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: Maudie

25 07 2017

From the opening scene of Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” we’re painfully aware of how painful it is for Sally Hawkins’ Maud Dowley to make the art that brings her satisfaction. We see the intense exertion it takes for her arthritic hands to paint even the simplest stem of a flower. This isn’t “My Left Foot” or anything, but Maudie’s folksy creations are clearly a labor of love.

This type of art is sadly in keeping with the rest of her life in small-town Nova Scotia. Abandoned by her brother and ignored by her mother, Maude takes a thankless housekeeping job for Ethan Hawke’s Everett Lewis at his secluded cabin. He’s a brusque man of the house who needs someone to clean the house – and that’s it. At times, his grip on her activity borders on the abusive, an aspect of their relationship that Walsh handles (only with kiddie gloves on).

“Maudie” unfolds at a pace similar to its protagonist: belabored but simple and beautiful. Walsh takes her sweet time moving along Maude and Everett’s ever-evolving relationship, and she moves only slightly faster to show how Maude’s paintings became a quaint international sensation. Hawkins is, as usual, an exemplar of quiet grace; not unlike her Oscar-nominated turn in “Blue Jasmine,” her character is the only person blind to her own victimization. Had Walsh or screenwriter Sherry Walsh given her a scenery-chewing moment to release the film’s tension, it might play as tonally inconsistent. But a part of me did wish she got the chance to show more range than the relatively stable performance allows. C+

REVIEW: Made in Dagenham

14 06 2017

You don’t have to like every movie you agree with, and you don’t have to dislike every movie you disagree with. In fact, some of the most interesting film watching experiences come from wrestling with feelings that result from this dissonance. (The latter of the two options is far more challenging, though, in my opinion.)

Made in Dagenham” is a classic example of that first type of cinema, a message movie that reaffirms many basic beliefs about social progress. As working-class sewing machine operators in suburban London fight for equal pay, led by Sally Hawkins’ plucky Rita O’Grady, the film invites us to applaud the struggles and advances towards ending sexism. It asks relatively little of us, instead reassuring us with the familiar storyline of white women saving the world – and doing little to motivate us to continue closing the gender pay gap.

The film has great performances to spare and proves amusing, even rousing, entertainment. But it never challenges, nor does it provoke. “Made in Dagenham” plays into the notion that the arc of history bends towards justice because of the efforts of our ancestors. It does little to incite the next generation to continue exerting force to keep the shape of that bend. C+

REVIEW: Godzilla

8 06 2014

GodzillaIn 2010, Gareth Edwards unleashed the ultra-low budget flick “Monsters” on the world.  It was a striking debut, and it also wound up serving as an audition tape for the job of reenergizing the “Godzilla” franchise.  Indeed, if there was anyone to scoop up from the world of independent cinema for large-scale filmmaking, Edwards seemed like a natural due to the way he emphasized human relationships over flashy computer graphics.

Sadly, what ultimately hits the screen in “Godzilla” is something far more in the mold of Marvel than Edwards’ own “Monsters.”  The plot structure resembles the paradigm perpetuated by films like “The Avengers;” I’d like to call this formula “30-40-50.”  The first 30 minutes of the film introduce us briefly to the characters and cap off with an inciting event that sets up a climactic clash with an opposing villainous force.  The next 40 minutes vamp up to this giant conclusion, showing the various heroes and their preparations.  And it all caps off with 50 minutes of destructions, explosions, collapsing buildings … you know the drill.

The scariest part of “Godzilla” is not the monster; it’s realizing how quickly the art of screenwriting has transmuted into an engineered science.  It favors empty computer graphics over real suspense and rewarding characterization.  Edwards’ penchant for thrilling action goes woefully underutilized as he settles to provide a standard entry in the genre “Monsters” so ably defies.  He gets to be somewhat ironic on occasion but never subtle.

Actors can often rescue movies that sag under the weight of a bloated effects budget, but no such salvation is available for “Godzilla.”  Here, Bryan Cranston is forced to play a Walter White-lite variety and acclaimed actresses such as Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche are relegated to serve perfunctory roles on the sidelines.  But don’t worry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson fruitlessly channels Mark Wahlberg trying to save the day, an archetype he’s ill-equipped to play.

But hey, who needs actors when you can watch a giant lizard destroy the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of San Francisco?  Not like we got to see it terrorized in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  Or the “Star Trek” movies.  (Heck, even the animated “Monsters vs. Aliens” got in on the action.)  Sure, it’s probably more extensive here in “Godzilla,” but it all just feels so familiar and generic.  No better way to sit through the threat of near-apocalyptic extinction than comfortably numb, right?  C+2stars

REVIEW: Blue Jasmine

12 08 2013

Woody Allen’s latest feature shows our most prolific filmmaker access a side of his writing seldom seen: dark and unsparingly grim tragedy.  I’ve seen all of his 48 films, and perhaps not since 1992’s “Husbands and Wives” has he taken such a bleak and hard-hitting look at the demons we battle and the struggles we face.  His “Blue Jasmine” is a modern “A Streetcar Named Desire” mixed in a cocktail with the Bernie Madoff scandal and washed down with a toxic mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

It’s no stone-faced drama like “Match Point,” though.  There are still plenty of laughs to be had here, although they definitely don’t resemble the kind of humor you’d find in Allen’s early farces like “Bananas.”  Nor do they even take the shape of the clever wit of “Annie Hall” or even “Midnight in Paris.”  In “Blue Jasmine,” we chuckle as we cringe.  Almost all of our laughs are muffled as they come while we grit our teeth.

That’s because his protagonist, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (formerly Jeanette, but that name wasn’t exciting enough), is slowly charting her own way to another complete mental breakdown.  She suffered her first one after her husband’s vast fraudulent financial empire collapses, leaving her penniless to fend for herself in the world.  Lost and not placated by her Xanax, she journeys cross-country to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in the hopes of getting back on her feet.

But Jasmine quickly finds that she’s woefully underprepared to enter the workforce since she has no degree, dropping out of Boston University with a year left to marry Hal (Alec Baldwin).  Despite offers from Ginger’s circle of friends to help her find secretarial or wage labor, Jasmine remains defiant, unable to accept the reality that she is no longer among the privileged Park Avenue lot.  Her half-hearted effort to come to terms with her new social standing leads to clashes with her eventual employer, Michael Stuhlbarg’s genial dentist Dr. Flicker, and Ginger’s boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale’s unabashedly honest Chili.

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REVIEW: Submarine

3 07 2011

While sitting in “Submarine,” a coming-of-age dramedy import from our Welsh friends across the pond, there were moments when I thought I was going to give the movie unequivocal praise.  It had the eye-catching look and the quirky feel of a Wes Anderson film.  With its simple, geometric shots, clean editing, and eccentric characters navigating through some hilariously mundane situations, it could be the long lost foreign cousin of “Rushmore” (or a very flattering imitation).

And coming out of high school, I definitely felt that Craig Roberts’ protagonist Oliver Tate, despite our cultural differences, was one of the freshest portrayals of the confusion and the jumble of feelings that is growing up.  With his anthropological observations on the high school food chain and the social sphere in general crackling with wit, he reminds us how out of touch the cinematic visions of this age really are.  His quest to lose his virginity for a variety of underlying social factors is absolutely hysterical without ever losing touch with reality or authenticity.

But as the film shifts gears from this burst of postpubescent energy, this submarine begins to sink.  The emotions become more reserved, and the film’s energy goes along with it.  I can understand the cinematic reasons for the tonal shift: it doesn’t seem appropriate to have the same pop when dealing with the failing marriage of his parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) and the potentially terminal illness of his girlfriend’s mother.  On the other hand, there is a way to convey those emotions without losing the joie de vivre that was so vibrant in the beginning.

Considering that “Submarine” is the directorial debut of Richard Ayoade, I’ll just chalk up some of the tonal problems and the resultant tinges of boredom to being rookie mistakes.  But I will echo the critical consensus – look for great things from this director in the future.  Once he gets a few more films under his belt, the things Ayoade can do so brilliantly will shine brightly.  B- / 

Oscar Moment: “Made in Dagenham”

22 10 2010

“Made in Dagenham” could fill a whole lot of quotas at this year’s Oscars.

To start off, it’s British.  Secondly, it’s British.  Oh yeah, and did I mention it’s British?

There’s always interest when it comes to our friends across the pond as a second “British Invasion” is beginning to sway the Academy in a different direction.   And they sure do love recognizing their own movies, even if they aren’t very good (cough, “The Reader”).  If you can’t tell by the accents, “Made in Dagenham” is a VERY British movie, even enhancing its anglophilic capabilities by chronicling a period of social history in the United Kingdom.

Which brings me to my next point: it’s about women’s rights!  Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) leads a strike of sewing workers to fight for equal pay for all sexes.  This true story of trying to end discrimination by gender is even told with a touch of comedy to keep it from devolving into “Norma Rae.”  What’s not for the Academy to like?

I’ve thrown out a lot of possibilities for a so-called “The Blind Side” slot.  It pains me to think that such a thing exists, but we have to consider inspirational and heartwarming movies a threat no matter how cheesy they may be.  I’ve suggested that “Conviction” and “Secretariat” both have qualities that make them a threat in a similar way, and you can add in “Made in Dagenham” to that list as well.  After the movie bowed at Toronto, Kris Tapley of In Contention stated that “the story is exactly the sort of underdog tale that can make an awards dent, especially in a field of 10.”

If it turns out to be a crowd-pleaser, even if just to a smaller crowd, this could easily be nominated when you take into account that it has pretty solid reviews.  I see a close parallel in “An Education” – a light British drama with a dynamite leading turn.  Sally Hawkins, two years removed from a snub for Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is back and blazing in this role.  Some have compared her to Sally Field, who won an Oscar in 1979 for her role in “Norma Rae” as the titular union organizer.  Women’s rights activists have done well in Best Actress (see Charlize Theron in 2005 for “North Country”), a category that likes to celebrate strong women.  The big concern is that she may not have the prestige to break into a tight field of five this year.

But according to most professional prognosticators, the movie’s biggest acting asset is Miranda Richardson, who plays the fiery Barbara Castle.  In the same article as reference above, Kris Tapley said this of Richardson:

“Miranda Richardson may finally nail down the Oscar win many of us have desperately wanted to see her wrangle for years.  If nothing else she’s on a clear track for a nomination.  The actress is on fire as Barbara Castle, the Labor party Baroness who bravely threw her weight behind female Ford factory workers demanding equal pay in an unfair system, and at a time when it was raging against a fierce tide to do so.  The supporting actress category is ripe for the taking this year and Richardson’s is exactly the kind of commanding, bold, yet humorous turn voters love to recognize.”

In a Best Supporting Actress category that is as unshaped as a slab of clay, Richardson could swoop down and steal the momentum – because no one else has yet!  Mo’Nique got the buzz from Sundance last year and never let go; Richardson could do the same (albeit 10 months afterwards).

There are plenty of other outside possibilities for the movie, including a potential second Best Supporting Actress bid for Rosamund Pike (which seems likely if the movie goes huge) and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Bob Hoskins (more likely than Pike, although Bill Murray for “Get Low” is more likely to take his slot).  It will be much easier to tell what we can expect in the middle of November when the movie is released; its success in awards season will rely quite a bit on the reception it receives here.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Hawkins), Best Supporting Actress (Richardson)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Hoskins), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Song