Posts Tagged romance

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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La La Land

Year of Release: 2016          Directed by Damien Chazelle.            Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

mv5bnjqyoti5mdk0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdk1mtc5ote-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_I like musicals. Actually, that’s not true. I love musicals. My top ten favorite films list includes Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Sweeney Todd, all of which I have seen more times than I can count. When Criterion released a box set of the complete Jacques Demy films, I purchased it as soon as I could. I enjoy and have defended the artistry of Rob Marshall’s adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods (his adaptation of Nine, however, is indefensible). I own the complete vocal scores for seven musicals and the vocal selections for countless others. I think Love Me Tonight and All That Jazz are both astonishing works of cinema as well as great musicals, and I routinely encourage everyone to watch the former (the latter being too graphic for a general endorsement). John Carney’s Once and Begin Again both made my top ten for their respective years, and Sing Street stands a decent chance of making my top ten this year. In middle school and high school I wrote two musicals, each over two hours in length (I wrote score, lyrics, and libretto – the musicals were not good, but it’s a testament to how much I love the art form). All that is to say: few things fill me with as much joy as a well made musical, and few things pain me as much as a musical gone wrong.

Naturally, when I heard about La La Land, I was ecstatic. An original musical produced on a lavish scale with extravagant set pieces and vibrant colors is something I am hard wired to love. I instantly caught the Jacques Demy influence in the trailer; Chazelle had proven his directorial chops with Whiplash, a film I respect even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, so I thought his skill would lead to a triumph here. The early raves were all encouraging, and even though the few naysayers convinced me to restrain my expectations, I was still convinced I was going to love La La Land.

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I didn’t.

I really, really didn’t.

From the first scene, the film failed to transport me the way that a good musical should. The opening set piece during rush hour on the LA freeway is extravagantly staged, fun to watch, and “Another Day of Sun” is an infectious tune that should bring a smile out of anyone, but the film’s focus during what should be a stunning production number is on Chazelle and his bag of directorial tricks. The entire sequence is filmed in one long take, and consequently, the focus is rarely on the dancers but on the camera and the odd positions it must adopt to move from performer to performer. During that number, I was frequently saying to myself, “Cut to a long distance shot so we can see the whole ensemble, or at least zoom out,” followed by, “Don’t violently whir the camera from person to person, cut to them, and time the cuts to match the musical phrases.” There were a few moments in the number when the music and the dance overcame the technical distractions, and the film briefly soared as it was meant to, but sadly, not for the entire scene.

In a nutshell, that is La La Land’s biggest problem. For every wonderful breathtaking moment of inspiring beauty (and there are a lot), there are one or two moments of clunky technical distractions grounding the film to earth.

After the opening set piece, a title card tells us the first segment is titled, “Winter.” We meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer who works as a barista to pay the bills, and then Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist with a strong rebellious streak. The segment is bookended by their two rough first meetings. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about them beyond their occupations and basic personalities. Neither one gets a song to describe their motivations for their dreams, and we are not given any reason that they should be together beyond this is a musical, and that’s traditionally what happens in a musical.

The next segment, “Spring,” is probably the best in the film, and the main reason for that is “A Lovely Night,” the meet cute song and dance for Mia and Sebastian. Gosling and Stone’s dancing is impressive and the framing against the LA sunset works beautifully. It’s the only moment in the film where everything comes together perfectly, due to the stars’ execution and to Chazelle allowing the camera to pull back and observe without intruding. Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is also at its best as their attitudes toward one another change from disdainful to reticent admiration.

“Summer” and “Fall” trace the standard trajectory of a musical romance, and Mia and Sebastian encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The film goes through the expected ups and downs, and it always stays watchable, but it never becomes transcendent.mv5bmmzmm2mzztutmmvmms00otnklwi2ytitnjfkytuymguwnji1l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndqzmdg4nzk-_v1_sy1000_cr0016351000_al_

As good as Stone and Gosling are (and they’re really good), there’s only so much they can do with two characters who are a compilation of every musical cliché. I am aware many great musicals have thinly sketched characters, but all of those musicals have something other than spectacular set pieces to drive the story forward. For instance, Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors have little personality beyond their massive lack of self esteem, but that plays directly into the villain’s manipulation which drives the story. The supporting characters in Company have little stage time, but they all have crucial song lyrics that make their characters more unique than Mia or Sebastian are here. The guy and girl in Once don’t even receive names, yet their songs develop their characters much more than the song lyrics or dance sequences in La La Land. (To be fair, “The Fools Who Dream” is a great song which adds a lot of depth to Mia’s character, but that’s undermined by the following scene.)

The most damning flaw throughout the majority of the film is Chazelle’s obnoxious desire to film all songs in one take. The result of such a choice is that he often has to move or position the camera awkwardly, dragging it along walls and missing moments of choreography. Personally, I’m blaming Tom Hooper for doing that in Les Miserables and Alejandro Iñarritu for convincing everyone that long takes are good in of themselves with Birdman.

However, the ending undoes any goodwill I was inclined to give the film. Admittedly, Justin Hurwitz’  score is excellent, Mandy Moore’s choreography is stunning, and the production design is gorgeous. None of that makes up for the sloppy, ham-fisted copying of vastly superior musical. To avoid spoilers I won’t say what musical (although I mentioned it in this review), but after La La Land reaches the conclusion of its story, Chazelle adds a gratuitous coda which has an identical outcome to the ending of said musical. The most offensive aspect is the way in which Chazelle tacks on the coda without setting it up and without the nuance or poignancy it has in the original film. If I hadn’t see that musical, I might not have minded La La Land concluding the same way it does, and I might have found La La Land’s conclusion bittersweet and touching. However, I’ve seen that vastly superior musical countless times, and I’m thinking about watching it right now, so La La Land’s coda struck me as borderline plagiarism.

Also, speaking of distracting copying of other musicals, one of the jazz set pieces used a theme copied directly from another great musical from the same director who made the musical referenced above. Finally, if the poorly copied coda weren’t enough, in the middle of it Chazelle inserts a dream sequence with references to every major musical which influenced La La Land. It’s redundant and only serves to drag out the ending as it screams out how self-aware it is.

Just like The Artist was a silent film for people who had never seen a silent film, La La Land is basically a musical for people who don’t particularly care for musicals. If you want to see La La Land, I’m not going to discourage you, but do yourself a favor and watch several Jacques Demy musicals first, most importantly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which soar head and heels over this film, and neither of which this film would exist without.

 

Personal Recommendation: C+

Content Advisory: An instance of profanity, implied premarital cohabitation, and a couple strong vulgarities.                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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The Girl King

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Mika Kaurismäki. Starring Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant, and Patrick Bauchau.

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The life of Queen Kristina of Sweden is a fascinating enough topic to make several different films. Mika Kaurismäki’s The Girl King successfully limits its scope to two aspects of her life, but at the same time it seems to be torn between which of the two is the focus of the story. The film is framed by scenes which underscore Kristina’s affinity for the Catholic faith to the dismay of the Lutheran Swedish court, but the majority of the middle of the film is much more interested in her illicit lesbian affair with one of her ladies in waiting.

To the film’s credit it merges those two aspects of Kristina’s life more successfully than one might expect by emphasizing Kristina’s “curious” nature which leads her to be dissatisfied with Luther’s strict theology and interested in fulfilling her unorthodox desires. However, the double meaning of curious (for knowledge and regarding sexuality) becomes laboriously overstated and repetitive as the members of Kristina’s court and the French (read: Catholic) ambassadors say, “The queen is curious,” whenever she expresses interest in something outside of accepted norms. In other words, the word is used to the point of exhaustion.

I actually think the idea of a lesbian affair leading someone to become Catholic is fascinating, and it emphasizes the main mission of the Church: to meet all sinners where they are and bring them into the fullness of truth. Here, yet again, I found the film’s handling of the idea to be more interesting in theory than in execution. The French ambassador, eager to strike a blow against Lutheranism, tells Kristina that becoming Catholic would enable her to continue fulfilling her lesbian desires (in the seventeenth century, I seriously doubt anyone of any faith would say that). Rene Descartes (Kristina’s favorite philosopher) then says that those desires are not Christian, but further exploring the implication of those lines seems to be outside the film’s interest.

I am aware that for everything that I’ve complimented I have then criticized it, which might be making the film sound worse than it is. Director Mika Kaurismäki keeps the film thoroughly watchable through his skilled framing which gives a sense of the austere nature of the Swedish court as well as Kristina’s thirst for knowledge. An early shot of the young queen being given a physical examination in front of the entire court of men clearly establishes the sexism and secondary role of women which Kristina will challenge. The set design also convincingly portrays seventeenth century Sweden both in the palace interior and winter countryside.

However, I once again am going to turn around and critique the film. As skillful as the camera work is, the script is weak, with lines of dialogue either painfully on the nose or clichéd ideas from freshman philosophy. It does not help that some of the delivery is very stilted, but that may be because I watched the English version instead of the Swedish version, and it seemed that English was not a first language for a couple of the actors, notably Malin Buska who plays Kristina.

The Girl King is not a bad film. It’s a fascinating one in which it’s easy to see the makings of a great film from the story of Queen Kristina, a legacy this film touches upon, but does not live up to.

 

Content Advisory: Brief nudity, depiction of a lesbian affair, a threat of rape, an off-screen abortion, medical bloodletting and surgery — nothing particularly graphic.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: C+

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If I Stay

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by R. J. Cutler.  Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, and Joshua Leonard.

Opening voiceover (paraphrased from memory): “Life is funny sometimes. We can make our plans for what we will do, but then life comes along with others. Take my pal Beethoven; he was all set to be a famous pianist, but life had other plans for him. At twenty-six he went deaf and could no longer perform. So he turned to composition, and his new gig fit him perfectly.” (Wrong — Beethoven began suffering from tinnitus at twenty-six, his hearing loss became severe a few years later, and he did not go completely deaf until several years after that. He also was an established composer well before his hearing loss began.)

Evan: “Oh, boy. This is not going to be good. Maybe I should leave now and get my money back.”

Unfortunately, I did not leave, and If I Stay was a constant downhill from there. The movie was horrifically and fundamentally misconceived on almost every possible level. Just about nothing worked. The “tragic scenes” were so contrived as to be laughable; the “humor” is so forced and awkward that I cannot imagine anyone laughing at it – her parents are hippie rockers trying to force her to have fun, but she’s a prim and proper classical cellist who’s uncomfortable with partying and underage drinking (apparently the filmmakers never met a classically trained musician); the dialogue was awful – having a teenage girl say, “I hate you (or it)” every time she’s mildly upset is incredibly annoying.

The entire conflict between Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her boyfriend was based on a nonsensical plot point: she’s a super talented cellist who wants to go off to college with her boyfriend in Oregon, but she also wants to pursue her cello studies, which means she has to go to Juilliard. Why does she have to go to Juilliard to study cello? Because the movie needs a stupid unbelievable conflict, and because a “feel good” movie like this needs to have its protagonist get into (or at least audition for) the BEST MUSIC SCHOOL EVER!!!

What? There are phenomenal music schools other than Juilliard, some of which are on the West Coast? You wouldn’t know that from the film, especially since Mia only applies to one college (Juilliard). And when she auditions she selects the most clichéd, well known audition pieces possible that display almost no variety whatsoever, something no serious musician would do, unless she was in a stupid film that wanted soundtrack pieces its audience might know.

On the day that Mia is anxiously awaiting to hear back from Juilliard, and also stewing over a recent fight with her boyfriend, she and her family are in a tragic collision in which her parents and brother die and she is sent into a coma. At that point, she has an out of body experience and narrates the rest of the film wondering what will happen to her life. Will she wake up? If she does, will she and her boyfriend reconcile? And will she be accepted at Juilliard? To quote Roger Ebert, “Anyone who doesn’t immediately know the answers to these questions either lives in a cave or wrote this screenplay.”

How painfully ignorant is If I Stay? Here’s an example: at one point Mia says she used to always think of the cello as a solo instrument but eventually learned that it can be a good ensemble instrument as well. Apparently she has never heard a symphony or a string quartet, the two genres which her idol Beethoven is best known for.

Thankfully, this atrocity is already fading from my memory.

Content Advisory: An implied sexual encounter between teens, occasional profanity, and a possibly upsetting tragedy.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: D-

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