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

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.

06 December 2017

Stuck in the Mud

I have some bad news. Mudbound is not very good.

I had such high hopes for Dee Rees's new movie – distributed by Netflix – about one white family and one black family living on the same area of land in Mississippi in the post-WWII period.

But Rees's film, which is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, has a great deal of trouble moving from the page to the screen. It always feels like an adaptation of something – as though we're missing great sections of the story that might have made the whole thing feel more interesting.

Mudbound is the story of six different people, and it can't quite make up its mind as to whom it is following, switching back and forth between the six.The point of this, of course, is to demonstrate the interconnectedness of lives, the dependence that the white people have on the black folks in the South. (What the black folks get from the white folks, aside from violence and humiliation, is not really clear to me, but Mudbound takes this for granted.)

But the film has cast its net a bit too widely, and the aspects of these six lives on which it focused frequently baffled me. There are several sequences, for example, with a tertiary character named Vera whose husband is apparently molesting their daughters. This sub-sub plot goes absolutely nowhere, functioning only as a distraction from the stories of the six main characters, stories that are already so diffusely told that I had trouble connecting with them.

This is primarily the fault of the writing, which is, frankly, bad. Each character has these voice-overs that last for about 15 seconds apiece, none of them long enough to say anything profound or to give us any insight into character. Instead, they are overwhelmingly generic, platitudes about love or brotherhood or family that meet our expectations without asking us to think in a new way or press on the ideas we already have about the characters.

1. Morgan is great. 2. Blige is blank. 3. Morrison's pictures are pretty.
The acting, too, is a bit of a problem. Mary J. Blige plays a role that ought to have been played by a more practiced actress, one who could fill out the character with a much richer backstory. Blige – who bizarrely wears sunglasses for approximately a third of her screentime – is wooden and stiff for the movie's entire length. Garret Hedlund (who is, apparently, a different person from Charlie Hunnam?) is handsome and fun, but is kept too restrained here. The one bright spot is Rob Morgan, who plays the patriarch of the black family. The film is most affectionate with him, and his character actually makes decisions and does things.

Mudbound is shot beautifully, and has understandably been receiving accolades for its gorgeous cinematography, but this, too, sort of baffled me. Why has Rachel Morrison chosen to make it look so beautiful? This is a movie about Jim Crow, about the daily indignities of life in Mississippi for poor white folks and poor black folks, and about the ways that poor white folks use the advantages of the law to better their own meager positions by dehumanizing (through violence and humiliation) and exploiting (through labor and lending practices) poor black folks. What do beautiful sunsets and handsome lighting have to do with this? To my mind it is a strange choice, even if I do like looking at a beautiful sunset.

But all this is not the real issue. The chief problem here is that Mudbound is boring.