The Shape of Water(12/17/2017)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending a special 3D screening of the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a movie that’s been lumped in with the canon of Universal Horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula but which in many ways hues closer to 50s science fiction movies like The Blob or The Fly.  At its center is a monster that’s come to be known as the “gil-man”; a half human/half fish hybrid who can breathe both under-water and on the land.  The gil-man never seems entirely feral but the extent to which it has human intelligence is never entirely clear either.  In many ways the gil-man feels a bit like King Kong in that he’s this legendary creature in a remote location who encounters a group of white explorers as they encroach on his territory.  Also like King Kong he becomes infatuated with the one white woman who comes along with these explorers and proceeds to spend much of the movie attempting to kidnap and presumably rape said white woman who spends most of the movie screaming in its presence.  Most people who saw this simply accepted it as the slightly silly B-movie convention that it was, but in the mind of Guillermo del Toro there was a lot more potential here; he’s the one guy who saw this dynamic and thought “if only she was a little more open minded and if only this guy came on a with a little more respect maybe this relationship could have worked.”

Set in 1961, The Shape of Water focuses on a woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives next door to her best friend, a middle aged gay man named Giles (Richard Jenkins).  During the day Elisa works as a janitor with another friend named Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at a secretive government facility called the Occam Aerospace Research Center which is run by a straight laced but often cruel man named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).   I’m not exactly sure what this facility normally does, but early in the movie it’s tasked with the unusual job of housing a rare live specimen: a humanoid amphibian entity capable of both breathing water and air that was found in the Amazon and is known only as The Asset (Doug Jones).  The Asset is being studied by a mild mannered scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who believes it may be a highly intelligent being possibly capable of communication and greater human interaction, but Strickland is offended by its very existence and often mistreats it.  While cleaning the room this creature is being housed in Elisa catches a glimpse of it and is immediately fascinated.  Unlike Strickland she tries being nice to it and giving it food and playing it music.  Soon enough there is a connection there, but Elisa has very little control over The Asset’s fate, at least not without taking matters into her own hands.

The Shape of Water is in some ways a “do or die” movie for Guillermo del Toro given that his supporters have been waiting a long time for him to really live up to the potential he showed in his 2006 triumph Pan’s Labyrinth.  In the decade since making that movie he made one solidly entertaining studio film (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army), one lackluster attempt at studio entertainment (Pacific Rim), and most disappointingly one ambitious horror film that proved to be a misfire (Crimson Peak).  Given that string of disappointments The Shape of Water could be seen as something of a return to the well if looked at cynically as it’s “adult fairy tale” tone feels a lot like a return to what worked for him so well in Pan’s Labyrinth and to some extent The Devil’s Backbone.  That’s in terms of tone anyway; the film’s plot is certainly divergent from that movie and from what people normally expect out of movies in general.  Most notably this is a movie that wants it audience to root for a relationship that is unconventional to say the least and could be called straight up bestiality when looked at in a particularly uncharitable way.

That Elisa would find a way to empathize with the creature in the film is logical and speaks to her purity and spirit.  That she would be so stricken as to want to begin a sexual relationship with this thing is a little harder to swallow and in some ways feels like a couple of steps were skipped.  We see early on that the creature is gentle and not the threat that he seems to the people running the facility, but he never really develops a way to converse with Elisa in any comprehensive way to the point where she doesn’t even know his name and there isn’t necessarily a conventional courtship where they come to realize they’re right for each other.  In this sense the fact that she’s drawn to him seems to say more about her own isolation than about how charming he is, and his interest in her seems to have more to do with the fact that she’s the only person who’s been nice to him in quite a while.  Of course that’s perhaps looking at this a little too logically.  This is after all a movie that begins with a voice-over which all but says “once upon a time” and refers to the protagonist as “the princess without voice” and which seems to be set in a particularly heightened world that feels almost like a Lynchian pastiche of the Eisenhower era.  Clearly we’re in the world of fairy tale, much as we were in Pan’s Labyrinth but this time there isn’t such a clear line between the real world and the fantasy.

Of course there can at times be a tension when you set fairy tales in the real world or an approximation thereof simply because the aesthetics of the modern world occasionally demand more modern readings.  That clash is particularly troublesome here when it comes to the film’s villain Richard Strickland, who is described in that voice-over as “the monster who tried to destroy it all.”  Strickland is very reminiscent of Captain Vidal, another authoritarian character who is plainly evil almost from the moment you see him and who becomes oddly fixated on an injury he receives at one point as he descends into madness towards the end.  The over-the-top evilness of Vidal stood out a bit less given that he was a literal fascist within the Franco regime rather than a mid-level American government worker.  One could perhaps view this parallel between Strickland and Vidal as some sort of statement that there may not have been quite as much of a difference between the paranoid and often prejudiced power structure in place in 1961 America and Franco’s Spain, but given that even Strickland’s superior officer seemed a little more reasonable than Strickland, that only goes so far.

It probably doesn’t help that this is something like the hundredth time that Michael Shannon has been chosen to play the role of a dangerously insane villain and in general I feel like the movie makes casting choices that are a little too on the nose like that.  Octavia Spenser’s sassy janitor certainly has shades of what she did in The Help, and Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins are also falling pretty comfortably within their usual ranges.  Granted, complaining that people fit their roles a little too well probably seems like an incredibly odd complaint but it would have made some of these characters resonate just a little more if they were being portrayed by people who were doing something a little more unexpected.  Of course I cannot make this same complaint about the movie’s most important performance, that of Sally Hawkins as the film’s lead.  Hawkins is an actress I primarily know for her work in the film Happy-Go-Lucky, which is a somewhat lesser known Mike Leigh film about a woman who is somewhat annoyingly chipper, but in a very human and interesting way.  This is hardly a copy of that performance but you can see the same persistence of spirit underneath it.  Combine that with the fact that she defines the character as well as she does without being able to speak at all even in voiceover is really impressive.

Ultimately one’s ability to love The Shape of Water is going to come down to how willing you are to go along with its “modern adult fairy tale” tone.  Audiences that don’t pick up on that or aren’t into it will be more bothered by the over the top villain, the unlikeliness of the romance, and certain other elements while those who are into the tone won’t have a problem with these things at all.  That was also what Pan’s Labyrinth was going for and on some level this feels like a very intentional companion piece to that movie some ten years later.  On some level I guess I find it a little disappointing that Del Toro’s first really respectable movie since Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that feels so much like that last success rather than a new and exciting direction for the director.  On the other hand it’s pretty hard to call a movie where a woman bones a fish man who’s being tracked down by American and Soviet agents unoriginal.  I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this review looking a gift horse in the mouth, make no mistake I think The Shape of Water is an exceptionally well made movie that takes a frankly crazy concept and manages to make it work really well on screen in a way that few other movies could.  If I’m hard on it it’s because I feel like this is the movie he should have made in 2010 or so and should be on to the next thing had he not gotten stalled in his evolution, but better late than never.

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Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi(12/14/2017)

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

It’s been about two years since the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens but the hype-train leading up to it almost feels a bit like a distant memory.  That movie’s very existence almost seemed like a miracle, like something we were never going to see until George Lucas passed away, or that if it did exist under Lucas’ eye it would have been met with incredible suspicion.  But the movie did come out, all signs pointed to it being the movie everyone wanted and somehow some way it basically lived up to the hype.  Critics like it, audiences loved it, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of all time at the domestic box office.  I liked it too, I didn’t love it beyond reason, but it was a very solid blockbuster with some great new characters and a firm grasp of what a Star Wars movie should probably look like in the 21st Century.  Prior to its release I greeted The Force Awakens with cautious optimism but I’ll admit I came pretty close to getting caught up in the hype as well on some level.  Oddly though, with its direct follow-up The Last Jedi my excitement has been a bit muted despite all signs pointing to it being and even bigger deal than its predecessor.  This might have simply been the result of me being a little too diligent in avoiding spoilers for my own good.  At a certain point all I’d really known about the movie was that initial “breathe” trailer, which maybe wasn’t the best put together piece of advertising ever.  Still, it’s Star Wars, and when Star Wars comes around you show up for it.

The film picks up not too long after the events of The Force Awakens and despite having had their super-weapon base destroyed in the last movie it seems that the First Order have largely taken over the galaxy and the resistance against them is on its last legs.  In the opening scenes the resistance are evacuating from their last base and escape to light speed just in time to avoid destruction.  They think they’re in the clear, only to suddenly have the First Order have found a way to track people through hyperspace and suddenly appear right behind them.  Realizing that another jump to light speed would only waste the last of their fuel, the resistance hits their thrusters and diverts shields to the rear, which allows their faster armada to stay just ahead of their pursuers as long as their fuel lasts.  Desperate, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan for Finn to leave the flotilla along with his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and travel to a separate planet to find a codebreaker who will help them infiltrate the lead imperial ship and turn off their ability to track the rebels when they jump to hyperspace.  Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reunited with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To as per the final moments of The Force Awakens only to discover that Luke has become bitter about the ways of the Jedi and has no interest in training another apprentice.  Persistent, Rey proclaims she will not be leaving the planet without Luke or at least without some lesson, but she’s also become troubled by strange visions she’s been having of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), visions where she starts to wonder if he’s looking back at her.

Let’s start with that inciting incident.  One of the problems I had with The Force Awakens is that it seemed pretty unclear just what this First Order was and how they managed to take over the galaxy in such a short time from this republic that our heroes had fought so hard to establish in the first movies.  This problem sort of persists here with us learning in the opening scroll that despite taking a big L in the first movie the First Order had become dominant in the galaxy and were now more or less in the position the Empire was in in the original trilogy.  This felt a bit odd given that the Resistance did seem to still have a pretty decent foothold in The Force Awakens but here they seem even weaker than the scrappy rebellion of the original movies and are so small and contained that they are confined to what appear to be four spaceships.  The idea of those four spaceships getting into a sort of low speed battle of attrition with star destroyers as they just barely outrun them is a cool one and I can imagine something like that having the makings of a good episode of Battlestar Galactica or something but it’s a little hard to believe in this context.  Why doesn’t the First Order simply call for re-enforcements to cut them off from the other side?  They’re running the galaxy now and they have gigantic armies don’t they?  For that matter what’s stopping them from simply sending more Tie-Fighters try to outflank them like Kylo Ren did early on?

But okay, it’s a cool little tense scenario and I can work with it, but the tenseness of that scenario is something of a double edged sword as it makes the danger feel really immediate and pressing and that really takes the fun out of any sort of delay along the way.  It makes it harder to sympathize with Luke’s hesitance to join in initially, but the bigger problem is that it makes it kind of infuriating to watch Finn and Rose horse around (literally and figuratively) while on their side mission to the decadent planet of Canto Bight.  This whole section of the movie is frankly a disaster.  I might have enjoyed exploring this decadent space resort but everything’s supposed to be on the line at that point in the story and that is not the time for them to be exploring the lighter adventure aspects of the franchise and especially not when they’re this poorly executed.  That space horse escape scene was decidedly not worth the effect it has on the narrative and the fact that they were stupid enough to put their whole operation in danger just because they couldn’t wait to find a parking lot was dumb and so was the coincidence of finding themselves in the same jail cell as a code-breaker who is good enough to help them with their rather specific mission.

Granted, as new characters go I rather liked Rose and thought Kelly Marie Tran brought something interesting to the table in terms of Star Wars characters and didn’t just feel like an echo of or reaction to previous Star Wars personalities like so many of the characters from The Force Awakens did.  It had more mixed feelings about Benecio Del Toro’s character DJ, I did enjoy his interactions with Finn where he debated the morality of the resistance but I did not like the way he just coincidentally entered the movie by showing up in the right jail cell and didn’t believe that Finn would have risked hiring him for such a critical mission.  Poe Dameron, though technically established in The Force Awakens only really starts to get significant screen time here.  I wouldn’t say I disliked Dameron in the previous film, but nothing about the character particularly impressed me, he just seemed like this very generic hero and given what we’ve been given here he almost seems like a parody of the white male heroes that have historically been at the centers of space operas and serials like this.  In many ways this movie seems to have been made to pull the rug out from under him but it doesn’t quite have the nerve to really go in for the killshot.  I did appreciate how effectively the movie tricks the audience into going along with his insubordination and makes you assume the ends will justify the means but it also doesn’t want him to live with the consequences once this blows up in his face.  This guy was essentially gambling with the fate of the galaxy and lost; he got hundreds if not thousands of resistance members killed, and yet just a couple hours later he still has a leadership position in the resistance and is still being treated as a hero.

The material with Rey and Luke on the other hand generally fared a little bit better but isn’t without its own flaws.  Mark Hamill is quite good in the movie and makes a compelling case that he should have been getting more work all these years.  That said, unlike Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher it’s a little hard to reconcile the older Luke Skywalker with the fresh-faced young man from the original films.  That’s explained to some extent in the backstory about his history with Kylo, which is shown in what I believe is the first instance of real flashback in the history of Star Wars.  This backstory does a pretty good job of explaining why Luke is bitter and ready to end the Jedi order, but I don’t necessarily get why he opted to fuck off to a remote planet instead of staying behind to help clean up the mess he made.  Regardless, his unwillingness to train Rey now that she’s sought him out on the planet is understandable given the track-record we’ve seen so far of highly powerful people getting trained late in life that we’ve seen so far.  In fact I feel like the question of what qualifies as Jedi is kind of an inconsistency throughout the Star Wars canon at this point.  The prequels made the Jedi out to be these warrior monk samurai who achieve their status through years of hard work and study, which probably scans best with how these sorts of things work in real life.  The original trilogy doesn’t exactly contradict this as it seems to suggest that force sensitive people can go their entire lives not even knowing they have powers, but it does seem to suggest that in a pinch a few months of running through the jungle with Yoda will probably be good enough.

In this new Abrams trilogy it feels more like being a Jedi is just something you can sort of pick up on even if you’ve never been trained at all.  Here Leia is apparently able to use the force to survive in the vacuum of space despite having presumably rejected Jedi training (a truly odd scene if ever there was one) and in the last movie Rey could apparently fight off a trained sith in a lightsaber fight just on instinct and here she’s similarly able to take on all the knights of ren about as effectively as Kylo could.  In the last movie I gave them some benefit of the doubt about this in hopes that there would be some explanation for that in the sequels but here they seem to actively suggest there is no explanation.  Yet Luke still insists at the end that Rey is going to become a Jedi somehow despite having not received any real training, losing her one possible mentor, and having not even been left with some books to study.  And if training is truly this irrelevant to what being a powerful Jedi is all about why exactly does Luke feel guilty about having trained Kylo or think it might be dangerous to similarly train Rey?  Doesn’t exactly make sense for someone who thinks she’s such a natural that she can just be a Jedi autodidact.

The Rey-related elements of this section of the movie generally work quite well though.  It’s pretty easy to relate to her frustration with Luke and her palpable desire to train while on that island works pretty well.  More importantly her strange force-induced psychological bond with Kylo Ren is quite effective and you can really feel a palpable tension in them.  These also lead to what is rather plainly the strongest section of the movie: the confrontation between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke.  Andy Serkis’ Snoke is great here and throughout the movie and really redeems what had seemed like a rather odd element in The Force Awakens and while I was sad to see him go I will say that I was pretty genuinely surprised that they were willing to split him right in half right here in the second movie and the ensuing fight with the guards was also a really good.  It wasn’t just the Kylo/Rey stuff that was working well here; all the storylines converge quite nicely during this section of the film.  Poe’s mutiny was very exciting and tense, Finn and Rose’s storyline finally picks up as they sneak onto the ship and get captured, and the moment when Holdo does a light speed kamikaze run is obviously incredible.  In fact the movie so clearly peaks at this point that it’s kind of odd that it keeps on going for another twenty minutes or so and while there’s good stuff in the battle on Crait it certainly feels less involved than what came before and almost feels like something that should have happened in a latter movie.

The big complaint about The Force Awakens was of course that it played things too safe to the point that it almost felt like a re-skinned remake of the original Star Wars.  To some extent this sequel also seems to echo its predecessors.  The way it splits up an aspiring Jedi trying to train on a remote planet with her friends being on the run from bad guys is not unlike the structure of The Empire Strikes Back and the way Finn and Rey are betrayed is not unlike what Lando does to Han and Leia in that movie.  And yet “playing it too safe” is certainly not something you can really accuse The Last Jedi of doing given that it pretty deliberately does the opposite of what you’d expect at various moments, sometimes to the point of underwhelming.  Most controversially the film kills off the mysterious Snoke without so much as trying to explain who he was or where he came from and also rather casually giving the most mundane explanation for Rey’s parentage possible.  One could blame Star Wars fans for obsessing over those two mysteries and setting themselves up for disappointment, but to that I call bullshit.  The fans had every reason to ponder over those mysteries given that they were questions that J.J. Abrams quite intentionally left open, more than inviting people to theorize about them for two years.  If he doesn’t have a good answer for something he maybe shouldn’t set it up as a mystery… has he learned nothing from “Lost.”

There is perhaps something of a meta-textual reading to all this.  Leaving the old ways behind seems to be one to the film’s most consistent and on the nose themes.  Luke talks about letting the Jedi die out until sort of changing his mind, Kylo literally kills his mentor and talks about leaving “the old ways” behind, Yoda’s force ghost literally burns the old order to the ground.  The whole thing seems to be some sort of metaphor for the series itself breaking away from its usual traditions and framing it through a sort of Silicon Valley lens of “disruption” as necessary for progress.  It’s kind of a wild message to be delivering given that their last Star Wars movie was nostalgia-tinged to the point where it inspired the phrase “memberberries,” and to go straight from something like that to something like this which is flipping over tables and burning things to the ground causes a certain degree of whiplash.  A lot of people are praising them for being bold and taking risks, but taking risks isn’t an inherently praiseworthy thing; you also need to make the right risks, the ones that actually pay off, and all too often I don’t think the direction that Abrams and Johnson chose go pays off.

Beyond meta readings of the movie the more overt messages of The Last Jedi are all over the place and at times contradictory.  In his ghostly appearance (which was poorly executed incidentally, I think Frank Oz has lost his gift at doing this voice) tells Luke to let the old order burn and Kylo Ren also destroys the Sith order, and yet by the end Luke defiantly declares that he won’t be the last Jedi.  Finn’s story ends with Rose preventing his kamikaze run and telling him that they’re going to win by saving what they love rather than fighting what they hate, whatever that means, but this more or less contradicts a similar act of self-sacrifice that Holdo had more or less been valorized for committing and if not for the unexpected intervention of Luke’s force projection this act of “saving what they love” would have done nothing more than to doom the galaxy.  Finn’s lesson on the other hand is supposed to be that he needs to stop taking unnecessary risks and quit acting impulsively, but as stated previously the film never really engages in the consequences of this.  The overall theme might be something more general along the lines of “you need to learn from your failures,” but a lot of these failures seem more the kind of failures that kill you than make you stronger.  By the end of the movie the resistance (which seemed oddly small to begin with) has been reduced to the point where they can all fit into the Millennium Falcon.  It’s implied that the true victory is that the galaxy is now “inspired” by their stand, but I don’t see why they would be given how much they screwed up, the events of the last movie seem a hell of a lot more “inspirational” to me.  The only real hope to be found in this ending is that their opponent seems kind of incompetent and is now in the hands of a petulant child who got his ass kicked by a novice in the last movie and got played for a chump in this one.

So is this even a good movie?  When I first left my the theater I would have said “yes” even though I was a bit baffled by what I’d just seen.  While watching the movie disappointment had set in early on and there continued to be moments I just did not like, but there were also moments that sort of made up for that.  The characters remained fairly likable and there were action scenes which gave me that excited Star Wars feel.  However, the film’s general messiness and tonal confusion remained and as time has gone on its flaws have stuck with me more than its moments of excitement.  I could go on and on about why Rian Johnson’s “burn it all down” attitude annoys me and why his refusal to engage in the mysteries of the previous film is a dereliction of duty, but that isn’t really the problem here so much as a series of smaller offenses just sort of drown the movie.  It’s less a death of a thousand cuts than a injury of 250 or so cuts.  I do not, however, want to go too deep into the realms of hyperbole and suggest that I hate the movie or that there aren’t plenty of redeeming qualities to it.  I suspect that a lot of the things I found to be gaping flaws will seem a lot more forgivable to the more casual Star Wars fans who just wants to see a lot of lightsaber fights and space ship battles, but the movie does not hold up to closer analysis and its rather flippant attitude towards a filmmaking legacy that means so much to so many people is pretty hard to take.  I’ll give the movie one thing: my dislike of it has been a keen reminder of how much this franchise meant to me in the first place.

Wonder Wheel(12/10/2017)

Alright, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: being a Woody Allen fan is not very fashionable at the moment.  This of course stems from the accusation of child abuse that occurred in the early 90s, which was litigated and dismissed at the time but which suddenly came back into the conversation thanks in part to a rather vigorous campaign on the part of the Farrow family starting in late 2013 and which has been brought back into the conversation in the wake of the #MeToo campaign despite there being no new allegations.  Frankly Allen’s past has never had much bearing on my interest in his movies, partly because I’m decidedly on Team “Separate Art From Artist” but also because the case against him is far from ironclad and there seems to be no indication that he’s some sort of serial offender.  Given a choice I’d be happy to avoid talking about all of this altogether but in recent times he has been using his filmmaking to comment on his past controversies, and specifically his relationship to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, often in slightly coded ways.  His last film, Café Society, ended with someone contemplating an affair with someone who would be his aunt-in-law and his 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight ended with a man much the senior of a younger woman deciding to go through with a relationship with her despite all logical reason not because the heart wants what it wants.  I don’t have a problem with Allen exploring his controversies on scree but I’m honestly surprised more people didn’t pick up on these themes until now but they’re certainly picking up on similar themes in his newest film Wonder Wheel.

The film is set in the 1950s in and around the famous Coney Island back when it was still a pretty relevant attraction.  At its center is a woman named Ginny Rannell (Kat Winslet) a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar who’s married to a carousel operator named Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) and who lives in an apartment right in the middle of the island above a loud shooting range but with a view of the titular Ferris wheel.  This is a second marriage for both Ginny and Humpty, and Ginny has a twelve year old son from her previous marriage who is kind of disturbed, has a compulsion to start fires, and does not get along at all with his hardass step-father.  At a certain point Ginny started having an affair with a lifeguard/aspiring philosopher named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who actually narrates most of the film.  Things are really set off when Humpty’s twenty-something year old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on their doorstep desperate for a place to stay.  Carolina had apparently run off and married a gangster when she was young, something her father has not forgiven her for, and after a while with this unsavory person she found herself in a situation where she appeared to be snitching on him and because of this she’s on the run from hitmen.  Eventually they kind of make the situation work, at least until Carolina runs into Mickey and a strange love triangle commences.

So, this is a movie where a guy starts out sleeping with a 40-some year old woman and ends up falling in love with her 20-some year old step daughter… gee, I wonder what attracted Woody Allen to that scenario.  Truth be told I’m not one hundred percent sure Allen intended for this to be a metaphor for his own tabloid scandal some twenty years ago.  That whole story is very much on the forefront of cultural commentators these days but I don’t think it as much as the forefront of his own mind as a lot of people might think it would be.  That said, as an outside observer it’s pretty hard to not see the movie that way and he must have been aware of the similarities on some level even if only sub-consciously.  If it was intentional it’s a little disingenuous as there are clear differences between the two scenarios most notably the fact that the man in this situation is Justin Timberlake, a guy who is about twenty years younger than Woody Allen was when he started his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and Juno Temple is about ten years older than Previn was.  What’s more the step daughter in in Wonder Wheel is one hundred percent absent from the life of the Timberlake character before he falls for her and there’s zero question as to whether he played any kind of parental role in her life.  Of course the other little wrinkle to this interpretation is that the love triangle at its center does not exactly end well, and if Allen does mean for it to be any kind of allegory it does not necessarily speak well of his own actions.

Truth be told, all of that doesn’t really matter, as the bigger problems with the movie are largely unrelated.  The problem really isn’t the story so much as the writing.  The movie is very talky, which I suppose could be said about most Woody Allen movies but the dialogue is particularly heightened here.  I think Allen is very intentionally trying to make this seem like a stage play with the way most scenes only involve two or three people and who they’re pretty willing to tell rather that show at certain points.  The exposition here is really lazy, characters just monologue off their entire backstories for the first third of the movie and they seem to verbalize a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling rather than letting the audience intuit it.  In other, more comedic Woody Allen movies this wouldn’t have been as conspicuous but this movie is pretty serious and somber, there aren’t really laughs to distract from that kind of thing.  There’s also a certain theatricality to the performances here, particularly from Winslet, who manages to really make a lot of this material work better than it might have.  Juno Temple is also pretty good here but the male actors don’t fare as well.  Jim Belushi, who doesn’t have the same background in dramatic theater that Winslet does generally fares worse with this material but it’s Timberlake who is particularly miscast.  I get why the idea of casting Timberlake might have made some sense; he’s about the right age, he has the look of a life guard, and he’s also attractive enough to make sense as the love interest for two different women, but his character is supposed to be this sensitive intellectual and that is very decidedly something Timberlake cannot pull off.

If nothing else Wonder Wheel certainly looks better than pretty much anything else Woody Allen has ever made.  The film, like his last film Café Society, is the product of a special deal he signed with Amazon Studios which has given him much larger budgets to work with than he’s used to.  This one cost about $25 million to make, which isn’t a huge budget in the grand scheme of things but is huge for him.  The dude has only made three movies since the 70s that have grossed more than that in theaters.  You can certainly see the budget on the screen.  There’s a ton of period detail and Coney Island is recreated effectively and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro beautifully captures the light of the wonder wheel shining into the characters’ apartment.  I do however wonder if this huge budget is part of the problem though, like Allen knew this kind of financing was not going to last so he pulled the one script set in 1950s Coney Island out of his files and rushed it into production before his last opportunity to make something this expensive went away.  Obviously the guy has been accused of using first drafts before, and I’ve usually felt that was unwarranted but I think it’s true with this one.  That’s a shame because all told I really wanted this thing to be great and to prove Allen’s doubters wrong, but it just isn’t.

Home Video Round-Up: 12/7/2017

Spielberg (11/9/2017)

 

 

I’m not exactly sure why 2017 was the year that Steven Spielberg decided to put out a feature length HBO documentary that looked at his life and films, it also isn’t exactly the first time he’s done something like this.  He did the documentary Spielberg on Spielberg with Richard Schickel about ten years ago which had a very similar format, but this documentary is a little bit longer and certainly flashier.  In addition to Spielberg there are a lot of other talking heads here including colleagues from the 70s like George Lucas and Brian De Palma, family members, and some critics.  There are definitely interesting tidbits here and there and I don’t have a whole lot of complaints about anything that’s actually in the documentary, but despite the two and a half hour running time I feel like there just wasn’t enough here to really justify this thing.  Entire movies like The Terminal and The Adventures of Tintin are ignored entirely, many films like War Horse and Amistad are only barely mentioned, and even the major movies are generally only discussed for something like five to ten minutes apiece.  I get that there are a lot of people that simply don’t care about some of these minor works but given that there’s already more than enough discussion of Jaws and Jurassic Park out there this would have seemed an ideal time to shine a light on some lesser known or at least less talked about films.  Overall the documentary is probably worth at least watching if you’re a Spielberg fan but it’s hardly definitive and would have felt a lot more special if it had been expanded into a two or three part event that really digs into this career.

*** out of Five

Beatriz at Dinner (11/28/2017)

In the trailer for Beatriz at Dinner a critic is quoted as saying it was “the first great film of the Trump era.”  That’s certainly not true, as this is by no means a great movie, but I could sort of see why someone would invoke “the era of Trump” when talking about the movie.  The movie is set up to be a sort of battle royale that happens when an under-privileged hippie earth-mother type played by Salma Hayek finds herself at a dinner party at a mansion and has to confront a billionaire arch-conservative played by John Lithgow.  If the movie wants these people to be representatives of the left and right it sure seems like the filmmakers are stacking the deck.  Beatriz is this almost saintly paragon of virtue while Lithgow seems to be playing an almost cartoonish asshole, and while I don’t exactly object to Billionaire arch-conservatives being depicted as assholes (the shoe certainly fits), a little more nuance would have probably made for a more even matchup that might be more fun to watch.  Still I could see why they would want a clear contrast set up this incredible match-up of forces… except that the battle royale we were promised never actually emerges.  Beatriz ends up folding pretty quickly rather than confront Lithgow for long and Lithgow doesn’t seem terribly interested in defending himself either.  That is probably a more realistic result of how a meeting like this would end, but given that the situation was pretty contrived in the first place I would have expected something more and as it is I’m not sure what the point of making a movie like this even was if this is all they’re going to do with a concept like this.

** out of Five

Whose Streets? (11/29/2017)

Whose Streets? Is a documentary focused on the unrest that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer.  The film is a combination of news footage, footage drawn from social media, and footage that was shot by the filmmakers who were on the streets while the protests were going on.  The film is, if nothing else, a great source of raw footage of what was going on in Ferguson, much of it very dramatic.  However, a lot of this footage does start to get a little tedious after a little while.  We see a whole lot of footage of very angry people doing all sorts of protest chants and lots of footage of increasingly militarized police acting coldly towards them, and occasionally footage of activists talking amongst themselves about how incorrectly they’re perceived.  The filmmakers have said a big part of their reasons for making the film was because they felt the protesters weren’t being covered correctly by the mainstream media and that they wanted to paint a fuller portrait and if that’s the case I’m not sure they really succeeded.  The film’s narrative about the protests isn’t too far removed from the narrative I went into it with (that of angry protestors being pushed around by an overly jumpy police force) and while there are some individual protestors who are highlighted along the way I don’t know that the film is ever really able to fully turn these events into a complete story.  Hesitant as I am to make a suggestion that would have made things a bit more conventional, some talking head interviews with some of the protestors shot after the fact to establish context might have helped.  Still there’s definitely enough here to give you something to think about even if it’s a bit messy along the way.

*** out of Five

Mudbound (12/1/2017)

It has been a policy of mine that movies which debut on Netflix without legitimate national theatrical releases are to be relegated to these short capsule reviews, and this has been mostly painless. That said the latest Netflix acquisition Mudbound is probably the closest we’ve come to a “real” movie debuting on the streaming service.  The film, an adaptation of a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, is set during World War II and its immediate aftermath looks at a white family and their interactions with a family of black sharecroppers who live on their farm in rural Mississippi.  The film is impressively helmed by Dee Rees, who has clearly honed her craft significantly since her work on the micro-indie Pariah, but as I watched it I increasingly got the impression that the novel the movie was adapting was decidedly “good but not great” and that the movie wasn’t really doing enough to elevate it and break it out of the mold of its original format.  It simply feels like it was being told from the point of view of too many characters and as a result it ended up short changing a lot of them and the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as well.  In many ways I kind of wish they had de-emphasized the white family significantly and just focused exclusively on the point of view of the black family.  The format they did choose to go with had some rewards but I don’t think they outweighed the drawbacks.  Still, the movie does get better as it goes and comes together in a pretty satisfying way by the end, so it’s definitely worth seeing even if I don’t think it’s any kind of new classic.

***1/2 out of Five

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (12/7/2017)

Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender woman and a major LGBT activist during the 70s and 80s and was actually at the Stonewall riot in 1969.  She died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances and her death was ruled a suicide by police at the time, but activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project had long been suspicious about this and the documentary follows her as she attempts to investigate Johnson’s death some twenty five years later.  Alright, spoiler here but this investigation does not really turn up much in the way of concrete answers and I think director David France expected as much.  In many ways this investigation is meant less as a true crime story like Making a Murderer or even Strong Island and more just as a literary device to look at Marsha’s life as well as explore the dangers that trans-women face in society and the work of the Anti-Violence Project.   This format gets a little messy at times but I’m not sure that the PBS “American Experience” version of Johnson’s biography would have necessarily worked better.  France’s previous documentary, How To Survive a Plague, is an amazing piece of work and I wouldn’t necessarily say the same about this one but it’s interesting enough and worth a look.

*** out of Five

Darkest Hour(12/9/2017)

Let’s talk about Gary Oldman for a second shall we?  Oldman is an actor who I wasn’t introduced to through one of his actual film roles but rather through online rumors that he would be the perfect person to play Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider-Man 2.  That was a role that eventually went to Alfred Molina, but such speculation was not uncommon at the time because to a lot of people Oldman was someone who would be perfect for pretty much any role and anytime there was a high profile role that needed to be filled his name seemed to come up in the rumor mill, to the point where even Homer Simpson once insisted that Oldman would be the perfect person to play him in a movie.  Part of this might have just been Oldman’s tendency to show up in movies that were popular with the young male internet dwellers of the early 2000s but it also has a lot to do with the fact that he had this odd tendency to be both a hammy scenery chewing villain in movies like Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Fifth Element but also a dedicatedly chameleonic presence in certain roles like his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK or Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy.  The fact that he kind of stayed under the radar despite appearing in some fairly popular films was a help in this and gave him a certain cool factor.  The odd thing is, Oldman seemed to age surprisingly quickly.  Despite the internet’s obsession with him he sort of disappeared during the 2000s outside of his supporting roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises and seemed to re-emerge in the 2010s as a seasoned British veteran in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now he’d doing the ultimate British veteran move: playing Winston Churchill in an Oscar season biopic called Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour is set in the May and June of 1940 and begins with parliament calling for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for his inability to stand up to Hitler.  France was on the verge of collapse and the British Expeditionary Force that was sent to assist in the defense of France was retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais; decisive action was needed.  Unable to replace Chamberlain with his chosen successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the Tories instead turned to the one person in their party that the opposition party would accept: the outspoken hawk Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) despite the general distaste that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has for him over his various previous failures.  With the success of the Dunkirk evacuation very much in doubt Churchill had one very difficult decision to make: will he consider hearing Germany’s terms for surrender and call for a cease-fire or risk a potential slaughter and defeat if they aren’t able to find a way to get those men off the beach in time.

When the movie Lincoln came out a few years ago I felt like it encountered a lot of resistance less for what it was and more for what people assumed it would be.  I think what they assumed it would be is a movie not unlike what Darkest Hour is actually like.  I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie is a hagiography it’s certainly a movie that’s been made for people who are already very much believers in Churchill’s legacy.  The film isn’t afraid to show him as a drunken old man at times but it’s not very interested in challenging his worth as a leader.  The film actually serves as a sort of “Last Temptation of Churchill” and ponders what would have happened if the man whose entire legacy was built on his uncompromising certainty in the importance of fighting Nazism had considered surrendering rather than fighting.  I’m not sure I buy that this was something that Churchill really dithered over as much as is shown and I also doubt there was really as much pressure being put on him to do so as is depicted here and the sequence it invents to depict how he made his final decision is frankly corny and ridiculous.

Gary Oldman is of course really good here, possibly too good.  The film is very interested in showing some of Churchill’s vices, which is important as you want to illustrate why so many of Churchill’s colleagues and rivals doubted him at this point.  Oldman is almost too good at making Churchill seems like a mumbling drunken old man, to the point where you really don’t get how this guy ever pulled himself together enough to be this beloved figure that he is.  There are some other solid actors here like Ben Mendelsohn, who has the unenviable task of playing King George VI after Colin Firth more or less defined the role of “Bertie” in The King’s Speech but does a pretty good if not wildly memorable job just the same.  Ronald Pickup is also quite good here as Neville Chamberlain, a tragic figure that I almost would have wanted to see at the center of a film like this and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Churchill’s wife even if she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.  Lily James is also good here as Churchill’s secretary, but I’m not exactly sure why her character is in the movie.  She seems like she’s meant to be an audience surrogate but the movie isn’t actually from her perspective most of the time and in many ways she kind of seems like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay where it was.

Darkest Hour isn’t a bad movie so much as it’s a poorly timed movie.  A year or two ago a movie about the political machinations going on in the background of the Dunkirk evacuation would have seemed like fresh ground for a film but Christopher Nolan kind of made a movie this year called Dunkirk which showed the evacuation itself in visceral detail.  Darkest Hour by contrast feels like little more than a crappy sub-plot that Nolan knew better than to put in Dunkirk to keep from slowing it down.  The experiences of soldier’s fighting for their lives is always going to be more cinematic and interesting than the old white men bickering in dark, sometimes literally smoke-filled, rooms.  And even if Nolan hadn’t made that film earlier I’m still not sure that 2017 is the best year to try to get audiences to root for a large and somewhat unconventional conservative leader to stick to his guns while in the presence of establishment doubters.  The bigger problem here though is just an absence of anything overly compelling.  Director Joe Wright adds a couple of interesting flourishes but does nothing to write home about and the script is not insightful enough about its subject to really add much to the conversation about him.

The Disaster Artist(12/2/2017)

I’ve never really been one to watch movies that are “so bad they’re good.”  I’ll watch the occasional MST3K episode but in general I’m of the belief that it’s almost disrespectful to waste your time on stuff you know is crap when there are so many actual good movies that go unseen.  As such I was a bit late to the party when it came to the most infamous bad movie of the 21st century: The Room.  For the uninitiated, The Room is a film that was made in 2003 by an incredibly weird guy named Tommy Wiseau apparently with his own money which has become infamous for how hilariously bizarre and misguided it is.  It regularly plays to packed midnight screenings where fans engage in Rocky Horror Picture Show style audience participation involving plastic spoons and footballs.  I didn’t see the movie through one of those screenings (watching movies at midnight is not for me) but I did rent it on DVD and it totally lives up to the “hype,” in fact it may well have been worse than I expected.  Most infamously bad movies are genre films that feel like they maybe could have been passable if given a little more time and money and maybe a little tinkering, not this one.  The Room was clearly intended to be this literate indie movie where Wiseau puts his soul onto the screen, but Wiseau seems so oblivious to the basic logic with which most people see the world that nothing about it works at all.  Part of The Room’s appeal comes simply from the way it forces you to ask “What were they thinking? How the hell did something like this come into existence, what were they thinking?”  Fortunately James Franco has come along to answer that question with his new film The Disaster Artist, a comedy which seeks to reenact the events which led to the creation of this incredible oddity.

The film begins in 1998 when an aspiring young actor named Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) attends an acting class in San Francisco where he tanks a line reading in part because he lacked a certain level of confidence.  That did not seem to be a problem for someone else in the class, a mysterious character with what appears to be a thick European accent named Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who proceeds to deliver a wildly over the top recitation of the “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”  Realizing that, if nothing else, Wiseau could teach him a thing or two about confidence Sestero decides to meet up with Wiseau and prep a scene.  The two eventually form an odd friendship despite Wiseau’s general Wiseau-ness and the two decide to move to L.A., where Wiseau apparently has an apartment, to pursue their dreams of professional acting.  Two years later they’re both chasing their dreams, not terribly successfully, and Wiseau gets an idea to stop waiting for Hollywood to give them his break and write and finance his own film which he’ll cast himself and Sestero in.

It is perhaps fitting that it would be James Franco who to bring Tommy Wiseau’s story to the screen given that Franco’s own directorial career actually parallels Wiseau’s in some curious ways.  Franco’s directorial career started off real shaky with him making these very low budget movies that few people saw and which were widely labeled “vanity projects.”  At James Franco Comedy Central Roast his friend Jonah Hill alleged that Franco’s philosophy was less “one for them, one for me” and more “one for them, five for nobody.”  Mind you these movies (which I admittedly haven’t seen and only know by reputation) weren’t necessarily said to be poorly made so much as they were said to be movie’s whose ambitions greatly exceeded Franco’s capabilities, especially in the case of his attempts to make adaptations of lofty works of literature by the likes of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.  Given this and his occasional eccentric behavior maybe one can imagine Franco having a certain sympathy for this guy who was also writing, directing, financing, and starring in his own movie, trying to bring a strange vision to the screen even though no one seems to have much confidence in him and almost seems to be humoring him rather than working with him.

Unlike some of James Franco’s more experimental work The Disaster Artist is at its heart a fairly mainstream comedy that isn’t too far removed from some of the movies Franco has made with Seth Rogen (who has a small role here as well).  The humor of course comes from how freaking weird Tommy Wiseau is and the various ways people react to him.  This ultimately comes down to James Franco’s rather impressive ability to replicate Wiseau’s broken English and his strange ticks both in his recreation of scenes from The Room and in his off camera interactions.  Franco doesn’t look just like Wiseau, he seems to be a bit younger than Wiseau and less muscular and he seems to have opted not to use a lot of makeup to correct this, but you aren’t necessarily thinking this when not looking at them side to side and the work he does imitating the voice more than makes up for this.

Also like those Appatow/Seth Rogen movies there’s actually something of a “bromance” at the core of this thing.  When I first saw The Room I interpreted it as being a two hour kiss-off to some ex-girlfriend that Wiseau wanted to depict as a duplicitous bitch who was tearing apart the life of a wonderful blameless man for no reason.  In retrospect I think I might have been giving that movie a little too much credit in assuming it was saying anything as coherent as that.  The Disaster Artist doesn’t do much of anything to back up the notion that Lisa is based on any real woman.  Instead the movie posits that the movie actually ties into Wiseau’s friendship with Greg Sestero.  The friendship between Wiseau and Sestero is an odd one; one gets the impression that Wiseau’s status as a weirdo makes him lonely and particularly grateful that Sestero and Sestero seems in many ways grateful that Wiseau believes in his dream of becoming an actor and supports this monetarily and otherwise.  The movie even hints that Wiseau may have had a homosexual attraction to Sestero and feels threatened when Sestero gets a girlfriend and starts drifting away from him.  Whether his interest in Sestero was sexual or not The Disaster Artist seems to posit that Wiseau made The Room and wrote a bit of a “bros before hoes” vibe into it in order to reform his bond with Sestero.

The obvious reference point for The Disaster Artist is almost certainly Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood, which was also a semi-loving look at an enthusiastic but wildly misguided maker of infamously terrible movies.  That movie was affectionate about its subject and ultimately celebrated him as a misfit who meant well and did the best he could.  I think Franco sort of feels the same way about Wiseau, but I sense something more akin to fascination than affection from the movie.  It also doesn’t sugarcoat some of Wiseau’s less pleasant characteristics including some of the more dangerous corners he cut in making The Room like refusing to pay for air conditioning during the shoot and his incredibly rude treatment of an actress while shooting a sex scene, which leads to a rather heated debate between him and Sestero about the on set behavior of other better directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock.  One could also see how a lot of what Wiseau does here would be a lot less funny if not for the fact that Wiseau was (for mysterious reasons) extremely wealthy.  He isn’t dropping his entire life savings into this movie and he isn’t wasting other people’s money in making it and because of that the stakes here are kind of low.  One can imagine a version of this story where someone like Wiseau takes the advice of La La Land and follows their dreams, puts everything on the line, and ends up making something like The Room but without the “Springtime for Hitler” reaction.  That story would be a tragedy, but Wiseau could take the hit and ended up with something of a happy ending, so his story is a comedy and a funny one at that.