Friday, December 8, 2017

The Shape of Water Review (2017)

Grade: B-

What if, at the end of Universal’s classic monster flick, “Creature From The Black Lagoon,” instead of being killed, the titular creature was captured and brought back to America? And what if he was kept in a top-secret government laboratory where he was deeply misunderstood and neglected? And what if he also fell in love with a human woman? That’s one way to think about “The Shape of Water.”

Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is an intriguing, sometimes messy genre mashup of creature horror, cold war espionage thriller and of course interspecies romance. More importantly, it’s a social drama about the ugliness of America circa 1962, which is where the film succeeds the most. Del Toro asks us to consider who the real monster is: the slimy fish man or the society he’s forcibly brought into?

Del Toro crafts a cinematic atmosphere that's equal parts enchanted and nightmarish. Set in Baltimore, the picture is stylish and colorful in an unsettling way. The color palette is dingy, consisting mainly of turquois green and swamp green, along with a sickly yellow. The world of “The Shape of Water” is both welcoming and threatening. In the neighborhood, there’s a restaurant meant to replicate a homey fifties style, small town diner. The host even cheerfully says: “Y’all come back now ya’ here?” as customers leave. However, when that same host suddenly tells an African American couple that they can’t eat there, we realize said hominess is just a fa├žade. Society here is gloomy and inclusive, to “monsters” like the fish guy and folks who aren’t straight white men.

There is, indeed, a sinister, wide-eyed monster lurking throughout the film but it’s not the fish man, it’s Richard Strictland, (Michael Shannon) the fella who captured him and is abusing him behind closed doors with the Governments blessing. Shannon gives another grimacing, unhinged performance, he can do this sort of thing in his sleep, and the movie certainly isn’t subtle in vilifying the United States government. In this regard, “The Shape of Water” is a dour drama about America’s continued mistreatment of The Other.

Of course, “The Shape of Water” also wants to be an uplifting love story about two outcasts. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives most of her life in isolation, watching movies and old TV shows. She works as a cleaning woman at the same government lab that the fish man is being held. They strike up an immediate friendship (she sits at the edge of his tank feeding him eggs) and fall madly in love. Hawkins is solid in the role but their romance is cold and emotionally distant most of the time. I appreciate that Del Toro takes their relationship in an unexpectedly erotic direction. There’s an erotically charged scene between them involving a flooded bathroom that’s delightfully weird. But overall their romance develops too quickly; their affection feels forced rather than genuine.

“The Shape of Water” also suffers from narrative messiness, especially in the second half. A half-baked plotline involving an undercover Soviet scientist (played by Michael Stuhlberg) trying to get a hold of the fish man ultimately fizzles out. Given how trenchant Del Toro’s critique of American society is, I don’t think the Cold War angle is needed. He would have been better off removing it entirely and devoting that time to the central romance. Additionally, the ending is abrupt and unsatisfyingly upbeat. In spite of the film’s heavy social themes, Del Toro settles for a slightly contrived fairytale ending.

Despite these criticisms, “The Shape of Water” has too much going on for me to out rightly dismiss it. Del Toro puts hard-hitting societal critiques into a bizarre, accessible, genre-bending mold.

The Post Review (2017)

Grade: B

Steven Spielberg signed on to direct “The Post” (a film about the immediate events leading up to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post) in March of this year. He read the script and concluded that this story needed to be told immediately. And, well, he’s right.

With news organizations shutting down around the country (due to shrinking revenue) and the Trump administration continuing to wage war on honest journalism, “The Post” is the most urgent film of the year. It’s a polished, well-acted picture about the first amendment being threatened as well as a celebration of the power and value of the press in a democratic society.

The film’s opening is swift and thrilling. The highly classified Pentagon papers are stolen, under ominous lighting, by Military analyst Daniel Elsberg (Matthew Rhys). Elsberg, along with several others proceed to scan and copy every page and drop excerpts off at the newsrooms of The Post and their rival The New York Times. When The White House hinders The Times from publishing excerpts of the documents, Post editor Ben Bradlee (crotchety Tom Hanks, chewing scenery, doing his best Jason Robards impression) and his staff are given a major opportunity. However, it’s up to owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to make the final decision on whether to publish the documents.  

Beyond urgency, the main reason to see “The Post” is Streep’s luminous performance. Her Kay is eloquent, careful and modest. Her graceful self-assuredness makes her the MVP of every scene she’s in. Kay is quiet but never passive; she is after all a woman in a powerful position surrounded by old white men that constantly undermine her and want to see her fail. When Post board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) patronizes her leadership in the comfort of three other men, Kay emerges from another room and tells him off with measured confidence. The scenes in which she has to fight for her place and her voice to be heard are poignant and rousing. At the same time, we see Kay at her most vulnerable and insecure-- when she struggles to keep her elegant composure and is tempted to give into the pressure closing in on her.

Considering that Kay Graham was left out of “All the Presidents Men,” (about The Post’s subsequent investigation of the Watergate scandal) her perspective and presence here is crucial. The Post may never have published The Pentagon Papers without her fearless leadership and Spielberg places her front and center.

Otherwise, “The Post” is a tight, sturdy Hollywood product. The pacing is near perfect. Given the large cast of characters and chain of events, these might be the fastest, fat free hundred and fifty-five minutes you’ll ever sit through. The dialogue exchanges are slick and precise, accompanied by lots of dramatic walking. “All the Presidents Men” focused solely on work in the newsroom, with no space for social lives. In “The Post,” personal and professional lives are in constant conflict. The characters private lives are frequently interrupted, which becomes a running joke throughout. Kay has three different formal parties interrupted by urgent matters. Spielberg depicts all of this action in a restrained yet dynamic manner; Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is fluid and immersive. The camera frantically tracks through the busy offices of The Post and gently glides around populated news desks and dinner tables, capturing heated debates and editorial meetings. It’s all very absorbing to watch, at least for a while.

The film can’t help but feel a little mechanical and stale in the third act. “All the Presidents Men” was also a timely celebration of journalism and the first amendment but it showed the journalistic process in action, a process that naturally lends itself to the procedural film genre.  Director Alan J Pakula immersed us in the thrilling details and day-to-day grind of a journalistic investigation: interviewing subjects, tracking down sources, scouring records for hours upon end and meeting print deadlines.

In “The Post,” the drama ultimately hinges more on a decision than an investigation: should the paper publish these documents or not? It’s a monumental decision for sure but Spielberg handles it (and the remainder of the film) with heavy hands. The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer gets increasingly ham-fisted and self-congratulatory. The slick conversations between characters in the beginning gradually become wooden and preachy speeches about the importance of the first amendment. The movie repeatedly taps you on the shoulder, reminding you just how important and relevant the story being told is. We get it.

The points that Spielberg bludgeons you with are important but the heavy handedness gets to be tedious and the finale is underwhelming as a result. “The Post” is an impressive, relevant movie that should be seen but it’s not a great movie.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Disaster Artist Review (2017)

Grade: B+

The selling point of James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” is, of course, its connection to the now legendary cult film “The Room.” Based on the memoir by “Room” star Greg Sestero, “The Disaster Artist” recounts the making of “The Room” (a film that’s so bad it transcends awfulness and becomes entertaining) and the mysterious European auteur who made it: Tommy Wiseau. However, at its core, “The Disaster Artist” is an affectionate bromance about two struggling artists and a surprisingly earnest comedy about chasing your dreams. It’s also very, very funny. Tommy Wiseau is the weird, inspirational best friend we all need.

Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor living in San Francisco. At an acting class he encounters the bizarre but captivating Wiseau, (James Franco, complete with long pitch-black hair and a boney, pale face) as he horribly reenacts the famous “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Wiseau shrieks at the top of his lungs, rolls around on the stage like a child and even climbs up one of the rafters. Most people would be immediately embarrassed but Sestero sees confidence, a confidence he’s lacking. He asks to be Wiseau’s scene partner afterwards and their friendship begins.

 In this first half, “The Disaster Artist” carefully develops Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship, focusing on their early bonding moments (a road trip to James Dean’s crash site, for example). The picture is a moving and humorous account of their struggles as artists and the ways they motivate each other to succeed. It isn’t until about the halfway point that “The Room” is even mentioned and even then their friendship is kept front and center.

Most of the humor in “The Disaster Artist” comes from Franco’s clownish but respectful rendering of Wiseau. We’re invited to laugh at Wiseau’s stoned, broken English demeanor  (he acts as though he’s in a perpetual state of intoxication even though he doesn’t do drugs) and numerous eccentricities (he consumes Red Bulls like water). Often times, Franco’s delivery of a mundane line of dialogue or goofy pronunciation of a word is all it takes for us to keel over in laughter.

However, the portrayal is never too derogatory. Wiseau is tragic and overflowing with sympathy. He’s lonely and erratic; his rash mood swings and awkward means of social interaction are off putting to just about everyone except Sestero. His unfamiliarity with American culture, combined with his delusional desire to be an American dramatic actor like Brando or a Hollywood auteur like Hitchcock can make him unreasonable and irrational. On the other hand, he has an air of charisma and geniality. He can be extremely warm and affectionate. And his hunger and determination for artistic success is both infectious and relatable.

It’s a well-rounded, human performance and Franco immerses us in Wiseau’s peculiar, absurd world without spoiling the mystery surrounding him. There’s a lot we don’t know about Wiseau in real life, like his real age or where he came from, and movie doesn’t attempt to speculate on these enigmas.

When we finally get to the “The Room,” “The Disaster Artist” transforms into pure comedic bliss. It’s a breezy and nutty behind the scenes look at how some of the worst scenes in cinematic history came to be. Recognizable actors, including Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Jackie Weaver and Zac Efron briefly show up in delightfully unassuming supporting roles as various members of the production. It’s a hell of an ensemble, used perfectly. As great as the bromance angle is, I feel like I could have also watched an entire film just about the making of “The Room.” Better yet, if the cast of “The Disaster Artist” wanted to make a shot by shot remake of “The Room,” I wouldn’t be mad.

 “The Disaster Artist” is consistently funny, character driven and, at ninety-eight minutes, isn’t longer than it needs to be. It can’t replace the surreal and exhilarating experience of watching “The Room” (nothing can) but Franco’s film makes for a fun companion piece and is easily the funniest movie I’ve seen this year.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Roman J Israel Esq. Review (2017)

Grade: C-

Through two films, writer-director Dan Gilroy already has an attraction to eccentric, persistent loaners who love what they do. In “Nightcrawler,” that loner was Lou Bloom, (Jake Gyllenhaal) a bulgy eyed parasitic wannabe entrepreneur who becomes a stringer in L.A. and proceeds to manipulate/screw over everyone around him. In “Roman J. Israel Esq.” that loner is the titular character, a stubborn and socially awkward Civil Rights lawyer played by Denzel Washington.

Instead of going to trial and arguing cases, Israel is most comfortable performing the behind the scenes duties—the administrative tasks and the mitigation work. He believes in doing things the old fashion way; he works on note cards and rolodexes. He has an old cellphone that he barely uses. Israel eats nothing but peanut butter sandwiches; the kitchen cabinets of his shabby inner city apartment are lined with containers of Jif. In other words, he’s a quirky dude! And he may not always know how to interact with people but he’s passionate about law and wants to make a difference.

Not surprisingly, Washington is in top form. Israel is more timid and clumsy, in how he talks and moves, compared to the characters Washington usually portrays. He’s so good at playing smooth, charismatic cool guys and calm authoritative figures that it’s a bit of a shock at first to see him play this quirky, spectrum-y lawyer. But he brings all of Israel’s idiosyncrasies to life with earnestness and some restraint.

The rest of “Roman” is loaded with potential. Israel’s life is suddenly thrown into chaos when his longtime lawyer partner dies and all of their clients are given over to a cold corporate law firm, headed by cold corporate lawyer George Pierce (Collin Farrell, who may as well be holding his script in his hands during his scenes. He’s positively robotic.). The film’s commentary on the impersonal, “assembly line” nature of corporate law firms is pungent. And Roman’s ongoing mission to fix a flawed legal system that encourages people to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to avoid harsher punishment is urgent; as is the moral dilemma Israel soon finds himself in. Does he continue to work and to try and reform the system for little in return, or does he sell out?

Unfortunately, those intriguing subjects and questions are let down by Gilroy’s bland screenplay, which relies more on telling than showing-- draining the film of vitality. In “Nightcrawler” there was a palpable sense of suspense propelling the action forward. We anxiously chomped on our nails and clenched the armrests of our theater seats waiting to see what Bloom would do next. We wanted to know how low he would go and how deranged he would become to achieve personal success. Bloom had a menacing, unpredictable aura about him that made the film endlessly fascinating.

 In “Roman” everything is telegraphed from the start. The narrative and character trajectory is neatly laid out in the opening scene and Gilroy tediously follows that blueprint beat by beat, bluntly explaining plot points and character motivations before reaching the predictably tragic conclusion. Even worse, the script is longwinded and verbose in a way that’s obnoxiously self-satisfied. Gilroy’s dialogue is riddled with clunky and pretentious metaphors that would even make Oliver Stone roll his eyes. The movie doesn’t need to be suspenseful in the way “Nightcrawler” was but it doesn’t need to be so heavy handed in its storytelling. “Roman J. Israel Esq.” has good intentions with its subject matter and Washington is magnificent but the overall execution here is underwhelming and unconvincing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Justice League Review (2017)

Grade: D+

While watching “Justice League” you can easily discern which version of the film is Zack Snyder’s and which version is Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in late to finish the movie after Snyder had to step away due to a family emergency. Snyder’s picture can be found in the stylish slow motion action scenes and the muted, air brushed visual aesthetic. It can also be glimpsed in the thematic gloominess.

On the other hand, Whedon’s “Justice League” is contained mainly in the script: the silly one-liners and comedic repartee between our heroes that eases some of the gloominess. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are a few funny moments--one involving Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) honesty lasso and the cocky Aquaman (Jason Momoa). But you can’t just tape some goofy zingers on top of a muddled and all around uninspired screenplay and expect a good movie to emerge. I laughed occasionally but I mostly groaned as the bland, messy narrative unfolded.

“Justice League” features yet another one-dimensional super villain, a mythical alien with a Viking helmet named Steppenwolf, (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to turn the world into a flaming hellscape, literally. His army of loyal demons resemble mutant zombie Man-Mosquitos and can apparently smell fear; a point that’s brought up twice and not really expanded upon. Steppenwolf uses portals to travel around the globe. He’s looking for three powerful energy cubes that will help him carry out his master plan. It’s obligatory for superhero movies to contain at least one portal and one meaningless Macguffin. “Justice League” has at least five portals and three Macguffins.

Anyway, while Steppenwolf is off doing his bad guy thing the rest of the world is in a dark place, due to Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death in last year’s “Batman v Superman.” The opening credit sequence is a sad montage of people being sad about Superman’s death, racists harassing an Arab shop owner in Metropolis and a homeless man looking sad with a sign that reads: “At least I tried.” There’s unrest and very little hope, a perfect environment for Batman, (Ben Affleck, looking like he doesn’t want to be here) Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller, whose entire performance consists of smart alecly comments) to join forces.

But they’re not teaming up to ease the pessimism and pain in the world, they’re teaming up to face off against a rote CGI villain in a climactic CGI battle and they have to recover three CGI MacGuffins. The apocalypse brewing at the center of “Justice League” is hollow and contrived. The comedic interjections further undermine the film’s serious intentions.

Maybe the most surprising thing about “Justice League” is that, at just under two hours not including credits, it’s not long enough. I’m all for action movies being leaner but this is clearly a big film that’s been severely abridged in the editing room. There’s a lot of ground to cover—establishing new bad guys, introducing new superheroes and having superheroes join forces. These are crucial narrative stages that have been squeezed into a small time frame and as a result the movie is in a constant state of fast-forwarding.  So much of “Justice League” is rushed, convoluted set up that our heroes don’t get a chance to gel as a unit and find a consistent comedic rhythm.

“The Avengers” worked because Disney played the long game. There were five movies that focused on the individual Avengers before they teamed up. Warner Bros. is trying to force things and it shows. “Justice League” has to do the work of four movies. Brand new character Cyborg goes from being a conflicted outsider who doesn’t want to join the Justice League in one scene, to an essential part of the team a couple scenes later, taking on tasks like he’s been a member for years.

Chunks of the film are so condensed and disjointed. A section involving Super Man in particular feels gutted, like the remnants of a larger sub plot. Emotional scenes between Superman and girl friend Lois Lane (Amy Adams, in a thankless role) are sappy and tonally inconsistent. When the team enters a top-secret base there are awkward lapses in logic and continuity. Maybe a two and half hour Snyder cut wouldn’t have been better but this trimmed down version doesn’t work.

Ultimately, I walked out of “Justice League” feeling apathetic more than anything else. The movie sets out to establish the core unit of the Justice League and it does so in the blandest way possible. There is comedy, sure, but it increasingly feels strained and out of place. The blending of Whedon’s wit with Synder’s aesthetic doesn’t feel organic. “The Avengers” was a satisfying commingling of heroes we had gotten to know, the result of years of build up and anticipation. “Justice League” is like a dull, tonally uneven TV pilot. But Whedon can walk away from this experience saying, “at least I tried.”