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Darkest Hour

Posted : 6 months, 1 week 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 : 6 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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Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 05:26 (A review of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017))

Boy, the Academy must love Denzel Washington to sit through this movie long enough to decide that his performance was nomination worthy. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an unfocused legal thriller, allegedly, orbiting around Washington’s movie star charisma. Often times, this is enough to get its lead actor nominated (sometimes they even win), but it sure does make my dogged yearly attempt to watch the nominations in the major categories every year a slog. Another year, another instance where mega-watt charisma is not enough to sit through a boring mess of a film, but at least this time it’s not for Meryl Streep.


There’s about thirty to forty minutes of plot buried in this two-hour movie, much of it about a man selling his soul for the very things he’s worked his whole life to rail against only for it all to crumble beneath him in the end. Except, his choices are made outside of his normal job and done completely at random. There’s no court thriller here despite Dan Gilroy’s attempts to fit this particular square peg into the round hole.


Even worse is how so much of the film is just flat out dull and boring. Colin Farrell’s shark lawyer is more sympathetic than we’re initially led to believe, so painting him as some kind of moralistic devil bargainer is a wash. Even worse is the waste of Carmen Ejogo as a love interest for Roman, but there’s no chemistry between the characters or reason for you to believe that they would connect in any meaningful way. There’s a lot of extraneous material added to the center, but the center itself is not strong enough to lull you into its world.


Leave to Washington to make you sit through this movie. One of our greatest living actors, Washington’s charisma and talent is enough to sit through even his more questionable ventures, and this is proof positive. He’s given vast amounts of vague political and legal beliefs to espouse without any actual meat being thrown out in the process, but goddamn does he make it sound like important and potent talking points. He’s saddled with playing a movie idiot-savant, so there’s lots of tics, penchant for insulting everyone, and an inability to healthily interact with anyone. He somehow manages to make these almost cohere into a viable persona, but Gilroy’s script never gives enough attention to any particular incident long enough for anything to arise from the mire.  

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The Boss Baby

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 04:29 (A review of The Boss Baby (2017))

A two word premise that’s been stretched out to 97 minutes with a fair number of borderline nihilistic and confused messages going on, The Boss Baby has got to be one of the worst movies ever nominated for an Oscar. There’s clearly a very muddled message about an older sibling’s feelings of resentment and fear of replacement at the heart of this movie, but it’s far too concerned with cynical jokes to even bother exploring that. It’s as if DreamWorks is the Asylum of animated feature studios in comparison to the more thoughtful and unique boutique studios like Laika, Pixar, or GKids. They get a unique premise and then never bother developing the idea beyond that initial premise, load it up with numerous pop culture references, unearned emotional moments, and then send it out with the established plans for an eventual franchise. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, this is a film that positions there’s only so much love to go around in the world and tries to make us laugh at the concept of a special milk formula that keeps babies developmentally stunted while they engage in office culture. Hard to think that this entertained any kids, but at least there’s a few moments of creative animation to liven things up while it spins its wheels.

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The Fury

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 04:02 (A review of The Fury (1978))

A clear signpost for Brian De Palma’s transition away from the more experimental early half of his career and towards the more coherent latter half, The Fury still plays out a smorgasbord of ideas thrown against a wall and waiting to see what sticks. Pumped full of so many detours and tonal changes that it’ll spin you around just as violently as John Cassavetes during the final scene, The Fury is an entertaining mess. But it’s never less than a mess.


De Palma’s prior film, Carrie, has its own moments of kitsch and twisted comedy, but the brutality and homerun of its ending smooth over any inconsistencies there, and that trick is not repeated here. The Fury is ostensibly about a pair of teenage psychics being studied and trained for weaponized use by a secret government organization during the Cold War, but it takes its sweet time getting not only to that plot point but happily diverts with a plethora of car chases, violent shootouts, and other distracting episodes.


The main plot becomes something of an afterthought routinely, and such an afterthought that the third act becomes something of a rush job. The film has teased our two main characters eventually meeting up and unleashing havoc, but there’s no great or satisfying payoff to that tease. De Palma’s sexual hysterics here play out like a particularly horny and gore-obsessed teenage boy struggling to tell a story without getting too distracted by diversions playing into those twin interests.


We’re promised a thriller, and we get in spots, but we also get bloody gore, subpar espionage scenes, and misplaced comedic interludes that play in such discordant notes with the rest of the film that make your head tilt in confusion. We open with a psych-out of terrorists storming the beach to break-up a father/son pair, but they forgot to factor in that the father is played by Kirk Douglas. Spartacus won’t go down until the final frame, if he goes down at all. It’s all an elaborate copout, and one made to setup Cassavetes with a dead arm that’s a glaringly obvious symbol for a type of castration.


Look, no one would ever accuse De Palma of subtlety, and I won’t even try. Then the son, Andrew Stevens mostly asked to glare and flex, becomes a trained attack dog and bored demigod that is ripe for a rage against the machine, and so it goes on and on. Throw in Amy Irving as the distaff half of the teenage psionics, Charles Durning as a shady institute’s head, and Carrie Snodgress as a rebellious nurse, and you’ll begin to see why this thing is more entertaining than it is coherent.


Even worse is how little The Fury makes us care about any of its characters with Douglas’ being a particularly nasty bastard prone to using both Irving and Snodgress at their most emotionally vulnerable to achieve his goals. This is Douglas at his hammy worst, but at least he’s balanced out with a solid performance from Snodgress and an effectively oily one from Cassavetes. I’m just not sure what to make of Irving’s performance, at times she’s delicately vulnerable that she’s deeply engaging, but others she’s strangely flat or awkward.


I suppose that carries over into the entirety of The Fury. There’s some daring thematic material at play buried somewhere underneath De Palma’s histrionics. It’s no Carrie, and probably more than enough fuel for several chapters in Misogyny in the Movies: The De Palma Question, yet The Fury is entertaining enough during it. Just don’t think too hard about its abundance of disappearing characters, plots, and needless diversions.

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Best in Show

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 January 2018 05:12 (A review of Best in Show)

Out of all of Christopher Guest’s mockmentary comedies, freewheeling exercises of improvised comedy with some of the best in the business, Best in Show clearly lives up to its title. This particular style of comedy is the one with the greatest degree of difficulty to execute. If you give too much rope to the performers, you can end up with self-indulgent exercises that isolate the audience by virtue of being performed to an audience of one. Or a desperation for every idea, no matter how good or bad, to get its due. But if you can get the formula right, then it’s a rich and rewarding experience. Best in Show gets it right.


What can make or break these things is a solid enough structure to keep everyone operating along a workable track, but also provide a structure that’s bendable enough to go where the laughs are. By introducing us to each of the pet owners individually and reminding us that they’ll all eventually meet-up at a dog competition, Best in Show’s structure of a perfect example of this phenomenon. We get to indulge the weirdest and kookiest of ideas that the actors have in the earliest scenes, and then we watch how those character quirks play out under a pressure cooker situation.


Granted, the hit/miss ratio is clearly stacked in favor of hit rather than miss, but there is a certain amount of fatigue and exhaustion that creeps in as it slides towards finish. It’s a forgivable sin, even the best scripted comedies have a hard time keeping up the laughs and pace, but it does become noticeable that the whiffs at bat are more prominent at the end than they are anywhere else. Still, by this point Best in Show has already given you the sight of Eugene Levy with (literally) two left feet, Catherine O’Hara walking with a rubbery knee, Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock using their dog to passive-aggressively battle each other in therapy sessions, and Guest sitting in a car rattling off every type of nut he can think of. That’s a bounty of laughs that any other film would be envious towards.


For all of its rapid-fire and cruel jokes, Best in Show still bows down to the triumph of the underdog sports film clichés. Based on the vanity and monstrous nature of so many characters, or their complete obliviousness as in Jennifer Coolidge’s trophy wife, just spot the characters with the biggest rooting interest and you’ll guess how it all ends. Thankfully, this is where Fred Willard’s completely crazed performance pops-up to not just liven things up, but provide a type of colorful commentary that scans as the active ramblings of someone incapable of escaping their own mind. When the plot gets a little routine, leave it to Guest to unleash a secret weapon to not only keep the breakneck pace of laughs going, but to elevate some of the material to kind of surreal genius.


It seems almost cruel to even say anything critical about Best in Show when it’s just so goddamn funny, and consistently so. Sure it’s got some structural problems, but the strengths swallow them up. And there’s litany of verbal fireworks, throwaway asides, visual gags, and physical comedy that just makes me tear-up from laughter no matter how many times I watch it. Really, that’s the best the blue ribbon for any comedy.

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The Iron Giant

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 January 2018 04:11 (A review of The Iron Giant (1999))

A variation of the “boy and his dog” genre, but also something much deeper and more mature than that synopsis would suggest, The Iron Giant is a little movie with a powerful punch. Released in the summer of 1999, The Iron Giant was buried beneath an avalanche of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me blockbusters and sleeper hits like American Pie and The Blair Witch Project. Damn shame in retrospect, but quality will last and a cult quickly developed around the film.


I’m embarrassed it took me until thirty to finally watch this from beginning to end, but it holds up incredibly well and perhaps hit me in a deeper way than it would at twelve. Looking back, I don’t remember much of a marketing campaign for this, and maybe a rival studio was still afraid of even trying to compete with Disney’s gargantuan machinery as Tarzan was bound to steamroll anything in its path anyway. Yet, The Iron Giant is something that felt so profoundly engaging and like a direct connection to parts of my obsessions and visual aesthetics that bring me joy that I do miss not growing up with this.


No matter, I finally found it.


What immediately stood out to me was the delicate balance Brad Bird struck on his debut feature. He manages to tell a story with sincerity and sentimentality, but also to provide equal weight and validity to dangerous, scary moments and a sophisticated tone that never condescends to its family audience. Mercifully free from post-modern snark that was beginning to strangle the life out of these films, The Iron Giant is a smart, mature throwback in numerous ways.


Obviously, there’s the setting and all of the complicated emotional baggage it brings with it. 1950s America presented itself in its biggest films as a pastoral of impeccable grooming and booming economies, but a closer inspection reveals that the Norman Rockwell exterior was wrapped around post-war malaise and atomic age anxieties about potential nuclear destruction. The Iron Giant taps into these conflicting emotional states by placing the film in a small-town in Maine. This also provides an excuse for the various artist involved to fill the screen with as many autumnal colors as they can think of, and the entire film glows with the twinge of nostalgia.


Then there’s the ways it combines its two most obvious influences, Steven Spielberg and Hayao Miyazaki, in ways that find the commonalities between the two creative titans. The clear artistic progeny of E.T., The Iron Giant continues to explore the sentimentality and hardships of growing up, of making the big decisions in life when you’re possibly ill-equipped to fully understand their ramifications, and the story beat of people encountering the extraordinary and deciding to do something proactive about it. Yet it’s where and how Brad Bird takes these beats that make The Iron Giant so distinct.


Other films would lean into the Giant’s existence as a gigantic war machine and liter the film with explosions upon explosions, afraid that scenes of characters talking wouldn’t engage the little ones. Well, they can if they’re well done, and The Iron Giant has several action sequences dolled in sparse incriments that only add to the strength of the narrative or the dramatic tension, whichever is necessary at the time.


This is where Miyazaki’s influence is clearest: in the way that this film follows a different pace than most American animated films. It’s slower, it doesn’t beat the themes and messages over your head, nor does it make any single character completely virtuous or villainous. The world of the film resides in a grey zone that pushes back against the “beauty will best evil” reductive nature of so many of these things. I mean, the main bad guy is a Cold War agent who believes the huge metal war machine is a potential act of aggression and needs to be taken out, and you understand exactly where he gets that impression and why. You understand his actions and motivations, even if you don’t find yourself in agreement.


Yet The Iron Giant continually argues that we are who we chose to be, and never is that more effectively demonstrated than in the titular creation. His defiant proclamation that he is “not a gun” is a rousing moment of the ghost in the machine taking hold and claiming its own agency. His eventual sacrifice in the face of nuclear holocaust got me as we witnessed this rudimentary lunk of Fleischer-styled metal man grow a personality and perhaps a soul. We are who we chose to be, we can rage against our worst programming, we can grow and change. That’s some powerful stuff to dispel.      

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Queen of Earth

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 28 January 2018 11:40 (A review of Queen of Earth (2015))

Two privileged women (Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston) retreat up to a remote cabin every summer, but something’s very different about this year’s trip. Not only do the women learn just how far they’ve drifted from each other, but one of them seems on the precipice of a complete emotional collapse. Through flashbacks, we see that these fissures may have started from last year’s summer trip to the cabin, but there’s something far deeper at play here. It’s as if these two women have been long engaged in a game of emotional friction that they’ve both forgotten how to play, or even what the rulebook or point of it all was.


The past and present aren’t merely in communion with each other, but violently and abruptly bashing into each other throughout. The past isn’t a mere prologue here, but vitally alive, vengeful, and frequently rhyming with the present in ways that play out like an occasionally sick joke. Last year, Waterston was the one in an emotionally delicate situation while Moss was occasionally callous towards her, and situations repeat with the roles reversed and Moss’ stability increasingly called into question.


Queen of Earth also calls into question the concept of the reliability of its narrative as Moss’ fevered imaginings and hallucinated phone conversations pile-up. Are these slights real things, or is Moss’ character completely losing her ability in remembering what happened when or what is and isn’t happening outside of her overactive imagination? It’s here that Queen of Earth threatens to deflate under its own ambitions, but it keeps things powering through with its beautiful images, chilly but absorbing tone, and the strengths of the two lead performances.


Much of Queen of Earth is about how Elisabeth Moss’ character is feeling isolated from everything, including herself, and how severe depression can completely disrupt your life and health. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry and Moss work in tandem to not explain away these concepts or feelings, but to contextualize them. Moss’ character is in such a delicate and neurotic state that she can’t even accept the polite offering of a lunch without feeling like there’s some deeper, sinister portent lurking beneath it.


For her part, Katherine Waterston gets the more grounded role, but she has a tricky tightrope to walk herself. We’re never asked to truly feel sorry for these self-absorbed or clueless progeny of wealth and means, and the film often highlights the blinders they wear to go about their lives, but Waterston has to make her role somewhat understandable and her growing concern for Moss feel like it comes from somewhere deep and true. To watch them both work is to be reminded of how they’re two of our greatest working actresses. They make us understand the claustrophobia and despair of depression, and how those who never experience it will never be ever to fully understand or engage with those that do. You may as well be an island in the middle of the lake.

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Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 09:35 (A review of Looney Tunes: Back in Action)

The general sense I get from this is that Joe Dante wanted to make one film, and the studio just kept muzzling him for whatever reason. Who knows why, but maybe it was a fear that the denizens of Termite Terrace needed to be softer to be more palatable to modern audiences. I don’t know, it’s just a shot in the dark. For every anarchic, free-for-all sequence, I’m thinking of Joan Cusack’s Mother and Area 52 falling into chaos with monster movie cameos galore, there’s another like the Dusty Trails musical interlude, wherein we watch Heather Locklear change skimpy outfits then promptly vanish, that simply feel like half-formed jokes with no payoff or reason for inclusion. Looney Tunes: Back in Action didn’t exactly live up to its promise, but it’s silly, it’s goofy, and it is clearly trying to reclaim the cinematic chaos so built into the brand. It gets points for trying even if the much buzzed return to greatness was more marketing razzle-dazzle than deliverable goods.

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The Last Unicorn

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 09:22 (A review of The Last Unicorn (1982))

I didn’t grow up with The Last Unicorn, so this was actually an entirely fresh viewing experience for me. I knew nothing about it going in, and I was pleasantly surprised by it all. Not everything works, and some of it hampers or outright harms the overall vibrancy and coherence of the tone, but there’s enough good stuff here for me to understand the devotees of this cult classic.


It contains the classical structure of a “questing narrative” so baked into fantasy literature and fairy tales that it’s nearly impossible to think of a major property that doesn’t include some form of this. In fact, The Last Unicorn is best when it merely observes this quest in a quiet pace and we linger on the images and absorb the elegiac emotionality radiating from its main character.


Even better is the animation style that borrows from medieval tapestries, think Disney’s Sleeping Beauty but without the infinite resources of that studio. Parts of the final animation style are choppy or lacking, battles for instances, but there’s a twinkling, mellowing atmosphere throughout that is quite engaging. Simply watching the unicorn walk through this vibrant forest is enthralling for the pull it provides such angular beauty.


There’s also the case of the strong vocal cast, with Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Keenan Wynn, and Christopher Lee getting highest marks. Far from the motherly Mrs. Potts, Lansbury gives her witch a vaguely Scottish tone and a sharp, terse pronunciation style that’s quite aurally pleasing. While Wynn gets a pair of roles, both the rotund Captain Cully and the imprisoned harpy, and he manages to make both of them distinct and unique. While Lee brings his typical professionalism and wonderful elocution to King Haggard, and manages to make us both fear and pity this broken, unhappy man in a scene where he both threatens the unicorn and explains why he stole them all.


I haven’t forgotten about Mia Farrow, as she is indelible to making this film work in the central role of the unicorn. The Last Unicorn contains a melancholic core, and a general sense of plaintive longing and belonging throughout. Farrow’s voice doesn’t just blend into these aspects, but enriches them and makes them stronger. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the central role once you hear Farrow, and the ending is only stronger for the emotional reading she gives her final lines. Despite not being able to see her graceful, waif-like visage, you can feel it throughout and it’s a perfect merging of actor and material.


Yet for all of these strengths, The Last Unicorn has several things that kneecap it from being an underrated masterpiece. Chief among them is the god-awful songs by Jimmy Webb and America. The theme song is fine, and it works as it plays over the opening credits, but making the cast sing completely unmemorable songs bogs things down unnecessarily. The worst offender is a love song between Farrow and Jeff Bridges. Not every single animated film needed to be a musical, especially if strong or memorable material just wasn’t there to justify its inclusion.


There are also several brief moments of juvenile humor that standout from the more mature and rich tone of the rest of the film. I’m thinking of a butterfly singing anachronistic songs and making a series of rapid-fire jokes that recalls Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy blitzing through several animated films with the same shtick at various levels of success. The Last Unicorn is too mature for moments like this, and they made me roll my eyes and sigh in frustration when they would pop-up.


Still, I understand where the ardent defenders are coming from, and I won’t judge them for loving this. It is charming in many ways, and I admired how it placed a forlorn, poetic beauty and heavy dramatics over empty spectacle routinely. While The Last Unicorn is imperfect it is still a damn-fine way to spend rough 90 minutes.

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