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The Disaster Artist

Posted : 3 months, 4 weeks ago on 24 February 2018 06:39 (A review of The Disaster Artist (2017))

The Disaster Artist is pitched somewhere between star vanity project and reminder of what a gifted comedic actor it’s lead is, so think of it as something that encapsulates James Franco as a whole. It becomes something of an ego-stroking endeavor, as just about anything Franco touches inevitably does, and wants it both ways, to both laugh at and with its protagonist, but it’s still an accomplished little film in its own minor ways.

 

We hardly leave its main star, and if we do, it is to focus on Greg Sestero, played by Dave Franco, James’ younger brother. Yep, The Disaster Artist is both a family affair and an entertaining form of filmic masturbation as James Franco both pays tribute and parodies the making of a cult classic while clearly trying to pitch his own film as a ready for primetime player. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it’s not entirely one that comes off successfully by the end. The Disaster Artist has a parade of big name cameos that feel like favors called in at best, and at worst, like distractions from a narrative that’s gone routine.

 

Yet the relationship between the two men is one that’s fascinating when we’re allowed to merely sit back and watch it unfold. Sestero unironically finds Tommy Wiseau a magnetic and enthralling presence, and he’s not off the mark. For all of his questionable skill levels, Wiseau is a strangely hypnotic figure with his mane of greasy, unruly black hair, eternally heavy-lidded eyes, and accent that sounds like the Eastern Block by way of Burbank. If what Franco imagines Wiseau’s acting class exercise of the “Stella” monolog from A Streetcar Named Desire is true, it’s not an inaccurate summation of the piece in a skewed perspective. Even if it’s not true, it is still a wonderfully eccentric moment that makes us understand what Sestero sees in Wiseau that everyone else finds shocking, uncomfortable, or laughable.

 

But as the story goes on and we near the hellish production of The Room and the premiere, we find ourselves turning away from sympathetic feelings and more towards pointing and laughing. Wiseau is something of a tragic clown throughout, but the ending turns things a little too sour. There is something to be said for bad movies leaving as strong and lasting an impression as good ones, but The Disaster Artist isn’t smart enough to go there. It mainly wants to be a oneiric totem to James Franco the enervating artistic polymath, but it also reminds us that he’s best when sticking to comedy.  



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I, Tonya

Posted : 4 months ago on 21 February 2018 08:14 (A review of I, Tonya (2017))

There’s an uneasy tension laced throughout I, Tonya, as if the film is replicating the complicated athletic moves of its focus and it just as often fumbles the landing. Yet there’s still something absorbing and enthralling about it way it throws everything out there, class warfare, ambition, athleticism, domestic abuse, jealousy. It doesn’t all play out in harmony, but there’s a trio of lead performances here that rank among the best of 2017.

 

I, Tonya contains a wraparound faux-documentary framing of the events, and allows for events to proceed in often contradictory manners as the various characters give their insight and point-of-view. From Tonya Harding, as envisioned here, we’re witnessing an underdog sports story, a moment in time for her to overcome poverty, domestic abuse, and classicism to become a great Olympic-level athlete. Things get decidedly more complicated once we factor in the points of view of her mother, ex-husband, trainer, and various others with minimal to great insight on Harding and the controversy swirling around her.

 

At times this plays out in a thrilling combination of emotionally visceral terror and darkest of black comedy, like watching LaVona Goldman, Tonya’s mother, using her cigarillos like an extension of her hand to make emphatic point at a young Tonya about not fraternizing with her rivals. But then the film tips into uncomfortable or awkward territory, like watching LaVona kick out a chair from Tonya at a different moment. Sometimes I, Tonya goes for daring leaps and sticks the landing and other times it wipes out in a spectacularly messy fashion, but you gotta respect its ambition.

 

This uneasiness regarding Harding’s domestic abuse – first with her mother, then with her husband – colors much of the rest of the film. For all of the pathos that Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan generate with the material, the film turns some of it into a punchline. This creates a weird feeling where the tone goes sideways and flirts with treating such serious, volatile material with flippancy.

 

Everything works much better when we’re stuck in Harding’s mindset and we understand the world through her eyes. Robbie’s portrayal doesn’t engender or demand sympathy for Harding, but instead lets us understand how persistent abuse, a lack of education, and other issues informed her. We witness her flailing about and not focusing enough with her athletic skills and gifts, letting them go to waste or being frivolous with her training. Harding becomes a frustrating figure because she distinctly lacks self-reflection and demonstrates a massive inability to accept her own culpability or blame for her life. She’s a perpetual victim, and Robbie proves her beauty and charisma aren’t the lone reasons why she’s been on such a career upswing, but pretty wrapping for an actress that’s demonstrated an incredible range in a short amount of time.

 

Just as good are Allison Janney as Harding’s monstrous mother and Stan as her abusive ex-husband. They’re colorful, showy supporting roles that allow both actors to alternate between going broad when we’re in Harding’s perspective to more nuanced people when we’re in their own. The two of them become the twin poles of Harding’s life, and frequently battle each other and label the other as toxic in a bit of cognitive dissonance that’s both terrifying and humorous.

 

That’s something of a reflection of the film as a whole, cognitive dissonance that’s both terrifying and humorous, as the film wants to implicate the audience, the media, and everyone else in the tabloid-ready sinew of the story, but it doesn’t always land that tricky landing. When it does, I, Tonya is a gloriously twisted affair, and when it doesn’t it becomes deeply uncomfortable. There’s a lot of meat here, even if the aftertaste is occasionally too bitter it’s still a dish worth dining upon.  



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Loving Vincent

Posted : 4 months ago on 21 February 2018 03:45 (A review of Loving Vincent (2017))

Proof that an exciting concept is not enough to build a movie off of when you forget to populate with something beyond stimulating visuals. Loving Vincent is more of a film’s theory than an actuality, and it borrows artistic ambition and merit by piggybacking onto van Gogh’s work. Paintings that exude vitality, life, and passion like Starry Night become merely wallpaper to a tedious story that’s an approximation of coming of age story and limp murder mystery populated by characters who exist entirely to provide biographical info dumps.

 

Loving Vincent is an animated film created in the style of Vincent van Gogh, combining both his own masterpieces and newly created pieces by artistic collaborators hired by the directors. If you watch the entire film on mute, then it becomes a gold star classic for the ages as it moves with large swaths of color combinations in dramatic tension or romantically sweeping across the frame. It’s the story that sinks the whole thing.

 

For a film titled after the genius artist, Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo exist in the film as mere concepts and not as characters. This is a pity as they are endlessly fascinating persons. Instead, we’re stuck with Douglas Booth’s Armand Roulin as he tries to deliver the last letter of Vincent’s, meets up with several people that knew van Gogh during his final days, and begins to believe in various conspiracies theories about the artist’s death. Was it a murder or a suicide? The film presents unconvincing evidence for the former before finally conceding that it more than likely was the latter.

 

Shackling van Gogh’s gorgeous, mysterious artwork to such a non-involving story results in a film that feels only half-formed. Loving Vincent quickly turns from glorious achievement to middling exercise to, finally, a dull copy-and-paste affair. It’s a series of beautiful images in search of a compelling story, and a compelling story was right there all along in the emotional turbulence in the brief lives of Vincent and Theo.



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Lady Bird

Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 15 February 2018 08:40 (A review of Lady Bird)

The full complexity of a mother/daughter relationship gets a workout in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer-director. It’s a disarming charmer, and one that’s fully committed towards narrative sympathy for its variety of characters. It’s equally likely to make you laugh as it is to make you cry, and sometimes it manages to switch between the two poles all in the same scene so masterfully that you barely noticed it happening.

 

This dichotomy is there right from the opening scene. Christine, who has dubbed herself Lady Bird for no particular given reason other than that her ambitions are as scattershot as they are gigantic, and her mother have completed both a college visit and listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape. As they wipe away the tears from their faces, Lady Bird squirms for the radio and distraction while her mother asks that they sit in the emotion of what they’ve just heard. This somehow escalates into an all-out verbal assault from both parties before Lady Bird throws herself out of the car.

 

Family tensions are built upon innocuous moments turning into aggressive fights or chances to air grievances, and Lady Bird creates a metric ton for her family throughout. Lady Bird is at that particular age where you’re trying to shed the selfishness and impulsivity of the teenage years and grow into the more mature adult version of yourself, and those years are rife with fraught emotional upheavals. The hormones practically drip off the screen as she discovers how underwhelming losing your virginity can be, how it’s sometimes harder to breakup (and makeup) with friends than lovers, and that your parents are real people and not monolithic beings.

 

Gerwig assembles a cast that any director would be wise to envy. There’s Saoirse Ronan in the central role, and she’s developing into one of the best actresses of her generation with a range that’s impressive and an emotional openness and expressivity that’s refreshing. She begins as the definition of adolescent pique, and we witness her transformation into a more thoughtful, mature version of herself. Much of this is accomplished through Ronan’s physical choices as she seems to grow into her body’s lanky features as the film progresses. It’s a subtle choice but a smart one.

 

Just as great is Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Lady Bird really exists on the strengths and believability of this central relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf alternate between passive-aggressive spats and stopping cold to fawn over pawn shop finds. Metcalf’s mother clearly loves her daughter even as she sometimes stumbles over her expressions with aggressive jabs or misplaced slights. She’s a psychiatric nurse frequently working doubles and doing her best to keep her family together. There’s a touching scene where Metcalf is witnessed scrawling goodbye notes the night before Lady Bird is about to leave for college, each deemed not good enough to express her love for her daughter and thrown into a pile.

 

Metcalf and Ronan make their mother/daughter duo feel lived in and real in their numerous scenes together. Family relationships are complicated on a good day, and Lady Bird never shies away from this fact. Look at how the father figure tries to play peace keeper and good cop knowing full well how each of them will reaction to the various scenarios presented in the course of the film. Tracy Letts, one of many gifted Broadway actors Gerwig pilfered to fill in the supporting parts, is a master of minimalist acting choices. He clearly loves his family, but his depression causes him to retreat within himself and leave everyone slightly adrift too often. Letts expresses this quality through his body language and halting diction.

 

We understand these characters so well because Gerwig refuses to judge them. Look at Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, a theater geek she catches kissing another boy. He knows he’s done her wrong and comes to her with both an apology and a tear-filled confession about how his difficulty in reconciling his queerness with his Catholic faith. They hug while he begs her not to tell anyone as he knows his family will react badly, and she agrees to keep his secret. She even mentions that he’s still her friend later in the film. Gerwig never turns the situation into something grander or worse than it needs to be, and she asks that we give both of these character empathy as they flail about trying to figure out this whole growing up business.

 

There’s genuine tenderness here, and Lady Bird emerges as a great debut from an actor turned director. If this is what Gerwig is capable of at her first try, then I’m really excited about where she’s going to go from here. As someone who went to Catholic school for a brief period, had an occasionally flinty relationship with my mom, and participated in theater, Lady Bird struck some very specific notes with me. I found it insightful, touching, and funny in all the best ways.



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The Post

Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 15 February 2018 05:30 (A review of The Post)

Other than a brief detour into Roald Dahl’s literary work, Steven Spielberg seems particularly obsessed with exploring American values in his recent films. Lincoln looked at politics in action, Bridge of Spies was a Cold War thriller, and The Post delves into the newspaper business, more specifically the constitutional rights of the free press. It’s a valiant argument for the validity and necessity of the free press, but The Post feels rushed and like a second draft pushed through to the finish line in order to make a political point during a chaotic time.

 

It’s not as if The Post doesn’t speak directly to our time in which the current political administration is all but declaring war on the press at every turn, but that this is a film that too often bluntly hammers its points when a work finessed caressing would do. The Post was filmed during the earlier months of 2017 and rushed through for an awards season release, and the hurried nature of the production shows at times. Not just in the script’s occasionally soundbite dialog, but in the ways that several characters merely exist as a well-known character actor doing their thing and as not much else.

 

It’s also in the ways that The Post underscores Kay Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon papers as a heroic endeavor. Not that she doesn’t deserve it, but The Post’s rough draft nature treats every action and development in a life-or-death struggle with a largely unseen but oft mentioned enemy. Graham’s social position, many of the people the Pentagon papers pointed fingers at and painted in broadly negative lights were among her circle of friends and acquaintances, takes a large chunk of the film’s settings and drama. It’s almost too comfortable in these powerful circles, and some of the finger-wagging feels a little deflated as a result.

 

Still, there’s plenty to admire and love about The Post. There’s Meryl Streep’s performance where she finally plays a real person instead of an overacted monstrosity (August: Osage County) or a broadly comic creation (Florence Foster Jenkins). Her Graham is a woman slightly uncomfortable with the power she’s been given, not only as the owner of the Washington Post but with the choice to publish the Pentagon revelations or not. This is a Streep performance that you can get behind and root for, all fluttering anxieties spilling out in her nervous pauses and occasionally awkward diction.

 

Just as good is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, all sweaty rumpled career-man in the newspaper business. His gruff voice and demands to elevate the Post beyond its minimal sphere of influence is a loving tribute to the cigar chomping editors that typically populate newsrooms in film. He’s aided by a staff of reporters played by some of the best under-sung actors in the business, Bob Odenkirk being the best of the supporting players. The love for the newsroom is infectious in scenes of them hovering over mountains of material and trying to not only make sense of it all, but to condense it into a digestible piece of reporting to the masses.

 

The Post is ultimately frustrating simply because it just feels so self-congratulatory. It knows it’s talking about an important subject matter, it has two beloved actors, a tony production value, and a prestige director, but it mistakes these things as enough when it should probe deeper. The Post most reminded me of a Capraesque drama about Americana, and it works at that level, but it had the potential to really probe deeper and speechify less.  



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Pet Sounds

Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 13 February 2018 09:19 (A review of Pet Sounds)

During the earliest writing sessions for Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson turned to his then-wife and said, “I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, a record that he believed to have no-filler, Wilson wanted to top it, to bring a new maturity and depth to pop song craft. I like to think he accomplished all of his goals, and that quote is true for me.

 

I firmly believe that Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever made, a work exquisite artistry and beauty. The type of immaculate artwork that comes along once in a generation, if you’re lucky. Listening to this album is the closest I ever get to prayer, it touches me that deeply.

 

I distinctly remember my first listening experience with Pet Sounds. Having been a casual fan of their work, I knew of the Beach Boys mostly as surf-pop enthusiasts with song after song about girls, cars, and the mythology of California, and I wanted to check out more of their work. I knew this was frequently thrown around as their best album, and one of the all-time greats.  

 

I bought it on a whim, then went home and listened to it with my headphones in. Then I listened to it on a loop for about two hours that night, or whatever five listens through the album would total out to. I knew it something special, I knew it was touching something deep within my soul, and I wanted to crack its various mysteries and charms. Just a never-ending loop of its symphonic textures, enchanted and thrilled by the found sounds, and the sheer beauty of it all. It was incredibly fulfilling. I didn’t want to end.

 

Pet Sounds is a profound look into Brian Wilson’s fracturing psyche, and perfectly captures the moment when teenage despair transforms into adult lamentations. Even the love songs have a twinge of sadness to them. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” fires out the gate with a rush of sugary Beach Boys harmonies, bubblegum pop, and puppy love lyrics, and then you listen closer. The title contains an unseen question. It’s the sound of someone trying to convince themselves it would be nice for all of these things to occur.

 

This dichotomy is just one of the vast riches found on Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson created an entire musical universe out of professional rivalry with the Beatles, inspiration from (and envy of) Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, his deep admiration for Gershwin, and the voices/noises residing inside his head. There’s so much to discuss and process in listening to the album, whether it’s your first or hundredth, that it’s almost comically easy to zip past some of the smaller scale golden nuggets buried within.

 

The harmonies are so densely layered, the orchestrations so new, the arrangements so luxurious, that it’s easy to skip over just what they’re singing when it all converges into such a gorgeous package. But really pay attention to what’s being expressed here, and the songs somehow turn ever more glorious and vibrant, more melancholic and tortured. Look at how Wilson builds a bigger, better, more ornate Wall of Sound on songs like “I’m Waiting for the Day” and “Sloop John B.”

 

Although not much comes close to matching the strength and beauty of “God Only Knows,” a song that Paul McCartney has called one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And he should know a thing or two about writing a great pop song. The lyrical melancholia of “God Only Knows” clashes with the vocal harmonies in sublime tension. In an album populated entirely by pretty love songs, “God Only Knows” emerges from the pack as something divinely blessed and inspired.

 

Pet Sounds didn’t sound like anything else in 1966, and in many ways, it still doesn’t sound like anything else from our time either. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulders)” finds a way for the beat to swoop down in a way that sounds like the entire track is sighing. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is self-reflexive about not only the album, a commercial disappointment vindicated by history, but Wilson, as no lyric better summarizes him, and this album by extension, than “sometimes I feel very sad.”

 

Then there’s everything wonderful and strange about “Caroline, No.” The album’s closer, “Caroline, No” finds Wilson playing with tone colors and sounds that take it into a space-age pop song. It’s eccentric, it’s striking, it’s animated and imaginative, and it’s wistful and mournful. “Caroline, No” is everything that makes Pet Sounds a masterpiece in roughly three minutes.

 

DOWNLOAD: “God Only Knows”



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Ferdinand

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 10 February 2018 05:34 (A review of Ferdinand (2017))

Why do these thin children’s stories get blown out of proportion for feature length films? The greatness of something like The Story of Ferdinand is how such a slim story manages to pack such heart and emotion, and expanding it eventually means the studio enforced aesthetics takeover. That means we get an extended scene where Ferdinand, his goat friend/trainer, and fellow bulls engage in a dance off with a trio of Teutonic horses. If you’ve ever wondered what a cartoon bull would look like twerking, dabbing, and break dancing, well have I got the movie for you! For the rest of us, Ferdinand is a perfectly generic piece of studio blandness.

 

It also must be said that Ferdinand’s animation is just strange. For all of the personality and artistry put into its animal characters, the human characters are curiously flat, lifeless, and sharp angles made into various androids with limited emotive capabilities. Compared to Kate McKinnon’s eccentric goat, David Tennant’s Scottish bull, and John Cena’s central character, the humans don’t even look like they belong in the same frame.

 

Created where it’s due, for all of its various problems in episodic storytelling and bloated pieces, John Cena’s voice work is surprisingly strong. He manages to find just the right amount of strength, vulnerability, tenderness, and goofy charm for the role. He’s also smart enough to play straight man to the insane ramblings of McKinnon, who manages to invest her CGI goat with the same manic energy she brings to her live-action roles. They don’t salvage the film from being formulaic (there’s some anti-bullying messaging in there somewhere), but they do manage to make it fitfully entertaining and endurable. That’s about the highest praise I can give Ferdinand.



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Dunkirk

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 10 February 2018 05:16 (A review of Dunkirk (2017))

Darkest Hour from the other side, and with many of the same problems as that film, Dunkirk is possibly director Christopher Nolan’s most emotionally distant and perfunctory film. There’s some bravura sequences scattered throughout, but great individual sequences do not a great film make. Dunkirk is all cool technique for the sake of it, as there’s no actual story, characters, or reason to care involved.

 

I mean, there’s a lot of characters, but there’s no context, motivations, or development of any of them. Many of them, especially the young soldiers on the beach, vaguely resemble one another so keeping track of who is who depends on your ability to differentiate between handsome brunette actors in period military uniform. Then there’s a series of big name actors lending their artistic cache and gravitas to their thinly written roles, including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and James D’arcy. Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy remind us of how great and underappreciated they are as actors by seemingly turning their vaguely sketched out characters into golden material with more weight and teeth than the script contained.

 

Yet Dunkirk contains some of the greatest filmmaking in Nolan’s career. The opening stretch is a small wonder, and would’ve made for one hell of a short film. There’s also the tense scenes of desperation and hopelessness as threats continually pummel the Allied Forces while they wait for help to arrive. Yet much of this is happening without major context, and the splicing of three stories taking place across different time zones creates a hazy sense of continuity, narrative coherence, and understand of what is going on when and where.

 

Spatial coherence has never been a strong selling point for Nolan, and Dunkirk represents this problem in stereophonic sound and the widest screen imaginable. What was a forgivable sin in his Batman trilogy becomes a major black mark against this film as the precise editing tricks of the opening fall by the wayside to pure visual and sonic cacophony. If this editing choice was supposed to represent the emotional bewilderment of the soldiers, then it succeeds in the sense that the audience will be just as equally bewildered as to what is going on.

 

He’s better than this, so of course he’s finally being rewarded for his least personal or adventurous film to date. It’s handsomely made, but rather anonymous in execution. Any number of talented British directors could have made this film, and probably made it just as fussy and with the muted colors.



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Darkest Hour

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 10 February 2018 04:55 (A review of Darkest Hour (2017))

You can take one look at the trailer or promotional materials and know exactly what type of movie Darkest Hour is. Handsomely mounted in that generic prestige way, it exists merely as a vehicle for a great actor to give a commendable performance as a real life figure and clean up at awards season. There’s nothing much original here, and a creepy sense of déjà vu does sneak in. if you think you’ve seen Darkest Hour before, it’s probably because you have in a myriad of different forms about different historical figures.

 

Winston Churchill is an important political figure for the 20th century, and he’s gotten no shortage of famous portrayals over the years. Darkest Hour is yet another one, focusing in on the Dunkirk situation and fading out before he was voted out of office. Shame that it doesn’t have much original thought about the man, his legacy, or the entire situation. It just sits there while Gary Oldman acts through layers of makeup and padding in scene after scene alternate between being bleached out by over lighting and appearing muddy through not enough.

 

Oldman for his part is the sole reason to see this, and he’s reliably solid in the role. Yet a creeping sensation of a great actor doing fine work getting rewarded for a career achievement creeps into the film. Oldman’s remarkably muted work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should’ve won him an Oscar (if we’re going purely on prior nominations), but he’s going to win for slathering on the jowls and chewing the scenery as Churchill. Not to mention his career making Sid Vicious and any number of other eccentric and dangerous roles he’s played over the years. This one can’t help but feel like an over-due course correction, like Kate Winslet finally winning for The Reader, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, or Meryl Streep getting her third for The Iron Lady.

 

There is one particularly egregious scene in Darkest Hour that must be commented upon for its sheer stupidity and clear falsehood. It involves Churchill going onto the subway and speaking with the British public about fighting the Nazis. It’s nearly insulting to your intelligence for the film to present this episode as fact, and to expect you to swallow it wholesale. It is so clearly artificial that you’re a little amazed at the audacity of the film-makers to even include. I’m certain a large chunk of watchers ate it up, but much like the rest of the film, I was more induced to eye rolls and shrugs at the perfunctory nature of the whole thing.   



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The Shape of Water

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 06:41 (A review of The Shape of Water (2017))

Guillermo del Toro’s entire career has been built on a profound empathy for the monsters and the outsiders, sometimes metaphorically, quite often literally, and that goes to a logical extreme in The Shape of Water. Imagine Creature from the Black Lagoon played out as a Beauty and the Beast-style romance, now add in a large portion of mermaid, both specific and related, mythology and you’ll conjure something up that approximates the final product. It’s a gorgeous and achingly romantic story about two misfits rebelling against the system with the help from their fellow societal discards.

 

Richard Jenkins’ Giles narrates the film, positioning the story we’re about to see as a fairy tale about a mute princess that always belonged to the water before returning to it. From there, a certain sense of unreality pervades as we escape into Sally Hawkins’ Elisa numerous flights of imagination and remove from the wider world. This is a film that asks us to believe that Elisa would fall in love with an amphibious humanoid, breakout into an imagined musical number, and reveal a supernatural/folkloric component to her character that was hidden in plain sight all along.

 

I didn’t just buy into it, I was swept up in the grandiose romance of it all.

 

Elisa’s mute character is the primary character, but she’s surrounded by a unique blend of supporting players, Jenkins’ gay neighbor, Octavia Spencer’s tough co-worker and Michael Stuhlbarg’s secretive doctor. Each of them start off as those quick blurbs before the story eventually expands upon them in ways so quiet and subtle you barely notice that these fringe characters in the Cold War are embracing their agency, demanding to be seen, and pulling off heroic feats that any other film wouldn’t allow them to have. Spencer’s character is a particularly interesting one as she goes from knowing when to be subservient to higher-powers to straight-up defying the embodiment of toxic masculinity and (literally) calling in the cavalry at the last moment.

 

Any other film would focus on Michael Shannon’s military man as the hero, specifically on his journey into the South American jungle to kidnap the creature and bring him back for study. Not here, as he’s the film’s symbol of cruel patriarchy that must be toppled. And so he is by a gay man, a black woman, a mute woman, and an aquatic monster, a veritable assembly of wider society’s castoffs reclaiming a small speck of power and agency. The Shape of Water is powerful in this way, and del Toro was smart to place the film’s story at a distance despite the obvious parallels to modern times.

 

For all of its daring, The Shape of Water is lovingly old-fashioned in its sense of romance. Elisa and the creature develop their connection slowly, and she uses the language of music and dance to begin it. Watch her dancing with a mop in front of his tank in a manner similar to Gene Kelly with a mop in Thousands Cheer or Fred Astaire with a hat rack in Royal Wedding. Later she’s mentally placed them into an MGM musical, Art Deco design, gorgeous gown, and discordant vocals all present and accounted for. Guillermo del Toro allows includes smart callbacks and references to film history throughout his career, and a lover of musicals can spot the references in these sequences.

 

Even better is the magical performance he gets from Doug Jones as the creature. Buried underneath layers of makeup, Jones still manages to radiate a complete emotional life for his creature. Jones has long been a master of physical acting, merely look at any of the myriad of creatures he’s brought to life for del Toro in the past, but his work in The Shape of Water may be the best of his career. It’s a damn shame the Academy gets so screwy and withholding about nominating motion-capture or monster makeup work because Jones gave one of 2017’s most fully lived in and realized performances.

 

The Shape of Water is the sight of a master of his craft creating something so personal and tender, yet so profoundly strange and beautiful at the same time. Every Guillermo del Toro film is a cause for celebration and an excuse for me to get excited about the movies again, but there’s something really touching and poignant going on here. This may be my favorite film of 2017.  



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