Avengers: Infinity War(4/28/2018)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

Shortly after I went to a Saturday afternoon screening of Avengers: Infinity War I went onto Twitter and tweeted the following: “#AvengersInfinityWar All I’m going to say is, if you’re invested in the MCU you’re going to want to see this and do so before the spoilers get to you” and I’d say that’s still more or less what I have to say about the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.  Truth be told I’ve found writing reviews for MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as if anyone is looking for advice as to whether or not they should see them is pretty delusional.  That isn’t to say that these movies are “critic-proof” as I do think truly negative reviews of them could take their toll if the movies suddenly took a real dip in quality, but while they continue to live up to expectations the people who are interested are simply going to keep going and this notion that anyone is waiting for little old me to weigh in before they put down their money would be even more egotistical than it would be for most of my reviews.  So, after this paragraph (and the perfunctory summery after it) this review is going to just dive in and talk about everything that happens in this movie and what it means to this whole enterprise and things will probably be a little more informal than usual.

The film picks up right where Thor: Ragnarok left off with the Asgardian refugees spaceship running into Thanos’ giant space base.  The Asgardian ship is quickly boarded and Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appears to have gotten a hold of the Power Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy, makes quick work of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleson), and even The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Thanos then takes the Tesseract, which had been at the center of The Avengers and was re-stolen by Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, and proceeds to kill Loki on the spot and take the space stone from the Tesseract.  Heimdall (Idris Elba) is also killed but as he’s dying he manages to use the bifrost to teleport Bruce Banner back to Earth.  The Asgardian ship is destroyed but Thor, being a god, survives in the vacuum of space and is rescued by The Guardians of the Galaxy, who are chasing down the distress signal that the Asgardian ship was sending out.  From there He, Groot (Vin Diesal), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decide to seek out a weapons forge while Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) go to The Collector (Benicio del Toro) to try to find the Reality Stone from Thor: The Dark World.  Meanwhile, Banner finds himself having been teleported back to earth, where the Mind Stone is in the hands of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Time Stone is in the hands of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after the events of his film.  Banner immediately seeks out Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and shortly after warning him and Dr. Strange about Thanos finds New York under attack by Thanos’ minions.

That above summery is a good example of why this is a hard write a normal review of this movie.  It’s a paragraph that will make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t already seen eighteen movies that preceded this one, and if anyone has already seen eighteen Marvel movies why the hell would they skip this one?  There are other Marvel movies that you can go to and more or less enjoy without worrying about how they fit into the overall story, but this certainly isn’t one of them.  This also isn’t a Marvel movie that’s trying to be some kind of Marvel infused take on some other genre.  It isn’t trying to be a blockbuster take on the high school movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, it isn’t trying to be a comedic space opera that so happens to fit into the universe like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was, and it isn’t trying to be a politically charged science fiction film like Black Panther.  This is, at its heart, purely and simply a Marvel movie.  Of course it does need to bring in disparate elements from all those other movies and at times while watching the movie I was almost reminded of the early episodes of Marvel’s Netflix crossover series “The Defenders,” which gave the audience the impression that they were flipping between four different TV series.  Certain sacrifices are of course going to be made.  For instance The Guardians of the Galaxy are generally not accompanied by the 70s music they’re associated with and the trippy visuals associated with Dr. Strange are a lot more restrained here but for the most part the Russo Brothers do a pretty good job of bringing all these characters together efficiently while still providing all the action and witty banter that people expect from these movies.

All in all the movie plays out exactly as most audiences are expecting it to play out in grand entertaining fashion… and then everybody dies.  Now this is an ending that’s going to play out very differently to different audiences.  Personally I kind of saw it coming.  I had vague memories of hearing that something like that happening in the comic books and leading up to my screening I saw a lot of headlines in the early reviews talking about the “shocking ending” in ways that probably seemed vague to the people writing them but which were pretty easy for someone who pays to much attention to this stuff to put two and two together.  It’s also going to be less shocking to the over-informed simply because it’s a lot easier to be cynical about how permanent any of these deaths are likely to be if you know too much about who has what contracts.  We already know that there’s going to be a third Guardians of the Galaxy so there’s no way those characters are really dead and that Sony is trying to build a Spider-Man cinematic universe which ensures that that character is coming back and that there’s no way in hell that Disney is going to let the Black Panther money train movie end here.  However, it is maybe worth taking a couple steps back and considering how that played to the vast majority of the millions of people who are going to see this thing.  While I’m sure a lot of them will also have a hunch that some of these characters are coming back they probably didn’t see this cliffhanger coming and Marvel has done a pretty good job of downplaying the fact that another Avengers movie is coming next year with the general public.  In particular I wonder how the children in the audience would react to seeing the bad guy win and kill a bunch of their heroes.  Is that going to be traumatic to them?  I certainly hope so.

Anyway, the other thing about the movie I want to talk about has less to do with the ending itself so much as what led up to it.  Thanos was really only able to enact his insane plan because a lot of the heroes make a lot of selfish decisions.  Thanos only learns the location of the Soul Stone because Quill fails to follow Gamora’s instructions to shoot her rather than let her be captured and interrogated by Thanos, Gamora makes the same mistake herself by giving Thanos the location rather than see her sister tortured, Dr. Strange ostensibly only gives up the time stone to save Iron Man, Quill screws up yet again by losing his cool when the other heroes are about to take the gauntlet, and of course the possibility of that unhappy ending easily could have been cut of right from the beginning if Scarlett Witch had just yanked the mind stone from Vision’s head and wrecked it.  Absolutely none of these decisions can be justified on any logical level.  The whole damn movie is like a precession of so-called heroes making wildly selfish choices where they put the lives of their friends and family above the lives of literally trillions of other people and in doing so.  It’s like the anti-Casablanca, no one seems to realize that the lives of a couple little people does not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy universe where a madman wants to wipe out half of the universe’s population with the snap of the fingers… and yet thematically this series of events is not an accident.  The emotional and arguably selfish actions of all these characters stands in stark contrast to Thanos’ philosophy, which takes the notion of “the ends justify the means” to a deranged extreme.  Thanos is willing to kill trillions “for the greater good” and the heroes often can’t even kill one person “for the greater good,” presumably there’s a middle ground somewhere to be found and we’ll have to see if they address this in the as of yet untitled next Avengers movie.

So I guess the last question is why this movie works so well despite theoretically having all the same problems that Avengers: Age of Ultron had.  I called that movie an over-stuffed mess and on paper this movie is even more “stuffed” than that movie was, but it still manages to flow a lot better.  It also manages to find a lot more time to develop its villain than that earlier movie did.  In fact I was kind of shocked at how much effort they put into giving Thanos, a character I expected to have something of a Dr. Evil quality, some real motivations and personality.  Above all I think what makes this work so much better than Avengers: Age of Ultron is just that it has a purpose.  The surrounding solo Marvel films simply hadn’t been building towards Age of Ultron, it was a movie that largely just existed because they needed an Avengers movie in “phase two,” the movie those solo movies had been building towards pretty much since the beginning had been Infinity War and the fact that they actually managed to deliver on that promise and deliver on it this well is quite the achievement.  Now granted, a lot of this movie’s overall legacy is going to depend on whether they stick the landing in the follow-up and that remains to be seen, but if the goal for now was to make us excited for the finale then mission accomplished.

**** out of Five

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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

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.