Loveless(3/18/2018)


Despite being a major world power Russia really doesn’t have the strongest filmmaking legacy.  That the country was run by a totalitarian government that suppressed free speech for much of the 20th Century almost certainly had something to do with this.  There aren’t too many movements or collectives you hear about in Russian film, rather there tends to be one dominant figure who acts as the standout Russian filmmaker in any given era whether it’s Eisenstein in the 20s and 30s or Andrei Tarkovsky in the 60s and 70s or Nikita Mikhalkov in the 90s.  For the 2000s and 2010s the most acclaimed Russian filmmaker, by a fairly wide margin, is Andrey Zvyagintsev.  Zvyagintsev is not necessarily the most popular figure with Russia’s Ministry of Culture but he consistently proves more popular than his countrymen at film festivals and has a solid following in the West and would likely be even more widely discussed if people knew how to pronounce his name.  His reputation has only expanded with the release of his latest film Loveless, which did quite well at Cannes and which was also one of the 2017 nominees for Best Foreign Language film.

Loveless looks at a rather unpleasant married couple who have already resolved to divorce as the film begins.  The husband, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), has apparently been having an affair with a younger woman named Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) who is already pregnant with his child while the wife, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), has been having an affair with an older man named Anton (Andris Keišs) who she considers much more gentlemanly than Boris.  Caught in the middle of all this is their twelve year old boy Alexey (Matvey Novikov), who is often ignored and neglected as his parents fight among themselves.  One day the parents realize that their son has disappeared and may have been gone for a couple of days without them having noticed.  Receiving little help from the police the two find themselves hiring some sort of private investigator to help track down the kid but their internal conflicts continue to plague both of them.

Andrey Zvyagintsev started his in the early 2000s with a film called The Return and has continued to make a number of intentionally cold little slices of life that feel meditative while still telling stories and having plots that can be grasped.  His last film, Leviathan, was something of a departure in that it had more of a streak of satire, albeit of the pitch black variety, and had more of an allegorical level.  His new film, Loveless is a bit of a return to the style of something like Elena which simply takes an artful look into the abyss of bourgeois existence.  As usual Zvyagintsev films the movie by making great use of a still frame and giving the whole thing a sort of artful gaze.  It’s kind of like what David Fincher’s films would look like if he worked on less commercial projects and generally slowed things down a little.  Zvyagintsev also makes great use of these Moscow locations which certainly don’t seem to be lacking in money but which are still rather desolate and kind of depressing.

One of the film’s producers has said the movie was about “Russian life, Russian society and Russian anguish” but despite that quote I do think people are being a little reductive when they look at the whole movie in terms of its Russian origins and reductively call it a movie about how unpleasant that country can be.  After all, there are loveless marriages and missing children everywhere and I think the film does tap into a type of malaise which exists far beyond Moscow.  The film also shouldn’t be mistaken for some sort of argument for traditional family values as the movie is careful to also critique the society the way society pressured them into marrying when young and how it continued to keep them together despite obvious incompatibility.  There’s an odd sub-plot in which Boris is told by a colleague that his Christian fundamentalist bosses require that all the employees at their company be married with children and will fire him if its learned he’s divorcing, a policy which is pretty clearly only leading everyone involved to misery, but the problems these two people are facing are bigger than this of course and the film offers little hope at the end that their separation will really solve all their problems.  That general air of miserableness is not going to endear the film to all audiences, and as with most Zvyagintsev I find I probably respect it more than I love it, but it’s hard to deny it’s a strong piece.

**** out of Five

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Black Panther(2/17/2018)


The weird thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the critics seem to hate the MCU as an enterprise and yet they seem to like every individual film in the MCU and whenever one comes out they seem to forget that they’ve liked every individual film.  Like, when Thor: Ragnarok came out last year the critics were all saying “oh my god, they really let Taika Waititi inject his signature humor into this, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  Of course four months earlier they were saying “oh my god, they really managed to turn Spider-Man: Homecoming into a down to earth high school movie, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.” And the year before that the critics were saing “oh my god, they really managed to turn Doctor Strange into a crazy acid trip, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  So on and so forth.  Critics also have a history of going overboard with their praise whenever a film seems to be an advance in representation in Hollywood cinema, something which led a lot of critics to really lose their minds when presented with good but not truly extraordinary movies like Wonder Woman, Bridesmaids, and The Big Sick.  As such I was pretty cautious when the raves and hype for the newest Marvel film Black Panther started rolling in as I feel a bit like I’ve been cried wolf to before when it comes to movies like this.

The action in Black Panther picks up about a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie which introduced the character.  With his father dead the time is now for young Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to be officially crowned as the king of Wakanda.  Wakanda is a fictional African country built on top of a reserve of a material called vibranium, a metal so useful and powerful that it trumps all the guns, germs, and steel that have allowed colonial powers to dominate other African countries for centuries.  They’ve used that technology to build some kind of cloaking device that hides their futuristic capital city and have generally hidden their incredible technology for centuries.  Shortly after his coronation T’Challa gets intel that an enemy of the Wakandans named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is going to be in South Korea selling a stolen vibranium artifact.  T’Challa promises his confidant W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that he will kill or capture Klaue, retrieves his new suit from his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and heads to Korea with his to top agents Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira).  Once there he finds an undercover CIA agent named Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) also on the hunt for Klaue, but what neither of them know is that Klaue is now in league with a man named Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who has grand plans that could have grave consequences for Wakanda.

Aside from the fact that the character was introduced in a previous film (a fact that would not be terribly apparent to people just jumping in here) Black Panther feels mostly independent from the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and outside of a couple of technical elements it does feel somewhat distinct from that Marvel house-style.  The biggest thing that sets this apart is its setting in Wakanda, which is quite the creation.  It takes a few leaps of logic to buy that this civilization could completely hide itself for so many centuries (how long have they had that cloaking device?) and the notion that they spent all these years living in peace and harmony with their neighbors despite having overwhelming advantages over them goes a bit contrary to human nature, especially given that they apparently select their rulers through trial by combat.  Still, once you get past that this is a really interesting place to be setting a movie.  We’ve seen plenty of science fiction versions of European and Asian cities but we’ve basically never seen a vision of a technologically advanced Africa brought to the screen with anywhere near this kind of budget or scope and it gives a very interesting flavor to the whole movie.  We see things that would be neat sci-fi tech in any context like a line of soldiers with force field shields and make them that much more unique by having them be tied to said soldiers’ African garb for example.

If Black Panther has a real problem it might be that it’s a touch over-crowded with a large cast of supporting characters who almost begin to overshadow the title character in his own film.  For instance, the characters of Nakia and Okoye feel a touch redundant, both basically just act as glorified sidekicks and one or the other likely would have been sufficient.  Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross is also a somewhat interesting presence in the movie but is also largely story irrelevant outside of his role as an outsider who can ask questions on behalf of the audience which probably didn’t need extra explaining.  The Forest Whitaker and/or the Angela Bassett character also probably could have cut down as we probably only really needed one tribal elder character to explain some of the backstory.  It gets to the point where, in the film’s finale, we get three different action scenes being intercut and the one where our hero is fighting the main villain is plainly the least interesting of the three.  Still there are a lot of side characters here who do work quite well.  I liked Letitia Wright a lot as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri who acts as a sort of Q figure giving gadgets to our hero and I particularly liked the film’s villain The Killmonger.  Michael B. Jordan isn’t necessarily the most physically intimidating villain Marvel has ever put forward what with his youthful demeanor and wacky Jaden Smith haircut, but he has motivations that generally make sense and you can divine a bit or a Trump allegory in the way he uses holes in the Wakandan succession laws to become a dangerous person in power.

On a pure filmmaking standpoint Black Panter is perhaps a bit of a step backwards for Ryan Coogler.  There are a couple of cool action scenes here, especially a car chase around the film’s midpoint but these scenes are a bit over-edited and there are a couple of moments of questionable CGI (the rhinos were a bit much).  I found the boxing scenes in Creed to better rendered in their simplicity, but perhaps that’s inherent to making big action scenes in Marvel movies.  I’m not exactly sure where I’d rank the movie within the annals of the MCU, especially given that Marvel has been varying things up lately and these comparisons have become a bit harder to make.  Visually it’s pretty high up there but maybe not as high up there as Doctor Strange, as a thriller narrative it’s also up there but maybe not as high as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and in terms of action it’s fairly high up there but maybe not as high as The Avengers.  Still there is an x-factor here that cannot be ignored; we simply haven’t seen an African science fiction movie like this before and that isn’t something to be ignored.  That’s something that sets it apart from last year’s “glass ceiling breaking” superhero movie Wonder Woman, which really didn’t do anywhere near as much in its imagining of a matriarchal society.  I’m only really able to ride the hype train on this thing so far, at the end of the day it’s a bit messy, but the things it does right it does very right.

**** out of Five

The Post(1/15/2018)

It used to be that Steven Spielberg was pretty much exclusively “the blockbuster guy” and when he made a relatively small movie (emphasis on “relatively”) like The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun that was considered to be something of a novelty.  For the first thirty years of his career that was pretty much the case and he’s make one “movie for grownups” for every three crowd pleasing blockbusters.  But then something seemed to change about ten years ago.  He was still making blockbusters, or at least attempted blockbusters, but somewhere along the way the “small” movies started to become more successful than the big ones.  In fact it could be argued that, if you count Lincoln and Munich in with the “small” Spielberg movies, he actually hasn’t made a well-liked and fondly remembered blockbuster since 2005’s War of the Worlds.  That isn’t to say he’s fallen on his face when he has tried to work on a bigger canvas: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly made money even if it was only through name recognition, The Adventures of Tintin has its fans even though there’s a good chance you forgot it existed until I just mentioned it, and War Horse was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite seemingly no one caring about it.  Then last year he made a truly dismal attempt at speaking to the youth of America with The BFG, an oddity which to me is plainly the worst movie he’s ever made and which was rightfully ignored at the box office.  Meanwhile his smaller movies like Bridge of Spies and the aforementioned Lincoln were quietly triumphant little movies than one could hardly level a single complaint towards despite not necessarily setting the world on fire.  His latest film, The Post certainly seems to be sitting in that category and sure enough it seems a lot more on target than his attempts at popcorn cinema.

The Post tells the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers from the very specific perspective of the Washington Post newsroom.  After a short prolog where we witness Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becoming increasingly disillusioned with American progress in Vietnam before deciding to break into the RAND corporation’s locked files and making photocopies of Robert McNamara’s controversial secret study of the war. From there we cut to Washington where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the heir to the Washington Post Company, is planning to take the newspaper public in order to give it a more prominent place in American news culture.  That is of course informed by the way the Post is something of a second fiddle publication compared to The New York Times and their competitiveness with that esteemed “paper of record” increases when it’s learned that they’ve obtained Ellsberg’s leaked documents and are beginning to publish them.  Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sends his people out to compete, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who manages to track Ellsberg down and obtain a copy of the Pentagon Papers, but when the courts rule against the Times the prospect of publishing their own stories based on the papers launches a lot of existential questions for everyone at the paper about what duty the press has to stand up to government that’s attempting to cover up its own mistakes.

The main talking point about The Post is how topical it is.  The screenplay was most likely written with connections to Edward Snowden in mind but it was purchased by Sony in the October of 2016 and production didn’t start on it until late May of 2017 after some re-writes in the ten preceding weeks.  As such this is in many ways the first truly post-Trump film to be made by a major filmmaker and everyone involved clearly knew this and leaned into it while still keeping things pretty strictly allegorical.  Specifically the film seems to be a rebuke of Donald Trump’s insistence on discarding any criticism against him as “fake news” and his rather Nixonian interest in obstructing the investigations into his dealings through firing people.  These connections to today are real and they’re probably intentional, but given the anger that the Trump presidency has engendered I’m not sure that its stance is going to be strong enough to really impress #TheResistance.  The film also ties into the debates about gender that have been going on through the Meryl Streep character, who is a woman of a fairly pre-Feminist mentality at the film’s beginning who finds her voice and steps up over the course of the film.  Again, that’s a neat little message but compared to the current discourse it isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation.

Ultimately The Post probably works best if you set the modern politics aside and just look at it as a sort of morality thriller.  Throughout the movie the characters are scrambling to both get their hands on the Pentagon Papers and determine what to do with them once they have them.  Spielberg does a pretty solid job of presenting all the parties involved through his all-star cast and explaining their relevance.  And when the characters do start debating the ethics of using the papers and the risks it poses to the paper it does become pretty thrilling and Spielberg does a good job of juggling these weighty discussions with the excitement of the journalists sorting through the papers and putting a story together.  Occasionally these discussions dip into being a bit on the nose, but not too far as to be a huge problem.  Really it’s a pretty hard movie to have many major complaints about but it’s also not necessarily something that knocks your socks off. That’s especially true within the high standard set by Steven Spielberg’s body of work.  Even when compared to his recent dramas I certainly wasn’t as impressed by it as I was with Lincoln and I’m not sure I’d even say I liked it as much as Bridge of Spies, which increasingly stands out as a pretty strong piece of work despite having the same “good but not novel” problem that The Post suffers from… but then again maybe this is only unexciting because Spielberg makes it look too easy.  I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who’s interested in this movie from seeing it, it delivers what it promises quite well, but I will say that there are other movies out right now that aim higher.

Call Me By Your Name(12/22/2017)

Do you need to relate to a coming of age movie to like it?  That would depend on your definition of the word “need.”  There are obviously ways to enjoy movies about the childhoods of characters who live lives pretty far removed from one’s own.  The ultimate coming of age movie is probably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which is based on Trufaut’s own experiences growing up in 1940s Paris, a milieu that would seem to be pretty different from where most modern American viewers would have grown up, and yet that hardly seems to matter because Antoine Doinel is such a well-drawn character and his ennui largely seems removed from his surroundings and on some level you can relate to the way that he responds to teachers and parents and the like.  Then there are examples like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which is set in a small town in Mussolini’s Italy, but in that case the town is in many ways more the protagonist than the young man at its center and the fact that it’s drawn from such specific memories of its director of this time and place makes it so everything that’s foreign about it simply makes it more interesting.  There are, however times when movies do lose some impact when your personal connection to them is a little more tenuous.  For instance, Terrance Malick’s otherwise immaculately made opus The Tree of Life ultimately never quite impacted me as much as I wanted it to, in part because I never quite connected to the nostalgia of its child protagonist and his rather specific experiences in rural 1950s Texas.  Conversely there’s a very good chance that the experiences I shared with the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood really multiplied the enthusiasm I would have had for the film by quite a bit.  I bring this up because the protagonist of the highly acclaimed new film Call Me by Your Name is about as different from me on any level as someone can be and it in many ways puts to the test whether you can connect to audiences in situations like this and how.

The film is set in 1983 in a small town in Northern Italy and focuses on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old son in a Jewish American ex-patriot family that is in Italy because of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed archeologist.  The film begins with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist the father for the summer and will be staying with him at the villa.  Elio has spent much of the summer reading, practicing his skills at the piano, and chasing after his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).  There is, however, something about his relationship with Marzia that leaves Elio unfulfilled and there’s something about this Oliver guy that he finds intruding.

Call Me By Your Name was directed by a guy named Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed a pair of films called I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which were both movies with fairly different tones but the one thing they had in common was that they were both about rich people living decadent lives in Italy.  A Bigger Splash in particular felt almost like “lifestyle porn” with its British and American expat characters frolicking around on a Mediterranean island while decked in expensive fashions and eating expensive food and seemingly not having a care in the world until someone gets murdered.  Call Me By Your Name does not feel as decadent as that movie did but it’s still very much a movie about rich ex-patriots who live cultured European lives.  Because of this I found the first half of Call Me By Your Name to be a bit slow, in part because it mostly just felt like it was painting a portrait of Elio, who seems like the most privileged 17 year old who ever lived.  This is a dude who is living as a citizen of the world in an idyllic Italian countryside with super chill parents who surround him with culture and who has friends and beautiful girls (who he seems fairly receptive to despite future developments) throwing themselves at him.  His life is one that’s so far removed from my own teenage experiences that simply witness it during its more mundane moments was not really giving me that thrill of recognition I often expect from these kind of movies, which isn’t inherently bad but in the absence of story development I wasn’t terribly interested.

The movie does, however, pick up in a big way once Elio and Oliver stop beating around the bush and commence with their affair.  This development has become controversial in some quarters because of the age difference between the two characters.  On paper Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, which is kind of questionable to begin with but it’s confounded by the fact that Timothée Chalamet is 22 but quite convincingly looks 17 while Armie Hammer is 31 and looks 31.  The movie does go out of its way to make it clear that the attraction between these two characters is mutual and that Oliver isn’t acting in a particularly predator manner and the movie does still eventually dig a bit into the reasons why a love affair between a high school student and a post-grad might not be an entirely healthy decision for either.  Still, I get why people would be queasy about this relationship but also why people would be open minded about it under these specific circumstances.  Regardless of the morality of the situation I do think Armie Hammer was a bit miscast here in terms of age and also because he never quite fit as this intellectual grad student and he never made it terribly clear to me why his character would be interested in this scrawny pretentious 17 year old.  The movie is primarily from Elio’s point of view so it’s makes sense that his experience of these events would be clearer, but that half of this romance could have been explored a bit more.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the year’s other high profile coming of age movie: Lady Bird.  Unlike this movie, the protagonist of that movie is incredibly relatable for middle class viewers from mid-size American cities.  That movie also feels a lot more clear eyed about how youthful romances tend to play out, which is to say that it views them as misbegotten superficial things that get literally painted over by the end rather than as grand romances to be remembered forever.  On the other hand this movie is hardly oblivious to the fact that the romance at its center is rare and out of the ordinary and the events of the film do feel increasingly meaningful during its last thirty minutes or so.  That’s the other big difference between this and Lady Bird: Gretta Gerwig’s movie feels highly entertaining pretty much from the beginning but never quite seems sure how it wants to end while Call Me By Your Name has a nearly perfect ending but seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to set it up and that made the film’s first half slow and uneventful.  I’m glad I saw the movie in a theater because I suspect I would have lost patience with it and abused the pause button if I was watching it at home.  It’s certainly a well-made film, one that I respect quite a lot, but it’s not necessarily the film for me or at least not the film that’s going to knock my socks off.

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.

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.