A Star is Born(10/6/2018)

There are not many movies that weren’t already literary adaptations that can be said to have been remade three times.  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one, King Kong is another (sort of), and now it looks like after eighty years A Star is Born has joined the club and is perhaps the least likely member: it can’t serve as a convenient metaphor for various political climates like Invasion and it doesn’t serve as a barometer of special effects progress like Kong but it does have the benefit of being a sort of fable woven into the entertainment industry, Hollywood’s original sin story if you will.  It’s a story that shows both the positive and negative sides of celebrity, the joy of getting recognition and the fame and fortune this brings you but it also shows how that kind of attention can break someone, about how the public can be fickle and how the attention and pampering can lead to substance abuse and self-destruction.

The original 1937 A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is the least flashy take on the story but it is to my mind clearly the best of the first three versions, in part because it simply had the weight of originality behind it.  It was one of the first really major movies to have Hollywood take a hard look at itself in the mirror and question the glitz and glamour of the industry.  The 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason is to my mind rather over-rated; it changes almost nothing from the original film and adds very little except to give it a larger budget and add a bunch of not overly memorable musical sequences.  The 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand did change things, it moved the story from the film industry to the music industry and was also the first adaptation to have to deal with more modern gender norms, but not all of its changes really worked.  That movie’s biggest problem is that by 1976 the industry self-reflection of the original film was less a revelation and more of a cliché, especially in the context of the music industry.  It wasn’t exactly a shocker that musical tastes changed with the times or that rock stars were sometimes prone to addiction, and on top of that the music in that movie did not age particularly well.  That last movie is not particularly well remembered, which is probably a big part of why we didn’t get another remake on the usual twenty year interval and are not just getting the fourth version with Bradly Cooper and Lady Gaga which seems to actually be following the cues of that last version by being set in the music industry but is looking to do it right this time.

In broad strokes this is still very much the same A Star is Born story that David O. Selznick produced back in 1937.  The aging male star this time around is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a rock veteran that maybe isn’t at the height of his fame but is certainly still able to draw arena sized crowds to play to despite being a raging alcoholic who’s just barely managed by his much older half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott).  The young ingénue this time around goes by the name Ally (Lady Gaga) and as the movie starts she is working as a waitress while playing some gigs at various bars including a drag bar that she is invited to perform at despite being a cis female.  One day Maine drunkenly stumbles into that drag bar looking for a drink and lays eyes on Ally while she’s performing a cover of “La Vie en rose” and is instantly smitten by both her and her talent.  The next day he invites her to one of his concerts and surprises her by inviting her on stage to sing a composition she’d told him about the night before with him.  Video of that moment goes viral and, well, you know what the title of the movie is.

The first obstacle in trying to adapt A Star is Born in 2018 is that the romance at the center of that first movie is one that’s fairly rooted in dated patterns of courtship in which younger women marry older men seemingly on the spur of the moment as a sort of business transaction.  If you go back and do the math there actually isn’t as big of an age gap between the actors in the previous adaptations as you might think, but they certainly read as having a pretty big gap between them.  Watching the movies you certainly would not have thought that Kris Kristofferson was only six years older than Barbra Streisand or that Frederic March was only nine years older than Janet Gaynor.  By contrast Bradly Cooper being a full eleven years older than Lady Gaga is one of the wider age gaps in the history of this cinematic tradition but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.  Lady Gaga actually had hit songs on the radio before Bradley Cooper had his breakout role in The Hangover so they seem to be very much of the same pop culture generation.  This plays out a bit awkwardly on screen as Gaga is most definitely playing someone a lot younger than her actual age of thirty two and Cooper seems to be playing someone older than his actual forty three years both in terms of performance and musical genre.

Cooper’s place in popular music in particular is rather curious.  At one point it’s mentioned that he started his career around 1994 and broke big around 2004, meaning he would largely be a creature of the late 90s and yet the music he plays doesn’t sound anything like the sound of popular music in the late 90s and early 2000s.  He walks around in cowboy hats and speaks in an unnaturally deep voice, both suggesting a sort of country music milieu but the music he plays is heavy on electronic guitars and essentially boils down to a sort of Allman Brothers style Southern rock, but who playing that genre of music during that era would be a gigantic star today to the point where they would be instantly recognized walking into a bar?  There were a couple of people playing music like that back then like The Black Crows or maybe even Kings of Leon but they were never really that level of mainstream.  Truthfully very few rock bands of any kind were really that level of mainstream except for shitty bands like Nickleback and Maroon 5 of bands from very different milieus like Green Day.  The idea of this guy having been in the Hot 100 at the same time as 50 Cent and Usher is kind laughable, the character is so clearly meant to be like someone who got big in the 70s or something that he feels a bit out of place in a film set in 2018.  Of course this all may very well have been deliberate.  A big part of the problem with the 1976 version was that the music in it was so tied in with the sound of the era (very Jackson Brown and Linda Ronstadt) that it dated itself very quickly, so maybe going for a bit of a “timeless” sound was more important than lining up the pop music timeline.

The Lady Gaga character makes more sense emerging in the modern pop landscape, and yeah that’s by design.  I’ve always been a bit agnostic about the musical exploits of the real Lady Gaga.  I certainly wasn’t immune from the catchiness of “Poker Face” or “Just Dance” but I always had a sinking suspicion that her avant-garde music videos and elaborate costumes were all a smokescreen to make what was essentially glorified Brittney Spears music seem more interesting than it really was.  In the last couple of years she’s been moving away from her earlier Madonna inspired pop persona and into more of a rootsy style that would showcase her vocal abilities rather than her presentational flair and it’s been kind of a bumpy road commercially.  Her role in this A Star is Born remake can easily be seen as a furtherance of that career move as a big part of the film is a sort of tug o’ war between the sort of raw vaguely country-ish music she makes with Cooper’s character and her eventual solo career where she’s playing what is arguably sellout pop music (though the film is a bit ambivalent about how bad we’re supposed to consider these tunes) which is kind of a reversal of the direction her own career has taken.

However this is supposed to fit into her wider career it is pretty clear that Lady Gaga is the right choice for the role here.  She does a pretty good job of overcoming the fact that she probably is older than what the part calls for and does feel like an experienced actress rather than a pop singer who was cast after having only done a little bit of TV work.  Her singing is also quite strong, possibly stronger than it’s been on a lot of the pop music that made her famous, and she manages to make the film’s songs work better than they otherwise might have.  Take what is turning out to be the film’s signature song “Shallow,” which features heavily in the film’s advertising.  There’s some kind of suspect songwriting in “Shallow,” it’s diving metaphor doesn’t entirely come together and its chorus consists of the two singers turning the word “shallow” into something like seven syllables to fill a bar, but you’re certainly not thinking about that given the way Gaga belts it out and certainly not in the context of the scenes where the two are together.  I could say that about a lot of the music here, it’s certainly not the kind of music I would generally choose to listen to and there’s a sort of streamlined genre-less feel to a lot of it, but the movie manages to make most of them come alive in their performance and you also pick up on how the lyrics are influenced by the story in a way that real artists might obliquely reference their own lives in the writing.

Bradley Cooper also does a very good job of performing his own songs, a skill I had not necessarily expected from him.  He also does a very good job of acting in the film despite having possibly been miscast by himself.  He is indeed a little too young and for this part and the voice deepening he does is a little odd, but again you don’t necessarily dwell on this while you’re watching the movie.  Cooper also impresses as a director and films the movie with incredible confidence for someone who hasn’t directed before and you can tell he picked up some lessons from working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood (who was at one point trying to direct his own version of A Star is Born with Beyonce of all people starring).  He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique make the movie look great and Cooper has a clear knack for capturing shots in ways that looks appropriately iconic and gives the story a sort of bigness it might not otherwise have.  The film also manages to get access to a lot of authentic music industry locations like the Grammy Awards and the Saturday Night Live set and when it wants to reflect modern pop music elements it does it well.

So, it’s a very well-acted and well directed movie with a lot of solid music and interesting insights into stardom, so I must have truly loved the movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  Don’t get me wrong I certainly liked the movie and admired its craft but there are things about it that bug me, most notably the fact that it’s a remake of a remake of a remake.  I’m not inherently anti-remake at all, there have certainly been some great ones over a year but it does make it harder for something to really feel special when it’s the fourth of its kind, especially when it’s a character drama like this rather than King Kong or something.  Watching it I had something of a feeling of an old story going through its motions: you see the courtship, you see the good years, you see the award show breakdown, you see the inevitable conclusion.  It’s all done very well, probably a lot better than its predecessors even, but at the end of the day it’s not really bringing much truly new to the table except for superior execution and that just kind of means it’s never going to blow me away with any kind of true greatness or give me the kind of transcendent movie going experience.  Of course that is very likely something of a “me” problem that other movie-goers who don’t have all these other versions of the movie floating around in their heads are not going to have.

**** out of Five

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Sorry to Bother You(7/14/2018)

While I’ve long been a hip-hop fan I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the “conscious” hip-hop that has long been touted as the “smart” alternative to all the “commercialized sellout” hip-hop that most people actually want to listen to.  I certainly don’t need or want my rap music to be ignorant, and I’m not talking about artists like Tupac or Kendrick Lamar who mix politics into traditional hardcore rap, but I’ve always found it a bit suspect how certain “fans” seem to want this particular genre of music to act more as a billboard for various social or political causes and the further away from college the less use I have for a lot of these guys.  That’s not to say I eschew every group that falls under the “conscious” banner; The Roots are obviously awesome and Talib Kweli’s best stuff mostly works for me. But I have little use for the lecturing of Immortal Technique, Common’s music mostly seemed like a series of empty platitudes, and even the granddaddy of all these artists, KRS-One, could be rather tiresome.  And this brings me to The Coup.  I’ve never had terribly strong opinion about that group as they basically just seemed like one of many artists vying for attention in that space but they were distinct from some other “conscious rappers” in that they were even more left-wing than a lot of them.  They’re like the Rage Against the Machine of hip-hop and their members are committed socialists with distinctly anti-capitalist views and seem to be genuinely interested in burning everything to the ground and starting over.  I bring all this up because The Coup’s founding member is a guy named Boots Riley and he has now decided to move into filmmaking with his debut film Sorry to Bother You.

Sorry to Bother You follows a guy named Cashus “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in a makeshift apartment in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland.  In an attempt to get his life back on track Green takes a job at a telemarketing call center called Regalview where he’s told to “stick to the script” while selling encyclopedias (or something) over the phone to people who aren’t terribly receptive.  Cash struggles for a while before an older co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) advises him that he’d have more success if he used his “white voice” instead of his natural cadence.  From there Cash starts code switching while talking on the phone to customers (Stanfield is overdubbed in these moments by comedian David Cross) and almost immediately starts to become very successful and gets promoted up the corporate ladder.  That would seemingly be good news for Cash but it puts him at odds with some of his old friends who are tying to start a union in the lower levels of the company and with the world at large given that the film is set in a satirically heightened version of our world where a billionaire named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has been convincing people to sign lifelong contracts with a company called WorryFree that basically turns them into slaves.

If that summery didn’t make it clear, Sorry to Bother You is a really weird movie, though it’s not entirely without precedent.  The movie certainly seems to be in the same tradition as some of Spike Lee’s more “out there” movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and especially Bamboozled, which was also about a black guy who could be accused of being an “uncle tom” trying to decide how deep down the road of collaborating with racist corporations he wants to go.  However the film also seems to draw a bit from other culty movies like Repo Man and Putney Swope which choose to eschew subtlety and kind of shout their frustrations about the status quo in unusual and sort of surreal ways.  The film is being sold on the high concept of the salesman using his “white voice” to get ahead in telemarketing, and while the double consciousness of black Americans is a theme of the movie that concept is really more of a jumping off point than the dominant message of the movie.  Over the course of the film’s running time capitalism itself is just as much of a target as racism and increasingly takes the movie over by the end.

Much of Sorry to Bother You attacks American capitalism though a sort of satiric exaggeration.  For instance there’s the “WorryFree” organization that is essentially peddling slavery with congressional approval and there’s an even more outlandish allegory about worker exploitation that emerges later in the movie.  That would seem to be a powerful statement if you’re someone who’s so inclined to view the capitalist system as already essentially being legitimized slavery, but if you don’t already hold that view (I certainly don’t) the movie isn’t necessarily going to persuade you to see things that way and the allegory will just seem like some outlandish hyperbole.  In fact the movie delivers a lot of messages through outlandish hyperbole, it kind of feels like the sort of movie someone makes when they have a lot to say but don’t know if they’re ever going to have the chance to make another movie so they just throw everything into one project.  It wasn’t enough to make a movie about a guy who abandons his culture and sense of self for profit and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie about the ways capitalism pits poor people against each other and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie that takes digs at reality television, meme culture, and the modern art world, he needed to make a movie that comments on seemingly everything that’s came to mind about American culture and the result is a movie that is densely filled with slightly half-baked ideas.  I desperately want to give this thing an “at least it’s trying something different” pass, but at the end of the day it’s a little too messy and unfocused and also probably not as laugh out loud funny as it needed to be.

**1/2 out of Five

Summer, 1993(6/24/2018)

The always sarcastic marquee at my local arthouse showing the new Spanish film Summer, 1993 had a special comment on one side which reads “Not about ‘Exile in Guyville’” in reference to the 1993 Liz Phair album of that name and on the other side it reads “I was listening to ‘Siamese Dream’ a lot that that summer” in reference to the Smashing Punpkins album of that name.  That joke marquee isn’t really referencing anything in the movie itself (which is entirely disinterested in popular music) but more about that strange way that references to the summers of various years almost always conjures up certain nostalgic images whether or not your own experiences had much of anything in common with the popular perception.  Case in point Bryan Adams managed to sing very plausibly about his magical coming of age experiences in the “Summer of ‘69” despite the fact that simple google searches reveal that he was actually only ten years old that year so he probably didn’t actually buy his first real six-string at the five and dime and play it until his fingers bled that year.  The year 1993 is of course no exception, when I saw the title of the movie I was also instantly thinking about grunge music and Michael Jordan even though I was six years old that years old that year and was probably spending a lot more time listening to the “Little Mermaid” soundtrack than I was listening to “Vs.”  Of course that would theoretically prove to be a bit of a boon when it comes to looking at Summer, 1993 the movie as it eschews the notion that the “summer of” construct is owned by teenagers as it is also a movie about people who were six or so in 1993.

Summer, 1993 begins with a woman named Marga (Bruna Cusí) and her husband Esteve (David Verdaguer) adopting their niece Frida (Laia Artigas) and moving her from Barcelona to their home somewhere in rural Catalonia after Frida’s mother dies and hope to raise her alongside their own slightly younger daughter Anna (Paula Robles).  That is pretty much the entirety of the plot summery for this movie as it is very much a movie about observing people rather than really relaying a plotline.  There is a subtext to be discovered in that it becomes clear that it was three letters that took Frida’s mother to her final resting place, which is probably the main reason this is set in 1993, but this only really comes up in something like four or five scenes and the movie doesn’t really come out and explain it explicitly until a very well rendered conversation in its final moments.  Instead the movie remains largely in the little girl’s point of view and continues to follow her through her many mundane days across that summer mostly oblivious to the social and political situation that her mother’s death represents instead observes her as she’s going through typical kid stuff as she slowly adjusts to her new life.

Summer 1993 is a tricky one because I get what it’s trying to do and when I step back far enough I can admire that, but the process of actually watching it was a bit rough.  I hate to use the B-word about an art movie but if I’m being honest there was only so much of watching these kids do a whole lot of nothing particularly special without finding it all a bit dull.  This has been something of a quirk in my taste, a lot of filmmakers seem very interested in letting their cameras observe kids being kids but it’s something that doesn’t really work for me except for a couple of very specific situations where it works very well.  Last year’s The Florida Project for instance, worked like gangbusters for me but that looked at a childhood that was very unique and really examined how that kid’s messy family life affected her in a way that this movie intentionally avoids and other movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tends to move more quickly from year to year rather than focusing in on one rather mundane summer.  This one actually reminded me more of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but not the interesting parts of it like the dawn of life sequence or the magnificent camera work or ethereal nature that made it interesting, more like an extended version of the somewhat dull sequences of kids playing that sort of made that movie not entirely work for me.  And if watching kids play aimlessly is going to make a Terrence Malick movie dull you can probably guess this one didn’t really stand a chance.  Still, I don’t want to be too dismissive of it as it does in theory at least do a pretty good job of showing with subtlety a major adjustment in this family’s life, shame it also had to be so boring.

** out of Five

Solo: A Star Wars Story(5/27/2018)

Four months ago I went to a packed screening of Black Panther, which was a pretty memorable night at the movies for everyone involved for a lot of reasons but one moment that stood out to me was something that happened before the movie even began.  That moment came during the trailers when, in a moment of Disney corporate synergy, they played a trailer for the new Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I thought the trailer looked pretty good all told.  It had some neat images and looked pretty fun, but when the trailer ended I overheard something.  A girl who sounded like she was about nine or ten sitting a row or two behind me said out loud “that guy doesn’t look like Han Solo.”  This was one of those moments where someone spoke up and said what everyone was thinking and it mirrored something I had tweeted a month earlier when the film was advertised during the Super Bowl: “The #SoloAStarWarsStory trailer looks solid, shame it has to be about a character called Han Solo who isn’t played by Harrison Ford.”  The thing is Han Solo isn’t really a very deep character, he’s an architype, and his appeal is largely focused on what Harrison Ford was able to bring to him.  What’s more there just seemed to be something kind of odd about recasting original trilogy characters like that.  Yes there were a few examples like that in the prequels like Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, but the age difference there was so wide that it feels like a whole different ballgame.  As such I wasn’t too excited about this, but at the end of the day it is a Star Wars movie so it’s not like I can just not see it.

Solo begins about ten years before Han Solo showed up at the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars and sold his services to an old man and a young farmer on a quest to find a princess.  This younger Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is revealed to have been an orphan raised on the streets of an industrial planet called Corellia.  There he and a girlfriend named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) dream of running away from the planet and the gangster who they’re in debt to.  Unfortunately for Han his escape plan goes a bit awry and while he gets off the planet Qi’ra does not.  From there he swears he’ll come back with enough money to get her off the planet but first he finds himself enlisting with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot.  We cut to three years later where he meets a group of thieves led by a rogue named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and plans to join his crew of outlaws but needs to find a way to impress him first.

Now, in my introductory paragraph I focused in on the question of how a movie about Han Solo can possibly be made without Harrison Ford and I was walking into the theater with my mind pretty thoroughly closed on the issue.  To Alden Ehrenreich’s immense credit, I found these worries pretty actively slipping away while I was actually watching the movie.  It’s not even that Ehrenreich is particularly impressive in the movie so much as the youth of the Han Solo seen here makes more of a difference than I expected it to.  He’s younger here and less cynical and it’s easier to envision him becoming everyone’s favorite smuggler than I expected from the movie.  He also manages to look more like a young Ford than I expected and the movie did a pretty good job of replicating the character’s slightly dated 70s hairstyle without making it look silly.

Additionally, I remembered about half way through the movie that Ehrenreich actually isn’t the first young actor who was tasked with taking on a youthful version of a legendary Harrison Ford role.  The previous actor with this task was the late River Phoenix, who at the age of 18 needed to become the young Indiana Jones during the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we learn exactly what inspired most of that character’s trademarks like his hat, his interest in whips, how he got his scar, and where he got his fear of snakes.  Solo plays out a bit like that sequence but for Han Solo and expanded out to feature length.  We see how Solo became a pilot, met Chewbacca, met Lando, encountered the Millennium Falcon, and made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  It doesn’t get up to the point where he met Jabba the Hutt and became indebted to him but other than that it leaves basically no stone unturned in establishing most of the traits associated with the character albeit in a somewhat shallow way.

Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out less than six months after the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, a movie that I was highly critical of.  That was a movie that took big risks, something I’d be in favor of in theory but decidedly was not in favor of the way they chose to go about it.  Solo by contrast is a movie that plays it safe.  If anything I feel like it should be the other way around.  The “saga” movies should be the traditional movies carrying on a tradition and these spinoff movies that people are less invested in should plainly be the place where they’re free to experiment but the opposite seems to have happened here.  Despite that, if asked whether I liked Solo better than The Last Jedi my answer would almost certainly be “yes.”  I might not have a great deal of respect for Solo but it doesn’t make the same kind of boneheaded mistakes that Rian Johnson’s movie did and it mostly succeeds at its rather modest goals.  On the flipside The Last Jedi, for all its faults, was a movie that inspired me to write a 3330 word review which remains a site record while I’m straining to even come up with a thousand words about Solo.  At the end of the day this is a fun movie, and when compared to any number of other summer movie it measures up.  However, people generally expect a bit more of an event out of Star Wars and that sense of excitement is what’s missing from Solo.

***1/2 out of Five

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.

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.