Posts Tagged fantasy

The Shape of Water

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Guillermo del Toro.   Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones.

Last Sunday in church, the Gospel reading was the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for, among other things, casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. This past Sunday I also watched The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest dark fairytale in which fantasy and myth give a voice to the voiceless, empower the weak, and cast down arrogant, powerful villains.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro literally creates a tale to give a voice to the voiceless. Sally Hawkins plays the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman working at a government lab with her good friend and black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa lives above an old movie theater with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work artist with reasons of his own to be downcast. As the film takes place in the early ‘60’s, this trio of characters all has reasons to feel rejected by society.

When the lab acquires a mysterious amphibious man from Amazon (Doug Jones), who is guarded by the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa sees him as not as a foreign dangerous species, but as another reject of society for being different, as she is. Soon Elisa and the creature are bonding over hard-boiled eggs, LP’s, and sign language when she manages to sneak into the containment facility unobserved.

Being a fairytale, the story beats for The Shape of Water are broad archetypes, and at times some of them are a little too broad. Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland could easily be construed as too cartoonish, especially from his first interaction with Elisa and Zelda as they are cleaning the men’s restroom, where he flaunts his odd hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Giles suffers several rejections, in both his professional and personal life, some of which are not set up particularly well. And the ease with which the central plot point is executed would be unlikely.

However, nitpicking those plot details forgets that this story is a fairytale, and it is meant to symbolize an exaltation of the lowly. Therefore, that is what happens, and del Toro’s filming of it splendidly gorgeous. Nearly every scene is saturated with greens and blues, making the screen shimmer with an iridescence that reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the creature, breathing life and joy into all of the world. The only exception is Strickland’s home which is permeated by a harsh, stale yellow, showing how thoroughly he has cut himself off from joy and compassion, to the point that his life and soul fester like the finger injury he sustains.

Del Toro also finds joy in old movies from 1930’s Hollywood. Giles wishes to use cinema as a means of escapism, so he can forget the civil rights movement and his closeted sexuality, both of which cause him too much discomfort. However, Elisa’s attitude toward the old pictures shows how fantasy can be used to uplift, inspire, and communicate what words fail to say, which an exquisite black and white sequence demonstrates.

Sally Hawkins is incredible as Elisa, masterfully conveying a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions and sign language. The scene where she explains to Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic but incredulous Giles why she has to rescue the creature from the laboratory is one of the most moving of the year. Octavia Spencer plays off her silence perfectly as a supportive friend and coworker, effortlessly changing her demeanor depending on who is nearby.

The stories of Samson and Ruth are used as two recurring Biblical allegories, both of which are interwoven with the main theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. The foreigner who leaves her home behind for something greater receives untold blessings, and the philistine who thinks he’s invincible as God’s anointed is struck down by his own prisoner.

By setting the film in the early ‘60’s with the civil rights movement occurring in the background, del Toro is able to give a voice to multiple groups of people who would have been rejected by society as “lesser” at that time: women, blacks, gays, and the disabled. That decision makes the film feel applicable to any time, even as parts of it are clearly a rebuttal to America’s current administration. More remarkably, there are two villains in the film who attempt to crush the meek in their thirst for power: the nationalistic American capitalists and the communist Soviets. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy who defects to a greater cause demonstrates the narrow but noble line of rejecting two opposite and equal evils.

Finally, the epilogue is practically a prayer one could say to God. Even though we cannot see Him, we seek Him, finding Him where we least expect.

Ever since seeing Pan’s Labyrinth about a decade ago, I have looked forward to seeing del Toro’s newest films. Regardless of the narrative weaknesses that often plague his screenplays, he is an astonishingly talented visual stylist, and he uses wonderfully beautiful imagery to tell his stories in a way that is inviting and mesmerizing. As an allegory about recognizing the value of everyone who has been overlooked and denied their worth, where the simplest joy filled moments are celebrated in spectacular fashion, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best film in over a decade.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Semi-graphic sexual content with nudity, some gruesome violence, occasional profanities and obscenities.        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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mother!

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Darren Aronofsky.   Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

“God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God,” and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” – Pope St. John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists

The question at the heart of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream heavily infused with Biblical allegories, is what happens when an artist abuses that power. Portrayed by Javier Bardem, the artist in question receives no name throughout the film, and he is clearly meant to serve as an archetype of something, but what that something is remains a mystery for much of the film. One thing that is clear throughout the film is that more than desiring to write great poetry, he longs for mass adulations from his adoring fans to the chagrin of his doting, supportive wife, the titular mother (Jennifer Lawrence).

Mother herself is another allegorical character, with touches of the Virgin Mary, Hestia, and Aphrodite, but she is primarily drawn from Gaia, or mother nature herself. Whatever combination of metaphors mother is meant to represent, Lawrence draws on them all effortlessly, creating a sympathetic character who never seems gullible or foolish for blindly going along with her husband or pouring all her energies into refurbishing their mysterious house, another process of creation and a sort of vocation that no one, including her creative genius husband, appreciates.

Aronofsky has said that his original idea for mother! was to convey a feeling of dread and helplessness as one watches their home destroyed, an allegory of mother earth’s helplessness in the face of environmental destruction. That is an easy interpretation to see, especially considering the selfless giving of mother to her husband and the increasingly disturbing string of guests he parades through their home because they love his work. At the same time, if the invasion of the home is a parallel to humans destroying the earth, it also functions as an example of a self-centered artist allowing his wife’s handiwork to be abused and destroyed because he wants all fame and glory for himself, not much different from an abusive artist trying to usurp glory from God or misuse His creation.

As the destruction to the house crescendos in increasingly disturbing ways, it is impossible not to sympathize with mother as Aronofsky builds up to the horrific finale of his disorienting thrill ride. That sense of sympathy and compassion serves as a lament in the face of evil as we watch mother’s suffering. mother! may be a horror film, but it’s a profoundly sorrowful one. If the desire for fame can give birth to the ugliest of human behavior, idolatrous religious fervor fortifies those tendencies. mother! shies away from depicting neither.

The horror of human capacity for evil is made strikingly apparent by Aronofsky’s choice to saturate this film with Biblical allegories. The ones that feature into the finale are a jarring choice considering what happens, but that dissonance emphasizes the twofold horror of the artist who thinks he is God and of the inherent idolatry of adoring fans who place their faith in works of art rather than allowing the art to remind them of something greater.

(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph, skip it if you wish to avoid them.)

The metaphorical nature of Javier Bardem’s poet has caused consternation among many Christian reviewers, and while he is certainly meant to be indicative of God the Father on some levels, he is just as much drawn from Pygmalion in Greek mythology with his doting trophy wife half his age, carefully concocted to be the ultimate fulfillment of every sexist fantasy regarding the subservient housekeeping wife whom the husband can ignore, whose existence seems due to a magical crystal he owns. He is also a highly incomplete portrait of God with his obsession of permitting people to do whatever they want provided they tell him he’s awesome. Mother is also representative of God with her sense of justice, the way she breathes life into the house, and the way she bears its burdens. If the poet represents a god where mercy has been divorced from justice, the abuse heaped upon mother results in a god where justice is divorced from mercy. Both are horrific alternatives, and the film depicts both.

It would be easy to dismiss mother! as an offensive and badly muddled allegory of religious themes, and indeed, many Christian reviewers have done just that. Furthermore, considering the damning way in which uniquely Catholic symbolism plays into the film’s climax, adding one more such condemnation to the fray would have been all too easy. However, to have done so would have been to ignore the thoughtful and complex way Aronofsky wrestles with the vocation of the artist and how that can be abused in a unique setting haunted by Biblical themes.

I believe the key to understanding mother! is to remember that it is not a straightforward allegory, but one that deliberately scrambles all its metaphors, much to the frustration of audiences. Alissa Wilkinson mentioned that Michelle Pfeiffer, in a scene stealing performance, is simultaneously an Eve and Serpent figure. That is the sort interpretation this film requires. Jacob and Esau are merged with Cain and Abel. The Nativity and the Passion are referenced almost simultaneously. And in a predictable, yet brilliant twist, Alpha and Omega symbolism bookends the film.

mother! is a grand, macabre symphony of big, bold, Mahlerian-scaled allegories that pummel the viewer through a psychological horror tale about creation, its destruction, and the artist’s vocation. The relentless pacing, disturbing and revolting plot twists, plethora of closeup shots, and the predictable yet nonetheless WTF ending all contribute to an atmosphere which will challenge even the most adventurous of viewers, causing many of them to abhor it. And for all those reasons, which create a perfect marriage of style and substance, I absolutely loved it.

 

Content Advisory: Disturbing graphic violence, including cannibalism, a scene of physical assault with fleeting nudity, a couple non-graphic sex scenes, a few harsh obscenities, and brief male nudity.                    MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

 

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Matt Reeves.                   Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, and Toby Kebbel.

Andy Serkis has described War for the Planet of the Apes as a film about the battle for Caesar’s soul, and that is the war which consumes most of the action in this film. The fighting between apes and humans which began in the prior film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes a backseat where both species, either as individuals or as a whole, live or die according to their own choices.

In a film where the outcome is predetermined – because the trilogy which War concludes serves as a prequel to a world where humans have died out and apes have inherited the planet – diverting the heart of the action from an apes versus humans standoff is a wise choice. That way we can feel the tragedy of humanity’s extinction without rooting for either side to eliminate the other. This is a stark contrast and improvement from the first film of this trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where all the humans were either forgettable, clichéd good guys who could die off without any sense of loss or insufferable monsters whom any normal person would want the apes to destroy.

However, the second film, Dawn, changed that by showing the best and worst of both humans and apes, and by pitting Caesar (the leader of the chimps played by Andy Serkis) against Koba, (Toby Kebbel) an ape consumed with hatred toward humans for the abusive experiments they had carried out on him. Koba’s ghost continues to haunt Caesar after an early tragedy in War reveals to Caesar that he has a capacity for the same level of hatred. If the primary conflict in the last film was ape versus ape, here it is ape versus self.

Caesar’s internal wrestling with rage, along with the consequences of the choices he makes as a result, weakens the Moses figure he otherwise is to the apes, who are trying to pass through a desert to their own promised land in order to escape slavery or death at the hands of desperate humans willing to attempt anything in order to survive.

Here, there is very little good to be found in humanity who given themselves over to fear and anger in their desperation to survive. The worst of man is personified by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel who views himself as fighting a holy war for the survival of humanity not only against apes, but also against a new strand of the virus which killed millions of humans while increasing apes’ strength and intelligence, and against other humans who disagree with his extreme methods. The Colonel is the leader of the villains, much as Koba was in the last film, but as there was with Koba, there is a scene where we learn the source of his anger and extreme methods, making him, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable.

Like many fanatics, the Colonel is religiously driven: crucifying apes, blessing his soldiers with the sign of the cross, appropriating the U.S. national anthem in a borderline idolatrous way, painting alpha and omega symbols on the American flag, and carving them onto apes he’s convinced to serve him. It’s certainly possible that the alpha and omega were chosen to reflect the simultaneous end of humanity and rise of the apes, but the religious connotations of those Greek letters can hardly be overlooked in light of the other symbols.

When the Colonel finally has his main confrontation with Caesar, his rationalization is a perversion of love, which has taken a good thing (protection of humanity) and twisted it to justify any atrocity needed for that end. It reminded me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves regarding unhealthy patriotism that “can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of [Heavenly Society] and use them to justify the most abominable actions.” (The Four Loves, p. 38)

“I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds – wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine – I become insufferable.” (The Four Loves, p. 37)

The Colonel has passed from insufferable to monstrous, and when Caesar witnesses that, he sees his rage taking him down that path as well. Thus, it is fitting that the ape versus man conflict between Caesar and the Colonel forms a smaller part in Caesar’s own struggle that drives the film.

Ministering to Caesar’s better nature is his oldest surviving friend the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who finds a peculiar child (Amiah Miller) who personifies one of the Colonel’s fears and reminds Caesar about the costs of violence. All the themes tie together pretty obviously, and at times, the film is a little heavy-handed and the pacing a little too drawn out, but as an examination that twists the traditional revenge tale it succeeds very well.

As a chronicle of how the apes inherited this planet, War for the Planet of the Apes serves as the strongest installment of the trilogy which began with humans cutting corners for the sake of profits and science and culminated with them cutting ethical corners to engage in acts which made them more brutal than the beasts they feared. It’s unquestionably tragic, but Matt Reeves’ film treats it with the solemnity it deserves, while never forgetting to remind us of the more peaceful outcome that was sadly rejected in favor of violence.

 

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content advisory: Gun violence, ape fights, some mild gore, an implied off-screen euthanasia, torture of apes.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Luc Besson.                    Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna.

Sometimes movies should just be fun. No, I do not think it’s a good idea to turn our brains off when we watch a film; we should be conscious of whatever art we’re consuming. However, when a film spectacularly succeeds in one regard, there is nothing wrong with overlooking noticeable weaknesses in favor of its strengths.

In the case of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets those strengths are the wonderfully inventive and breathtaking visuals which permeate every frame of director Luc Besson’s wild, joy-filled thrill ride. It is unabashedly clear that he has crafted exactly the film he wanted to and could not care less what any viewers think of it, and the blatant love he has for this project and its delirious imagery is contagious. It is nearly impossible not to smile when watching an underwater hunt for a mysterious jellyfish that lives on giant dinosaurs, a chameleon-like creature called a Mul-Converter making thousands of high-powered pearls to save a planet, and a chase sequence that simultaneously occurs on a planet’s real surface and in a virtual black market.

If all that sounds crazy, it’s because it is, and the most remarkable thing is none of those would be the film’s most bonkers idea. There’s more than one possible answer to what that is, but for my money, I would answer it’s the shape-shifting alien named Bubble, played by Rihanna, whom our hero Valerian must go inside so she can act as a camouflage for them to rescue his partner Laureline. And if that doesn’t sound insane enough, we first meet Bubble being exploited by her pimp Jolly (a sinister yet comical Ethan Hawke) in a musical number with Bob Fosse-esque choreography, which completely stops the plot of the film for another wild invention of Besson’s.

The plot is utterly nonsensical, and the less time anyone spends thinking about it, the better off they will be. Thankfully, the film wastes very little time with expository dialogue or clarifying the plot, because the plot is not the driving force of this film. You either accept whatever is happening on screen at the current moment, or you don’t. Towards the end, there is an attempt to tie all the plot points together in a coherent fashion, which is the film’s biggest failure, because 1) it’s not possible to make complete sense of a story this outlandish, and 2) the focus on the plot bogs the film down with unnecessary details, stretching its runtime about twenty minutes too long.

As two special agents charged with keeping the universe safe, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne clearly enjoy themselves as Valerian and Laureline, even if their characters don’t have any defining personality traits. Their missions reference movies from Star Wars (the originals and the prequels) to Star Trek to Blade Runner with escapes down giant trash shoots, planets with underwater centers, giant computer systems that control entire planets, and the titular city of a thousand planets, which houses every species in the galaxy. The result is an all encompassing spectacle that demands to be seen in 3D on the largest screen possible. There a few films which I think benefit from 3D, but this is unquestionably one of them.

In many ways, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the film that Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 should have been. It’s more daring, more creative, and this intergalactic adventure is a lot more fun. The use of pop hits is another similarity to Guardians; the opening sequence here is underscored by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and the perfectly synchronized montage takes us from the first space adventures of the 1960’s to the 28th Century. In that sequence alone, I had more fun than I’ve had at any movie all year, and that doesn’t relent for most of the movie.

There are many people who will understandably find the craziness of the central concept a damning flaw, but for me Besson’s symphony of imagery and visual effects more than makes up for that with its sense of originality, wild creativity, and most importantly, fun. Valerian is first and foremost about the visual world Besson wanted to build, and the film’s greatest asset is that it never forgets that, and it invites us to enjoy it as much as Besson obviously does.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content advisory: Sci-fi violence and peril, some slightly suggestive costumes, and a mildly risqué dance number.                        MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.             Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley.

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I am not the biggest fan of Hans Zimmer – I often find his music too heavy handed and repetitive, but I have always enjoyed the work he and Klaus Badelt did for the initial Pirates of the Caribbean. The cues altered between ebullience and solemnity in a fittingly cartoonish way with simple, traditional orchestrations to match. The score for Dead Men Tell No Tales is composed by Geoff Zanelli but still utilizes all of Zimmer’s main themes; however, those themes are re-orchestrated so that the once light-hearted soundtrack is now overwrought with plodding cues that are too loud, too thick, and sadly rather lifeless.

It’s a fitting metaphor for this franchise.

Nowhere is that more apparent than Depp. I am someone who will defend his work in Curse of the Black Pearl as one of his three greatest performances and think he absolutely should have won the Oscar that year. In this film, he half-heartedly phones in a wooden parody of that performance from fourteen years ago, which is probably an all time career low for him (and yes, I’m considering Alice in Wonderland).

The rest of the cast has varying levels of success at finding the right level of camp for the material. Javier Bardem passably hisses his way through an undead Spanish pirate hunter, but for undead nemeses hunting Jack, both Bill Nighy and Geoffrey Rush did it better. Rush is back briefly for an attempt at nostalgia, as are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. None of them are given anything to do, other than remind us how much better they were in the first film. As the new young love-struck couple, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are so obsessed with hammering home their one respective character trait that they move from no chemistry to negative chemistry as they actively make sure we have no interest in whether they succeed or not.

The plot revolves around Thwaites and Scodelario, as he is looking for the Trident of Poseidon to lift the curse on his father, and she wants to solve the map her unknown father left for her, which leads to the same place. For some mysterious reason, they also need Captain Jack Sparrow to get there, but he, his compass, and the Black Pearl have no bearing on the outcome at all. How they discover they need one another is never really explained. His name is Henry Turner (son of Will and Elizabeth) and she is Carina Smyth, a progressive woman of science who repeatedly insists she is not a witch, but an astronomer and horologist. It shouldn’t need explaining how the latter is received among pirates.

N.B. The word horologist didn’t exist until the 19th Century, about 70 or so years after this film. So with an anachronism like that, someone probably should check to see if she weighs the same as a duck, but I digress.

In terms of pacing, this one probably slightly improves on the previous film considering that it moves through its nonsensical plot at a slightly less lifeless rate, but on the other hand that plot is a blender full of ideas and characters with no real continuity. I suppose I also need to mention there are zombie sharks, and the film even makes that boring.

To be fair, there are brief lines and gags which recall the fun of the original, but those are few and far between.

At least we can say ending The Beatles is not the worst thing Sir Paul ever did.

 

Personal Recommendation: C-

Content advisory: Fairly intense action violence, gruesome imagery, and some off-colour humor.              MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

 

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