Movie Reviews - 2017 postsThursday January 04, 2018
Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
For a director as esteemed as Guillermo del Toro, it’s kind of shocking how few esteemed movies he’s made. It’s really just “Pan’s Labyrinth” and this. Everything else is lesser fare (“Crimson Peak”), B-comic movies (“Blade II,” “Hellboy”) and giant stupid shit (“Pacific Rim”). He’s got one Oscar nom (original screenplay, “Pan’s”), two BAFTA noms (both for “Pan’s”) and a shitload of sci-fi awards.
I guess that’s who he really is: a sci-fi geek.
As for this fairy tale, fish-out-of-water love story? Patricia loved it from beginning to end. I liked it. But you know what I liked more? I liked Del Toro talking about it.
In December, he was on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and pointed out that “The Shape of Water” is really a revisionist take on “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” It’s the outsider’s take—the creature’s take. The woman, rather than being desired, is desirous. The creature is a creature, but benevolent and intelligent and curious. The true villains are the white men in charge: scientists and military officials and bureaucrats. I wonder if del Toro considered having Michael Shannon smoke a pipe throughout—like a ’50s era, B-movie scientist hero.
Then he goes deeper:
The screenplay makes a point of showing you that the characters that have the power of speech, that talk, have more of a trouble communicating with each other than the characters that just are.
That's nice. The movie is set in the early 1960s, one of the most frigid parts of the Cold War, but del Toro lets us know why the film is relevant today:
Every time we talk about emotions we do so very guardedly and with the fear of appearing disingenuous. And I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote unquote, “the other”—as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face every day in the news and politics.
Listen to the whole thing. His accent alone makes it worth it.
As for the movie?
OK, so I’m a worst-case-scenario person. Sue me. I just couldn’t get past the stupidity of our heroes, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), stealing an Amazonian river-god from the U.S. government in 1962, right under the nose of a borderline psychotic head of security, Richard Strickland (Shannon, essentially reprising his “Boardwalk Empire” character), and then ... not doing anything with him. For days. They just fill up the bathtub and let him flop around in there. Then Elisa has sex with him. She fills her entire bathroom with water and has sex with him. Mind you, she lives above a movie theater, and the building is old and made of wood. Fuck the shape of water, what about its weight? That’s risking a lot for one fairy-tale schtup. It’s not exactly staying on the down-low.
Even before then, in the government facility, isn’t Elisa quick to embrace the creature? To assume he’s not harmful? Here’s an egg, here’s another. You have claws and fangs but what the hell, I’ll just hang poolside with you. Within reach.
BTW: He is harmful. Ask the cat.
And what about the cat? Don’t they get over her pretty easily? If this things bites the head off Jellybean, I don’t think I’ll risk my ass helping him escape. Not that he’d get anywhere near Jellybean; she’d mess him up.
With most of this, del Toro is placing his needs as a filmmaker (to create the visually and emotionally dazzling) above the needs of his characters. He’s doing what he wants rather than what they need.
That said, Hawkins is wonderful as Elisa, a mute janitor at a government lab, the lowest person on the totem pole, who, despite her mousy exterior, has an inner steel and her own, full, no-apologies sex life. Some of my favorite scenes are her confrontations with the bullying, supertall Strickland. How her eyes don’t budge. How her gaze undoes him because it doesn't bend to his will.
I also loved Michael Stuhlbarg as the most sensitive undercover Russian spy in the world. He brought true emotion, true feeling, to what might otherwise have been a by-the-way character. When he’s killed, shot by his own, it almost physically pained me.
I just wanted the movie to make more sense. Even Cold-War fairy tales should have their own internal logic.
Movie Review: Girls Trip (2017)
I wasn’t planning on seeing this, but then the New York Film Critics Circle tapped Tiffany Haddish for supporting actress over Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird” and Holly Hunter in “The Big Sick,” so I had to check it out.
No doubt, Haddish is the best thing in the movie, the only one who’s laugh-out-loud funny. But choosing her and this role over Metcalf and Hunter? The hell? Does NYFCC have a history of going with broad comedies? Did they, for example, choose Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” a role which garnered a best supporting actress nomination at the 2011 Oscars? Nope. They went with Jessica Chastain for three films: “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter.” So why this one? Why now?
Plus “Bridesmaids” was actually a good movie. Remember how it opens? With Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph having conversations that felt as intimate as any lifelong friendship? It felt personal and specific and funny.
“Girls Trip” is the opposite of that.
A mile away
We’re told that four friends graduated from college in 1995 and went their separate ways. And each became a plot point waiting to turn:
- Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) is super-successful, “the next Oprah,” with a line of books, shows, products she pushes with her ex-football star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter of “Luke Cage”), encouraging women to “have it all.” Let me guess: He’s cheating on her.
- Sasha Franklin (Queen Latifah) is a struggling former journalist who runs a celebrity-gossip blog. Bills are piling up and backers are demanding more dirt and more clicks. Let me guess: She’ll realize the error of her dirt-digging ways.
- Lisa Cooper (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a single mom so anal she borders on obsessive-compulsive. Let me guess: She’ll let her freak flag fly.
Yes, yes, and yes.
The last of the four is Dina (Haddish), a take-no-prisoners party girl who refuses to be fired from her office job for physically attacking the coworker that stole her Go-Gurt. The four are reunited when Ryan, on the verge of her Oprahesque deal, flies them to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival, where she is keynote speaker.
During the course of the weekend, things get crazy. Lisa accidentally pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street and hooks up with a studly man half her age; Dina pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street on purpose and gets the others effed up on absinthe; Sasha keeps pondering whether to go public with photos of Stewart in flagrante delicto with an Instagram queen (all bootie, boobs, and bitchiness), while Ryan has to decide whether to give Stewart, and possibly that Oprahesque business opportunity, the heave-ho.
It’s obvious what Ryan needs to do but it takes her the entire movie to do it. And then of course it turns out OK. The Oprahesque deal goes through anyway—Oprah didn’t need a Stewart, after all—while Sasha is rewarded with a partnership. It makes up for the time Ryan totally threw her over for Stewart—a key fact that’s revealed only two-thirds of the way through.
What’s not funny
The obvious plot turns might have been forgivable if any of this had been funny. It isn’t. Haddish is funny. Her demonstration of the grapefruit method had me laughing so hard I missed the next 15 seconds of dialogue. I think I had a few other laughing jags courtesy of Haddish, who, not coincidentally, is the only character who doesn't have an obvious plot-turn.
That’s the lesson. The obvious isn’t funny. Bullshit isn’t funny. The other characters are obvious and bullshit. Bravo to Haddish and thanks for the laughs, but unlike NYFCC I stop there.
Movie Review: Batman & Bill (2017)
It’s a helluva story.
The doc opens with Marc Tyler Nobleman, a writer of young adult nonfiction, talking to a class of elementary school kids. He shows them a slide of the bat signal, asks them if they’ve heard of Batman, and says of course they have. He’s been giving talks all over the world, from Chile to the UAE, and he hasn’t been in a classroom where someone doesn’t know Batman. Then he says this:
On every Batman story since the first, in 1939, there was only one name in the credit line: “Batman created by Bob Kane.” Here he is. And here’s the thing about that credit line: It. Is. Not. True.
We soon learn how Nobleman discovered that Bob Kane had a partner, Bill Finger, who created the bat suit, Batman’s origin, the bat cave, Robin, Gotham City, and who wrote several decades of Batman stories, but never got a line of credit. So Nobleman becomes determined to not only tell Finger’s story but to get his name properly credited in Batman comics, movies and TV shows. And after 10 years, and thousands of hours of research and detective work, he does just that. And justice is finally served.
Throughout, Nobleman is considered Bill Finger’s Batman. Several talking heads, including director Kevin Smith, say so, while the doc shows an animated Nobleman casting a long Batman shadow.
“I think there has to be one person who steps up and leads the charge,” Nobleman says. He’s that one person.
Here’s the thing about that line of credit: Is. It. True?
Mark of Kane
The doc lauds Nobleman in two ways:
- He makes people aware of Bill Finger
- He tracks down Finger’s granddaughter, who has the legal standing to challenge the Kane credit line
There’s no doubt about the second achievement. We see all that happening. But the first? Just how well-known was Bill Finger when Nobleman began his project?
I was pretty deep into comic books in the 1970s but I admit I never heard of him. There’s also that montage of Nobleman asking comic-con visitors, some dressed as Batman, a series of Batman-related trivia, and all of them nailing the questions until the final one: Who’s Bill Finger? “Him, I don’t know.”
So Finger wasn’t generally known. But within the comic book industry? Oh yeah.
The doc tells us that when Batman producer Michael Uslan was a kid, he was introduced to Finger as “the creator of Batman” at the 1965 New York Comic-Con. Shortly thereafter, Jerry Bails wrote a fanzine article, “If the Truth Be Known or A Finger in Every Plot!,” lauding Finger’s contributions, but Kane denied it in an article for Batmania magazine, and that ended that. Finger remained mostly unknown and died in poverty in January 1974. He began as a ghost writer and became a ghost.
Here’s what’s left out. Finger was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1994 (the same year as Bob Kane), and the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1999 (three years after Kane). In 2005, about the time Nobleman began researching his book, Comic-Con International established the “Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.”
Nobleman makes much of the fact that Finger died without an obit while upon Bob Kane’s death in 1998, The New York Times did a huge write-up on him. What he fails to mention? Kane’s Times obit credits Bill Finger in the second graph:
Batman and Robin, the characters that Mr. Kane created with his partner, Bill Finger, nearly 60 years ago, are some of the longest-lived comic-book heroes in the world.
What’s left out tends to elevate Nobleman; it makes it seem like only he knew.
But alarm bells really went off for me when the doc focused on the difficulty of getting a credit change for a longstanding comic-book character.
As example, we hear about the decades-long battle between DC Comics and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—including the 1947 case, in which Superman’s creators were awarded $94K but lost credit, and the 1960s case, in which the court sided with DC. Then Nobleman says this:
Long story short, Superman has been the subject of litigation almost from the beginning, and it’s been going on for decades at this point. ... And you know the Superman situation would not instill a lot of confidence that you can win.
Long story short? The doc fails to mention the 1970s case, in which Warner Bros., worried over negative publicity preceding “Superman: The Movie,” awarded Siegel and Shuster and their heirs $20,000 a year (later upgraded) as well as credit in all forthcoming Superman movies and comic books. Why was this left out? That’s huge. That’s precedent.
Is that the idea? They wanted Nobleman’s work with Finger to seem ... unprecedented?
Even Nobleman tracking down Finger’s granddaughter leaves me with more questions than it should.
It’s thrilling detective work. When Nobleman started, all that was known about Bill Finger’s family was he had a son named Fred. It’s Nobleman who discovers Fred died of AIDS in 1991. He’s also the one who discovers that Fred had a child through a previous marriage, and he tracks down the girl, Athena, via an online Florida wedding announcement and MySpace page. He visits her. We see footage of that visit—apparently for a doc Nobleman planned at that time. We hear her complain about how hard it’s been for her—knowing what her grandfather did but not getting family cred. “I still don’t have closure,” she says, near tears. “I was excluded from everything.”
But ... what year was this visit? 2006? 2007? Later we see Athena going to the premiere of “The Dark Knight” in 2008 and having a great time. Then before the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, DC/Warners wanted her to sign a document terminating rights to any kind of claim to the character.
“They wanted to keep me quiet,” she says.
It took her four years to realize this? What was she doing in the interim? The whole thing feels fuzzy. It feels like Nobleman wanted her to sue but she went to premieres instead. And it gets even fuzzier. Suddenly she’s with a guy named Dr. Travis Langley? Who’s that? Suddenly she’s getting pressure from comic book fans? I thought comic-conners didn’t know Bill Finger. Or is that before Marc’s book was published in 2012 and created a surge of interest?
But, yes, eventually she sues, and in Sept. 2015 they reach a settlement, and it’s announced that Finger will receive credit on the TV show “Gotham” and the movie “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Wait, just those? No, it appears those are just examples. It appears he’s getting credit the way Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman. Even though the doc never tells us Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman.
(I’ll only briefly mention the irony that when Bill Finger finally, finally got credit for co-creating one of the world’s most famous characters, it was on “Batman v. Superman,” one of the worst superhero movies ever made.)
Listen, it’s a helluva story, and I’m grateful that Nobleman did all he did to get Bill Finger the credit he deserved. I even recommend you watch it. But “Batman & Bill,” directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce (“The Art of the Steal”), focuses too much on him, and makes murky too much of the history. A better Bill Finger doc awaits.
Movie Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
The trailer looked pretty good, but then Hollywood is rife with movies that work as trailers but not as movies. The director of this one, Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, is notorious for just that. His oeuvre:
- “The TV Set” (2006): chronicling the ways TV networks butcher good shows
- “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007): a satire on music biopics
- “Bad Teacher” (2011): Cameron Diaz as a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, smokin’ hot teacher
- “Sex Tape” (2014): Husband and wife accidentally upload racy video to cloud
With “Jumanji: Welcome in the Jungle,” Kasdan finally has something more than a trailer.
Who should he/we thank for this? Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who worked together on “Community” and “American Dad,” and who this year made the leap into film with “LEGO Batman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Jumanji”? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the world’s favorite action hero? Johnson and Kevin Hart, who continue to make a fantastic on-screen duo?
I’d say it’s whoever decided that board games were out, video games were in, and for god’s sake, make the kid the avatar.
And the nerds shall lead
Confession: I never watched the first “Jumanji.” Wait. Worse: I began it and stopped. Robin Williams did a kiddie version of his “Fisher King” role, every roll of the dice released chaos, and the backstories (1969, 1995) were convoluted and weepy.
This one begins where that one ends, with the Jumanji board game on the beach in 1996. It’s discovered, not by French girls, but by a jogging American dad (Tim Matheson), who brings it home to his teenage son, Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione), who dismisses it out of hand. He’s into video games. When the game senses this, it simply transforms itself into one. Sure, why not? Alex chooses an avatar, begins to play, and gets sucked in.
Cut to: present day. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a nerdy Jewish kid who is helping out his estranged childhood friend, now All-Star jock, Fridge (Ser-Darius Blain), by writing history papers for him. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a social-media- and selfie-obsessed beauty queen who FaceTimes during class, while Martha (Morgan Turner) is ... uh ... what exactly? Shy? Dismissive? Basically she seems like a normal teen. All four get detention (the boys for cheating, the girls for sass) and are told to clean up the school’s cluttered basement. That’s where they find the Jumanji video game.
(Question: How did it get there? The Vreeke place is now shuttered, and the dad, who couldn’t handle the disappearance of his son, is the town nutjob. But someone, at some point, had to move the damn game. Did Dad give it to the school charity? And no one else ever tried to play it? Something for the DVD commentary, I guess.)
These kids, of course, do play it, and become their avatars:
- Spencer —> Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the Superman of the game, all strength and no weakness
- Fridge —> “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist who’s short, slow, weak, and who carries weapons for Bravestone
- Martha —> Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian), the super-fast, kick-ass Lara Croft type
- Bethany —> Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), a short, fat, middle-aged cartographer
Basically, the nerdy kids become powerful and are played by action heroes, while the popular kids become weak and are played by comedians. Each is still him or herself (Bravestone flinches at squirrels) but with the power of the avatar (Oberon is the only one who can read maps). And off they go, pursued by wild animals and biker dudes, to get a jewel, the Jaguar’s Eye, that the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) stole years earlier, and return it to the jaguar statue so the jungle can be restored. Or something.
It’s both fun and funny. The Rock plays off his WWE persona (eyebrow raise, smolder, “Rock Bottom”), Kevin Hart plays off his little-man-with-big-mouth persona, and Jack Black channels his inner beauty queen. Eventually they hook up with Alex, whose avatar is Seaplane McDonough, and who thinks he’s been in the game for a few months—not 21 years.
Each avatar gets three lives, represented by three bars on their arms; when they lose one (eaten by a hippo, pushed off a cliff), they lose a bar. And when they lose all three? The assumption—theirs and the movie’s—is that they die. Not just the avatar. Them. But it’s just an assumption. Maybe they lose that third bar and—whoosh—they’re out of the game, and back as themselves. Who knows? Something else for the DVD commentary.
It’s a shame the movie didn't go a bit deeper. Our five are literally living Atticus Finch’s edict to walk in someone else’s skin, but the lessons they learn are basically: 1) appreciate one other; 2) work as a team; 3) take risks. I often found myself drumming my fingers during these scenes. And couldn’t we get better commentary on/satire of the gaming world? Van Pelt, for example, feels more movie villain than video-game villain.
That said, it’s a good popcorn movie with a bit of heart. I liked the moment, for example, when Alex/Bravestone is feeling cautious because he’s down to just one life, and Fridge/Finbar tells him, “That’s all we ever get.” Or at the very end, when grown-up Alex (Colin Hanks) introduces our four to his daughter, Bethany, and says, “We named her for the woman who saved my life.” I actually got a little verklempt there.
Movie Review: A Ghost Story (2017)
Halfway through the movie, which we watched at home, Patricia got up to get some ice cream. “Don’t pause,” she said. “I’m sure I won’t miss anything.”
Truer words. I don’t know if writer-director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) has been studying at the Hou Hsiao-hsien School of Holding the Camera on Nothing for Five Minutes, but at times it sure felt like it.
There’s M (Rooney Mara) sitting on the kitchen floor shortly after the death of her husband, and eating a pie a friend brought by. Good, she could use some meat on them bones. And there’s her husband, C (Casey Affleck), now a ghost, wearing a sheet, a literal white sheet, with eyeholes that looks like slanted lemons, standing just in frame watching her. And watching her. And watching her. Until after four minutes, maybe five, she bolts for the bathroom to throw up. (So much for meat on them bones.)
And ... scene. Finally.
“A Ghost Story” is an interesting experiment, and I enjoyed it more in the aftermath than in the watching. But top 10 for the year? I’ve seen a handful of critics who elevated it so; that’s why we watched it. Halfway through, as Patricia was going for ice cream, I wanted to strangle these guys.
It begins with a young couple living in a nondescript clapboard house. In bed, arm in arm, like young lovers do, she tells him a story:
When I was little we used to move all the time. I’d write these notes, and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them in different places. So that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.
Tuck that away.
The house makes odd noises. At one point, in the middle of the night, it sounds like something heavy fell on their piano, and he, followed by she, goes to investigate. They find nothing, despite the ominous music.
“Is it the ghost story already?” I asked Patricia. “I thought he was supposed to be the ghost.”
A second later, he becomes the ghost. Car accident on a road that doesn’t have much traffic. There’s a stillness to the movie, and to this scene, and to the scene in the hospital where his body is covered with a sheet and then rises. Right, I thought, I guess that’s why ghosts have sheets; because we cover dead bodies with them. But who cut out the eyeholes?
He walks down the hospital hallway, a window opens in a wall, holds, and then closes. His opportunity to step into the Whatever? But something is keeping him here and he returns to it: his home, his wife. A piece of him waiting.
There’s a temporal dislocation to the movie, and, one imagines, to the ghost’s perspective. After the pie eating/throwing up, we see M heading out the door to work. And then again. And again. The same path, bedroom to front door, one right after the other. He remains. A man walks her to her door. He’s taller than C but less handsome. A consoling hug leads to a kiss, and then an awkward “Yeah, that was a bad idea” goodbye. Then rage from C, who knocks over a framed photo. She gathers it up, looks around. Is that why she leaves?
They were planning on moving anyway, and now she does, and the big question is if he’ll follow or remain behind. It’s the latter. A new family moves in: Hispanic mother with two kids. I like them running into the home, excited, on that first day. C is less enthused. Is it that he’s slow to comprehend? It takes a while for him to start dashing plates against the floor, but when he does they freak and move out. And des the boy see him? He seems to, but we’re not sure. We’re not sure of a lot.
Before M left, she wrote a little note, as when she was a girl, and put it into a small doorframe crack and painted over it; and in the aftermath of the family, and of kids partying there—with one dude, an annoying grad student or autodidact, expounding on the vastness of all, and the tininess of us—C tries to remove it. We don’t know how long it takes but he’s just about there when over his shoulder the blade of a bulldozer comes crashing through a wall. The place is leveled. C stays. A high-rise office building is put up. C stays. He wanders its hallways, then, from a top floor, leaps off and winds up in the same spot in the past. Now he’s with homesteaders. 18th century? 19th century? They’re killed by Indians. C’s like the Watcher in the old Marvel comics: a silent observer of the grim parade.
Before long he’s observing himself and M looking at the place for the first time. So, yes, he’s the ghost the heard that night; he’s the one who made the piano noise. Before long, there’s another ghost there—him—and I worried. Oh no, is this going to be like Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence? A room full of ghosts? And does his younger ghost-self see his older ghost-self? He doesn’t seem to, and he (and we) didn’t see anything the first go-round. Odd, because ghosts do see each other. Early on, C saw one across the way, and once the houses were leveled she declared, silently, via subtitles, “I guess they’re never coming back” and dropped out of existence. The sheet just crumpled, empty. That’s how ghosts go.
That's how C goes, too. In the second go-round, he finally pries her note from the doorframe crack, opens it, and drops out of existence.
Why does he stay? Immediately I assumed for her, but then I wondered if it wasn’t the house—that stupid, ugly clapboard. Or the spot? The land? The ending brings us back to the original supposition. It's a kind of continuation of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” in which Casey kept catching up to Rooney. Jail couldn’t keep him from her. Now it's death. We never find out what the note says, but what it says isn't really important. What's important is that it frees him to die.
The movie’s moody and atmospheric, still and almost silent. Lowery’s a talented director. But he tried my patience too long in the beginning with those Hou Hsiao-hsien shots, and I grumbled through the rest of it. It’s twice as long as it should be. Ideally it should be 45 minutes but there’s no place for that kind of thing in our world anymore.