Friday, January 19, 2018

Review: THE SHAPE OF WATER

Guillermo Del Toro never seems to mind if you guess the end of his movies. He's a storyteller who is more about the travel than the arrival at port. So when you see the bad guy you don't just assure yourself of his likely end you begin to savour getting to know his darkness and his violence before that happens. And when the credit sequence travels through an old apartment underwater and we see our heroine gently descending to the couch where she will wake in a few moments we have almost all the information on her as well. We also know we want to follow her around.

So we do. Elisa is mute but not deaf and cleans at a nightmarish industrial research complex. It's the cold war and you don't want to know what they're doing in there. Well, unlike you, Elisa is curious and often needs the maternal wrangling of her friend Zelda to keep her out of trouble. One day she touches a grim looking metal capsule with windows and jumps back as a hand darts to the glass from inside. She is observed by the head of security, a bipedal contained volcano played by bipedal contained volcano Michael Shannon. He's curious, too. About Elisa, though, he already knows what he wants done with the thing in the capsule.

And Elisa? She is lonely and alien from almost all the people she meets in this world. She is happy to learn the dance steps from oldie movies on tv that her paternally older neighbour shows her while the cinema below her apartment shows cheddar-lite toga epics in Technicolor. Her simple mien masks a deep forlornness she has learned to live with. But here is a creature even more alien but strangely kindred. He responds to kindness and music and learns her sign language without effort. In her world it seems just her luck to be so magnetically drawn to a the creature from the black lagoon. But all she registers is joy. 

There's a lot of plot to go with this and you can see that for yourselves. Again, the joy Del Toro offers is in the travel. And what a carriage he invites us to. He has long struck his own flag in the same style continent as Terry Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro and Tim Burton and his films always give us gorgeous worlds where even the ghastly and the terrifying have a clear appeal. Elisa's apartment is all rich wood panels and vintage for the era. In contrast, the American dream home that Strickland rules over like a Don Draper trogladyte is all Sears Catalogue, too new to be dirty, murmuring with old tv shows and covert sex. It's the same world that's squeezing Giles and his meticulous artwork out of his profession. He, too, is alien. When we discover why his fridge is filled with slices of indigestible assembly line pie slices, we see a spark flash up from the collision of it. But that spark is a bad one, ill tasting and poisonous. 

And between these conflicting worlds lies the fable. If you are tempted to think of a retelling of Beauty and the Beast you're getting close but there's a lot more on the table. First, this is a grown ups version. Remember the masturbation at the start? There's much more on that level of candour. Strickland's sexual predation is both fearsome and timely. This is not only intended exclusively for an adult audience it feels as though Del Toro has accepted this side of his mythmaking more gravely than in Pan's Labyrinth. The bad guy in that was already marked by being a Falangist monster. He wasn't going to get an ethical lift at any point. We don't expect this of Strickland, either, but we do get deeper into his thinking. We don't hate the snake for biting but our caution at the sight of it is the lesson. Strickland is as much corporate man as he is aparatchik. On the right side, he's the good guy. A late dialogue with his military boss reveals as much about his place in the order as it does about his motives. Michael Shannon (who has only disappointed me in the strained cuteness of Pottersville but everybody else did, too) delivers a constantly threatening force to his character. His craft has the same artisanal finish as Giles's painted ad.

Finally, there is the central pair. Sally Hawkins commands us without speaking a word through almost every scene in the film, drawing us into her alienation and membrane of cope. Doug Jones as the unnamed creature has an equally difficult task as a performance from within a suit (Del Toro, tellingly, chose an elaborate costume over pure mocap and CGI). His performance, for all of its detail, is doomed to be qualified as being against the odds of disguise. Nevertheless, his physicality is there on screen, athletic and balletic, genuine.

Del Toro has served us another adult fairy tale, this time with the extra flavour of his experience with his own vision and how to work that within the larger industrial system (more than a little of what we see on screen feels like his own commentary on this). He was notable as being among the one for them and one for me auteurs. That Shape of Water lifts the game from the misstep of Crimson Peak so very high that the pressure (with added Oscar murmurs) must feel intense. I cannot wait for his next.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Review: LUCKY

Lucky, a rake-thin man in his nineties, wakes in the big light of his western town to a morning ritual of yoga, coffee, milk and yoga before going to the diner to do the crossword and strolling back home for his game shows, pausing to swear into what from our point of view looks like a tunnel tiled with gold discs. At home, he will call information to help with the crossword and then go to a family Bible sized dictionary on a lectern to learn the definition, savouring the words out loud. We'll will see him do many of these things again and again throughout this film, following him on slow thoughtful walks through his Arizona town that has both the kitsch and real beauty of a thrift store painting. He likes his life well enough, it's the world that bugs him, and knows it is soon to end.

Doesn't sound like much? Well, add to that a cast of characters who are encountered like figures from a pilgrimage but sound, dress and drink like western USA, add too a handful of the most poignant spoken confessions you are likely to hear in a cinema for years and the convergence of Lucky's mortality with that of the man playing him, Harry Dean Stanton.

Lucky's monastic humility is overbalanced by the grumpiness expected of him by the townsfolk who greet him warmly but sigh to remind him everyday that he can't smoke indoors. A mark of quality of this film is that we don't just get a parade of golden hearted rednecks letting him get loud and ornery. Sometimes his verbal attacks are just plain wrong. Sometimes they're right but misconstrued. In one simply staged but beautifully bizarre sequence he is led into a demonstration of mortality where his own puzzlement stops him in his tracks. There's one part of life he now knows he doesn't have an answer to.

When Actors Direct could be the title of a tv clip show aimed at the cringe-hungry millions. It's often like the older guys dancing at office parties: too little or too much. Some actors at the helm want to show us how cinematic they can be with needless camera gymnastics or gruelling single take acting workshops. John Carroll Lynch (who has a long and impressive rap sheet as an actor) has debuted as a director with a dignity appropriate to his subject. The desert exteriors are beautiful but always practical. The performances never stray from believable (not even Stanton himself gets an indulgence) including (perhaps in the interests of balance) the director turned actor David Lynch in a significant role. John Carroll Lynch (no relation to the Eraserhead guy) has given us a film with a leanness both pragmatic and rich, like a classic American short story.

Lucky has been tagged as the spiritual journey of an atheist. I appreciate the soggy irony of the paradox but can't agree. Spiritual is a word I find so over relied upon that is has become meaningless. All too often it's offered as a conversational patch for people who don't want to appear mundane by talking about consciousness, emotion, ethics or whatnot. Lucky (and perhaps Stanton himself) shouts one of his fellow drinkers down when they refer to the soul. He means it.

He does look for meaning. Those crosswords aren't just a few idle strokes of the biro and his glacial ambles through the town and desert are only quiet on the outside. Spiritual, pah!, this is a philosophical journey through tangible reality. But that doesn't rule out one kind of levitation as we hear when he confronts the entire bar with his life's M.O. and later proves as he smiles at us directly before wandering off, only slightly faster than the tortoise we also see on its own journey.

And what does it all mean? Meh, its life: you live it, it ends. If you see this expression of it you will be happier than you were, however fleetingly, and it is one group of eighty-eight consecutive minutes you won't want refunded.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Mildred taunts local police by renting some billboards that challenge them to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and burned alive. The cops push back with community support. The rent is expensive and the pressure to take the billboards down is mounting. Something's got to pop. Or does it?

A hefty talent lineup is hauled up to make this work. Frances McDormand leads with a bludgeoning tongue and the kind of lead-eyed stare when on the attack as sharks do. Without this fierce energy at the centre this film it would collapse. The part was written for her (that's not hyperbole, it really was). Supported by the likes of Woody Harrelson and his down home gravitas, and Sam Rockwell's violent and flailing hick cop Dixon might provide all we need but the good parts and performances are poured out like diner coffee.

And there is a real underlying sadness of the setting and the good-old-boy atrocity with its unavenged silence in the community. When Dixon says to his mother that the south "isn't like that" anymore it's a resignation that he can no longer freely strut and punch that way that old cops could. The lush surrounding landscape and picturesque town begin to feel like camouflage netting.

But this is a Martin McDonagh film and if you've seen others or at least the trailer to this one you should be expecting a lot of humour. Well, just as in the trailers for the others there's a lot of fun but it's never all laughs. In Bruges is one of my favourite films of the last ten years for its blend of tailspin humour and grimness and magnetic performances. That film felt overlong, however, and to my mind it was due to leaving its central gravity as a reveal rather than allow it to work beside the levity so that when the odd fourth act begins it feels like a job we had put off. This time there's no mistaking the atrocity nor its seriousness. Its constant presence in Billboards lets the humour (and there is a lot of it) weave with the crime and sense of stasis so that if there is to be resolution it must be made of all those threads. It does, it's still longer than it should be, but it works.

It works because McDonagh can write up a storm of hilariously point-missing characters, sharp wit that would seem so if spoken off screen, and constant engagement with characters. And a kind of soft-edged twist: at one point I noted some fatigue with the violence that was mounting and felt like I was rewarded for my concern when the violence that did ensue had a hitherto unaired motivation. It felt like relief.

Another scene features a deer that other filmmakers might allow in as a kind of reincarnation moment. Mildred dispels all such notions with another slashing tirade that turns poignant on a dime as character and audience alike recall the single scene that features daughter Angela. It isn't maudlin in the least. In this story of painful grief and inert justice the scene sobers rather than inflames or saddens. Like the conclusion and the Townes Van Zandt song that plays it out we recall the lack of control that grief and the most energetic fury cannot reverse. McDonagh's best yet.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

2017: THE HIGH

HONG SANG-SOO TRIO
Hang is a contemporary master of comedies of manners. Yourself and Yours, Claire's Camera and On a Beach at Night Alone all proved sheer delights with their gently deceptive surface tension and depth. The only problem for me is that none of these MIFF films (I've only seen his films at MIFF) ever break out into the cinema. He could have a real following here but no....

At least I can give his latest three to make it here my top spot. These movies have depth, subtle performances and always delight. I can think of no one working now in film as consistent. Try and track any of them down.

A GENTLE CREATURE
A absurdist premise is given just enough energy to sustain it throughout. For once, Kafkaesque is not a warning to audiences.






mOTHER!
Strong and constantly entertaining allegory. I skipped the same director's Noah but maybe should backtrack and pick it up.






A GHOST STORY
The sheer pluck of this one would give it a place here but the courage of the performances and imagination that take it from a simple relationship to a cosmic level and a continuously inventive aesthetic let it barge in here.







THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Yorgos Lanthimos again gives us something from his elastic imagination made of both hard reality and unsettlingly protean absurdism, one of the very few who can handle the difference and offer it as a seamless whole. Terrifying and wonderful.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Hard naturalism strengthened with a clear identification of the magic of children's imagination with a gut punching happy/sad ending that takes it even further. Proof that the suits in LA haven't crushed all free spirit from American cinema.




THE GO BETWEENS: RIGHT HERE
In which a series of interviews, some tasteful reconstructions and a lot of archival treats blends as cinema. It could have been about a band I didn't like and I'd still sing its praises.








MOONLIGHT
Goes at its own pace and tells it the way it wants, finding smooth transitions where other filmmakers might waste skill displaying ironic clashes. The story of a boy growing up tough through hatred and his own resignation to finally seek some sense and beauty.






RAW
Tale of corrupted perfection wins every race it runs and then some.











HOUNDS OF LOVE
Tense and suitably ugly tale of a crime perpetrated by a disturbing folie a deux couple. Tightly plotted with note perfect performances and not a moment of attempted comedy. A nasty film about a bad thing but all the better for it. Good to have a local entry in the high category.






INGRID GOES WEST
Brilliant and cutting satire of fan stalking and the loneliness that generates it. Plaza and Olsen perfect in their parts and the dark and light blended with a careful hand. A definite rewatchable.









IT COMES AT NIGHT
Sombre realisation of the issues that become crucial in the wake of mass disaster. Borrowed from horror without giving into genre.








GET OUT
When a mix of Stepford Wives, Rosemary's Baby and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner are in the shaker things could get a little hard to swallow but this blend that keeps closest to satire gets through  by a commitment to a plain-faced telling.






At home ...

As a new thing, I'm going to include tv this year.

TWIN PEAKS THE RETURN
In which David Lynch brought us what might well be his parting gift, a solid epic meditation on time, ageing, yearning regret, heroism, cosmic motivation, and mortality in a package that sat contentedly at odds with the golden age of television and delivered a message both simple and profound: you can't go home again. The fans of the original series were sharply divided as a Cooper split into a monster and a damaged naif variously infuriated or delighted them. Those expecting the same again gave up on this outing which was what we should all have hoped for, not a rerun but version 2.0. The first series ended in darkness and violence and this one had to take us out of it but showed that there must always be a cost to even the best intentions. Cooper's heroism ends in a shattering scream. It's terrifying and saddening at once like the best Lynch has ever given us.

MINDHUNTER
David Fincher in subdued mode presented a fictionalised account of the development of FBI profiling as new concepts in crime fighting have difficult births. Understated acting, the Fincher muted pallet and some strong low voiced scoring served writing that took its time but still managed to be compelling.





THE HANDMAID'S TALE
The chief criticism for this was that the society depicted was so severe it came off as propaganda. Well, dystopia is seldom literal. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a warning about nineteen forty-eight. Animal Farm was a satire on the Soviet system and even self avowedly called itself a fairy tale. Gulliver's Travels, Brave New World, The War of the Worlds etc. all presented scenarios pushed to the extreme so the issues remaining might be magnified. That's all this is. And when it's done as warmly and strongly as here it really does just work. Elizabeth Moss heads a good cast in a well written and updated retelling of this classic feminist dystopia.

SEARCH PARTY
Seasons 1 and 2 continued to show a strength of purpose that bubbled constantly under the surface of these pampered millennials who are forced against darkness. Poignantly funny and often just poignant. From Seinfeld through Sex and the City to Girls, this is my favourite New Yorkers as Universe Centres so far (though Master of None comes very close).

2017: THE MIDDLE

THE ENDLESS
From the team that made Spring and Resolution which showed again that passion and resourcefulness can fill gaps that budgeting can't. A further foray into a kind of DIY Lovecraft this is even more accomplished than the priors. We're still lacking a little tightness in the plotting but I'll be in the queue for the next one.



LOVING
Well executed historical tale of civil rights hit its notes without issue but still left a little too routine.






DUNKIRK
Highly immersive and on point with a clever management of time expansion. I left the IMAX screening in silence but as days went by (this was mid MIFF) the impact faded and I wondered if it would feel the same in a standard cinema. While it is a return to form for a director whose blockbuster films have become increasingly bloated and overrated, this lean and intense piece at best exposes how wayward Nolan has become. That's a good thing but probably will count for nothing with the next release.

TWENTIETH CENTURY WOMEN
The kind of social issue rivernovel that can get skewed by incidental quirkiness here is given a good strong helming. Perhaps an even stronger direction might have given it the adventurous lift it needed to make it great.







COLLOSAL
Extraordinary idea form a filmmaker who is good at them (Timecrimes and Open Windows) but not so great with pacing character development. The middle act sags before a big finish that feels like its addressing the problems of that rather than flowing toward a conclusion. Nevertheless, good performances and some real wow moments keep it afloat.




BEATRIZ AT DINNER
Some very effective oppositions between characters unaware of their own privilege and one who cannot escape awareness of her lack of same. Very solid performances throughout but perhaps that ending is too joltingly out of pace.






BEFORE I FALL
A darkened version of The Moonlit Road story (or a bleak Groundhog Day) in which an uber-popular girl must work out why she has come to a tragic end. Some strongly realised moments of teenage life but lacking real teeth towards the very end.






HAPPY DEATH DAY
Groundhog Day meets Scream plays its routine redemption story with style and energy, getting the strong lead it needs. Feels featherlight beside Before I Fall which begins with a near identical premise.







T2: TRAINSPOTTING

In a year when the phrase "the sequel no one asked for" kept appearing in  reviews this one hit the cinemas with a shrug. It's perfectly competent but carries a problem: it reminds anyone who remembers or sees the original around the same time that the source was only really OK. Boyle's Trainspotting felt whizbang and stylistically cheeky the same way Tarrantino's movies of the time did and those don't play that well anymore, either. Not a bad film but not a great one, either.

TRAGEDY GIRLS
A fun exercise in Wes Craven style culture twisting ends up feeling like a satire on Trump's America. It just needed a little push further into darkness. That said I'd watch it again and readily recommend it.





From TV

THE OA
Speaking of DIY the queen of choose your own writing/acting adventure, Brit Marling brought her most ambitious offering yet with this long form tale of atrocity, survival and the forces beyond (whatever they might be). Right up to the characteristic it-all-makes-sense-now climax it intrigued without fail but the climax itself overreached what viewers might have tolerated after living through so much beforehand.



CHANNEL ZERO
Both seasons of this long form horror series began impressively with slowburn plotting and truckloads of atmosphere and both felt too stretched to be fully effective at six episodes a piece where four would have packed more of a punch. Nevertheless, there is another season and I will give it a go as the overall quality improved between the first and second. What is really on show here is sharp genre thinking that harks back to the sci-horror of early UK tv and the kind of ethereal dark folklore of the internet. That alone is worth the try to see if it can also learn from its own shortcomings.

13 REASONS WHY

Mostly effective YA adaptation suffered from a dragging uniformity of the parts, possibly following the source novel. This left the central act without plausible motive and, when shown, wildly disproportionate violence (however highly effectively done).




AMERICAN VANDAL
Very funny parody on true crime serials this high school whodunnit was so engaging and deftly orchestrated that the tension of suspicion overtook the satire. The denouement suffered because of this as it had a point to make despite the drama. It was meant to be banal in context but just felt ...  banal.

2017: THE LOW

ALIEN: COVENANT
Ridley Scott's bizarre use of science fiction to validate his bronze age notion of divine creation could only accentuate how predictable and dull his story was. Expensive rubbish.







JUPITER'S MOON
A wonderfully begun allegory of the alien (a refugee) having super powers ends in sludgy theistic messaging.









BLADERUNNER 2049

Denis Villeneuve not only failed to save this unbidden sequel with a lot of visual splendour and the occasional strong scene, he made me care less and less about it as each minute of its two and three quarter hours. Nice looking but unconvincing and unengaging. I'd add "pity" but I feel none.


SUBURBICON
George Clooney's cover version of the Coens, written, worryingly, with the Coens themselves, promises too much and struggles to deliver more than the basics. Tries to be satire but only ends up being trying.





THE BUTTERFLY TREE
Poignant story of a woman dealing with great difficulty ruined by a bizarre love triangle involving a father and son. Grief can be funny but this isn't.






THE DISASTER ARTIST
Avowing a kind of reverence for a film whose cult celebrates its crappiness writer/director James Franco fails to convince he's doing anything better than squeezing another cheap laugh out of it.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Two kids against a purple wall. A scream off. They respond. This keeps up until the third gets there and tells them to follow him. They do, running past huge cartoon heads, balloons, fruit and great splats of colour, all shops, to a landing of the purple place they live in, the project of the title, where they spit on the car below. The owner comes out and yells at them and they return fire with adult turns of phrase that aren't so much cute as worrying. They disperse. The girl runs back to her motel room where her mother Halley, almost entirely tattooed and green haired, is on the bed gazing at the tv. When the manager knocks because of the spitting a few minutes later, Halley shouts at her daughter to get the door. She has reasons for not answering it herself.

Halley manages the day to day hanging by a thread as she scams, does tricks or just begs her way through the days. The rent is always due and it's always too much. Meanwhile her daughter Moonee runs amok, leading any other kid she can find to cause mischief. But this film makes it clear that children with their nuclear level energy are pushing their own knowledge with each new experience more potent a lesson than anything in the classrooms they will soon be entering. They hangout at the swamps or the abandoned housing projects, all with names of dashed hopes like Magic Castle or Future World. It's Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. But Disney World is over the road which is lethally busy, the cars speed thickly, their roofs like the fins of sharks. From a pad nearby a helicopter seems constantly taking off, carrying those who can afford it into the sky like a rapture for the one percent. Halley and Moonee give it the finger at one point. The July 4th fireworks from Disney World are spectacular, even seen from the damp grass of the swamp.

This day to day plotlessness is made compulsive movie going through the sheer boldness of its presentation. We don't have to work too hard to know the irony of all the candy coloured poverty but neither are we beaten about the head by it, that's simply what life looks like here. The persistent aural reminders are the same with kiddy pop and cartoon soundtracks on televisions that stay on when everyone's asleep. And the tension between the ugly acts of grown-ups and the gormless disasters of the children's play commands us: it's a system but it's always on the edge of snapping.

And it's the performers. Bria Vinaite as Halley goes from sweetness to cozening to outright horrifying as she swings between survival and an unrestrained sense of injustice that hasn't developed past her childhood. Brooklyn Prince as Moonee is only anything but natural when she's trying to be a grown up and then she seems heart-rendingly aware of its futility. Her dialogue and that of the other kids, especially when together never drops from natural, never sounds scripted. The film's thread of the elastic boundary between life and its violations is dependent on the direct identification we are forced to make between the wildness of the children and the only partially guarded chaos of their parents. Each moment feels precarious, each happy laugh a second away from a scream.

Presiding over this or what little he can control is Bobby the manager. Willem Dafoe whose intensity has taken him from roles as Jesus, to the chaotically violent Bobby Peru, to a recreation of Max Schreck as Nosferatu and beyond, seems to bring all that experience and the rest of the hemisphere on his shoulders as he keeps as much of the chaos on his watch from exploding beyond its bounds. Is he a little too good? Maybe, but if so it's the character rather than the performance which fills the gaps of any under-drafting with what feels like a very muscular concern for those around him. His scene with a freezingly banal paedophile demonstrates this: he knows he can't stop the man from invading anywhere else but uses a telltale detail found on the predator's driver's licence to buy a little time because that's really all that can be believably done about anything on that side of the road.

Taking in the sustained power of this film I was reminded as I might have been of John Cassavetes' often brutal naturalistic style, adopted from Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave. The unflinching and knowing eye coupled with the confident direction of the actors to keep themselves grounded in documentary realism is there for anyone to compare. But I was also taken by the direction of the children and the realisation of their secret world and how it reminded me of a favourite from years ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild. While never attempting the magical realism of that piece, The Florida Project's joy in examining the seriousness of children's play is as rich as it is in Beasts which is a tribute I'll happily part with.

And then, as the worst of the threads wind tight and the inevitable teeters to its crash in these lives we find a moment of magnanimity and even love that lifts us like children to its warmth. It's the sole moment with scored music and feels as manipulative as you might imagine but it is so perfect for what you need after the rest of the film that you simply don't care about that. Strong candidate for best of the year.