Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 January 2018

Best Supporting Actress 2017

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actresses whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

NAOMI ACKIE, Lady Macbeth

LOIS SMITH, Marjorie Prime

LESLEY MANVILLE, Phantom Thread

OCTAVIA SPENCER, The Shape of Water

LAURIE METCALF, Lady Bird

Also loved:
Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Elisabeth Moss, The Square
Michelle Pfeiffer, Mother!
Miranda Richardson, Stronger
Rachael Stirling, Their Finest

Related:
My Best Supporting Actress picks from past years (2004-2016)
My Best Actress picks from 2017 (TBA)
My Best Actor picks from 2017 (TBA)
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2017

18 January 2018

Thelma

Thelma felt sort of cliché. I wanted to love it because I love Joachim Trier, but this movie seemed like a retread of X-Men and Raw, and not in a good way. It's basic message is that you have to kill your parents, and, like, I already know that, so I'm gonna need this film to come up with something better.

Also, maybe it is the atheism talking, but when I'm watching a character have an interior struggle that involves religion vs. queerness I get bored very quickly. This is because I know that if religion wins out your movie has a serious problem. And so I know that religion isn't going to win out. This isn't just a plot problem – although it is a plot problem, because there are not really any stakes – it's also a problem of my own interests. I am just not interested in religion: in queer people's religion, in straight people's religion, in Christianity, in Islam, in Judaism, in any of them. I just don't care. I know that a lot of people do care, but I am not one of them. If I had known Thelma was in the least bit about a young woman's struggle between queer desire and Christianity, I would have passed on it.

But, Joachim Trier, I still love you!

16 January 2018

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

There is a ton to say about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In the first place, it's an old-school Greek tragedy, with a central daimon who enacts vengeance – what the Athenians called necessity – against someone, and by extension, his family. But, of course, this is Yorgos Lanthimos, so Sacred Deer is totally batshit.

The thing is, this film, by comparison to The Lobster and Dogtooth, actually isn't nearly as crazy. In many ways it is rather straightforward.

I was into it, anyway.

The film's best parts are the "normal" stuff, before the movie goes ancient on us. I loved the ancient tragedy stuff, too, don't get me wrong. But my favorite parts of any Lanthimos movie are his versions of normal, bourgeois behavior, where people speak in stilted ways and make slightly odd requests of one another.

The other great thing about Sacred Deer is the work of the actors. Colin Farrell is positively killing the game this year (he turns out great performances in this, in Roman J. Israel, and in The Beguiled) and every other year, if we are all honest. (Can you remember him giving a performance that wasn't good? I can't.) He is great in this. And Nicole Kidman has got to be the most fearless female movie star working right now. Do you know any other actress of her caliber who is willing to get naked and play a character this nuts for a film as small as Sacred Deer, a film that has zero awards ambitions? Kidman is doing the work. She isn't in it for the awards. She's making interesting film after interesting film and choosing them carefully.

And then there's Barry Keoghan, the film's strange minister of justice. He's good in Dunkirk, but he's electric in this. Creepy and sexy and compelling while also being totally terrifying. It's a really extraordinary performance.

I read one criticism of Sacred Deer that accused Lanthimos of being on autopilot – that this film just feels like a poor man's copy of his earlier stuff. This strikes me as unfair. Lanthimos is still getting stellar performances out of his actors; he's still creating strange worlds; he's still exploring bourgeois values and relationships. And this movie does all of those things in a slightly new way. It is definitely worth a watch. I found it totally enjoyable.

Best Supporting Actor 2017

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

COSMO JARVIS, Lady Macbeth
 

BILL NIGHY, Their Finest

JASON MITCHELL, Detroit

 BARRY KEOGHAN, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

MICHAEL STUHLBARG, Call Me by Your Name

Also loved:
Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird
Kevin Costner, Molly's Game
Ben Mendelsohn, Darkest Hour
Rob Morgan, Mudbound
Benny Safdie, Good Time
Algee Smith, Detroit

Related:
My Best Actress picks from 2017 (TBA)
My Best Actor picks from 2017 (TBA)
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2017 (TBA)

14 January 2018

The Last Jedi


I kinda liked this. I mean, I think Star Wars is sort of dumb, so I guess I am not the right audience, but it hit all the right buttons as far as I am concerned. It was way too fuckin' long, and, as always, it was self-important, but mostly I was into The Last Jedi.

It's Only the End of the World

A family screaming at one another for 90 minutes. Why? Vincent Cassel yells well, and I liked him, but otherwise I don't understand this film. Sometimes this happens with Xavier Dolan, and I feel like the movie is just people shrieking at each other (that Laurence Anyways was exactly like this, although this one was mercifully about an hour shorter than Laurence).

I love this cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel. But what is this movie other than yelling? I have no interest in this kind of nonsense. It's like a bad play. No thanks.

Maybe Dolan is processing something, but I'm bored.

Victoria and Abdul

Yes, apparently people make movies like this. But I'm not really sure why. I know everyone needs movies; they can't all be made just for me to enjoy. But who is a movie like this for? In the first place, Victoria and Abdul is just a retread of Mrs Brown. That movie also starred Judi Dench. So, we've already had our let's-humanize-Queen-Victoria moment. In fact, The Young Victoria (also a ridiculous film) tried this as well. Why do we need to have another one of these?

Worse yet, this let's-humanize-Queen-Victoria movie has this entirely absurd colonialist apology as its basis. The whole point of Victoria and Abdul is to show us how much this Muslim Indian man loved Queen Victoria and was loyal to her, even after she died.

What is the point of this? So this man was loyal to the woman who was in charge of the imperial power that colonized his country and enslaved his people. This is a good thing? We are supposed to be moved / pleased / charmed that this man loved Queen Victoria and that they had some sort of friendship?

This movie would still be bad, of course, even if it hated colonialism, but I am not sure I understand why this movie loves colonialism. I just don't get it.

12 January 2018

This Won Best Drama at the Golden Globes, But...

I have to say I quite liked Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. And I think I liked it for an odd couple of reasons. What I mean is that the reasons that I was into the movie now feel sort of odd to me since it is getting so many accolades... and also now getting trashed by other folks. (Trashing a Best Picture winner is called backlash, of course, and all movies that move into the frontrunner position get trashed, so this is to be expected.)

The thing is, I don't like Martin McDonagh's work. (Or his brother's work, if I'm honest.) And I should like it, right? I mean, theatre people love Martin McDonagh, especially my students. They love his plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore and that one about child torture – what's that one called? – The Pillowman. My students (perpetually in their 20s) and many many other people seem to love McDonagh. And I have heard no one say a negative word about his film In Bruges, a movie that everyone seemed to love. But I find McDonagh (both McDonaghs) to be cynical and, well, ethically questionable. I find them frustrating in their treatment of violence as mostly funny. They take this amused point of view toward violence that makes it seem like getting punched in the face or falling down stairs or getting a drill pushed through a thumb is cause for laughter. I've complained about this before here (while talking about John Michael McDonagh's film Calvary) and here (while talking about 7 Psychopaths).

I love McDonagh's early play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and his work began in the UK during a period I positively adore in the 1990s called In-Yer-Face theatre or New Brutalism – the time of Tracey Emin and the YBAs. This is a time period that is actually characterized by violence and drug use and onstage sex acts. But those plays almost always are very careful about the way they present violence. They're interested in asking the audience to think differently about the violence they're witnessing. The plays ask for a new ethics of violence or at least a rethinking of the ethics of violence to which we are accustomed. McDonagh's work doesn't do that (as far as I can tell).

Ok. But. I actually thought that Three Billboards sort of grabbed ahold of this and made it work. The film is an odd amalgam of violent images, cheap sentiment, and real ethical quandaries. And to my mind it worked much better than most McDonagh – including In Bruges and 7 Psychopaths – and it asked me to think about some interesting things.

The plot of Three Billboards is that a woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered and then burned until she is unrecognizable decides that the police haven't been doing anything, and so she needs to do something herself. She rents three billboards that call out the sheriff by name and then ask why he hasn't arrested anyone yet. It's an outstanding political move, but it quickly makes her an enemy of the people, as folks in Ebbing, Missouri side with the sheriff, begin to feel sorry for him, accuse this woman of hating the police, etc. People get distracted. They terrorize her; they shun her kid at school; they try destroy the billboards. The billboards rightly call out law enforcement for not having done their jobs, but people are more interested in accusing the woman of hating the police.

All I could think of for the entire movie was the Colin Kaepernick protests about the deaths of black men at the hands of police in the United States. Kaepernick kneels. He asks us to do something about the police killing unarmed black men. He attempts to call attention to something that is a real problem in the United States, a problem that has real, life-and-death consequences. ... And then all people want to talk about is the way he "disrespects" the United States flag. Right? Like, it is so difficult to talk about the issue of police killing unarmed black men and boys that we can't bear to talk about it, so instead we shift the discussion to "respect" for the stars and stripes. And I hear people say Well, he should have protested a different way, and all I can think is Well, we should stop supporting police who kill people, but I guess some folks think one problem is more important than the other.

This is how I understood the entirety of Three Billboards: as a lengthy meditation on Kaepernick and the hostility shown toward him and others who decided to kneel during the U.S. national anthem. (The outrage over this actually caught me a little off guard. I really don't understand why people are/were so angry at him.) What happens in Three Billboards is that people are in such a habit of siding with police, so invested in the pretense that "law and order" is functioning well in this country, that they are willing to support police officers who torture those they incarcerate and willing to turn against those who demonstrate that law and order isn't actually working the way that it should. The people in the film hate that someone is calling bullshit on law enforcement so they attack the person who is yelling bullshit instead of attacking the problem she is attempting to describe. For me, this aspect of the film works superbly, and I loved this part of it.

I recently read a piece arguing that Three Billboards is not smart about race. I suppose I don't really disagree. The movie's use of racial slurs for comedic purposes are typically McDonagh, and if they work in the UK context, they seemed stupid to me. But the piece also (intriguingly) makes the claim that the movie didn't need to be about race in the first place, arguing that McDonagh should just have left race out of his film, since his film isn't about race.  

Isn't about race? I submit that if a film is about prison or the police or the criminal justice system in the United States, then it is definitely a film about racism, even if it doesn't want to be.

Three Billboards is an uneven film. It tries to combine sentimentality, comedy, and a clever plot. But it can't really manage this combination. It simply isn't savage enough. There are long sequences where the film asks us to feel sorry for the policemen it criticizes – not in a serious way, but in a shallow oh-it's-hard-for-them-too kind of way – and these don't work. They made me want to check my watch and return to the main storyline. And McDonagh dwells in these areas for far longer even than make narrative sense.

When we left the theatre, Alexandrew, my companion, offered that (although he hated to say it) the movie would have been directed better by Tarantino. I have to (but not as reluctantly as Alex) agree. McDonagh wants to have sentimentality and brutality and comedy. We are supposed to say awwww when Frances McDormand doesn't want to have sex with Peter Dinklage, when Woody Harrelson writes a sappy letter to his wife, when we learn more about Sam Rockwell. But all of this sentimentality is awkward. It gets in the way of the film's real social analysis. It moves the film into cheap territory and away from the real thinking that I think Three Billboards had the potential to inspire.

08 January 2018

Lady Florence Pugh


Every performance in Lady Macbeth is perfectly calibrated and fascinating. This is a wonderfully directed feminist murder story that is easily one of the best movies of the year.

(Lady Macbeth honestly hasn't a thing to do with the eponymous Lady M.)

I loved it. It's compelling and sexy and everything The Beguiled wished it was. I can't recommend this enough. Everyone should see it.

Queen of Cannes as Queen of the Desert

Queen of the Desert is, perhaps, an interesting true story, if indeed it is true.


Gertrude Bell travels to the near East where she befriends and learns about the Bedouins and becomes a British agent who eventually divides up Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Nicole Kidman is in full period-piece diva mode here. And she is fine in this tepid film. Robert Pattinson works very well as T.E. Lawrence. Oh and James Franco is in this. As Kidman's first love. I actually had forgotten he was in this – the film sort of forgets about him as we move along – and I saw this movie two months ago.

The problem is that if the true story of Gertrude Bell is interesting, and it very well might be, Werner Herzog's film isn't very interesting (Werner Herzog made this film??). It's more like a rather dull historical pageant flavored with two love stories to spice it up a bit.

07 January 2018

One of My Favorite Films of 2017

A Ghost Story is one of my favorite movies of the year. Right now I have it at #2. It's a beautiful film.

A Ghost Story is a haunting, mysterious fable about longevity, about what lives on after us, about letting go. It also manages to be whimsical in lots of ways, and to rethink what we even mean by a ghost. The image of the ghost with the sheet over its head and holes for eyes is a very old one – a child's image of a ghost, or perhaps a Hayao Miyazaki image of a ghost. This is childish or whimsical; it's even sort of silly. But it turns serious quite quickly, even haunting, and there is an extraordinary payoff to its sheet-over-the-head aesthetic.

David Lowery's film is a kind of fusion of Kelly Reichardt, Tsai Ming-Liang, Terrence Malick, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and it was just my cup of tea. The thing is, it doesn't feel derivative. It feels totally original and fascinating, and once you think you've figured it out, it goes further, into uncharted, strange territory.

(One warning. This is not a long movie at all, but it is a slow, contemplative film. If you don't like Reichardt, or Tsai or Weerasethakul, you will be annoyed by this movie's pace.)

The film's third act is my favorite section of the film. These parts of the film are about time and waiting and being. At one point we seem to project thousands of years into the future and then jump back another thousand and start again. A Ghost Story wonders what it means to live on, to live with, what it means to be in the first place. This meditation is about how people (or things?) haunt us – it is a ghost story, after all – but it is itself haunting, as we might think about how we are going to live on or what came before us or, indeed, what we are in the first place.

I loved this movie.

03 January 2018

The Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the Best Foreign Language Film

There are five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. They are:
  • Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father (មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ), 
  • Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless (Нелюбовь), 
  • Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantastica)
  • Fatih Akın's In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts), and 
  • Ruben Östlund's The Square
All of these films have been released for at least a week in the U.S. so far, and I have managed to see them all. More on each in a bit.

Nominees for the Foreign Language category at the Globes work differently than nominees for that category at the Oscars. At the Globes, any foreign language film can be nominated as long as it qualifies (i.e. as long as it meets the U.S. release criteria). What's interesting here is that these are foreign (non-American) journalists choosing a "best foreign language film", that is, a best foreign-to-the-U.S. film. This strikes me as odd, but maybe that just looks weird to me today.

Nominees for the Foreign Language category at the Oscars need to be released not in the U.S. but in the country of origin. In this way, the Oscars are usually several months ahead of films released in the U.S. Many of the films nominated in this category at the Oscars will not yet have had U.S. release dates. Some will, of course, but many will not. Because the films are selected by the countries themselves, and because only one film can be selected by each country, films get left out. France selected Robin Campillo's 120 Beats per Minute this year instead of a number of other options, including one of my favorite films of the year, François Ozon's Frantz. A film like last year's Aquarius, which the Brazilian government felt was critical of its policies, will not get chosen. And a horror film, like Julia Doucournau's Raw (Grave) (another favorite of mine from this year), almost never has a chance to be chosen by a nation to represent it at the Oscars.

In fact, we already know that when the Oscar nominations come out on January 23rd they aren't going to match the Golden Globe list. AMPAS has released a shortlist of nine films from which they will choose their final five nominees. Those films are:
  • A Fantastic Woman,
  • Alain Gomis's Félicité,
  • Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot (פוֹקְסטְרוֹט),
  • In the Fade,
  • Ziad Doueiri's The Insult (ضية رقم ٢٣),
  • Loveless,
  • Ildikó Enyedi's On Body and Soul (Testről és Lélekről),
  • The Square, and
  • John Trengove's The Wound (Inxeba).

These are films from Chile, Senegal, Israel, Germany, Lebanon, Russia, Hungary, Sweden, and South Africa. A fairly nice range, although the Academy has historically ignored films from East Asia, and this list certainly replicates that history of snubbing.

Snubbed Cantonese film Mad World
This also means that the Academy has already decided not to choose films that have been popular with critics, such as France's 120 Beats per Minute, Spain's Summer 1993, Cambodia's First They Killed My Father, Argentina's Zama, or a film I'm really excited about from Belgium, Racer and the Jailbird.

Lots of people complain about the way AMPAS runs this category. I am not one of those people. To my mind, the idiosyncratic way that the Academy deals with foreign language films just puts more films on my radar. See, I'm already planning to see the critically acclaimed films the Academy is ignoring. Zama, Racer and the Jailbird, 120 Beats, Thelma, Tom of Finland, A Ciambra, Happy End – these films are already on my list of movies to see. But On Body and Soul, Félicité, and The Wound certainly were not. ... And now they are. As I see it, the Academy's odd choices just give me more films to see, they direct me toward stuff I wasn't already paying attention to. I see this as just more of a good thing.

In any case, here is what I thought of the five Foreign Language nominees for the Golden Globes:

* * *
I thought First They Killed My Father was a giant leap forward for Angelina Jolie, and is definitely her best film to date. This movie was way, way better than I thought it was going to be. The film represents a marked, significant improvement from Unbroken. Jolie is still interested in characters who are unconquerable – survivors who make it through awful things – but this one is told with real intrigue and nuance. The plot centers around a young woman in Cambodia who is imprisoned in a child labor camp by the Khmer Rouge. We follow her and her troubles very closely, and the camera is intimately connected to our protagonist. Perhaps because it is about a child, Jolie's work diffuses from its normal insistent storytelling and focuses more on experience and fear rather than reportage. It's strong work.

Another thing that this film avoids because it is about a child are those formative "childhood years" sections of Unbroken, where we see some kind of insistent will to survive even as a child that then is later manifest in the adult who manages to deal with such terrible things. First They Killed My Father needs to find that courage in the child herself, and so it looks to the sequence of events that create courage or survival rather than attempting to locate some internal essence of unconquerability. In any case, this is a good film and well worth seeing.

Also, Netflix loves a film about child soldiers. (This is no Beasts of No Nation, to be sure, but it is good.)

* * *
Loveless, Andrey Zvyagintsev's even chillier follow-up to the already very chilly films Leviathan and Elena, is gorgeous. I absolutely loved this film. This is, I think, saying a lot because Loveless is, as you might imagine from its title, not exactly a lovable film. This film is an unflinching and even merciless exploration of one couple's lack of care for their twelve-year-old son. This movie is bleak, y'all.

But what is the point of it? my mother asked me, when I explained this movie to her.  

Loveless is a portrait of modern Russia, of course, but it is much more than that, and I found plenty with which to identify that looks familiar to this North American. Loveless is about the ways that the state has stopped caring about actual people and the issues they face; it's about the bureaucracies designed to assist people that end up getting in the way of helping them. It's also about human selfishness, about our contemporary cult of making ourselves happy – about finding ourselves, about being the best versions of ourselves – and about how those seemingly benign or even healthy ideas often conflict with taking care of the people in our lives, loving those in our orbit, making space for others.

In many ways, too, this is a movie about the horrors of modern progress – what it might look like to focus only on ourselves and our own desires and needs. As I said, this is a cold film. It's a tough portrait of modern life. I found it hard hitting and uncompromising, and I loved it.

* * *
Sebastián Lelio's most recent film, A Fantastic Woman, is a movie about a trans woman named Marina in Chile whose boyfriend dies. She then must grieve, while also dealing with police bureaucracy and the man's hostile family. I had high hopes for A Fantastic Woman, mostly because Lelio made the delightful film Gloria a couple of years ago, and I was so taken by the brilliant performance at the center of Gloria, by the superb actress Paulina García.

A Fantastic Woman is not even remotely comparable to Gloria. Of course, Gloria is a comedy and Fantastic Woman is a rather serious drama, but Lelio's gifts do not translate well to this tragedy. In fact (and paradoxically) the film is best when it is playing for laughs. There are, for example, some delightful sequences in which Marina and her sister banter, and the best sequence in A Fantastic Woman is a fantasy dance sequence, in which the queer club is portrayed as a place of freedom and fabulousness, a space of infinite possibility.

But the real trouble with A Fantastic Woman is that it doesn't have Paulina García in it. Marina is played by singer Daniela Vega, and the actress comes alive when she is singing, but for the entirety of the rest of the film, her performance felt wooden and uncomfortable. She seems to have absolutely no connection with her boyfriend in the movie, and the affectlessness that marked her performance left me bored for most of the movie's running time.

* * *
Honestly, I don't think there is much to say about Fatih Akın's movie In the Fade. It struck me as a fairly generic legal-crime thriller. Diane Krüger won Best Actress at Cannes for the movie, but the best performance in the movie is by Denis Moschitto, who plays her lawyer friend.

The truth is, I've never really loved a Fatih Akın movie. I keep watching them since he first broke through with Head-On, but I thought The Edge of Heaven and The Cut were both good but not great. And In the Fade doesn't break any new ground from the standard revenge drama. In fact, Akın's work is occasionally frustratingly over-the-top. When Krüger first loses her husband she weeps and thrashes at a level ten. When this first happens I thought, where are we supposed to go from here? Indeed, there isn't really anywhere to go, and Krüger weeps through the entirety of the movie.

It isn't that I don't sympathize. The woman is supposed to have lost her husband and son to neo-Nazi terrorist murderers. Fine. But with Krüger having all of the feelings, I didn't really feel invited to have any of my own.

In the Fade is, of course, not completely without merit. As I said, Moschitto's performance is excellent, and there are some great moments interrogating the terrorists' father and German complicity with anti-foreign sentiment and terrorism. But this film doesn't really have much going for it.

* * *
And then there is The Square, which is easily one of my favorite movies of the year. Ruben Östlund, who directed this film, has made an absolutely hilarious satire of art and modernity and decadence. This is a superb, outrageous, jaw-dropping film, and I can't wait to see it again. It stars Claes Bang as a director of a museum, and it so. damn. funny. I can't recommend this movie enough.

The Square follows the dramaturgical structure that I have come to think of as an Asghar Farhadi structure, where some event that seems singular – or, perhaps remarkable but rather simple – begins to grow more and more complicated as more and different people respond to that event. In this way the movie is able to take up numerous perspectives not just on a single event, but also to show its audience where all kinds of different people are coming from, and in this way explore not only this event from numerous angles, but also explore numerous different life-worlds.

You might remember that Östlund's last movie was Force Majeure, which was in incisive exploration of masculinity using this same Farhadi structure. Östlund's new film is equally wise and equally clever, and it's brilliantly well made. The Square also stars Elizabeth Moss (hilarious) and Dominic West (equally hilarious). Watch the trailer and then go see this movie.



24 December 2017

The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro's new movie, which is getting rave reviews and winning tons of awards, is an, ambitious, romantic love story between a young woman and a sea monster.

I liked the movie well enough. The Shape of Water is set in a movie-version of the 1950s, during a movie-version of the Cold War. A young woman (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor in some kind of aquaculture department of the government. There she meets and falls in love with a sea monster, who has recently been imprisoned by an evil masculine-identified 1950s man's man who would rather cut the monster open to see how it works than get to know the monster and learn from it.

The movie is intended to be a kind of thriller, as Sally Hawkins decides to break the creature out of jail and let him live in her apartment until she can set him free into the ocean. But more importantly, The Shape of Water is a love story. Sally Hawkins falls in love with a sea monster, and this unconventional romance is front and center in the film, taking narrative precedence over the escape plot and the 1950s-intrigue-Cold-War-Russians plot.

This is a fairy tale, but the trouble with The Shape of Water is that it never wants to wade into the depths with this central complex plot point. I perhaps didn't make it clear above, that Sally Hawkins not only falls in love with, but has sex with our friend the sea monster. And this wasn't a problem for me, but – oddly enough – this wasn't really a problem for anyone else in the film, either, and the film itself doesn't present this as a problem. What is, perhaps, strange, is that if you think about it, this is a problem. So I think what it boils down to is that The Shape of Water is not actually interested in exploring problems or questions or complexities. Instead, the film is willing to ride along the surface of a romantic plot, finding this young, lonely woman, sweet and cute and (frankly) pitying her, so that when she makes love to the sea monster, we already understand; we don't wonder what's going on with her; we don't ask ourselves whether or not she should be exploring a sexual relationship with the sea monster.

Two-Dimensional Love
In fact, my central issue with The Shape of Water is its resistance to wading into the deep end with anything in the film. Del Toro seems fine with painting two-dimensional characters and letting them alone without asking us to think about them in complex ways. This is, perhaps, most apparent with the film's villain, Michael Shannon, who plays this absurd version of a 1950s man – a racially insensitive Eisenhower voter who is easily talked into buying a Cadillac because he wants to be a "man of the future", who ignores his kids, who has unpleasurable sex with a wife he also ignores, who sexually harasses the young women who work for him, who refers to the janitors as "the help", and who would rather torture and kill the beautiful being he has imprisoned than talk to it and get to know it. He is, in short, a caricature of traditional mid-century masculinity. And Michael Shannon plays him to the hilt. But the villain is so two-dimensional that when, in the third act, the film finally asks us to think about him or care about him, we can't. He's just not enough of a fleshed-out figure.

This is also, unfortunately, true of Sally Hawkins' gay BFF, played by Richard Jenkins, a lonely older man, who knows Old Hollywood trivia about Alice Faye and pines after a handsome young white boy who works at a restaurant chain that serves bad pie. Jenkins' character is a graphic artist, and The Shape of Water gives him a little subplot, in which he is trying to get a job back in an ad agency. He is being given a small job by a man who is (I assumed) an ex-lover. But Del Toro gives this plot no resolution. We never learn what happens with these men and their relationship, and we are never told what happened with them in the first place or why Jenkins no longer has his old job. I found this strange, but it honestly went along with the shallowness of the rest of the movie. Del Toro has hastily sketched these characters and any depth they possess amounts to a set of generic conventions with which we are already familiar. (In this case, Jenkins is sad about his deteriorating good looks. He is aging, and his vanity needs a boost – he gets one, of course, courtesy of our sea monster friend.)

I will say that I loved Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water, and I also thought Michael Stuhlbarg was charming and fun, but most of the movie (Spencer's parts included) made me think more of an Edward Hopper painting with the saturation turned up than a depiction of something existing in the real world. The Shape of Water, in other words, despite Michael Shannon's Trump-voter caricature, felt really disconnected from 2017, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy instead. It's a fantasy version of the 1950s, a fantasy version of the Cold War, and a fantasy version of a love story. All of this is fine, I suppose, but I was looking for more depth, for more groundedness. The Shape of Water, on the other hand, seems content with confirming a whole set of things I already think I know – about mid-century masculinity, about the ability of love to conquer difference, about the power of friendship, about the magic of cinema.

Skimming the Surface
The film felt like a cartoon to me, and this is aided by the film's (gorgeous) production design, the delicately charming score, and the vibrant costumes. What's odd is that at times Del Toro seems to resist the cutesy, contained movie that The Shape of Water is. There are a couple of moments where the film seems to break with its easily digestible tone and subject matter. There is a fun sequence, for example, when the sea monster decapitates a cat, and another gross-out sequence in which Michael Shannon squeezes pus from two fingers which have been imperfectly attached to a wounded hand. These grotesque moments in The Shape of Water were my favorite of its sequences. They're places where Del Toro's sensibilities seem to peek through from behind the gorgeous visuals and anodyne version of the 1950s. These are moments where the film seemed to promise more depth than it ended up providing. For the most part, however, The Shape of Water remains shallow.

This is not to say the film is not beautiful. It is that. And its use of water, as a visual and as a theme, works very well. But The Shape of Water spends so much time on the surface of things that by the time we reached its end and Del Toro asked me to be moved to tears and swept away by the movie's romanticism, I just couldn't quite connect.

17 December 2017

Darkest Hour, Roman J. Israel, Disaster Artist, and the Best Actor Oscar

Last night I saw Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill-leading-up-to-Dunkirk movie, and I am here to tell you it is really, really strong.

Gary Oldman plays the cantankerous old Prime Minister, beginning his fight against fascism, and his performance is just pitch perfect the entire time. He's under a large amount of makeup, of course, but this doesn't seem to get in the way of the work he is doing at all. Churchill emerges as a rich, nuanced, fascinating figure filled with doubts and attempting to balance two warring political factions at home while making the right decisions about the soldiers fighting the Nazis in France and Belgium.

Oldman is superb, and he is definitely the best part of the film, but this is only because he is so good. Wright's filmmaking is also just excellent, the script is smart if it occasionally veers off into the overly sentimental, and the camerawork and editing are wonderful. Oh, Dario Marianelli's score is great, too, keeping the mood intense even when what we're watching doesn't seem to be about the stakes of human lives in peril.

Darkest Hour is also total Oscar bait. It's a WWII movie with a great performance at its center. It's (obviously) way better than The King's Speech (in fact, Darkest Hour has it's own King George VI – Ben Mendelsohn – who is great), and it maintains a sort of regal, important tone throughout.

It earns all of this, though, and the movie works very, very well. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope Oldman does win his Oscar.

* * *
While I'm talking about this year's Best Actor Oscar, let me just go all the way in. The SAG nominees are out, and the Golden Globe nominees are out, so that means the field is pretty well established.
Here is how it looks to me.

The Screen Actors Guild nominated:
Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name,
Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour,
James Franco for The Disaster Artist,
Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, and
Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The Golden Globes doubles up its nominees. To the list above they added the following five names:
Tom Hanks for The Post,
Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread,
Steve Carell for Battle of the Sexes,
Ansel Elgort for Baby Driver, and
Hugh Jackman for The Greatest Showman (haha).

I think the Golden Globes Drama list – Chalamet, Day-Lewis, Oldman, Hanks, Washington – is the top five. I would say there only really two alternates for those top five spots and those are Daniel Kaluuya and James Franco. But the SAG skews young, and it is also going to skew toward films that have come out earlier. It makes sense that movies like The Post and Phantom Thread, which are only now just being seen by everyone, are not on that SAG list. I don't see either Kaluuya or Franco breaking into that top five. It could happen, but I don't see it.


* * *
As for Roman J. Israel, Esq., it's surprisingly good! I was sort of expecting it to be just a star vehicle, but Dan Gilroy (who also made Nightcrawler a couple of years ago) is trying to deal with ethics in Los Angeles, and he has crafted a script that explores social justice and law in the U.S. in interesting ways. The movie is too long, and it has an oddly uplifting, hopeful ending, but perhaps this just reflects the fact that Gilroy believes in the possibilities of change a bit more than I do.

And Denzel Washington is great in this part. It is a really beautiful performance that often feels new and intriguing, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. is very different from other parts that he has played recently. It's a de-glammed, non-powerhouse part that (paradoxically) packs an interesting punch. I really enjoyed the film, and after seeing the performance really feel confident that he will get nominated.

Oh! And Colin Farrell is also in this movie, doing his usual excellent supporting work. He is just a fantastic actor. I am glad he works so much. At some point, I am sure people will wise up to just how good he is, but for now I guess he can just keep churning out great performances.

* * *
I have also seen Franco's The Disaster Artist, and I can tell you that I also think Franco is great in the movie. The movie itself is... well, I think it is for people who really like The Room. I'm not one of those people, so I didn't think the film was nearly as funny as it thought it was. Also, and this is the part that doesn't really sit well with me, The Disaster Artist's treatment of Tommy Wiseau strikes me as mean-spirited, even ugly. For all of the brilliance of Franco's mimicry – and it is brilliant – The Disaster Artist thinks Wiseau is a total fucking joke. So the entire film, which is about the making of a terrible film, is busy making fun of Wiseau. The film thinks he's a sexual deviant; it is baffled by how rich he is but also happy to cash his checks; and it is laughing at him to his face.

What is fucked up about The Disaster Artist is that this is all done under the pretense of really loving Wiseau. The movie even begins with various actors speaking to the camera in documentary style about how brilliant the film is. We love Tommy Wiseau, everyone in the movie seems to be saying.

The Disaster Artist, in other words, wants to have it both ways. It wants to make fun of Wiseau while pretending that it is paying tribute to him or some such business. It all feels disingenuous to me. The Disaster Artist isn't really interested in getting to know Wiseau, in exploring what's going on with him or how he works or what he thinks. It's content, instead, simply to look at him as a curiosity, a bizarre, wealthy clown. It reminded me a bit of the way last year's Stephen Frears's film looked at Florence Foster Jenkins: this person is a freak and nothing more. We might feel a little bit sorry for these people, but we certainly can't identify with them. Both of those films allow us to believe that we normal people are nothing like those weirdos.

I didn't dislike the film, really, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.

* * *
My own preferences for Best Actor this year lean toward Robert Pattinson, Claes Bang, Harris Dickinson, and Jeremy Renner – but that's another story, and I haven't seen Call Me By Your Name, The Post, or Phantom Thread yet, so the jury's still out.

08 December 2017

Two Lives

Anna Muylaert's film Mãe Só Há Uma (2016) was released in the U.S. (and is available on Netflix) as Don't Call Me Son. I only just watched it last month, so I'm finally writing about it.

The movie's pretty great. It's not as good as Muylaert's 2015 movie Que Horas Ela Volta? (The Second Mother), but, then, The Second Mother is a brilliant film with a superb central performance by Regina Casé, so it is hard to beat.

Don't Call Me Son is about motherhood in some ways, too, but this new film takes the opposite perspective. This is a movie about being a teenager, and it explores that topic with sensitivity and generosity.

The film's clever English title (which seems unrelated to the film's original Portuguese title) manages to articulate both the main character's experiments with gender performance and his difficulties with his parents.

Still, if you're looking for a film about trans issues or even gay issues, this film isn't really trying to do that. Instead, the main character's experiments with sexuality and gender performance work as a kind of backdrop or circumstance that coincides with the larger story of finding a home and taking care of others. I really liked this movie, and the more I think about it the more I like it.