probably do without Krasinski’s John Hollar, another struggling artist (a graphic novelist) who fumbles when it comes to commitment. But he’s worth taking a journey with since Krasinski endows him with the kind of idealized everyman charisma that he perfected in 9 years behind a desk in “The Office.” John does not hesitate to break down as his world collapses around him, and Krasinski is there with vulnerability and empathy.

Yes, we likely do not need another dying mother like Margo Martindale’s Sally Hollar, whose sudden brain tumor discovery brings John home from New York. A few minutes into her spewing Southern fried wisdom, however, and you hope she never stops. Sally knows exactly what to say to people while also possessing the uncommon gift of knowing when people need to hear her sharp observations. She’s the glue holding together the lives of her husband and two sons, and Martindale approaches her character’s dawning acceptance of the the inevitable with a truly moving grace.

Fine, we might not need the vast array of supporting turns. Anna Kendrick is delightful, per usual, as John’s newly pregnant girlfriend Rebecca, although the script gives her little to do besides constant worrying and supporting about her boyfriend. Charlie Day provides nice comic relief as a jealous ex-high school rival of John; the fast-talking pipsqueak routine is very in line with his persona, though. Richard Jenkins turns in another excellent performance as an emotionally distraught patriarch. (The only real surprise of “The Hollars” is Sharlto Copley, in his first non-effects driven film, as John’s unexplainably neurotic brother Ron.)

Complain all you want about this movie existing. Point out all the boxes it checks. But “The Hollars” is here whether you like it or not, and Krasinski welcomes all with a wide embrace and an open heart. Be it your first or umpteenth indie family dramedy, the genuineness of the film can be disarming for those willing to let their guard down and just fall for its charms. B2halfstars


29 04 2013

It’s rare to see a horror movie made with as much artistry as Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” and I think it’s all the more haunting because of that.  The film focuses on developing a hostile environment over cheap screams, a move that pays off in spades over the course of the film.

Believe it or not, the blood-sucking adolescent vampire Abby (the omnipresent Chloe Moretz) is hardly the most menacing villain of the film.  That dubious honor would belong to the bullies, who make life a living hell for the shrimpy but sweet 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of “The Road“) for no other reason than the fact that he’s an easy target.  And they aren’t just name-callers or lunch money-stealers; they want to inflict potentially life-threatening pain.  Maybe they are a little excessive, but after all, movies are a heightened reality!

The ravenous Abby inspires the unassuming Owen to fight back against his tormentors, and indeed he does.  But she also teaches him a thing or two about friendship and love, which seems to innocuously bloom between the two outcasts.  It’s this rose amongst a bed of thorns that gives “Let Me In” such a peculiar warmth and comfort amongst the bluntly portrayed horrors of Abby’s bloodlust.

All the while, there’s a peculiar undercurrent of Ronald Reagan and all that he has come to represent running throughout the film, an interesting setting change by Reeves.  It’s easy to tell he has a real vision for the movie and tender compassion for its characters.  That makes a difference in a horror movie, where everyone seems written only for the purpose of dying.  B+3stars

REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars

REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods

29 11 2012

Shhh … don’t ruin Joss Whedon’s big year, but have you heard of this movie called “Scream?”  It’s a little vintage, I know.  In 1996, Wes Craven unleashed his film on audiences to massive acclaim and success.  He deftly sent up horror movie tropes with humor and a sharply philosophical slant – at the same time delivering a chilling horror movie!

Now Whedon, the fanboy favorite, has given us “The Cabin in the Woods,” a film he wrote along with director Drew Goddard.  The film took three years from shooting to release, although the satire feels relevant still as the climate of the horror genre remains roughly unchanged (with the exception of the found-footage epidemic that struck with “Paranormal Activity“).

And indeed, I really did enjoy some of the things it had to say and the clever way it presents them.  The deconstruction of the horror genre, particularly the onslaught of torture flicks, is done deftly and swiftly.  While “Scream” was Craven talking merely about the archetypes and trademarks, “The Cabin in the Woods” expands to include the audience.

What does it say about us that in our heads we are rooting for the directors, played to droll hilarity by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, to inflict the strangest and most unimaginable pain on people we don’t even know?

If we think it’s sick that there’s a betting pool on how long these characters will survive and how they will die, isn’t that essentially what we do when we gossip with the person in the seat next to us in the theater?

These questions were fun to ponder for a while, yet I found that “The Cabin in the Woods” quickly got on my nerves.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when a Hermione Granger-like student thinks they are the smartest person in the room and wants everyone to know it.  Whedon and Godard act like their film is the most ingenious thing to be dropped into cinema in ages.  Granted, anything that deviates from convention in this depraved artistic moment feels original.  Yet I couldn’t escape a sense of arrogance being radiated from the film.

And my only response was that I wanted to get on Amazon, order the Blu-Ray of “Scream,” and mail it to Whedon’s house.  The message: it’s been done before, and it’s been done better.  That doesn’t mean you can’t try, but you can’t gallivant around as if you are God’s gift to the genre.  You’ve made your contribution to the parodic state of horror, and you should be content with that.  B

REVIEW: Killing Them Softly

1 06 2012

Cannes Film Festival

A year after “Drive” took the Croisette by storm with what I saw to be an empty promise of genre revitalization, Andrew Dominik arrives with “Killing Them Softly,” a movie is the real deal for action fans. A whip-smart heist flick, Dominik seems to be channeling Stanley Kubrick with his aestheticized violence, hauntingly ironic music usage, and an emotional detachment. His film politicizes and stylizes the mob and the heist film, delivering a deliriously gory kick in the head.

The more I think about the film, the more I realize how it shouldn’t work. The character development, save James Gandolfini as a sleazy aging and boozing hitman, is minimal. The plot is familiar. The plot unfolds with relative predictability. Come on, it’s a mob movie – if you don’t know that almost everyone is gong to wind up dead, then you have some serious Scorsese to watch before you are allowed to come anywhere near “Killing Them Softly.”

But perhaps Nanni Moretti, president of the Cannes jury this year, holds the key to understanding why the movie transcends so many of its obvious shortcomings. He made an off-the-cuff observation that among the competition directors this year, many “seemed more in love with their style than their character[s].” While this could have applied to any number of directors I saw at Cannes (Wes Anderson, Carlos Reygadas, David Cronenberg), it seems particularly directed at Andrew Dominik. But while Moretti meant his remark to be construed as a negative, the style of “Killing Them Softly” is so abundant that it becomes a character in and of itself, taking the place of traditional “substance.”

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REVIEW: Friends with Benefits

22 07 2011

It’s time for a movie to come along that changes the romantic comedy genre for better and for always (or at least reverses the way it’s heading at the present moment). A movie willing to avoid the sappiness and the cliched, predictable genre tropes. A movie willing to be a little bit sneaky and subversive in its delivery of what the audience wants from the genre. A movie that gets to the heart of what the genre is supposed to be – truthful, believable romance with some observations on the tricky thing that is love with some humor sprinkled on top.

Friends with Benefits” is not that movie, although it desperately wants to be. It gets some points for trying, though. It takes some good pot shots at the genre through the very clever usage of a fake romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel inside the movie, and levels some very accurate criticism of them that will no doubt have audiences nodding along with Timberlake and Kunis’ sex pals.

But like so many of the recent onslaught of meta movies, it winds up devolving into the very thing it scorns. It wants all the benefits of self-awareness but none of the responsibilities, which here would include being creative and providing an alternative to the laughable aspects of the genre that it constantly lampoons. To use a sports metaphor, it has the swing but not the followthrough. It boldly goes where few romantic comedies will go and then backs away when honesty and ingenuity is asked of it.

However, it’s nice (for once) to see the movies giving us some indication they realize how RIDICULOUS the romantic comedy has become. Even though “Friends with Benefits” eventually subscribes to the formulaic rules of the genre straight from the textbook, I’ll take a movie with squandered potential over one with no potential any day. Not that it makes it any less disappointing, but the movie sort of gives us a wink and a nudge when it crosses over to the dark side. It’s almost as if director Will Gluck (last year’s excellent “Easy A“) is so apologetic for selling out that he all but superimposes the text “I’M SORRY” over the closing scene.

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